This is a long-delayed review of an excellent product.
There are a couple of reasons/excuses behind the delay, one of which is that it’s been a very busy period at TDC. The other part of the reason is this: Subconsciously, I’ve known that when I finally get around to writing and posting this review something else must happen: I’ll have to pack up and return this product. And (though this is a sheepish admission) I’ve been reluctant to do that because I like the thing so much.
The product is the Insta360 Nano. We previously reviewed the company’s Air (for Android phones) and were impressed, and recently announced the launch of its new ONE camera – which has a huge variety of amazing abilities up its shirtless sleeve. We’ve also touched on the company’s 8K, 3D, Insta360 Pro – a camera we lust after on a regular basis and hope to one day review.
All of these products are produced by Shenzhen Arashi Vision Co., a company clearly on a roll. All of its products we’ve seen thus far are well-built, well-designed, and produce excellent quality for their price points.
Before we hit the review, a quick aside: When reviewing the Air I was a Nexus 6P user, though it was suffering from a failing battery. The Nexus was my first Android, and there were many things about it I liked (and still like). It was, for starters, a computational workhorse. But in the end, its battery started to truly suck. (In fact, there’s now a class action lawsuit around this issue.)
Prior to the Android, I’d been an Apple user. The opportunity to try out the Nano seemed a perfect excuse to switch back, so I purchased a 6s Plus. It’s been a great phone too, though with a recent firmware upgrade its own battery has started to perform like the 6P’s. (Why, Apple – why???)
Do you see what’s happening here, again? I’m delaying getting to the review so I can hold on to the Nano for a few more precious minutes. Okay…enough.
The Nano is a 360 camera that shoots excellent stills and video, and can do so either on its own as a handheld device, or while attached to an iPhone if you want a viewfinder and/or immediate social sharing or streaming. But you can use it on its own; it has its own internal battery (unlike the Air, which requires juice from your Android). Even if you’re using it on its own, with no screen, it’s not a big deal because the framing is pretty forgiving. I mean, as long as you get the height right you’re golden; you can choose later where you’d like to look – one of the great things about 360 cameras.
This unit is small and worthy of the “Nano” name. Fits in your pocket in its little velvet sleeve, which handily protects the lenses from coins or other detritus that might be contaminating your pocket or purse. Comes cleverly packaged with its own Google Cardboard equivalent so you can start viewing your creations immediately (nice move!). Its twin f/2.0 fisheye lenses (on opposing sides of the camera, obviously) each have a 210° field-of-view, meaning there’s plenty of overlap for stitching.
And that’s the area – stitching – where many a 360 camera has seen its downfall. Stitching two halves into a relatively seamless sphere is no small task. It takes deft coding and computational power to make it look pretty; there’s no shortage of devices (including some that cost far more than the $199 Nano), that produce less-than-optimal stitching. This camera has 3040 x 1520 resolution and weighs just 70 grams.
But it’s no lightweight.
We’re going to emphasize this here: Regardless of how you’re viewing the final product, poor stitching ruins the 360° experience. The miracle of 360 is that a viewer can be immersed in the scene, particularly if wearing goggles. They are free to move their head (or their phone or tablet) and explore what’s been captured, focussing on areas that interest them. But the moment you see poor stitching (or even the pixels of a low-res screen), you’re slapped in the face with reality and the miracle of the moment is gone. Suddenly, all of your attention is drawn to the flaws, instead of whatever the creator intended you to be looking at.
With 360 cameras, one of the tricky issues – particularly with two-lens models – is the issue of lighting. Outside on a nice day with even light? No worries; roughly equal amounts of light will be entering the opposing lenses. When that happens, stitching is a dream. Even cameras that struggle with stitching can manage to fake it under optimal conditions.
But the real world isn’t optimal. There is nearly always a variance in the amount of light entering one side of the camera versus the other. This is particularly true when shooting indoors, under uneven artificial light. It is that difference, with some cameras, that can lead to an exceedingly harsh edge the marks the entire stitch and ruins the experience.
The Nano doesn’t completely eliminate that differential, and in certain shots you can see the stitching line. You can see it in this shot, which had very uneven lighting. (And yes, that’s Rick Smith from Drone Valley on the left and iPhonedo on the right. Pays to show up early!) And you know what – this is still pretty good, considering those were powerful lights, set up for the stage.
What impressed me multiple times is how the Nano always makes the best out of a bad situation. Take a look at the amazing job it did under the absolute worst of conditions: Taking off in a jet with blinding daylight coming in the side window versus the darkness inside the cabin. Here, looking hard, you can see the stitching line (and a slight error above my head). BTW, this is also the most unflattering video of me I’ve taken, but I’m going to sacrifice any vanity here for the good of our readers. This is the Nano at its worst (and me at my own – wow, I look dopey). Plus, there’s movement and bumping and all the extra data being associated with video.
And you know what? It’s *still* not bad at all.
