When the Galaxy S8 was unveiled in late March, it wasn’t the only premium product in Samsung’s catalog that received a massive overhaul. The Gear 360 camera also got an impressive redesign, turning it from a somewhat clumsy sphere into a neatly pocketable stick.
But the 360’s case isn’t the only thing that changed. The device’s cameras have actually been downgraded—from dual 15MP fisheye lenses to dual 8.4MP fisheye lenses. Still, despite the lesser lenses, the Gear 360 is now able to record in 4K or broadcast live in 2K. Additionally, an updated Gear 360 app makes the new hardware compatible with a wider range of phones, including the iPhone. Beyond all of that, the new Gear 360 uses USB-C instead of microUSB, and there’s still a slot for an SD card.
While the option to use non-Galaxy phones looks good on paper, you really need a Galaxy phone to take full advantage of the camera’s features.
The Gear 360 is easier than ever to use, as long as you own a Samsung phone. To get started, you’ll need to download the Gear 360 app from the iOS or Galaxy app store, and follow some simple setup instructions. Galaxy S8, S7, and S6 users, as well as Note5, and Galaxy A5 and A7 owners, will barely need to do anything other than turn the camera on, and wait a few seconds for a connection to be established.
Once the two are paired, you’ll see a series of options. There’s a gallery that shows the photos and videos you’ve taken, and a live broadcast button that streams your content to YouTube or Facebook. As you record or broadcast, you’ll see a live preview of what’s being shot, and when you’ve finished, your recording will be saved to an in-app gallery.
Controls are super simple, with a pair of buttons for power and menu on the side, and a large recording button on the front. The Gear 360’s light yet sturdy design is definitely travel-friendly (you get a bundled strap and sturdy case), and the 1,160 mAh battery is more than capable of capturing a lengthy recording session. The Gear 360 also makes adorable sounds when its buttons are pressed, giving it a BB8 or R2D2 vibe.
Hands not so free
In addition to selecting which camera you’d like to use (front, rear, or both), there are several shooting modes that will change how videos are captured. 360 degree mode gives you a standard circular image, while round mode is sort of like a bug’s-eye view, projecting from the ground up.
Stretched mode eliminates the fish-eyeing, and flattens the image. Dual mode shows the front and the back images at the same time, and Panoramic mode crams the whole scene into one single shot. You can also view videos with the Gear VR headset, if you have one.
While the new 360 is easier to hold than the first-generation model, my fingers tended to get in the way quite a bit. As with all 360-degree cameras, the lenses are designed to capture a scene above and below the main shooting area, and it was extremely difficult to hold the camera without seeing at least a bit of my hand in the bottom of the screen.
There is a screw hole at the bottom to attach a tripod—and the message on the screen before shooting does encourage you to use one. Nonetheless, the compact design begs you to pick up the Gear 360 and use it as a handheld, so I imagine people will be frustrated with its somewhat clumsy nature. Indeed, it looks like a stick that should be held, so it’s strange that Samsung didn’t design it for that purpose.
When it comes to the iPhone, the whole process is quite a bit trickier. After turning the camera on, you’ll need to press and hold the menu button to start what’s described as “pairing.” Then you have to tap the menu button to cycle through the options until you see “Connect to iOS.”
On your phone, head over to the Wi-Fi settings, select the Gear 360 network, and type the string of numbers that appears on the camera’s tiny screen in the password field. Then head back to the Gear 360 app and wait for the connection to be established.
Each time you want to use your camera, you’ll need to connect to the same Wi-Fi network, so it’s not exactly plug and play. Since it doesn’t use Bluetooth, you won’t be able to broadcast live, and I wasn’t able to see a preview on my iPhone 6S while recording video (though there was a preview on the iPhone 7). Lacking a preview, it was all but impossible to record. I also experienced several crashes while saving videos, sometimes causing me to lose what I had recorded.
Videos and images are high-quality and mostly lag-free, though recording was obviously easier with the iPhone 7 and S8’s live preview window. But with a crippled app and some bugs, even iPhone 7 users will likely want to try a different camera for their 360 video needs.
But the best thing about the Gear 360 may be the price. While the original model came in at a hefty $350, the new camera costs just $230. And if you buy it alongside a new S8 by June 19, it brings the price down to $49, which is a downright steal.