360 degree videos are the new THING because they capture more of the experience you are trying to share. Facebook, Youtube & Twitter all support this new more immersive medium. So the question is "What's the best 360 degree consumer video camera available?" Good question considering your local BestBuy has over a dozen in store and on display.
Having tested about a dozen of them, the best one is still the Ricoh Theta S.
Why the Theta S? First it is easy to use. You press that big button and it starts to record. It has built in WIFI that allows you to review the captured content or control the camera with your smartphone. Last but not least, it captures good quality video.
Video is good but not great
When buying one of these devices, it is important to understand that you will get good video but it won't be an ultra sharp crystal clear 4K video (like one coming from a mid priced DSLR). The video quality will be good and acceptable but the manufacturers chose not to go super high quality because the stitching would require too much horsepower.
Some technical specs
So what kind of sensor does this little device have? It has 2 12 megapixel sensors and ultrawide 240 degree lenses. The camera then processes these two inputs and automatically created one 14 megapixel video (at 1080p) that automatically hides the camera.
Pair this 360 degree video with some kind of VR headset (even a cheap Google Cardboard) and you get wonderfully imersive video that feels like you are in the moment. You can move around and see everything. This means you (as the photographer) have to consider this immersive experience when taking the video. Be cognizant of how you are holding the camera.
Let's talk quality of video
So the Ricoh Theta S produces some very good video with good color reproduction (even is low light situations). Using the smartphone app, you can tune basic settings like exposure compensation, shutter speed, ISO and go fully manual (which I don't recommend).
Video clips can be up to 25 minutes long. Let's be honest, you videos shouldn't be longer than this anyway.
Let's talk device in hand
The Ricoh Theta S is a slim device which means it is easy to hold even for people with smallish hands. It is thin and long and a bit thick (which makes holding the device easy and comfortable).
It has a nice easy to hold onto plastic surface that has good grip. It has a standard tripod mount on the bottom which means you can easily mount this to any tripod (including a flexible Joby Griptight).
The device is easy to use and allows you to quickly switch from 360 degree videos to 360 degree pictures and back. All without having to fiddle with finicky menus or having to use the smartphone app. You can turn WIFI on or OFF (WIFI sucks battery so turn it off when not needed).
Let's talk battery life
Richoh doesn't provide good information about battery life. Assuming you are using the device for videos and have WIFI tuned off, you can expect about 1 hour of use time on a single charge. The device does not have a removable battery so you'll have to charge it with a portable battery when in the field.
It's a 360 degree video
The output from the device is either a JPG or MP4 file with metadata identifying it as a 360 degree video. You can upload this to Youtube, Facebook, Twitter or Flickr and it will identify the file appropriately and then perform all of the required processing in the background to make it immersive and navigable.
Each 1 minute of video consumes about 100MB of storage and if you transfer it via WIFI to your phone will take 3-5 minutes. During this time you have to leave the app open and therefore won't be able to do anything on your device (or you can transfer it via USB if you have a laptop).
The free Theta+ or Theta+ video apps let you edit videos and even create non 360 degree cropped output files. They are fairly basic but allow you to add text, music or trim the video length.
When possible, use a tripod (even a mini one) to hold the camera otherwise you are likely to see fingers in the shot as you press the recording button. Or use the smartphone app to start/stop recording.
It can live stream
The Ricoh Theta S can also live stream when connected to a desktop with the special Theta software loaded on it (Mac and Windows). To enable live streaming you "Press the shooting mode button and power button of the camera together".
You can live stream your 360 degree masterpiece to Youtube or Facebook. You may want to add the free OBS Studio app to the streaming mix.
- First is the price. At roughly $350US it isn't a cheap product and it can't be your main or only recording device.
- It doesn't shoot in 4K. Considering most people will be viewing this content on VR visors, smartphones or in web browsers, this should be a major problem but it is important to remember.
- The built in 8GB of storage (no SD Card support) is annoying. It's major competitors (Nikon Keymission 360, Samsung Gear 360 and Insta360 all accept nano SD cards).
- Without a removable SD card, you also can't just "pop out" the card and transfer data at super fast speeds using a USB card reader.
- If you edit the 360 pictures, some editors will strip the 360 degree marker from the metadata and the uploaded sites won't know that it requires special handling. You can add this back but its a pain.
If you want to buy an affordable, easy to use 360 degree video camera, the Ricoh Theta S is the one to buy today. It offers the right combination of quality, price and features. With everything said and done, it is still early days and the experience still isn't perfect.
I wouldn't recommend my parents go out and buy this. Not yet. Not right now. If you have a desire for 360 degree video then go out and get one. You won't be disappointed as long as you remember it's not a mass market product yet.
For John and Jane Doe, the technology still needs to mature and improve a bit.