360° video has truly surfed onto the mainstream this year, propelled along on a wave of virtual reality excitement - but but where are the great 360 cameras?
Everything out there right now is functional and fit for purpose, but doesn't truly impress. Samsung's Gear 360 is too expensive, to restrictive and too bulky. LG's 360 CAM puts less strain on your wallet and works with pretty much any smartphone, but doesn't really deliver on the image and sound quality fronts.
We're still looking for a 360° camera we love, then - and this may be it.
Would-be VR video makers, meet the Insta360 Nano.
Design and build
This lightweight, compact and simple camera packs in two extreme wide angle lens cameras facing in opposite directions, and just one physical button.
In many ways, it’s got a lot in common with the LG 360 Cam, only with one key difference: it connects directly to an iPhone - and only an iPhone.
The Nano sits on the top (or bottom, I suppose) of an upended iPhone 6 or 6s, with a Lightning connector giving it a physical connection to your handset. That means there's no need to faff about with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi direct pairing here - just plug the camera into your phone and its companion app opens up automatically.
Presumably it will play nicely with the iPhone 7 as well, although we haven’t been able to test it with one yet.
It's made from aluminium, so it looks and feels solid enough, but I found that the two lenses scratch very easily. One of my review sample’s outer elements already had a mark on it, and it quickly acquired another one when placed in a bag with another (non metal) camera I was reviewing.
That second scratch showed up in videos and photos, so despite the tough appearance and feel, the Nano needs to be kept in its included carry bag when it's not plonked on top of your iPhone.
Other 360° cameras can be a real pain to use, but Insta360's designers have done a great job of making the Nano a simple camera to get started with.
You only need to hook it up to your phone to get it up and running, and the controls are just as simple.
The companion app has a single on-screen shutter button, which can be tapped to take a still or held to capture video. After holding it in for a few seconds, video will keep recording until you tap the button again.
There are a few options you can tweak, like exposure and white balance, but really that’s the essence of it. If you've got a microSD card plugged in, your video clips and photos will get saved to it, but both can automatically sync to your iPhone's onboard storage as well.
Power, meanwhile, comes courtesy of a built-in 800mAh battery, which means the Nano won’t leech your iPhone’s battery life. That's good enough for 70 minutes of continuous recording, and you can top it off over microUSB when you run out.
You don't have to tether yourself to your smartphone to snap 360° photos or videos - the Nano can work independently of your iPhone too.
Just click the single button once to take a still shot, or twice to start recording a video clip. Another double-click stops recording and saves your clip.
Obviously, with no phone hooked up you won’t be able to use the app as a live viewfinder, and you’ll need to have a microSD installed to store footage and shots.
The Nano nails simplicity, ease of use and portability, but how does it fare on photo and video quality? The answer is… OK, I guess?
Insta360 proudly shouts about the camera's 3040 x 1520 resolution, but keep in mind you're generally only looking at a small part of your 360° photos at any time. Detail isn't really all that sharp or fine, and the lenses suffer badly from light flare and distortion.
Problems, sure, but problems that every other 360° phone-paired camera around right now also suffer from.
When you're watching your pics and clips back in virtual reality, they do "work" as they should: they’re clear and crisp enough, and the stitching of the two separate images is nigh-on seamless. They just didn’t blow me away.
The Nano’s box doubles as a handy VR viewer for your phone, which is a thoughtful touch. You can share your snaps directly with friends through the app, too. It uploads to Facebook, Messenger, Twitter and WhatsApp.
Insta360 Nano verdict
Own a recent iPhone? The Insta360 is easily your best choice for a 360° camera right now.
It’s cheaper than both the LG and Samsung alternatives, easy to carry around, simple to use and even includes a VR viewer in the box. Well, the VR viewer IS the box.
Its not perfect: the lens picks up scratches too easily and the footage and photos, while adequate, probably won’t blow you away. But despite these issues, it does what it sets out to do – and iPhone users looking to dive into the world of VR video and photo-making should definitely give it a look.