The folks at Nikon Canada have sent me a pair of KeyMission products to have a look at. I was initially curious as to why a solid camera company like Nikon would get into action and 360 cameras. To me this seemed a strange decision but I thought it would be worthwhile to have a look.
I will break the review into two parts, one for the 170 and one for the 360, and a separate piece for the commonality. We'll start there.
The two KeyMissions that I received are capable of 4K 24fps video. They also do FullHD, HD and lower resolutions. The image capture systems and lenses are different, but it looks like the internals are the same. Both cameras can be controlled from your smartphone whether iOS or Android using the free SnapBridge 170/360 application. Usability is very similar in both cases, but I will give SnapBridge its own section.
Some of the first releases of the KeyMission family received some pretty brutal reviews. Nikon has been very aggressive in firmware and software updates, and not just the SnapBridge stuff. I downloaded and installed the 1.2 firmware for the 360 which came out just days after I got the camera. The 170 had the 1.1 firmware installed. To manage the cameras from my Mac, I downloaded and installed the KeyMission 170/360 Utility. Nikon really needs to work on their documentation in general and for firmware updates in particular. To say it's sparse is being kind. I found that I had to delete the Bluetooth pairing and re-pair after the firmware update. Not an issue, but the docs should be clearer.
Both cameras write to memory cards that the user supplies. The format is Micro-SD. I used Lexar cards for my tests, but any Micro-SD card should do the trick.
The card slots are beside the battery slots, and both cameras use the same Nikon EN-EL13 rechargeable. Charging is done via USB cables plugged into an AC converter. I would always prefer that batteries be chargeable outside the camera in a dedicated charger, and in this case would advise buyers to get a standalone charger. Folks using action cameras use them hard and making the camera unavailable because the battery needs charging is not optimal. I would expect this from Sony, who appear to hate standalone chargers, but not from Nikon.
The doors that cover the batteries and the cards are fitted with seals, very similar to those found on Nikon's AW1 underwater camera, because the KeyMissions can be used in water to a maximum depth of 10 feet without a special housing.
You power on the cameras by holding down the video button for about three seconds. You power off the camera by holding down the same button for about five seconds. Both cameras have separate action buttons for video and for stills. The buttons are large and can be easily used while wearing gloves.
Both cameras have standard 1/4-20 tripod mounts as well as alignment holes to be used with the supplied mounting kits. The mounting kits and plates look VERY familiar to anyone who has used GoPros. They aren't exactly the same, but there is some interoperability. Nikon, like GoPro, has released a sizeable collection of accessories, so there's no waiting and hunting for needed stuff. In my test, I received the basic mounts as well as a chest mount system.
I have to be honest. I nearly turned down the evaluation because my experience with SnapBridge on the D500 was such a horrible experience. Pairing the camera to your phone is different on the 170 and the 360. With the 170 you have to accept the pairing request on both devices independently, just as on the D500 and that is so contrary to every other pairing model that it irks me greatly. The UI is also lousy. I found many posts cursing SnapBridge because "pairing would never work". I only got it done because I had solved the problem on the D500 in the past and knew what to expect. The pairing is via Bluetooth and I am still at a loss why Nikon insists on pairing using their proprietary app instead of the bluetooth pairing method used by every other device on the planet. The app layout is plain, but not particularly simple. It looks like the SnapBridge for the D500 and other similarly infected DSLRs, but is a completely different app.
Pairing on the 360 involves holding down the video button for seven seconds, waiting for alternating flashing LEDs and then launching the app on the smartphone. Pairing here was much simpler with no code validation or acceptance required. Nikon needs to move to this pairing mode for the 170 and all other SnapBridge devices as doing so will reduce the number of cameras being damaged by high velocity impacts with walls and floors caused by owners and accompanied by cursing in multiple languages..
However, just when you think that you've got it, you try to remote control the camera and aha, there's the message that tells you that you now need to connect to the camera by WiFi. Again, the Nikon software makes this a kludge fest. Just do it manually and you'll be fine. Beware however, that SnapBridge drops WiFi connections regularly if multiple networks are present, you know like most places, when you change modes or settings. It is nowhere near as awful as it was on the D500 but still needs a LOT of work to be really usable. I just don't understand why Nikon needs Bluetooth AND WiFi when every other company manages to do the job using WiFi alone, and I don't understand why they have to make it so convoluted.
