My week with Samsung’s Gear VR

Gear VR review 05

Samsung and Oculus first unveiled the Gear VR Innovator Edition roughly a year ago, and I was super excited to try it. However, the price was quite steep and it only worked with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, and the other model only worked with the Galaxy Note 4. For those reasons, I did not buy it. Having said that, I still wanted one really badly. I had been using a Google Cardboard and enjoyed the experience but had read a ton of good reviews talking about just how much better the Gear VR experience is. Finally, Samsung and Oculus made a VR headset that works with any of the of Samsung’s 2015 flagship flagships, and the price is only $99. Both of the problems I had before are now gone. So I decided to buy one for myself.

As I just said, I bought this myself. I also purchased a Galaxy S6 Edge myself, and used it to try the new Gear VR, Samsung didn’t supply either to me for testing. This is what I think will make my review a little more authentic from others around the internet. I am a real consumer using this for the first time, and will be sharing my first impressions and long-term use with the Gear VR. The review is written as I experienced it, and near the end is some cons, and conclusion of if I think you should get one or not.

First Impressions

Gear VR review 01

First things first, the box. To get the price point to only $99, Samsung had to do some major cuts. The box looks OK, but it’s nothing special to look at, and inside is just a cheap piece of plastic holding the Gear VR. The cheapness of the box doesn’t really matter, but they also took out a case and cleaning cloth that was supplied with the Gear VR Innovator Edition. Again, not the biggest deal, but considering Samsung wants you to bring the Gear VR around with you, it’s kind of hard to do that without a case. You’ll also need to buy a cleaning cloth yourself to keep everything clear. I think Samsung should of at least included one.

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It’s made completely out of plastic, but doesn’t feel that cheap. It’s very hard and feels pretty strong. It’s all white with black accents, which I think makes it look pretty cool. I can’t see myself wearing it, obviously, but I just assume I look like a Star Wars Storm Trooper, which heavily adds to the coolness.

It comes with straps as well — a side strap that wraps around your head and a top strap that goes over it. You don’t really need the top strap for it to stay attached to your face, but I recommend wearing it to allow for more even pressure on your face. It also raises the side strap up a little, which makes it easier to put on. The side clips are even on an angle, so they ideally want you to do this.

Design

I just touched on it a bit above, but there are some other areas that are important to talk about. The size of the device is not that big, so you don’t need the top strap to wear it; however, the main reason I recommended wearing it is because after prolonged use, you will definitely notice there is something on your face without it. The top strap really helps take away some of the pressure you will feel on your cheeks. It doesn’t totally get rid of it, but definitely helps.

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There are also buttons on the side that allow you to use the Gear VR while playing games, watching movies, and more. There are pretty much only three buttons, all located on the right side of the device. (Sorry left handed people.) There is a back button, a trackpad, and volume buttons. The volume and back buttons should be pretty self explanatory as to what they do, but the trackpad needs some talking about. It looks like a “plus sign” (+) and allows you to feel where to swipe up or down, or left or right. There is also what looks to be a button in the center, but it’s not clickable. And, finally, there is a wheel for focusing on top.

I think overall it looks cool, and after using it, the button placement works pretty well. The only complaint I have is with the back button. You are used to swiping with the trackpad all the time, but when you have to hit the back button it makes a clicking noise. It kind of takes away from the unified VR experience. Also, the + style trackpad is kind of pointless. Who doesn’t know the difference between up or down, and left or right, and needs a guide to tell them? Probably would of been better to just make a flat trackpad with no marks in it that you make gestures on. This way they could of had two finger swipe to go back instead of a button, and added possibly other gestures to make the VR experience even better. Not to mention the entire track pad is basically a touch sensitive button, so you can’t even search for the arrow indents since it will click something the second you touch it anywhere.

Setup

Once you take it out of the box and look at the device, it’s time to actually try it out. It works with more phones, but only Samsung flagships like the Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy Note 5, and Galaxy S6 Edge+. I believe the upcoming Galaxy S7 and its variants will work with it too, but I can’t say for sure at this time since they aren’t even publicly known.

