A couple of years ago, 360° (video) cameras burst onto the scene and seemed to be all the new rage for a while. The initial excitement faded relatively quickly however when producers realized that this kind of video didn’t really resonate as much as they thought it would with the public – at least in the form of immersive VR (Virtual Reality) content for which you need extra hardware, hardware that most didn’t bother to get or didn’t get hooked on. From a creator’s side, 360 video also involved some extra and – dare I say – fairly tedious workflow steps to deliver the final product (I have one word for you: stitching). That’s not to say that this extraordinary form of video doesn’t have value or vanished into total obscurity – it just didn’t become a mainstream trend.
Among the companies that heavily invested in 360 cameras was Shenzen-based Insta360. They offered a wide variety of different devices: Some standalone, some that were meant to be physically connected to smartphones. I actually got the Insta360 Air for Android devices and while it was not a bad product at all and fun for a short while, the process of connecting it to the USB port of the phone when using it but then taking it off again when putting the phone back in your pocket or using it for other things quickly sucked out the motivation to keep using it.
Repurposing 360 video
While continuing to develop new 360 cameras, Insta360 however realized that 360 video could be utilized for something else than just regular 360 spherical video: Overcapture and subsequent reframing for “traditional”, “flat” video. What does this mean in plain English? Well, the original spherical video that is captured is much bigger in terms of resolution/size than the one that you want as a final product (for instance classic 1920×1080) which gives you the freedom to choose your angle and perspective in post production and even create virtual camera movement and other cool effects. Insta360 by no means invented this idea but they were clever enough to shift their focus towards this use case. Add to that the marketing gold feature of the “invisible selfie-stick” (taking advantage of a dual-lens 360 camera’s blindspot between its lenses), brilliant “Flow State” stabilization and a powerful mobile app (Android & iOS) full of tricks, you’ll end up with a significant popularity boost for your products!
The One X and the wait for a true successor
The one camera that really proved to be an instant and long-lasting success for Insta360 was the One X which was released in 2018. A very compact & slick form factor, ease of use and very decent image quality (except in low light) plus the clever companion app breathed some much-needed life into a fairly wrinkled and deflated 360 video camera balloon. In early 2020 (you know, the days when most of us still didn’t know there was a global pandemic at our doorstep), Insta360 surprised us by not releasing a direct successor to everybody’s darling (the One X) but the modular One R, a flexible and innovative but slightly clunky brother to the One X. It wasn’t until the end of October that Insta360 finally revealed the true successor to the One X, the One X2.
In the months prior to the announcement of the One X2, I had actually thought about getting the original One X (I wasn’t fully convinced by the One R) but it was sold out in most places and there were some things that bothered me about the camera. To my delight, Insta360 seemed to have addressed most of the issues that me (and obviously many others) had with the original One X: They improved the relatively poor battery life by making room for a bigger battery, they added the ability to connect an external mic (both wirelessly through Bluetooth and via the USB-C port), they included a better screen on which you could actually see things and change settings in bright sunlight, they gave you the option to stick on lens guards for protecting the delicate protruding lenses and they made it more rugged including an IPX8 waterproof certification (up to 10m) and a less flimsy thread for mounting it to a stick or tripod. All good then? Not quite. Just by looking at the spec sheet, people realized that there wasn’t any kind of upgrade in terms of video resolution or even just frame rates. It’s basically the same as the One X. It maxes out at 5.7k (5760×2880) at 30fps (with options for 25 and 24), 4k at 50fps and 3k at 100fps. The maximum bitrate is 125 Mbit/s. I’m sure quite a few folks had hoped for 8k (to get on par with the Kandao Qoocam 8K) or at the very least a 50/60fps option for 5.7k. Well, tough luck.
While I can certainly understand some of the frustration about the fact that there hasn’t been any kind of bump in resolution or frame rates in 2 years, putting 8K in such a small device and also have the footage work for editing on today’s mobile devices probably wasn’t a step Insta360 was ready to take because of the possibility of a worse user experience despite higher resolution image quality. Personally, I wasn’t bothered too much by this since the other hardware improvements over the One X were good enough for me to go ahead and make the purchase. And this is where my own frustrations began…
Insta360 & me: It’s somewhat difficult…
While I was browsing the official Insta360 store to place my order for the One X2, I noticed a pop-up that said that you could get 5% off your purchase if you sign up for their newsletter. They did exclude certain cameras and accessories but the One X2 was mentioned nowhere. So I thought, “Oh, great! This just comes at the right time!”, and signed up for the newsletter. After getting the discount code however, entering it during the check-out always returned a “Code invalid” error message. I took to Twitter to ask them about this – no reply. I contacted their support by eMail and they eventually and rather flippantly told me something like “Oh, we just forgot to put the X2 on the exclusion list, sorry, it’s not eligible!”. Oh yes, me and the Insta360 support were off to a great start!
