Samsung Gear 360 (2017) Review
Image resolution takes a big hit, but it doesn't have a pronounced impact on our ability to enjoy the Gear 360
When you're creating content with a device like the Gear 360, you have to be aware of certain sacrifices inherent to the hardware. Rather than simply using an image sensor to record the light directly in front of the camera, we're using some big lenses to draw in light from every angle – and cramming all that data onto a standard image sensor results in lower fidelity than you're likely used to.
That means that even moderately distant objects tend not to be super-clear, nor is every area around the camera captured with the same level of detail. And when you're rendering 360-degree footage during playback, there's lots of computational overhead, such that video can appear quite jerky if you try to push the resolution higher than your system can handle.
But that's nothing new to this year's Gear 360, and so long as you go in aware of the kind of content it can record, there's no reason to be unhappy.
When first reviewing the Gear 360, we were impressed with how good a job it did (compared to LG's camera, at least) at stitching together the two halves of its video. Once again, that's largely the case here. We say “largely” because there are still problems when really close up to the camera – and we're not sure there's much to do about that. But take a step back, and things look much, much better. Sometimes, though, the camera has a habit of over-correcting itself, shifting the two halves of its video back and forth as the Gear 360's software attempts to do a better job at eliminating seams. We also see some of the same old problems with exposure, where one side of the camera is better lit than the other – and things like background walls or the sky go through abrupt brightness changes.
How to save and upload 360 content
Sharing options are plentiful and easy to use, but the export process still feels clunkier than it needs to be
Samsung once again goes with high-efficiency H265 compression for recording Gear 360 videos. In theory, that's a great move, but software support for H265 isn't nearly as widespread as the more popular H264. Perhaps as a result, when you export videos through Samsung's Gear 360 app, they're transcoded to H264 for your phone.
While that makes the videos easier to work with, it also greatly increases file size. For instance, we recorded a short clip using just one of the Gear 360's lenses, resulting in a widescreen 1920 x 1080 H265 video, coming in at around 64MB. But when saving that same video from the Gear 360 to a Galaxy phone, Samsung's app doubled the file size to 124MB while recompressing in H264. As a consequence, if you're looking for the best video quality and smallest file sizes (and you're shooting one-lens, so you don't need any post-processing stitching), you might just be better off pulling the Gear 360's microSD card and offloading your videos manually.
This isn't helped by slow transfers from Gear 360 to phone. Sending a one-minute video from the camera to a Galaxy S7 edge handset took over a minute and a half – and it's never good when transferring footage takes longer than originally recording it. And while the situation seems improved compared to last year, both the phone and the Gear 360 itself can get a bit hot while transferring (and recompressing) files.
New for this year's Gear 360 is the ability to live-stream footage over YouTube, Facebook, or Samsung's own Gear VR service. We took it for a spin using an early release of Samsung's Gear 360 software, and while the feature did work, it wasn't without a few hiccups here and there. Those include issues juggling multiple YouTube accounts, and problems trying to share Gear VR streaming links via text message. We fully expect to see these bumps ironed out soon, as the ability to stream live in full 360-degree panorama is a big draw of this new hardware. Just make sure you're running your phone's latest system software; Android streaming is restricted to Nougat only.
Even with battery downgrades, the new Gear 360 comes well equipped for on-the-go operation
Compared to last year's Gear 360, this new model makes a few sacrifices when it comes to its battery. For one, it's fourteen percent lower capacity, now measuring in at 1,160mAh. It's also no longer removable, and while we doubt many users were swapping out batteries in the middle of the day, that was still a nice option to have, especially if you were out shooting a ton of footage.
On the plus side, the Gear 360's charging port is now fully exposed; it used to be a micro-USB port hidden under the camera's waterproof flap, but now it's a USB Type-C port that's accessible without compromising waterproofing. That makes it possible to keep the camera plugged into an external power source while you're using it – a huge advantage if you intend on doing any lengthy streaming.
But even without external power, the Gear 360 lasts a decently long time on a charge. We carried around the camera for a weekend, shooting a variety of minute-long video clips throughout the day, as well as a number of still pics, and battery life was still north of 60 percent. With heavier usage, you might run into a few issues, but the battery size seems more than adequate for casual filming.
At least, that's the case for actually recording video – but the Gear 360 also chews up battery while wirelessly exporting its footage, and sometimes quite a bit. The good news there is that's it's a lot easier to have your Gear 360 plugged in while exporting, but it's still an issue worth being aware of: this camera burns though its battery at both ends.
There's little denying that the new Gear 360 is a lot of fun: it produces footage that is difficult or impossible to reproduce with conventional camera hardware, makes sharing that footage with friends easy, and is hugely more convenient to carry around and operate than the first-gen Gear 360.
Samsung also delivers improvements in terms of functionality with live-stream support, as well as powering the camera, by way of the now-external USB port. That said, the 2017 Gear 360 feels more like a new shell around the original device than a fully-baked next-gen product. For as much satisfaction as we got out of using the hardware, we still found ourselves wondering about the possibilities of higher-fidelity imagery, less restrictive compatibility with non-Samsung Android devices, and the kind of thorough ruggedization and waterproofing that would elevate the Gear 360 to full action-cam status.
But just because we're dreaming of a slightly different product doesn't mean that this one is bad, and especially if you're a heavy Samsung user and didn't manage to pick up the original Gear 360, this new camera can be incredibly appealing.
Ultimately, though, it's going to come down to pricing. Let's face it: few of us really need a camera like this, and it's hard to shake the feeling of it being a kind-of gimmicky extravagance. Luckily, it's a very fun one, but an affordable price can go a long way towards convincing shoppers to drop some coin on such a device. Last year, the first Gear 360 was seriously on the expensive side, launching at around $350.
With a new, smaller build, as well as lower-res cameras, will this new version arrive at just a fraction of that price? That's a very good question, and one we don't have the answer for just yet. We're also curious to get a final look at the latest Gear 360 software, having run an early version that supports this new hardware.
But as we wait to learn the rest of those details, we're still pretty darn enthusiastic about what Samsung's managed to put together here. 360-degree filming may still be far from mainstream, but the new Gear 360 sure feels like a definite step in the right direction.