Samsung Gear VR
- - Extremely comfortable to wear with great padding
- - Includes touchpad and back button to interact with virtual environments
- - Has additional gyro, accelerometer and proximity sensors to enhance VR experience
- - Includes adjustment wheel for focusing
- - Only compatible with four Samsung phones
- - We noticed a very small light leak when using it without eye glasses
Price: RRP $99.99. Available here in the UK.
Product website: http://www.samsung.com/global/galaxy/wearables/gear-vr/
Release date: November 9th 2015
Several new VR headsets have come out recently to cater for those who can’t afford an Occulus Rift (i.e. most people) but want something better than Google Cardboard (GC), such as the FreeFly and the Homindo headset. We’ve already reviewed both of these and found them severely lacking. The FreeFly provided ultra-comfort but offered no way to adjust focusing (and the centre of the screen was a tad unfocused), while the Homindo offered focusing and IPD calibration for sharp images, but was incredibly uncomfortable. Furthermore, neither of these headsets offered any buttons or controls to interact with their VR experience. This meant their smartphones (which served as the VR screens) had to be physically removed for icons to be tapped, and so on. In short, they were both deeply disappointing experiences that caused many people to reluctantly return to Google Cardboard.
However, Samsung (in collaboration with Occulus) have promised to change all that (depending on what smartphone you’ve got).
The different versions of the Samsung Gear VR
One potential source of confusion concerns the fact that there are several versions currently available. Samsung were the first to file a patent for a VR head-mounted display way back in 2005. However, nothing much happened with this due to the technology lagging behind their big ideas. It wasn’t until 2013 that they made a prototype to be used with the Galaxy S4, but it still wasn’t up to scratch. Then in 2014 they teamed up with Occulus to help create a VR headset that met their original expectations. Although it was only compatible with the Note 4, Samsung still released a limited number of them to developers to play around with, give them feedback and (most importantly) start working on designing apps for it that would be ready when these devices were finally released to the mass market. This incarnation of their headset was known as the Samsung Gear VR First Innovator Edition. The Second Innovator Edition was released soon after this in March 2015 with minor design tweaks. It was also compatible with more devices (the Samsung S6 and the S6 edge) as well as the Note 4. It wasn’t until November 2015 that Samsung were finally ready and launched the latest incarnation of their VR headsets – the Samsung Gear VR Consumer Edition, better known simply as the ‘Samsung Gear VR’. This was compatible with the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge and the S6 edge+. This article will be reviewing the consumer edition.
What’s so special about the Samsung Gear VR headset?
The Samsung Gear VR promises to be an affordable consumer headset for an immersive VR experience. Here’s a list of the main features Samsung claim it has:
- It’s lightweight (318g without the smartphone attached)
- Foam cushioning for comfort
- It has a touchpad and back key for an interactive VR experience
- It has a focus adjustment wheel
- Built-in gyro, accelerometer and proximity sensors to be used in addition to your phone’s sensors to further enhance your VR experience by making it more responsive
- Includes a charging port for your phone so you won’t run out of power as quickly (as VR apps tend to drain the battery)
- It has a volume button
- It has a 96˚ degree field of vision (FoV)
- Access to the Occulus VR app store in addition to the standard Google Cardboard one
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:
- Samsung Gear VR headset
- Getting Started Guide booklet
- Head straps
What’s it like to use?
Build quality & ergonomics:
What struck us first was the build-quality and lightness of this headset. It only weighs 318g (without your phone fitted), which is a fifth lighter than the Innovator Edition. Fitting our phones into it was easy too. As already mentioned, the Samsung Gear VR headset is compatible with four phones: the S6, the S6 Edge, the S6 Edge+ and the Note 5. The smallest of these is the S6 with a 5.1” screen and the largest are the Note 5 and S6 Edge+ with 5.7” screens. All of them fitted easily and quickly into the slot. The head strap and padding are also extremely well designed. So much so that we didn’t feel the weight of it or experience any sagging whilst wearing it, even with the S6 Edge+ inside, which weighs 171g (giving us a total headset weight of 489g).
Another nice feature that was lacking in the Innovator Edition (and every other VR headset we’ve reviewed thus far) is the ability to wear prescription eye-glasses whilst using the headset. They’ve added a bit of extra space between the headset lenses and foam padding to make this possible. One of our team requires strong prescription specs so this was a massive plus for him. Being able to adjust focusing by shifting the lenses slightly by turning the focus adjustment wheel was another excellent and well thought out feature. We’ve only seen this in one other headset – the Homindo – and we’re very pleased to see it included in the latest incarnation of the Samsung Gear VR as well.
The embossed touchpad on the side of the device is an excellent addition, and in my opinion an improvement over the Innovator Edition’s smoother touchpad. It’s responsive and well-designed, and the back button was another nice feature that we ended up frequently using.
As already mentioned, the headset also has its own gyro, accelerometer and proximity sensors. While the four phones compatible with this device have their own sensors, the headset’s built-in sensors certainly enhances the VR experience by making it more sensitive to your movements. Comparing the responsiveness of using the Samsung Gear VR to one’s that solely rely on your phone showed that it did make a difference, especially when playing interactive games: there was no noticeable lag time whatsoever. Overall we were suitably impressed.
