Insta360 is most famous for its 360-degree cameras and action cameras. It looks like they’re taking a little change of direction and expanding out into helping you get great video with your smartphone, too. Insta360 has now officially announced the Insta360 Flow (Buy here). It’s its own take on the now ubiquitous smartphone gimbal, and having played with one now for a little while, I think it’s pretty good.
In a gimbal market dominated by companies like DJI and Zhiyun, it’s interesting to see Insta360 enter it. We’ve seen many other companies come and go in the gimbal world, but Insta360 isn’t just some random no-name brand that pops up out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. If they’re going to have a go at something, they’re going to do it properly. And properly is exactly what they seem to have done.
Insta360 Flow official launch video
Before we get into things, Insta360 has released an official launch video for the Insta360 Flow, so let’s watch that first. It gives a basic overview of the features, including some I haven’t been able to test, to give you a good idea of what the gimbal can do and the target market for which it’s intended.
What’s in the box?
As is usually the case with Insta360 products, the Insta360 Flow comes in the typical hard cardboard box that we’re used to. But instead of a top sliding off, the box unfolds to reveal the gimbal and other goodies inside. Of course, you get the gimbal itself, but you also receive a magnetic phone clamp, a miniature spotlight, a number of USB and Lightning cables, and a carry bag to keep them all in.
You’ll note that there’s no mini tripod included in the list of contents, which might seem a little odd. After all, just about every smartphone gimbal on the market comes with a little mini tripod so that you can set it down. Well, that brings us to a great unique feature of the Insta360 Flow. The tripod is built into the handle. And no, the handle doesn’t just splay out. The legs extend out of the handle and then unfold.
How’s the Insta360 Flow new and different?
Insta360 has taken some creative approaches to aesthetics with the Insta360 Flow. They don’t just want it to be able to do its job well. They want it to look good while it’s doing it. IT certainly does that. It features the usual whiteish pale plastic we see on many gimbals, but much of it is also covered in a semi-transparent black plastic that lets you see through the unit into the electronics.
Yes, this is just a visual attribute that has no bearing on how well it performs, but it looks very cool. I feel like it harkens back to the 1990s when half the consumer electronics we bought were made from transparent plastic – iMac G3, anybody? As I said, it does looks very cool. At least, I like it.
One feature I particularly like is that the control pad isn’t just buttons. It’s touch sensitive and supports gestures – to a degree. There are a number of buttons to perform basic functions like swapping between your smartphone’s front and rear cameras and starting and stopping recording (or shooting a photo). But you can also do a circular “swipe” on the controls to cycle between the different shooting modes.
You’ve got Auto, Follow, Pan-Follow and FPV modes and swapping between them is a doddle. Do a clockwise swipe to go right, do an anti-clockwise swipe to go left, cycling between the different modes at will. There’s also a trigger button on the front that puts the gimbal in Lock mode, which keeps your smartphone pointed in a static direction no matter how you move it.
Another feature that’s not quite so unique, as it’s also employed by a number of DJI’s smartphone gimbals, is the magnetic attachment for your smartphone. This may not be an entirely original feature, but it is one that I’ve actually found to be far more useful than I’d anticipated.
The smartphone gimbals I’ve used in the past have all had phone brackets on them that are affixed to, and part of, the gimbal. With this one being magnetic and easily removable, breaking down and setting up the gimbal goes much more quickly and smoothly. All you need to do is power it down, and you can pull the phone and bracket right off the gimbal for quick folding and putting in your pocket. When you pull it out again, unfold it, attach the bracket with your phone already in it to the gimbal and then power it up.
I thought the magnetic phone mount was a bit of a gimmick when I first started seeing it pop up on smartphone gimbals. Surprisingly, though, it’s turned out to make things pretty efficient when out vlogging with your smartphone or even just documenting your vacation. It makes setting up and packing away the gimbal almost as simple as just pulling out your phone and shooting without a gimbal. That being said, I’ve still not tried it with a DJI gimbal, so I don’t know how those perform in comparison, but on the Insta360 Flow, it’s a very useful feature.
There’s also another audio-related feature that we’ll get back to soon!
That bag, though, doesn’t Flow!
Speaking of the ’90s and on the topic of transparent plastic, the “case” that comes with the Insta360 Flow is a little disappointing. I’m sure younger folks might find it trendy and fashionable, but for somebody who lived through the ’90s, it just seems a bit… cheesy. It’s completely transparent and just has a pop button for sealing it. It does it the gimbal and all its accessories and bits inside it no problem, but it’s a bit awkward to use.
