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Samsung Gear VR (2016) review:

Samsung Gear VR is still the best virtual reality for your phone

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The Good Affordable. Easy to attach. Great audio-visual quality for a phone-based VR accessory. A growing library of apps and games. This model is more comfortable than earlier versions, and you can charge the phone while using it.

The Bad Only works with a specific collection of Samsung phones. Oculus PC game and app library isn't cross-compatible with Android or Google Cardboard VR ecosystems. Lacks the positional awareness of PC-based VR rigs. Limited inputs mean it's less immersive VR than you can get with larger, more-expensive PC-connected systems like the Rift.

The Bottom Line The latest Gear VR adds compatibility with Samsung's latest phones and cements its position as the best mobile VR product right now.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.4 Overall
  • Immersion 8.0
  • Interaction 7.0
  • Comfort 8.0
  • Ecosystem 9.0
  • Setup 9.0

I remember putting the Samsung Gear VR on my face and being blown away by the experiences it created. It was my first take-home doorway into virtual reality. That was December, 2014.

VR has since become a commodity everywhere: in high-end PC-connected systems like Oculus Rift and Vive, in cheap disposable phone accessories like Google Cardboard. There will be game console-ready stuff in PSVR, soon, too. But in the meantime, the Gear VR abides, a veteran in this fast-moving landscape.

The newest version, which connects to the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and a handful of older Galaxy phones, is really pretty much the same. The connectors and a few finishing touches are different. (To be clear: if you're happy with any one of the earlier Gear VR models, you're fine -- the changes are tweaks, not overhauls.)

Update, March 2017: There's a new and improved Gear VR for 2017, one compatible with more phones and more games. You may want that one instead -- or at least its new controller to go with this headset.

Original review continues:

samsung-gear-vr-2016-11.jpg

A larger touchpad, and two buttons instead of one: small differences, but comfy ones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I said "the same," but that's not really true at all. Oculus and Samsung -- the headset is a joint venture -- have steadily continued updating the software and app library in Gear VR. There are hundreds of apps and games, and so many types of streaming-video experiences via apps like Oculus Video, Within, Jaunt and others, that the amount of things to do seems inexhaustible.

There's a small price to pay. Many apps cost anywhere from $1 to $10, and it's hard to vet out the quality. Some games are well worth it (like Anshar Wars, Minecraft or Neverout); others feel buggy and low-quality. And your taste in VR games and apps might not be the same as mine. The aesthetics of virtual reality are still evolving and hard to figure out without trying some stuff. And -- VR aficionados take note -- just because Oculus helped design the Gear VR doesn't mean that your PC-based Oculus Rift games will be playable here, and vice versa -- there's very little software crossover, although your Oculus account is the same and there are a growing set of intercommunicating functions...and a few apps like Minecraft that will play nicely together.

But, as a $100 accessory for your phone -- provided you have a Samsung phone that works with it -- Gear VR is still the best mobile way to dive into other worlds. And, for me, I still use it more than the obviously better, but harder to set up and share Vive or Oculus Rift.

samsung-gear-vr-2016-02.jpg

Old Gear VR (left), new Gear VR (right). The new one adds Note 7 support via USB-C.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The same, with a few tweaks

Gear VR comes in a new blue-black design that looks more like the higher-end PC-connected Rift, but it's the same concept as the white-and-black accessory it's replacing. You slot your phone (a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or Note 5,) in, strap it on your face, and put on headphones.

The new Gear VR has a slightly improved field of view: 101 degrees, versus 96 degrees. I couldn't discern the difference. The focal wheel, which works with glasses or without, is easier to turn, and the headset fit more comfortably on my face. The side trackpad's a bit larger, smoother, and is easier to find with your fingers. There's also a new button above the trackpad that's a direct Home button shortcut, sitting next to a "back" button that helps navigate the Gear VR menus and settings.

samsung-gear-vr-2016-17.jpg

USB-C and Micro-USB pop-out adapters included (don't lose them).

Sarah Tew/CNET

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