I’ve long be intrigued about the potential of virtual reality, and as such, I’ve been dying to try the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. Sadly, I’ve yet to have the opportunity to try either.

I humbly settled on Google Cardboard, which is a nice novelty, but a less than ideal experience. For all that Google Cardboard lacked, it made it clear that VR is more than just a passing fad, and that it features some serious potential.

Google Cardboard, for all of its merits, doesn’t do the idea of VR justice. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend ~$1500 to enjoy a proper VR experience. Samsung’s Gear VR, an idea brought to reality via a partnership with VR pioneer Oculus, is a legitimate VR experience that makes me downright excited about the future of this technology.

Gear VR is far from perfect, but it’s a huge upgrade over Google Cardboard, and cheap enough to where the masses can both experience and validate it.

Manfrotto 502 Video Head

Compatibility

The Samsung Gear VR works with the following Samsung devices:

  • Galaxy S7
  • S7 edge
  • Note5
  • Galaxy S6
  • S6 edge

If you don’t already own one of these devices, then the cost of entry goes up significantly. I wouldn’t recommend buying a brand new Galaxy device just to try the Gear VR, but if you already own any of the aforementioned devices, then the Gear VR’s $99 asking price is worthy of your consideration.

If you’re determined to try the Samsung Gear VR, and you don’t already own an eligible device, your best option may be to try to find a used Galaxy S6. I’ve seen the Galaxy S6 going for less than $400 in good condition on Amazon, and you’ll probably be able to find something cheaper on a site like Craigslist.

Fortunately, I have a Galaxy S7 in my possession, so all I needed to do was purchase the Gear VR and I was ready to go.

Unboxing

I purchased the Gear VR via Amazon, and also got the opportunity to test out same day delivery, which just arrived in my neck of the woods. I didn’t actually receive my Gear VR until 8PM, which means that I’ve had less than 24 hours to play around with it.

The packaging for the Samsung Gear VR felt minimalistic, with thin cardboard, and cheap plastic moulding housing the product inside. Outside of the Gear VR, a couple of straps, and an instruction manual, there wasn’t much else to find inside the box.

Installing

Before you can get started, you’ll have to install the needed software to your Samsung phone. You’ll be prompted to install the necessary apps, including the Oculus app, upon connecting your device to the Gear VR for the first time.

You’ll also be required to sign up with an Oculus account, which I found to be a bit tedious. I ended up having to complete the sign-up on my Mac, because it didn’t want to cooperate when trying to do so from the phone. Once you’re all signed up, you can link a credit card in order to purchase apps and games.

Gear VR Galaxy S7

From there, it’s just a matter of connecting the phone back to the Gear VR via the notches on the end of the headset. The headset includes a micro USB port for the phone to slide into, which allows the device to interface with the Gear VR.

The hardware

I’ve yet to be able to play with an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive, but I imagine that the quality of those two devices far exceeds the build quality of the Gear VR. For one thing, those units are self-contained units with their own built in screens.

The Samsung Gear VR, for as nice as it is, feels as if you’re jerry-rigging it together every time you connect your smartphone. With that noted, it’s still a hundred times nicer than the nicest Google Cardboard experience available, and a whole lot cheaper than the Vive or the Rift.

Gear VR Oculus

On top of the Gear VR is a focal adjustment for adjusting the focus of the display. On the right side is a touch pad with a back button for navigating throughout the interface. Right in front of the touch pad, you’ll find a pair of volume buttons for adjusting the volume of the Galaxy device connected to the Gear VR.

I found all of the buttons easy to interface with. I especially like the touch sensitive buttons, as they are responsive, and provide necessary input control to navigate through various menus. The touch sensitive buttons can also be used as face button while playing games, although buying a third-party controller for the Gear VR is highly recommended if you want to do any sort of real gaming.

Of course, the majority of the actual “hardware” experience is determined by the smartphone itself. All of the compatible devices should be powerful enough to drive many of the apps and games available on the Gear VR sufficiently. It’s obviously best if you can use the latest and greatest Samsung phone, but any of the compatible devices should work well enough.

The software

To put it bluntly, many of the apps and games that are compatible with the Gear VR are nothing more that tech demos. Still, there are a few gems to be found. Here are a few of the titles that I can recommend based off of hands-on experience or word of mouth:

  • Smash Hit
  • Lands End
  • Minecraft Gear VR Edition (haven’t played, still waiting on controller)
  • Perfect Moon VR Edition (haven’t played, still waiting on controller)
  • Samsung Milk (Six Flags Rollercoasters)

Keep in mind that I’ve only been able to test the Gear VR and its software for less than 24 hours, so my opinions and recommendations regarding software are subject to change. If you have any app recommendations, please drop us a line in the comment section.

Comfort

The VR experience is as personal as it gets, because you’re literally strapping a piece of hardware to your face. As such, the experience has to be comfortable for it to work.

As a glasses wearer, I found the Gear VR to be bearable, but it’s not something I’d want to keep strapped to my head for more than a few minutes at a time. The eye cups, for as much padding as they provide, still proved to be fatigue-inducing when used for more than 10 minutes. Perhaps it’s because I’m not used to the feeling of a headset being strapped on my face, but I found the experience to be mildly uncomfortable. I definitely think that the comfort level goes up when you don’t wear glasses, but since I don’t currently wear contacts, I don’t have a choice.

Samsung Gear VR

The straps — the are two of them, one that goes horizontally and one that connects vertically — don’t feature enough adjustment options for my taste. I ended up removing the vertical strap, and just going with the main horizontal strap, because the dual strap setup felt too tight and restrictive.

I understand that there is only so much that Samsung can provide for just $99, so I don’t want to be overly critical when it comes to fit and comfort. Still, you need to know that this isn’t a device that most people will want to wear for extended sessions.

Graphics and Sound

The first thing that you’re going to notice is that, yes, there is pixelation. In some of the more immersive games, it’s easy to look past the pixelation, but it’s definitely there and it’s obvious.

Gear VR Headset

As far as sound is concerned, you’re going to want to use a pair of headphones instead of relying on the sound coming out of the Galaxy device’s speaker. Having headphones lends heavily to the immersive experience.

On several of the games that I played, such as Smash Hit, and Lands End, I noticed occasional frame rate dips and graphical glitches, but those issues can be overlooked when you see how immersive the experience is as a whole.

An Immersive experience

It’s easy to pick out the Gear VR’s flaws, but flaws are minimized when you get to experience truly immersive gameplay. There’s simply nothing quite like it, and no words can help one to understand how it feels if you’ve never tried modern VR before.

The head tracking provided by the Gear VR, combined with the isolated sense that you get from the headset’s snug fit, makes the experience so much better than Google Cardboard. Using the Gear VR makes it feel like you’ve stepped into another location, and while I was always cognizant that I was a part of a simulation, I’ve never felt so close to being there.

Gear VR With Straps

This is not a perfect device, not in the least, but I don’t think anyone ever claimed that it was. What it is, is the first real step towards mass market virtual reality that actually works. The software is a mixed bag, but some titles, such as the already mentioned Lands End, highlight the potential of the medium.

VR is still in its infancy, but even so, it’s easy to see the incredible potential here. If you already own a compatible Galaxy device, then I believe the $99 Samsung Gear VR is worth the price of admission for a glimpse of the future.

As I stated at the outset, I wanted to provide you with some quick first impressions of my first 24 hours with the Samsung Gear VR. I’ll be back with more in-depth nuanced analysis of specific features in the future.

About the Author

Jeff Benjamin's favorite gear