Given how comfortable and lightweight the headset is as well as the ability to wear prescription glasses and adjust focusing made this our most immersive and comfortable VR experience to date. And the touchpad and back button made it the most interactive.
However, despite all our praise the Samsung Gear VR isn’t without a few niggling quibbles.
Slight light leak
We’ve already mentioned how the headset has a bit of extra space inside for users to wear prescription glasses. While this is a terrific feature, it’s also generated a potential problem: we found that a tiny bit of light crept inside. This is compounded by Samsung’s decision for the inside of the device to be white instead of black (which it was in the Innovator Edition). The inside of the headset should really have been matt black to avoid (or at least minimize) this.
Limited to only four phones
The Samsung Gear VR is only compatible with their four latest smartphones: the Note 5, the S6, the S6 Edge and the S6 Edge+. This will disappoint a lot of people. And while the device itself is ridiculously cheap for what it is (only $99.99 at the time I’m writing this), bear in mind that the phones compatible with it are certainly not, with the S6 Edge+ retailing at around $600 or considerably less if you lock yourself into an expensive and lengthy contract. So, if you already own one of the four compatible phones then you’re in luck, otherwise you’ll be out of pocket.
Admittedly this is a somewhat unfair criticism: of course the new headset’s only compatible with the latest phones because they’ve got the highest specs. And most importantly, they have the highest screen resolution. This last feature is crucial as VR headsets create a three-dimensional image of a two-dimensional surface by stereoscopic projection – splitting the screen in two to be used by a separate lens for each eye. The clever optics then give a three-dimensional experience to the user. Now, this means that the resolution is effectively cut in half in virtue of the screen being split into two. So, a 1080p (1920x1080p) screen resolution will then be viewed at 1080x960p (only the vertical length is divided in two as the phone’s positioned on its side of course). Also bear in mind that your face will be very close to the screen, so image quality will be further reduced. The four phones compatible with the Samsung Gear VR all have screen resolutions of 2560×1440 (referred to as ‘quad HD’), so split in half along the horizontal axis and viewed through the headset this effectively becomes 1,440×1,280p for each eye. So, given the difference in viewing quality between 1,440×1,280p and 1080x960p when viewed extremely close up it seems fairly obvious why only those four phones are compatible with their latest headset – it’s to ensure the VR experience is the best it can be.
However, focusing on a screen that close to your face at 1,440×1,280p isn’t a flawless experience: you can still see pixels, which somewhat detracts from the VR experience itself. Don’t get me wrong: this is a massive step-up from using Google Cardboard or any of the other new VR headsets on the market, by a huge margin. However, the pixels are still visible. Personally, I was immensely impressed with the image quality (combined with the focusing wheel). But it’s still something to bear in mind in case you were expecting to see pin-sharp imagery.
Field of Vision could be a bit wider
The Samsung Gear VR has a FoV of 96˚. While this is good (and beats Google Cardboard’s 90˚) it’s not something to boast about. For example, the Zeiss One VR and the HTC Vive have FoVs of 100˚ and 110˚ respectively. While the Samsung Gear’s 100˚ didn’t actively bother us, it’s still something to bear in mind for the future.
- Affordable at only $99.99
- Very lightweight and comfortable to wear with excellent foam padding
- touchpad and back key for an interactive VR experience
- focus adjustment wheel and the ability to wear prescription glasses
- Built-in gyro, accelerometer and proximity sensors to enhance your VR experience
- Includes a charging port for your phone so you won’t run out of power as quickly (as VR apps tend to drain the battery)
- volume button
- Access to the Occulus VR app store in addition to the standard Google one
- Only compatible with four Samsung phones
- Tiny light leak that’s amplified by the interior of the device being white.
This is without doubt the most impressive VR headset we’ve reviewed so far. Samsung (with the help of Occulus) have created an affordable VR headset for the consumer market that blows the competition away. It’s comfortable to wear for long periods of time and every aspect of it has been extremely well thought out, which isn’t surprising given that this is its third incarnation (after the two Innovator editions). The focus wheel and ability to wear prescription glasses is terrific, as is the touchpad and back button. And the additional gyro, accelerometer and proximity sensors enhanced the responsiveness of our VR experiences. Access to the Occulus app site is another plus. Our only real gripe is the fact that people with slightly smaller heads using the device without eye glasses might notice a tiny bit of light leakage, and Samsung’s decision to change the color of the device’s interior to white is a baffling move, when it should have been left black like in the Innovator edition. However, aside from this we genuinely have no real qualms with this headset whatsoever. We did briefly criticise it for only being compatible with the four newest phones, but then conceded that Samsung had legitimate reasons for doing so.
In summary, if you’ve already got a Samsung S6, an S6 Edge/+ or a Note 5 then we strongly urge you go out and buy one of these immediately. If you’ve got a Note 4 then you could get an Innovator Edition of course and would avoid the tiny light leak problem as it doesn’t have enough space to wear eye glasses. And if your current phone contract is reaching its end then getting one of the supported phones would be recommended just to get this headset.