Insta360’s Link webcam is a hardware answer to Apple’s Center Stage

Insta360’s Link webcam is a hardware answer to Apple’s Center Stage

One of the biggest trends in webcams is software that automatically keeps you in frame as you move. Apple popularized it on the iPad and Studio Display with its Center Stage feature, and even upstarts like Opal offer it as an option on their dedicated webcams. But this approach has always been compromised: for these software solutions to work, they require aggressive image cropping and produce a noticeably worse image than when the feature is disabled.

That’s where the new Insta360 Link comes in. Instead of using software to digitally move the image, the Link is housed in an actual gimbal, copied from DJI’s Pocket 2 action camera. This allows the link to physically move to keep it in the frame without cropping the image or producing a lower quality image. It also gives the Link some unique tricks that you just won’t find on other webcams.

At $299.99, the Link is a top-tier webcam compared to the Opal C1, our current recommendation for the webcam with the best image quality. While it may not undercut the Opal, it does offer better value, not to mention you don’t need to wait for an invitation to buy one through Insta360’s site. Link has excellent image quality, polished and feature-packed apps for macOS and Windows, and its three-axis gimbal lets it do things Opal can’t match. It’s just a fun little device among a sea of ​​other boring webcams.

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Where it doesn’t compare to the Center Stage is accommodating more than one person in the frame. Insta360’s Caroline Zhang said the edge that the camera simply prioritizes the face of whoever takes up the most of the frame and then focuses and tracks that person. I’d love to see improvements here in the future, but don’t buy this camera if you do a lot of FaceTime calls with multiple people in the frame.

Trying to fit two people in the frame resulted in Link prioritizing me over Vox Media’s IT supervisor, Eric Arredondo.

Like Center Stage, Link has a head tracking mode that keeps him in frame as he moves. In the Link Controller desktop app, the tracking speed can be adjusted, from slower to faster panning, the latter of which could be potentially awkward or fun, depending on your use case. The gimbal can keep up with movements on its own, but you can supplement it with one of three AI-reliant auto-zoom functions. When it’s on, you can zoom in on its head (it will zoom in to find you if it’s not right in front of your computer), adjust the zoom to keep the upper half of its body in the frame, or try to frame your entire body. Each of these modes works, although they sometimes make very small adjustments to the zoom when not necessary.

Link has some optional AI features, including three gestures to turn different functions on or off: Briefly displaying an open palm will cause Link to drop whatever he’s doing and start following his head as he moves. Showing the peace sign will switch to whiteboard mode (more on that in a bit), with the link looking for the sticker guides. Lastly, making an “L” with your thumb and forefinger will cause the link to gradually move closer or further away depending on whether you raise or lower your hand while gesturing. You’ll know when a gesture is recognized because the green LED indicator on Link’s base will flash blue. In terms of accuracy, Link has an easier time seeing gestures when there is a lot of contrast behind the hand, and he tends to respond quickly in those conditions.

Test the zoom and head tracking features

The base of the gimbal contains two noise-cancelling microphones, an LED indicator that lets you know when the webcam is on (green on, blue off), and a monitor clamp that has a quarter-inch tripod thread to give you 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-tapping the Insta360 logo on the front of its base brings the gimbal back to center. Despite its awkward design, the Link is just as easy to mount on top of a monitor or the lid of a laptop as many other webcams.

The camera itself uses a 0.5-inch sensor (Insta360’s Zhang stated it’s a Sony sensor, but declined to share the exact model) capable of capturing 4K resolution at 30 frames per second (fps) or 1080p. and less than 60fps. 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.

Its image quality rivals that of the Opal C1, and at times the Link handily beats it. It’s one of the best webcams out there, though each company’s algorithm for what an ideal image should look like differs quite a bit. While the C1 offers a more contrasty image, the Insta360 model offers a more realistic but slightly duller image. Enabling Link’s HDR mode provides more warmth and helps my apartment’s windows appear less overdone. I tested both side by side at 1080p resolution (the difference between 1080p and 4K is negligible with both models – Zoom, Teams, etc. will compress it anyway). Take a look at the images and clips in this article to get an idea of ​​how each handles a basic scene in our New York office.

With head tracking mode activated, Link will turn its head to keep you centered in the frame.

Two things that really impressed me with the Link include how quickly it finds focus in its autofocus mode. Even when Face Tracking is on, he can focus on other objects much faster than he expected, though there were times when Link lost perfect focus while standing still. Insta360 says it uses phase detection autofocus (PDAF) sensors to achieve fast refocusing, which is found in many phone cameras these days. By comparison, the Opal C1 is slower on fast refocus.

The Link is also good at retaining detail in low light. Its 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 Link’s image is with the lights off in our office, along with the blurry image in low light that the Opal C1 was able to capture.

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

The gimbal enables a few other features that give the Link a unique advantage. There’s a desktop view mode that tilts the camera down to reveal your desktop (with a slightly warped field of view) so you can show off your gaming skills or whatever else you want to put on display. There’s also a top mode, which tilts the camera all the way down. It is designed for those who mount the base of the Link on a tripod parallel to the ground.

Then there’s something called streaming mode, which, when enabled in software, unlocks the ability to output video in apps like OBS in a mobile-friendly portrait mode (9:16 aspect ratio) at up to 4K/60fps, which should go down well with creators who prefer to do things on their PCs than on their phones. When the highest resolution is selected in OBS, the gimbal simply rotates the camera 90 degrees. For office (home) drones, there is a mode to make it easier to display a whiteboard. Four reusable stickers are included in the box, and when whiteboard mode is activated in the desktop software, it looks for those stickers as a visual guide and stays focused on them.

Demonstrating (awkwardly) how whiteboard mode works

The Link does not have a privacy cover for the camera; instead, it will tilt the camera all the way down when not active, and then come to life when you start using it. It’s not as secure a shutter solution as a physical cover might be, but you can’t lose or forget to put it back on either.

The app offers a surprising amount of depth, yet it’s easy to use. It is where you can control the position of the gimbal via a digital joystick, as well as its zoom level. The app allows for up to six renaming angle and zoom presets, making it easy to adjust to the right location with the push of a button. I didn’t use them much, but they are likely to be very useful for people who take advantage of the overhead, desktop view, and whiteboard modes. Quickly switch between presets, and they’re easy to access from the on-screen toolbar that scrolls when the app is minimized.

in this clipI am toggling between three camera placement presets.

Between the Insta360 Link and the Opal C1, I’d be happy to have anyone at my desk for a video call in terms of fidelity, but it’s a mixed bag in terms of other qualifiers. The Opal C1’s design looks cooler (and decidedly less fragile than the Link with its gimbal arm), but I prefer the Insta360 Link’s feature set. That said, the noise-canceling microphones that both offer aren’t great. I recorded the same clip from each camera, and they let in the voice of the same office mate from about 30 feet 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 fan noise from my very loud 2019 Intel-based MacBook Pro, while the Link didn’t. However, my advice is to use a dedicated microphone or headphones.

The Insta360 Link certainly isn’t the first to deliver incredible image quality, but on top of that feat, the company leveraged its hardware and software expertise to unleash a host of features that are hard to beat for $299.99.

The Opal C1 has been my recommendation for anyone looking to up their webcam game. But, at the same price with more features and less trouble buying one, the Link took its place.

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