Samsung Gear 360 (2017)
“Samsung’s Gear 360 is a quirky, fun way to try out 360-degree video.”
- Easy to use
- iPhone support
- Quick, painless pairing
- Improved app user experience
- Image quality could be better
- Small battery
- Android support still limited to Samsung phones
If you first don’t succeed, try, try again. Thankfully, Samsung’s Gear 360 didn’t need a third try. The second-generation of the company’s 360-degree camera improves on its predecessor in numerous ways: it has a new design that’s easier to use, broader support for smartphones, live broadcasting to YouTube and Facebook, and faster connectivity. In many ways, the first Gear 360 felt like an experiment – Samsung dipping its toes into the water. With this new camera, Samsung is taking a bath, but hardware limitations and nascent software and platforms for viewing, keep it from making a splash. Still, it’s one of the more fun 360-degree cameras we’ve used.
Update: Samsung announced that the new Gear 360 will be released on May 25, for $230.
Features, design, specs
The Gear 360 retains the design spirit of the old Gear 360: an eyeball-shaped unit with two wide-angle lenses on either side. It is permanently attached to a slim body that serves as a handle. Like its predecessor, it still looks funky, but the body handle is much easier to hold than the removable mini tripod that doubles as an uncomfortable grip.
It’s also smaller and lighter than the old model. The Gear 360 measures approximately 4 x 2 x 1.8 inches, and weighs 4.6 ounces. It’s solidly built, and can withstand dust and splashes.
It still looks funky, but it is much easier to hold than the previous Gear 360.
On one side you’ll find Power/Back button and Connection/Settings button, while on the other side there are the MicroSD card tray (up to 256GB) and USB Type-C port (USB 2.0) for data transfer and charging. On the front are the shutter/record button and a small display that shows battery level, mode, and space or time left on the card. On the bottom is a tripod mount, as well as a place to attach the included strap. The strap is interesting: There is a rubber ring that you can sit the camera on top, providing a seat so that it doesn’t topple over when placed on a surface.
As for the camera, the Gear 360 uses two 8.4-megapixel CMOS sensors and two wide-angle (195 degrees), f/2.2 lenses – total output is equivalent to 15 megapixels. But the old Gear 360 uses two 15-megapixel sensors, allowing you capture higher resolution specs. However, with small sensor novelty cameras like this, it is a moot point whether it’s 8.4MP or 15MP (if using in single-lens mode, resolution is even lower, at 3MP) – nobody is going to print the images on large paper – because it’s all about the 360-degree effect than amazing images – for now, at least. However, the images will look better than fine when viewed on a smartphone or in smaller sizes.
Video resolution has increased. Samsung is officially marketing the new Gear 360 as 4K (4,096 x 2,048 at 24 frames per second), although you shouldn’t expect the same image quality as a 4K TV. The resolution also applies to the 360-degree video; single-lens resolution is Full HD, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels at 60 fps.
As for power, the Gear 360 uses an internal 1,160mAh battery. Samsung says the camera can record 130 minutes at 2,560 x 1,280 at 30 fps. It will be less at 4K: Shooting 21 minutes of video, the battery was down 40 percent, so expect a little under an hour of charge for about an hour of 4K footage. Just for comparison, the battery in the new Galaxy S8 is rated 3,000mAh.
Can the camera be continuously powered? Samsung’s user manual gives conflicting information. While it mentions that the camera can be used while charging, it also says it cannot charge while it’s recording a video. During a Facebook Live session, it did seem the camera was powered and charging (as much as we are aware). However, the camera stopped recording after 23 minutes, and refused to record immediately afterward –an issue with overheating.
Improved connectivity, greater (but still limited) support
The camera can function independently, but to share content in real-time, broadcast live, adjust settings, or see a live image, the Gear 360 supports dual-band Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, and Bluetooth v4.1 for wireless connectivity to a smartphone.
And, it is here where Samsung has made the biggest improvement. Unlike the previous Gear 360, the new model pairs seamlessly with the phone and Gear 360 app. The app has also been enhanced: Not only is navigation easy, but also faster – much more responsive than the previous app (note: you have to download/update the new version of the app, which supports both versions of the Gear 360).
With the same Galaxy S7 Edge we used to test the original Gear 360, the new one works seamlessly. Turn the camera on, launch the app, and the two devices connect with no effort. We never encountered lags or crashes. Ideally this is how all cameras’ Wi-Fi pairing connections should work.
Another plus is greater support for devices. The original model only worked with a very limited number of Samsung Galaxy devices. The new Gear 360 supports the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus; S7 and S7 Edge; Note 5; S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Edge Plus; and A5 and A7 – all running Android 5.0 or later. The big news is that it will support iPhone too: 7, 7 Plus, 6S, 6S Plus, and SE, as long as they’re running iOS 10.0 or later.
We didn’t have issues pairing the camera with an iPhone 6S, but it takes more work. You have to manually connect to the camera’s Wi-Fi access point, which means you will need to disconnect from a Wi-Fi network. But once this is set, the app recognizes the camera, and you can control the camera and view content as you would with the Android app.
There are still limitations. The Gear 360 Android app only supports the aforementioned Samsung phones. We tried using the camera with an LG G6 without success. And, at press time, live broadcasting is not available for iOS users or anything less than Android 7 (Nougat).
But iOS compatibility is a good move on Samsung’s part. It opens up the Gear 360 to more users – particularly the creative set. With greater support for 360 content from Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and Twitter, there are now also more places to view them, which has been a complaint of ours in the past.
