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Samsung Gear VR: An Affordable First Step into Virtual Reality

By Christopher Coke on March 23, 2018 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Samsung Gear VR: An Affordable First Step into Virtual Reality

Have you been itching to try VR for yourself but can’t afford an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive? Perhaps you’ve seen the Gear VR in your local Best Buy and are wondering if it’s worth the extra $129.99 on top of your Samsung Galaxy smartphone. We went hands-on with the latest Gear VR with Controller Bundle to see for ourselves. This is our review of the Samsung Gear VR

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Specifications

  • MSRP: $129.99 (Current Amazon Price: $109.99)
  • Headset
    • Field of View (FOV): 101 degrees
    • Interpupilary Distance (IPD): 62mm (fixed)
    • Eye Relief: 10mm
    • Sensor: Gyro sensor / Proximity sensor
    • Compatability: Galaxy S6-S9+, Note5, Note8, A8, A
    • Connection: USB Type-C, Micro USB
    • Dimensions: 207.1 x 120.7 x 98.6 mm
    • Weight: 345 g
  • Controller
    • Sensor: Gyro sensor / Accelerometer / Magnetic (sampling Rate : 208Hz)
    • Indicator: 3-color LED
    • Battery: x2 AAA battery
    • Battery Life: 1000mAh, up to 40 days when used on average 2 hours a day

When it comes to virtual reality, the barriers to entry can be steep. On the PC, the full Oculus Rift and controller bundle is $399, the HTC Vive is $499, and both require a high-powered computer to run them. For many people, that puts tethered virtual reality right out of reach. What are those users to do?

Enter the Samsung Gear VR. Using the power of a compatible smartphone, the headset is able to deliver impressive VR experiences completely free of any kind of cord. With the new controller, you can move around and interact with these experiences like never before with a full three-degrees-of-freedom (3DOF). What’s more, the Gear is made in partnership with Oculus, which opens it up to a wide array of games, VR videos, and experiences through the Oculus store.

Starting with the basics, the Gear VR uses your Samsung Galaxy smartphone to deliver its take on VR. It stands to reason, then, that newer phones will offer the best experience with the most steadfast battery and graphical power. Without the need for a computer, you’re also free from the tangle of wires coming desktop VR headsets.

Since the HMD uses your Galaxy phone, you’ll be experiencing VR through a beautiful Super AMOLED screen with a rich 1280x1440 per eye resolution. Compared to the Oculus’ 1080x1200 resolution, it’s a definite improvement, but don’t go expecting your smartphone to outmatch the GTX 1080 in your gaming PC. The Gear VR can trick your mind into believing your in a virtual space but many of its apps will take on a stylized aesthetic to accommodate the power of the phone.

Once you’re actually in, that’s where the magic happens. Like its desktop counterparts, there’s some screen dooring that takes place but most of your time is spent in motion, either looking around or using the controller to teleport from place to place. When it clicks, your perspective on the real world becomes an afterthought and you suddenly have presence in this place.

For gaming, this is especially cool as you feel more “in the game” than ever before. First-person games are especially good for this, as are driving games and arcade space shooters. Even third person games are enhanced when viewed from “inside” the game. The Gear VR is compatible the most gamepads, too, so you won’t be limited to the controller if you come across a game that supports something like an Xbox One controller.

There are a number of other experiences that definitely worth trying, too. As a teacher, I was especially excited to take advantage of mobile VR to provide my students with a new experience they might not otherwise have. Out of everything I reviewed, it turned out to be VISO Places that was the most exciting for my students. Taking advantage of Google Street View, VISO allows you to step into 360-degree images from locations all around the world. It’s virtual tourism and an incredible way to help children see the world outside of their own small town.

Oculus has a wealth of bite-sized experiences and 3D videos filled with “wow” moments. Virtual rollercoasters or bungee jumps can be a bit daunting but also thrilling, especially if it’s your first time in VR. Skybox proved to be a great app for this, rendering a 3D environment around you rather than a floating menu to select your video. It’s the small touches that make the difference, and the Gear VR has been on the market long enough to have a wide selection of refined apps for your entertainment pleasure.

Then, of course, there’s Netflix. Listen, I love kicking back on the couch and watching my stories as much as the next guy, but there’s something especially neat about loading into a mountain bungalow and sipping some cocoa watching Dark on a big screen.

The biggest drawback on the current GearVR is that motion is much more limited than on the Oculus Rift or Vive. Since the computing is being done on a phone with no outside trackers, room scale experiences currently aren’t possible. There’s no leaning in or crouching down either. This limits the type of experiences you can have compared to the more expensive competition but, assuming you already have the phone, the Gear VR is also hundreds of dollars less, so it’s an acceptable tradeoff.

The controller also makes a monumental difference in the types of experiences you can have thanks to easy and intuitive teleportation. In the past, you had some degree of control using inputs on the headset itself but it was far from ideal. Now, games can be fully explorable adding an incredible amount of depth to the types of experiences developers can create.

The other area Samsung has obviously tried to keep costs down is in construction. The Gear VR is lightweight (which is a plus) but is largely plastic and doesn’t feel like it could take a drop. The straps are also velcro-based, instead of utilizing clasps or knobs to secure the HMD.

Final Thoughts

Coming from the HTC Vive, I was worried the Gear VR would let me down. I shouldn’t have worried. For the cost, it provides an impressive VR experience that is far more accessible than either the Oculus Rift or the Vive - assuming you don’t also need to buy the phone. It doesn’t have the horsepower of a high-end gaming PC and a pair of sensors for room scale but what Samsung has delivered is a great first VR experience that points users directly at the potential of what’s to come.

Pros

  • Affordable (if you have the phone)
  • Provides a sense of presence, just like much more expensive headsets
  • Supported by Oculus with years worth of experiences to try
  • Controllers adds new freedom to mobile VR experiences

Cons

  • Many experiences are tough on the battery
  • Limited mobility - no real world walking, crouching or leaning

The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for the purposes of review.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.