When Ricoh Company released the Theta in 2013, we could finally freeze the surrounding world and put it in our pockets. Four years and two versions later, we can now thaw these 360-degree moments in high definition and share them instantly.
But Nikon, LG and Samsung are starting to give the aging Theta line a run for its money. Are the camera’s superior stitching, sleek frame and ease of use enough to fend off the competition, or is it time for Ricoh to step up its game?
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Theta S and its predecessors is the video mode: It only allows recording with auto exposure. The LG 360, which has a similar form factor, allows full manual control and comes at a much lower price.
Otherwise, the Theta S only has four physical buttons: power, WiFi, shooting mode and shutter. Each works the way it is supposed to. Lights correspond with each function, plus a memory warning comes on when you run out of space.
The LG 360 offers remote activation while the Theta S doesn’t. To avoid wasting time and battery life during video shoots, this would be a useful feature in future versions.
The other big problem with the Theta S is that it only has 8GB of onboard memory and no external storage options — a maximum of 1600 stills or 65 minutes of video at full quality, requiring footage to be offloaded often if filming a big project.
The Nikon Keymission 360 and the LG 360 offer external storage. There isn’t much to say about this; 8GB simply isn’t enough if you plan to shoot a lot of video. Be ready to back up footage often with a laptop and an external hard drive.
Unlike the Nikon Keymission 360, the Theta S is neither waterproof nor shockproof and doesn’t have replaceable front-lens elements. It has no sealing whatsoever, but a hard-case accessory can provide some water resistance for an extra cost.
Recording video causes the battery to heat up and drain quickly, so it’s a good idea to give the camera a few breaks when doing a lot of recording — especially when working in warmer temperatures. Ricoh’s TE-1 Extension Adapter raises the camera 2.2 inches off a mounting plate, so you can buy that to charge while recording.
The Theta S can record up to about 25 minutes of high-quality video at a time without shutting down as a precaution. To prevent battery hangups during filming, Ricoh should really consider adding a removable lithium-ion battery in future versions.
This review might seem a bit harsh, but the Theta S isn’t a bad camera at all. It has excellent dynamic range and great color rendition, and it automatically adjusts its vertical orientation in-camera so everything is right-side up when stills and video are opened for post-processing.
It’s really easy and enjoyable to shoot with, and it’s acceptably sharp until you get to the stitching (just like any other 360 camera). Surprisingly, high ISO noise isn’t terrible. The chromatic aberration is bad, but the image quality, overall, is actually pretty good.
The Theta S can do live streaming at full video quality, but only to the company’s website. It would be great if Ricoh could support Facebook and YouTube’s live-streaming services, but this isn’t nearly as important as some of the other things discussed here.
It’s compatible with Apple computers, PCs, and iOS and Android devices, and it has easy-to-use apps for each platform.
Connecting directly with WiFi is only good when you need to preview a shot, transfer stills or adjust settings for stills. Videos take way too long to transfer, and the range is much too short to stay connected while filming — plus, you can’t use your phone as a monitor while recording video.
Of course, the disappointing aspects of the Theta S would only concern those who are interested in using it professionally. It’s a great camera for consumers at $299, but beginners might be just as happy with the LG 360 for $129.
Nikon’s Keymission 360 might be more suitable for professionals right now because of its rugged design and external storage, but it also does only auto exposure and costs a hefty $499.
The Theta SC, available in blue, beige, pink and white, is also available for $259. Other than the colors, it has no HDMI input, no video recording light and can’t record video for longer than five minutes. If you’re interested in a Theta, just spend $40 more and go for the Theta S.
In an earlier version of this review, I said the Nikon Keymission 360 offers remote activation. In a recent review I found that it actually does not, and I apologize for the error.