Which 360 degree camera should I buy?

By John Blackmon September 4, 2018

VR and 360 cameras are evolving at a rapid pace, and it has become a challenge to keep up with the latest technology. If you’ve been tasked with creating a VR experience, the first step on your journey is to select the right camera for the job. As with any camera purchase, there are a lot of factors to consider.

4K video seems like high resolution for your TV, but when you divide that between two lenses and wrap that around all 360 degrees of a sphere, it's barely HD quality, so it really should be where you start. You’ll always have the option of compressing it down if you need to save space. And don’t forget the quality of the optics themselves. High numbers for resolution sound great, but if the image doesn’t start out sharp, it won’t make any difference. Price is a factor in any purchase decision, and you’ll find a range of options when looking at 360 cameras.

For this review, we’ll look at 5 of the leading 360 cameras, discuss their pros and cons, and then look at the same picture taken with each camera. In fact, we'll use sub-optimal lighting conditions to really test its strength as a shooter.

Yi 360

✔  Crisp pictures

✔  In-app stitching for images and 4K videos

✔  Can “auto-remove” you from a still shot

✖  No Mac OS stitching/editing software

The Yi 360 shoots the highest resolution video in this roundup at 5.7K. Image quality is impressive, giving probably the crispest pictures of the bunch. The Yi requires a single Micro SD card for its storage, so make sure you pick one up before going out for a round of shooting. The camera has an intuitive OLED display on top, which contributes to the high picture quality. Plus the scrollable arrow keys and information lets you adjust settings without the phone app.

The Yi 360 also has a unique feature that solves a common problem with 360: getting yourself out of the shot. The camera can take a series of three separate still images, five seconds apart, while you stand in three different places. The prompts the camera software to identify you and remove you from the photo - and it actually works very well. So don’t be afraid to try this model for your production work. It has a time lapse video setting which can be great for introductory scenes for a VR experience, as well as lots of camera settings that a semi-professional videographer may want to set.

The phone app itself will stitch video at 4K resolution or less, but if you select the highest resolution, you’ll need to use the companion desktop application to stitch it for an equirectangular (stretched rectangle for 360) format. Unfortunately, there is only a Windows version of the application at this time, so Mac users are asked to find a third party app.

  • Video resolution: 5760 x 2880 at 30fps
  • Photo resolution: 16MP
  • Battery life: 50 minutes
  • Price: $399.99 (Amazon)
  • Onboard storage: none (requires Micro SD card, not included)

GoPro Fusion

✔  Waterproof to 5M

✔  In-app stitching for images and 4K videos

✖  Pricey

✖  Requires 2 SD cards

✖  Most prominent feature is not for 360 video

GoPro has made a splash in the industry with their waterproof Fusion camera.  It's slim, rugged, and waterproof down to 5 meters. The fusion does things a bit differently; it requires 2 Micro SD cards in order to operate, and each lens stores a separate image to each SD card. You’ll definitely need to use their desktop studio software to transfer and stitch the multiple images or video together to get that single equirectangular image.

The GoPro is much more rugged than the other devices in this roundup, and can even be used for underwater filming up to five meters without a cover, so don’t be afraid to take it out in the rain.

The feature that seems to be touted the most isn’t actually 360 at all: it’s what they call OverCapture. OverCapture allows you to post-process a 360 video and capture standard 16:9 video from it while moving the capture area around the screen in real time. It's certainly a neat trick, but it's not important if you are looking to create VR.

  • Video resolution: 5228 x 2624 at 30fps
  • Photo resolution: 18MP
  • Battery life: 70 minutes
  • Price: $699.99 (Amazon)
  • Onboard Storage: none (requires 2 Micro SD cards, not included)

Samsung Gear 360 (2017)

✔  Inexpensive (downright cheap!)

✔  IP53 Water and dust proof

✖  App only works with Samsung and Apple phones

✖  Video is grainier than other devices

Samsung definitely claims the budget-friendly title with the Gear 360. It comes in at less than half the price of the nearest competitor. The catch is, if you have an Android phone, it will have to be a Samsung phone to work with it. Samsung has support for the iPhone with their latest camera, but the application is not up to par with their Android version.

The Gear 360 has a nice form factor, good software, and is fairly easy to use. Still photos taken with the camera are good, however, videos created with the device suffered from graininess. It seems that Samsung uses some of the photo enhancement experience they have from their phones in the Gear 360; colors appear to have more brightness and they pop more than the actual image itself.

It’s important to note the “2017”  listed in the name here. Samsung still sells the original Gear 360, which has significantly lower specs than this device, yet is only about $20 different in price.

