Once you plug a phone into the new Samsung Gear VR headset, it does some incredible things. The most mind-boggling of them this: It makes looking at a magnified phone feel a lot more like using an Oculus Rift than a Google Cardboard viewer.
This is the best phone-based VR experience you can get right now, and it’s not even close. It’s comfy, convenient, immersive, interactive, and cheap ($100) if you own a compatible Galaxy phone. All that stuff was true with the first Gear VR, but the new version of the headset pushes things forward.
Well, maybe nudges things forward. It’s not too dramatic a push. In terms of capabilities, nothing has changed in the way the Gear VR works. The new headset just refines and improves upon the first generation’s comfort, sense of immersion, and controls.
You still need a Galaxy phone to use it. The new Gear VR is built for the Galaxy Note 7 and its USB-C connector, but an included Micro USB adapter makes it work with the Galaxy S7 series, S6 series, and Note 5. It still can’t do positional tracking like the pricey Oculus, HTC, and PlayStation VR big boys: There’s just an accelerometer and gyroscope to track swiveling head movements and a proximity sensor that knows when the device is on your face.
The Gear VR’s color scheme is now more Darth Vader than Stormtrooper, a deep blue that looks black until light hits it just right. It’s black on the inside now, too, which addresses its predecessor’s distracting white innards. As long as your goggles are positioned correctly, you won’t experience any light trickling in from the outside.
In another welcome change, the new Gear VR is noticeably lighter. At 0.66 pounds without a phone plugged in, it weighs significantly less than its one-pound predecessor. There’s a new design for the internal padding, too. The soft felt cushion is still held in place by velcro, but it has a more tubular shape now. Combined with the slimmed-down hardware, it adds up to a lighter feel around the eyes—really important for long sessions.
The headset itself doesn’t need power, which makes using the Gear VR a truly wireless experience. However, going fully unplugged will tax your phone to the max. After about an hour in the virtual realm, my Note 7 battery went from full to 60 percent. No worries: To keep your battery charged, there’s a USB-C port on the bottom that provides passthrough power.
There are a few major changes to the controls. Most noticeable is the touchpad, which is now an open recessed area that takes up most of the headset’s right side. You use it to navigate menus and control some games. There’s a little Braille bump in the middle of it to guide your finger while you’re eyes-deep in VR.
One of the hidden upgrades with the new headset is a smoother, more-granular focus wheel at the top of the headset. With previous Gear VR headsets, it could be a challenge to dial in juuuuuust the right setting for your eyeballs. On the new headset, the jog wheel feels more like the one on a computer mouse. It lets you reach “in-between” areas of focus that the first-generation headset would skip over. It makes a huge difference.
I tested the new Gear VR primarily with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, but I also took it for a spin with the Galaxy S7 Edge. They’re two different sized phones with two different USB ports, and they both worked seamlessly with minimal fuss. The mechanism for connecting a phone to the headset hasn’t changed—you flip out a swiveling connector, jack your phone in, then swivel the connector piece back down until you hear the phone click firmly into place—but it now comes with swappable connectors.
Adapting the Gear VR headset for use with anything other than the Note 7 is like swapping out universal charger tips. You swivel the connector up, flip an unlock switch on it, and slide it off. Then you slide on an alternate MicroUSB connector and set the switch to “lock.” It takes five seconds. Just don’t forget to set the switch to “lock” on the last step; otherwise, the connector pieces slide off pretty easily.
Without a doubt, the new Gear VR is an improvement over the old one. It’s lighter, it’s comfier, and it has better controls. The question is whether you should upgrade if you have the older headset. That depends, but the answer skews to “yes.”
If you’re going to get the Note 7, get the new Gear VR. It’s the only version of the headset that works with it, and it’s a great experience that will enhance your enjoyment of the phone. If you spend a lot of time doing VR with another Galaxy phone, you may want to splurge on it too. If you’re thinking about getting the next Galaxy S release, you should wait: It’s possible Samsung will bring back the Gear VR giveaway that coincided with the S7 launch.
If you’re on the fence about what your next phone should be, it provides another compelling reason to consider a Galaxy device. The Gear VR is the coolest $100 phone accessory there is.
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