You don't see the world around you in a rectangle or a square, so why should limit yourself to that view in photos and videos? The first wave of 360-degree cameras has arrived, and they let you record everything going on around you at once. If you have a VR headset, such as the Gear VR or Google Cardboard, you can enjoy that trip to the Grand Canyon, family birthday party or rockin' concert in virtual reality and really feel as if you were there. Or you can just watch 360 clips on your phone or laptop after uploading them to YouTube or Facebook.
After testing several 360 cameras and evaluating them on video quality, field of view, water resistance, ease of use and other factors, our top pick is the Insta360 One ($299). It's small and portable, works with both Android and iOS smartphones, and has some great features, such as the ability to record Matrix-like "bullet-time" videos. Our favorite budget model is the Samsung Gear 360 (2017), which costs $179 and takes great pictures for its size. However, it only works with Samsung smartphones and some iPhone models.
Outdoors-types looking for a rugged camera that captures not just video, but GPS, altitude, and has built-in stabilization should check out the Garmin Virb 360. At $799 it's expensive, but has all the features you could want.
Latest News & Updates (March 2018)
- A firmware update for the Insta360 One markedly improves the camera's image stabilization. The company is also adding two new features: Pivot Points, which lets you set a specific point from which the camera can pan to or from; and SmartTrack, which lets you select an object or person for the app to track.
- The Insta360 One is now being sold through Apple with an exclusive $329 bundle that includes a tripod, selfie stick, and a special handle that helps you better capture video when using the camera's innovative Bullet Time mode.
- Ricoh announced that it's opening the Theta V, its newest 360 camera, for developers to create plugins that further enhance the camera's features. Users will be able to download plugins from an online store to the Android-powered Theta V. Some early plugins, made by Ricoh, include facial recognition, USB data transfer, and automatic Wi-Fi transfer, and should be available by the second quarter of 2018.
- Rylo's 360-degree camera ($499) has built-in stabilization and horizon-leveling, as well as FrontBack, a picture-in-picture mode which inserts your face into a small window that's showing what you're seeing.
How We Test 360-Degree Cameras
You get a lot of weird stares and comments when you test 360 cameras. By now, people are used to seeing action cams like the GoPro, but both the shape and way you mount 360 cameras immediately draws attention.
As they need to capture a full 360 degrees of action, most 360 cams are designed with more than one bulbous lens. And, if you don't want half of the image to be the side of your head, you have to mount the camera pretty far from your body.
You'll also want a selfie stick. With few exceptions, the shape of most of these cameras made them hard to securely hold in my hand.
I attached a long selfie stick to the front of my mountain bike, and, after connecting various cameras to it, went for a number of rides along the George Washington Bridge, and other locations in northern New Jersey. Along the way, I was stopped many times by people wanting to know just what I was doing. A few cognoscenti who recognized what I was doing would exclaim, "Cool! Is that a 360 camera?"
All of the cameras work with a smartphone in a similar manner; when you turn these cameras on, they all create a Wi-Fi hotspot, which you then connect to with your phone. From there, you open the companion 360-degree camera app, and use your phone's display as a viewfinder. For the most part, connecting the cameras to my iPhone 6s (or Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge) was an easy process, and the video feed from the cameras was relatively smooth and stutter-free.
Not all the apps made it easy to share videos, though. Some, such as Kodak's and LG's, required me to download my videos to a computer and convert them there into a format that could be interpreted by YouTube and Facebook as a 360-degree video or photo.
What to Look For When Buying a 360-Degree Camera
360 cameras tend to fall into two camps: small, pocketable stick-style devices, and larger squarish (or circular) cameras. The former, such as the Samsung Gear 360, tend to be less expensive, and are designed for more casual and impromptu shooting. In the second category are cameras such as the Garmin Virb360 and Kodak Orbit360 4K, which are larger and more expensive, but tend to produce higher-quality video.
Be sure to think about how you plan to use a 360 camera before you purchase it; if you want to get some fun selfies with friends, then the stick-style cameras will fit your needs well. If you want to capture hair-raising exploits when you go skydiving or skiing, then a larger camera may be the better option.
New & Notable 360 Cameras