Garmin Virb 360
“With features not found in other 360-degree cameras, Garmin’s rugged Virb 360 is the one to beat.”
- Image stabilization
- G-Matrix sensors and data overlays
- Simple, intuitive controls
- Voice commands
- Fewer stitching errors than the competition
- Four mics are prone to wind noise
- Short battery life
- Live-streaming only available on iOS
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Spherical, 360-degree cameras drop the viewer into an immersive scene, but what happens when a GPS-centric company makes a 360 camera? Announced on Wednesday, May 24, the Garmin Virb 360 is a 4K 360 action camera that doesn’t just place you into the scene, but puts you on the map; then tells you how high, how fast, and how far.
You would expect Garmin to pack its products with sensors, but the Virb 360 also has a long list of features that even longtime camera companies haven’t yet managed to squeeze into a 360 camera, including image stabilization. The Virb 360 has what it takes to put consumer 360 on the map, although the $800 price tag could be a stumbling point for many buyers.
Rugged, middle-of-the-action design
Unlike many 360-degree cameras, the Virb 360 is designed for action – what the Virb-series is intended for. The dual lens camera is encased in a rugged frame that’s waterproof down to 32 feet without any additional housing. Its solid build feels like it can withstand some drops and bumps too. The approach is similar to the 360 cameras from Nikon and Kodak Pixpro, which are designed to be action cams as well. To make it waterproof, the ports are sealed, but easy to access with a quick flip of a switch.
At the bottom of the camera, interchangeable clips allow the system to be mounted with GoPro accessories or with any mount compatible with a standard tripod thread. The clips are spring mounted: Pressing a button at the side or pulling it apart, the clip stretches over the bottom of the camera, while the spring keeps a tight hold at the bottom.
The camera itself is surprisingly small, weighing 5.6 ounces (160 grams). The front of the camera is about the height of a GoPro, but with the dual lenses, the frame is much deeper. Still, the entire camera is smaller than a tennis ball, measuring in at 1.5 x 2.3 x 2.75 inches.
With such a small body, there’s no way to grip the camera to shoot handheld, so Garmin includes a small grip that screws into the tripod mount for handheld use. No other mounting systems are included, but with both GoPro and tripod attachment options, there’s no shortage of different mounts to buy – just keep in mind some GoPro mounts don’t work with a 360 perspective.
Simple operation, advanced controls
While many 360 cameras that use dual lenses don’t leave enough room on the body for a screen and controls, the Virb 360 has a small LCD at the top that displays the remaining battery life and recording time (the latter factors in both battery life and memory card space). Three buttons below the screen let you take a photo, access the menu, enable or disable , or power the camera on and off. A large switch at the side starts and stops a video.
Like the Samsung Gear 360, which also has onboard display and controls, you can use the Virb 360 and adjust some settings without pairing it with a smartphone. But if you do want full controls and also live-view, the Virb 360 works with the Garmin Virb companion app (Android | iOS) over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Of course, you won’t be doing this if you’re, say, on a surfboard, skateboard, snowboard, or any moving piece of board. The onboard controls are sufficient for changing shooting modes (single shots, bursts, video, time-lapse), but for non-action moment, live-view lets you properly frame the picture or dive deeper into the settings.
However, there’s a third option for controlling the camera: your voice. As with the Virb Ultra 30, you can say, “Okay Garmin, start recording, and the camera will recognize the command. With voice control, you can start/stop a recording, take a picture, enable Wi-Fi, or tag a cool moment as a highlight for easy recall during post-editing. It works well up-close and in a quiet environment, but reliability becomes iffy if some wind noise is introduced or the camera is mount too far away. Kayaking on a day with 10 to 15 mph winds, there were a few commands we had to repeat for the system to hear.
The Virb 360 combines good video quality, simple user interface, and features like image stabilization and data overlays.
As for mobile pairing, the connection process is as simple as entering the password displayed on the screen, into the connection settings of a smartphone. The main section of the app is just a giant viewfinder displaying what the camera sees. Tap and drag around and you’ll see that nearly 360-degree view.
A tap of the settings icon brings up a menu for accessing a number of different controls. You can even activate lights and beeping if you need help locating the camera – clever. Video settings are a standard video, time-lapse, or loop option. Photos can be shot as singles or in one-second bursts of 20 frames per second, with or without a self-timer. If you don’t want to record your location data, you can turn off the GPS. The camera also uses two stitching modes, near and far, to prioritize objects closer to or farther from the lenses.
While the Virb 360 is simple to use, it includes advanced controls too. Tapping on the aperture icon in the top-left of the app brings up Pro settings where users can adjust the maximum ISO, set a custom white balance, or lighten or darken the shot with exposure compensation – similar to GoPro’s Protune. Color profiles and sharpness levels are also adjustable, as well as whether or not to lock the exposures between the two lenses or allow them to adjust settings independently.
