One week with the Essential Phone’s 360 Camera

Or: how I learned to love beta testing for Andy Rubin

A view of the Essential 360 Camera's magnetic pin connectors

Back when MobileSyrup first reviewed the Essential Phone, we didn’t get a chance to check out the Essential 360 Camera, the first accessory Essential plans to ship alongside its new phone. We’ve since been able to get a hold of one and put it through its paces.

If you haven’t been following along with the Essential Phone, the Essential 360 Camera is a magnetic accessory that allows the smartphone to capture 360-degree stills and 4K video. It features two 12-megapixel sensors, a pair of fisheye lenses, each with a 210-degree field of view, and on an onboard Snapdragon 625 processor.

Like the Essential Phone itself, the Essential 360 Camera feels built to last. It doesn’t feature the titanium and ceramic construction of the Essential Phone, but it feels solid nonetheless. The accessory measures in at a svelte 67mm by 32mm by 12mm, making it one of the smallest and most compact 360 Cameras available on the market today. It also weighs a minuscule 35 grams, making it easy to store and transport.

The Essential 360 Camera attaches to the back of the Essential Phone using two magnetic pins.

The fact that the camera attaches directly to the Essential Phone means there’s no convoluted Bluetooth pairing process involved with using the accessory. Instead, you simply attach the accessory to the back of the phone and it’s more or less ready to start capturing stills and video.

A small blue LED light on the front of the camera turns on when the accessory is in the process of booting up. Once it’s ready to record, the light turns to green. The light doesn’t change colours again when the user hits the record button to let people passing by know that the camera is active — in fact, the light turns off altogether once you start recording.

Side view of the Essential 360 Camera

The downside to the Essential 360 Camera’s ease of use is that, unlike say something along the lines the Gear 360, it’s only compatible with the Essential Phone. Essential says you’ll be able to use the Essential 360 Camera and any other magnetic accessories the company releases in the future with smartphones it releases down the road.

Even with the company’s pedigree and the significant amount of venture capital investment Essential has secured, it seems premature to invest accessories for a future phone that, at best, might not appeal to you, or, at worst, may never come.

I don’t want to overstate a point, but I think most consumers, if they’re interested in 360 video, are better served by getting a camera that works with more than one device and is built on open standards, especially when the Essential 360 Camera is not much more affordable than those other options.

If there’s a more practical issue with the Essential 360 Camera, it’s that all the same problems that plague the standard camera experience are also apparent here, which is to say the software that supports the accessory isn’t finished.

I waited for Essential to release a new camera software update before sitting down to write this piece, but I could just as well have written this piece before then.

The software issues that plagued the camera before Essential issued its latest update were not fixed after I installed it on my particular device: I experienced multiple camera app crashes, sometimes several times in a row. The update also didn’t make the camera any faster to start.

Camera controls are very limited as well. In the camera app’s current state, users have access to one button that switches 2K and 4K capture resolution, one button that centres the camera and one button for snapping a photo and one button that starts the recording process. Missing in all this is a button that allows users to switch between the 360 camera and the Essential Phone’s three standard cameras. To do that, you must physically remove the 360 camera, which minimizes the camera app, forcing you to launch the app again. If this sounds like a terrible user experience, it is.

Optically, the Essential 360 Camera performs about as well as a camera with two fisheye lenses can be expected to perform. It generally handles wide-angle distortion well, though it will distort human faces, especially if you hold the phone and camera too close to your own face, or if you don’t frame either yourself or your subject toward the centre of one of the two lenses.

Both lenses are also susceptible to chromatic aberration, a type of optical distortion that results in instances of purple colour fringing between areas of high contrast.

Videos tend to come out better looking than still images. With stills, no one part of the frame looks particularly sharp, an issue that’s less apparent when there’s motion. For the most part, stitching issues are few and far between, but they do crop up. When the stars align and the Essential 360 Camera is finally able to snap a still or record video, the process is seamless. It’s just that getting there often is more hassle than it’s worth. If you’ve already purchased the Essential Phone and want to check out the 360 camera, wait before buying it. Let others beta test the software for Essential.

Lastly, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, what the Essential 360 Camera won’t do is change your opinion on 360-degree cameras if you’re not a fan of the format already. It’s more compact and easy to use than some of the other consumer-facing 360 cameras on the market, but, for better and worse, it’s still just a 360-degree camera.

The Essential 360 Camera will retail for $270 in Canada. There is no word yet on availability, other than it will be coming “soon.”