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Samsung Gear VR (2015) review: The best mobile VR experience so far -- but only for Samsung phones

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It's just after 6 p.m. on a Monday night, and I'm lost. And soaked. The Nemesis, one of my favorite ships in the game Eve Online but just a sneaky, cloaking foe in Eve Gunjack, has flattened my latest high score attempt. The glass that held my post-work apéritif, the same glass I'd so carefully positioned on a table behind me, to my right, is now apparently in front of me, to my left. The lovingly mixed Manhattan it contained is in my lap.

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8.0

Samsung Gear VR (2015)

The Good

The Gear VR's relatively low price belies a compelling VR experience, and the games are quickly catching up to the hype. The headset is fairly light, and offers a completely cordless experience.

The Bad

It only works with some recent Samsung phones. The mobile VR experience still pales in comparison to more robust upcoming PC- and console-based options.

The Bottom Line

The Gear VR is the best virtual-reality gadget you can buy right now, and a great way to jump into the world of VR gaming and entertainment -- just make sure you own a compatible Samsung phone first.

Such are the hazards of reviewing the Gear VR, the accessory built by Samsung with help from VR pioneer Oculus, which costs $99 in the US and £80 in the UK. In Australia you can pick up the Gear VR for AU$159.

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:

The headset converts Samsung's latest Galaxy smartphones into a full-on mobile virtual reality headset. It's the third model, but the first that feels ready for prime time, with a decent batch of games and apps to choose from. Each of them effectively transports you to a variety of "you are there" 3D landscapes, letting you explore your surroundings by tilting and shaking your head, or totally spinning around without fear of leaving the "screen."

Take a closer look at Samsung's Gear VR headset (pictures)

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One of the first things I tell people who try the Gear VR is to sit down, preferably in a swivel chair. Competing VR devices like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive need to be wired to a PC, offering up a glorious trek into imaginary virtual spaces, but limiting your movement in the physical world. There's no such limitation when a smartphone is powering the experience, so there's a temptation to stretch your legs and meander. This can prove comical for onlookers, but embarrassing for you. You'd think I'd learn by now that a rolling chair is just as dangerous as stumbling about in the dark, but when you're solving puzzles on far-flung islands, racing a go kart down colorful tracks or just blowing up spaceships that are charging from all sides...well, mistakes are made.

This year, we'll see at least three major new VR devices: the aforementioned HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, as well as PlayStation VR. I've tried them all, and -- yes -- they all offer a more powerful illusion, as you'd expect from something that's powered by a PC or PlayStation 4. But the Gear VR is the only one of the bunch you can take with you. And while it's not going to make me switch to a Samsung phone, it's an inexpensive, must-have purchase for existing owners of compatible Galaxy phones who are gamers itching for a glimpse at the future.

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Unless you've got a guide, I recommend sitting down.

Nate Ralph/CNET

The mobile VR experience

I'm of two minds about this whole mobile virtual reality thing. You'll look silly with a headset and smartphone strapped to your face, but it's far more approachable than devices like the Oculus Rift or the Vive, which require you to be tethered to a PC. And your smartphone is always with you: toss the Gear VR into a backpack, and your virtual escapades will follow you wherever you go. The Gear VR experience is tied to the hardware that's powering the experience, which is a nod in Oculus and Samsung's favor here. The new Gear VR is light and compact, which lends itself well to extended sessions spent strapped to your face. The original Gear VR only worked with the Galaxy Note 4. The Innovator Edition for the Galaxy S6 worked with the S6, and the S6 Edge. This time, you've got more options. The phones tuck into a docking port cryptically labeled "A" or "B" -- the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ fit into A, and you'll need to slide the port over to B to fit the 5.1-inch Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge. The Gear VR will also support the new Samsung Galaxy S7, and Galaxy S7 Edge.

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The Gear VR is only compatible with select new Samsung phones.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Once your phone is docked, the spring-loaded clasp on the opposite end of the headset will lock your phone into place and the Oculus app will fire up, dropping you into a virtual world. There's a TV set off to the side, some couches, and what looks like an infinity pool. You can look around in 360 degrees, but you can't actually interact with any of the stuff around you: you're just at the Oculus menu, where you'll pick the apps and games you want to check out.

