If the Samsung Gear VR was selling for double its $99 price, we'd probably still be recommending it as one of the coolest purchases you can make right now.
Sure, you might be waiting for Oculus, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR but this is different. This takes seconds to set up and, most importantly, there are games and short films and TV shows for it that you can watch and play right now.
The Gear VR is a tricky device to test because it has zero competition. There are faults and I'll detail those but please just add '...but it's really fun' after pretty much every moan and niggle.
If you have a Samsung phone and you're up for getting a taste of what's to come next year, then the Gear VR is a no brainer.
Samsung Gear VR: What's it like?
Let's assume you haven't tried VR before. Or if you have, it was two minutes in a Samsung store or putting a DIY Cardboard 'headset' up to your face.
Samsung's Gear VR is actually wearable in the sense that you strap it around your head and - in theory - your eyes are completely enclosed. Thanks to an accelerometer and gyroscope, it knows how you are tilting or moving your head so your view of the VR world changes as you roll or turn your head up, down, side to side or swivel around entirely. You control the UI and apps by using your gaze, tapping and swiping on the touchpad or connecting a Bluetooth controller. Playing on a swivel chair or standing up often means a better overall experience.
Powered by Oculus on a Samsung Galaxy S6/S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or Galaxy Note 5, with not one but two app stores, you can transport yourself to 3D, CG animated worlds and 180 or 360 degree live action scenes. And it's not all games. Some VR creations are meant to be experienced simply by looking around a scene.
It's immersive, sure, and that's the buzzword but you won't just be immersed by the images and audio, you'll feel like you're really there. If you find yourself at the edge of a rock in ustwo's Gear VR gameLand's End, you'll get a bit of vertigo, it's that powerful. In short, it's magic.
Samsung Gear VR: What's new?
If like me you've been with Samsung every step of the way with the first Gear VR and the Innovator Edition, the first thing you'll notice is how light this is - down to 318g from 393g without your phone slotted in. Samsung's headset has always been comfortable but with this one, there's better foam cushioning and much less chance of getting that feeling that you need to tilt your head higher and higher to stop a heavy-ish headset annoying your nose.
Read this: 50 gamechangers in wearable tech for 2016
This consumer version of the headset also essentially has more room for your face, which is designed to allow easier viewing for glasses wearers. Even with the advent of contact lenses, I'm going to assume the Venn diagram of nerds and speccy-four-eyes is still pretty strong so that's a good thing. But if you don't need the room - say, you have 20-20 vision and a small head - you might find that some light gets through. Another small change, that the inside of the Gear VR is white now, not black as before, doesn't help either. That's a pain.
The last real change, the new, embossed touchpad, is another design refinement. We're divided over how we feel about the new touchpad in the Wareable office. To someone who has never used a headset before, it might be easier to find your bearings and it's also wider. But when you're actually tapping and swiping in a game like Gunjack, we can't help missing the old smoothie on the Innovator Edition a little.
As before, the Gear VR is wireless, portable and easy to pick up and play. I actually found it a bit of a faff to cart it around to and from the office (settling on keeping it in its plastic container from the box) so it's probably worth getting a nice case if you plan to do this. It's a minor gripe, considering this is an awesome bit of VR kit, but you won't want to bash it about too much.
Most of what I said about the previous Samsung headsets apply here: personally I wouldn't wear this on the train just yet; my Galaxy S6 Edge slotted into the headset securely and with the cover for the front; it feels like a complete product that won't fall apart if not a premium one.
Samsung Gear VR: Apps and games
The Gear VR is the only high profile VR headset that is actually on sale yet. But if you compare the selection of apps, games and experiences on offer to what you'd get if you bought a Google Cardboard viewer, Samsung and Oculus now comfortably win. The omissions for now are Google's own efforts including YouTube and Street View.
Read this: Our pick of the best Google Cardboard apps
The Oculus and Milk VR selections are still small compared to say the iPhone's App Store. Don't get me wrong, and depending on how open you are to new genres, you might still run out of things to try out over the holidays. But it's big enough to give you real choice. There are now full games with replay value and more stuff is being added all the time. Seriously, we've been finding a couple of decent Gear VR titles popping up daily now in the December rush.
