Camera & Video Reviews & Buying Guides
Summary: We purchased the Ricoh Theta SC2 so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for the full product review.
We purchased the Ricoh Theta SC2 so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for the full product review.
As technology has improved, the price and size of 360-degree action cameras have dropped steadily over the years. So much so that companies such as Nikon and GoPro have even jumped onto the trend in an effort to help consumers capture more immersive photo and video content. One company that’s been at the forefront of this niche is Ricoh with its growing Theta lineup.
For this review, we’ve taken the consumer-friendly Theta SC2 for a spin over the course of a few weeks to see what the experience and image quality looks like when using it on the day-to-day. From its design to its closest competition, all of it and more is summarized in the sections below.
If you didn’t know the Theta SC2 was a 360-degree camera, you might mistake it for a fancy-looking remote or—as was the case with my 18-month-old—a funky-looking smartphone. In fact, aside from the lenses on either side of the device, it doesn’t look like any camera I’ve ever seen.
One face of the device features nothing more than the ‘Theta’ branding while the other features a single button with a small pill-shaped OLED display for showing the shooting mode and battery life. Likewise, one side of the incredibly thin device lacks any buttons or ports while the other features only four buttons: Power, Wi-Fi, Mode, and Timer. The top of the device has four ports for the built-in stereo microphone and the bottom has a standard 0.25-inch-20 tripod mount and a micro USB port for charging and data transfer.
The Ricoh Theta SC2 can work independently from a smartphone, but to initially set it up and to eventually transfer content, you will need to pair it with an Android or iOS device. For this review, I will share my experience using the iOS app with an iPhone 11 Pro.
Previously, pairing Theta SC2 required you to go into the Wi-Fi settings of your smartphone, disconnect from whatever network you were currently on, reconnect to an ad-hoc wireless network the device created, then open the Theta app to complete the process. While not necessarily unusual for camera/smartphone pairing, the experience was a bit clunky and not always reliable.
However, as of a recent app update, the Theta app will now automatically find and connect to the ad-hoc network created by the Theta SC2 right within the app when you enter the serial number (found on the bottom of the device, next to the barcode). This solution is far more elegant and makes setup a breeze in comparison.
Once connected, there’s not much you need to do to get started with shooting, aside from granting the Theta app permission to access your image library to save photos and videos from the device and onto your smartphone.
The Theta SC2 uses a pair of 12-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensors with a seven-element F2 lens in front of both. Now, you might be thinking two 12-megapixel sensors should yield a 24-megapixel image when you press the shutter, but that’s not the case. Due to the excess image needed to capture a full 360-degree image from only two lenses, a lot of overlap and distortion correction is needed. As such, a final still image from the Theta SC2 is only 14.5-megapixels.
On the video front, the final stitched video comes in at 4K (3840x1920 pixel) resolution recorded at 30 frames per second (fps) in the MP4 format. It’s worth noting though that while the final video is technically 4K in terms of resolution when viewed using some kind of virtual reality or 360-degree video viewer, the footage won’t appear as crisp as the 4K video you might be familiar seeing from your smartphone. That’s because the pixels are stretched to fit a simulated globe of sorts.
Overall, both the still image and video quality of the SC2 is decent. The dynamic range isn’t going to ‘wow’ you and the video will inevitably be grainy in areas, but considering the amount of dynamic range the smaller sensors need to collect in order to create a pleasant final image, a lot of post-processing is needed on the software side of things, which tends to degrade image quality.
It’s likely you could extract better quality from the data captured with the sensors if you used more powerful desktop software to process the files. However, Ricoh’s goal with the Theta SC2 is simplicity, and doing all the image processing in-camera makes it easy to quickly share content with friends and family and post it to social media. So, with its use-case in mind, I’d say the quality of both the still images and video are acceptable.
As tends to be the case for nearly all compact camera systems, the built-in audio isn’t anything special. The device uses multiple microphones to capture what Ricoh refers to as “360-degree spatial audio.” You won’t notice the effect when playing the footage back using the speaker built into your mobile device, but if viewing the video in a dedicated 360-degree media player with stereo headphones, you’ll hear the audio will be locked into place with the video.
So, for example, when you hear a dog barking or a car driving by, the noise will move accordingly as the subject moves within the scene and you rotate the viewing direction of the video.
The Ricoh Theta SC2 comes in at $297. This is incredibly well-priced based on the specifications and experience the camera has to offer and easily makes it the best value in what is certainly a niche market.
Finding another 360-degree camera under $500 isn’t easy, but one device that does fit the bill is the Yi 360 VR camera. The device retails for $349, making it $50 more expensive than the Theta SC2.