The desktop software that Samsung provides is Gear 360 Action Director 2 and is some of the best editing software that you can get for free with a camera.

  • Video resolution: 4096 x 2048 at 24fps
  • Photo resolution: 15MP
  • Battery life: 130 minutes
  • Price: $91.90  (Amazon)
  • Onboard storage: none (requires Micro SD card, not included)

Ricoh Theta V

✔  Slim, pocketable form factor

✔  Warm, crisp photos and video

✔  Works equally well with iOS and Android phones

✖  No expandable storage

Ricoh was a pioneer in the 360 camera industry, and the Theta V is their top-of-the-line entry in the market. 4K video and images are recorded with superb color, and the slim form factor really can’t be beaten for transporting the camera around.

Unlike many of the other cameras, it’s ready to go right out of the box. Storage and the battery are completely built into the camera. This ease of use is also one of its few faults. You can’t expand the storage or bring an extra battery if you are out on the go and want to do a lot of filming. You would be surprised how fast you can fill up storage with 4K video.

Ricoh offers several desktop apps for stitching, streaming, and converting, which can be a bit confusing. The basic app is the one that is necessary to use the camera, as no video stitching is done on camera.

  • Video resolution: 3840 x 1920 at 30fps
  • Photo resolution: 14MP
  • Battery life: 80 minutes
  • Price: $396.99  (Amazon)
  • Onboard storage: 20GB

Ricoh Theta SC

✔  Slim, pocketable form factor

✔  Simple to use

✖  Only HD videos

✖  Storage and battery are limited

Why review an HD camera against all of the other 4K cameras listed here? The SC does an admirable job of photos, with the same optics as its 4K sibling, the Theta V. And there are applications where 4K might not be appropriate, such as supporting older phones or tablets that can’t work with 4K videos.

This shouldn’t be your camera if you intend on frequently using video, as HD stretched over a 360 sphere doesn’t do justice to VR, but for photos, it's an inexpensive option that does a good job.

Ricoh offers several desktop apps for stitching, streaming, and converting, which can be a bit confusing. The basic app is the one that is necessary to use the camera, as no video stitching is done on camera.

  • Video resolution: 1920 x 1080 at 30fps
  • Photo resolution: 14MP
  • Battery life: 25 minutes
  • Price: $179.00  (Amazon)
  • Onboard storage: 8GB

The Photos

With each camera, I took the exact same photo of some VR headsets sitting on my desk, here in my windowless office, in what is certainly sub-optimal lighting. This should give a good comparison test as to how well the camera will take pictures. I also filmed video of multiple scenes to get a comparison of their video capabilities. Note that the pictures are clipped from a 3D rendered view of the full 360 scene, so they are represented properly in this 2D view so you wouldn’t see me behind the camera!

Yi 360

The Yi did a great overall job of accurately portraying the lighting and colors in the photo. The text on the headsets is readable, even in the edges of the field of view. Video from the camera was solid, producing sharp, clear frames, with good audio pickup.

GoPro Fusion

The colors from the fusion appear to be a bit washed out, and there is a bit more graininess when you zoom into the photos. Video, as you would expect from a company like GoPro, was the best in the group.

Samsung Gear 360 (2017)

Samsung is certainly doing some automatic image enhancement, as the vibrance and sharpness appear to be “turned up” a bit in the photo. It does look good, but if you look closely, you can see that some of the details have been lost. Video from the Gear 360 was the poorest of the group, with very grainy output. I would not recommend this device for video, even at its bargain price.

Ricoh Theta V

The Theta V had the warmest colors, and probably the sharpest pictures of the bunch. Video was good but not quite as good as the output from the Yi or the Fusion.

Ricoh Theta SC

The Theta SC took a solid photo, with reasonable crispness, but is obviously outshined by the color and sharpness of its sibling, the Theta V. Video was quite blurry in comparison with the other cameras in the roundup.

In Conclusion

In any review, you need to pick a winner, but it’s a little tough here in that the different cameras excelled in different areas. If you will be shooting video or photos in any type of wet or dirty environment, then the Fusion is the way to go. Even with the higher price, it’s the only one that could survive the elements. The Yi 360 and the Theta V are the same price and are probably in a statistical tie based upon their video and photo performance. However the Yi has a few features that make it compelling, and the Theta V has a form factor that makes it easy to carry around.

I guess the best way to pick a winner is to choose the camera I ended up using for my own VR scenarios, which in this case is the Yi 360. I’m generally not filming in harsh environments, and I don’t mind the bit of extra size and weight compared to the other options.