There are two main things that I’ve learned while reviewing the Samsung Gear 360, neither of them good. 1) My hair definitely looks thinner from above than I would like, and 2) My life isn’t really eventful enough to warrant having a 360 degree camera on me at all times.
Nonetheless, if your life does justify the extravagance, then the Samsung Gear 360 won’t let you down, though there are a few caveats I should throw in there – first of which is the whopping price tag. For the rest, you’ll just have to read on.
Samsung Gear 360: Design
The Samsung Gear 360 is a spherical camera, somewhere between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. Do you remember that episode of Red Dwarf where Kryton loses his eye, and it comes back on little legs? The resemblance is uncanny.
It’s somewhere between that and a Portal turret. Only this fits in the palm of your hand, and isn’t intent on killing you – unless you go to dangerous lengths to get that perfect 360 degree panoramic shot.
The camera section – which screws neatly on top of the tripod, and comes ready assembled – has two fisheye lenses on opposite sides. There are three buttons – “power/back”, “bluetooth connect/menu” and a big old “record” button on top. It also has a tiny LED display on top which provides basic information like battery life and how long you’ve been recording for.
Opposite the side buttons is a panel that springs open to reveal the battery slot, a microUSB charging port and a microSD slot. For £350, you’d really hope they’d throw in a microSD card – especially given Samsung make them – but prepare for disappointment. It won’t record anything without a card in place, either, because there’s no internal storage. That’s a tad stingy for such a pricey product.
The tripod can be removed, allowing you to attach the camera section to anything else with the right fitting, or the bundled wrist strap. It’s actually a very effective stand, offering sturdy support for the camera, and the three legs clip together to form a handle if you want to just hold it high above your head for an aerial shot.
All in all, it’s a very attractive little camera, which for the most part looks as expensive as it costs, with a nice space age aesthetic going for it. That said, a detached eyeball on stilts can only look so beautiful, so your mileage may vary.
Samsung Gear 360: Features
So, what can the Samsung Gear 360 offer you that your regular camera can’t? Well, 360 degree photos and videos, obviously. Sure, you can stitch images together with the latest smartphones by slowly panning around, but there are a number of problems with this: you need a steady hand, things may change while you’re panning around, and you look like a tool doing it. The Gear 360 fixes the first two of these issues, but the tool problem persists, as the disdain on the face of the gentleman behind me proves.
(Click on the image to see it in 360 degrees)
It’s not all about static images, of course. The real charm of the Gear 360 is that it lets you shoot 360-degree video at an almost-but-not-quite-4K resolution of 3,840 x 1,920 pixels. This can then be dropped straight onto YouTube’s 360 degree video channel, Facebook, or even viewed on your Gear VR headset to put people straight into your very own homemade VR film. As well as basic video recording, you can set the video to loop (so that it records over the start once you run out of space – handy if you’re waiting for something specific to happen) or timelapse, which takes a frame at set intervals, and allows for cool videos like this:
You’ll notice that’s not in 360 degrees. That’s because the camera lets you pick the front, back or both cameras to shoot from. The back camera would have just shot a wall, so on this occasion, I chose battery life and memory card space.
With the exception of timelapse mode, all of these allow you to preview the image from both lenses on your Galaxy smartphone, allowing you to – in theory – line up the perfect shot. I say “in theory” because, well, just look at my results. Sometimes the best gear is wasted on the worst photographers.
You’ll note I said “Galaxy smartphone”. Like the Gear VR – only with far less justification –
Samsung has chosen to limit support for the Gear 360 app to a comically small selection of phones. Unless your phone belongs to the Galaxy S6, S7 or Note 5 family, you’re bang out of luck. I mean, technically you could just use the Gear 360 on its own – and Samsung does include a code for Gear 360 ActionDirector in the box for desktop editors – but it makes it a lot more cumbersome.
Samsung Gear 360: Image quality
If you haven’t been able to tell from the images already included, from the price of the device and Samsung’s pedigree in this area, picture quality is very nice. The cameras are both 15MP f/2.0 fisheye lenses with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440, and they absorb a huge amount of detail with the right lighting.
And it works quite well in poorly-lit environments, too. Here’s a street in South London for you to try and recognise.
Despite the handful of basic options available (photograph, video, timelapse video, looped video), each one has a myriad of sub-options to play with. Taking just the photography settings, you can control the max ISO, add additional sharpening, fiddle with the exposure and white balance, and toggle HDR on and off. You can also set a timer for two, five or ten seconds to give you time to set the Gear 360 on its tripod, and then assume the kind of nonchalant pose that I’ve failed to demonstrate.
These more advanced options are limited to the app, which is why non-Galaxy owners will find the Gear 360 a frustrating experience, even if it is just about usable. The tiny LED screen on top of the camera does allow you to switch between the main settings, which is handy if you want to get a quick shot but doesn’t allow for more advanced tweaking.
Video is more or less the same. You can turn on stabilisation to make the video less shaky. Samsung’s own trailers show the Gear 360 being used GoPro style, strapped to a snowboarder, but my experiments were considerably more mundane. It’s all pretty solid, though the microphone is a touch reedy.
And although images do stitch together nicely, there are still obvious gaps in the inch and a half between the two lenses, as this timelapse video of myself and a friend enjoying a pint (and in his case, some cough syrup) demonstrates. Move the video down, and you’ll spot the drinks menu is unevenly stitched together.
Samsung Gear 360: Verdict
Firstly, $499 is fine if it’s something you want, and need. It’s very cool technology, after all. The walled garden approach Samsung take with this is an annoyance – while the Gear VR’s insistence on only working with Galaxy phones kind of makes sense (handsets have to physically fit in it, after all) this is just sheer bloody mindedness. And yes, you can use it without, but it’s a much less enjoyable experience all round.
It’s also pretty difficult to keep about your person. You try putting something slightly bigger than a snooker ball in your pocket 24 hours a day and see how practical it is. But despite these minor drawbacks, there’s no denying the Samsung Gear 360 is a gadget-addict’s dream come true. If it’s for you, you’ll know it. And if it is, you’ll love it, despite its sticking points.