The Oculus app on your phone is rendering a pair of images, side by side; when you look through the Gear VR's biconvex lenses, your brain is tricked into merging them into a single image. There's a focus wheel up on top of the headset that'll let you adjust the image until it's just right. I don't wear glasses, but my CNET colleague Scott Stein found that while the Gear VR Innovator Edition for the S6 didn't fit with glasses, it worked just fine once he'd adjusted the focus to his liking. The new Gear VR offers a far better fit for specs, but he found the goggles didn't fit as tightly, which led to fogging. And the focus wheel doesn't accommodate his "horrible vision" (-9) without glasses anymore, though it suited others well.

Pair the optical illusion with the motion sensors in the phone that track your head's movements, and you've got the fairly convincing illusion that you've been transported to an entirely new space -- the best games and apps will give you a compelling reason to stay there.

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The headset's lenses merge two images into one.

Nate Ralph/CNET

The phone you choose makes a difference, too: the Gear VR's latch mechanism means they'll all fit snugly, but the phones with a smaller display will have a slightly lower field of view. Conversely, the smaller devices have screens with a greater pixel density (577 pixels per inch versus 518 pixels per inch, on the larger phones), so you're going to find a slightly crisper experience there.

I spent most of my time trying Gear VR on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, and I didn't find the slightly lower pixel density problematic. The hardware was also well equipped to handle all of the experiences I threw at it, from fast-paced games to sedentary video experiences.

Most of the action in games and apps is handled by the touchpad on the right side of the device and looking around, and it works well enough. On the Gear VR the touchpad gets a few grooves, so it's shaped like the directional pad you'd find on a gamepad -- this makes it much easier to swipe in the direction you're looking for. There's also a little flat nub in the center so your fingers can always find their place while you're fumbling about in the dark.

A back button sits above the touchpad; it's been moved to the right just a smidgen, so it's easier to find than it was on the Innovator Edition. The simple, ski-goggle-like elastic bands on the side remain easy to adjust, and the vertical strap found on the Innovator Edition loses its plastic guard, which makes for a much more comfortable fit. It's also optional, so you can get rid of it if you don't want to mess up your hair.

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The touchpad and back button are your primary controls.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Developing all new experiences that rely on gaze and one hand will definitely be a challenge for developers, but some of the best games available in the Oculus Store are already doing a great job. You can always grab a Bluetooth controller for a more traditional approach -- I've been using the SteelSeries Stratus XL. The Gear VR doesn't support the sort of motion controls you'd find on more robust platforms, like the Oculus Rift's Touch controller, or the HTC Vive's wands, which is a bummer -- virtual reality feels far more immersive when you're going hands-on, but the mobile experience simply isn't there yet.

Gaming in VR is also obviously a bit different than your standard PC- or console-based fare, doubly so when you're gaming with a smartphone. A bluetooth headset is a must: the audio pumping out of your phone's speakers isn't nearly as engrossing as having the enclosed aural experience you'll get from a good set of headphones. I definitely recommend sitting in a swivel chair. The Gear VR doesn't offer support for the sort of head-tracking you'll find on the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, so you aren't going to be peering under or around anything.

You also won't be able to lean back or forward either, which can make certain experiences feel disjointed. Oculus Arcade is one example: it emulates the feeling of strolling into an arcade and playing classic games like Pac-Man or Sonic the Hedgehog, but you can't lean in to get closer to the arcade cabinets. And while the lack of wires technically means you're free to move, you'll probably just bump into things or people around you -- I have enough trouble figuring out where I am after spinning in circles on a chair.

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Ditch the vertical strap, if you'd like.

Nate Ralph/CNET

You'll want to make sure that the Gear VR is strapped firmly to your head: Samsung says it has improved the venting, but if the headset is at all loose things start to fog up rather quickly. Keep a microfiber cloth handy, too. The fingerprints and stray gunk that usually sits on our smartphone screens looks downright unsettling when magnified by the Gear VR's lenses. And do yourself a favor: turn on your phone's Do Not Disturb mode. I can't count the number of times I was fully immersed in a video or game, only to be ripped out into the real world by an instant message or text from a coworker or friend. Oh, keep a charger nearby too: VR will devastate your phone's battery life.

