Samsung Gear VR 2016 Review
Smartphone users are all too used to balancing questions of cost and functionality: do you get the $250 budget phone that's fine for basic web and social apps, or splurge on the $750 flagship with the next-gen processor ready to tear right through the latest 3D games?
Shoppers have much the same decision to make when looking at the burgeoning virtual reality market. You could spend hundreds on an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, to say nothing of the cash you'd have to sink into upgrading your computer to handle that hardware, or as little as $5 or $10 on a literally made-from-cardboard Google Cardboard viewer.
Last year Samsung's early Gear VR Innovator Editions gave way to the full-blown commercial model, supporting the Galaxy S6, S6 edge, and Note 5 – and since its release, the GS7 and GS7 edge, as well. But now there's a new Samsung flagship on the block, and with the Note 7 graduating from micro USB to USB Type-C connectivity (and the existing Gear VR designed to interface with its host phone over micro USB), Samsung needs a new Gear VR to match.
The company has just such a product ready to go, releasing the new Galaxy Note 7 alongside the 2016 edition of the Gear VR. More than just compatibility with the Note 7, Samsung promises upgrades like a wider field of view, improved navigation experience, and a more comfortable fit. Do the changes make this new Gear VR worth the upgrade? Let's take a look.
The first thing you're going to notice about the latest Gear VR is its sharp new color scheme, ditching the multi-tone white-and-black of last year's headset for a sleek blueish-black design. While that color change may be a wholly aesthetic one, there's also a functional improvement to the new color.
It used to be that the interior of the Gear VR – the part where you put your face – had white plastic surrounding the lenses. Samsung tells us that it had gotten feedback about those surfaces reflecting light within the headset, and the move to an all-dark Gear VR – interior included – is partly to help minimize any such stray reflections.
Like last year, the Gear VR uses a combination of straps to help hold the unit on your head: one that stretches behind your head ear-to-ear and another that loops over the top. While there's no fundamental change for the 2016 edition, the presence of longer straps should better accommodate users of varying head geometry.
Samsung's also trying to increase Gear VR comfort by overhauling the padding that borders the headset's eyepieces. The material itself is quite nice, a bit of soft foam covered with a felt-like fabric and held in place with hook-and-loop fasteners – which seems to be an effort to make the padding easily replaceable. Our problem, though, was less with the padding material itself, and more with the Gear VR's inability to customize it.
We had a few different users try on the Gear VR, and all reported feeling like the headset was putting too much pressure around their nose, interfering with comfortable breathing. Adjusting the straps helped relieve some of that pressure, but there seems to be simply too much padding in too small an area around the Gear VR's nose cutout. We might have liked to remove the nose padding entirely, but as the padding's all one continuous strip, you can't pick and choose where it's present.
The previous-generation Gear VR had a capacitive touchpad on its right side, single “back” button above, and a volume rocker located forward, towards the smartphone. This new model tweaks the touchpad slightly by removing the directional grooves present in last year's model and giving us a largely flat surface – with just a single bump in the center to help you get oriented. That's not a huge change, but we can appreciate what Samsung was thinking here, trying to make the touchpad look like more of a general input device and less of a up-down-left-right game controller.
We also get another hardware button above the touchpad, as a “home” key joins the back button, letting you jump all the way out of Gear VR apps and back to the Oculus launcher.
Samsung's expanded the field of view for the Gear VR's lenses, pushing them up from 96 degrees to 101 degrees. You're still very much aware you're wearing a VR headset, with black borders always lurking at the periphery of your vision, but we appreciate the slightly more immersive viewing experience, all the same.
Finally, we have the change which largely prompted the existence of this new Gear VR in the first place: USB Type-C support. Samsung accomplishes this by making the hinged USB interface that mates with your Galaxy phone a removable component; it arrives with the Type-C adapter for the Note 7 in place, but you'll also find a micro USB version included in the box, which can easily be swapped in place for compatibility with earlier Galaxy flagships. Like the USB connector on the last Gear VR, this one still slides back and forth to accommodate both phablet-sized and more petite devices.