Once you have the WiFi connection up, you will see 2MP thumbnails of your stills and videos on SnapBridge, Looking at a still is easy. Looking at a video, not so much. I have yet to get the download to smartphone to ever download anything from the 170 without giving me some BS message about the camera being out of range when it is six to twelve inches away from the phone and WiFi is active. Interestingly, downloading video from the 360 to the smartphone worked flawlessly every time I tried, although it takes a very long time, despite have a direct WiFi connection.
If you like the KeyMissions because of their qualities as Action Cameras, excellent. Do not buy them because of the promise of SnapBridge. It still isn't ready for primetime. In my opinion it's not ready for the 4am infomercial slot, but unlike with the D500 where the typical buyer could care less about wirelessly transferring images to a smartphone, KeyMission users NEED SnapBridge to use the cameras. Nikon makes excellent cameras and lenses. Their software has always been rather lame, and I would coach them to get some of the talented folks in Eastern Europe to start over and build a decent control app. SnapBridge is the worst of things.
It sounds a bit odd, but if you've ever used a GoPro with an LCD back, you know how to use the KeyMission 170. Unlike a GoPro, the user interface on the camera is really simple and very good. It's also legible without a magnifier and easy to see in bright light. The camera has a 170 degree field of view. This means that there is visible optical distortion and bending in the image. The camera is toughened, advertised to survive a 2m fall, to work down to -10 degrees centigrade and capable of going underwater to a depth of 10m.
The sensor is a small sensor as one will find in action cameras with a maximum resolution of 8.3 megapixels. That doesn't sound like a lot to a D810 shooter but it is all that is needed for 4K video.
Where GoPros and Sony ActionCams offer higher frame rates for video in general, the KeyMission 170 is limited to 30fps in 4K and will go to 60fps in FullHD. Those wanting higher rates for slow motion will need to drop out of 4K. This is probably less of an issue than one might think given the time requirements in editing and posting 4K over FullHD video. The argument about the dearth of 4K TVs is no longer relevant as all the major TV makers are now only doing 4K or have a very small set of non-4K options.
My first major use of the 170 was with it attached to the chest harness while at the dog park with the wolfdog. Like all action cameras, the lens is ultra wide with lots of bending on the edges, and because it is so wide, anything up close has widely exaggerated perspective. The field of view is 170 degrees so this is expected. I find it similar to the GoPro, but find that the Sony 4K action cameras have a narrower field of view and much less distortion. I was able to control the camera either via the buttons on the unit for video or stills or from my iPhone via SnapBridge. There are camera settings available through the utility or the iPhone, but there is no stabilization control. Nikon does include their D-Light exposure control system, and this can be turned on at the camera or via the apps. In my first clips, I left it off and the footage on a cloudy day with snow on the ground probably would have benefited from having it on, as the OOC footage is underexposed as one would expect with automatic readings off the snow. Other users have reported battery life under 10 minutes at 0 degrees centrigrade. I still had 1/2 charge left at 20 minutes in, but I believe that this is a result of having the most current firmware. I always recommend extra batteries for action cameras and am not displeased with the performance. Nikon suggests a maximum run time of 60 minutes, but does not specify at which temperature to expect this.
I found using the 170 very intuitive right from the word go. I believe that this is due to the simple menu system and built in LCD screen. Set up was quick once I got the SnapBridge quirks out of the way and I was able to start using the camera in about 10 minutes.
The question folks will ask is "is this a better choice than a similarly priced action camera?" Fair and reasonable question. While I own GoPros, I am discounting them from the comparison not because they are bad, but because the company is in such dire straits that I cannot recommend the line and so comparing the 170 against a product I would never recommend is silly. That leaves the crop of clones, which I choose to ignore, leaving the real comparison being with the Sony ActionCAM family. I like the Keymission 170 a lot. It's a terrific first generation 170 degree action camera and offers VR in Full HD. Unfortunately at the same base price point, Sony is into their second generation product and while it lacks the Nikon's very useful on camera LCD, the Sony's exposure management and vibration control systems make it a solid choice. Even on their own websites, Nikon is unfortunately getting hammered by customers, most all to do with battery life and SnapBridge. Sony's competitor also includes GPS encoding. Whether this is useful or not will depend on your use case. My personal experience is that live GPS is the battery consumption equivalent of Cookie Monster.
