Samsung has a tendency to chase trends, so when the Gear VR was announced, we couldn't help but roll our eyes. What on earth was Samsung doing getting into virtual reality? Silly us. More than a year later, it's Samsung that looks like the trendsetter.
Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are on the horizon, and both have impressed us in demos – but they're not available for purchase by the common man. And while Google's Cardboard is commendable for its ease of use and affordability, it's about as low-end as acceptible modern VR gets. Gear VR is the happy medium, and best of all, it's available to purchase right now without jumping through hoops.
Samsung has learned from the two previous Innovator Edition releases and crafted a refined consumer edition that's more comfortable and works with more phones – and thanks to its collaboration with Oculus, the store has a solid and ever-growing selection of games and apps. Phone-based virtual reality has limitations, and the Gear VR experience isn't perfect, but it can wow you right now. And it will.
A better fit
The Gear VR still resembles last year's Galaxy Note 4-toting Innovator Edition, as well as the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge-based successor, but tweaks make it more comfortable.
Your phone snaps tightly into the front of it, beneath the removable black cover, and then the Gear VR straps right onto your head – both the primary and over-the-top bands are adjustable, so make sure it's snug and in place.
It feels pretty good on the head, admittedly: the consumer model is 22% lighter than the first Innovator Edition, which is no small change when you're hanging something on your face. And the padding between your face and the hard plastic is improved this time around: it's plenty cushy and does well as a barrier. All that said, my nose felt pinched while wearing the Gear VR; a little mouth breathing is a trade-off for great VR, I guess.
A note about glasses: the new Gear VR provides a little more room inside the shell for you to potentially keep your glasses on, but it's very snug – so much so that you're likely to smudge either your glasses or the lenses in the process. I wear glasses daily, but I'm nearsighted and the screen looked the same to me with or without glasses. I opted to play without, as it wasn't worth the hassle for no clear benefit. Your mileage may vary.
If you've used Cardboard viewers, the Gear VR's sturdy build quality might come as a revelation: it feels plenty durable for a phone shell, and it seems like it'll withstand normal wear and tear without an issue. Thin, sturdy, and mostly comfortable: the consumer model impresses.
The consumer Gear VR works with the widest array of handsets yet: both the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge are compatible, but also the larger Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Galaxy Note 5. A little switch inside lets you change which size phone will be cradled, and then it snaps firmly into place.
Only high-end Samsung phones from this year? You might grimace as you hold a Nexus 6P, LG G4, or – perhaps frustratingly – one of the slightly-older Galaxy phones. But there are good reasons for the limitation. First, the fit: part of the reason why Gear VR is so immersive is because the phone snaps in perfectly. That means no wiggle room, and very little light coming in. That helps set it apart from Cardboard.
Another reason is that all those phones have very high-resolution 2K screens, which is essential for viewing quality. Granted, even a 2560x1440 screen will look a bit fuzzy when you're viewing it a half-inch from your eyes: the common screen-door effect of VR, where everything you view is behind an ever-present grid, is unavoidable. But quite a lot of the games and apps still look great, and it's miles better than a 1080p screen would be in the same situation.
On the plus side, the horrible pit in my stomach that I experienced with early Oculus Rift demos hasn't been an issue with the Gear VR. The crisp screen's refresh rate seems to avoid most of the nauseous sensation that can come with VR: the only thing that threw me for a slight loop was when Smash Hit started spinning the rooms you fly through. But it could well be worse for some users than others.
Getting the screen into focus requires a bit of fiddling with the dial atop the Gear VR, but also making sure you're actively looking right at what you want to see. That might seem obvious, but I've found that only what you're directly staring at is clear – anything around it may seem blurry. That's noticeable when watching a movie or TV show on Netflix, but it applies to menus and text as well.
You'll probably get 3-4 hours of play off of a full phone charge, by the way – that's true with the Galaxy S6 Edge+ I tested, at least. But don't leave the phone in the headset for long if you're not using the Gear VR: I've always come back to find the phone sweltering hot and the battery nearly drained.
In fact, the phone occasionally runs so warm during use that you're prompted to stop playing for a bit, and I've noticed bits of slowdown around those instances as well. That dims the immersive nature a bit, as do the occasional moments when the lenses fog up.
