With the release of the Galaxy S8 righting Samsung’s rocky mobile ship after last year’s debacle, it’s also time for another Gear VR to go with that shiny new phone. This year’s Gear VR adds a long awaited addition—a VR-specific motion controller. Similar to Google’s Daydream controller, but shinier and more ergonomic, this makes interacting with the overall Oculus interface feel more natural.
The new controller is compatible back to the Galaxy S6, but there’s a noticeable increase in overall VR performance with the Galaxy S8 thanks to its impressive horsepower. The headset itself seems identical to last year’s model though, which featured a wider angle of vision and a back button. And of course, the new model fits both the Galaxy S8 and S8+ (which is what we used to test it).
If you’re onboard the Samsung Gear VR train already, you can instead shell out $40 for just the controller and still get the same VR experience. However, how the controller actually changes that experience can be hit and miss. Developers have to add support to older apps and thus far, adoption has been slow and steady.
Targeting games (such as Drop Dead) are immensely improved by the controller—where you can use it essentially as a precise gun to mow down virtual bad guys instead of relying on head tracking and the headset’s side touch pad. Netflix, on the other hand, still doesn’t support the controller at all, still relying on either head movements or the side touchpad of the headset.
With it’s bulbous front design ending with a convenient trigger button, Samsung’s take on VR control feels distinctly more gamer-focused than Google’s. The main problem with the controller (at least right now) is that it had to be re-aligned regularly—especially when playing games. This required just a button press, but the controller sometimes had trouble keeping up with anything that involved too much head and/or body movement.
Samsung’s partnership with Oculus has managed to assure the app store is chuck full of interesting and diverse selections. Games, experimental VR experiences, social networks, and video apps are overflowing, and there are a lot of really worthwhile things to do with the headset. Just the same, Samsung still hasn’t drawn in core entertainment apps like Hulu, YouTube, Amazon, and HBO.
Samsung and Google are direct competitors in the mobile VR market, but it’s clear they are taking different stylistic approaches. Just look at the difference between equipment (pictured below). Compared to the robust black Samsung headset, Google’s Daydream looks positively petite. The Gear VR’s extra strap across the top also ensures a more stable fit, especially when you’re using it for doing more than watching a quick video. The Gear VR is clearly made for the more serious user, while the Daydream’s cloth material and smaller size attempt to be welcoming to newcomers.
Of course, the biggest problem with either company’s VR solution is a lack of of cross-compatibility. It’s not that either the Google Pixel or Galaxy S8 can’t handle the other company’s VR format, they simply don’t. Oddly, there are strong rumors suggesting Samsung might actually get Daydream compatibility sometime this summer, which would be a huge boost for the brand overall. We’ll have to wait and see on that development for now.
Samsung’s Oculus store is a decided advantage over Daydream, which (like all Google devices) piggybacks on the Google Play store. The Google Play store is notorious for having an ironically terrible search engine. For example, when browsing from your phone at least, it’s far too easy to end up suddenly searching through the entire Play app store instead of just the VR section. While Samsung’s Oculus store is also far from perfect, it’s still a step up from that kind of chaos.
With an ever growing library of apps, the Gear VR remains a solid mobile VR option. The VR controller is a much-needed add-on for the system, allowing developers to create apps that control more naturally and without forcing players to either buy an expensive third party control pad or control everything with their head and the headset’s touch pad. Combined with the Galaxy S8 (or S7, which also has a gorgeous display), the Gear VR provides a compelling and frequently gorgeously sharp escape from reality.