I love my drone, but I knew when I bought it that it was only going to be a matter of time before countries started clamping down on them. Sadly, that proved to be the case when I spent a few days in Iceland. Everywhere I went, there were No Drone signs. I carried it around with me, but didn’t get to use it even once.

Fortunately, I did have another interesting gadget on me – one initially exclusive to the Apple Store: the Insta360 ONE camera. This is a 360-degree 4K video camera that plugs into the Lightning socket of an iPhone. You can either shoot like this, or you can put the camera on a selfie stick and then plug it into the iPhone to edit and upload your footage.

This proved a fantastic way to capture experiences, and in terms of getting unusual and engaging video, it’s the next best thing to a drone …

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Look & feel

The camera measures a little under 4 inches long by 1.5 inches wide by 1 inch deep, and weighs just under 3 ounces. It slips easily into any pocket.

It’s all black, with a matte finish surround and glossy front and back. There’s a logo and ‘4K UHD’ motif on one side and an Insta360 ONE label on the other. On the bottom is a catch you release to flip out the Lightning plug, with a microUSB socket next to it for charging the camera. At one end is a microSD card slot (8GB card supplied), and a tripod mount. At the other end is a microphone.

Finally, there are bulbous lenses on each side.

It feels pretty much like any other black plastic gadget, and has a somewhat anonymous look. I don’t think you’d guess what it is by looking at it, other than seeing it as some kind of camera, maybe a webcam.

Specifications

The Insta360 ONE is compatible with the iPhone X, iPhone8/Plus, iPhone 7/Plus, iPhone 6s/Plus, iPhone 6/Plus and iPhone SE. It also works with all iPads from the iPad Air 2 on.

The camera shoots 24MP stills, and offers a choice of three video formats:

  • 3840×1920@30fps
  • 2560×1280@60fps
  • 2048×512@120fps

It captures footage to a microSD card (up to 128GB), and can livestream in 4K to YouTube, Facebook, Periscope, Twitter and Weibo.

It has two f/2.2 lenses on opposite sides of the camera, offering a fully spherical view, and the sensor is a Sony 1/2.3-inch CMOS one that performs remarkably well. It also has a 6-axis gyro for stabilization.

There’s a flip-out Lightning connector, and a standard tripod mount on the bottom of the camera. On the top is a combined power/function button.

Claimed battery-life is 70 minutes. I was shooting just short clips, but with editing it probably saw close to an hour’s use on a single charge.

Working temperature range is 14-113F/-14-45C. I used it happily in -6C temps. It’s not waterproof, but there’s an optional fully-waterproof case, and it survived being sprayed by steam from a hot geyser without complaint.

The companion app offers a SmartTrack feature, where you shoot first, then tap on a person or vehicle, and the default view will follow them. Finally, there’s a ‘pivot’ view where you can tap different things to have the default view turn to face them.

Bundle

The Apple Store still has an exclusive bundle, with a protective case, mini-tripod, selfie-stick and handle for ‘bullet’ shots, where you swing the camera around your head to get drone-like footage.

Here’s the company’s demo of ‘bullet time’:

In use

To film via the iPhone, you just flip out the Lightning plug and connect it to your phone. Plugging it into your iPhone does two things: it automatically switches on the camera and opens the app, making it super-convenient. It defaults to photo mode, just like the stock camera app, while tapping the camcorder icon puts it into video mode.

However, while the ease of shooting directly on the iPhone is a selling-point, at eye level a large chunk of your 360 video is going to be your own face. In most cases, you’ll want it held up high above your head – and that means taking it off the camera and using it on a selfie-stick.

With a selfie-stick, you screw into the tripod mount on the right of the camera, which then becomes the bottom as you use it in vertical mode. Camera orientation makes no difference to the video capture. In this mode, a single tap of the button switches it on.

One gripe I do have is that it’s way too easy to switch the camera on by accident when getting it out of a pocket or putting it away again. Once switched on, a single tap of the button takes a photo, while a double-tap shoots video – indicated by a flashing green LED. A triple-tap defaults to a self-timer photo, but you can configure this in the app.

You can also shoot hand-held, but this is very much an option of last resort as you’ll see in an example below.

Viewing the footage

You can view and edit the footage in the Insta360 ONE app. Once done, there are a number of options for sharing your footage:

  • Insta360 community
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Line
  • Messenger
  • Twitter

You can also download the footage to the iPhone’s Photos app, but this isn’t recognized as a 360-degree video, so you just end up with a weirdly-distorted panoramic video.

On desktop, you use your mouse to scroll the video left, right, up or down. On mobile, you can do the same with your finger, but a far more intuitive method is simply to orientate the iPhone or iPad in the direction you want to look.

Sample footage

Note: On a mobile device, you need to open the videos in the YouTube app. To do so, press play than tap the YouTube label lower-right.

You can use the Insta360 as a static camera. For example, I visited Geysir, the site of a number of active geysers. The Great Geysir, which gives the location its name, is now relatively inactive, but the nearby Strokkur geyser erupts reliably every 3-8 minutes, water reaching up to 100 feet into the air.

