Samsung Gear VR Review: A Whole New (Virtual) World


"Come with me, and you'll be in a world of pure imagination."

Never has the whimsical phrase sung by Gene Wilder in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" been more apropos. The Samsung Gear VR ($99) is the first virtual reality headset designed for the masses. You just plug in a Galaxy S6 or other recent Samsung handset, and enjoy immersive new worlds from the comfort of your living room. We're talking everything from getting up close and personal with dinosaurs to exploring the Land of Ooo to taking a trip to Mars. The Gear VR requires other add-ons for the best experience in some apps (such as wireless headphones and a gaming controller). In addition, overheating can occur during extended play sessions. But, overall, this device provides the most virtual reality fun you can have for the money.

Portal to a Whole New World

So you've seen this newfangled tchotchke, but what is it exactly? A collaboration between Samsung and Oculus VR, the Gear VR is one of the first virtual reality headsets available for mobile consumers. Unfortunately, as the name suggests, the device works with only certain Samsung Galaxy phones ─ namely, the Note 5, the Galaxy S6, the S6 Edge and the S6 Edge Plus ─ so everyone else will have to get their VR kicks elsewhere (such as the low-tech Google Cardboard).

Gear VR has a fairly deep catalog of content to offer, including games, movies, videos and experiences ─ the Oculus Store's catchall term for virtual tours, educational apps and live events. You also have Concepts, where you'll find all the experimental games and apps. The apps available in the Oculus Store will make or break the Gear VR and the upcoming, highly anticipated Oculus Rift.

Design: Suit Up and Roll Out

When the future arrives, it hardly ever takes the form of the slick glossy device we've imagined in the movies. The same goes for the matte black- and-frost-white plastic frame that comprises the majority of the Gear VR. The device is secured onto your face using a pair of black, somewhat stretchy bands that are secured in place with thick strips of Velcro. The portion that fits over the top part of your face features a soft gray fabric that can be removed, if necessary. Contrast that with the previous iteration's foam cushion, which was fixed permanently in place.

Similar to its predecessor, the Innovator Edition, the Gear VR features a focus wheel at the top center of the device, which controls the biconvex lenses.

Along the right you'll see a small Back button and large touch panel for navigating through virtual space. Unlike the Innovator Edition's smooth panel, the Gear VR has concave sections that resemble the cardinal points on a compass.

On the bottom-right corner of the headset sits a lone miniUSB charging port to ensure your smartphone doesn't die in the middle of an excursion. There's also a pair of black ventilation slots to help keep your phone cool while you're exploring your virtual space. The vents are noticeably larger than what was found on the Innovator Edition, which should provide more airflow out of the device. 

Your Galaxy smartphone rests in a compartment at the front of the VR. After inserting your device onto the miniUSB input in the depression, it snaps securely into place. Now all that's left is to attach the black matte plastic plate over your phone, and you're ready for a trip into a virtual world.

I'm not sure if society is ready to accept people shunning the real world in public in such a blatant form.

My biggest wish for the Gear VR is for Samsung and Oculus to find a way to outfit the headset with built-in audio. As it stands, you have to either plug a pair of headphones into your smartphone or use a pair of wireless headphones. Or worse, you'll have to rely on your phone's speaker, which doesn't deliver convincing spatial audio; that's a must-have for a 360-degree application.

Since the Gear VR completely covers your eyes, it's pretty safe to assume that the headset is meant to be used at home or some secure area. It's just as well, since the device does have this "take my lunch, please"-type of vibe going for it. While not as obnoxious as Google Glass and its unrepentant Glassholes, I'm not sure if society is ready to accept people shunning the real world in public in such a blatant form.


Samsung delivered on its promise to make its headset feel less cumbersome. At 6.9 ounces, the Gear VR feels obviously lighter than its predecessor (14.2 ounces). It definitely makes a difference when you're wearing the device for long periods of time.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideFor those of us with big hair, you'll be happy to know that you can unfasten the top strap to make room for your voluminous locks. Just fasten the back strap a little tighter to make sure the headset remains in place.

The most important component of the headset (outside of the lenses and smartphone) is the plush, fabric-cloaked padded lining where you place your face. It's much more comfortable than the plain foam on the Innovator Edition ─ the padding allowed me to wear the Gear VR for more than an hour with no complaint.

Once you have the device up and running, the lenses will display content (by leveraging your Samsung phone) at a 96-degree field of view at 2560 x 1440p. If you are prone to motion sickness, there may be some instances of nausea depending on the game or app. My stomach did a few flip-flops during some titles, but the feeling passed after several seconds.

Apps, Games and Experiences

Hardware, no matter how nattily designed, is nothing without its software. Oculus, Samsung and a bunch of enterprising developers have created an app suite that's sure to entertain, educate and connect you with friends in novel ways. Oculus Store apps range in price from free up to $14.99.

Credit: Samsung Mobile USA / YouTube

Oculus Store reps say the catalog currently contains hundreds of apps that cover an interesting number of genres. You'll find educational apps such as In The Body, which takes you on a ride through the human circulatory system. The BluVR app allowed me to get up close and personal with the majestic blue whale. For some more pulse-racing fare, you'll want to check out Dreadhalls, a horror game that has you exploring a large dungeon as you plot your escape from the things that go bump and growl in the dark.

I loved performing a wicked barrel roll in my tricked-out space fighter simply by tilting my head.

Some of my favorite VR experiences came in Anshar Wars 2, which had me piloting a starfighter through the vast expanse of space. If I were playing a game on a phone or PC, my experience would end at the screen bezel. But here, the virtual world invaded my peripheral vision so that, even out of the corner of my eyes, I could see the stars and an approaching asteroid that I only just avoided by tilting my head. I also used the head movements to navigate my journey and shoot down an opponent with a missile.

MORE: Best Gear VR Apps

When I was done with my celestial dogfighting, I went old school in the Arcade Beta, where I was placed in an arcade circa-1980, complete with coin-operated cabinets with the large joystick and colorful buttons. I made use of a 20-minute demo to play classics like Altered Beast, Spy Hunter and Galaga. Once the demo time is up, prices range between $1.99 and $2.99 to add the games to your library.

Next, I took Dreadhalls for a spin. Halfway through my play-through, a low guttural noise caused me to spin around. With the tension ratcheted up to a 7, the hallway, lit with a sickly green luminescence, seemed to be closing in on me while my dastardly foe's presence siphoned my courage as I journeyed deeper into darkness and my own dread. I exited the game just as I heard lumbering footsteps advancing on my position. I'm not going to say I screamed, but I'm also not going to deny it. But I do look forward to facing my fears ─ just not in the TG labs where everyone can hear you scream.

Apps that don't require a game controller offer the unadulterated immersion VR has been promising for years.

I also enjoyed some of the tamer activities virtual reality had to offer, such as the Netflix app. It transformed the lowly Tom's Guide lab into a luxurious mountainside chalet with a massive home theater. Instead of sitting on our regular black stools, I was now seated on a lovely red couch in front of a huge screen with my Netflix queued up and waiting. As I watched "Master of None," I couldn't help but admire the level of detail put into the app, such as the pair of magazines casually positioned on the coffee table in front of me. 

MORE: Best Gear VR Games

I'm happy to report that so far the content is on the right track. The library is varied, growing and offers something for nearly everyone. Apps that don't require use of a game controller offer the unadulterated immersion experience VR bigwigs have been promising for years. Forced interaction with a controller tends to break the fourth wall that Samsung and Oculus worked so hard to create. I'm hopeful that they will come up with a more VR-friendly control device ─ like the handheld Touch VR controllers for the Rift ─ in the near future.

The Search for Apps

The smartphone iteration of the Oculus Store could use some work. I definitely appreciate the distinct pages the store offers for each game and app. However, as a store with hundreds of apps, and with more on the way, the lack of a search function is puzzling. Also, you lose access to the Summary, Details and Update pages when you go into your library.

If you want to search for apps in VR, you can do so in the virtual store. Selecting an app will summon three smaller tiles for Summary, Details and Media. That's not terrible, but I would have liked to just scroll through the pages instead of having to click and close out of a tile before moving on to the next one.

Social VR

Who says virtual reality has to be a lone-wolf venture? In a seemingly deliberate thumb in the eye of handwringers worried that the rise of VR would lead to the end of human interaction, Oculus has rolled out its Social app. The beta software lets you and up to five friends or strangers sit in a virtual lounge and watch content together as well as chat. Currently, the app allows viewers to watch only Vimeo or streams from Twitch. 

The setup process is pretty straightforward, starting with choosing an avatar. From there, you scroll through the available rooms and when you make your pick, you're transported into a room that's decked out with comfy chairs and a large theater screen. The actual backdrop varies depending on the room owner; I've watched videos on the moon, in a fancy theater and amongst the grass from an insect's point of view.

When I checked out my new VR friends, I discovered that the avatars are only represented by floating heads, which is more than a little trippy. If your headphones have an integrated mic, you can start chatting. While chatting with StevenEvans88 was interesting, I'm more excited at the prospect of watching Rainbow Six: Siege streams on Twitch with a few of my crew.

Samsung Internet: Spin to See Your Tabs

Who needs a laptop when you've got the Gear VR? If you want to read the latest news or find a recipe for authentic rum cake, you can do so using virtual reality in the form of Samsung Internet. Currently in beta, it's presented as a streamlined version of a Web browser.

I used Voice Search to go to and was pleased to discover that Google is the default search engine. However, you can switch to Yahoo or Bing in the Settings menu. After selecting the appropriate link, I used the touchpad to scroll up and down and tapped on the headline I wanted to read. Once you start browsing, you'll see icons for Back, Forward, Refresh, Voice Search, Bookmarks, Home, Tabs and Zoo

A quick note on Voice Search. Once it launches, you can access a keyboard by clicking the icon in the top-right corner. From there, you'll see  something similar to what you'll find on your smartphone. I wouldn't recommend this mode unless you have a wireless controller handy. Otherwise, you can enter letters and numbers by looking at each individual character and tapping the touchpad, but who wants to do that?

Before I knew it, I had several tabs open of varying importance. Instead of stacking the tabs starting with most recent like you'd see on an Android device, Samsung Internet leaves them open, surrounding you in a circle of information. If you're done reading an article or want to cross-check something, you just swivel around to the next open tab. However, after a while you'll want to get rid of some of those screens.

No Kids Allowed?

Whether it's a game or a museum tour, you'll see an app's comfort level and age recommendation at the top of its Summary pages. One thing that quickly becomes instantly clear is the Gear VR is decidedly PG-13. Out of all the apps I've explored, I've yet to come across one that doesn't have 13+ emblazoned at the top. As studies are slowly emerging about the effects of virtual reality on younger users, software developers are taking a better-safe-than sorry approach in regards to age.

Another rating to keep an eye on is comfort. Partnering current VR research and Oculus' own testing, the Oculus Store team has created two  ratings: comfortable for most and comfortable for some. Apps and games that don't require a whole bunch of sudden movements like Netflix and Bazaar fall under the comfortable-for-most banner, while more intense experiences, such as Dreadhalls and the marine exploration app BluVR, get the comfortable-for-some tag.

Performance and Heat

To maintain optimal viewing experiences using VR, it's important that the Gear VR maintain an average frame rate of 60 fps. Otherwise, you get ugly textures and choppy frame rates that can induce nausea. Although I couldn't test for actual frame rates, the headset delivered a smooth experience most of the time.

We did experience some overheating with our Galaxy S6 phone after using it in the Gear VR for more than an hour. This not only slows performance but can summon feelings of nausea in some. To prevent this, the screen fades to black, informing you of the problem and giving you the option to proceed. I highly recommend using this time to get reacquainted with the outside world.

Battery Life

The Samsung Gear VR relies on your smartphone for its display, processor and, of course, battery. Running virtual reality content is understandably more taxing than just watching videos or surfing the Web. I switched my Samsung Galaxy S6 to Airplane Mode and used Wi-Fi in an attempt to conserve battery life. However, after 45 minutes, my phone's battery had dropped from 100 percent to 66 percent.

Bottom Line

Virtual Reality has finally arrived ─ at least for those who own (or plan to buy) one of Samsung’s latest premium phones. For the affordable price of $99, the Gear VR delivers quality immersive apps covering a wide array of content, including games, educational programs and more esoteric experiences. The content runs smoothly, provided you don't experience  overheating, which can lead to inadvertent nausea.

As this is still the early days for VR, there are some things that Samsung needs to address, such as the lack of built-in, spatial audio. A 360-degree soundscape is necessary for achieving total immersion. The same thing goes for controls; there's a more elegant, tactile way to interact with VR environments than a traditional gamepad.

However, until the Oculus Rift launches next year, the Samsung Galaxy VR is the gold standard for mainstream consumers. And it should rule the roost for a while as the de facto mobile VR device. It's a highly accessible, highly engrossing experience that everyone should try at least once. And the growing content ecosystem points to a very promising future.

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