That’s where most camera apps end, but Garmin’s also includes a few editing options. You can choose from preset overlays to add data from the camera’s built-in sensors, choose an image stabilization mode, and then export for sharing on social media. You’ll need the desktop software for trimming clips or adjusting audio, however.
With a full charge and a 32GB microSD card, you can get about an hour’s worth of straight footage. Plugged into a computer, the Virb does run a little hot – the camera did freeze once while recharging via USB. A quick reset and the camera returned to normal. We didn’t experience any overheating issues during field-testing.
Stabilized 360 videos
The Virb 360 is a 4K camera equipped with two, 1/2.3-inch 12-megapixel sensors and a pair of fixed f/2 lenses. (If you’re computer savvy enough to stitch your own footage and don’t mind not having access to image stabilization, you can bump that up to 5.7K). Like other 360 cameras, all of those pixels are stretched out along that immersive view, so 4K on a 360 camera is not the same as watching videos from a 4K TV. Despite this, the video quality is still pretty solid for a 4K 360 camera, without distractions from low-resolution or large sun flares from the wide-angle lenses.
Like other 360 cameras, that 4K quality looks more like something between 720p and 1080p with all the stretching. Straight lines are clear, but details like the edges of the leaves in the trees are more obscured. Scrolling around the 360 footage, the image also doesn’t appear to curve and distort while moving around like some 360 cameras are prone to. Despite using two ultra-wide lenses, straight lines in real life are still straight in the footage, without the tendency to bow and curve lines.
Color is generally accurate, though the camera has a tendency to underexpose, leaving shots a bit dark.. While a video of a sunset ride had decent exposure, footage shot on a cloudy day is a bit too dark – something that can be fixed with the exposure compensation if you happen to catch it ahead of time.
While some 360 cameras are better at either photos or videos, still images shot with the Virb 360 have a similar quality: acceptably sharp but not overly detailed and a tendency to underexpose, particularly on cloudy days.
One advantage is image stabilization, and can be added in post-edit.
Every multi-lens 360 camera that we’ve tested has some sort of stitching lines in the footage, but the Virb 360’s is one of the least noticeable we’ve seen yet. While many 360 cameras create straight edges where the footage comes together across the entire seam, the Virb 360 stitches nicely at the sides, with just a few small spots that don’t quite match-up slightly below and directly above the camera. If the camera isn’t level, you’ll get awkward stitching, which is expected. And because the Virb 360 doesn’t capture what’s below the camera, it’s not entirely 360 degrees, of course.
But one of the biggest advantages the Garmin Virb 360 has over other 360 cameras is image stabilization. The image stabilization is an electronic version calculated with all the built-in sensors, which means it’s not as effective as an optical system, but the beauty is that you can add in stabilization after recording. In fact, you can’t adjust the stabilization before you shoot, but access to the feature is available after the shoot, in both the app and desktop software. As mentioned, it’s not available in 5.7K.
Don’t underestimate the importance of image stabilization in an action camera. While you’ll still see larger bumps like hitting a pothole, the smaller movements are significantly reduced. Spherical videos are disorienting enough – the ability to move around a scene that’s loaded with unsteady motion can really make one seasick. But compared to action cameras without stabilization, the footage from the Virb 360 is a bit easier to stomach.
The image stabilization system actually has a number of different modes made possible through the sensor calculations. Since the camera is already capturing a 360-degree view, some of the stabilization modes simply adjust where the viewer is looking in the footage, rather than cropping out slight bumps like a typical electronic stabilization system. The stabilization modes include:
- Vibration Reduction: This is just like the electronic stabilization on a normal camera, removing bumps to create smoother footage.
- Stabilize Only: This mode applies the stabilization from above, but also keeps the horizon level. For example, if the camera is mounted on a boat that goes over a small wave, the footage doesn’t move up and down as the boat moves over the wave.
- Compass Lock: Since the video already includes footage in every direction, this mode locks the view in one direction. Normally, if the camera moves, the view moves with it. Say, there’s a duck to the south of the camera that the viewer was looking at, but the boat turns around, which moves the camera with it. To see that duck again, you’d have to scroll back south after the camera moved. With this mode, the viewer’s position is adjusted as the boat moves, so even after the camera movies, the viewer is still looking in the same direction.
- Follow path: This mode is similar to the compass lock, only instead of choosing a direction, the video is automatically locked in whatever direction the camera is moving in. That means when the boat turns, the view will turn too, but if waves are pushing the view back and forth, the stabilization will remove that slight back and forth movement.
Along with the dual lenses, the Virb 360 uses four built-in microphones. Spatial audio is an issue with 360-degree content, but the four microphones help the camera pick up voices and even birds chirping in the background, from multiple directions. With this mic layout, the sound pick-up improves, but the feature also seems to make the camera a bit more prone to wind noise. In the kayaking test video, winds were predicted between 10 and 15 mph, with the camera catching wind noise farther out in open water. (As expected, traveling 55 mph with the camera mounted on a motorcycle produces only wind noise).