Playing in virtual worlds

Developers are still experimenting with VR's possibilities, which can lead to a lot of fun little experiences to discover. There are gems like Temple Gates Games' Bazaar, a simple magic carpet ride simulator that sees you coasting along a colorful world, exploring and picking up trinkets. But it quickly devolves into a nerve-wracking, item-juggling fiasco: fill your chest with gold and snacks, and you'll have no room to carry the shield you need to block projectiles, or a crossbow and arrows to fend off snakes. But now that you're armed to the teeth, your belly's rumbling because you're out of food, or you don't have a med kit to patch yourself up after that alligator got the drop on you. And you still need to save a spot for the key you need to unlock the exit.

Best games and apps for Samsung Gear VR

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This is the sort of experience that could've probably been handled by a mouse, but spinning around in a swivel chair, hurriedly tossing out junk to make room for antivenom while shaking monkeys off of my head is decidedly more engaging than just casually clicking stuff.

I'll join the legion of folks gushing over CCP's Gunjack, a first-person arcade shooter set in the universe of the spacefaring online game EVE Online. The visuals on mobile aren't nearly as impressive as the action we've seen in Gunjack's reveal trailer, which isn't too surprising. It's still a blast though. You're a stationary turret shooting at waves of speedy spaceships, juggling targets and timing your weapon reloads to maximize damage, while minimizing the number of targets that escape, free to punch holes in your hull. It can get repetitive after a time, as is the case with many arcade shooting galleries. But tricky new enemies, including foes that'll cloak, drop new distracting targets or simply soak up a lot of damage, keep things interesting. And there's always that drive to try a stage over and over again to nail a higher score.

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More VR games should let you take screenshots.

Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

My favorite VR experience thus far takes on a much slower pace: it's Land's End, an adventure game from the creators of Monument Valley. It's gorgeous; sort of a lo-fi take on Myst, controlled with your head and eyes. There are no traps to avoid or bad guys to shoot. Instead you'll just explore, teasing out puzzles in the world around you. Look at the white circles hovering in the air around you, and you'll walk down new paths. Look at the mysterious mark on a boulder and you'll suddenly be able to pick it up, blocking a waterfall that might be impeding your progress. Look at a circle on a pillar and a beam of light suddenly will follow your gaze, allowing you to form a chain that'll unlock a new passage.

You could arguably get much the same experience with a mouse and keyboard, but getting lost in this little world is so much more enjoyable when it's all around you, birds squawking in the distance, the ground falling away as you're yanked from one island to another. It's a great, meditative experience you'll want to try, and share. And one of my favorite features is something I hope more games will copy: rest a finger on the touchpad, and the game will take a screenshot. You're not getting the surreal, immersive experience of being in the world, but at least I can show people what I'm talking about.

Your own personal theater

Netflix is among the first of the video apps available on the platform, and it's cute: you're plopped into a virtual living room watching a show on a faux big screen TV, and can look around the room. That's it. A novel diversion I suppose, but I'd still rather take the headset off and watch my nature documentaries in the real world, where I'm less liable to trip over invisible furniture.

The wealth of 360-degree video content that's available makes better use of virtual reality, but I remain unconvinced. I mean, I get the allure: suddenly you're swimming with sharks alongside the "Mythbusters" crew, or right in the middle of a Cirque du Soleil performance. It can be the best kind of overwhelming, with the rest of your senses blocked out to fully immerse yourself in whatever you're watching. But it also highlights the weaknesses of the platform.

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Adjust the focus wheel to fine-tune your experience.

Nate Ralph/CNET

I blame the hardware used to record these experiences. The 360-degree effect is neat, but when I'm wearing a headset and everything is so close, I spend more time noticing the imperfections than taking in the experience. Consider Cirque du Soleil's "Kurios." The entire spectacle unfolds around you, but the actions in the corner of every scene isn't as crisp as what's dead center in the frame. And because the creators have to design experiences with that full 360-degree field of view in mind, I'm constantly spinning around in an attempt to take it all in, enjoying nothing because I'm afraid that I'm missing something awesome just over my shoulder. Don't get me wrong: "Kurios" is awesome, a short and sweet experience I'll watch a few more times, if only to spot all the things I've missed. It's a bit of interactivity in and of itself, which is a nice addition to the typically sedentary experience of watching a video. But the art will need to improve before I'm using something like the Gear VR to watch anything substantial. I'm willing to admit I'm in the minority here though, as people have been enjoying 360-degree video for a while now, thanks to existing VR hardware like the Google Cardboard, and apps like im360. Even CNET has gotten in on the act, from the show floor at E3 this year.

