Samsung Gear VR hands-on review

Here's what our eyeballs made of Samsung's Note 4-powered virtual reality headset

The Samsung Gear VR - in case you missed it amongst the Note 4 and Note Edge news - is the South Korean tech giant's plan to bring virtual reality to the masses. Sort of.

Unlike the Oculus Rift which requires a PC, the Gear VR is powered completely by the Galaxy Note 4. Intrigued? Let's find out more:

READ MORE: Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2: eyes-on at Gamescom 2014

Refined design

The Gear VR's design actually looks a lot more refined than the Oculus Rift. While it clearly has some Rift DNA (as evidenced by the logo on its side), it looks sleeker and, well, more like a finished product.

Samsung Gear VR hands-on - Refined design 2

Given that the final retail version of the Rift has yet to be revealed, this is no surprise.

It felt comfortable for the ten minutes we were wearing it, though it was a little front-heavy thanks to the weight of the Note 4 that was slotted into it. The adjustable bands and thick padding at the back felt like they'd hold up well with long-term use, but we'll have to wait for our final review unit to see if we develop a stiff VR neck.

Clipping off the front cover revealed the Note 4 dock, which clicks into place in front of the optical lenses.

Samsung Gear VR hands-on -  2

The lenses themselves can be adjusted with a dial on the top, while navigating menus and making selections is taken care of by a touchpad and back button on the right.

While we used the Note 4's speakers for audio, you'll definitely want to plug in some headphones, or better yet some wireless Bluetooth ones, for a truly cable-free experience.

READ MORE: How to make Google Cardboard from scratch

The experience

Compared to the excellent Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 which we tried out at Gamescom, the Gear VR actually held up very well.

Samsung Gear VR hands-on - The experience 2

Its 2560 x 1440 AMOLED panels has a higher resolution than the Rift's 1080p offering, but, as with the Oculus Rift, we noticed pixels when first diving into the Gear VR's virtual world.

After looking around and observing our surroundings however, our brains did a good job of ignoring the pixels.

We didn't experience any motion sickness, although we'd have to test it out for longer to ensure the long-term effects of use. We also found it a little disconcerting that we couldn't see our hands when we looked around, although this problem is dependant more on the games and controllers as opposed to headsets themselves.

More after the break...

Our initial impressions suggested that the Rift provided a slightly clear picture, although this could be due to the fact that our Gear VR lenses weren't adjusted properly.

The Rift also has the advantage of infrared sensors and camera motion tracking support, which lets you peer over and around objects, adding a further level of immersion.

The Note 4's Snapdragon 805 processor didn't produce any stutter or lag in the 360 degree videos and games that we tried out, although we were told that using the headset would drain the Note 4's battery noticeably faster.

Controls

The only game we played was a space shooter in which we navigated a ship by moving our heads around, aimed with our eyes, and shot by tapping the touchpad at the side of the headset, Cyclops-style.

Samsung Gear VR hands-on - Controls 2

It worked well, but was a basic tech demo more than a fully fledged title. The VR will however be compatible with all Android Bluetooth controllers for more complex games, and navigating the menus with the die-mounted touchpad was fast and intuitive.

The other demos we tried out were a virtual cinema in a cartoon-style beach, and a 360 degree video shot in a theatre. The accelerometer of the Note 4 did a decent job of accurately tracking our head turns, and we felt completely immersed even when looking behind or below ourselves.

Initial verdict

The Gear VR could be a very tempting purchase for gamers, but the fact that it's designed exclusively around the Note 4 itself means that its market is limited.

Still, as it's essentially a shell with some straps, lenses and a touchpad thrown in, we're hoping for a competitive price tag.

It doesn't have the 3D motion tracking of the Oculus Rift, but from our brief time with it it still served up an impressive experience, especially considering it's powered purely by a portable device. 

If the Google Play store soon fills up with compatible games - which Project Cardboard has already started to inspire - then the Gear VR could be a tempting purchase for Note 4 owners.

Our full review will give us a better understanding of the VR's potential and limitations, so watch this space.

READ MORE: Samsung reveals the Gear VR: a Note 4-powered headset which could bring virtual reality to the masses

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Samsung Gear VR hands-on

Samsung Gear VR hands-on review
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