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Ricoh’s Theta Z1 is the first truly premium consumer 360 camera – TechCrunch

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Ricoh has a well-earned good reputation when it comes to building smart, technically excellent photographic equipment — including the almost legendary Ricoh GR series of pocketable APS-C cameras, which are a favorite among street photographers everywhere. Earlier this year, the company released the Ricoh Theta Z1, which builds on its success with its pioneering Theta line of 360-degree cameras and delivers a step-up in terms of image quality and build that will feel at home in the hands of enthusiasts and pro photographers.

The Theta Z1 is what happens when you push the limits of what’s possible in a portable form factor 360 camera, both in terms of build materials and what’s going on on the inside. Like its more affordable, older sibling, the Theta V, it shoots both stills and video in 360 degrees — but unlike the V, it does so using two 1-inch sensors — unprecedented for a 360 camera in this category. Sony’s celebrated RX100 series was pushing boundaries with its own 1-inch sensor in a traditional compact camera, and the Ricoh is similarly expanding the boundaries of 360 photography by including not just one, but two such sensors in its Z1. That translates to unmatched image quality for 360 photographers — provided you’re willing to pay a premium price to get it.

Design and build

The Ricoh Theta Z1 feels a lot like previous iterations of the Theta line — it’s essentially a handle with two big lenses on top, which is a pretty optimal design overall for a device you’re mostly going to be holding up to take 360 photos and video. It’s a bit bulkier than previous generations, and heavier, too, but it’s still a very portable device despite the increased size.

With the bulkier build, you also get a magnesium outer case, which is textured and feels fantastic when held. If you’ve ever held a pro DSLR or mirrorless camera, then the feel will be familiar, and that says a lot about Ricoh’s target audience with this $1,000 device. The magnesium alloy shell isn’t only for making it feel like it’s worth what it costs, however; you also get big durability benefits, which is important on a device that you’re probably going to want to use in remote locales and off the beaten path.

The build quality also feels incredibly solid, and the button layout is simple and easy to understand. There’s a single shutter button on the front of the camera, just above an OLED display that provides basic info about remaining space for images or video, battery life and connection status. A single LED indicates both mode and capture status information, and four buttons on the side control power on/off, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, photo and video mode switching and enabling basic functions like a shutter countdown timer.

Using the hardware buttons to control the Theta Z1 independent of your smartphone, where you can remotely control all aspects of the camera when connected via Wi-Fi and using the app, is intuitive and easy, and probably the way you’ll use the Z1 more often than not when you’re actually out and about. There’s little to worry about when it comes to framing, for instance, because it captures a full 360 image, and you can handle all of that after the fact with Ricoh’s editing tools prior to sharing.

On the bottom, there’s a USB-C port for charging and wired data transfer, and a 1/4″ standard tripod mount for attaching the Z1 to tripods or other accessories. This is useful, because if you use a small handle you’ll get a better overall image, as the Z1’s software automatically edits out the camera, and, to some extent, the thing that’s supporting it. There’s also a small lug for attaching a wrist strap, but what you won’t find is a flap or door for a micro SD card — the Theta Z1 relies entirely on built-in storage, and offers just under 20GB of usable storage.

Ricoh Theta Z1 9

Still images

Ricoh’s Theta Z1 has two 1-inch sensors on board, as mentioned, and those combine to provide an image resolution of 670×3360. The camera captures two 180-degree fields of view from each lens, and automatically stitches them together in software to produce the final image. The result is the sharpest, most color-accurate still photos I’ve ever seen from a 360-degree camera, short of the kind of content shot by professionals on equipment costing at least 10x more.

The resulting images do incredibly well when viewed through VR headsets, for instance, or when you use Theta’s own 360 viewer for web in full-screen mode on high-resolution displays. They also make it possible to export flat images that still look sharp, which you can crop and edit in the Theta+ app. You can create some truly amazing images with interesting perspective that would be hard to get using a traditional camera.

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Indoors in low-light situations, the Ricoh Theta Z1 still performs pretty well, especially compared to its competitors, thanks to those big 1-inch sensors. Especially in well-lit indoor environments, like in the restaurant example below, details are sharp and crisp across the frame and colors come out great.

