The Merge VR Headset is priced: RRP $99.99 and (£39.99, UK)
Product website: https://mergevr.com/
Release date: November 15th 2015
Until very recently the VR consumer market was rather sparsely populated: you could either get Google Cardboard or break the bank getting something top of the range. Then Samsung released the Gear VR and that changed everything by offering an affordable (well, $99) headset that delivered a genuinely impressive VR experience. However, as it was only compatible with four Samsung phones (the Note 5, S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+) it left many people back to square one as there was nothing in-between.
However, all this seems to have changed with the release of the Merge VR headset. It’s compatible with both Android and iOS phones up to 6”, has a magnetic button (unlike most cheap headsets), and has IDP adjustment. In short, it sounds like the perfect product to fill the gaping hole between Google Cardboard and the Occulus Rift. In this article we’ll be reviewing the Merge VR to see whether it fulfils the hopes we’ve placed upon it.
What’s so special about the Merge VR headset?
The Merge VR promises to fill the gaping hole in the VR consumer market by offering something better than your entry level headset (google cardboard and the plethora of plastic equivalents) and the other better yet still affordable consumer devices like the Homindo and FreeFly. In short, it aims to meet the needs of anyone who wants a Samsung Gear VR but sadly doesn’t have a compatible headset.
So, what’s so special about the Merge VR?
- It’s lightweight (371g without the smartphone attached)
- Foam cushioning for comfort
- It has an IPD adjustment wheel
- Unlike most consumer VR headsets (the Homindo, FreeFly and other cheaper plastic models) the Merge VR includes a magnet slide button on both sides of the device to cater for both left and right-handed users
- Suitable for most phones up to 6”
- Access to your phone’s headphone socket
- It has an 85˚ field of vision (FoV)
We’ll evaluate these features in turn, but before doing so let’s take a look at the headset itself.
In the box it arrived in you should get the following:
- Merge VR headset (and head straps already fitted)
- Getting Started Guide booklet
What’s it like to use?
Build quality & ergonomics:
The most striking thing about the device (besides the fact it’s bright purple) is that the exterior is made from a single piece of moulded foam. Prior to being sent one of these units to review we assumed it was moulded plastic, like every other headset we’ve reviewed so far. However, instead of being disappointed we were actually rather impressed. I should make it clear that the foam is extremely tough and reminds us more of the kind of synthetic foam you’d find in boxing gloves or a punch bag. It’s very firm and retains its shape. This also makes it feel more comfortable to hold and wear, as it doesn’t need an additional foam layer around the eyes and nose, as the entire unit is already foam padded. The inside of the headset, however, is made from your standard black plastic.
The unit also feels extremely lightweight, not to mention comfortable to hold and wear due to the foam material (as already mentioned). We couldn’t find any details regarding the weight on the Merge VR website so we had a look online and found one site reporting it to be 340g, so we decided to weigh it ourselves and were surprised to find it was 371g on its own without a phone in. To put this in perspective, the Samsung Gear VR claims to be 318g (again without a phone). This seemed odd to us as we’ve already reviewed the Gear VR and that felt somehow heavier to us. Unfortunately we no longer have the Gear VR on hand to weigh ourselves to see whether 318g is entirely accurate. But either way, 371g isn’t bad, and it certainly feels light.
It also comes with two head straps – one to go around your head and the other over the top. We found wearing the headset extremely comfortable for lengthy periods of time (over 30 minutes) and even with a Note 4 phone we noticed no sagging weight whilst wearing it. In short, we were impressed.
However, what was also very impressive was the ability to adjust the Interpupillary Distance (IPD), namely, the distance between your two eyes. Personally I’ve always found Google Cardboard to be a tad too narrow for me, so this made a significant difference.
One of the best features of the Merge VR headset that makes it stand out by a big margin from its competitors is the inclusion of not one but two magnet slide buttons located on the top of the headset (one on the left and the other on the right). They both do the same thing, but it’s a nice touch having one on each side to cater for both left and right-handed users. These function the same way as the magnetic slide button most people are familiar with from using Google Cardboard, allowing you to select things and interact within your virtual environment. A lot of cheap plastic headsets lack this basic feature which means you have to repeatedly remove your phone from the headset to physically tap the screen to select something before reinserting your phone into it. Both the Homindo and FreeFly headsets faced the same problem, and at the time of writing no Bluetooth controllers performed the same function as Google Cardboard’s magnetic slide button. Of course, the Samsung Gear VR has a select button, a back button, volume control and a small touch pad. But really all you need is a magnet button, and Merge VR have this. As a result we enjoyed our VR experience tremendously more than with any other headset (besides the Gear VR).
