Z CAM S1 Mini Review: First Impressions


Z Cam S1 360° camera

Z Cam S1 360° camera

Introduction

The Z CAM S1 is a four-lens, 360° camera that creates interactive, spherical panoramic videos. It’s available from the camera’s Indiegogo page, but not yet from retail outlets. The camera is impressive, with very clean stitching and output up to 6K. It costs US $2499, not including a few essentials like batteries, SD cards, and stitching software. This is a basic introduction to the camera; I plan to post another article after I’ve had a chance to shoot with this.

Here’s a low-light, 4K clip shot (not by me) with the S1:

In The Box

The package comes with camera, detachable battery pod (without batteries), lens cap, AC power cable (with international plugs) and (very brief) two page user guide.

Z Cam S1 camera connections

Z Cam S1 camera bottom, showing connection ports

SD Cards

You’ll need four of them. Z Cam recommends Sandisk Extreme Pro SDXC UHS-I cards. The camera has four HDMI output jacks, one for each lens, so theoretically you could shoot without SD cards, by recording video data to a video capture device (not included), though I haven’t tried that.

Powering the Camera

Z Cam S1 battery unit, with 18650 batteries installed.

Z Cam S1 battery unit insert, with 18650 batteries installed

There are three ways to power the Z CAM S1:

  1. AC power, with included power cable (ie, plugging it into a wall outlet).
  2. Using a set of four type 18650 lithium ion rechargeable batteries. The camera has a “battery unit,” which is the bottom third section in the camera photo at the very top of the page. After detaching the battery unit, there’s an insert that can be removed, and that holds the four 18650 batteries (shown above). This battery type is new to me; they look similar to AA batteries but much larger. Apparently some 18650’s are flat-topped, and others have a button-top, like AA’s; the S1, I’ve been told, requires the button top batteries, which I purchased, although the ones I got are very tight once installed in the insert and impossible to remove without using a tool to pry out (I don’t know if that’s the fault of the batteries or the way the insert is made). I bought four Intsun 3400 maH (higher maH rating is better) 3.7v batteries, along with a Nitecore i4 charger, and these have worked fine so far, in my limited testing. Don’t count on finding these batteries and charger at your local electronics store; try online at B&H or Amazon.
  3. There is a USB-C jack on the bottom of the camera for external battery (not the battery unit described above). I’m not sure exactly what’s available for that; but am looking into it. Hopefully that will allow powering the camera without AC cable, but with Ethernet cable connected, which is not possible when battery unit is attached.
AA battery on the left, 18650 battery on the right.

AA battery on the left, 18650 battery on the right

Basic Operation

Power the camera with AC cable or battery unit. Insert four SD cards. Hold down the power button until the lights go on. Solid green lights mean that SD cards are installed, but camera is not running. To start camera, hold down button with camera icon; lights should then blink green. Press camera button again to stop recording. If using the camera connected via Ethernet, you can control exposure and other functions with Z Cam Controller software (see below). If operating without Ethernet, the camera will run on auto-everything; there are no physical controls for exposure, frame rate, white balance, etc.

Stitching Software

The makers of Z Cam offer a Windows application (Mac version forthcoming) called WonderStitch, which–though not lightning fast–does an excellent job of seamlessly stitching the video from the S1’s (built-in) four cameras. The demo version of WonderStitch is free to use for Z Cam owners, though output is limited to 1080. For 4k 0r 6k output, you’ll need to purchase the full version, which is US $1499, and includes WonderLive, which does on-the-fly stitching for live videocasts.

Autopano Video software from Kolor can also be used for stitching S1 video, but I’m not sure yet if the stitching will be as good as WonderStitch. I did a quick test with Autopano, and the stitching was not great.

Z Cam Controller

Purchasers of the S1 can download Z Cam Controller software, now available for Windows and Mac. A valid camera serial number must be entered to activate the application. When S1 is connected to computer via Ethernet cable, you’ll get a live preview from each of the 4 lenses (unstitched), and can control an array of functions, including exposure, white balance, resolution, and more. Also, this application can be used to update the camera’s firmware.

Z Cam S1 connected to Mac via Z Cam Controller app

Z Cam S1 connected to Mac via Z Cam Controller app

 

Z Cam S1 camera without battery unit attached

Support

There is a Z Cam S1 Facebook page, moderated by the makers of the camera, though I’ve seen a handful of questions there remain unanswered. The user guide that comes with the camera is minimal, only covering the very basics. There’s a support page on the Z Cam site, but not much there so far.

 

Conclusion

Pros

  • High quality, 6k output with strong low-light performance and very clean stitching with WonderStitch.
  • Highly accurate synchronization between four cameras.
  • Uses one central battery unit and only four SD cards, compared to GoPro 360° solutions that use six or more cameras, with six SD cards and six batteries.

Cons

  • If you use included battery unit to power camera, it blocks the HDMI and Ethernet ports.
  • Documentation and support is limited so far, though the camera has only very recently been released.

Looking Forward

I can’t wait to shoot more with this, and to get the full version of WonderSwitch, which enables 6K output. I’ll be posting another article with more information and samples I’ve shot.

 

 

 

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