Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Insta360 Nano preliminary review: almost there



I finally got the Insta360 Nano, a 360-degree camera for the iPhone.  I haven't tested it yet but here are my first impressions.  (I'll post a more detailed review after tests.)  Please see the update after the Summary.


Update 2: Don't miss these 8 tips and tricks for the Insta360 Nano!
Update 7/25/16: the app has been updated to make the logo removable.
Update 7/29/16: the review is now here and includes the version 1.20 app update.







Camera firmware version: v1.43_0160
App version: 1.1.0

BACKGROUND

Ever since I broke the news about the Insta360 Nano in March, I had been very interested in the Insta360 Nano, much more than its big brother, the Insta360 4k.

In my opinion, a 360-degree camera has to be portable, easy to use and affordable, in order for it to be adopted by the masses.  The Nano had a unique and innovative design and is the first 360-degree camera to attach to a smartphone.  (Since then, some others have also been announced.)  It was going to be offered at under $200.  It seemed to check all the boxes. 

But I was not sure what the image quality would be.  With such a small camera, I thought it would have limited image quality, especially because Insta360 already has a 'prosumer' grade camera.  If nothing else, Insta360 had an incentive to limit the image quality to avoid cannibalizing sales of its Insta360 4k camera.  In fact, Insta360's representative was asking me if it's only for personal use.  So that diminished my expectations.

Then, finally, we started seeing sample images, which were better than I expected.  It seemed like a decent 360 camera for casual use, which is what I wanted and was hoping for.  Now, the Nano is finally here!  Let's see how well it fulfills its promises.

WHAT'S IN THE BOX

The box looked quite nice.  They really paid attention to the presentation.  The box included the following:
  • Insta360 Nano
  • Micro USB to USB Cable
  • Pouch
  • Google Cardboard viewer
  • User Manual, Warranty card, Quick Start Guide (English and simplified Chinese)
There is no included Micro SD card.

I thought the cloth pouch was a nice touch, although for protection, I put the Nano inside its pouch, and inside an eyeglass case.

Using the box as a Cardboard viewer is clever, although there's not enough friction in the foam-backed smartphone holder to keep it from sliding off center if you tilt your head too much.

DESCRIPTION / PARTS

The Nano is about the size that I expected from seeing it in photos.  Here it is, next to the Ricoh Theta.
Insta360 Nano next to Ricoh Theta S

The body is mostly plastic but of a good quality, similar to those used in other point-and-shoot cameras.  The weight is about what I expected.  It's neither so light that it feels flimsy, nor does it feel heavy.

Insta360 Nano with iPhone 6, next to Ricoh Theta S

Insta360 Nano with iPhone 6, next to Ricoh Theta S

The lenses are fisheye lenses with a 210-degree view and f/2 aperture (don't forget to remove the plastic from them).  They're slightly offset from each other.


The Nano's design is very simple.  It has only one button at the back, which works as both a power button and a shutter button.

The battery is built-in and not removable.

At the bottom of the camera is a Micro USB port, a Micro SD card slot, and a small slot for resetting the camera.  Note: the Nano can accommodate up to 64GB Micro SD cards.

I would have liked to have a way for attaching a wrist strap.

PHONE COMPATIBILITY
The Insta360 Nano is compatible with the iPhone 6, 6s, 6 plus and 6s plus.  It works flawlessly with my iPhone 6.

I also tried using it with the iPhone SE, 5s, and other iPads.  The problem is that the Nano is molded specifically for the curved edge of the iPhone 6 family.  The flat edge of the iPhone SE or iPhone 5 does not allow it to physically fit with the Nano's connector.  This was a disappointing aspect of the Nano's design and I suspect that there will be many returns to Amazon from people who have a different iPhone than those listed (you'll eventually see these customer returns resold under Used with Amazon as the seller, with a little discount).


Another practical issue is that if your phone uses a case, the Nano probably won't fit.  To that end, I got a lightning extender but it didn't work.  I'm not exactly sure but there could be a couple of reasons:
1. the extender I got isn't certified.  I got a popup warning saying it might not work with my phone.
2. the extender I got had a flat edge, so it seemed that it wasn't fully inserted into the Nano's lightning connector.
I guess I'll have to look for an iPhone wallet that is easily removable, while still being protective.  Oh well.

