Thursday, September 28, 2023

Insta360 Link review: this webcam takes center stage

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Shreya Christina
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One of the biggest trends in webcams is software that automatically monitors you as you move. Apple has popularized it on the iPad and Studio Display with its Center Stage feature, and even buzzing newcomers like Opal offer it as an option on its dedicated webcams. But this approach has always been compromised – for these software solutions to work, they have to crop the image aggressively and produce a noticeably worse image than when the feature is disabled.

That’s where Insta360’s new Link comes in. Instead of using software to digitally move the image, the Link sits on a true gimbal made from DJI’s Pocket 2 action camera. This allows the Link to physically move to keep you in the frame without having to crop the image or produce a lower quality image. It also gives the Link some unique tricks that you just won’t find on other webcams.

Priced at $299.99, the Link is a top-end webcam that pairs well with the Opal C1, our current recommendation for the best image quality webcam. While it may not undercut the Opal, it delivers better value – not to mention you don’t have to wait for an invite to buy one through Insta360’s site. The Link has great image quality, polished and versatile apps for macOS and Windows, and the three-axis gimbal allows it to do things the Opal can’t match. It’s just a fun gadget among a sea of ​​other boring webcams.

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Where it cannot be stacked up to Center Stage, there is room for more than one person in the frame. Insta360’s Caroline Zhang shared: The edge that the camera prioritizes a person’s face taking up a larger portion of the frame and then focuses on and follows that person. I’d love to see improvements here in the future, but don’t buy this camera if you have a lot of FaceTime calls with multiple people in the frame.

Trying to fit two people in the frame resulted in the Link giving me priority over Vox Media IT supervisor Eric Arredondo.

Like Center Stage, the Link has a head-tracking mode that keeps you in the frame as you move. In the Link Controller desktop app, the tracking speed can be adjusted, ranging from a slower to a faster pan, the latter of which can potentially be clunky or hilarious depending on your usage. The gimbal can track movements well on its own, but you can complement it with one of three automatic zoom functions that rely on AI. When enabled, it can zoom in on your head (it will zoom in to find it if you’re not right in front of your computer), adjust the zoom to keep the top half of your body in view, or try to frame your entire body . Each of these modes works, although they sometimes make very small adjustments to the zoom when not needed.

The Link has a number of optional AI functions, including three gestures to activate or deactivate different functions: if you briefly show an open palm, the Link will drop what it is doing and it will start following your head as it moves. Displaying the peace sign will take you to whiteboard mode (more on this later), where the link will look for the sticker guides. Finally, if you make an “L” with your thumb and index finger, the Link will gradually zoom in or out depending on whether you raise or lower your hand while making the gesture. You know when a gesture is recognized because the green indicator LED on the base of the Link flashes blue. In terms of accuracy, the Link has an easier time seeing gestures when there’s a lot of contrast behind your hand, and in those circumstances it usually responds quickly.

Test the zoom and head tracking features

The gimbal’s base houses two noise-cancelling microphones, an indicator LED to let you know when the webcam is on (green on, blue off), and a monitor clamp with a quarter-inch tripod thread on it for more mounting options. It includes a USB-C to C cable to connect to your computer, along with a USB-C to A adapter. Double tap the Insta360 logo on the front of the base to reposition the gimbal. Despite its odd design, the Link is just as easy to mount to the top of a monitor or laptop lid as many other webcams.

The camera itself uses a 0.5-inch sensor (Zhang from Insta360 stated it is a Sony sensor but declined to share the exact model) capable of capturing 4K resolution at 30 frames per second (fps) or 1080p and below at 60 fps. It has a diagonal field of view (DFOV) of 79.5 degrees, which isn’t particularly wide, but the field of view is essentially identical to what the Opal C1 offers.