In settings where a lot of the frame is dark or unevenly lit, as in the example at the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo below, the results aren’t nearly as good when operating in full automatic mode. You can see that there is some blur in the parts of the scene with motion, and there’s more grain apparent in parts of the frame, too. Overall though, the audience is pretty well captured and the colors still look accurate and good despite the many different tones from different sources.

The Ricoh Theta Z1 still does its best work in bright outdoor settings, however — which is true for any camera, but especially for cameras with sensors smaller than full-frame or APS-C. It’s still definitely capable enough to capture images you can work with, and that provide a great way to revisit great events or memories in a more immersive way than standard 2D images can accomplish.

You can adjust settings, including aperture to optimize your photo capture, as well as choosing between f/2.1, f/3.5 and f/5.6, with higher apertures offering higher-resolution images. The built-in lens has been designed to reduce ghosting, purple fringe artifacts and flare, and it does an outstanding job at this. RAW capture allows you to edit DNG files using Lightroom, and it works amazingly well with Lightroom mobile for advanced tweaks right on the same device.

Video

The Ricoh Theta Z1 does video, too — though the specs for the video it produces are essentially unchanged from the Theta V on paper. It can capture 4K video at 30 fps/56 mbps or 2K video at 30fps/16mbps, and live stream in both 4K and 2K. There’s a four-channel built-in microphone for immersive audio recording, and it can record as much as 40 minutes of 4K or 130 minutes of 2K footage, though each individual recording session is capped at 5 minutes and 25 minutes for 4K and 2K, respectively.

Ricoh has tougher competition when it comes to video in the 360 camera game — Insta 360’s One X has been a clear winner in this category, and has led to this camera even finding some fans when compared to action cameras like the GoPro Hero 7 and the DJI Osmo Action, thanks in large part to its fantastic built-in image stabilization.

The Ricoh Theta Z1 just frankly doesn’t impress in this regard. The sensors do allow for potentially better image quality overall, but the image stabilization is definitely lacking, as you can see, and overall quality just isn’t there when measured against the Insta360 One X. For a fixed installation for real-time live-streaming, the Ricoh probably makes more sense, but video isn’t the device’s strength, and it’s a little disappointing given its still shooting prowess.

Features and sharing

The range of editing options available either via Theta+ or using the DNG files in both mobile and desktop photo editing software for the Theta Z1 is outstanding. You can really create and compose images in a wide variety of ways, including applying stickers and text that stick to the frame as a viewer navigates around the image. Sharing from the Theta app directly works with a number of platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and theta360.com, where you can get embeddable 360 images like those found in this post above.

Ricoh has done a great job making sure you can not only capture the best possible 360 images with this camera, but also share them with others. It’s also leading the pack when it comes to the range of options you have for getting creative with slicing up those 7K spherical images in a variety of ways for traditional flat image output, which is not surprising, given the company’s heritage.

Bottom line

Simply put, the Ricoh Theta Z1 is the best 360 camera for still photos that you can buy for less than $1,000 – even if just squeaks under that line. It’s the best still photo 360 camera you can pick up for considerably more than that, too, given its sensor arrangement and other technical aspects of the device, including its selectable aperture settings and RAW output.

The $999.95 asking price is definitely on the high end for this category — the Theta V retails for less than half that, as does the Insta360 One X. But I mentioned the Sony RX100 above, and the pricing is similar: You can get a compact camera for much less money, including very good ones, but the latest RX100 always commands a premium price, which people are willing to pay for the very best-in-class device.

If what you want is the best still photography 360 camera on the market, the Ricoh Theta Z1 is easily it, and if that’s the specific thing you’re looking for, then Ricoh has packed a lot of cutting-edge tech into a small package with the Z1.



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Firefox 86 brings multiple Picture-in-Picture, “Total Cookie Protection”

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Mozilla released Firefox 86 yesterday, and the browser is now available for download and installation for all major operating systems, including Android. Along with the usual round of bug fixes and under-the-hood updates, the new build offers a couple of high-profile features—multiple Picture-in-Picture video-watching support, and (optional) stricter cookie separation, which Mozilla is branding Total Cookie Protection.