I also considered trying to transfer the Nano's files to an Android phone, but the cable that was included was Micro USB to USB, and I don't have a Micro USB to Micro USB cable.  If I find one, I'll test it out with a Samsung S6.

USING THE NANO

A.  With an iPhone
When I inserted the Insta360 Nano for the first time on my phone, it sent me to the App Store to the page for downloading the Nano software.  There was a "redeem" button that prompted me to scan a QR code.  The App Store couldn't seem to scan the QR code from the Quick Start guide, so I just downloaded the free app manually from the App Store.


Once the app is installed, the Nano works seamlessly with the iPhone.  You just unlock your phone, plug in the Nano.  The Nano automatically turns itself on.  After a couple of seconds, the blue LED light turns green which means the Nano is ready to shoot.  At this point, the app will launch automatically (you can also launch manually if you prefer).  The app will always launch upside down whether or not the Nano is connected.  This is a minor inconvenience when you're just using the app to view photos.

The first time you launch the app, you will be prompted to activate the camera via the Internet.  Fortunately, it is a very quick, one-button process that doesn't require registration, or filling out forms.



The live preview shows both a 360 view that you can swipe, as well as a thumbnail showing the entire equirectangular image.  The live preview works very well, with little lag.  However, I noted that my phone heats up a lot after viewing a live preview image for a while.

The controls are rudimentary.  You can switch from photo to video, and you can trigger the shutter.  You can't adjust exposure, white balance, or anything else.  Most critically, there is no self-timer feature.  This is a significant omission because there's no way to trigger the Nano wirelessly, so you'll always see a giant hand on all photos and at least the start of the video.  This can be easily fixed by Insta360, and I seriously hope they do but I have my doubts, because a couple of months ago, I was talking to their rep and included this in my suggestions, but they seem to have disregarded it or been unaware of how important it is.

Shooting video is a little unusual.  Instead of just switching to video mode and simply pressing the onscreen shutter, there are two ways to record video.  First, you can hold down the shutter button, and it will keep recording as long as you keep holding down the shutter.  As soon as you release, it will stop.

Second, if you want to be able to let go of the shutter, you can hold the shutter and swipe up, as though "locking" the shutter in place.  It will then continue to record even if you let go of the shutter, until you press the shutter again.

To turn off the Nano, you just remove it from the iPhone.  After a couple of seconds, it shuts down automatically.  You can also manually turn it off (even while the Nano is connected) by holding down the power/shutter button.

B.  Without an iPhone

The Nano can also be used independently, without a smartphone.  The controls are simple and intuitive:
- To turn the Nano on, you just hold down the power/shutter button.
- To take a photo, you just press the shutter button.
- To take a video, you double click the shutter button (don't hold it down).
- To stop recording the video, you press the shutter button.
- To turn off the Nano, you hold down the power/shutter button again.

One issue when using it standalone is that it's not easy to mount it on a selfie stick, monopod, or tripod.  There's no adapter for a standard 1/4-20 attachment even though promo videos show them using one.  I hope they make it available as an accessory.

The only way I've been able to use it with a monopod is to attach it to an iPhone, then use a smartphone holder, which defeats the capability of using it independently.


Speaking of a smartphone holder, it can be trickier than it seems to use a smartphone holder because the Nano extends to the middle of the phone.  I have to position the holder to avoid holding down my phone's buttons while also avoiding the bottom of the Nano.  I had to use a smartphone holder that was 'hollow' (a narrow one might work too, although I'm not aware of a narrow phone holder).



Update: For a better smartphone holder, see here.


VIEWING PHOTOS AND VIDEOS
After you take photos or videos, you can view them on the app in several ways:
- fisheye view (a 360 view that has a fisheye effect; best for looking at photos of people or nature)
- a rectilinear view (a 360 view with straight lines, similar to a rectilinear wide angle; best for photos of architecture and objects)
- little planet view (this view can also be inverted to a rabbit hole view or adjusted in any other way).
- you can also select whether to view with the regular display, or the VR (Google Cardboard) view.

