Samsung’s original Gear 360 camera was never for me. It was aimed at the type of person willing to jump out of a plane just for the YouTube views or someone that fancies going dirtbike racing first thing on a Saturday morning. I thought I’d never be that person, and an action camera that didn’t play ball with 99% of smartphones didn’t help.
But, Samsung’s newly-designed 360-degree camera improves on almost every weakness of its predecessor, and has more than piqued my interest. Perhaps it’s time for a lifestyle change.
Samsung Gear 360 review: Tl;dr
This is Samsung’s 2017 remake of its 360-degree video camera, first introduced alongside the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge in 2016. It employs a pair of back-to-back 8.4-megapixel f/2.2 fisheye cameras to create 360-degree photos and video. If you want to dip your feet into creating VR content for the first time, its quality, ease of use and pocketability means it’s the 360-degree camera to get right now.
Samsung Gear 360 review: Price and competition
A big part of the reason for that is that Samsung has made great strides when it comes to price. Where its first stab at a 360-degree video camera would have set you back £350, making it near-impossible to recommend, this new version is dramatically reduced cheaper with a price cut of £130 bringing the price down to £219.
The market for 360 cameras isn’t huge yet, so alternatives are limited. At £300 you have the Ricoh Theta S; there’s the dinky Insta 360 smartphone add-on offering a slightly cheaper alternative at £200; while Nikon aims for professionals with its wallet-wilting £420 KeyMission 360. None of these is as easy to use or produces 360 images that look as good as from this Samsung, though.
Samsung Gear 360 review: Design and functionality
Aside from the price, the most obvious change to the Gear 360 in 2017 is that it’s seen a substantial facelift, with the old chunky golf ball and tripod setup replaced by a far simpler, all-in-one shape. The 360 “ball” on the top is considerably smaller, while the handle, which makes it perfect for one-handed 360-degree live streaming, is connected to it to form a seamless, ergonomic grip.
This radical redesign makes way more sense than its predecessor. While last year’s design was hardly atrocious, it was a little too bulky to carry around and fit in your pocket. This new and improved moulded grip is much more appealing, fitting snug in your palm with the big, round record button sitting naturally under your thumb.
However, there’s a worrying flaw with this impressive new design: it doesn’t stand up too well on its own. The slim handle, which houses the tripod thread, is so small and the camera is so top-heavy that the slightest of breezes sends it toppling.
Samsung rectifies this by including a rubber ring in the box, which fits around the base for added stability and attaches to the camera via a lanyard. It’s not exactly elegant, though, and feels very much like an afterthought; if you’re thinking of buying one, I recommend you invest in a compact tripod for your static shots, at least for extra peace of mind.
The other most significant development is compatibility with a wider range of phones. Last year’s 360 only worked with a meagre selection, but this time around, Samsung’s 2017 mid-range A5 and A7 are included in the list alongside every flagship from the S6 up, as well as iPhones running iOS 10 or later.
Other than that, similarities between this year’s Gear 360 and its predecessor can still be spotted. There’s still microSD storage – found under a flap on the handle – and there’s a tiny monochrome display telling you which mode you’ve selected, as well as its battery status. There’s no removable battery this year, though.
Samsung Gear 360 review: Camera
This year, the Gear 360 uses its two 8.4-megapixel sensors to record 4K 360-degree video at a resolution of 4,096 x 2,048, a slight bump over last year’s 3,840 x 1,920 at 30fps, while single-sensor recordings max out at a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 at 60fps. Fifteen-megapixel 360 stills are also on the cards.
As before, footage can be viewed live via Bluetooth on any of the supported devices or recorded manually from the camera itself directly to any UHS-1 speed rated microSD card. All settings can be cycled through without the need of a handset but to get the best experience, and to help frame your shots, I’d recommend using this in tandem with the Samsung app and your phone where possible.
Captured footage is pixel perfect when viewed on a smartphone screen, and although softer edges and ill-defined details can be spotted when viewed on a larger screen, quality is impressive nonetheless. Just try and get as much light in shots as possible, though: the Gear 360’s f/2.2 cameras don’t fare too well in darker conditions, with noisy footage and stills and clear evidence of compression artifacting.
Audio quality, meanwhile, such as speech and background noise, is clear even on the windiest of days, so long as you have wind noise reduction feature enabled.
As for battery life, I took the Samsung Gear 360 on a Saturday evening out around Greenwich and the Royal Observatory, filming the sights and taking full advantage of the shooting modes on offer. After I’d returned home the (non-removable) 1,350mAh battery had dropped to 28%, so it’s perfectly suited to lengthy VR filming sessions. Expect 130-minutes of footage at 2,560 x 1,280 at 30fps, but if you want to record for longer, you can attach a USB battery pack or power the camera from the mains while recording.
Samsung Gear 360 review: Verdict
This year’s Gear 360 remake heralds some welcome changes. It’s far more portable, is compatible with more phones and it adds 360-degree live video for a little extra spice. I’m not a fan of the move to a non-removable battery but Samsung is going in the right direction with the Gear 360 and it rightly earns the title of best VR camera on the market.
The price, however, is the thing that swings it for me. This year’s Samsung Gear 360 is in shops now at a mere £219, undercutting that old and not-as-good Gear 360 by £130. The choice is obvious, take the leap, and while you’re at it film yourself doing so in glorious, 4k 360-degree video.