Essential has a unique port around back on its debut Phone, which can handle data and power transfer, and which attaches to accessories via magnets. The first such accessory is Essential’s own 360 camera, which offers you an easy way to capture immersive images and video in a very small package. The Essential 360 camera is much smaller than most other consumer 360 cameras out there, and aims to be something that’s as easy to take with you wherever you go as the phone itself.
I got a chance to take the 360 camera for a spin over the past few days, now that it’s preparing to ship out to early Essential customers. The diminutive camera easily slides into a pocket or bag, and snaps into place on the back of the Essential phone with a satisfying click. The magnetic force also feels strong enough that you can be confident the camera won’t fall off during use, while also keeping the accessory easy enough to remove when you want to.
Snapping the camera on to the back of the Essential Phone results in the camera app itself launching right into 360-degree capture mode. This was a bit hit or miss for me – the camera app also launched, but sometimes I’d have to exit and relaunch to get the image preview to appear. Removing the camera also automatically quits the app, which is a nice feature.
By default, the app launches in photo capture mode, where you tap the virtual shutter button to grab a still. You can also pan around the image in live preview using your finger to see what the whole scene looks like. Essential stitches the image on the fly, so what you see is what you get when you tap the shutter.
Tapping the red dot next to the shutter will jump right into video recording, so that’s always only one tap away, too. Video capture also lets you pan around to see your surroundings, and again stitches the images from its two 210-degree cameras live to provide you with a real-time preview of what you’re recording.
Both the resulting images and the resulting video are good quality, and perfectly usable for sharing on Facebook and YouTube, as you can see with the examples provided. Stills come in at 12 MP, and the video records at 4K UHD resolution – 3840 x 1920, captured at 30 fps. Audio is recorded from the microphone on the camera, too, not the one on the phone, and that features a 4-mic array that captures 3D audio for more immersive effect.
In the end, Essential’s $50 camera add on is as good, or better, than some third-party mobile 360 camera options that are bulkier and more expensive. Also, this doesn’t really impact any of the video or photo results, but the Essential phone has a tiny fan in it to help with heat management, which I just find incredibly cool. Plus, it satisfies that most important quality for a camera: it’s more likely to be with you and usable, which is the key to making this kind of media more commonplace.