As immersive content continues to evolve, consumer-grade 360 cameras are caught in the awkward stage of tech adolescence: They are prone to stitch-line breakouts, gangly and awkward user interfaces, and less than ideal resolution. But, while the image quality and usability still has some growing up to do, the immersive view certainly has the cool factor going for it. Because this type of camera is so nascent and there’s no standard in design, what are the best 360 cameras out there?
Like any new technology, a 360 camera is an early adopter gadget at the moment, but the medium has potential – especially if virtual reality applications become mainstream. So, if you want to get into the fun before everybody else does, here are our current favorite 360-degree cameras – and what you need to know before you buy.
Before you buy
If you buy an $800 360 camera and expect to see the same quality as an $800 DSLR, you’re going to be disappointed. Current specs employed by consumer 360 cameras can’t muster the kind of resolution you’d find in a traditional camera, considering it’s shooting and processing more information. Heck, your smartphone photos will look better. But for now, the point of this niche camera is to capture nearly everything around you, which you can then play back or share the immersive experience. Luckily, pricing for some new 360 cameras are becoming affordable, like Samsung’s Gear 360. So, before you jump into the 360 bandwagon, there are two things you need to know.
4K isn’t the same as a regular 4K camera. In 360, those 4,000 pixels are wrapping all the way around that view. That means you don’t get the I-can-see-your-pores-from-here detail of 4K on a standard aspect ratio – it’s closer to a standard-definition view on a typical screen with all that stretching. Still, 4K is a good comparison point, since a 4K camera is going to offer better quality than a Full HD (1080p) 360 camera.
Most 360 footage comes from multiple cameras. A 360 camera is really more like multiple cameras. Most 360 cameras use two or more lenses and sensors to capture the video (the 360Fly is an exception), and then software (either in-camera or on a computer) stitches that data together. Expect to see some sort of stitching artifact or edge in the video, but newer cameras are getting better and better at a creating seamless picture.
Garmin Virb 360
Why should you buy this? Easy-to-use, durable 360 action camera that’s both full of features and low on those annoying stitch lines.
Who’s it for? Action junkies who want a 360 camera that can follow the action pretty much anywhere.
How much will it cost? $799
Why we picked the Garmin Virb 360:
Most 360 cameras we’ve tried are either lacking in usability or image quality, but the Garmin Virb 360 hits both marks and then tosses in some pretty sweet data overlays for action videos. While you’ll still notice some stitching lines on objects close to the camera (like whatever the camera is mounted to), the Virb 360 had the most seamless stitches we’ve seen yet. That’s thanks in part to two different stitching modes for near and far – so you will have to remember to switch modes when heading from the big outdoors to the inside of a small room. Resolution and detail is comparable with other 4K 360 cameras, but that nearly seamless stitching puts the Virb 360’s image and video quality a bit above the rest.
The Virb 360 is also easy to use, largely because Garmin made room for a small display. The companion smartphone app is still the best way to use the camera, but if you need to leave your smartphone on shore, you can use the camera’s controls to start and stop a video or take a picture– a nice feature considering the camera is rated to head down to 32 feet underwater.
In addition, Garmin added features that are just now coming into the action camera category, including voice controls. The Virb 360 includes image stabilization, with multiple steady modes that make a big difference in the final video. The Virb 360 includes a number of different built-in sensors, much like their Virb 30 action camera, that allows users to add overlays that share details like how fast you were going or even how high you jumped. Both the stabilization options and overlays are accessible in both the Garmin app and the desktop editor.
Between the almost stitch-free videos, easy use, rugged design, and extras like stabilization and action overlays, the Garmin Virb 360 is a serious performer. Live video is supporter, but it only works with iOS devices. At $799, the Virb 360 is overkill for users who don’t need the “action” features, but this is the camera to beat.
Our full Garmin Virb 360 review
The best 360 camera for live-streaming
Samsung Gear 360 (2017)
Why should you buy this? Easy live-streaming in 360, and it won’t break the bank
Who’s it for? Any consumer that wants to get started in 360 without paying big price tag
How much will it cost? $230
Why we picked the Samsung Gear 360
The Garmin Virb 360 is a great action camera, but $799 is probably overkill for simple 360 shots. The Samsung Gear 360 is an easy-to-use variant that offers excellent connectivity and even live-streaming, for $230.
The Gear 360 packs two lenses into a spherical body with a permanently attached stand that doubles as a handle. While the 2017 update maintains a similar design principle as the original model, it’s smaller, weighs 4.6 ounces, and easier to hold. While it’s not designed to take a dip, it can withstand some dust and scratches.
A companion smartphone app pairs with the the Gear 360 seamlessly – a great improvement over the first version. The app is also more responsive, and is now compatible with select iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices.
This second-generation camera also brings 4K resolution, which, again, stretches around the entire perspective. The image quality isn’t the best, but it’s pretty decent considering the price point. The Gear 360 also adds a new trend in 360 video: live streaming. The feature isn’t in 4K, and requires a Facebook or YouTube account, but it’s an interesting way to share live content.
Our full Samsung Gear 360 review
The best for smartphone photographers
Why should you buy this? Shooting in 360 is as easy as shooting with a native camera app.
Who’s it for? Smartphone users who want to capture in 360.
How much will it cost? $250
Why we picked the Giroptic iO
You don’t need a dedicated device to capture casual 360-degree content. The Giroptic iO makes shooting 360 video from an iPhone and now even an Android quick work. The smartphone-attachable camera is easy to connect because there’s no Wi-Fi pairing process, thanks to a physical connection (the Lightning port for iPhone users and a Micro USB or USB Type-C connector for Android). Without waiting on wireless, the camera is also more responsive and easier to use. Once connected, the companion app automatically launches.
The Giroptic iO will shoot both the scrollable, virtual-reality-style 360 shots, as well as the “little planet” effect. Recording is as simple as plugging the device into the phone, navigating the app to select photo, video, or live broadcasting, and hitting the onscreen shuttler button. Like the Samsung Gear 360, live-streaming capability is a big perk – just make sure you have good signal before starting a broadcast.
Quality wise, the Giroptic iO has a much lower resolution for videos at 1,920 x 960 pixels than options like the Samsung Gear, so that’s the downside to not using a dedicated deice. Although, the still photo resolution has a nice 3,840 x 1,920 capture. Still, for capturing and sharing videos that will most often be viewed on a mobile device anyways, the Giroptic iO offers an incredibly easy interface and a reasonable price point from a device that will fit in a pocket.
Our full Giroptic iO review
Should you buy?
It’s worth repeating: 360 cameras are still a nascent technology that have some quirks, but the ability to drop the viewer into the middle of a scene, for many users, makes it worth the risk on a newer technology. As 360 cameras continue to grow up, expect to see some lower price points, better stitching, higher resolution, and probably some new features we haven’t even thought of yet – GoPro’s Fusion has us excited, for example. When that happens, we’ll update this list accordingly.