Taking Firefox 86 for a spin

Firefox 86 became the default download at mozilla.org on Tuesday—but as an Ubuntu 20.04 user, I didn’t want to leave the Canonical-managed repositories just to test the new version. This is one scenario in which snaps truly excel—providing you with a containerized version of an application, easily installed but guaranteed not to mess with your “real” operating system.

As it turns out, Firefox’s snap channel didn’t get the message about build 86 being the new default—the latest/default snap is still on build 85. In order to get the new version, I needed to snap refresh firefox --channel=latest/candidate.

With the new version installed as a snap, the next step was actually running it—which could be a lot easier. The snap produces a separate Firefox icon in Ubuntu’s launcher, but there’s no way I know of to readily distinguish between the icon for the system firefox and the new snap-installed firefox. After some hit-and-miss frustration, I finally dropped to the terminal and ran it directly by issuing the fully pathed command /snap/firefox/current/firefox.

Multi Picture-in-Picture Mode

In December 2019, Firefox introduced Picture-in-Picture mode—an additional overlay control on in-browser embedded videos that allows the user to detach the video from the browser. Once detached, the video has no window dressing whatsoever—no title bar, min/max/close, etc.

PiP mode allows users who tile their windows—automatically or manually—to watch said video while consuming a bare minimum of screen real estate.

Firefox 86 introduces the concept of multiple simultaneous Picture-in-Picture instances. Prior to build 86, hitting the PiP control on a second video would simply reattach the first video to its parent tab and detach the second. Now, you can have as many floating, detached video windows as you’d like—potentially turning any monitor into something reminiscent of a security DVR display.

The key thing to realize about multi-PiP is that the parent tabs must remain open—if you navigate away from the parent tab of an existing PiP window, the PiP window itself closes as well. Once I realized this, I had no difficulty surrounding my Firefox 86 window with five detached, simultaneously playing video windows.

Total Cookie Protection

In December, we reported on Firefox 85’s introduction of cache partitioning—a scheme which makes it more difficult for third parties to figure out where you have and have not been on the Internet. Firefox 86 ups the ante again, with a scheme Mozilla is calling “Total Cookie Protection.”

In a nutshell, Total Cookie Protection restricts the ability of third parties to monitor your movement around the Web using embedded elements such as scripts or iframes. This prevents tracking cookies from Facebook, Amazon, et al. from “following you around the web.”

In theory, cookies were already strictly per-site—so contoso.com cannot set or read cookies belonging to facebook.com, and vice versa. But in practice, if contoso.com willingly embeds active Facebook elements in its site, the user’s browser treats those elements as belonging to Facebook itself. That means Facebook can set the value of a cookie while you’re browsing contoso.com, then read that value again later when you’re actually at Facebook (or when you’re at other, entirely unrelated sites which also embed Facebook content).

Total Cookie Protection nerfs this misfeature by creating separate “cookie jars” based on the identity of the URL actually present in the address bar. With this feature enabled, a Facebook script running at contoso.com can still set and read a Facebook cookie—but that cookie lives within the contoso.com cookie jar only. When the same user browses facebook.com directly, later, Facebook cannot read, write, or even detect the presence of a Facebook cookie within the contoso.com cookie jar, or vice versa.

This isn’t a panacea against tracking, by any means—for example, it does nothing to prevent scripts from Facebook, Amazon, et al. from uploading data about your Web travels to their own servers, to profile you there. But it does, at least, keep them from using your own computer’s storage to do the dirty work for them.

No, the other TCP

If you want to enable Total Cookie Protection (and we really, really wish Mozilla had picked a name that didn’t initialize to TCP), you’ll first need to set your Enhanced Tracking Protection to the Strict profile. To do so, click the shield icon to the left of the address bar (visible when browsing any actual website; not visible on the blank New Tab screen) and click Protection Settings. From there, you can change your ETP profile from Standard to Strict.

Total Cookie Protection has a few, apparently hard-coded exemptions for third-party login providers—for example, logging into YouTube with a personal Gmail account still allowed a visit to Gmail.com in another tab to instantly load the correct inbox without the need to log in again separately.

