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Interface and content



Transitioning from regular handheld smartphones to viewing content in Google Cardboard can be a little awkward, but Samsung and Oculus make the process go by much more smoothly for the Gear VR. You can either pop your phone right in the Gear VR and the Oculus home screen comes up, ready to give you access to all your 360-degree video and VR apps, or start up an app on your phone that features Gear VR support, at which point your phone will prompt you to insert it in the headset. The proximity sensor in the Gear VR makes sure you've got the unit firmly on your head before it starts the action.

The new home button helps you stay in the VR space as long as you like (though it's probably in your best interest to take a break now and then), letting users jump back to the main launcher and select a new title. A long-press on the back button pulls up a helpful quick menu, letting you adjust brightness, check phone notifications, and even take screenshots and record video.

The Gear VR ecosystem has come a long way towards increasing available content since the big commercial launch last fall, and while we're talking about a selection of apps that numbers in the dozens, rather than thousands, there's an increasing number of high-profile titles available, especially those with timely connections with other media. Right now, for instance, you'll find NBC's 360-degree Summer Olympics app, all packed full of first-person video from the games, as well as an FPS game designed to promote the new Suicide Squad film.

Initial setup


It would be nice if Samsung phones supporting the Gear VR came ready to use it right out of the box, but there's a bit of a setup procedure required first. If you're new to Gear VR, it can seem a little confusing – you may find yourself asking why you're creating a new Oculus account, rather than using your existing Samsung account – but you'll get through all that soon enough. Then it's time to start browsing through titles and downloading content.

A fair amount of the video available for the Gear VR arrives in its own respective apps – you'll access Discovery Channel 360-degree content through its own app portal, for instance – but there's also a general-purpose video viewer you can use for watching files stored locally on your phone.

It would have been great to see some really impressive 3D games come pre-installed. We know – are we actually encouraging bloat? But the Gear VR experience is all about being blown away by this immersive 3D world, and the lag time between setting up, downloading apps, and finally launching them takes a little of the fun out of it – give us something jaw-dropping right out of the gate!

Experiences


Ah, the meat of the Gear VR: what's it like to actually use the thing? In short, it's pretty good, and up there with the best self-contained VR experiences you can get. It runs circles around your standard Google Cardboard, and for not-particularly-interactive tasks like watching 3D, 360-degree videos, it's solid competition for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

Even with the quad-HD 1440 x 2560 screens on recent Galaxy flagships, you're still going to see a lot of pixels – and short of Samsung moving to 4K, don't expect that to change anytime soon. Since the Gear VR is literally like holding a magnifying glass up to your phone's screen, all those little pixels are plenty visible.

That in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing – and it's a symptom shared by the vast majority of currently available VR gear. But what makes things arguably a little worse on Samsung devices is the subpixel layout of the company's screens. Without getting overly technical, the PenTile matrix of red, green, and blue dots Samsung screens use to form distinct pixels aren't grouped in isolated batches of three. As a result, you'll see situations where the edges of high-contrast on-screen elements (like letters in text, or border boxes) pick up jagged, mis-colored appearance; a menu might be a white box when you view it head-on, but one side could have a bunch of stray red sub-pixels sticking out.

Those problems with edge-colors continue with the chromatic aberration of the lenses. That means that as your vision moves closer to the edges of the Gear VR's eyepieces, colors begin to “separate,” like you're looking through a prism. Ultimately, it's a much more minor concern than the sub-pixel issue, especially as you won't notice it if you keep your eyes pointed forward, and turn your head to look around.

When it's working well, the Gear VR experience can be incredibly immersive. But it doesn't take much to knock you out of that illusion, and despite the efforts by Samsung and Oculus to deliver a smooth, low-latency platform, little hiccups here and there interrupt every few moments.

While some games behaved better than others, rendering issues and 3D tearing present in more than a few detracted from the VR experience. We know, that's more the fault of the apps or the phones running them than the Gear VR headset itself, but this is ultimately a package deal – and it's just not as seamless as it needs to be. And while viewing 3D panoramic video tended to go a little more smoothly than real-time rendered games, stuttering crept up even there. Worse still, we ran into freeze-ups and jerky playback when attempting to simply watch regular, flat 2D video in a virtual cinema app. We know that the Gear VR and modern Samsung flagships are capable of handling all this content – and they totally do, at times – but it's all just very inconsistent, minute-to-minute.

It's worth mentioning that you're going to be a little limited with just a Gear VR and your Samsung phone. Those are fine for watching pre-recorded content and playing certain games, but for more ambitious Gear VR apps you're going to want to pair your headset with a game controller. The big improvement there comes in terms of how you're able to move yourself around in 3D worlds; games with steer-by-looking interfaces get tiring, quickly. And if you're already making a not-insignificant investment in VR hardware, why not do things right?

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