Review: Hands-on with Insta360's One X "GoPro Killer"
When we reviewed the Insta360 Air, we were mighty impressed with the capabilities of this wacky 360-degree camera and the bizarre effects we could get with it in post. The main thing it needed was more resolution – and with 5.7K/30fps video, the new One X camera brings nearly double the imaging power. So how does it rate?
Resolution is king when it comes to 360-degree cameras, because when it comes time to present your video, you're almost never seeing the whole visual field at once. Either people are watching it on social media, twisting their phones around to look around inside the frame, or you're editing the video to squeeze it into a normal 16:9 format, a square, or however else you want to present it.
So the One X's 5.7K makes its output a ton more useable than the Air. That's as it should be – the Air is essentially a bit of a gimmicky attachment for your phone, while the One X is billed as a web-ready content creation tool that doubles as an action camera. Insta360's own marketing takes aim at the GoPro 7, touting the One X's superior FlowState stabilization, motion tracking and the ability to compose shots long after shooting.
So on a basic level, it had better take a decent picture. And in this respect it's pretty good. The dynamic range is broad enough that you can stick it on the dash of a car, and get an image that doesn't underexpose the interior too much, or overexpose the outside too badly. It's better than I'd have expected.
But Insta360 shouldn't want to put this thing up against a recent model GoPro on image quality alone, it simply doesn't measure up on color, contrast, dynamic range or final output resolution. There's some noticeable chromatic aberration out toward the edges of each lens's 180-degree visual field. And you're very aware where each camera's FOV starts and stops, because the stitching at the edges is far from seamless in video mode. Image quality and distortion wise, the edges of the cameras are much better than you'd expect, but stick a face at the stitch point and you'll get a funny-looking composite.
Interestingly enough, when you're shooting stills, it seems to do a much better job, especially when you enable "optical flow stitching" in the app options. Here's a photo shot the same way, with the seam running right up my nose:
That's very impressive. Continuing on the positive side, the One X's sound recording ability is better than we'd have expected. In a room situation it's decent enough, but its aerodynamic shape did a pretty decent job of minimizing wind noise and picking up mainly the engine when we sat it naked on the mirror of a motorcycle.
And the overall image is a very clear step forward from the one we got out of the Insta360 Air - as you'd expect, given the much higher price.
On the negative side, there's no way to put it down without resting it on a lens, which makes me shudder every time. And it does seem to run very warm, though this is likely due to the less-than-stellar grade of MicroSD card we put in it. By all reports, if you use an expensive card with a V30 rating, overheating stops being an issue – and to be fair, it never gave up and stopped recording on us.
One of the features I was most looking forward to shooting with is the One X's bullet time mode. Well, it's not a mode, it's really just putting the thing in its top frame rate of 100fps @ 3008 x 1504 resolution, then clicking the camera into a rocket dart-shaped throwable case called the Drifter, and lobbing it straight past something that's interesting and moving quickly.
Post-processing tools enable motion tracking and other ways of keeping the subject right in the center of the screen, making for a very sweet Matrix-style moving slow motion shot that pretty much no other type of camera can give you.
Sadly, my review unit didn't come with the throwing dart, and I'm not throwing somebody else's camera around without one, so I guess you'll have to rely on the company's own sample footage to see what it can do:
The Desktop Software
Having established that the Insta360 One X is a solid step forward as a camera, we were looking forward to see what kinds of crazy footage we might be able to assemble when we got that 360-degree vision into some post-processing software.
And here, friends, is where things really drop off for this plucky little camera. Because as neat as the vision is, the software you get to process it with is absolutely awful on a Mac, even though the camera has been out for nearly three months.
Not only is there nothing new in terms of functionality in the Beta-release Insta360 Studio app for OSX, there's actually a bunch of features missing that were there when we tested the Air. You can no longer change projections and angles along a timeline, so you're pretty much stuck looking at footage from a single angle. You can select a range of footage, but not cut out a clip.
