Editors’ Note: This review has been updated to reflect improvements to the Samsung Gear 360’s accompanying iOS app, which addresses several issues we had when we first reviewed this iteration of the product earlier this year. The rating has been increased from 3.5 stars and the Gear 360 now earns our Editors’ Choice designation.
Samsung’s first Gear 360 video camera was a promising product, but one that fell short of expectations in real-world use. Despite capturing pretty decent 360-degree video, it was hampered by limited smartphone compatibility and shoddy software support. Samsung took note of criticisms when creating the 2017 edition of the Gear 360 ($229.99). It addresses those issues, adding support for iOS and macOS devices. We originally recommended the camera only for desktop editors and Samsung phone owners, but improvements to the iOS app have broadened its appeal, making it our Editors’ Choice among 360-degree video cameras.
The original Gear 360 was a fist-sized globe with a tripod mount. This one has a smaller camera globe, set atop a finger-length stalk that contains the battery. It measures 3.9 by 1.8 by 1.8 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.6 ounces. A rubbery ring can be placed around the base to keep it in place, where the old camera would have rolled away without a tripod. There’s also a standard tripod socket, so you can use the support of your liking—a GorillaPod or other support with flexible legs is a good match, as it will let you attach the camera to places where a normal tripod wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
The camera is IP53 rain resistant, but not waterproof. It charges and syncs via a USB-C port, and records to a microSD memory card. The battery is sealed in, but you can use it while it’s plugged in and charging. In our tests the battery was good for 90 minutes of recording in 4K, but you can expect longer use if you opt for a lower resolution—about two hours when shooting in 2K.
Wireless file transfers also take a toll. Transferring a seven-minute clip dropped the battery by about 15 percent and took 25 minutes if you use a recent smartphone like the Galaxy S7 or iPhone 7 Plus. If you have an older phone, expect the transfer to take longer, as video processing is part of the process—the same clip took about an hour to transfer to an iPhone 6 Plus.
You can use the camera without an app. It has a small monochrome information LCD that shows the current shooting mode, as well as Menu, Power/Back, and Record buttons. It’s easy enough to start and stop video with Record, and you can switch between image and video modes using the physical controls. Pairing the Gear with your phone gets you a Live View feed, as well as more robust controls, including exposure and white balance.
The two lenses are closer together on the new model, reducing stitching problems, and they record 4,096-by-2,048 4K video at 24 frames per second; no other frame rate options are available at full resolution. At Samsung’s HQ in Korea, product strategy VP Robert Kim said that the company is focusing on the 360 being a video rather than a still camera, so the two image sensors have dropped from 15 megapixels each to 8.4 megapixels each, producing 15-megapixel, 360-degree still images.
Samsung has also added live streaming to the 360. The camera doesn’t live stream directly, but it’ll relay through the Gear 360 app on a phone to stream to Facebook Live or YouTube. Live streaming requires a Samsung phone running Nougat—it worked fine on a Galaxy S7—or a computer running the dekstop software with the Gear connected via USB. You can’t stream using earlier versions of Android or iOS.
The new Gear 360 is compatible with Galaxy S6 or later flagship Samsung phones, the Galaxy A5 and A7, recent iOS phones, Macs, and PCs, but not non-Samsung Android phones. We’ve tested it with a Galaxy S6, Galaxy S7, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 7 Plus, iPad Air 2, and MacBook Pro.
The Android companion app is solid, much better than what we saw with the first Gear 360. The camera still records in H.265 format, which enjoys better support today than it did a year ago, but when you transfer video to your phone it’s automatically stitched and converted to the better-supported H.264 format, all at full resolution. The fact that you can work with full quality video on your phone is a big plus, and unlike the original Gear 360, we didn’t experience any overheating issues when transferring lengthy clips.
When we first looked at the Gear 360, the iOS app just didn’t work. But apps can be updated, and to Samsung’s credit it pushed out a new version that works very well. I tested the app with an iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 7, and both were able to receive and stitch video files from the camera, albeit at varying speeds. A 1-minute clip takes about 8.5 minutes to copy to the older phone, but the duration cut to 3.5 minutes with the much faster iPhone 7. The iOS-based workflow does take a slight step back in quality, reducing video resolution to 3,840 by 1,920, but it’s fine for quick sharing. Serious editing should be done on a desktop.