Samsung will also have software for MacOS and Windows to view the content. The Windows version will also allow for some editing. As of press time, the software was not available to try.
Imagine tuning in to a live event and being able to control the point of view. With Facebook and YouTube, you can conduct a live 360-degree broadcast with the Gear 360. From the app’s home screen, the live broadcast takes you to either Facebook or YouTube, and you can do a live-stream as you would with your phone – except, it’s spherical. Activating live streaming requires the app; it can’t be done from the camera. You’ll also need to have YouTube or Facebook installed.
It works well, and it’s easy to do – a few taps and, before you know it, you’re on air. Due to bandwidth and compression, you can’t broadcast at 4K and picture quality will look so-so, even if there’s plenty of light. It’s not the fault of the camera – limitations of current network infrastructure – but the ability to pan around the video is neat. We wouldn’t want to watch a 360 live feed of someone sitting on the couch, but a concert, interesting landmark during travels, or the interior of a house for sale? Sure.
As mentioned, we ran into issues with power after 23 minutes of Facebook Live. The limited battery life is a concern, since the camera will be drawing more power than normal. Unlike a camera like the Mevo, which is designed for live broadcasting, the Gear 360, right now, may be better suited for shorter live clips.
Performance and use
The original Gear 360 wasn’t painful to use, but it didn’t evoke fun either. The redesigned handle of the new Gear 360 makes it easier to hold and control. As with the first camera, your fingers will appear in the picture when it’s handheld. A better solution is to put it on a compact tripod (we used the PolarPro Trippler, a pole that converts into a tripod and includes a useful adjustable ball head).
Changing modes requires pushing the Mode button and pressing the record button to select – easy. We like using it with a phone not only for live view, but also to change settings that aren’t available on the camera itself. Again, the connection between phone and camera was always smooth, and we never experienced any delays in performance.
It pairs seamlessly with a Samsung phone, and the app runs faster.
Despite the big-number specs, you should lower your expectations when it comes to picture quality. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t great. In most cases, the camera in your phone can do better. When viewed on a phone screen or in small sizes on a monitor, the images and videos look good, but when you expand it you’ll notice the roughness – colors could be more vivid, edges could be sharper, and there’s a bit of noise. Single-lens shots do look better, but you get less resolution and it defeats the purpose of a 360 camera.
It also doesn’t help that Facebook and YouTube apply additional compression. The 360 content we uploaded to Facebook looks the worse. YouTube is better, and it will support up to 2,160 (what YouTube considers 4K), but it needs a display that can handle that resolution – otherwise the video looks choppy.
But, again, this isn’t a camera for great image quality (there are better cameras for that) – it’s for capturing 360-degree content. Add the ability to handle live broadcasting, ease of use, and a satisfying app experience, and we can overlook some of the quality shortcomings – it’s still nascent technology. We wouldn’t want to view everything in 360, but for some things it can be a lot of fun.
Pricing and availability
The Gear 360 is available from retailers starting May 25 for $230. That’s quite a savings over the original, which cost $350 when it launched last year. Additionally, if you’re in the market for a new smartphone, Samsung will sell you a Galaxy S8 or S8 Plus along with the new Gear 360 for just an extra $50. That offer lasts until June 19.
Overall, the new Gear 360 is a big improvement over its predecessor – it’s refined to the point that we actually want to use it. But, this is a market that nobody yet owns, and every 360-degree camera has its quirks. The Gear 360 is no exception.
Is there a better alternative?
For now, the Gear 360 is a great little 360-degree camera that just works – provided you own one of the supported phones. Otherwise, you should look into something else if you want to be a 360-degree early adopter.
On the consumer end, no camera offers superior image quality, and while the Gear 360’s is no exception, it’s better than most. Samsung made a well-built product, and the enhancements it made to the app and adding live broadcasting sweeten the deal. Few 360-degree cameras we’ve used achieve this, including Samsung’s first attempt.
The Gear 360, however, isn’t the easiest to use. Cameras such as the Giroptic iO and Insta360 Air connect directly to a phone, and don’t require any pairing – just plug the camera into the phone’s Lightning or USB port, and it’s ready to go. Both cameras also support live broadcasting. If ease of use is your prime concern, these two might be better options.
But, this is a growing sector and we don’t think lesser image quality will continue to get a pass in the future. Ricoh, which got into the 360-degree game a while ago, is working on a 4K version of its Theta, to be announced later this year. The Theta S, which took very good photos, was one of the better 360-degree cameras we’ve used. Video was its Achilles’ heel, but having demonstrated a 4K prototype at the NAB Show and a live-streaming version at CES 2017, we think video will be a primary focus, especially if virtual reality headsets are still on track to take off. We also expect to see new models from Kodak Pixpro, Acer, GoPro, etc., as well as Samsung, we would guess.
How long will it last?
Samsung is generally good at making solid, quality products, and the Gear 360 is no exception. It’s well built – better than the LG 360, construction wise. Its weird design doesn’t impede its usefulness.
Should you buy it?
Yes, if you want to a fun little toy for uploading 360-degree content to share with friends on Facebook or YouTube. But we say this with hesitation: 360-degree content creation for consumers is still in its infancy – a fad, even if Facebook and YouTube are expanding support – and you should know what you’re getting into. While the Gear 360 is enjoyable and passable for what’s available today, it could be a different story next year, as hardware and software continue to improve. Treat the Gear 360 as an accessory for creative content, not as a primary camera, and focus on the fun aspects of 360-degree content and worry less about the image quality or whether it will be obsolete next year.
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