Samsung has teamed up with Oculus to produce an affordable, low latency virtual reality device. You plug your Samsung phone in, download as many games and videos as you like, and voila: the future. At just £80/$99, it looks a no-brainer. So, is there a catch? I put on my serious face and went to find out…
How it works
The Gear VR is easy to set up: you just download the Oculus app on your Samsung smartphone - the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+ are supported, as well as the Note 5 - then slot it into the headset via the phone’s microUSB connector.
Then, adjust the velcro straps and start exploring virtual worlds, via Oculus’ app library.
In case you don’t know what virtual reality involves, it means exploring a 360-degree space: turning your head will scan through the environment you’re seeing, as if you’re really there. That means watching 360-degree video, and playing games where your head is essentially the control stick.
The Gear VR excels at head tracking. Thanks to the tech Oculus has crammed in, including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and proximity-based sensors, you get less than 20ms of latency.
- Also check out our Oculus Rift review
As a Gear VR user, that means when you look around, the display reacts, as far as the human eye and brain are concerned, simultaneously. This helps the immersion, and reduces the risk of nausea.
I never felt ill using the Gear VR. Some users will feel initial nausea that will recede as they get used to it. Some people will never get used to it, which sucks for them, but they should be a small minority.
Build, design, comfort
Sleek, lightweight, and the buttons are well thought out
Dimensions are 202x116x92.6mm and the weight is 318g. As such, the Samsung Gear VR is incredibly light, to the point that when I received the box that the review version came in, I was worried they’d forgot to actually put anything inside. You never feel like you’re lugging anything bulky around on your face.
However, while it’s comfy compared to bigger VR headsets such as Oculus Rift or the cheaper, phone-holding models that are out there, it's still not something you'd want to wear for too long, at least initially.
There’s ample padding, including on the back of your head and around your eyes, but I did start to feel the strain, particularly around the bridge of my nose, after just over an hour. With more use, longer wear does become possible, but it's never going to get to the point where it's not noticeable.
Another issue is that some light does bleed through the bottom of the headset while you’re using it. I rarely noticed it, but when I did - usually when navigating menus, where parts of the screen were empty - it really bugged me.
Where the design is strong is in the layout of the few buttons it does have – on the right hand side you have a touchpad for scrolling through menus and selecting options, a back button, and a volume rocker. They’re unobtrusive, and easy to get used to.
There's also this knob on top, for adjusting the lens position to best suit your vision.
A little disappointing, but not broken
The 96 degree field of view that the Gear VR affords seemed fine to me, but there is an issue with resolution. That's understandable; even the Galaxy S6’s Super AMOLED 1440x2560-pixel display is going to start to wheeze a little if you press it right up to your face, and that’s exactly what you’re doing with the Gear VR. As a result, videos can be a little blurry and/or blocky, and distort further if the device fogs up, which it does have a tendency to do if you don't get the fit right.
The interesting thing is that this is not a deal breaker. I was able to enjoy all the content because, once you’re immersed, you don’t really notice the lack of polish. It's a bit like watching 16mm film after being used to HD - there's a quality drop but it's not offensive.
The likes of Oculus and PlayStation VR will offer better graphics when they launch, and then greater improvements as new versions appear in future. However, it's hard to picture phone screens getting much more detailed than they are now, so maybe this is as good as phone-based VR will get. We'll see.
Games and apps
A wide variety of content, some of it gimmicky, some of it mind-blowing
A VR headset is only as impressive as the software it runs, so it’s a good thing the Oculus catalogue has 100-odd apps and games, with more on the way. There’s stacks of photo libraries through which you can explore the world’s great cities, a decent clutch of games, 360-degree videos, short films, as well as the streaming service Netflix.
Many are gimmicks. You can watch films in a virtual cinema complete with plush chairs and cup holders (no virtual popcorn, sadly), or Netflix in a living room on a huge TV screen. It’s easy to get lost in these environments, but it adds little to the actual viewing experience, and I couldn’t help but think that I’d rather be watching the new Aziz Ansari series in the comfort of my own, admittedly more modest, lounge. And with real popcorn.
The apps that take full advantage of the VR are a treat. I was blown away by the 360 Cirque de Soleil video, which puts you on stage with the performers, and I spent hours trawling through the huge gallery of 360-degree photos, exploring the streets of London, the bridges of Paris, and the rooftops of Florence.
There’s lots of games, some of which are free, and most will set you back a reasonable £5 or so. The majority require a gamepad, sold separately, and not included in the version I reviewed. But the potential is clear: I enjoyed over-the-top alien shooter Romans From Mars 360, where you aim by turning your had and shoot electric bolts by tapping the touchpad.
I absolutely fell in love with 3D puzzler Land’s End, from Ustwo, the makers of Monument Valley. Here you move blocks and connect dots just by turning your head while progressing through a beautiful landscape, where virtual waves crash against sheer cliffs. It's bloody brilliant.
Audio is handled through your phone's speaker - not Samsung's strong-point - so I recommend wearing a decent set of headphones, as it makes a huge difference to the immersion.
Predictably, all this puts a strain on the battery: my Samsung S6’s juice drained as much as 20-25% in half an hour of gaming on the device, and around the same percentage in an hour when running less intensive apps.
The Gear VR is easy to set up, and you're getting huge value for money here. For just £80/$99 you can experience lag-free virtual reality, with a decent library of apps, some of which are mind-blowing. I could spend a day trawling through the free content without getting bored, although whether I'll still be discovering new worlds in year's time remains to be seen, of course.
If you’ve recently splurged on a new non-Samsung phone, this is obviously not for you: shelling out for a phone just to experience VR is not worth it. There’s room for improvement with the device itself, too: the pixelly graphics I can live with, but there’s light bleeding through the bottom of the device, and the straps can become uncomfortable on prolonged wearing.
The Gear VR may not be 'the future', but it is a glimpse of what's to come. If you own a compatible Samsung phone, I’d say that a purchase is a must: for $99/£80 you get to experience fully-fledged virtual reality, with a wide variety of games and apps at your disposal.
If you don’t own a Samsung, then clearly paying £400+ for a new device just to experience VR isn’t worth it. I doubt you needed me to tell you that, somehow.