It may be the Galaxy S8's best accessory, but its best features work with older phones.
VR is a hassle. It's pricey and difficult to set up. At this point, you may be better off trying than buying. Samsung has walked a pretty smart path with the Gear VR. It recently released a new third-generation version of its phone-powered headset, and its goal hasn't changed: be simple, and be affordable.
Gear VR is a snap-on, wireless affordable way to turn your Samsung Galaxy phone into a surprisingly capable basic virtual reality headset. And years later, it's still pretty impressive.
The new Gear VR headset works with the Galaxy S8 Plus , S8, S7, S7 Edge, Note5, S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+ and comes with Micro USB and USB-C adapters. The extra bits of gear, however, mean keeping track of small dongles. Google's more elegant Daydream View design works without any plug-in dongles at all, but the larger Gear VR, while bulkier and more plastic, fits better on my face.
Again, don't get a new Gear VR headset if you have an old one; just buy the new remote instead.
The Gear VR still works with wired headphones, leaving the headphone jack space on the phone unobstructed. But it's probably better to use wireless headphones to reduce the cable tangle.
I've been using the latest version one with the new Galaxy S8 Plus over the last couple of weeks. To be clear, this isn't the same high-end VR hardware as the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. Those are more-advanced pieces of tech that also require a cutting-edge PC.
No, the Gear VR does not push the envelope, but it's probably the VR I'd use daily, and the one I'd recommend to most people as a starter kit. Why? Because it's easy to put on and move around in, it's a lot cheaper than the high-end models, and it has some great VR experiences available for it.
Gear VR came free if you preordered a Galaxy S8 but costs $130 for the controller plus headset for everyone else. If you already have an older Gear VR headset, the controller works with your older setup for an extra $40.
Compared to other mobile VR systems like Google's Daydream View, Gear VR currently has more apps to choose from. For that reason alone, I'd still go with Gear VR over Daydream. But most people, I'd say, should simply get the one that matches the phone they have or want.
If you already have Gear VR, get the new controller, because it's the best part of what's new. But just be forewarned that right now there aren't a ton of apps that take full advantage of it.
Instead of touching an awkward trackpad on the side of your head, there's finally a remote. It has a home button, back button, volume controls and a trigger on the bottom, plus a click pad. It feels like a pointer, or a magic wand. In my hand, it's a better version of what Google packed in with Daydream. But it's also bulkier and not as cleverly packed into the headset design.
Samsung includes a simple elastic strap that's meant to tuck the controller into the Gear VR's headband when not in use, but I worry that this will be one more remote to lose.
The controller can be waved around to track motion, and its motion-sensing is cleverly tuned to fit the hand you're holding it in. Also, the pointer seems slightly larger in VR than it actually is in my hand. The controller doesn't vibrate, but it has all the other basic controls a VR remote would need. Instead of USB charging, it runs on two AAA batteries to last longer.
Facebook owns Oculus, and Oculus powers the software and apps of Gear VR. The future of Facebook and Oculus becomes clearer with the latest Gear VR software update I used. For one, the Oculus app that runs on your Galaxy phone now defaults to a Facebook log-in, instead of an Oculus account.
Using Facebook means an easier way of looping in friends to connect with in VR -- something that Facebook is actively concerned with -- but it also means that your mobile VR experience via Gear VR will become increasingly interlinked with your Facebook life.
Facebook 360 is Gear VR's Facebook-specific app, but it's not much more than a small collection of panoramic and 360-degree videos and photos from your friends' feeds. Facebook's bolder, far more interactive Spaces app isn't available on Gear VR (yet), and there's no clear indication when it will come to Gear VR, if at all.
Oculus' Gear VR software update, which also runs on older Samsung phones using Gear VR, is more power efficient. I haven't tried it across older Samsung phone models, but the Galaxy S8 Plus with Gear VR doesn't get super-warm like the previous model did when plugged into VR. And, the battery drain seems so far to be a lot more manageable. An hour or so of VR used up about 15 percent of my battery. With older Gear VR models, I'd be lucky to get a couple of hours of VR use max on a full charge.
Don't expect all Gear VR apps to fully work with the new remote. Right now, a couple dozen apps are fully remote-supported, which use the controller as a pointer and controller. Hulu, Altspace VR, the excellent Gear VR battle game Wands, and Harmonix' karaoke game Singspace are some of the notables.
Other older apps can use the controller's touchpad, but not the motion controls. Samsung promises more apps will adopt the remote fully, but that depends on app developers bothering to update their apps.
VR will keep evolving, adding room-sensing cameras for full motion tracking, or maybe even hand-tracking without a remote. Gear VR isn't the bleeding edge anymore. In fact, its new controller is really just letting it keep up with what Google has done with Daydream VR last year. But the total expansive package of Gear VR apps, and the growing Facebook-supported functions in Oculus' apps, make it a better package than before.With augmented reality possibly stealing VR's thunder in the next year or so, and newer VR hardware coming sometime down the road, you're best thinking of Gear VR as the most polished way of trying 360 videos and basic VR right now. For that, it's worth the expense. It's clear that Oculus and Facebook have plans that go way beyond what Gear VR can do right now. But at the moment, Gear VR remains every Samsung phone owner's greatest fringe benefit.