While the sharpness and colors from the Virb 360 are similar to what we’ve seen from other 4K 360 cameras, the image stabilization, minimal stitching errors and absence of barrel distortion give Garmin’s forray into the category an edge.
Sensors and desktop software
Like the Virb 30 action camera, the Virb 360 packs in G-Matrix sensors that record a long list of environmental data. That information can be displayed on the footage using a number of different overlay options.
The Virb 360 records data using a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, barometer, and GPS. Using that data, you can record just how far you kayaked, just how fast you biked, or even tally up the number and height of your jumps. With G-Matrix-compatible accessories, including several models of Garmin’s fitness trackers, you can also add in data like your heart rate and the temperature, as well as metrics for cycling, boating, driving, and even flying.
Inside both the app and the desktop software, that data can be used to create video game-like overlays. The software includes a number of presets that automatically place data in the footage, and can be custom colored. For even more control over the settings, you can drag and drop different data with various overlay styles into the footage, choosing their size and placement. These custom overlays can be saved as a template to easily add to future footage.
The Garmin software includes a good feature set. Desktop programs that ship with the camera are often lacking in advanced controls, but the Virb software includes enough adjustments for hobbyists, including trimming footage, adjusting the replay speed, adding titles and transitions, and adjusting audio. There are no advanced options like adjusting color and lighting, but if you export both the footage and a PNG of the G-Matrix overlays, the footage and sensor data can be used in other editing programs if you can sync the two.
As camera companies start climbing up the giant hill that’s 360-degree video, most get tripped up with stitching or usability features. While the Garmin Virb 360 isn’t perfect, it has handled 360 footage at a level that we haven’t yet seen from other makers.
The camera has some minor stitching errors and is prone to wind noise (which also reduces the effectiveness of the voice control). And while both iOS and Android apps are available, live-streaming is only compatible with iOS devices (YouTube and Facebook, but only 1,280 x 720 at 30 fps, not 4K). With dual lenses and that image stitching, the battery lasts a bit less than a typical action camera, at about an hour.
But, the Virb 360 has a host of features that can’t be found in other cameras. The image stabilization is nearly worth the price premium, but throw in the sensors and data overlays, simple-but-rugged design, and the fact that it tends to have fewer stitch errors than other 360 cameras, and the Garmin Virb 360 becomes an attractive choice.
Is there a better alternative
Cameras like the Ricoh Theta S and Samsung Gear 360 brought the immersive format in easy-to-use formats. The Theta S is only standard resolution, and while the 2017 version of the Samsung Gear 360 adds 4K and iPhone compatibility, neither option is meant to be mounted and used as an action camera
The Virb 360 fits more closely along the lines of rugged 360 cameras like the Nikon KeyMission 360 and the 360Fly 4K, as well as the splash-proof Kodak Pixpro 360 4K VR. If the idea of any stitching errors bothers you, the 360Fly is a single-lens camera, so there’s no stitching and offers some basic data overlays. The tradeoff, however, is that it’s not a true 4K since the manufacturer considers both the horizontal and vertical resolution (2,880 x 2,880), so the 4K is a misnomer, and the ultra-wide lens is prone to flaring in bright sun.
The Nikon KeyMission 360 is likely the Virb 360’s closest competitor. The Nikon doesn’t have a screen or voice control, however, so the controls rely on a Wi-Fi connection with a smartphone or the two physical controls that will use whatever shooting mode you left it on last. It also doesn’t offer Garmin’s plethora of accessories, data layovers, or image stabilization. The KeyMission is a bit more prone to stitching errors, but it does have a lower $500 price-point and deeper 100-foot depth rating
Kodak-licensee JK Imaging also announced the Pixpro 360 4K VR with dual lenses and a splash-proof (but not submersible) design that includes a screen. The camera hasn’t started shipping, however, so how the image quality compares is anyone’s guess. On specs alone the camera is missing Garmin’s sensors, and while it can handle a day on the beach, it cannot go into the water
How long will it last?
Like other action cameras, the Virb 360 will likely be updated in a year or two. But while the hardware may be eventually replaced by newer versions, the rugged design suggests the camera will continue to perform for several years. App updates should also help keep the system current
As with other 360-degree cameras, the other issue is where this format goes next. We are still in the early days, and while there’s support from YouTube and Facebook, a lot can change. If you buy into this, you should be aware that you are a pioneer in early-adopter territory.
Should you buy it?
Yes, if you enjoy taking 360-degree photos and videos at parties or tourist destinations, and you want a 360 camera that can not only handle your active lifestyle but tell you just how active you are. The Virb is an excellent, though expensive, choice. An $800 price is nothing to blink at – you could get a good entry-level DSLR for that price – but if you want to venture into 360 action cameras, the Garmin Virb 360 is the ultimate. If you want to dabble with the technology but don’t need all the extras, you should look at lower-priced options like the Samsung Gear 360.
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