Wanting to equip myself with the (for me) most important accessories I intended to purchase a pair of spare batteries and the microphone adapter (USB-C to 3.5mm). I could write a whole rant about how outrageous I find the fact that literally everyone seems to make proprietary USB-C to 3.5mm adapters that don’t work with other brands/products. E-waste galore! Anyway, there’s a USB-C to 3.5mm microphone adapter from Insta360 available for the One R and I thought, well maybe at least within the Insta360 ecosystem, there should be some cross-device compatibility. Hell no, they told me the microphone adapter for the One R doesn’t work with the One X2. Ok, so I need to purchase the more expensive new one for the X2 – swell! But wait, I can’t because while it’s listed in the Insta360 store, it’s not available yet. And neither are extra batteries. The next bummer. So I bought the Creator Kit including the “invisible” selfie-stick, a small tripod, a microSD card, a lens cap and a pair of lens guards.
A couple of weeks later, the package arrived – no problem, in the era of Covid I’m definitely willing to cut some slack in terms of delivery times and the merchandise is sent from China so it has quite a way to Germany. I opened the package, took out the items and checked them to see if anything’s broken. I noticed that one of the lens guards had a small blemish/scratch on it. I put them on the camera anyway thinking maybe it doesn’t really show in the footage. Well, it did. A bit annoying but stuff like that happens, a lemon. I contacted the support again. They wanted me to take a picture of the affected lens guard. Okay. I sent them the picture. They blatantly replied that I should just buy a new one from their store, basically insinuating that it was me who damaged the lens guard. What a terrible customer service! I suppose I would have mustered up some understanding for their behaviour if I had contacted them a couple of days or weeks later after actually using the X2 for some time outdoors where stuff can quickly happen. But I got in touch with them the same day the delivery arrived and they should have been able to see that since the delivery had a tracking number. Also, this item costs 25 bucks in the Insta360 store, probably a single one or a few cents in production and I wasn’t even asking about a pair but only one – why make such a fuss about it? So there was some back-and-forth and only after I threatened to return the whole package and asked for a complete refund they finally agreed to send me a replacement pair of lens guards at no extra cost. On a slightly positive note, they did arrive very quickly only a couple of days later.
Is the Insta360 One X2 actually a good camera?
So what an excessive prelude I have written! What about the camera itself? I have to admit that for the most part, it’s been a lot of fun so far after using it for about a month. The design is rugged yet still beautifully simplistic and compact, the image quality in bright, sunny conditions is really good (if you don’t mind that slightly over-sharpened wide-angle look and that it’s still “only” 5.7k – remember this resolution is for the whole 360 image so it’s not equivalent to a 5.7k “flat” image), the stabilization is generally amazing (as long as the camera and its sensor are not exposed to extreme physical shakes which the software stabilization can’t compensate for) and the reframing feature in combination with the camera’s small size and weight gives you immense flexibility in creating very interesting and extraordinary shots.
Sure, it also has some weaknesses: Despite having a 5.7k 360 resolution, if you want to export as a regular flat video, you are limited to 1080p. If you need your final video to be in UHD/4K non-360 resolution, this camera is not for you. The relatively small sensor size (I wasn’t able to find out the exact size for the X2 but I assume it’s the same as the One X, 1/2.3″) makes low-light situations at night or indoors a challenge despite a (fixed) aperture of f/2.0 – even a heavily overcast daytime sky can prove less than ideal. Yes, a slightly bigger sensor compared to its predecessors would have been welcome. The noticeable amount of image noise that is introduced by auto-exposure in such dim conditions can be reduced by exposing manually (you can set shutter speed and ISO) but then of course you just might end up with an image that’s quite dark. The small sensor also doesn’t allow for any fancy “cinematic” bokeh but in combination with the fixed focus it also has an upside that shouldn’t be underestimated for self-shooters: You don’t have to worry about a pulsating auto-focus or being out of focus as everything is always in focus. You can also shoot video in LOG (flatter image for more grading flexibility) and HDR (improved dynamic range in bright conditions) modes. Furthermore, there’s a dedicated non-360 video mode with a 150 degree field-of-view but except for the fact that you get a slight bump in resolution compared to flat reframed 360 video (1440p vs. 1080p) and smaller file sizes (you can also shoot your 5.7k in H.265 codec to save space), I don’t see me using this a lot as you lose all the flexibility in post.
While it’s good that all the stitching is done automatically and the camera does a fairly good job, it’s not perfect and you should definitely familiarize yourself with where the (video) stitchline goes to avoid it in the areas where you capture important objects or persons, particularly faces. As a rule of thumb when filming yourself or others you should always have one of the two lenses pointed towards you/the person and not face the side of the camera. It’s fairly easy to do if you usually have the camera in the same position relative to yourself but becomes more tricky when you include elaborate camera movements (which you probably will as the X2 basically invites you to do this!).