The device is much larger than the SC2, but in exchange for the higher price and larger size, you have the option of recording unstitched 5.7K video, whereas the SC2 limits you to pre-stitched 4K video. Yi’s 360 app is less elegant than the Theta app but does let you browse through still images and videos captured with the 360 VR camera. It also features a built-in streaming option, so you can livestream 360-degree video directly to Facebook or YouTube, which is a nice feature to have.
The overall experience might be a little clunkier with the Yi 360 VR camera, but it does allow for better image quality if you don’t mind using desktop software to stitch together the 5.7K video footage. And at only $50 more, it might not be a bad option if that extra flexibility matters.
We purchased the Insta360 One X2 so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for the full product review.
Traditionally, action cameras only capture a tiny window into the world. However, the Insta360 One X2 is one of a new breed of cameras that aim to uphold this age-old truth by capturing absolutely everything around them in a single spherical image. This opens up a wealth of opportunities from nifty editing tricks to easily capturing VR experiences.
The Insta360 One X2 is a solid, chunky little rectangle. It’s compact enough to fit in a large pocket and feels quite rugged and durable, though those bulbous glass lens elements mean you’ll still want to be a little careful with it. Fortunately, it comes with a sleek neoprene case that offers a reassuring extra level of protection when you just want to carry the camera in your pocket.
Insta360 also includes a microfiber cloth, which is certainly useful, given the tendency for those lenses to attract smudges and dust. You also get a USB-C cable for charging, though a charging brick isn’t included.
The One X2 is fully waterproof down to 33 feet, which is a big improvement over its more sensitive predecessor. In order to accomplish this waterproofing, the battery compartment and USB port feature locking sealed doors. The locking mechanisms were a little tricky to open and close, but that’s a worthy trade-off for waterproofing. The battery doubles as the door to the battery compartment, and the microSD card slot is located within that compartment.
Controls consist of a shutter button, power button, and circular touchscreen. An LED light indicates the camera's status, and there is a standard tripod mount on the underside of the camera.
The One X2 came partially charged and ready to go once I inserted a microSD card, though first I had to install the Insta360 app on my phone and activate the camera. This turned out to be a bit of a pain, with the Bluetooth connection used to activate the One X2 and set up the Wi-Fi connection repeatedly timing out and failing. Eventually, I got it up and running, and aside from the one hiccup, the process was fairly smooth, if more complex than I’d typically expect from a camera.
My initial impressions of the Insta360 One X2 were tinted by the weather conditions in which I initially tested it. Here in Western Washington, winter can be gloomy and dark, so I ended up shooting in fairly dim conditions much of the time. As a result, I couldn’t help be shocked by how poor the video looked when I went to edit it. However, when given plenty of light to work with, the One X2 produced fairly decent-looking photos and video.
What’s really impressive is the degree of image stabilization that’s possible in this camera. It’s good enough that you really don’t have to worry about getting a stable shot even when walking or running on rough ground. With this in mind, you have to consider the Insta360 from a perspective of the intended purpose. Action cameras have always been action-focused, and this is even more true of 360 action cameras. Basically, you need to do something interesting that justifies the trade-offs.
One thing to remember about the One X2 is that its 5.7K recording resolution isn’t as sharp and detailed as you might expect, and when you crop down to a standard 16:9 frame you end up with 1080p. That’s good enough for viewing on a phone or small tablet, but the low resolution, as well as noise and image artifacts, become pretty significant when viewed on a large computer monitor.
The audio recording on the One X2 could be charitably described as mediocre. It’s there, and it’s useable, but in a camera that would otherwise be well suited to vlogging, given its portable size and ease of use, it's a little disappointing.
Though it may be the bare minimum for decent 360 footage, the 5.7L video footage the One X2 captures is still highly demanding in how much storage space it requires. A single short video clip easily takes up hundreds of megabytes of space, so you’ll want a big microSD card and plenty of hard drive space on your PC and/or smartphone.
Most of my problems with the One X2 have to do with the Insta360 app, and the big one is with the difficulty of connecting to the camera. Every time I connected to the One X2, I had to tap the connect button in the app over and over again until it finally connected.
Once it's connected, the app is rather cleverly designed with a basic but well-conceived, remote viewing and control interface and a brilliant editing suite for processing 360 videos. From framing your shot and changing playback speed to creating camera movements using keyframes, it’s an effective and highly intuitive tool that allows you to quickly and easily process your videos on the go.
The app also includes a fully functional social media platform where you can share your work and interact with other creators. Really, there’s a lot bundled into the Insta360 app, and fortunately, every aspect of the app includes extensive tutorials, though the text in some of these tutorials has not been translated into English.