Another thing we love about the Nano (and Air etc.) are the multiple options Insta360 gives you for sharing, tweaking, and even altering the format of your displayed image or video. Dive on in and change things around. You can select Normal, Fisheye, Tiny Planet, and Ball. Here, let’s take a look at screen grabs these different perspectives, followed by an embed where you can try it yourself:
AND THE COOLIO TINY PLANET
BUT WAIT – THERE’S MORE
As mentioned, one of the cool things about the Insta360 display is that it’s almost like a living image. Anyone you share a link with (and you can keep it private, share with friends or via your social network, or make the link totally public so that all of the Insta360 community can have a peek), has the option to interact with your image. They can examine it through the different modes, use their phone or tablet to move around when gyro is enabled, and even just use their mouse (or swipe with their finger) to explore the rest of the scene.
Okay – go ahead and try it yourself:
Because you can move around and choose where you want to “place” your image in that wonderful 360 world, you have the option of creating a multitude of shots from a single 360 image. Using the app’s “Screen Shot” feature, and the 360 world is your artistic oyster. Have a look at these samples, taken in Times Square. See how much cooler the shot is looking straight up? Yet that is from the *same* 360 image where you can see boring old me down at ground level. One snap, near-infinite possibilities.
AND…DRUM ROLL PLEASE…
Yes, as you’ve seen, you can shoot video. You can stream video through multiple social channels (Periscope, Facebook Live, etc.). In fact, the Insta360 Nano is one of THREE cameras the company makes that have received the stamp of approval by the social media giant for Facebook Live, streaming in 360. Now remember, there’s a LOT of data being moved when you are capturing 360 in video. This 720 isn’t super awesome, but this is an uploaded, compressed version that was show under sub-optimal conditions. It’s still pretty impressive, at least in my mind:
In fact, if you happen to be streaming an event like this live (well, hopefully a *better* event than this), you can use Insta360’s “Freecast” option, which allows you to – as the company says – “swipe or zoom to change the perspective on your screen, and your viewers will see exactly what you do!”
LOBSTER CLAW, BEGONE!
One of the issues of hand-held 360 cameras is that the closer the objects are to the lenses, the tougher it becomes to have a perfect stitch. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than when looking at the hand of the person holding the camera. It happens with the Ricoh Theta S, it happens with the Nikon KeyMission 360 – it happens to a greater or lesser extent with pretty much all 360 cameras. Insta360, however, has given you some options for placing a watermark in that spot, obscuring your mangled hand with either a subtle dark vignette, some Insta360 branding, and more. You can even upload your own custom watermark.
Well, you’ve already seen quite a bit of what the app can do. Suffice to say it’s very well thought-out, and even flips your iPhone screen upside-down so that when the camera’s on top (which is the bottom of the phone) all of the text is right-side up. It features a built-in tutorial to get you going, multiple tools for social media sharing, toggles for gyro vs. non-gyro mode (meaning where you can explore by moving your phone rather than swiping), and a zillion more features. Seriously, this is a solid app. And Insta360, from everything I’ve seen online, has a tremendous “community” feel that many companies seem to forget about. The sense online is that Insta360 cares about your experience, and staff do whatever they can to help answer questions, troubleshoot, and generally celebrate great images. It’s fun. Welcoming. And, in my mind, rapidly becoming an integral part of the brand itself. Nice job.
C’mon, Scott. There must be a few things that bug you about this camera.
Thanks for asking. Yes there are. They’re minor, but real.
- Although the app is great, the font size on the captioning text is small for older sets of eyes like my own on the phone. I can see no option to change that – and I’d hate to share something to the world with a spelling error. Seriously.
- Highlights sometimes get blown out. But hey – it’s less than $200 and it does *so* many things exceptionally well. But still…
- Wish I didn’t have to remove my iPhone case to attach the device. I’ve seen extensions on the market that alleviate this, and maybe that’s the best solution (though I’d be concerned about how secure that makes everything). Perhaps someone will create (if they haven’t already) a custom-Nano case that leaves the precise width of the Nano body open at the bottom of the iPhone case. (If no one has yet done this, someone please do it and send me 10 per cent.)
- The eject mechanism on the Micro-SD is mega-powerful. I was at a baseball game and went to eject a card. My thumbnail slipped and it blasted out like a missile, flying across a row of seats. (Luckily, someone was able to find it for me.)
- Unless I missed something, this doesn’t ship with a stand for your phone. So inexpensive to make, but so handy. Please?
The reality, however, is that those are all pretty minor quibbles – especially given everything else this camera offers.
There is, however, one major concern that I have. I’ve left it until the end, but now it looms larger than ever. Here’s the real problem I face with the Insta360 Nano:
Now that this review is done, I have to send it back. And that’s still going to be hard.
I’ll have to console myself somehow – likely by ordering a ONE, which does even more.
Want to purchase the Insta360 Nano? You can do so through our partners at B&H Photo Video. They’re great people, and this is a great product. Order it here.
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