Samsung Gear VR (Samsung Galaxy S6) review: The best virtual reality you can experience with a phone

MSRP: $199.99

The Good Amazingly immersive virtual-reality effects, despite running off a phone; lots of free content; well-designed headset; works with Android Bluetooth game controllers.

The Bad Some panoramic videos still look pixelated compared to what you'd experience on a high-end phone or tablet; only works with particular Samsung phones; won't work with Google Cardboard apps.

The Bottom Line While it might soon be eclipsed by more robust competitors, the Samsung Gear VR still amazes as the most impressive virtual reality you can buy right now.

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7.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Ecosystem 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Value 7

There aren't many pieces of technology that literally make people's jaw drop. That make friends say, "let me see that again." That make kids feel like they're in Disneyland. That make moms and dads and grandparents go, "wow, I can't believe this."

Virtual reality, in its current form, does that. Every time I've showed the Samsung Gear VR to someone over the last six months, it's never failed to impress. In that sense, the device -- a collaboration between Oculus and Samsung -- is a huge success.

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:

Slide the Gear VR's stretchy goggles over your face, and you're on Mars. You're flying over icebergs. You're at a circus. You're underwater, swimming with sharks. You're dogfighting in an asteroid belt. You're in your own personal movie theater, surrounded by hundreds of empty seats.

VR amazes people as a technology. As a platform, and a product, the Gear VR in the last half year since its launch has proven to be more of what Samsung and Oculus said it would be all along: an "Innovator's Edition." A collector's item. A novelty.

I'm not saying you shouldn't buy the Samsung Gear VR, which costs $200 and comes in two flavors: one for the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (which I reviewed back in December 2014), and one for the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge . I'm saying you should understand that this is a fun toy, an amazing tech demo, and an early adopter's taste of the miracles to come. For that, it's worth it. Just know that even more amazing VR tech is coming down the road fast, with many more options coming available in 2016.

In the meantime, though, the Gear VR and Google Cardboard (which is far more limited, but compatible with a wider range of phones and available for about $20 or less) are really the only two VR products you can buy right now. The Gear VR does a lot more, even if it's impossible to tell how well it will hold up in this ever-changing VR landscape. But wow, it's cool.

Gear VR amounts to lensed goggles that transform your Samsung phone into a VR headset. Josh Miller/CNET

What's new?

Since last year's Samsung Gear VR for the Note 4, the Galaxy S6 version is nearly identical. The Gear VR goggles for Galaxy S6 won't work with a Note 4, and the Note 4 version won't fit the S6. The lens placement and click-in dock are differently sized. (One hopes the likely Galaxy Note 5 and/or Galaxy S6 Edge+ will work with one of these versions, but only time will tell.)

The headset's been slightly modified: it's a bit lighter, lacks a clip-on visor in the front (now your phone remains in full view all the time), and a new USB pass-through allows charging while wearing the headset. There's also an internal fan that's designed to help defog the Gear VR while wearing it. It didn't seem to help much.

Additionally, a revamped Oculus app is now available, which works with both devices. Oculus Mobile is a whole ecosystem with an app store. Last year, there were just free and demo apps. Now there are paid ones, too: games and experiences can range from a dollar to 10.

Slotting the Galaxy S6 into Gear VR via a Micro-USB port. Josh Miller/CNET

With Gear VR, you mainly interact by moving your head around. An inner accelerometer, gyro and magnetometer in the helmet track head motions and make you feel like you're looking around. The Gear VR can't do more complex body movement or head motion, however: it can't detect if you're walking around, or leaning forward.

A side trackpad controls most interactions, unless you also have a Bluetooth game controller to pair with your phone. The trackpad in the S6-compatible Gear is now recessed so it can found more easily compared to the 2014 Note 4 version. The Gear VR uses the same type of optical technology as before, using magnified lenses to help bend a split stereoscopic display on your phone into an immersive experience that stretches around you. The field of view is still restricted to what you can see through the scuba mask-like goggles: it really does feel like viewing another world while deep-sea diving.

The Gear VR doesn't work while wearing glasses, but a focus dial on top adjusts to allow even people with horrible vision like myself (-9) to see just fine.

You can use a Bluetooth controller, too. Sarah Tew/CNET

VR for your phone, vs. VR for your PC

The coolest part of using Gear VR is that it uses a phone to power everything. It's mobile, wireless and can fit in your backpack. Upcoming console and PC-based virtual-reality rigs like the Oculus Rift , HTC Vive and Project Morpheus all need to be physically tethered with wires to a game console or PC.

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