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Samsung Gear VR review - Can it sell the Galaxy S7?

Expert Reviews logo Expert Reviews 06-03-2016 Seth Barton

There’s an abundance of sleek new smartphones to choose from this year. You might go with the modular LG G5, or Sony’s Xperia X or Samsung’s Galaxy S7 - but only the latter is currently available with a free VR headset when you pre-order it. And even beyond that deal, only Samsung has sewn up a deal with Oculus, arguably the leaders in VR tech.

Oculus is now owned by Facebook, of course, and that explains Mark Zuckerberg’s much-publicised appearance at the S7’s launch event. The future is VR says the fresh-faced billionaire, but does that mean you should buy a Samsung Galaxy S7 over a rival smartphone in order to get a Gear VR headset today?

Headset design

The consumer Gear VR headset is largely similar to the Innovator Edition that’s been around for a while. It’s lightweight at just 318g (plus the weight of your phone) and comfortable to wear for short periods. It could use a little more padding, particularly above your eyes, but it’s not a major issue. The straps come off, so you can just hold it up to your eyes if you prefer - a better option when passing it about between friends, perhaps - but either way it does a great job of blocking out exterior light.

Samsung Gear VR with S6© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Samsung Gear VR with S6

The Gear VR is compatible with all Samsung’s recent top-end handsets, namely the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ and Note 5, and, of course, the new S7 and S7 Edge. The phone simply clips into the headset and the Oculus app launches automatically when this is done. There’s a four-way touch control on the right plus a back button, while a Micro USB port on the bottom lets you charge and play at the same time - although the cable does tend to get in the way of proceedings. The phone’s headphone socket is accessible, and I recommend headphones for any immersive experience.

I found I could wear it either over my glasses or simply take them off and adjust the focus ring on top to compensate. You can get a pretty sharp image across most of your vision, but it tends to blur towards the edges. This is fine when you’re moving your head around to look at things, but if you simply want to move your eyes - such as when watching Netflix - you soon notice the degradation.

Samsung Gear VR lenses© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Samsung Gear VR lenses

VR is taxing, my S6 got rather hot in testing and the battery drained quickly. Expect around 1% per minute, but it varies depending on whether you’re playing games or watching video. We can’t see many people using VR heavily away from a convenient plug socket, especially when it comes to topping-up afterwards, but if you’re thinking of using it while travelling then consider carrying a battery pack as well.

VR experience

The head-tracking is very smooth, thanks no doubt to the Oculus chip inside the headset, which tracks your head movements down to a tee. There’s no external camera or sensor, though, so you can’t move about within your virtual environment or lean out and over to see down an abyss for instance. All the supported handsets have high-resolution, 2,560x1,440 AMOLED displays with very fast response times, so there’s no problem with ghosting or blurring either.

All that said, the experience isn’t quite up to that of the latest, dedicated headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR. The field of view is estimated to be a bit below 100 degrees, which is only a few degrees less than those headsets, but it’s still noticeable. Likewise, the refresh rate is only 60Hz, not the 90Hz that you really want for VR.

Of course, if you haven’t spent time on these £500+ devices, you’ll have little to complain about. However, I noticed that my tolerance for Gear VR was comparatively low. I certainly couldn’t wear it comfortably for more than 20-30 minutes at a time, and it tired out my eyes quite quickly.

Graphically, even the best games come out looking a little stretched, looking a little more Xbox 360-like than PS4-standard, for example. Textures that would normally look fairly detailed on your phone’s small screen are instead stretched across a huge virtual display, so that even the best games tend to look a little tired in the graphics department. Admittedly, I was testing the Gear VR with a Galaxy S6, but I doubt even the more powerful S7 will be enough of a step-up to banish such reservations, especially as all games will need to work on both handsets.

Games

Despite those caveats, I had great fun playing games on the Gear VR. I got stuck into Gunjack, an £8 ‘turret shooter’ set the EVE Online universe, whose developers are also giving us Oculus and PlayStation VR dogfighter EVE: Valkyrie later this year. Here, you can aim your turrets by moving your head around to place the crosshairs on the target.

Set on a large spaceship, you must take out waves of incoming fighters coming at you from a 180-degree sphere in front of you. You’ll also have to manage your ammo and weapon power-ups, and there are even big boss ships. It’s really good fun, and the game is designed to be played in short blasts, too, so you shouldn’t get too tired or disorientated. You might find your arm gets tired though, as you have to hold it up to touch and swipe the control pad on the side of your face to fire.

