The New Samsung Gear VR Headset – A Quick Review

The new Samsung Gear VR headset was released last week, moving into the space staked out by Google’s Daydream View. While we were hoping for something completely different out of Samsung’s insanely creative C-Lab program, we’re still happy to see an updated Gear VR.

We loved Samsung’s headset when it first arrived, and we’re not alone. Over 5 million have been sold or distributed, making it the largest selling headset outside of Google Cardboard (at 10 million). But a quick confession. Since December, we’ve been using Google’s Daydream View and our Gear VR has sat on a shelf. The cloth design of Google’s device and their innovative hand controller made it very attractive. The catch (there always seems to be one) is that you need a Pixel or other Daydream compatible smartphone.

The New Samsung Gear VR Headset

Samsung came roaring back last week with their new phone and headset. Available on April 21, the New Samsung Gear VR Headset will cost $129. If you buy a new Galaxy 8 phone, the VR setup is free. We suspect you’ll see a lot more of this in the future. Given how much you are paying for a new portable pocket computer – oops, we meant phone – VR will be a free (or nearly free) add-on.

If you have a recent Gear VR headset and just want the new hand controller, you can get it for $39.

The new Samsung Gear VR headset will be compatible with almost all Samsung phones except the exploding Note 7 (thankfully). That includes the new Samsung Galaxy S8 and  Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, along with the Galaxy S7, S6 and Galaxy Note 5.

So how does it compare to Daydream?

We played around with the Gear VR and the Galaxy S8 at the Samsung 837 space this evening and were impressed. They were showing off the hardware with VR games and a rollercoaster experience (that seats 20 people at a time).

Getting ready for Samsung's VR rollercoaster ride using the new Gear VR and Galaxy S8
Getting ready for Samsung’s VR rollercoaster ride using the new Gear VR and Galaxy S8

In terms of visual quality, an upgrade to the Gear VR software has ended the pixelization that was part of Samsung’s VR experiences. Popping the new Galaxy S8 phone with its 2960 x 1440 display at 570ppi into the Gear VR makes for an incredibly smooth VR experience. The graphics are stunning, no doubt due to Samsung’s use of a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. CNet ran tests on it last week and it outpaced the Pixel’s 821 chip and Apple’s proprietary A10 processor inside the iPhone 7 Plus.

The Galaxy S8 didn’t overheat which has been a recurring issue for us while using Google’s Pixel in Daydream View. We not the only ones to note that after 30 minutes in AltSpaceVR you often have to stop and let the Pixel cool down. That can quickly take the social out of a social VR platform.

Samsung Gear VR Hand ControllerSamsung’s hand controller with its extra buttons is a definite improvement on Google’s design. It’s easy to use, and feels substantial in your hands. While we like Google’s controller, the Samsung version made the Google version feel toy-like.

Samsung didn’t get everything right. For whatever reason, the new Gear VR still has a trackpad and buttons on the side of the headset. Trying to touch what you can’t see is an exercise in frustration for new users. It doesn’t make any sense to include it when there’s a trackpad on the new hand controller.

Google also comes out ahead in that you can just drop the Pixel into the headset and go. We dislike having to plug into micro USB or USB Type-C ports.

Overall, we think the Samsung Gear VR comes in as the best headset for the price. But we need more time with Gear VR and will have further updates. And Google plans release a new Pixel phone (and possibly a new headset) before the year is out. You can only keep your edge so long in this race. But at the moment, Samsung’s out in front.

Most remarkable to us is that mobile VR is getting significantly better. It’s not like using a Rift or HTC Vive – yet. But it’s getting much closer. One or two versions down the road and you won’t need a high-end VR headset except for very specific applications in educational and other environments.

Samsung’s done much more than simply deliver an upgrade to their popular VR headset. They’re showing us what mobile VR can do.

Now about that ostrich ad

Samsung’s done plenty of ads over the years showing people using Gear VR. This time they opted for the Gear VR on a CGI ostrich. Given Samsung’s recent product challenges, maybe it was appropriate to ditch people for a flightless bird. As AdWeek noted,

The ostrich, clearly, is perfect, both as a creature that might fulfill its own destiny via VR and as a metaphor for Samsung itself—a grounded bird that’s become a bit of a joke, but could soar if it only just believes.

Whatever you think of it, we’ll go with Time Magazine’s assessment – the ad is “delightfully weird”. Just take the obvious real life lesson to heart here – don’t try to run – or fly – while wearing your VR headset.