The software on the One X2 itself is quite basic, but considering the small size of its circular touchscreen, this is understandable. However, as a result of the lack of accessible settings in the camera, I ended up frequently going back into the app on my phone to tweak things in the camera. This made the connection issues I experienced all the more annoying.
It’s also possible to take more control of your video editing on the computer via either Insta360's free editing studio software or via a plugin in Adobe Premiere. However, it was easier to get the shots I wanted by editing them on my phone via the app.
A number of accessories are available for the Insta360 One X2. These include, among others, a diving enclosure and a “bullet time” attachment used to twirl the One X2 around your head. It’s also a good idea to have a selfie stick to use with the One X2, and I found a tripod handy for recording timelapse videos.
With an MSRP of $430, the One X2 is only a little more expensive than a high-end action camera, but it’s not bad for a 360 camera. It’s a good value if being able to shoot 360-degree video is a necessity for you.
You may well be trying to decide between a 360 camera and a traditional action camera, in which case the obvious choice to match against the Insta360 One X2 is the GoPro HERO9 Black. On the surface, the GoPro looks like the obvious choice for far better image and audio quality with better durability at a lower price point. However, if what you want is to record special moments in your life without having to even think about the camera, then you should go with the One X2.
We purchased the GoPro HERO9 so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for the full product review.
One generation ago, with the introduction of the HERO8 action camera, GoPro decided to adopt a cageless design, make the device itself waterproof, and build mounting hardware right into the body. Now, the GoPro HERO9 Black takes things a step further, making the body of the device larger for the first time in quite a few generations. GoPro more than makes up for the minor size increase with a bevy of new features, including replaceable lens covers.
Is it worth it to upgrade to this action camera? For a lot of users, I believe it will be, although not without a pretty hefty premium.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: at 2.8 x 2.2 x 1.3 (HWD) inches, the HERO9 Black is certainly larger than the HERO8 Black (2.6 x 1.9 x 1.3 inches), but it’s still a very tiny action camera, especially for the recording capabilities.
With this size increase, GoPro gives us a larger battery (good for 30 percent more battery life), support for detachable lenses, and a generous front-facing LCD screen with a live preview. The HERO9 Black retains the “Folding Fingers” at the bottom of the device. Introduced with the HERO8, these tabs fold out from the bottom of the body to allow you to quickly mount the camera and start filming.
A lot of the recent changes to the GoPro have been in favor of ditching the protective housing, a prior requirement for waterproofing in older models, and instead trying to bake all the benefits straight into the body of the device itself. On paper, I like the spirit of this design direction, but the truth is that the GoPro was far more secure inside the protective housing—particularly against impacts and scrapes.
How would I know this, you might ask? Well, it certainly isn’t because I tried to mount the GoPro HERO9 Black to a bicycle and made it three feet before it tumbled off the handlebars and cracked the rear screen. Don’t be ridiculous, reader.
GoPro is happy to sell you the old protective housing as an added accessory for $50, but this kind of feels like an insult in a device that costs $449 and used to come with it for free.
One of the most notable new improvements in the HERO9 Black is the inclusion of the front-facing LCD screen. It would be easy to write this off as a gimmick made for the selfie-obsessed, but in practice, this new display is tremendously useful.
First, yes, the new display does make the HERO9 Black infinitely more useful for vloggers and selfie-takers. GoPro knows that they are always in danger of being crowded out by smartphones. Their relentless advancement of new camera features and functionality is undoubtedly a protective measure.
Sure, they already have their core audience of users that continue to put the “action” in action camera by jumping out of planes and mountain biking through treacherous ravines full of freshly sharpened knives. But what about the mommy bloggers and the adventure foodies? What about the 9-to-5ers that want to record their yearly kayaking trip?
The front-facing LCD screen makes it easier to see exactly what you’re recording in real-time and to adjust the framing of your shots. It’s the whole reason we take selfies instead of turning the camera around and taking a timed exposure. The rear camera always has a better image quality, but convenience beats quality almost every time.
This new display makes it easier to use the GoPro HERO9 Black as a webcam for your Zoom meetings and a primary camera for your Twitch streaming sessions. Those two things alone make it a lot easier to justify the HERO9 Black.
The rear touchscreen display is also slightly larger, making it just a little easier to navigate through the menus without getting a headache from pressing the wrong buttons.
The GoPro HERO9 Black requires very little effort to start using for the first time. The only hiccup when initially taking the device out of the box and setting it up for the first time was with the door latch on the side of the device, which requires a surprising amount of force to open, so watch your fingernails. Behind this door, you’ll find the battery, microSD card slot, and the USB-C charging/sync port.
To start the device, you have a couple of options: The power button on the side or the recording button up top. When pressed, the recording button turns on the device and starts recording immediately—handy for when you need to jump straight into the action.