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Anyways, to get the Gear VR to work you need to take off the front cover and plug your phone into the micro-USB spot. One thing that is disappointing is you can’t use a case on your phone to do this. I have the thinnest, cheapest see-through case on my Galaxy S6 Edge and even that was too big. You must take the case off before using it every time, which does become annoying after a while. Once you do that, and plug it in, a few beeps will be heard and it will tell you to remove your phone from the Gear VR. Once you remove your phone, it will prompt you to download the Oculus Store and a few Oculus apps. They aren’t huge, but you’ll need some space as some apps are over 100mb in size. And once everything has been downloaded, plug the phone back in to start your virtual reality experience.

One tip is always remember to unlock your phone first before plugging it into the Gear VR. You have to do this every time, and you don’t want to forget because it will force you to take your phone out, unlock it, then plug it back in. Memorize that you need to unlock it first now, so you don’t forget later. Trust me, it is super annoying having to take your phone out to unlock it when you forget.

Also, make sure to clean your phone with a microfibre cloth or on your shirt before putting it in. Any small pieces of dust will literally be magnified and ruin your viewing. It is mandatory your phone’s screen is perfectly clear.

Oculus Store

You can browse the Oculus Store in the Gear VR, or just on your phone. I recommend downloading any games or apps you want on your phone first, then playing them in virtual reality. Downloading in the Gear VR and browsing the store works pretty well, but takes a lot more power and battery life to do.

Gear VR Oculus Store

The store itself, whether it is in virtual reality or on your phone, is basically like the Play Store — side menu on the left, Must Haves, Top Selling, and other categories listed on the main page. There isn’t a messy flood of content, so you should have no problem finding any app you want. I will say since I first bought it, Samsung has added many new apps.

Many of the coolest apps are free, but games or more robust apps are paid. Prices range between $2-$15. I haven’t tried every paid app, but the pricing isn’t too bad for what you get. It’s hard to say $15 is too much for a game when that game is in virtual reality, while regular games for console systems are about $60, even the questionable ones.

What’s it like to use?

Actual use is very easy. You basically move your head to look at things and once the cursor is on what you want, tap the trackpad to select it. The Gear VR is very similar to using any computer, phone, tablet, only you move your head rather than your hand.

I can confirm the headset works with glasses. I have glasses and they fit fine. I let someone with larger, strangely shaped glasses try too, and they didn’t have any problems fitting them. I would imagine very large framed glasses might have trouble fitting though. The only thing I noticed is it pushes on them slightly and you might feel extra pressure on your nose. Also, if you have long eyelashes, you might feel them touch the glass when you blink. If this happens, they will sometimes smudge your glasses and you’ll have to take off the Gear VR to clean them. Not a huge deal, but just something to watch out for when putting them on if you also wear glasses.

There is a scroll wheel at the very top where you adjust your focus. Just follow the tutorial it shows you on setup to learn how to get the perfect focus. I tried with glasses on and off, and the focus wheel adjusted great for both. My eye sight is horrible, and I was surprised I could see clearly without my glasses on. Your eyes would have to be almost blind for the focus wheel not to work for you.

The real downside is the screen of your phone. Samsung uses Quad HD (2560×1440) displays, but even that isn’t enough. A 4K screen, at the very least, is going to be needed to truly give you a great experience. I would say Quad HD is the absolute minimum resolution to be decent because after a while any pixels you see will blend in once you get in to the content. But they are always technically there, and that heavily takes away from the experience. It’s not super horrible to look at, but there is room for improvement.

Its biggest pro is also its biggest con: the fact that it uses your phone. Notifications can just keep coming in. Luckily, there is at least an option to turn off notifications, which I recommend doing. I use mine mainly at night when my notifications are low, but having things pop up in front of you usually takes away from the virtual reality experience. All that said, you get true portability with no wires or anything else holding you back.

Testing Apps

Anyone who has tried virtual reality already knows it is pretty shocking. It might take a second or two to get used to, but once your eyes focus properly, it really does feel like you are in an entirely new environment.

I first tried the Oculus Movies app, which allows you to watch movies stored on your phone as well as Twitch streams, Facebook 360-degree movies, some movie trailers, and more. It just doesn’t show you all the movies on your phone. It only showed me ones that I took with the camera, and not others I had stored. I’m pretty sure you can move files around and store them in certain folders to be recognized, but I wish it just searched and showed you all of the movies right away. There are still other ways to watch movies without moving any files around too, just not in this particular app.