One of the downsides to moving 4K, 360-degree video to your phone is its size. Stitched video boasts a strong 60Mbps bit rate, but that also means you’re going to spend about 450MB of storage for every minute of video you store on your phone. And phone-based workflow is not practical if you own a phone with only 16GB of storage space. For more serious video work, you’ll want to use the desktop stitching tools.
And thankfully the desktop software is a lot better than it used to be. I installed the Gear 360 app on my MacBook Pro. You need to enter the camera’s serial number to activate it, but once you do you’ll be able to stream live video to YouTube, Facebook, or to a Gear VR headset, and import and stitch video and images from the Gear’s memory card.
Importing and stitching video is also improved. It takes a while—a 12-second clip requires about 2.5 minutes to stitch together using a 2.8GHz Core i5 CPU from 2014. I’d expect a newer, faster laptop to cut that time down. The dekstop app doesn’t have any editing tools, but once you’ve got video stitched you can edit clips using Premiere Pro CC or your preferred video editing suite.
Video and Image Quality
The video from the new Gear 360 has more pixels, but not by a huge margin. The first Gear 360 captured video at 3,840 by 1,920; this one ups the resolution to 4,096 by 2,048, about a 13-percent increase. But with spherical video, where everything is stretched out to cover a navigable 360-degree frame, every extra pixel helps.
At full resolution you’re locked into 24fps capture, which is ideal if you want your footage to have a cinematic look. But it’s not great if you’re an action sports junkie, as more frames are better for sports videos. A 60fps capture rate delivers smoother, crisper motion, and can be slowed down for fluid half-speed playback.
Live streaming is done at a much lesser quality, 1,920 by 960 at 15fps, so expect soft results. But that’s the price you pay for real-time stitching and broadcast.
Faster capture rates are available at lower resolutions—you can shoot at 30fps at 2,800 by 1,440, at 30 or 60fps at 2,560 by 1,280, at 30fps at 1,920 by 960, and at 120fps at 1,440 by 720. Oddly, 24fps capture is only available at the maximum resolution.
The Gear 360 also sets itself apart from the crowd by allowing traditional, flat 16:9 footage at 1080p using either of its lenses. That’s something the $500 Nkon KeyMission 360 doesn’t let you do. You can shoot at 30 or 60fps at 1080p, and at 30fps at 720p. Again, 24fps isn’t available with single-lens capture.
As far as video quality goes, it’s slightly stronger than what you get with the first Gear 360 or the Nikon KM360, but not significantly so. Details are decently crisp up close, although distant subjects are a bit blurred. That’s par for the course with the beyond-ultra-wide scope of a 360-degree camera.
There are some issues inherent in the format, including exposure differences beween the two lenses—point one at the sun and you’ll get a flare in half your video, and visible seams at very close distances. But you can adjust your framing and camera positioning to sidestep those. Chromatic aberation is fairly well controlled; we’ve seen serious purple fringing around tree branches in other cameras, but it’s not overt here. We’d liken the quality to a 720p 16:9 video. We’ll need to wait for 8K 360-degree cameras, which are on the horizon, to net significantly better quality.
Photo resolution has dropped from 25MP to 15.7MP. It’s a big drop, but since you’ll be viewing images on a screen rather than making prints, it’s not a huge deal. Like most cameras with small image sensors, the Gear delivers photos that are on par with what you get from a flagship smartphone camera. Image quality is strongest when subjects are closer to the lens—the ultra-wide nature of the camera means distant subjects aren’t going to look great, regardless of how many pixels are behind the glass. HDR image capture is also an option, as is time-lapse recording.
The new Gear 360 is a solid, affordable piece of hardware. It’s priced at $229, but has been selling for less for some time now, enhancing its value. We’d love to see it work with Android devices outside of the Samsung brand, but improved iOS support is a big plus in its favor, and you can edit video on either of the two major desktop operating system environments.
While a lot of folks look at a 360 camera as something you use with a smartphone—and some competing models require a smartphone to work—the Gear 360 can be used as an autonomous recording device. The computer, whether it be a handheld phone or a powerful desktop, is there for video editing and finishing, just as with traditional video cameras.
The Gear 360’s video is the best we’ve seen from a consumer-oriented 360-degree camera, and it comes in at less than half the cost of the Nikon KeyMission 360. It doesn’t have in-camera stitching like the Nikon, nor is it submersible, so there are some trade-offs. We still see 360-degree capture as a niche application, but if you’re keen on getting a camera that does it, the Gear 360 is our Editors’ Choice.