This is my only real negative about the Insta360 flow, and it doesn’t affect the operation of the device, just ease of storage and transport. It’s fine for storage at home when you want to keep dust off it, but when you’re out and about, you’re probably going to want to slip the gimbal into your pocket, backpack or another bag instead. Hopefully, at some point, either Insta360 will release a more refined case for it, semi-hard, foam inside, with a zippy lid, or a 3rd party will.
3-axis, selfie stick, built-in tripod
The Insta360 Flow is a 3-axis motorised gimbal. It doesn’t work in the traditional X, Y, Z (or tilt, pan and roll) way. As with most folding gimbals, the motors are at slight odd angles to each other, but the software compensates. This does potentially limit the actions you can perform with the gimbal – you can’t go underslung, for example, which takes out a few filming techniques. But this isn’t a professional filmmaking gimbal, and for social media posts and vlogs, these limitations aren’t really that big of a problem.
You can also see hints of a selfie stick in the images above. As seems to be becoming common these days, and for good reason, the Insta360 Flow has a selfie stick built right into the handle. When filming something in front of you, this may not necessarily be all that useful, but if you’re trying to see over a crowd or you want to film yourself, it can be invaluable.
What really quite surprised me when I initially opened the box for the Insta360 Flow was that there was no mini tripod in there. This is pretty standard with just about every other gimbal I’ve ever owned, whether it be for smartphones or “real cameras”. I was even mores surprised when I noticed that it does in fact come with a mini tripod. It’s just not a separate attachment that screws into the bottom. It’s built right into the gimbal’s handle.
Aside from being very handy and not having to screw and unscrew it from the gimbal each time you want to use it, it’s useful as a handle extension, too. All you need to do is pull out the legs, not fold them out and then you have a bigger handle for holding the gimbal. And then, when you do want to set it down, flip out the legs, and you’re good to go. This, too, turned out to be a very efficient timesaver when walking around filming, vlogging and wanting to set the camera down.
Of course, you also get the 1/4-20″ socket available when the legs are closed (or open, if it takes your fancy) to attach it to a larger tripod, slider or other camera support.
Insta360 Flow App – Tracking that works!
And why might you want to set the camera down? Well, let’s talk about the app.
I am an Android person these days when it comes to smartphones. However, the only software ready in time for this review was a beta version of the app for the iPhone. At the time of this review going live, the Android and iOS release versions of the Insta360 app should have been updated to support the Insta360 Flow. The Insta360 app, though, is pretty good – good enough that I actually want to use it. And it’s the same app that Insta360 uses for its cameras, too. So, there’s no extra app to download. Just use the one you already have – if you already have Insta360 cameras, that is.
I’ve mostly avoided apps for gimbals in the past because they’ve usually been pretty terrible. But this is mostly because my other gimbals are almost all made by Zhiyun, and their app isn’t great. It’s still one of the biggest complaints against Zhiyun gimbals – even from those who love using them. Half the features don’t work, and the interface is different from one gimbal to the next – despite all being within the same app. Gudsen is very good with the apps for their Moza gimbals, and it seems that so is Insta360.
It offers all of the usual features for exposure control, including fully automatic or fully manual options, calibration and adjusting settings. But what particularly impressed me about it was how well the subject tracking works. I did the usual tests of one person holding it, walking alongside another person, and it tracked the subject extremely well, regardless of how the person holding the gimbal was positioned. It also had no problem whatsoever bouncing between the back of my head and my face as my position changed relative to that of the gimbal.
Note: The image quality above is due to the capture resolution of the iPhone being used during the tests. The actual footage being recorded is 4K UHD.
But what really raised an eyebrow was when I tested it on distant subjects with the iPhone’s 3x zoom. When I review equipment, I often head off somewhere away from the general population. And during one of our days of testing, I spotted a family walking across a field a few hundred metres away. After enabling the tracking and drawing a box around them, the gimbal had no problem whatsoever tracking them – despite the massive reduction in image quality when using 3x digital zoom in the iPhone.
It also had no problem tracking somewhat faster-moving subjects at a distance, either. Shortly after the family above walked through the field, a tractor also came ploughing through, if you’ll pardon the pun. Even with the tractor changing angles multiple times to navigate ditches, fences and other obstructions, the app had no problem tracking it from its starting point all the way to its final destination.
Tracking is enabled or disabled by a quick tap of the trigger on the gimbal handle. Tapping it once turns it on and it will automatically try to find a subject (like a face) if there’s one in the frame. Or you can draw a box around what you want to track, and the app will do its best to follow it. When you’re done tracking and want free movement again, just tap the trigger one more time. If you double tap the trigger when not tracking, it will re-centre the gimbal.