By far the coolest part about watching movies in this app is picking the environment you want to watch them in. You can pick between a home theater, movie theater, in the grass as an ant, plain  black, and, my favorite, the moon! They’re all cool, but the moon is just too sick. You see stars above you and the earth in the distance. The screen size changes slightly depending on the theater you selected, and I also found the moon’s to be the perfect size/distance away from you for easy viewing. The light from the movies even shines out and lights up elements of your environment just like it would in real life. It’s just awesome, I can’t explain it any other way. The biggest problem with it is lack of content. You have to have all the movies stored on your phone, and the current Samsung lineup doesn’t have a microSD card slot. Be prepared for storage space to be quickly destroyed once you start getting into virtual reality. Too bad they didn’t have a microSD card slot built in to the Gear VR; that would of made it so much better.

Gear VR Netflix

There are some apps that are coming out that allow streaming content, so you don’t have to use up all of your internal storage. Netflix has a standalone app, which is probably my favorite of them all. You can stream and watch anything from Netflix, and the controls make it even easier to use than most other systems I have tried. The big problem, though, is with screen size. It’s probably a 100-foot screen about 12-15ft away from you. It’s just too close and forces you to look around to see the entire thing. Also, I find it a little too low. You need to be sitting perfectly straight like a board to view it dead on. Hopefully Netflix will update the app and allow you to set the distance or screen size in the future. It’s watchable right now but could be better. Problems like this seem to be the theme of the Gear VR. Everything is pretty good but improvement is possible.

A web browser app exists, too. It’s actually really good. You use voice commands to search for things, and it understands what you are saying almost all the time. You can double tap to zoom in on text just like you can on a phone, and browse pretty much any site. This brings much more content to the Gear VR, and really opens up a lot of opportunities to come. It is made by Samsung, but I think it’s based off of Google Chrome. The reason for this is once it told me Chrome was out of date and I should update it. The only downside is the screen isn’t super sharp and reading text is slightly hard as it has blurry edges. It’s not impossible once you get used to it, but I’m pretty sure the browser was mainly a way of watching YouTube videos as there is no stand alone app otherwise.

Testing Games

I only tried one game as I didn’t want to pay to test others just yet, don’t judge me, but I couldn’t imagine the experience would be much different. The game I tried was Temple Run VR. I, and I am sure many of you, have played it on your phone before and should be familiar to how it works. I’m not a huge fan of playing it on my phone, but in virtual reality it is totally different. You swipe with the trackpad to move and use the headset to look around. It is much scarier seeing the shadow of a creature chasing you when it gets close, and the fact you can actually look around to see it makes it much more real. If you get motion sickness, you will probably feel it right away with this game. Personally, the sick feeling is almost wanted. If you were actually going super fast and running for your life, I’m pretty sure you’d feel sick too, which I think makes it feel more real. When you first start it feels as if you are going down a roller coaster. That pulled back into your seat feeling because you are going so fast forward. It’s weird not moving, yet still feeling as if you are. I got adjusted after a few minutes of playing and didn’t have any real problems with it. I liked it much more compared to the normal phone version.

For Temple Run you can swipe to move, but can also head to the options by pressing the back button and change the controls to lean your head to move, or look to move. Controls for gaming is a little tricky, but I like how this one at least gives you some options. You can also use a Bluetooth control for games, which I would recommend for more intense titles, but it’s not 100% needed. I didn’t have one around me to try, but I would assume it will feel more like playing a normal video game using one.

Sound

Sound is dependent on your phones speakers, or you can use a pair of headphones. A good pair of headphones will make a huge difference as your eyes and ears will be fully engaged in the content. However, I didn’t find the basic phone speaker to be too bad either. It’s right by your right ear, which is close enough to hear everything just fine in quiet environments, and somehow can be heard fairly evenly by both ears. I do wish Samsung cut a sound channel out of the plastic to funnel the sound towards you, but I think most people will use it with headphones anyways.

I used a pair of Bose in-ear headphones and some Sony DJ style headphones. Both worked great, but I liked the in-ear ones better as they don’t add any more weight to your head. Also, both connectors fit fine when plugging them in. My Bose headphone connector is fairly large and square, but had no issues fitting. I don’t think you will be able to use any L shaped connectors though.

