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The best 360-degree camera

You have several good options from Insta360, Ricoh and Garmin.
Wirecutter, @wirecutter
March 31, 2019
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By Geoffrey Morrison

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commission. Read the full 3060-degree camera guide here.

After 70-plus hours of researching over nearly three years, including days of hands-on testing for this update and two months using our main pick, we've found that the Insta360 One X is the best 360 camera. It produces attractive, high-resolution, 360-degree, fully spherical images and videos that you can scroll around to show a view of every direction surrounding the camera, plus unique non-360 "FreeCapture" 1080p videos that show just the most interesting sections of your 360 content. The camera is small and easy to use and has excellent apps for your phone and computer.

The Insta360 One X is the camera that does everything well. The specs on the One X read like a 360 camera wishlist: 5.7K resolution (the highest you can get in this price range), removable battery, on-camera display, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, an app with advanced editing methods, and more. It's as if Insta360 looked at everything people wanted in a 360 camera, and stuffed it all into the One X. Even better, it performs as well as you'd hope looking at the features list. The camera isn't waterproof, but two waterproof cases are available, along with numerous other accessories.

Though it lacks some of the advanced features of the Insta360 One X like robust image stabilization, a removable battery, and 5.7K video, the Ricoh Theta V is a solid alternative if our main pick is sold out. The Theta V's simple design belies the complexity within, offering high-quality images and videos that look more natural and immersive than those taken by most other cameras. Though its resolution isn't as high as that of some others, the quality of its lenses and image sensors let it take excellent photos and videos.

If you're looking for something you can take surfing, swimming, mountain biking, or otherwise action cam-y, the Garmin Virb 360 is waterproof to 33 feet (10 meters), records 5.7K video, and has a number of cool editing features. It's significantly more expensive than our other picks, but offers a lot more for people looking for a 360 action cam. While the similar GoPro Fusion has a bit better image quality, it is significantly more difficult to use and live with. So for most people, the Garmin is the better option.

Why you should trust me

In addition to being the editor-at-large for Wirecutter, I also review 360 cameras for Forbes. I was an early adopter of the format and have used several cameras in my other, other life as a travel writer and photographer for Forbes and CNET. You can check out samples from different 360 cameras I've used and reviewed on my Flickr page and on my YouTube channel. I also post lots of Tiny Planet photos, shot with 360 cameras, on my Instagram.

Why get a 360 camera?

Although it's unlikely that a 360 camera will replace a traditional camera, it offers additional creative options for fun and interesting photos and videos. Whether you're getting into virtual reality or you're a real-estate broker hoping to show off a home in a new way, photos and videos captured with a 360 camera offer a more immersive way to see places than any other media. Viewers can enjoy a full sphere, allowing them to take in, for better or worse, everything in a space—not just a narrow view from the Eiffel Tower, but the sweep of Paris, you, and the tower itself. Not just a selfie with the crazy lights of Shinjuku, Tokyo, but of the entire street and everyone around you. Taking a good 360 photo or video is challenging, needing great placement and environment, but the result can be fantastic.

In addition, most 360 cameras now let you create a standard, rectangular 1080p video using just the most interesting portions of your 360 sphere. Think of this like cutting out a section of the sphere, your face for example, and just showing that instead of everything around the camera. In most cases this video is highly stabilized, and looks professionally smooth. It can also have pans, zooms, and time lapses that are far more interesting and creative than what a traditional camera can easily create. On the photo side, Tiny Planet photos offer a unique look at an environment. These types of photos and videos are viewable on any social media platform. We have some video clips below that demonstrate this.

360-degree cameras

A Tiny Planet photo from Las Vegas shot with the Insta360 One X. More examples like this on my Instagram. Photo: Geoffrey Morrison

The 360 photos and videos themselves, however, aren't viewable everywhere. Facebook and Flickr are two of the biggest free websites that can correctly display the images. YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook are three of the biggest that can correctly display the videos. Most recent mobile phones can show 360 media and some use their internal sensors to act as a sort of moving window into your photos/videos: Load the image, then move the phone to see the image as if you're inside it. It's pretty amazing the first time you see it work.