And worse still, whatever projections you choose, when you export your footage it goes back into full 360 mode – and takes absolutely forever to render out. This desktop software is beyond useless in our experience, and this means you're left with only the mobile app to work with. That's not good enough for a fifty-buck toy, let alone a decent little camera like this one.
The Mobile App
The mobile app (in our case, the Android version tested on a Pixel 3 XL) is better than the desktop app. It allows you to work with different projections (crystal ball, tiny planet, fisheye, perspective view), clip your video, apply some basic filters, and choose your view within the 360-degree vision.
Choosing the view is the interesting part, and Insta360 lets you do this in a few different ways. One is by adding "pivot points" to your video – effectively tweening the shots between angles you choose at different frames. Another is by selecting a subject and having the software motion-track it to keep it in focus, which works surprisingly well considering it's running on a mobile phone, although you do get the odd weird flicker.
The other way to do it is by using a very cool "viewfinder" feature that lets you watch the footage from the director's chair, and use your phone to look around in the 360-degree image. Whatever you see with your phone then becomes the final image. This was the mode we had the most success with.
Once you've chosen a projection and finished building the shot you want, you can then clip and export the footage. Well, sometimes. In our experience, the app handled most short clips, but crashed completely every time when we tried to export short clips from longer videos, or enable features like "optimize stitching." Add that to the useless desktop software, and we ended up with a bunch of footage we simply couldn't get out of the damn camera to show you. Not to mention, the Wi-Fi connection was so dodgy that we actually pulled out the cable to connect this device to the phone. I can't honestly remember the last time I had to do that.
When it comes to photos, the process seems to work a little better, except you can't export regular ol' JPG photos built from your projections. The still images we show in our gallery are literally screenshots from the app or the desktop app. Instead, Insta360 makes you export 360-degree images, which can only really be shown through social media or on Insta360's own site, like so. At least the web presentation allows you to scroll through the different projections and see what the camera can do. Here's another example.
We're aware that software has a tendency to lag behind hardware in the 360-degree camera world, and that Insta360 is far from the only culprit. But honestly, as it stands right now (and we can't speak for other operating systems), if you use an Insta360 with Android and OSX, you might well end up stuck with footage you can't use, just because the software isn't ready yet.
We're on board with the idea of 360-degree cameras, both outputting in VR-friendly 360-degree formats, and as a future replacement for Action cams like the GoPro. For people who have the time to post process video, these things open up a range of camera angles you'd need several GoPros to capture. Stick one in a car, and you've got wide and narrow forward views of the road, individual shots of the driver and passenger and a wide shot of both. You could cut between them and look like you had several cameras going.
We're impressed enough with the One X's camera and video quality, particularly in comparison to the cheaper Air model. Certainly, the bigger the resolution the better, and we'll see these things get bigger and smarter over time.
The built-in inertial sensor to track motion as you shoot, and use it to help stabilize footage, is an inspired idea, and from many accounts it allows some cool shots (hyperlapse and whatnot) that are executed well on other operating systems.
But for us, with our high-end Android phone and OSX editing machine, we found ourselves completely hamstrung by the software, to the point where we genuinely can't get footage out of the camera and into a format we want to use. We fully expect that software updates are coming to fix these issues, but they made us actively angry at how much time we wasted – and we didn't pay US$399 for the privilege of using it.
Until these major problems are solved, we can't recommend this camera to anyone using a Mac desktop or an Android phone.
Addendum: we've discussed our issues with the Insta360 team, and they likely come down to the fact that the Google Pixel 3 XL is a new phone and not yet on the supported device list. An update should solve our crashing issues soon, and users on other devices should experience none of the frustration we did. As for the desktop software, Insta360 is not likely to update desktop apps for the One X to support editing in the way they did for the Air - these features will be reserved for pro-grade models. The One X is designed mainly to be used with the phone app.