You can also toggle horizon correction or off, in real time.  That's a seriously cool feature I have never seen before.  (Note: this toggle does not affect the separate toggle for horizon correction during exporting - see below under sharing.)

You can also switch between swiping or activating the gyro for a 'magic window' / VR window view.

The viewer works very well, with no lag, and thus far it hasn't crashed yet (unlike the crash-prone Theta+ app).  I also appreciate the number of ways the image can be viewed.  On other apps, you get either a fisheye view (e.g. Ricoh Theta's app) or rectilinear view (e.g. Spinnable app or Kuula.co) but never both.
I also like the fact that the app has a button for clearing the cache. On some 360 apps I've used, the cache kept growing into gigabytes, and I had to delete and reinstall the app to regain the space.
Update 7/25/16: version 1.2 of the app now makes the Insta360 watermark / logo optional.


One incredibly annoying "feature" is that all photos and videos are watermarked with the Insta360 Nano logo.  Some promo videos didn't have a logo on them (such as this one) so I thought it was something you could turn on or off, but in the current version of the app, there's no way to toggle it off.  It made me recall the conversation with the Insta360 rep where she asked if it was for personal use.  So THIS seems to be how they avoid cannibalizing the Insta360 4k.  AAARGH. 



SHARING PHOTOS AND VIDEOS
The key benefit of the Nano is that it makes it easy to share photos and videos, at least in theory.  In that regard, it works well enough for YouTube, but not other platforms.

Photos
From the app, you can share photos to Facebook or Twitter*.  In either case, it will upload the photo to Insta360's cloud service, and what you would share on Facebook or Twitter is a thumbnail with a link to the 360 image on the Insta360 cloud.  (Strangely, there's no way to upload to the Insta360 cloud except if you upload the image to Facebook or Twitter.)

That would kind of work (the Ricoh Theta uses the same approach), but when you click on the link, you'll be sent to a page that looks like an advertisement for the Nano:

I thought at first that I clicked on the wrong link, but nope.  Where's the 360 image?  Well, it's right there on the screen of the "iPhone".  It's an interactive 360 image, which is a clever idea (you can even click on the "buttons" to switch to VR view), but this blatantly self-serving presentation is utterly ridiculous, to be honest.  So ridiculous that Facebook automatically blocks the thumbnail (probably identifies it as spam).  Here's the link, for your amusement (please note I had the plastic cover on the lenses for this image, so it is not representative of the actual image quality).

Fortunately, you can share to Facebook with Facebook's native 360 photo viewing mode.  To do that, you need to export the 360 photo to the camera roll as an equirectangular image (see below) then post that equirectangular image to Facebook.  If you do that, Facebook automatically recognizes the image as a 360 photo.

*Note: I have not yet been able to successfully share photos to Twitter.  I get the error "unauthorized sharing platform."  Probably a similar issue to why Facebook automatically blocks the thumbnail view.

Videos
For videos, they can be shared to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.  If you export to YouTube, it will automatically be recognized as a 360 video.  (As with any other 360 upload to YouTube, the video will first be shown in low resolution 360p, but if you wait a while, it will be shown in its full resolution).  I would say the YouTube sharing works as easily as I would like.  No mess, no fuss.  Just hit the share button, add a description, then allow the app to do all the work of compressing, uploading.  A few minutes later, your 360-degree video is ready on YouTube.

Sharing a video to Facebook is not as smooth.  When you tap on share to Facebook, it will export the video to your Camera Roll, then it will prompt you to post the video to Facebook yourself.

I have not yet been able to successfully share videos to Twitter.  I get the error "unauthorized sharing platform."

Exporting for other apps
For sharing on other apps or sites such as Spinnable or Kuula, you need to export the photo or video to the Camera Roll.  When you take photos or videos with the Nano, it appears that the images are stored somewhere on the phone where they cannot be viewed by other apps (or by connecting the phone to a PC) until you export the photo or video to the Camera Roll.  (However, the photo can be viewed or shared within the app even without first exporting them to the Camera Roll.)  When you export the photos or videos to the Camera Roll, they will be in standard equirectangular format, in jpg and mp4 respectively.


