Samsung stopped in the middle of its big Galaxy S8 unveil to hand out a new Gear 360 to the crowd. With that camera came instructions to have fun capturing the world around us in a new way, and while 360-degree cameras aren't new to me it's still exciting to see what Samsung has in store for the next Gear 360. Here's what I have to say after using this camera for the last week.
For starters, I want to make sure it is clear this is in no way a full review of this camera. The Gear 360 (2017) was delivered in a little cardboard box with no instruction manual, lens protection, or even a charging cable. The only thing I got in the box, besides the camera, was a QR code to download a beta version of the Gear 360 app for handling this new camera. This is hardware given to me before retail packaging with unfinished software, so none of my opinions are final and very little about the overall experience is set in stone.
That having been said, I've had a lot of fun with this camera so far.
Samsung has traded the sphere design for something more like a stick, but instead of a rounded rectangle body we get a nice round body with plenty of grip. The single button on the side of the body is easy to find and press without looking, with the power and menu buttons out of the way up near the lenses. This keeps you from accidentally hitting any buttons, so you can quickly grab the camera and capture with confidence.
It's smaller than last year's version, but the 2017 Gear 360 is still pretty chunky.
Just above that single button is a display, and like the previous version of this camera it's easy enough to read in direct sunlight that you don't need to grab you phone when you're supposed to be enjoying the moment. Through this display you can see how much storage you have left, read to you in photos or video time remaining, and an icon with text for the shooting mode you are currently on. Tapping the menu button on the side of the camera will allow you to cycle through Photo, Video, Time Lapse, HDR Landscape, and Looping Video.
While the Gear 360 has stepped away from the orb shape with all of the computer bits in between the lenses, it's still a little chunkier than most other 360-degree cameras. This camera is more pocketable than its predecessor, but still a little on the awkward side. Ricoh, LG, and Insta360 all have less physical space between the two fisheye lenses that work together to take a photo. The farther apart the lenses are, the more work software has to do to make the sphere seamless. In its current state, the sphere created by the Gear 360 is far from seamless.
The blurry line splitting the two halves of the sphere appear in every photo, but are most apparent when using the HDR photo mode shown in the above image — which is a shame, because it otherwise does a great job addressing the biggest problem with 360-degree cameras in difficult lighting. On most consumer 360-degree cameras, this photo would have been completely blown out on one half of the sphere due to the sunlight.
Samsung's HDR Landscape handled it much better, though it takes significantly longer to take these photos when compared to the normal button press. As the name suggests, this mode is only really useful if you're taking photos of a landscape with little or no movement. You're also going to want a tripod or something to keep the camera steady.
You have a lot more flexibility when it comes to shooting video on the Gear 360, but only if you use the app to set things up the way you want. The Gear 360 app lets you choose between 4K video at 24fps and 720p video at 120fps, with a number of options in between. These options are incredibly important for a number of reasons, but VR is the most important. By offering 360-degree video at 60fps or 120fps, you ensure the videos are much easier to watch inside a VR headset.
The Gear 360 does a great job addressing the biggest problem with 360-degree cameras in difficult lighting.
The general rule of thumb here is based on motion: increase your FPS when you increase motion, or you risk nauseating some of the people watching. Samsung doesn't do a great job explaining this anywhere, but the options available are very easy to switch between. What would be especially cool here would be a quick button to send the video you're looking at directly into a Gear VR app for you to quickly view, but right now that's not an option.
Everything you do on this camera is stored initially to the microSD card in the camera. This unit came with a 32GB card from Samsung, which is enough for thousands of photos and hours of 360-degree video. When you're ready to view or share what you've captured, it's time to head to the app on your phone.
The Gear 360 app establishes a Wi-Fi Direct connection with the camera, and lets you either transfer files to your phone or use the app as a remote shutter for the camera. Like the original Gear 360, using Wi-Fi Direct means a faster and more stable connection to the camera than the usual Bluetooth. It also means you're going to drain your battery if you leave the app open for particularly long, which is why there's a notification warning you to turn it off.
While the app works well enough in its beta form, it only works on modern Samsung phones and no update is going to fix that. Which is a bummer, because while you don't need a Samsung phone to take pictures you need the app in order to stitch the two halves together to make a sphere. To make things even weirder, there's eventually going to be an iOS version of the app, so in relatively short order there will be more iPhones able to use Samsung's camera than Android phones. There's also a YouTube live streaming feature in the app, but it only works on Android 7.0 or greater and in its current form isn't particularly stable.
As it stands right now, there's a lot to like about the Gear 360. The camera is easy to use, the software offers a lot of useful new features, and the battery will get you at least four hours of fairly constant use. It's small enough to be reasonably portable as long as you have something to protect the lenses, and it just plain looks nice. Assuming Samsung is working on making the stitching a little smoother while we wait for release details that are a little more specific than "sometime in April or May" this will be a great camera to use just about anywhere.
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