Regarding the audio, the internal 4-mic ambi-sonic set up can produce good results for ambient sound, particularly if you have the camera close to the sound source like when you have it on a stick pointing down and you are walking over fresh snow, dead leaves, gravel etc. For recording voices in good quality, you also need to be pretty close to the camera’s mics, having it on a fully extended selfie-stick isn’t ideal. If you want to use the X2 on an extended stick and talk to the camera you should use an external mic, either one that is directly connected to the camera or plugged into an external recorder, then having to sync audio and video later in post. As I have mentioned before, the X2 now does offer support for external mics via the USB-C charging port with the right USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter and also via Bluetooth. Insta360 highlights in their marketing that you can use Apple’s AirPods (Pro) but you can also other mics that work via Bluetooth. The audio sample rate of Bluetooth mics is currently limited to 16kHz by standard but depending on the used mic you can get decent audio. I’ll probably make a separate article on using external mics with the X2 once my USB-C to 3.5mm adapter arrives. Wait, does the X2 shoot 360 photos as well? Of course it does, they turn out quite decent, particularly with the new “Pure Shot” feature and the stichting is better than in video mode. It’s no secret though that the X2 has a focus on video with all its abilities and for those that mainly care about 360 photography for virtual tours etc., the offerings in the Ricoh Theta line will probably be the better choice.
The Insta360 mobile app
The Insta360 app (Android & iOS) might deserve its own article to get into detail but suffice it to say that while it can seem a bit overwhelming and cluttered occasionally and you also still experience glitches now and then, it’s very powerful and generally works well. Do note however that if you want to export in full 5.7k resolution as a 360 video you have to transfer the original files to a desktop computer and work with them in the (free) Insta360 Studio software (Windows/macOS) as export from the mobile app is limited to 4K. You should also be aware of the fact that neither the mobile app nor the desktop software works as a fully-fledged traditional video editor for immersive 360 video where you can have multiple clips on a timeline and arrange them for a story. In the mobile app, you do get such an editing environment (“Stories” – “My Stories” – “+ Create a story”) but while you can use your original spherical 360 footage here, you can only export the project as a (reframed) flat video (max resolution 2560×1440). If you need your export to be an actual 360 video with according metadata, you can only do this one clip at a time outside the “Stories” editing workspace. But as mentioned before, Insta360 focuses on the reframing of 360 video with its cameras and software, so not too many people might be bothered by that. One thing that really got on my nerves while editing within the app on an iPad: When you are connected to the X2 over WiFi, certain parts of the app that rely on a data connection don’t work, for instance you are not able to browse all the features of the shot lab (only those that have been cached before) or preview/download music tracks for the video. This is less of a problem on a phone where you still can have a mobile data connection while using a WiFi connection to the X2 (if you don’t mind using up mobile data) but on an iPad or any device that doesn’t have an alternative internet connection, it’s quite annoying. You have to download the clip, then disconnect from the X2, re-connect to your home WiFi and then download the track to use.
Who is the One X2 for?
Well, I’d say that it can be particularly useful for solo-shooters and solo-creators for several reasons: Most of all you don’t have to worry much about missing something important around you while shooting since you are capturing a 360 image and can choose the angle in post (reframing/keyframed reframing) if you export as a regular video. This can be extremely useful for scenarios where there’s a lot to see or happening around you, like if you are travel-vlogging from interesting locations or are reporting from within a crowd – or just generally if you want to do a piece-to-camera but also show the viewer what you are looking at the same moment. Insta360’s software stabilization is brilliant and comparable to a gimbal and the “invisible” selfie-stick makes it look like someone else is filming you. The stick and the compact form of the camera also lets you move the camera to places that seem impossible otherwise. With the right technique you can even do fake “drone” shots. Therefore it also makes sense to have the X2 in your tool kit just for special shots, even if you neither are a vlogger, a journalist nor interested in “true” 360 video.
A worthy upgrade from the One X / One R?
Should you upgrade if you have a One X or One R? Yes and no. If you are happy with the battery life of the One X or the form factor of the One R and were mainly hoping for improved image quality in terms of resolution / higher frame rates, then no, the One X2 does not do the trick, it’s more of a One X 1.5 in some ways. However, if you are bothered by some “peripheral” issues like poor battery life, very limited functionality of the screen/display, lack of external microphone support (One X) or the slightly clunky and cumbersome form factor / handling (One R) and you are happy with a 5.7k resolution, the X2 is definitely the better camera overall. If you have never owned a 360 (video) camera, this is a great place to start, despite its quirks – just be aware that Insta360’s support can be surprisingly cranky and poor in case you run into any issues.
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