Battery Life

All the coolness is starting to where off at this point, and we are getting to the real life ownership problems. Battery life isn’t the best on the Galaxy S6 Edge with normal use, and is pretty horrible using it with the Gear VR. Remember, even if you are watching a movie it still has to power a full 36-degree environment around you too. All of this computing power uses a ton of battery life.

To put it into perspective, I did a little test. I played a thirty-minute TV show on Netflix and checked how much battery that took. I charged my phone to exactly 50% and placed it into the Gear VR then went straight to Netflix. After watching one show I took out my phone and it had exactly 30% battery left. This was pretty consistent in use I found. About 20% every half hour. That means you can use it for roughly 3 hours before needing to charge it. However, that is if everything is perfect, real life consistent use will be much less, more like 2 hours. It’s probably a bit worse than if you were playing a regular intensive game on your phone. However, this is 2-3 hours of straight use, which you probably won’t be doing. This makes battery life not horrible, but you’ll have to have a charger near by because there is no way you can use it and still get a full day of use out of your phone.

Battery life isn’t actually as big of an issue as it sounds. It does have a charging port in the bottom of the device allowing you to charge your phone while in the virtual reality world. There are some major problems with this, however. Number one is I have heard you must use the supplied Samsung charger and that’s it. I haven’t tried other ones to confirm that, but that’s a huge downside. Also, you now have a wire attached and lose portability. The second reason, which is the main problem of the entire device is you won’t ever be able to charge it anyways. If you are playing any sort of virtual reality content for extended periods of time and charging your phone at the same time, be prepared to get an overheating message real quick. More on this later.

Real Life Use

The best part of the Gear VR compared to all other virtual reality options is it’s portable. All you need is your phone and the Gear VR. This is amazing, but there are some limitations.

You can’t just leave the house with your phone and the device. You will definitely need a battery pack to charge your phone too. As I said, you are looking at about two solid hours of use before needing to charge again. Plus, you’ll probably need a case so it doesn’t get damaged, and a cleaning cloth to make sure the lenses and your phone stays clean for optimum viewing.

The main issue with the Gear VR is overheating. You can’t just take your phone out, charge it, and go back to using VR. Your phone will be too hot and you’ll only get a few minutes before it tells you to stop and let it cool. This means after you charge your phone, which takes at least an hour with quick charge, you now have to sit and wait until it cools a little. Even being unplugging for a while and closing all the apps, I only managed about 20-30min of use before it tells me to take my phone out because it’s too hot. This makes playing games, and especially watching movies almost impossible. I tried to watch a 1.5 hour movie on Netflix and it took more like 3 hours with all the start and stopping. Again, I am using the Galaxy S6 Edge, you will probably get longer battery life if using the Galaxy Note 5 or Galaxy S6 Edge+ as their batters are larger. I have also heard they take a bit longer to overheat too, but it’s eventually gonna happen.

Some of you might be thinking I was using it in a hot environment, which would cause the phone to get hotter quicker. That would be a fair assumption, but I’m actually in Canada during December… It’s an ice box here. Yes, I am not testing it outside, but my house isn’t that hot either. If it overheats this quickly in winter, I can not imagine how quick it will heat up during the summer.

To give you an idea of temperatures, I used CPU-Z to test my phone before and after. The “exynos-therm” (chip) reaches about 70C and then the Gear VR will say your phone needs to take a break. Normal running usage of my Galaxy S6 Edge is about 35-40C. It basically doubles in temperature, and you will notice too as menus will start to lag. You have the option of dismissing the notification, but the warning is there for a reason. The last thing you want to do is burn out your phone.

I actually came back to this after a few more days of use and found a way to prolong the overheating message. Never change apps. Changing apps is the biggest cause of overheating quickly. If you plan on watching a movie, head straight to the movie, watch it, and leave the Gear VR. I managed to watch two thirty-minute TV shows on Netflix straight by doing this. I may have even been able to watch a third, but the second I left Netflix I got an overheating message. I was also in my basement where it is a bit colder, which may have helped. I have also heard this to be the case from other Gear VR owners I know.

If you really want to switch to a bunch of apps, the best way I have found to do this is put your phone in the fridge for about 5min. This will drop the temperature just enough to give you more viewing time. I have also heard people aiming a fan at their face while using it to keep it cool. You basically have to treat it like a hardcore gaming system.