It takes roughly 3 hours to charge the battery from empty, which can be done using the supplied USB-C to USB-A cable. You will, however, need to supply your own power brick if you’re not using a computer to charge.
The big new feature enabled by the new sensor in the GoPro HERO9 Black is the ability to shoot up to 5K video at 30fps. For reference, 5K is 5120x2880 pixels, compared to 4K at 3840x2160. Many will say this is an upgrade for upgrade’s sake, but there are still some minor practical advantages to recording at this new resolution.
For instance, it gives you the wiggle room to crop out or zoom into the frame while still maintaining 4K resolution—very handy when you didn’t get the framing of your shot quite right. Like its predecessor, the HERO9 Black can also record 4K at 60/30/24fps.
The most sensible objection to the new 5K recording mode is that the maximum bit rate tops out at 100Mbps whether you’re shooting 2.7K, 4K, or 5K, making compression the limiting factor more so than resolution. For anyone shooting anything action-oriented, I’d choose 4K/60 over 5K/30 any day of the week, just because having twice as many frames is far more useful than having a bit more resolution.
The GoPro HERO9 Black has certainly improved the overall video quality, but don’t expect any miracles here either. The video quality still suffers from quite a bit of noise in anything but sunny conditions and is subject to a noticeable amount of softness that is obvious when you play back the footage on a big screen.
Stabilization is one area where GoPro really stands out from the crowd. And let’s be honest—they really need to do well here given the nature of how action cameras are used. The HERO8 made a big leap forward with HyperSmooth 2.0, and the HERO9 takes arguably an even larger leap with HyperSmooth 3.0. I was very impressed with the results that I was able to get out of the HERO9 Black.
Even when riding on a cobblestone path bumpy enough to give me a headache, the footage itself looked shockingly smooth. This is definitely a different league of stabilization than you might be used to on older action cameras or even newer smartphones that brag about their stabilization performance.
Moving from the 12MP still images on the HERO8 Black to the 20MP on the HERO9 Black definitely registers a noticeable difference. I don’t personally take a lot of still photos when using a GoPro, but for those that use the photo mode for time lapses instead of video, this is a very nice upgrade. The process for taking time lapses remains wonderfully simple, and the settings are a breeze to navigate.
If there’s one single reason to pick the GoPro HERO9 Black over the competition, it’s got to be TimeWarp 3.0—GoPro’s hyperlapse function. It combines all of GoPro’s strengths into one feature, from ease of use to rock-solid stabilization.
The HERO8 brought us TimeWarp 2.0 and with it a host of useful features like automatic speed selection and the ability to tap to slow down to normal speed. The HERO9 takes things one step further by allowing you to speed ramp down to half speed. Being able to create such a dynamic video without having to edit anything is a huge boon for on-the-go creators.
Another great feature to have is hindsight. This allows you to capture up to 30 seconds of footage before you remember to start recording. We’ve all been in situations where we missed the shot because we weren’t quick enough with the shutter button, and GoPro gives us a second chance with this feature.
Retailing for $449, the GoPro HERO9 Black is certainly not an inexpensive action camera. It’s a little more than we would have hoped given the somewhat incremental improvements and the fact that it breaks support for accessories made for the HERO8 due to the change in body size.
Currently, however, GoPro is pushing for the adoption of their subscription program and is offering the HERO9 Black for $349 with an included 1-year subscription. To be clear, both the camera and the subscription cost $349 in total, a $100 discount over retail. In addition, they are throwing in an extra battery and a 64GB microSD card.
Why are they doing this? The GoPro subscription is a $50/yr subscription that includes unlimited cloud storage, 30-50 percent off the store, and no-questions-asked camera replacement—good for two replacements per year. You still pay a fee if the camera is damaged. Presumably, GoPro is betting that after a year of the service, you’ll want to keep paying for the subscription. Seems like a no-brainer to me for the $100 discount, but it’s up to you if you want to get involved in another subscription you might have to cancel in the future.
On paper, the HERO9 Black has everything that the HERO8 Black has, but just a little bit better: 5K video, smoother HyperSmooth, better TimeWarp, 20MP stills. And yet, if you owned a HERO8 Black already, it’s really difficult to make the decision to upgrade. The video quality is really very similar, and all the upgrades seem minor when it comes time to take out your wallet.
Things are further complicated by the fact that the Media Mod for the HERO8 isn’t compatible with the HERO9—along with any other accessories that rely on the shape of the device being the same.
Nonetheless, if you are making a brand-new GoPro purchase, either as a first-time buyer or as someone that hasn’t upgraded in a few cycles, get the HERO9 Black. At least as long as GoPro is selling them for the same price as the HERO8 with the subscription bundle. If you are a current HERO8 Black user, however, I’d sit this one out.