Ever since the GoPro Hero worked out its kinks, defining the action camera genre in the process, not much has changed for action cameras. Every year, worthy competitors arrive on the scene, and GoPro releases incrementally better cameras as well. But until I played with the Insta360 One R earlier this year at CES, I would have argued this type of camera was pretty well baked.
Now I am not so sure. Insta360’s One R challenges the basic assumptions about what an action camera can be, and uses a unique modular design to allow for more flexibility. The result is an action camera that’s capable of handling a greater variety of shooting scenarios and generating unique footage you won’t get from any other camera in this genre. It’s a two-in-one combo that actually delivers.
The One R is not your standard action camera. It’s not necessarily even an action camera. The One R is a modular camera system that can be used as an action camera, but it can also be used as a 360-degree camera similar to Insta360’s One X camera.
To make sure it’s still water-resistant and up to the challenging environments action cameras usually inhabit, the lenses and sensors are a single, watertight unit. The lens and sensor snap into a core module. It’s a bit like putting together Lego blocks. The core has all the rest of the features—a power button, record button, MicroSD slot, and a small touchscreen monitor. These two then sit on top of a battery plate that runs along the bottom. Fully assembled, the One R is roughly the shape of a GoPro Hero 8, only slightly larger.
The heart of the system is the interchangeable lens/sensor combos, which Insta360 calls mods, and currently there are three. The 4K mod is the typical 4K action camera lens, with a 16.4 lens (35mm equivalent). The field of view is slightly narrower than what you’ll get from a GoPro Hero 8, but otherwise it’s similar. This mod serves as the base model for the One R as an action cam and costs $300.
The next mod is a dual-lens 360 camera that uses two fisheye lenses, capturing a 360-degree field of view. I’ve never found 360-degree lenses particularly helpful because they require postproduction—the time-consuming process of stitching together your raw footage in software. Insta360 manages to simplify this process with some smart software editing options. This lens is also available as an attachment for DJI’s Mavic Pro or Mavic 2 drones.
The final and most interesting of the mods is known as the wide-angle mod. This lens pairs a larger, one-inch sensor with a 14.4 lens (35mm equivalent) coengineered with Leica. The resulting footage is hands down the best-looking video and images I’ve seen come out of an action camera.
You can buy these mods in various bundles (or make a custom combo), and whichever configuration you opt for, you’ll also get the monitor piece, the battery base, and a mounting cage that’s compatible with nearly any action cam accessory. Another accessory worth mentioning is the boosted battery base, which doubles the capacity (though it also makes the camera considerably larger).
Assembling the Insta360 One R and swapping lenses is simple enough, but you do have to disconnect from the battery, so it’s not technically hot-swappable. Swapping lenses here is different than a traditional interchangeable lens camera, and it takes enough effort that you aren’t going to manage it without stopping whatever you’re doing. This is especially true with the one-inch mod, which requires removing the front cover before taking it out of the cage to swap lenses.
I used the 4K mod alongside a GoPro Hero 8 (8/10 WIRED Recommends), using all auto exposure on both, recording H.265 4K video, and found the performance and video quality very similar. There are some situations where the GoPro rendered better detail, particularly fine details like grass or leaves, but to notice this I had to zoom in on both and look closely. Suffice to say that Insta360’s efforts are on par with the rest of the action camera market.
Where the One R really shines is the one-inch mod. The larger sensor means you get 5.3K video (versus 4K in others). What’s immediately noticeable in the footage from the one-inch mod is the improvements with contrast, dynamic range, shadow detail, color depth, rendering, and sharpness. It blows every other action cam out of the water.
This shouldn’t be terribly surprising given that the sensor is larger and capable of capturing more detail, and the glass, with its Leica pedigree, really excels at rendering details and micro-contrast.
I pitted the stabilization of the One R with the 4K mod against the GoPro Hero 8 as well as the One R with the one-inch mod, and what really jumped out at me was how good they all were. Again, I had to really zoom in and watch background objects to find problems. I am hard-pressed to pick a favorite, but the GoPro comes out slightly ahead. The Hero 8 just has a certainly silkiness to it that I have not seen anything else match.
Insta360 claims 65 minutes of battery life for the 360 mod, but I never managed to hit that. With the screen always on, I got about 45 minutes. Turning off the screen made the battery last longer, but to my mind, it makes more sense to buy another battery ($29). Thankfully the One R is USB-C and can charge up fully in about an hour. A dual-battery fast charger is available that cuts the charge time to 30 minutes.
There is no dedicated 3.5mm microphone input, but you can get a USB Type C–to-3.5mm microphone adapter for higher-quality audio. You can also pair a Bluetooth headset and use that as a microphone.
Insta360’s video editing app for Android and iOS is one of the best I’ve used. It offers simple but powerful automatic options for beginners, while also providing more complex, feature-rich options to satisfy more advanced users.
If you’ve used the app with the One X, there are some big improvements in the new version, especially the ability to edit over Wi-Fi. Using this, you can edit your footage without waiting for it to download to your phone. It does use lower resolution footage in this mode though, so don’t worry if your clips aren’t razor-sharp—they will be once the background downloading is done.
The biggest problem with 360-degree footage is, well, how do you focus and frame what you want out of the shot? It’s the classic paradox of choice: When you capture everything, what do you actually want to show? Insta360’s app solves this with its Auto Frame feature, which parses through your clips and uses artificial intelligence–powered image recognition and tracking to frame shots for you. It’s not perfect, but it picked out exactly the parts of the shot I wanted at least 80 percent of the time. All you need to do is pick which of these clips you want to use, sort them around the way you want, and export your video.
The AI-tracking algorithm makes it possible to go back through your footage and track a subject after the fact. Just tap the subject and the app will automatically frame and track it.
If you do want to set keyframes yourself and frame your own shots, that’s possible. Insta360 has a number of nice tutorials available online that teach you how to shoot and edit different types of shots. The app can also work with any footage, ideal if you want to combine your 360 footage with some video from your phone, for instance.
Insta360’s One R solves several problems with action cameras I didn’t know I had. First, it expands your range of shooting possibilities without requiring you to buy another camera. It combines the related, but disconnected, worlds of 360 capture and action camera into a single unit and the result is—I’ll admit this surprised me—a camera that is very good at both.
The modular design introduces another possibility: The hardware can be incrementally upgraded. If you buy the one-inch mod now to get higher-resolution action-camera footage and decide in two months that you want to try shooting 360-degree video (and trust me, you do want to try it), you can buy the 360 mod without shelling out for a whole new camera.
Ideally, two years from now, when the one-inch sensor mod supports, say, 8K video, you’ll be able to buy a new one-inch mod and attach it to your existing One R, just like you would a new lens for your DSLR. It remains to be seen if Insta360 will make such things possible down the road, but I for one certainly hope so.