Virtual meets physical
Proper interactivity is another way in which Gear VR has a big advantage over Cardboard, but it's not perfect. Previous models had a little touchpad molded onto the right side of the viewer, and now it's been shaped into the form of a d-pad with a little touch button in the center. Taps are generally used to acknowledge options or perform a core action, while directional swipes can browse menus or move a character. There's also a physical "back" button just above the pad.
Finding your place on the touchpad is confusing, even after hours of use, since the grooves aren't that clearly defined. You'd think it would become second nature, but even with a couple weeks of steady play logged, my fingers still fumble around it. Luckily, most games and apps seem to take a tap anywhere on the pad for menus and such.
Using the touchpad can grow physically tiresome too. During a 30-minute Smash Hit session, my arm gets sore from having it held in the air for so long. So I bought an Android gamepad. Samsung makes its own option, but I grabbed the great SteelSeries Stratus XL, which looks and feels like an Xbox One controller.
Even if I'm only using one button for some games, it feels a lot more comfortable and reliably responsive than tapping the headset. And it makes a game like Gunjack, the EVE Online spinoff where you man a spaceship turret, feel all more immersive.
Oculus Home provides the hub that you'll spend most of your time in, and it's a useful, easy-to-navigate experience. You can load up and begin games directly from the menu, andeven purchase and download games from the store - although it's a bit swifter using the app on your phone.
Game and app selection was an early issue, especially since creators couldn't actually sell their stuff at first. Luckily, the situation is improving steadily, and there's some really stellar games and experience found in the store.
I mentioned it before for a reason: Smash Hit has been my everyday go-to, as the popular mobile game – in which you throw metal balls at glass panes while being hurtled through tunnels – is absolutely stunning in VR. Looking freely around the world is so natural and addictive that I keep losing track of how much time has passed outside of my visor.
It's so deeply and powerfully immersive, and the game is completely free to boot. Smash Hit in VR is one of the most fascinating games I've ever played, and easily the most compelling VR experience I've had to date. It's a free game worth buying a VR headset for. Seriously!
There are more, certainly. We're starting to see more and more notable developers put their wares on the Oculus store, and they're upping the quality level. Land's End is a gorgeous puzzler from Monument Valley maker ustwo, and all interactions are handled through sight – so it's super ideal for the device. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Gunjack may be simpler than the EVE Valkyrie game coming to Oculus Rift, but it's fun and the 3D effect is really dazzling.
Believe it or not, Netflix is really cool on Gear VR. You're sitting in a 3D living room with a flat display on the wall that's tapped into your Netflix account. I watched an episode of Daredevil with a particularly gruesome moment near the end (episode three, in the alley), and when it happened, I put my hand to the viewer and muttered something in shock. It was deeply unsettling, particularly so in VR when it's right in my face with nowhere to look away.
Many of the video experiences at this point are just short, intriguing tastes: a five-minute animated short called Colosse is stunning, even if you're essentially just watching the events unfold around you. Marvel's Battle for Avengers Tower lasts about two minutes, but you might watch it a few times just to soak in all that is happening. There are documentary and experimental short films to explore, and plenty more.
Luckily, a lot of this stuff is also free. If you're looking for dazzling content, then you might as well grab as much as you can.
Samsung Gear VR verdict
Without positional tracking and standalone input devices, the Gear VR can't provide as rich and engrossing experiences as the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive will be able to next year. It's tough not to think about that when weighing a purchase today.
But the Gear VR is miles ahead of Cardboard, and it's already delivering amazing visual and gameplay experiences. Virtual reality might not be for everyone, but thanks to the Gear VR, I'm totally convinced. If you already have one of the compatible phones and any interest whatsoever in VR or cutting-edge gaming, then the Gear VR is an essential purchase.
If you don't already have the phone, we're talking about an investment of a few hundred pounds (at least) to get up and running – a trickier proposition considering the higher-end VR hardware right around the corner. But if I didn't have a Samsung phone handy, I'd hunt down a discounted Galaxy S6 just to keep playing Smash Hit and see what's next for the Gear VR. Really.