Video of Gunjack - Reveal Trailer

And that brings us neatly to the lack of a dedicated controller for the Gear VR. It’s one reason for the popularity of turret shooters, as they don’t need a controller to play. Even with the giveaway of headsets, Gear VR’s user base will be relatively small, and only a very brave developer is going to risk subdividing it further by requiring a Bluetooth controller to play their game. On the plus side, Gear VR games seem to work happily with any Bluetooth game controller, as I managed to connect it to the Asus Nexus Player controller without any hitches whatsoever.

Next, I played Herobound: Spirit Champion, where you control a goblin warrior and navigate him through the world from a static viewpoint. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed, but the environments felt incredibly real and solid; grand volcanos towered above and dark canyons fell away below. It’s pretty simplistic hack-and-loot stuff, but it proves that controller-based games, and ones that aren’t first-person, can still work on the format.

Herobound© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Herobound

All these games come from the Oculus store, which you browse in VR or simply via the app on your phone. There’s plenty here, but VR games cost more than most mobile games and there aren’t many free-to-play titles right now, which may irk those used to that payment model. You’ll need to do a bit of research before splashing your cash.

Video and Gear 360

It’s not all about games, though, with 360-degree photos and videos also being important options. There’s a good selection of incredible 360-degree photos on the app already and these download quickly enough to make browsing them good fun.

Video is another matter, however, as anything short of hundreds of megabytes and anything streamed at present simply isn’t up to scratch, so expect long waits to download 360-degree video clips before enjoying them. There’s some great stuff, but there’s not a lot of it right now and the quality isn’t always as high as you’d hope either.

There’s a lot more to see on YouTube, but at present there’s no native YouTube app for the Gear VR headset. Samsung has patched the hole with a beta internet browser, complete with handy YouTube link on the front page. Simply find the 360-degree video you want, make it full screen and a menu appears to view it ‘360’. It works most of the time, but some videos refused to render properly.

Youtube 360 video© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Youtube 360 video

You’ll soon be able to shoot your own 360-degree video with the Samsung Gear 360. This compact video camera works much like the Ricoh Theta range (which has it own Oculus app already) by combining the input of two fisheye lenses to create a 360-degree image. We’re yet to get a review sample or a final price for the Gear 360, but here’s our Gear 360 hands on.

Samsung Gear 360 removable battery© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Samsung Gear 360 removable battery

The competition

The Gear VR’s most obvious competitor looks to be LG’s own VR headset for the G5, the LG 360 VR, although based on our lacklustre early impressions and the fact it’s LG’s first foray into the area, we doubt anyone would choose LG’s attempt over Samsung’s.That said, there are powerful VR rivals both above and below the Gear VR.

If you’re looking for a cheap and cheerful VR experience, then give Google Cardboard a try first. It works with numerous smartphones now, and the ad-hoc headset can be found for under £10, making it ideal for watching 360-degree video from YouTube. However, the quality of headtracking, the basic headset and cheap lenses do mean you get what you pay for.

It’s possible to get access to Cardboard apps using the Gear VR, but you have to use an app such as Package Disabler Pro to prevent the handset launching the Oculus app when it’s plugged into the Gear VR headset. Once this is done, you can then enjoy Google’s take on VR, with a comfy headset and better optics but without the benefit of the superior sensors it contains.

The only other consumer-friendly headset on the horizon is PlayStation VR. Unlike the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which both require some pretty serious PC rigs to function, Sony’s headset should be much simpler to use, as it works directly with the PS4. OK, it may still cost hundreds of pounds (Sony has yet to announce how much PlayStation VR will cost yet, and that’s presuming you already have a PS4, of course), but it’s a serious VR experience with dozens of games already lined up and a selection of familiar controllers to play them on.

Conclusion

That’s all in the future, though. If you’re interested in VR today and are looking for a new smartphone, then Gear VR is sufficient reason to turn your head Samsung’s way. The technology works much better than Cardboard, and while it’s still only suitable for brief, largely non-interactive experiences, some of these are excellent and you’ll have a lot of fun showing it off to friends and family - as long as your phone doesn’t melt in the process, that is.

80

2. 360 video, Gear 360, Competitors and Conclusion

Gear VR intro© Expert Reviews Gear VR intro

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