IMAGE QUALITY
I haven't tested the Nano completely yet, but so far the image quality looks about as good as I would expect for a casual use 360 camera.  The biggest problems are the Insta360 watermark, and the lack of a self-timer.

Photos
Here is a sample photo (hosted on Kuula):


The image is reasonably detailed, although does not appear as detailed as that of the Ricoh Theta S ($349), or the Samsung Gear 360 ($349), which, to be fair, cost almost twice as much as the Insta360 Nano ($199).  It would be interesting to see how they compare with the LG 360 Cam ($199).

The Nano seems to have better edge to edge sharpness than the Theta (consistency of sharpness across the field of view), with a narrower range at the edge of the lens where the image quality suddenly drops, although in this respect it is not as good as that of the Samsung Gear 360.

There's serious chromatic aberration at the edges of the lens, but otherwise, aberration is much more controlled than on the Theta.

The white balance is inaccurate.  Hopefully it can be fixed in postprocessing and I can have a better assessment of its colors.

The image appears over-sharpened, with sharpening artifacts visible.

Contrast is a little high for my taste (I prefer a flatter starting image then adjust the contrast myself), although some people might like it.

Stitching is quite good, no doubt due in part to the close distance between its lenses which reduces parallax stitching errors.

Videos
Here is a sample video (uploaded to YouTube) at the 'high' setting (3k, 30fps, 13 mbps bitrate).  Note that the video is compressed before uploading to YouTube.  Here is the link to it on YouTube.



I think the 3k resolution is passable even for a headset IMHO.  The Nano has reasonable levels of detail.

However, the contrast is again too high, white balance is inaccurate, and the image is over-sharpened.
Overall, I would say the photo and video quality are both adequate for casual use, with the exception of the watermark and self-timer issue (which might not bother some users).




LIVESTREAM
One of the features of the Nano is its livestreaming capability. I tested the livestream and there's good news and bad news.  The good news is that it does not require a PC.  You just need to specify the server URL.  You can stream from anywhere in theory.

The bad news is that setting up a live stream is quite technical, at least to me.  More importantly, I keep encountering "network problem."  I don't know if that's an issue with YouTube or the Nano.



PROS AND CONS
These are my initial impressions:
+ works seamlessly with iPhone
+ can be operated independently, with simple/elegant controls
+ turns on and off automatically
+ decent photo quality
+ decent video resolution
+ good stitching
+ sharing of videos works great for YouTube
+ excellent viewing options
o both Nano and my phone get quite hot with live view on
o some chromatic aberration
o I haven't successfully live streamed yet
- no self-timer*
- can't get rid of Insta360 logo/watermark*
- horrible cloud hosting (looks like an advertisement)
- fits only iPhones with curved edges*
- no controls for exposure or white balance
- not easy to use with a tripod or selfie stick*
- not compatible with most (if not all) smartphone cases; lightning extender won't work (so far)*




*See Insta360's responses below the Summary.  See also these 8 tips and tricks for the Insta360 Nano which addresses some of the issues such as the self-timer.







SUMMARY
My first impressions are that the Nano is a good concept and its fundamental hardware (lenses, processor, etc.) work pretty well.  It could be very good for what it was designed for: casual use.


However, the Insta360 Nano has several serious issues (e.g. no self-timer, can't remove watermark, etc.) that Insta360 seemingly inflicted on itself, almost comically.  Many of the serious problems could have been avoided easily.  That's the silver lining -- many of the problems are within Insta360's capability to fix them through a firmware or software update.  I'm really hoping that they will.

I will be taking more photos and videos with the Nano, and will be posting a detailed review by next weekUpdate 7/29/16: the review is now here and includes the version 1.20 app update.






*UPDATE: Within a couple of hours of posting this preliminary review, Insta360 already responded!  Bravo!












UPDATE: Don't miss these 8 tips and tricks for the Insta360 Nano!


If you would like to get a Nano, please consider buying it through the link below, which would be a welcome way of supporting 360rumors at no additional cost to you.