The footage from the 170 is quite good, comparable to the footage from a 4K GoPro and easily as sharp as the footage from a Sony ActionCam. The ultrawide coverage means that most things look far away unless you are standing on top of them, and the LCD while nice is too small to deliver a good focus check so your really close subjects are probably going to be soft. This is common across action cams that have small LCDs either direct or remote. Sony's competitive model does offer the choice of three focal length options, but these are achieved by cropping in, basically tossing pixels, so you could achieve the same thing in post with the Nikon although the Sony allows for it during video capture..
From a usage perspective, I found the KeyMission 170 very comfortable to use, and once I had invoked the right level of witchcraft to get SnapBridge to stay working, the user experience is very good. While some have complained about the breadth of accessories, when I look to my use cases, including chest mount, handlebar mount, and helmet mount along with standard 1/4-20 I have no concerns. I commend Nikon for having a good stack of accessories ready to go. I liked using it much more than my GoPro and while it is much different, about equivalent in net usability to the Sony X3000R. The Sony is sold body only, but is generally only found with the wireless LCD remote which pushes its price well past the KeyMission 170. From that perspective, buyers may find the KeyMission 170 a more palatable buy. In a firmware update, I would like to see Nikon add the exposure control and correction that Sony delivers in their product.
The 360 is a 360 degree camera. Nikon publishes a chart saying that survey respondents overwhelmingly desire 360 video. There is no sample size or demographic data provided, but it seems a bit optimistic. In my own survey of twenty three photographers, fifteen didn't know what 360 was and the rest, other than one, said that they had no interest. I was not surprised that the one photographer who is interested is under sixteen years old.
The 360 has, no surprise, a 360 degree angle of view, meaning you see everything around the camera. The sensor is small but delivers a total of over 21MP across two lenses. As you will see from the images, the little box is nearly all a pair of lenses. The Nikon Canada website bounces to the US one for specs so the measurements are imperial when you drill in. 6.6ft of drop survival, 14 degrees fahrenheit low temperature support and the ability to go as deep as 98 feet in water.
The 360 is built tough. Looking at it, I am terrified of damaging the enormous fishbowl fronts of the lens covers, but Nikon says it is shockproof for falls up to two meters. That's a good thing because it's about as easy to hold onto as a greased pig unless you are okay with getting your fingers all over the lens protection covers. Keeping those protection domes fingerprint free took serious attention. There is a small neoprene "vest" that comes in the box for the camera, and I still don't really see the point of it. Sadly I have tested the drop capability more times than I would like in the first couple of hours. This thing needs to be on a mount all the time. For my testing, I put it on a stick because being in the video and bent like I'm being gravitationally distorted is ugly at all times. The KeyMission 360 marketing suggests that it takes you out of the footage. I did not find this but I did find it got rid of the selfie stick I was using to hold it aloft, so I look like I am walking around with my hand in the air as if waiting to be called upon to ask a question.
The footage is far superior to my experiences with the Ricoh Theta+. The Theta has an elegant design but the Nikon imaging engine is much better. Nikon's KeyMission Utility makes watching your video on the computer extremely easy and also provides some basic editing tools. While the UI is very plain, and to some extent looks like a middle school coding project, it gets the job done and I much preferred it to the exercise in headaches that is the Ricoh software. Note that the 360 shows the same abrupt banding in the processed footage as other 360 cameras in this price point. The distortion is also very severe, although in fairness I have no idea what people are expecting given that the camera is designed to see in 360 degrees but playback screens are all 16:9 rectangles. You will note that if you watch the 360 clips in a proper 360 player, the distortions exist solely in the reformatting to a rectangular window. As you scroll around, the "distorted" areas show themselves properly as they come towards the centre of the display window.
Like the 170, there are interchangeable lens protectors mounted. They look like the aforementioned fishbowls, with the actual lenses protected behind them. The camera's lenses are still bulbous. The lenses on the 360 are about the same diameter as those on the Theta.
