Hands-on: Samsung Gear VR review

Samsung's Gear VR is a VR headset that wraps around its Galaxy phones, allowing owners to experience high-quality VR without the expense of specialised rigs like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive (and the PC required to run them) or the PS VR and PS4.

New phones require Samsung to produce a new Gear VR to fit around them, and so it is with the rather beautiful new Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus phones (here's the difference).

The new Gear VR isn't much different from the previous model - but there's now a separate controller that does make a radical difference to both to how you use it, and what experiences you can have with it.

Samsung's also created a new portal and app with lots more videos and games.

Samsung Gear VR 2017 Review

(The new Gear VR and controller also work with other Samsung Galaxy phones – the S6 and S7 – and if you already own an older Gear VR, you'll can buy the controller separately).

Gear VR (2017) UK pricing and availability

UK pricing has yet to be announced, though we know it's $130 in the US (around £105, though remember US prices don't include tax). It's ship in both countries on the same day as the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus - April 28.

Gear VR (2017) in action

I had a short amount of time to try out the Gear VR with a Galaxy S8 Plus during a small launch party in Shoreditch following the grand unveiling in Stratford. We'll update this hands-on to a full review when we've got review units for longer than 30 minutes and aren't trying to evaluate it after the warming effects of a couple of very well made gin-and-tonics.

The idea of - essentially - strapping a phone to your face to experience virtual reality may seem a little odd, but 2017's Gear VR does feel comfortable - even on my freakishly oversized head and large glasses. As well as tweaking the design to allow the S8 or S8 Plus to fit inside, Samsung's designers have made it fit to your head more snugly without feeling too tight.

Adjusting it to your head size is easier than with the HTC Vive, and the Gear VR is noticeably lighter too - so you can use it for longer without getting neck ache.

I didn't get a chance to see how easy it was to pop in and out the phone, but it looked relatively easy - and the phone stayed securely in place despite me whipping my head around to finish off one last zombie (which I'll get onto later).

The first experience I tried was Rilix VR – a short rollercoaster ride set in a rickety old mine with creaking beams and broken tracks (and more lava than you'd probably want in your workplace). I've seen this so many times I could probably play in back in my head without wearing a headset, but it's fun nonetheless (unless you suffer from vertigo).

The high-resolution (1,440 x 2,960) screen of the S8 Plus (or the standard S8) means that the virtual (under)world looked clear and crisp. I didn't look obviously better than when I saw it before, though. The S8/S8 Plus's resolution is 400 pixels wider than the S7, but as these are out in your peripheral vision, it might not make any real difference. We’ll investigate more when we get a review unit.

Gear VR 2017 vs Google Cardboard

However, if you've only tried VR through Google Cardboard before, the Gear VR is smoother and the head-tracking feels much more accurate - and it's more comfortable, especially compared to those throwaway ViewMaster-style viewers.

The real difference - between the new Gear VR and Cardboard, and between the new Gear VR and its predecessor - is the controller. Somewhere between a Wii Controller and a laser pointer – or a "modern discreet sex toy", as another attendee described it – it's small, light and easy to use.

There's a big touchpad-cum-button on the top, with a trigger underneath. Along the top of the shaft you grip by are volume controls, home and back buttons.

Samsung Gear VR 2017 Review

The layout seemed easy to use and quick to learn, though the single game I got to play with it only used the trigger.

Drop Dead is a stand-there-and-shoot zombie game whose gameplay will feel instantly familiar to anyone who's played similar shooters on the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive – or the Wii, or any lightgun based shooter back to Operation Wolf in the arcades.

You look around, zombies appear, you point your gun (ie the controller) at them and blast til they drop. If you run out of ammo, you point down to reload. If they get too close, you lose health. Lose too much and it's game over, man, game over.

Here it is in action.

Drop Dead is an equivalent to Wii Sports – a really good intro to the Gear VR, especially if you've never played a VR game before. You can learn Drop Dead quickly and be moderately good at it soon after – and its cartoonish graphics won't scare you too much.

However, it's not a great example of what the Gear VR and controller is capable of, or how easy it is to use for more complex games or experiences. It's early days for the platform though, so hopefully in time we'll see how it compares to other VR systems with controllers such as the Rift or Vive.

Gear VR 2017 vs Oculus Rift & HTC Vive

Watching videos on the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive isn't really any different to the Gear VR, though games and other CG-based experiences are much higher quality on the Oculus and HTC's headsets. This is less to do with the resolution of the screen/s but the processing power of the S8 vs a full-spec gaming PC.

The other key difference is that you get two controllers with the Rift and Vive, and the latter also tracks you as you walk around.

But the power of the Rift and Vive are also their weakness. Tethered to PCs, they are a serious commitment – not only in cost, but in the time it takes to set them up. You can use the Gear VR anywhere.

OUR VERDICT

It's too early to pass judgement on the new Gear VR. If you're seriously into VR videos and/or you're buying a Galaxy S8 or S8 Plus, it's an obvious choice - though sadly here in the UK you won't get it for free with an S8 or S8 Plus like you will in the US. If you're after games, you'll have to wait to see what developers build that takes advantage of the controller - though from the look of Samsung's new VR site, it's making a major investment in VR content. So here's hoping that it lives up to the platforms potential.