Although it's unlikely that a 360 camera will replace a traditional camera, it offers additional creative options for fun and interesting photos and videos.

Lastly, the photos and videos you will get from any consumer 360 camera are not going to be anything close to the quality you're used to. Even the best results will be softer than a normal HD or 4K video, because the same number of pixels now have to show the entire photosphere. Still, our picks produce some great images. Because of the smaller image sensors in these cameras, the images are typically noisier, especially in low light, than those from point-and-shoot cameras or modern high-end cell phones.

You don't need a VR headset to enjoy 360 content, though having one adds a layer of realism.

How we picked

360-degree cameras

The Ricoh Theta V, Garmin Virb 360, and the Insta360 One X. Though only the Garmin comes with a small tripod, all three have tripod mounts that can also be used with selfie sticks. Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

There aren't that many 360 cameras available, and only a few new models have come out since our update in summer 2018. With these new models, though, we added a few "must-have" features to our list.

  • At least 4K video capture: Because you're seeing only a portion of the video at any one time, resolution becomes an issue. While traditional 1080p video can look sharp, 1080p 360 videos look very soft. Even 4K, which offers four times the resolution of 1080p, is still not enough with 360. It's the minimum we recommend. To put it another way, imagine taking a picture with just what your eyes can see right now, without moving them or your head. That "image" in 4K would look very detailed. But now imagine using the same number of pixels to "photograph" everything you can see while moving your head. It wouldn't be possible to have the same level of detail with the larger field of view. So with 360, the more resolution the better. In 2018 several models offer greater-than-4K resolution. Though not a requirement yet, it will be going forward.
  • The ability to capture and share a full 360 sphere: There are many cameras available that don't offer photo spheres as much as photo "domes." In images made with these cameras, there's a large area around the bottom of the camera that's just black. Think "bowl" versus "globe." There are now many excellent cameras that create the full 360-by-360-degree photo/video spheres/globes, so we decided to limit our picks to those. These images and videos are more immersive and offer more of a wow factor. To create such media, these cameras generally have two lenses and image sensors.
  • Compatibility with your phone: Some 360 cameras unlock their full potential only with a specific OS, or even a specific phone maker. While these can be good values for people with the right phone, they can't be the best for most people. Though no camera will work with every phone, we at least wanted similar levels of iOS and Android compatibility.
  • Waterproofing (for action-oriented cameras): There are several great action 360 cameras at or above $500. At that price, they had better be able to stand up to some real action.
  • Size and design: These cameras don't have to be tiny, but you'll be more likely to carry around a small camera with a simple, intuitive design that's easy to hold than some large monstrosity.

We didn't look at commercial or professional 360 cameras, which cost thousands of dollars. These cameras use far more than just two sensors to capture the image. Their performance is likely fantastic, but we figured these would be far beyond what most people would want to spend for something that is, at best, a secondary camera.

This left us with a handful of new models to test: Insta360 One X, Xiaomi Mi Sphere, Acer Holo360, and the Vuze XR.

Several great models from 2017 have carried over, and we also compared against those, like the Rylo, and our former top pick, the Ricoh Theta V.

How we tested

We gathered together the Theta V, One X, and Mi Sphere. The Garmin Virb 360, being much more expensive and waterproof, is in a separate category that we'll call action 360 cameras, of which the Nikon KeyMission 360 and GoPro Fusion are similar. We'll cover those when we talk about our upgrade pick.

Having used these cameras extensively, but individually, already, I took multiple photos and videos with the three main contenders together. You can see examples of their photos and videos below and on my aforementioned Flickr page and YouTube channel.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to the image and video quality of 360 cameras. First, all of the normal camera aspects: color, dynamic range, noise, detail, and so on. Additionally, and unique to 360 cameras, you have what's called "stitching." All of the 360 cameras we tested have two image sensors, essentially back to back. It's sort of like if both the front- and back-facing cameras on your phone took an image at the same time. How well those images are stitched together by the camera dictates how seamless the final photosphere is.