I simply put the Insta360 on a selfie stick, extended it to the maximum height above me and then waited. In the footage below, you can see the geyser erupt, but also pan around to see the reactions of the other visitors.

One benefit was immediately apparent: I was shooting conventional video as well, but wasn’t prepared for how high the water would go, so it went out of frame. With the Insta360 footage, you can simply look up to see the top of the fountain.

It was a horribly murky day, and photos were pointless: you were just looking at grey water against a grey sky. Similarly with conventional video. But with the 360-degree video, and the ability to pan around to see reactions, the Insta360 ONE provides much more interesting footage.

For me, it really brings back the experience of being there. But in a sense, it goes one better than that, as it allows me to see things I didn’t see at the time – like the view behind me.

Next up is a horse-ride. This was the first time I’d ever ridden a horse, and I wasn’t allowed to take a selfie-stick, so the best I could do was to hold the camera above my head with my hand. Our guide soon spotted this complete beginner holding on with one hand and very politely told me off, offering to film a clip herself.

I said that handheld use is a last resort, and you’ll see why below. But aside from the giant, split hand blocking part of the view, the footage is again really engaging, and brings back the experience of being there. You can see also the stitch between the two 180-degree images, appearing as a wavy line, so the lesson from this is you do want to orientate the camera front/back as much as is practical.

Finally, a moving shot with a selfie-stick. We took a snowmobile ride on the Langjökull glacier. This is the second-largest ice-cap in Iceland, and can be reached only by monster truck.

We were in a group on rented snowmobiles, so couldn’t go very fast most of the time, so I just held back and did quick bursts of acceleration. My partner, riding pillion, wasn’t totally sold on the idea of either of us holding a selfie-stick at speed, so this is one of the slower sections, but still gives a good sense of the experience.

The ‘front’ of the camera is facing backwards, so the default view is to the rear, but you can of course change that as you view.

One thing you’ll notice: the selfie-stick is almost invisible. This is something the company has worked hard at, and while it’s not perfect, it’s very impressive.

If I were doing this kind of shot again (and I very much hope to – snowmobiling is great fun!), I’d try sticking the selfie-stick down the back of my jacket: a huge benefit of 360-degree video is that you don’t have to worry about camera alignment.

Sharing your footage

Most video-sharing platforms now recognize 360-degree video, so you can simply upload the spherical image and viewers can then control the viewpoint.

The above samples are, as you can see, YouTube videos. I also shared clips to Facebook, and in neither case did I have to do anything special – they Just Worked.

Simulating multiple cameras

There’s one other thing you can do with 360-degree footage, and that’s simulate multiple camera angles. By importing the footage into a 360-aware video editor – like the current version of Final Cut Pro X – you can effectively convert spherical footage into a series of wide-angle flat clips. This can also be done in the company’s free Insta360 Studio app, or even at a push in the iOS app.

In this way, you could, in theory, shoot with a single camera and then choose your angles afterwards: front-facing, rear-facing, straight down and so on.

I say ‘in theory’ because even 4K is limited resolution to work with when you’re selecting what is a relatively small crop from the 360-degree image. This means you can’t get 1080p crops out of the 4K file, so the final result is rather low resolution:

But that’s still an incredible achievement from a single camera. With enough resolution, you could create a multi-viewpoint video that currently requires a whole array of cameras.

For those interested in how the video was made, I’ll write a Final Cut Pro X Diary piece later describing the process.

Downsides

The biggest downside is the iOS app. The pre-release version was horribly flakey and at times unusable. The release version is a lot more stable, but still buggy, and the user interface needs a lot of work. It’s also very slow when scrolling through 4K video, even using the iPhone X. That said, it is usable once you get the hang of it.

You do need a selfie-stick to get the most from the camera. I usually travel handbaggage-only, where this wouldn’t get past Security, but it doesn’t add much to the cost of a trip to buy a cheap one on arrival.

As mentioned, the resolution isn’t high enough to simulate multiple camera angles, but it does show what will be possible with the right kit.

Finally, the Insta360 ONE is not waterproof without a case, but the naked camera does seem to cope with spray.

Pricing & conclusions

The Insta360 ONE camera is available on its own for $299, or in an Apple Store bundle for $329:

  • The camera
  • Protective case
  • Selfie-stick
  • Handle
  • Mini-tripod
  • MicroSD card
  • MicroUSB cable
  • Lens cloth

By iPhone accessory standards, it’s expensive. By action-cam standards, the pricing is nothing out of the ordinary. And this is, in my view, an absolutely fantastic action cam.

I think 360-degree footage gives other people a really great sense of what it was like to be there, unlike anything else, and it gives the owner a powerful way to bring back all the memories.

I have to say, I absolutely love this gadget. In one trip, the Insta360 ONE went from being an interesting novelty to something I now consider an indispensable part of my travel kit. I won’t be leaving the country without it.

The Insta360 ONE Camera Bundle is available from Amazon for $299, or as a $329 bundle from the Apple Store.

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