The quality of apps and games made for Gear VR is higher than Cardboard too and the boundaries are being pushed in terms of social interactions with Oculus' own Social Alpha, with controls in the CG animated Rosebud and with interactive storytelling in the True Detective-esque series GONE. And yes, there's a browser for VR too, which is currently in beta.
As the quality has gone up, so have the prices with plenty of $7.99, $9.99 and even $14.99 games now (it's all in dollars) available to download as well as free demos and experiences. Most of them are worth the money, but check out our pick of Gear VR apps, games and experiences so far first.
Samsung Gear VR: Picture and audio quality
I could rip apart the picture quality of the Gear VR compared to say, the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. And it is hard to see the amazing games and TV shows that are being created for Gear VR up close and low res, wishing that I had more pixels in front of my eyes.
The S6 Edge has a 5.1-inch, 1440 x 2560 AMOLED display which works as 577ppi and the Note 5 is bigger but slightly less sharp with a 5.7-inch, 2560 x 1440 (515ppi) display. They are both vivid with good contrast and guarantee a picture quality that, by contrast, varies a lot when using Cardboard with any old phone. The 96(ish) degree field of view is decent too - the phone's display is split in half for each eye then magnified by the lenses.
Back when I was a smartphone reviewer in another life, I would have written emphatically that we don't need any more pixels in smartphone screens. I've changed my mind. Forgetting the battery problem for now, let's do it for the sake of mobile VR, following Sony's lead with the 4K Xperia Z5. It makes me impatient for 2016 but at the same time, the overall package you get with the Samsung is a great trade-off. For now.
One point that might panic you picture wise is that the Gear VR does tend to fog up a little, depending on the temperature of the room. So you might see cloudy white circles on the lenses - these do go away as you settle in but it's interesting that Samsung removed the fans from the Innovator Edition - probably best as they didn't solve the problem.
It's an obvious one but I recommend using headphones with any Gear VR experience. Not just the ones which prompt you to, which is simple enough as your phone's headphone jack will be accessible. It's not just about feeling more immerse though, it also means you can get extra depth from spatial sound on Samsung's own apps and Milk VR experiences that take advantage of the tech. Then again, there is the fun factor of using your Samsung phone's speaker when making an idiot of yourself in front of friends.
Samsung Gear VR: Set up and UI
Setup is super easy - just slot your Samsung phone into the front of the Gear VR as you would with a Micro USB cable, put the headset on (after attaching and securing the straps) and then you will be prompted to download all the necessary Oculus apps.
The Oculus app, which has an icon with 'Gear VR' in it, is where you should head to download apps and games. It's quicker to do this on your phone than within VR, particularly for bigger downloads like GONE.
Follow the tutorial to look around the settings, especially getting back to brightness, do not disturb and the passthrough camera which are all useful. The main screen is Oculus Home, though, and you'll be gazing, swiping and tapping away through the big, colourful tiles in no time. One good thing to remember is that long pressing the back button above the touchpad gets you back to Oculus Home. Plus there's a volume key just in front of the touchpad and a dial on top to adjust focus. Not much has changed here, apart from the fact that there is simply a lot more to explore from Oculus and Samsung's Milk VR store.
Samsung Gear VR: How it compares
Well, it doesn't really. This is a real step up from a Cardboard viewer in terms of comfort, immersion and the quality of apps and games so it's no competition really. It's also good preparation for the high end, wired headsets coming for the PS4 and PC next year. I'm not saying the Gear VR experience compares to using an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, say, but now Samsung have dipped below the $100 mark, for some people it doesn't matter.
And we'll just say this one more time, you can buy the Gear VR now. Sony might be working on a rival, the HTC Vive is launching in April, Sony and Oculus release dates are still up in the air. This is an incredibly fun $99 stop gap if nothing else if, and it's a big if, you own a Samsung phone. It may even sway a few people over from rival smartphones if contracts are up.
- Great intro to VR
- Small but nice selection of apps and games
- On sale now
- Only works with recent Samsung phones
- Low-res next to high end headsets
- Fog is a pain