Virtual reality may be more accessible than ever, but it's still quite pricey. Enter the Samsung Gear VR headset. This virtual reality headset lets you delve into new gaming worlds and 360-degree videos all for less than a hundred bucks.
There's one catch though – the Gear VR requires a Samsung smartphone, more specifically the Galaxy S7, S7 edge, Note5, S6 and S6 edge. Samsung recently released a newer Gear VR that also supports the Note7. If you don't have one of these smartphones or you use an iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Phone or any other Android device, you are out of luck. That is unless you decide to purchase a Samsung smartphone in addition to the headset, which would almost be as pricy as the better and more powerful Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets. But it's a definite must-have for Samsung smartphone owners.
The Gear VR headset was created in a partnership with Oculus. It's light, compact and feels much more durable than other budget VR headsets that rely on your smartphone's display. Just pop off the front plastic cover, slip in your Galaxy phone and adjust the straps on the side to get a tight fit. During testing we found that the lenses for the headset can occasionally get dusty so you may want to keep a microfiber cloth handy to get the clearest picture.
The Gear VR doesn't have the same image quality as more expensive VR headsets, but rest assured the experience is still mind blowing. Whether you are virtually riding a wave, being chased by zombies or on a rollercoaster, this headset will make you grin ear-to-ear and cause your jaw to drop. We watched concerts, a Cirque du Soleil performance, 360-degree video blogs and an entire season of Bates Motel in VR. We used the headset outside, in bed and even in an airplane.
The Gear VR runs a version of Oculus Home that is extremely similar to the Oculus Rift. Here you will find your games, movies and apps that you select with the touch pad on the side. When you want to quit a game, there is a back button on the side that you press to open up the menu.
You control the Gear VR headset primarily with the touch-sensitive D-pad on its right side. It also uses head tracking so you can move a cursor just by tilting your head up and down then confirming your selection by tapping the center of the D-pad. These controls are simple and come second nature. Most people figure out how to operate the headset in less than five minutes of use. Some games require the use of a controller which can be paired to your smartphone via Bluetooth. A controller will run you around $20 extra, though.
Games and Experiences
For consuming videos, the Gear VR is a game changer, especially if you have a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Samsung developed its own video app that has multiple viewing modes. Void mode is perfect for lying in bed. It simply puts a floating image directly in front of your eyes. In Ant Mode, you essentially feel like an extra on "Honey I Shrunk the Kids." A Samsung phone placed in the grass serves as your movie screen. It's surrounded by large mushrooms, some twigs and – you guessed it – ants.
Our favorite was Cinema Theater Mode in which you sit in an empty movie theater. If you turn your head to the left you see a row of empty seats and when you turn around you'll find a projector off in the distance on the ceiling. Even crazier, if the video you are watching gets dark or light, the brightness of the theater adjusts as such. You can easily forget you aren't actually watching the movie in a theater.
One issue with extensive video viewing is that the headset is quick to overheat. Sometimes it needs to cool down after just 20 minutes of use. To remedy this we put some small ice packs in the front of the headset behind the plastic cover.
If you primarily want to use your headset for gaming, the Gear VR probably isn't the headset for you. There are plenty of fun games available, but they aren't as impressive or immersive on this headset as they are on others. Plus, they drain your phone's battery quite quickly. We played Anshar Wars 2, an arcade-style shooter where you take the role of a pilot. The game was addictive and felt like a console game; however, in some places the game felt choppy, the textures looked flat and the resolution just seemed poor. The Gear VR's hit zombie game, Into the Dead, just wasn't as thrilling as playing The Brookhaven Experiment on the HTC Vive. In fact, one of our reviewers ripped off the Vive headset and ran into another room after being frightened by a zombie when she turned around.
The Samsung Gear VR headset is a must-have for Samsung Galaxy smartphone owners. It provides a fantastic video experience and it's much more affordable than other headsets. However, if you prefer a more immersive environment, you'd be better off with the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, though those both require an expensive gaming PC.