Image quality rivals that of the Opal C1, and sometimes the Link beats it handily. It’s one of the best out there in a webcam, although each company’s algorithm for what an ideal image should look like is quite different. While the C1 delivers a more contrasting image, the Insta360 model delivers a more lifelike but slightly duller image. Enabling the Link’s HDR mode adds more warmth and helps to make my apartment windows look less overdone. I tested both side by side at 1080p resolution (the difference between 1080p and 4K is negligible on both models – it’s compressed by Zoom, Teams, etc anyway). Check out the images and clips surrounding this article to get an idea of ​​how each handles a basic scene in our NYC office.

When head-tracking mode is on, the Link turns its head to keep you centered in the frame.

Two things that really impressed me with the Link are: how fast it finds focus in autofocus mode. Even when the face-tracking feature is activated, it can focus other objects much faster than I expected, although there were times when the Link lost perfect focus while I was standing still. Insta360 says it uses phase-detection autofocus (PDAF) sensors to quickly refocus, which is found in many phone cameras these days. The Opal C1 is slower when refocusing quickly for comparison.

The Link is also good at preserving detail in low light. The sensor has an aperture of f/1.8, but the results are more important than the specifications. You can see the difference in the photo slider below, which shows how clean the Link’s image is with the lights off in our office, in addition to the blurry low-light photo Opal C1 was able to pick up.

This slider compares similar low-light shots taken with the Link (left) and the C1 (right)

The gimbal enables a number of other functions that give the Link a unique advantage. There’s a deskview mode that tilts the camera down to reveal your desk (with a slightly distorted field of view) so you can show off your gaming skills or whatever else you want to showcase. There is also an overhead mode, which tilts the camera all the way down. It is intended for those who mount the base of the Link on a tripod that is parallel to the ground.

Then there’s something called streamer mode, which when enabled in the software unlocks the ability to output video in apps like OBS in a mobile-friendly portrait mode (9:16 aspect ratio) up to 4K/60fps, which would should go well with creators who would rather make stuff on their PC than on their phone. When the higher resolution is selected in OBS, the gimbal simply rotates the camera 90 degrees. For (home) office drones, there is a mode that makes it easier to show off a whiteboard. There are four reusable stickers in the box, and when the whiteboard mode is switched in the desktop software, it looks for those stickers as a visual guide and stays focused on them.

(clumsy) demonstrate how whiteboard mode works

The Link does not have a privacy cover for the camera; instead, it tilts the camera all the way down when inactive and comes to life when you start using it. It’s not as sure of a shutter solution as a physical cap, but it can’t be lost or forgotten to be reattached either.

The app offers a surprising amount of depth, yet is easy to use. Here you can control the position of the gimbal via a digital joystick, as well as the zoom level. The app allows for up to six renameable angle and zoom settings, making it easy to click to the right location at the touch of a button. They didn’t help me much, but they’ll probably be very useful for people using the overhead, deskview, and whiteboard modes. It quickly switches between presets and they are easily accessible from the on-screen toolbar that floats when the app is minimized.

In this clipI switch between three camera location presets.

Between the Insta360 Link and the Opal C1, I’d love to have either one on my desk for a video call in terms of fidelity, but it’s a shot at other qualifiers. The design of the Opal C1 looks cooler (and definitely less fragile than the Link with its gimbal arm), but I prefer Insta360 Link’s feature set. That said, the noise-canceling mics offered by both aren’t great. I recorded the same clip from each camera and they let in the voice of the same office mate from about 10 meters away. The Opal C1’s microphone sounds more natural, while the Link seems to use a stricter noise gate. The biggest difference between the two clips is that the C1 let in the fan noise from my very noisy 2019 Intel-based MacBook Pro, while the Link didn’t. Still, my advice is to use a dedicated microphone or headset.

The Insta360 Link is certainly not the first to deliver incredible image quality, but in addition to that feat, the company has used its expertise with hardware and software to unleash a range of features that are hard to beat for $299.99.

The Opal C1 is my favorite recommendation for anyone looking to step up their webcam game. But for the same price with more features in tow and with less hassle to actually buy one, the Link just took its place.


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