Samsung Gear 360 (2017) Review
Technology has a funny way of operating in cycles, and while newer devices are always arriving to replace the old, wait long enough and you might just see trends circling back to where they began. Take mobile video recording, for instance. Back in the late 2000s, pocket camcorders like those sold under the Flip brand were convenient ways to easily record relatively high-quality video.
Recently, however, we've been seeing a new wave of interest in personal, portable camcorders, with the emphasis now on producing panoramic 360-degree content ready to be shared online on viewed with a virtual reality headset. While the move back to carrying around a second device may feel like a reversal of progress, it's actually a pretty pragmatic move, and considering the big fish-eye lenses we need to capture insanely wide-field-of-view video, and how you have to pair two of these units front-to-back for full 360-degree coverage, it makes a lot of sense to implement this as a new device, rather than drastically change the look and shape of smartphones.
Last year, we saw companies like LG and Samsung launch their first-gen 360-degree cameras, and while LG seems to be content with what it's already delivered, Samsung's already back to the drawing board with a new Gear 360. Is this revised camera a step in the right direction? Has Samsung fixed some of the issues we had with the first-gen Gear 360? And maybe most importantly, is this new hardware something you're going to want to pick up for yourself? Let's take a look at what you can expect from the 2017 Samsung Gear 360.
A smaller, more portable Gear 360 shines at hand-held operation
The first-gen Gear 360 looked like few other cameras we'd seen before, a bulky two-sided “eyeball” of a camera, with its own convenient mini tripod. It felt substantial and rugged, and offered enough hardware controls that you could operate the device independently of your smartphone with little difficulty.
Right away, that delivers some important usability improvements. For one, it gives the Gear 360 a proper grip, letting you easily manipulate and maneuver the camera to get the shot you're looking for. And with a flat bottom, it also doubles as a stand, so you can set the Gear 360 in one place and have it shoot footage unattended.
Now admittedly, this new base feel a little less stable than last year's fold-out tripod, but Samsung tries to mitigate that with a slide-on rubber O-ring that effectively widens the base and adds some extra tip-resistance. It's far from the most graceful solution we've ever seen, but it does seem effective, and the benefit of that built-in handle tends to outweigh issues with stand stability.
Having this new grip also allows Samsung to relocate the Gear 360's shutter button and tiny OLED display from that awkward up-top placement to right on the unit's side, in easy reach of your thumb. Samsung also moves the microSD slot down here, as well as a now-exposed USB port; it used to be that the Gear 360's charging port was hidden behind a water-resistant flap, but it's now out in the open, ready to be accessed even while you're shooting video.
Like the original Gear 360, this new model is IP53 dust and water resistant, and while that means the camera can survive an unexpected downpour, actual submersion is out of the question; you won't be using this 360 camera underwater.
Really, though, for all the changes Samsung's saw fit to implement for its second-gen 360 camera, easily the most important is improving the Gear 360's portability. The new design is substantially more convenient to carry around, and that makes it all the more likely that you'll have the camera on-hand when you actually need it to record an interesting moment.
Ease of use, companion apps and phone compatibility
A familiar interface returns on both phone and camera ends, and we still crave broader Android support
Operating the new Gear 360 isn't so much different from how you'd interact with last year's model. You choose your shooting mode (video, photo, time-lapse video, looping video, or landscape HDR photo) and set camera options (like which or both lenses to have active, and video/photo resolution) with a series of three hardware buttons: menu, back, and shutter/select. All the while, you can see where you are in the camera's menu structure by way of a tiny black-and-white OLED screen.
Sometimes it can be annoying to have to cycle past all those options after you accidentally miss the one you were going after, and it can take a bit of digging into nested menus to find the one you're looking for, but all of that gets much easier with practice. And once you have your options set to your liking, simply choosing a mode and starting to record is a breeze.
Just as it was last year, phone compatibility is still a big sticking point, and it's easily the biggest issue we have with the Gear 360. The good news is that Samsung's improved handset support for this new camera, extending access to iOS phones and a couple non-flagship Galaxy models.
But that still excludes the vast, vast majority of Android phones, including those from every other manufacturer. If this were an accessory like the Gear VR, where the phone itself is an intimate part of the user experience, and things like handset hardware dimensions are critical, we'd be a lot more understanding, but there doesn't seem to be a great reason why Samsung's refusing to play nicely with everyone else out there.
Maybe having complete control over both the hardware and software sides of the equation makes it easier to do things like setting up the Wi-Fi Direct connection your phone uses to transfer data from the Gear 360, but that there isn't at least some workable solution (even if of more limited functionality) for non-Samsung Android phones is nothing short of unforgivable in today's smartphone climate. Users tend to insist on broad compatibility, and it's shockingly arrogant of Samsung to act otherwise. That the company saw fit to extend support to Apple phones but not other Android models only serves to rub salt in those wounds; to call it annoying would be an understatement.
Sensors, lenses and specs comments
Samsung's dual-lens fisheye system returns in a revised, much more compact package
Not all progress is obvious, and much like the evolution of cameras on smartphones themselves, the sensors on this new generation of Gear 360 aren't interested in some pointless race to new megapixel heights. Instead, we see Samsung dramatically downgrade sensor resolution, moving from a pair of 15MP cameras on the original Gear 360 to the dual 8.4MP cameras in this new edition. Somewhat counter-intuitively, despite that resolution drop, the camera's top video recording option is now higher-res than before, moving from 3840 x 1920 to the slightly more pixel-dense 4096 x 2048. That improvement doesn't arrive without a cost, though, as while the former could be filmed at 30 frames per second, the new max res tops out at 24fps.
The more significant impact there comes from the effect on still-image capture, dropping from 30MP (when both cameras are in use) to just 15MP And if you're shooting one-lens, the resolution tops out at a tepid 3MP; what is this, 2005?
Honestly, though, we're already seeing a fair amount of noise (and corresponding loss of fidelity) when zooming in to 100%, so we're not exactly craving the ability to see that noise in finer and finer detail. For the vast majority of users, these new sensors are more than high-res enough to capture the footage they need, and the benefit we enjoy in terms of improved Gear 360 portability helps ease tensions further. We'll concede that moving to larger sensors would definitely help (and offer more leeway for higher-resolution shots, as well), but considering the Gear 360's market placement, we can understand why Samsung made the decisions it did.
Once again, Samsung employs a pair of fish-eye lenses to capture every angle around the camera – and then stitch those two halves together in software. The effect tends to work well at reasonable distances, though objects that are very close to the Gear 360 (within a couple feet) run the risk of stitch-related distortion.