Samsung Gear VR

Update: At its Oculus Connect 4 keynote held on October 11, Facebook announced Oculus Go, a headset from the makers of the Oculus Rift that doesn’t require a phone or a computer to function. It also shares some compatibility with the Samsung Gear VR in that they both have access to the same games and applications. The controller for the Oculus Go, too, will be similar to that of the Samsung Gear VR on the market currently.

As far as phone accessories go, the Samsung Gear VR has always been one of the best. But now, paired with a motion controller, you owe this to yourself if you own a Samsung smartphone.

The revised Gear VR touts a streamlined, slightly improved design and features a USB-C connector that hooks directly into the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus. However, the big draw here is the included wireless controller.

It’s a small remote that looks similar to an HTC Vive controller, elevated touchpad, punchy trigger and all. And while it may not get points for originality, it just works. Placed in either the right or left hand, this controller is simple to pair to your phone and the motion controls add a new level of interactivity that was sorely missing from the Gear VR suite.

While the amount of titles that support motion controls are slim at the moment, what is there is actually a pretty good start. The is a step ahead in that regard, as it launched last year, but I’d expect Samsung and Oculus to catch up rather quickly.  

Altogether, with the robust and ever-growing collection of VR content and the new controller, the new Gear VR is a painless recommendation. It’s lighter, more comfortable and cross-compatible with older Samsung phones, too. However, if you already own a previous version of the headset, you can pick up the controller separately.  

Samsung Gear VR price and release date

The new Samsung Gear VR will release April 21 to the tune of $129 (about £100, AU$117) and includes both the updated headset and its new accompanying controller. 

For those already rocking a Gear VR headset, Samsung plans on selling the controller separately for $39 (about £30, AU$50).

Comparatively, the 2015 version of the headset originally cost $99 (£80, about AU$130) but dropped down to a price of about $60 or £50 from some sources. 

Design

The look of the new versus the old Samsung Gear VR isn’t night and day, though it has shed about a quarter pound in weight. When compared to the sleeker, smaller Google Daydream View, it’s still rather monstrous, but its size advantage yields unique benefits over Google’s one-size-fits-all headset.

First off, the optics inside can be adjusted using the top-mounted dial to make the picture easier to see for your eyes. Google’s headset comes at a fixed position and it may take some extra effort to see a clear image.

Keeping the light out is something that the Gear VR has always been good at and the new model is no exception. A welcome area of improvement is the breathability of the headset. On the first iteration, things would get steamy after a few minutes of use, rendering the lenses foggy like a mirror after a hot shower. But by adding a few more air vents beneath the eyes, I no longer find this to be an issue.

Compared to the older model, the cushion that rests around your eyes and nose is noticeably cozier and more supportive. Included in the box is a controller holder that can be installed into the head strap for easy storage.
 

The buttons and port location are familiar on the new headset, though they have received some tweaking. To match the layout of the new controller, the new headset’s touchpad now features a home button to take you straight out of any app or game that using you’re using.  

Confusingly, Samsung steamrolled the directional pad-shaped indicators on the touchpad. Sure, if you’ve used the Gear VR before, you’ll probably adjust easily to the change. But VR first timers might be put off, as the new solution doesn’t present the most intuitive control scheme.  

Instead of the microUSB port found on bottom of the original Gear VR that was used for keeping your phone charged, the new headset features a USB-C port that can do the same. Samsung touts it as a multifunction port, so it’s very likely that we’ll see more accessories coming that expand its capabilities, much like how the controller has done.  

Samsung includes a swappable microUSB connector, which enables compatibility with the following devices: 

Sitting next to Daydream’s controller

Controller

The little controller is certainly the highlight of the show, so let’s dig into it. The motion-enabled wand matches the dark aesthetic of the new Gear VR, though it also goes nicely with the older model.

Powered by two AAA batteries, the small controller features a volume rocker, as well as a circular touchpad and the back and home button duo to mimic what’s found on the side of the headset. On its back, there’s a single trigger, which is nice to have for the inevitable onslaught of first-person shooters.

There are a handful of games that offer controller compatibility and they work in a manner that you’d expect if you’ve played anything on Google’s Daydream headset or even the Nintendo Wii. You can aim the controller around in the virtual reality world to select, shoot or pick up objects. Compared to other experiences, Samsung’s controller feels and performs on par.

For many early pre-order adopters of the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, the new headset and its controller will come free. But even at $39 (about £30, AU$50), the controller is a welcome, well built addition to the Gear VR family.  

Samsung has made the controller compatible with the backlog of apps and games that are already available to users. Both the trigger and touchpad execute the same simple “confirm” command, but the motion capabilities are otherwise turned off.  

Given that the Samsung Gear VR made its debut in 2015, it’s no surprise that it has amassed a sizeable list of games and apps available.

The Gear VR has made a name for itself by being a home to some heavy hitters, like Eve Gunjack, Minecraft and Lands End. Additionally, those with a thirst for trying something new every so often will enjoy that the developer community is never short on pushing new games to the store.

Compared to Google Daydream, Samsung has a much larger library of titles to enjoy, though given the abundance, their quality comes into question at times. That said, the five-star rating system does a good enough job of informing users.

Samsung’s backlog doesn’t automatically map head movement to the gyroscope and accelerometer-packed controller, but it does allow you to rest your hands instead of keeping one near your temple to tap the touch-sensitive button.

That said, when playing older games and experiences built with head movement in mind, it’s strange to be holding a motion controller without the ability to control things in the way you’d imagine. This sort of fragmentation of software and how it’s controlled is indeed an issue that’s not seen on Google’s Daydream View, though it will minimize as more experiences are released with support for the controller. 

Performance

The sort of experience you can expect out of the new Samsung Gear VR relies completely on the smartphone that you place inside. Stocked with the Samsung Galaxy S8, every game and application works without a hitch, thanks to the Snapdragon 835 (Exynos 8895, if you live outside of the US) and 4GB of RAM.

Due to the fact that this headset is compatible with a wide range of Samsung phones released in the past two years, your results regarding performance will vary. It’s safe to say that the older your chipset is, the more likely your chances will be to encounter frequent frame stutters and faster overheating, which will require you to stop playing so that your phone can cool down.

Thankfully, as the company has been putting 2,560 x 1,440 resolution displays into its phones since 2015 (with 2,960 x 1,440 on the S8 and S8 Plus), you’ll be treated to a uniform level of pixel density no matter the phone you use.

Pairing the controller with your phone couldn’t be easier. Similar to Apple’s magical AirPods connection process, a single tap on the new motion controller pulled up a prompt on the nearby phone asking me to connect. 

Verdict

The new Samsung Gear VR is an small evolution with a few small changes and improvements sprinkled into the mix. While it absolutely dwarfs the Google Daydream View in terms of size, it offers sizable benefits, like an adjustable fit and broader device compatibility.

The inclusion of the motion controller makes Gear VR even more worth the purchase if this is your first foray into virtual reality. While the batch of software that supports the motion controller is rather small, the potential for major players is huge, given that Facebook, Oculus and Samsung are already at work on building more experiences for the controller.

Deciding on which VR headset to buy depends on the phone that you have or that you plan on buying. Samsung has made the choice not to support Google Daydream, while Google itself, along with companies like ZTE, Moto, and Huawei have.

That said, if you’ve only got one premium option available to you, just be glad that it’s the Gear VR with controller. 

Cameron Faulkner
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