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:
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.
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.
The new Gear VR exists because it now works with the USB-C connected Note 7, and other Samsung phones that may use it going forward. You also get an easy-to-attach adapter to plug in an older Micro-USB phone instead. There's also a second USB-C port which Samsung says will work with future accessories. Right now, those don't exist...but I'm intrigued. In the meantime, that port helps charge the Note 7 while it's on your face. Using Gear VR burns through the phone's battery.
FYI, the Note 7's rear camera works better in passthrough mode, if you ever use it, to see around while still wearing the headset. I do this once in awhile when I'm lazy and want to grab something on my desk.
Gear VR is still, absolutely, the best VR you can get on the go or with a phone. But it's so good that my expectations start to shift. Suddenly, I forget I'm using a phone. I think I could play games that are as good as the Oculus Rift. And I can't. The graphics obviously aren't as capable, but also there aren't any good controller options. Gear VR has a side-mounted touchpad on its headset, or you could use a paired Bluetooth game controller. Neither are as good as using an Xbox controller with a Rift on a PC. Deeper games with more advanced controls feel jerky-jerky.
In AltSpace VR, for instance, which throws people using Gear VR, Rift and even Vive together to explore virtual spaces and chat, I found my limited controls frustrating. I found myself in a gaming parlor where a Vive-using avatar handed me a sword with one of his floating motion-controller game wands. I gladly took it...but all it did was float in front of my face when I pressed my controller's button.
And moving around the room wasn't fluid, because unlike PC VR systems, the phone-based Gear VR doesn't have positional tracking. In other words, if I lean forward or bend down, nothing happens. And to walk across the room, I need to move my game controller stick or use the trackpad on the side of my head. With games and apps tuned to Gear VR, especially basic 360-degree video players, that's not a problem. But as games get more evolved, it feels like a drawback. It makes me want to dive back into using Vive and my gaming PC.
Of course, these are totally different experiences. Gear VR is a $100 accessory for a phone -- that's cheaper than a good pair of headphones. The Rift and Vive are $600 and $800...and that doesn't even include the required high-end gaming PC.
Again, now that other options are here, the Gear VR feels more like a VR Starter Pack. It's an excellent on-the-go toy, and it's the most finely tuned hardware in mobile. It has the best selection of high-quality mobile VR apps, too. It also just might be my favorite VR platform right now, because it's so simple to set up and carry around. I can share it with others. I can take it to other rooms. It's low-maintenance.
PC-based VR is far more impressive, and transformative. But most people still won't be able to afford it -- or need it. Until that level of VR drops down to a reasonable (and more polished) level, Gear VR still seems like the way to go.