Unlike the 170 which can be used completely self-contained, the 360 has only the door for the battery/memory card bay, a video button and a stills button. There is no local display, no local menu, so all configuration changes have to be done with either the KeyMission Utility or SnapBridge. I understand why, but still don't like it. I found it awkward having to hold the camera aloft on a stick while moving and manipulating the app on the smartphone. Certainly a static mount is a better option for this kind of thing. Given that it's winter where I am, there is no present opportunity to stick the 360 to my helmet and go for a ride. That could actually be a use case that I might value.
The 360 is not unlike competing products, which look to be some offshore variants that I have never heard of, the Ricoh Theta family, and that's about it. Given what I have tested, the 360 wins completely. It's just a better product. That said, I do wonder about how big this market will be. The use cases for 360 video still are not widely shared, so it is, for the time being at least, a very niche offering. The exception appears to be with travel bloggers and bloggers who are starting to use 360 video to positive effect.
The real challenge facing all the players is going to be playback. Nikon's KeyMission utility is very basic but it does let you do some basic clip editing and you can see the 360 coverage in the editor. I won't call it intuitive, but it gets the job done. Once you've edited your video, you can upload it to a sharing service that supports 360 degree video. In researching for this review, there are a few small players, but the one that folks liked a lot called Vrideo, shutdown in November 2016. There is of course YouTube, just be sure to use their app to set your metadata BEFORE you upload your finished video. I will give props to YouTube. The upload is seamless and so long as you have indicated that the stream is 360, it will display properly, provided that your browser supports the player.
The limited ability to watch 360 video without a pair of goggles (I recommend the VRKix over everything that I have tested - they are awesome) as well as limited playback capability will be a gating factor. Even as I finish this review, YouTube 360 videos do not run on Safari. They work just fine on Chrome, as one would expect. I also found a Mac based player called 5KPlayer that does a decent job and plays back without glitches.
My experience with action camera users in general is that editing is a foreign concept. Editing 360 video is quite demanding, and while Adobe Premiere Pro does support editing of this kind of content, the projects get large fast and even on a quick machine, it gets pretty tedious. To get a decent final movie out of the action camera, you need to be doing editing otherwise it is basically a stream of consciousness thing that is slightly less interesting than watching paint dry. I completely understand and agree that I am not the target market for a 360, but I cannot see this type of footage being edited by the majority of buyers. While I think that the Keymission 360 is an excellent product for the market and the price point, unless editing becomes a lot easier and a lot cheaper, I fear that mass adoption of 360 video will go to the same cornfield as 3D Television has. If the cornfield reference means nothing to you, I invite you to search on "cornfield" and "Twilight Zone". But, my daughter, who is in her mid-twenties informs me that 360 is the coolest thing happening right now, further evidence that I am not the target market and that such a market may grow quickly.
The Nikon Keymission products are well made. They are diminished by generic software and the not ready for primetime SnapBridge. They have good glass and the image quality is decent enough, and while it is not specified, I suspect that Nikon has outsourced the sensors from Sony. The Keymissions are generation one products and while they are good, they are missing the better exposure management and image stabilization found in the Sony action cameras.
As I finally finish writing this review, Nikon has announced their Q3 2017 numbers and things are rough. One of the actions that Nikon has identified is to investigate the market for action cameras and their approach. Whatever Nikon decides will be a what's so, but if the decision is between spending on action cameras or to put that money into the one part of their imaging business that is not foundering (DSLRs), I would be coaching them to take the one time charge and refocus away from action cameras. It's not that the products are bad, they are good. It's that action cameras are a very small and highly saturated marketplace and the buyer that wants one is often dependent on the generosity of someone else to pay for it. If GoPro is struggling and they created the space, what is a new competitor going to face?
Please note that I put the clip from the 170 and the 360 into the same package. Depending on your browser, you will see the videos in an all traditional view or an all 360 view. Something for me to work on next time and a consideration for those mixing regular action cam video and 360 video. The video is streamed from YouTube and with the proper browser does a nice job of displaying the 360 video.
I thank Nikon USA for the ability to screen capture the specs for both cameras.