When you first fire up the app, there’s a tutorial (the above images) explaining how it all works, along with the rest of the gimbal’s features. It might be worth turning on the screen record option the first time you run the app, just so that you have a video you can refer back to in order to access all of the different features. With the minimal button layout that gimbals have these days, there are all kinds of weird button combos and gestures to turn things on or off or change settings, and the Insta360 Flow is no exception in this regard.
The tracking features also don’t care whether your camera is in horizontal orientation for filming a more traditional style video for YouTube or if you’re shooting vertical for YouTube Shorts, Facebook Reels, Instagram Stories or TikTok – how many more names can platforms come up with for the same thing?
Switching between horizontal and vertical modes is also just a simple case of double-tapping a touch-sensitive button on the gimbal’s user interface. It’s the same button that, if tapped once, switches between the front and rear cameras.
But what about audio?
One of the biggest problems with gimbals, particularly smartphone gimbals, is that you’re often reliant on the in-camera (or in-phone) microphone for your sound. With mirrorless cameras on something like the Weebill 2 (review here), you can mount something like the Rode Wireless GO II receiver onto the hotshoe and plug it straight into the camera. For smartphone gimbals, however, especially of the folding compact variety, there isn’t an easy way to attach one.
The Insta360 Flow changes this by having a built-in cold shoe, allowing you to attach small microphone receivers like the Rode Wireless GO II, the new Rode Wireless ME, the Comica BoomX-D Pro or the DJI Mic. In my case, I tested it with the Rode Wireless GO II.
Naturally, the receiver plugs straight into your phone. Here, in the case of the iPhone, that’s using the Rode SC15 USB-C to Lightning cable. For Android – or future iPhones, I guess – you can use a standard USB-C to USB-C cable. When you’re not mounting a microphone receiver to the gimbal, the built-in cover allows you to close it up and prevent it from gathering dust or getting dinged or scratched and messing up the fit when it’s rolling around in your bag.
Insta360 Flow & Other stuff…
There are a few things I haven’t really mentioned in this review because I’ve not run into issues with them or haven’t been able to test them fully.
For example, I’m not entirely sure what sort of use duration you’ll get out of a fully charged 2900mAh battery because I’ve never had the gimbal run out of power during my tests. Likewise, as it was never drained flat, I’ve never needed (or been able) to fully test how long it takes to charge back up to full.
The included LED light didn’t see much use, either, really. Filming outdoors, even in the current relatively dim weather, it’s bright enough that it’s not been needed. I did do some quick indoor tests and it’s not going to light up a big subject in front of you, but as a fill light when filming vlogs with the selfie camera in the evening or at night? Sure, it can work quite well – of course, this will depend on how good your phone’s selfie camera is, too!
There are a few tracking features I was not able to test, either, such as gesture control, slow motion tracking and the live tracking features. The latter keeps the gimbal pointed at you when having video chat calls, as demonstrated in the launch video at the top of this post. Timelapse, moving hyperlapse, 360-degree panorama, and Dolly Zoom were also difficult to test due to time and weather constraints.
As the weather seems to be starting to perk up here, I’ll check out some of these features in the coming weeks and will update this review as necessary.
Thoughts and conclusions
While there are a plethora of smartphone gimbals already in the market these days, Insta360’s entry into this world is very impressive. It folds up nice and compact when you need it to and because of the removable magnetic phone bracket, it actually fits into your pocket, too. With the bracket attached to your phone, it takes up very little extra room in your pocket but always leaves your phone and gimbal ready to go at a moment’s notice.
The app, particularly the tracking features, works extremely well, giving you a lot of control over how you want your footage or photos to look. You can start and stop recording or shoot a photo right from the gimbal over Bluetooth to the app. And even when not using the app at all and just using your regular camera app, switching between the different F, PF, etc. modes and toggling Lock mode by holding down the trigger was very easy. So, while the app offers great features and works well, it’s not always essential. It probably is if you want object tracking, though.
I feel that the Insta360 Flow is geared more towards the travel and social media aspects of filming on a gimbal. Whether you’re documenting what’s happening in front of you or talking to the selfie camera, it performs admirably. It’s a bit of a break from the company’s usual “action” perspective. It would be nice to see if Insta360 releases a more traditional style 3-axis gimbal that’s better geared towards shooting action with your smartphone in the future. And perhaps something wearable?
For social media and general use, the Insta360 Flow works great. And if Insta360’s history is anything to go by, we’ll probably be seeing some new features being added to the app through firmware updates and new smartphone app versions in the coming weeks and months. Even without whatever new features Insta360 may be planning to introduce in the future, though, it’s already rather good.
The Insta360 Flow gimbal is available to buy now for $159.99 in either Summit White or Stone Grey colours and has already begun shipping.