Value

In the United States, the Gear VR is priced at $99; however, in Canada where I bought it, the Gear VR is priced at $160 with tax. This is a huge jump in price, and it’s actually more expensive than what the stores are selling last year’s Gear VR Innovator Edition for, and that used to be priced around $300 after tax here. I find it rather ironic that they are marketing this version as being an affordable alternative when last year’s version is selling for cheaper.

Even at the “cheaper” price, I don’t find VR to be that affordable. The reason I say that is because you have to buy a flagship Samsung only phone. My unlocked Galaxy S6 Edge (with tax) in Canada totals a bold $1,000. Now you have to pay $160 for the Gear VR, $10 per month for Netflix to watch movies and TV shows, and roughly $15 for a high-end game. All of this adds up to a pretty substantial investment just to watch things in virtual reality. Plus, once you dump your phone for a new one, you can basically toss all of this in the trash since it will never work again. At the same time, you have to pay to play. If you want to be the first to experience the latest and greatest, it’s gonna cost you. Can’t complain too much then.

Should I buy a Gear VR?

This section is really all that matters. Everything I’ve said gives you some reasons as to why you might want to look in to picking up the Gear VR. But for me, I’m on the fence. I have never bought a product and been so on the fence like I am with the Gear VR. On one hand, it is probably one of the coolest things I have ever experienced in my life. Yet the battery runs out or it overheats so quickly you can’t use it too much.

I really do like using the Gear VR, and think it’s pretty cool to watch movies on, but I originally wasn’t sure if I would be keeping mine. The fact that it overheats so quickly was the main reason. I think the problem was it was so new and I was switching between all the apps to try them out. This caused it to overheat a lot faster than normal. After a few days, I pretty much know what everything does and only go straight to the app I want. For this reason, if you already have a modern Samsung phone, I recommend picking one up. The mind-blowing experience it delivers trumps everything else, but be warned, when you first get it don’t switch to a bunch of apps right away to try them all out. This is a sure fire way to cause it to overheat and it will really frustrate you.

After about a full week of use I have had my pros and cons using it, but the coolness will be there every time I put it on. Also, new apps are added rather frequently and Samsung films live events you can tune in to. This gives me hope for the future of this product.


About the Author: Brent D'Alessandro

Brent is a graphic designer based in Toronto. Recently, he moved into designing more with Android. You may have seen some of Brent's themes in the popular Android launcher, "Themer." He has also made themes for Samsung's theme store. Aside from using Android devices all day, Brent spends a lot of his free time talking about Android on various forums. Brent was already writing about Android on the internet and figured it was finally time to make the move to a professional writer. When not writing with Talk Android, you can find him on http://www.teamshmo.com/


  • ZBlade

    This is probably the best review I have ever read on the Gear VR, kudos to you Brent. I like it how you were actually focus on real world pros and cons. Its great that you factored in tips as well and you were very honest in your review. Hope to read more reviews like this in the future.

    • Brent

      Thanks, that’s exactly what I was aiming for. The device is really cool, but if you can’t use it too much it’s kind of pointless.

  • Michael Liskow

    I am a consumer advocate attorney who has the same overheating issues (with a Galaxy S6 – I get 15 minutes at most for most apps even when dimming). I am investigating the scope of the issue – if you would be interested in discussing this please PM me. Thanks!

    • Brent

      Personally, I don’t think you’ll be able to put together a case against them. The phone is being used like a full on gaming computer and badly needs a fan to cool it down. Without it, the phone will always overheat. Closing all apps, not switching apps in VR, and putting your phone in the fridge for 5min to cool it before use is the best way I have found for longer use. It is pretty ridiculous, however.

      • Michael Liskow

        I see your point, but the issue to me is that most people who purchased the VR (either for themselves or as a gift for another) are not nearly as tech savvy as participants on this forum so would not know that the VR wouldn’t work for more than a few minutes before having to be shut down for some indeterminate amount of time. And all Samsung would need to do is inform purchasers, on the box, that this was a possibility so they could take this into account in whether to spend $100. But customers were not informed about this before purchasing, despite Samsung knowing it was an issue and acknowledging the issue in their manual, which you can only read after you pay for the VR.

        • Brent

          Very true. I was pretty disappointed when I first got an overheating message and got very frustrated when it kept happening. I’m sure there were a lot of disappointed kids this Christmas who got one and could barely use it.