Gear VR Review

Posted April 23, 2015 by David in VR Hardware

We know we are late to the party when it comes to a GearVR hardware review but due to the hardware only being available to a select number of countries we only received our GearVR this month.

Instead of rushing and writing up our initial thoughts we have decided to take our time and after a month of living with the GearVR here are our thoughts on Samsungs and Oculus first ever consumer ready device.

gear vr with phoneThe GearVR is an attachment device designed by Oculus and manufactured by Samsung for use with their flag ship smart phone the Galaxy Note4 which provides the screen and processing power needed to make the GearVR function.

Setup of the device was pretty easy as the Gear came with a mini SD card with all the software needed to get it running. You simply install the card into the back of your Note4 phone and then plug the phone into the front of the GearVR which has a clip mechanism that works really well.

Form Factor

The form factor of the Gear VR is attractive to look at and is pretty light weight. It’s made from a sturdy white plastic and feels very well built. On the right side it has a very responsive touch pad and a back button to menu operations. The top nestles a focus wheel that’s a welcome addition for helping you change the focal point of the lens where as in the past on the DK2 you would have had to slot a coin into a vertical slot to do the same action. The straps are in the same arrangement as the DK2 however the top strap and the back rest now have extra padding for added support.

Comfort

Overall the GearVR is more comfortable to wear then the DK2 however it does have a couple of issues. If the bridge of your nose is quite high the GearVR can find itself resting on it. It’s not normally noticeable for short sessions but if you’re watching movies it is definitely noticeable after a while and can becoming irritating.  We know this won’t affect everybody but it’s just something to be mindful of if you’re coming from the DK2 which has lots of space. I also found that getting the sweet spot for clear image can be troublesome as my IPD is quite large but again this will only affect a handful of users.

gear vr strapsResolution

Resolution on the GearVR is an improvement over the DK2 but it’s not as dramatic as the difference between the DK2 and DK1. The Gear has a display resolution of 1280 by 1440 per eye over the DK2’s 960 by 1080. Although it is noticeable it’s only really apparent when watching movies as most of the game software available on the Gear uses dark or cell shaded graphics which often look good even at lower resolutions.

Field of view

The GearVR field of view is 96 degrees compared to the DK2s 100 degrees. I haven’t noticed any real difference with this lower FOV but that can also be due to the fact that I normally use the DK2 with the lenses dialled out away from my face for comfort. FOV is something that really needs to be improved overall with many HMDs but it’s something you quickly forget when your inside as you turn your head to view objects either side of you.

samsung note4Battery Life

As this is mobile VR, battery life is important. We have been able to squeeze about 3 hours of movie watching on the GearVR and 2 hours of gameplay from a full charge. We expect that the large difference is due to the fact that Bluetooth is switched on for gameplay which puts a drain on the battery. Unfortunately the Gear has no option for charging when in use which is something we would like to see in later versions as when you’re lying in bed watching movies it would be very useful to have it plugged in especially as you are not turning your head much.

One big advantage the GearVR has over the DK2 is that it’s completely wireless. