Samsung has been working with the biggest name in virtual reality for over two years to bring a little bit of the virtual world to your smartphone, and with the Samsung Gear VR that experience is finally consumer-ready. Anyone who has been following the development of this and related VR accessories for smartphones knows there are a lot of exciting things happening right now in this space, and that can make choosing which one to spend money on a little complicated.
To help with this, we've assembled a quick list of things you need to know about the Samsung Gear VR before you either consider or dismiss its existence as a physical accessory to transport you to the virtual world.
1. This is very different from Google Cardboard
You will frequently hear folks who have never used a Gear VR, or those who have only used it for a moment or two, call the Samsung Gear VR an expensive version of Google Cardboard. While it's true there are some similarities (namely the part where you put your phone in the little box and look through the lenses on the other side to see pretty pictures and video) there's quite a bit of actual hardware difference.
For starters, there's a microUSB dock in the Gear VR mount that offers some hardware assistance to the Gear VR when you're looking through those lenses. Additional sensors make head tracking noticeably smoother, which in turn decreases that motion-based disorientation so many feel when trying out smartphone-based VR for the first time. You'll also find a touchpad on the side of the Gear VR that offers a significantly greater number of control options for navigating not only the Oculus-provided interface, but also a significant number of the included apps. Games like CCP's Gunjack, for example, requires more than a single button interface and that is going to make porting it to Cardboard more than a little difficult. There's also a back button and a fine focus wheel to dial things in just right.
Basically, anyone who tells you the Gear VR is an expensive Google Cardboard is wrong and should feel bad.
2. People with prescription glasses can finally enjoy smartphone-based VR
Most folks with prescription glasses will look at a VR headset and just sort of shrug, because almost none of them plays nice with spectacles. Samsung's original design for the Gear VR tried to make this a little easier to deal with through the use of the focus ring, and you turned it until what you were looking at came into focus. This isn't terribly different from the way Oculus does things with the Rift developer kits, but it's rarely enough for those of us with glasses.
This new Gear VR is totally glasses-friendly, applying pressure around your forehead to create enough space for you glasses to comfortably sit while using the VR headset. You still run the risk of occasionally smudging your eyelids against the glasses, which means you have to start the process of putting this headset on all over again after cleaning your glasses again, but everything actually works and is comfortable enough to use for a while, and that's a big deal for a lot of people.
3. You'll need a newer Samsung phone to use Gear VR
Google Cardboard fans are going to find a fairly fatal flaw with the Gear VR — it only works with a handful of newer Samsung phones. Specifically, the Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge, Note 5, and Galaxy S6 edge+ are the only phones that work with the new Gear VR. The added hardware for head tracking, the Oculus-provided software, and the physical casing to hold the phone and lock it into the microUSB port only work with those four phones, so don't even try to put something else in there.
To make matters somewhat worse, if you're using the original Gear VR Innovator Edition on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, you'll find that not everything available on the new Gear VR is available on the original. Games like Land's End have announced efforts to support the Note 4 at a later date, but until that happens several games aren't available to be installed on the older version of the Gear VR and that's likely going to get worse with time. There's good reason, especially with the heat and performance issues the Note 4 has with the Gear VR Innovator Edition, but considering those early adopters spent twice what new Gear VR owners did to get in on the action early it's got to sting a little.
4. Everything in Gear VR happens in the Oculus Store
Unlike your other Samsung accessories, where you install a Samsung app and you use Samsung features and all of your content is curated by Samsung, the Gear VR is very much an Oculus-run show. Every app is installed and managed through the Oculus Store, the payment system is managed by Oculus, and when you put the headset on the virtual environment being drawn is basically a huge advertisement for Oculus, right down to the massive logo floating behind you on the right. It's big, it's beautiful, and it's all managed by Oculus.
While the curator of the content your consuming may not be a huge deal to you, it's worth noting that Oculus is clearly doing things a little differently from Samsung when it comes to videos you're shown in the Oculus Video app, and in general how content is rated in the Oculus Store is fairly nonstandard. VR is an all new environment, but a blanked "13+" warning on everything isn't going to be enough for everyone. If you plan on sharing this VR experience with your kids, you'll want to keep that in mind before handing the hardware off and walking away.
5. There's a large, high-quality selection of games available already
One of the big things Samsung and Oculus have going for them thanks to the more than two years of public development on this platform is the list of content available at launch. The Gear VR has a huge selection of video apps, including Netflix, for users to consume and share. You can get VR video just about everywhere nowadays though, what makes the Gear VR really stand out is the impressive selection of games available already.
Oculus tapped the creator of the highly anticipated Rift game EVE: Valkyrie for Gunjack on the Gear VR, which currently sits atop a list including cryptic puzzle game Land's End by UsTwo games, the folks behind Monument Valley. This same list includes an Adventure Time hack and slash, a seriously dark zombie shooter, several racing games, and an amazing VR arcade experience featuring hits like Galaga and several Sonic the Hedgehog titles.
You aren't likely to run out of things to do in the Oculus Store anytime soon, and there are many more games headed to the Gear VR next year.