Review: Samsung Gear 360
Samsung Gear VR. Photograph: Bloomberg
Product name: Samsung Gear 360
Where to buy: arnotts.ie
Virtual reality is the big craze of 2016, and it didn’t take too long before the VR cameras started emerging.
Samsung’s Gear 360 isn’t the first to market - Ricoh, LG and Kodak all have 360 cameras on sale - but the Gear 360 is probably among the most user friendly. It even looks non-threatening: a white sphere with two lenses, one front and one back. Minimal controls on the device make it easy to pick up and start using. You have a choice of a few modes too: photo, video, looping video or time lapse. You choose to shoot with just the front or the rear lens for a 180 degree shot. And when you’re done, you can take all the video and photos, and share them with friends and family.
How easy you find this all depends, though, on if you’ve bought into the Samsung ecosystem. The Gear 360 is made to work with Samsung products, specifically phones and the Gear VR headset. The Galaxy S7 phone is one of the only handsets that can officially install the Gear 360 manager, which allows you to import and stitch video directly to your phone. Unofficially, there are some apps out there that have been modified to work with the Gear 360, but I wouldn’t count on them.
The camera can be used without an S7, but it limits things like live view and stitching on mobile devices. Without the S7, your only other option is to edit your footage on a Windows PC (no Mac software just yet).
One thing you will have to get used to with the Gear 360 is positioning the camera so you get as little distortion as possible. Getting in the headspace of you being the camera is an adjustment. It’s not just a matter of plonking the camera on a tripod and hoping for the best; you have to really think about where you’re positioning relative to your intended subject. Too close to a person or at the wrong angle and you’ll end up with a distorted view.
Once you keep in mind where the stitch line is likely to be though, things get a little better. There are a few different option on quality, including one billed as 4K.
The Gear 360 ticks all the right boxes. It’s easy to get started with, and getting the footage off the camera and ready to share is relatively easy. One warning though: the bigger (and longer) those files are, the more time you’ll spend transferring them off the card to your phone. It’s a slow, frustrating process, not helped by the fact that the Gear 360 Manager app occasionally stalls, crashes and puts you back to square one.
It’s resonably robust too, thugh you might want to be careful of those lenses. They don’t seem to scratch that easily - I haven’t exactly been overly cautious - but there’s little protection if you aren’t paying attention. It will stand up to a couple of bumps and drops too.
But one problem with the Gear 360 is only encountered when you try to use the device for extended periods of time. It’s not intended for long shooting sessions. Try to shoot video for too long and it overheats; when that happens, it stops recording and shuts down. At that point, I took out the battery, which was giving off some serious heat, and let the whole thing cool down. But that’s not practical if you plan on using the Gear 360 to record live events or talks; nor is switching the battery out for a new one mid-shoot.
Part of the problem could be the micro SD card. Cards with slower write speeds seem to overheat much more quickly, so investing in a high speed card could help minimise the problem. hand in hand with that is the resolution you are shooting at; I found the 4K video clips caused the camera to heat up a lot quicker.
The most sensible option is to keep the video clips short, 15 minutes to half an hour depending on the quality of the video you are shooting.
It’s not a problem with still shots, but if you’re investing in this camera, you’ll probably want it to do something you can’t manage with your smartphone.
That’s not the only limitation you should know about. Recording videos looks like its seamless when you are keeping an eye on the tiny display on the camera; looking at the video files on the card, however, you’ll see the video is actually split into multiple files. The length of those files depends on the quality of video you are shooting; the 4K videos will be shorter files, but better video quality.
It’s not a huge problem; the video itself is seamless, but you might find the audio isn’t quite perfect.
Easy to set up and use, the Gear 360 makes VR shooting more accessible to the masses - provided the buy into the Samsung eco system.
The not so good
Samsung has limited the camera’s use with the Gear Manager app to its high end smartphones. If you want to use the live view, you’ll need to buy into Samsung’s other devices, and that is incredibly restricting. Samsung abandoned a previous strategy for its smartwatches, so it is curious that it is trying once again with a camera.
The overheating issue is also a major problem if you want to use this for anything longer than 30 minutes.
Prepare to invest in a large memory card for this. There’s no internal memory on the Gear 360 at all, so you’ll need to cover all your bases.
The verdict: three stars
The Gear 360 is a good entry point into VR video for even the most inexperienced filmmaker. A few teething troubles to iron out, but it’s a good start for Samsung.