For a cheap, cheerful and tiny little gadget, the Insta360 Air can do some pretty amazing stuff. 360-degree video and photos – naturally – but also some truly whacked-out, trippy morphing video effects that we simply haven't seen anywhere else before.

Insta360 Air, as we previewed a few days ago, is a neat little 360-degree camera gadget you can stick on top of any Android phone. Using two ultra-wide 180-degree fisheye lenses in a gadget the size of a golf ball, it plugs directly into the USB slot on your phone with either a MicroUSB or USB-C connector – these are sold as separate models. We've been playing with one for a few days, connected to a Google Pixel XL smartphone.

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It's pretty simple to use: turn on screen rotation on your phone, turn it upside down, pull the Insta360 Air out of its rubbery carrying case and plug it in. The app fires up, and you're ready to start shooting and filming in 360 degrees.

Unlike its Nano brother for the iPhone, the Air doesn't have its own battery, so it runs off your phone's battery instead. I was pleased to discover it's not a huge battery drain – no more than running your regular phone camera. I filmed for more than 30 minutes this morning, and my phone didn't even drop to 50 percent battery. Mind you, it's a great phone for battery life.

The Air shoots at a maximum resolution of 3008 x 1504 (that's 3K) for photos, and 2560 x 1280, 30fps for video. But if that resolution sounds high, remember, it's for the entire 360-degree image. When you upload it to Facebook or YouTube, the viewer's only going to be able to show a window within that view. So image resolution looks lower than it is. Facebook's image compression doesn't help, either. If you view the pics or footage on a big screen, they're not going to look great.

Here's an image in regular 360-degree view.

Still, they're good enough on a phone-sized screen, and 360-degree video is new and fun enough that it still makes for good viewing. And since Facebook started treating panoramas in a similar way, people are very familiar with how the whole thing works.

In the Insta360 app, you can take the photos and videos you've shot, and either share them as straight 360-degree videos, or apply a series of effects – little planet, crystal ball, fisheye – and render them out flat. This, to me, is where the real fun starts. And while you can certainly get the same results by shooting panoramas, stitching them together and editing them in photoshop, the Insta360 app makes it easy and fun to play around with some very strange looks.

If you want to get really freaky, there's a downloadable desktop app that lets you edit video while changing the view effect and transitioning between angles. The results are extremely trippy, as if the camera's flying around all over the place. It's an awesome effect:

If you've got a cardboard style VR viewer, you can put your images and videos in "VR mode," which lets you physically look around in the 360-degree space as you move your head around.

So the 360-degree functionality of the Insta360 Air is next level, but as you can see by now, the cameras themselves are a bit … previous level. Dynamic range isn't great – you get your best results shooting outdoors where everything's bright. There's a fair bit of chromatic aberration (color fringing) around the edges of things, and the one-click purple fringe removal tool in the desktop app is absolute garbage. The overall image sharpness isn't great, either.

But honestly, it's better than I'd expect from a device that retails at US$119 (AU$219 in Australia), because ultra wide angle lenses are extremely tough to engineer and therefore very expensive. To get a higher quality video feed, you'd need a sensor array capable of doing much higher resolution and probably more cameras with narrower angle lenses –something like the Insta360 Pro, which bills itself as a production level camera, is far too big to throw in a pocket, and costs US$3,000.

The Air isn't a pro level tool, it's a jigger to throw in your pocket and create absolutely extraordinary images and video on the run. I'm sure these gadgets will be a ton better in five years, but right now, something like this puts you way ahead of the curve.

Product page: Insta360

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