Mozilla warns that the Strict Enhanced Tracking Profile may break some sites entirely—and we believe Mozilla—but in our own cursory testing, we didn’t encounter any problems. We had no difficulty with loading and logging in to Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and several other major sites.

Listing image by Airwolfhound / Flickr

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LG enters fray with Google, Amazon, Roku for TV operating system dominance

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LG has announced that it will begin licensing its webOS TV software for use by other TV manufacturers. That will put webOS in direct competition with other platforms in use across TV brands, such as alternatives from Roku, Amazon, and Google.

LG says “over 20 TV manufacturers” have “committed to the webOS partnership” and names RCA, Ayonz, and Konka as examples. They’ll ship the OS in their TVs and, in so doing, gain access to voice control features, LG’s AI algorithms, and a fairly robust library of already built streaming apps like Netflix, YouTube, or Disney+.

For smaller manufacturers, this is more cost-effective than developing these features on their own or lobbying companies like Netflix or Disney to support new platforms.

At the annual Consumer Electronics Show this January, LG announced webOS 6, a major revamp of the interface that adopts a design language that more closely resembles what’s found in most other TV operating systems. However, licensees of webOS will at least for now be limited to an earlier version of webOS which has the old interface.

In addition to any licensing fees, LG will be able to leverage this larger install base to profit from a more robust advertising network and from larger-scale user data collection. The company will also put its LG Channels content operation on more TVs. Further, LG has bigger ambitions for webOS than just TVs, so this move aids the company’s efforts to make webOS more ubiquitous as the software expands into cars, home appliances, and other products.

Users may balk at the advertising and data collection, but there is one upside for them: a larger install base for webOS will likely lead to more frequently updated, higher-quality apps from content companies.

As is the custom, this announcement came with a published statement from a prominent executive at the company—in this case, LG Home Entertainment President Park Hyoung-sei, who said:

The webOS platform is one of the easiest and most convenient way to access millions of hours of movies and TV shows… By welcoming other manufacturers to join the webOS TV ecosystem, we are embarking on a new path that allows many new TV owners to experience the same great UX and features that are available on LG TVs. We look forward to bringing these new customers into the incredible world of webOS TV.

webOS for TVs as we currently know it dates back to 2014, and reviewers and users have admittedly responded well to it because it’s one of the nicer-to-use TV operating systems. Part of its ease of use stems from the Wii remote-like magic remote that comes with LG TVs; LG’s press release says that partners who license webOS will ship TVs with similar remotes.

LG previously released an open source version of webOS in 2018, and Samsung announced plans to make its Tizen TV OS available for licensing by other TV manufacturers back in 2019. But a year and a half later, we haven’t heard anything more concrete about the latter.

Listing image by LG

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Google Maps for Android officially gets dark mode support

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Google Maps has finally decided to support dark mode on Android 539 days after it officially launched Android 10. Google’s latest blog post says that dark mode in Google Maps is “soon expanding to all Android users globally,” making the feature official after lots of public experiments.

Google’s uneven rollout strategy makes it hard to nail down when any feature officially “launches.” Some users have had dark mode for a while, though, through various experiments and early rollouts. Google has been teasing a dark mode for Google Maps since October 2019, and experimental rollouts hit some users in September 2020. Google Maps has also been showing a dark-colored map in navigation mode for some time, but that’s not the same thing as a comprehensive dark mode for all the UI elements.

If Google Maps is following Android’s best practices, the UI should automatically switch over to the dark theme if your system settings have dark mode enabled. Google says you’ll also be able to find a new “theme” section in the Google Maps settings, where you can toggle the feature manually. The Google Maps dark mode that has been floating around for a while has been on a server-side switch. The code is already on your device, so there’s no version we can point to that will enable dark mode; you just have to wait for Google to flag your account.

With Google Maps finally on the dark mode train, that should cover all of Google’s major apps. The Play Store, Gmail, Google Assistant, Chrome, Calendar, Drive, Photos, and YouTube all support dark mode.

Listing image by Google

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