Wading through the Oculus Store

You'll have two ways to find apps to consume in virtual reality: fire up the Oculus app on your Samsung phone, or pop the phone into the Gear VR and browse the store with your eyes. It's kind of a mess either way: there are over 100 apps and games on the Oculus store, and things aren't organized all that well. You'll find categories for Top Selling apps, a tiny, curated selection of Must Haves, a list of New Releases, apps promoted by Samsung, and the catch-all Games, Experiences and Apps sections. There's no search functionality yet, and if you're looking for anything specific -- say, an arcade shooter or an adventure game -- then you'd better hope it's a featured app, or you're going to be doing a lot of scrolling.

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Prepare to spend a lot of time scrolling.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Prices range between $1.99 and $9.99 so even the most ardent VR fans will have to spend a small fortune before their own libraries get this cluttered, and I've been assured that changes to the store's interface will eventually make this more bearable. (Note, however, that Oculus was giving early reviewers such as myself free access to everything the store has to offer, so I'm in the enviable position of a fully stocked library that seems never-ending.) For the time being, the stellar standouts will be discovered by word of mouth -- get Gunjack and Land's End, and consider bomb-defusal game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes if you want a fun time to break out at parties.

Gear VR vs the competition

When I reviewed Google Cardboard, I made the case that Google's little contraption was virtual reality's ultimate Trojan horse. It's dirt cheap and a bit silly, but it democratizes the VR experience in a way that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can only dream of. Suddenly anyone with a smartphone and a little cash (or some craft supplies and a pizza box) can sample 360-degree videos and photos, quirky games, and whatever else developers are dreaming up. It's that quintessential gateway drug virtual reality needs to win over cynics like me. More people seeing VR's potential means more people willing to try something a little more compelling.

The Gear VR blows Google's little cardboard toy out of the water -- powerful smartphone hardware coupled with an accessory that's tailor-made for exploiting virtual reality will do that. As onerous as it might be to navigate the Oculus Store right now, it's still a far better place to find cool VR apps to try than Google Play, and it'll only get better as more developers see there's an audience willing to pony up cash for a taste of this potential avenue for the future of gaming.

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Only Samsung's newer smartphones are compatible.

Nate Ralph/CNET

But its best feature is also its greatest weakness: you need a new Samsung phone. Samsung phones are a crucial piece of the puzzle, because it means that folks developing experiences for the Gear VR have a specific set of hardware and a limited range of screen sizes to address. They'll know that people buying the Gear VR are deliberately putting a not-insignificant sum of cash toward trying out this new-fangled virtual reality thing. And they'll know they have a very specific interface they can work with, thanks to the Gear VR's touchpad, back button and the mobile Oculus interface.

The Gear VR's device-neutral tab system is promising. With support for the new Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, folks who already own a Gear VR and an earlier Samsung phone are going to be stuck with an awkward, expensive phone case if they decide to take the plunge and upgrade.

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Potenital support for more devices? Or wishful thinking?

Nate Ralph/CNET

Virtual reality for the masses

I've spent a full week lost in virtual worlds with the Gear VR, and I love it. But I'm not going to buy it. Let me explain: I'm primarily a PC gamer, and if I'm going to be locked inside a virtual world it'd better be rendered at the highest possible resolution -- I'll get that from the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive in 2016. And I don't want a Samsung phone; I've got nothing against Samsung, but I'm really digging Project Fi and that's limited to Google's Nexus devices. I also imagine that there are countless others who aren't going to spend the money on a new phone (and possibly a new contract) just to give virtual reality a try.

But if you own a compatible Samsung device and want a wild new spin on mobile gaming, take the plunge. At $99, the Gear VR is an affordable taste of the future, and there are already great games and apps to enjoy.

As for the rest of us: virtual reality remains a personal experience, so until a friend hands you a Gear VR to try, or you stumble upon a demo kiosk in a retail store, you'll be left wondering what all the fuss is about. But when it all clicks, there's a ton of fun in store -- and who knows, maybe you'll find room in your budget for a new phone after all.

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8.0

Samsung Gear VR (2015)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 7Features 8Performance 9Value 8