The price and size of 360-degree action cameras have steadily decreased over time as technology has improved. So much so that manufacturers like Nikon and GoPro have jumped on board to help consumers capture more immersive photo and video content. Ricoh, with its expanding Theta lineup, has been at the forefront of this niche.
It’s a niche product in a niche market, but it’s a joy to use thanks to its simplicity and compact form factor.
For this review, we put the consumer-friendly Theta SC2 through its paces for a few weeks to see how the experience and image quality compare when used on a daily basis. All of this and more is summarized in the sections below, from its design to its closest competitors.
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Design: Clean and simple
You might mistake the Theta SC2 for a fancy-looking remote or—as my 18-month-old did—a funky-looking smartphone if you didn’t know it was a 360-degree camera. It doesn’t look like any camera I’ve ever seen, aside from the lenses on either side of the device.
You might mistake the Theta SC2 for a fancy-looking remote or—as my 18-month-old did—a funky-looking smartphone if you didn’t know it was a 360-degree camera.
The device’s one face is blank except for the ‘Theta’ branding, while the other has a single button and a small pill-shaped OLED display that displays the shooting mode and battery life. Similarly, one side of the ultra-thin device has no buttons or ports, while the other has only four: Power, Wi-Fi, Mode, and Timer. The device has four ports on top for the built-in stereo microphone, and a 0.25-inch-20 tripod mount and a micro USB port on the bottom for charging and data transfer.
Setup Process: Connect and shoot
The Ricoh Theta SC2 can operate without the use of a smartphone, but you will need to pair it with an Android or iOS device to set it up and transfer content. I’ll talk about my experience with the iOS app on an iPhone 11 Pro in this review.
To pair Theta SC2, you had to go into your smartphone’s Wi-Fi settings, disconnect from whatever network you were on, reconnect to an ad-hoc wireless network the device created, and then open the Theta app to finish the process. While pairing a camera and a smartphone isn’t uncommon, the experience was a little clunky and not always reliable.
When you enter the serial number into the Theta app, it will now automatically find and connect to the ad-hoc network created by the Theta SC2 right within the app (found on the bottom of the device, next to the barcode). In comparison, this solution is far more elegant and makes setup a breeze.
Apart from granting the Theta app permission to access your image library in order to save photos and videos from the device to your smartphone once it’s connected, there’s not much else you need to do to get started shooting.
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Image Quality: Good enough
The Theta SC2 has a pair of 12-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensors in front of them, each with a seven-element F2 lens. You might think that when you press the shutter button, two 12-megapixel sensors will produce a 24-megapixel image, but this isn’t the case. A lot of overlap and distortion correction is required due to the excess image required to capture a full 360-degree image with only two lenses. As a result, the Theta SC2’s final still image is only 14.5 megapixels.
The final stitched video has a resolution of 4K (3840×1920 pixels) and was recorded at 30 frames per second (fps) in the MP4 format. While the final video is technically 4K in terms of resolution when viewed through a virtual reality or 360-degree video viewer, the footage won’t appear as crisp as the 4K video you’re used to seeing on your smartphone. This is due to the pixels being stretched to fit a simulated globe.
The SC2’s still image and video quality are both acceptable. The dynamic range won’t ‘wow’ you, and the video will inevitably be grainy in places, but given the amount of dynamic range that smaller sensors must collect in order to create a pleasing final image, a lot of software post-processing is required, which degrades image quality.
The Theta SC2 has a pair of 12-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensors in front of them, each with a seven-element F2 lens.
If you processed the files with more powerful desktop software, you should be able to get better quality out of the data captured by the sensors. Theta SC2’s goal is simplicity, and doing all of the image processing in-camera makes it simple to share content with friends and family and post it to social media. So, given its intended use, I’d say the quality of the still images and video is adequate.
Audio Quality: Acceptable
The built-in audio isn’t particularly impressive, as it is with nearly all compact camera systems. The device captures “360-degree spatial audio” using multiple microphones, according to Ricoh. When watching the video on your mobile device’s built-in speaker, you won’t notice the effect, but if you watch it in a dedicated 360-degree media player with stereo headphones, you’ll notice the audio is locked into place with the video.
When you hear a dog barking or a car driving by, for example, the noise will change as the subject moves around the scene and you rotate the video’s viewing direction.
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Price: Worth it
Ricoh Theta SC2 vs. YI 360 VR Camera
It’s difficult to find another 360-degree camera for under $500, but the Yi 360 VR camera fits the bill. The device is priced at $349, which is $50 more than the Theta SC2.
The device is much larger than the SC2, but in exchange for the higher price and larger size, you can record unstitched 5.7K video instead of pre-stitched 4K video on the SC2. Yi’s 360 app is less elegant than Theta’s, but it allows you to browse still images and videos captured by the 360 VR camera. It also has a built-in streaming option, allowing you to livestream 360-degree video to Facebook or YouTube, which is a useful feature.
The Yi 360 VR camera’s overall experience is a little clunkier, but if you don’t mind using desktop software to stitch together the 5.7K video footage, you can get better image quality. And, at only $50 more, it might not be such a bad deal if the added flexibility is important.
The Final Word
The Ricoh Theta SC2 makes 360-degree photography and video capture as simple as using a typical point-and-shoot camera. Given the amount of processing power and software required to convert 360-degree media into a format that is easy to view and share, this is no small feat. It’s a niche product in a niche market, but it’s a joy to use thanks to its simplicity and compact form factor.