We’ve already mentioned how comfortable the Merge VR headset is to wear and hold thanks to its firm foam exterior construction, and being able to adjust the IPD was a massive plus too. And finally, the inclusion of a magnetic slide button gave it a huge advantage over its competitors, by a very big margin. In short, it ticked almost all the boxes for us: comfortable to wear for long time periods, ability to interact with your virtual environment due to the inclusion of a magnetic slide button, and custom calibrating for IPD distance. Its FoV is a respectable 85˚. It was so comfortable and immersive that I forgot I was even wearing it at one point.
However, despite all this praise, it did suffer from one problem (see below)
Problems: no focus adjustment
This is where we usually launch into a lengthy pedantic tirade about all the little flaws a device has. We had plenty of criticism for the Homindo (extremely uncomfortable to wear for any length of time, and no magnetic slide button) and the FreeFly (comfortable but poor focusing and no magnetic slide button, and the Bluetooth controller that came with it was useless for VR). We even had a few niggling quibbles with the Gear VR. However, we’re at a slight loss here to pin-point any legitimate criticisms. Well, there is one: you can’t adjust focusing. The Homindo, despite all its significant faults, did allow users to adjust the distance between the eye pieces and the screen. Samsung’s Gear VR does the same. Merge VR, however, do not, and this was rather disappointing. I actually couldn’t get the focusing right for my eyes. However, I found that I could actually wear my prescription specs whilst wearing the headset. And that solved the problem. The only other headset that’s enabled me to do that is the Samsung Gear VR, but that also had a small flaw – with the interior being white and having more space to allow users to wear glasses it meant there was occasionally a small amount of light leak. Merge VR don’t have this problem due to a nice tight (yet very comfortable) seal around the eye/nose area due to the foam construction and mixture of black and purple material.
- Extremely comfortable to wear due to being extremely lightweight and with great padding
- Ability to adjust the IPD
- Includes a magnetic button for an interactive VR experience
- Compatible with most smartphones (both Android and iOS) up to 6”
- You can wear low profile (i.e. narrow) glasses whilst wearing the headset
- Phone holder very secure
- Cannot adjust focusing distance like the Samsung Gear VR or Homindo
This is without doubt one of the best VR headsets we’ve reviewed and is second only to the Samsung Gear VR. And make no mistake, the Gear VR is better: you can adjust the focus, the headset has its own built-in accelerometer and gyro to enhance your experience, as well as additional controls (back button, volume, and a touch pad), and you can plug it into your phone to provide your phone with a bit more battery power (which is rather important given how much VR zaps your battery!)
Some readers may view our comparison with the Gear VR as unfair to Merge, however, we feel the comparison is apt. The Merge VR headset blows the other competition out of the water for devices below the Gear VR. The Homindo, FreeFly, and all the plastic variants of Google Cardboard – none of them are anywhere near as good as Merge’s new headset in terms of comfort, ergonomics, or controls (primarily due to lacking a magnetlic slide button or IPD adjustment). Another reason for comparing Merge VR’s device with the Gear is the fact that the Gear is only compatible with four of Samsung’s phones. And that’s precisely where Merge VR comes in: if you don’t have a Note 5, S6, S6 Edge or S6 Edge+ then the next best thing is the Merge VR. The only thing disappointing about it was the lack of focus adjustment. But apart from that we were thoroughly impressed. And because you can wear low profile prescription glasses with it the lack of focus adjustment wasn’t a deal-breaker for us.
So, in summary: if you’ve got a Samsung Note 5, S6, S6 Edge or S6 Edge+ then get a Samsung Gear VR. It’s currently retailing at the same price as the Merge VR ($99) and is better due to focus adjustment, more controls and a few other features. However, if you don’t have one of those four smartphones and don’t plan on upgrading to one any time soon then we strongly advise you to just get the Merge VR headset. It’s a massive step up from Google Cardboard and vastly better than any other consumer headset we’ve encountered to date.