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Samsung's $99 Gear VR launches in November, adds virtual reality to all new Samsung phones (hands-on)

Half the price, twice the phone compatibility.

Now playing: Watch this: The new Gear VR headset goes on sale this fall
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Think you'll need to spend thousands of dollars on a powerful PC before you set foot in a virtual world? Maybe not: This November, Samsung's $99 headset will let you do it with any new Samsung smartphone.

Smartphone VR

The Samsung Gear VR is basically a sleek plastic box you strap to your head. You place your smartphone inside. Special lenses magnify the smartphone's screen and make it appear to wrap around your field of vision. Inertial sensors inside the phone -- and the headset -- can tell when you turn your head, and change the images accordingly. With a good piece of virtual-reality software, the result feels magical: you can look around inside another world! And we're not talking about a 3D version of the Android operating system: think fully immersive games, movies and environments you can explore.

This isn't a new idea, not even for Samsung. Google Cardboard does the same basic thing with practically any smartphone using a cheap cardboard frame. And this is actually the third iteration of Samsung's Gear VR headset. The first two were called "Innovator Editions," to reflect the fact that they weren't actually ready for consumers -- but rather software developers and bleeding-edge tech enthusiasts willing to spend $199 (or £169, AU$249) a pop.

The new Gear VR fits all four of Samsung's latest phones. Nate Ralph/CNET

Third time's the charm

But while the Gear VR Innovator Editions were pricey, unfinished and only worked with a few select smartphones ( here's the Galaxy Note 4 version, and here's the one for the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge), Samsung and partner Oculus say the new Gear VR is a single $99 headset (around £65 or AU$140, converted) that works with all of Samsung's new 2015 phones.

That includes the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge (like the previous revision) but also the larger Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ . If you have -- or plan to buy -- any of those smartphones, you'll be able to add virtual reality experiences for a surprisingly low cost.

Sure, that's still $70 pricier than buying a Google Cardboard, and only works with those Samsung phones...but Samsung's Oculus VR experience is much more fleshed out. When you put on a Samsung Gear VR, the entire interface is in virtual reality, too -- you can browse and download apps without taking it off. And you can watch plain ol' 2D and 3D movies in a gigantic virtual-reality theater...or in a drive-in theater on the surface of the moon.

Samsung just announced that you'll be able to watch streaming Netflix movies and Twitch game streams inside the Gear VR, too.

You control the virtual-reality experiences with a touchpad on the right side. Or just by moving your head. Nate Ralph/CNET

What's changed?

I had a chance to check out the Gear VR Innovator Edition a few months ago, and the new Gear VR largely identical -- but different in all the right ways. It's simpler: The uncomfortable vertical strap is gone, leaving a simple ski goggle-like elastic band to strap around your head -- you'll use a pair of Velcro straps on either side to adjust it. It's easy to get the goggles adjusted comfortably on your head, and the fabric-covered foam padding -- which is thinner in this version -- does a good job of blocking out all visible light. It'll likely get a bit sweaty in there after a while, but we'll need more time with the device to know for sure.

Like previous iterations of the Gear VR, you can control a limited amount of the action with a touchpad and back button on the right side of the headset, just over your right temple. Many of the games and apps I've tried will let you navigate by looking at whatever you'd like to access, but the touchpad can swoop in whenever you want more precise control. Previous iterations of the Gear VR featured touchpads that looked and felt much like the ones you'd find on a laptop, like a flat surface you could tap. The new touchpad still works the same, but has deliberate indentations for up, down, left and right.

The games I played didn't rely on the touchpad for anything more complex than tapping, but these distinct grooves (with a little nub to help you find the center) should make it a bit easier to zip around menus or play the odd touchpad-supported game.

Here's the the retaining clip you need to adjust the headset for different size phones. Nate Ralph/CNET

Of course the biggest change is support for more devices, and there's a deceptively simple switch that makes it work with those other phones: just slide it to the left or right to fit the right size category for your handset, then pop your phone into the little Micro-USB dock. Once you lay it flat, the spring-loaded clasp on the other end will gently squeeze your device into position.

What about Oculus Rift?

It's worth noting that smartphone VR experiences like the Gear VR aren't nearly as immersive as what you can get with a dedicated virtual-reality headset like the Oculus Rift . While you can turn your head in virtual reality with a Cardboard or a Gear VR, you can't lean forward or backward, stand or sit or walk, and you can't see your hands or feet in the virtual world. The phone just doesn't have any sensors to track your full body the way upcoming VR rigs do.

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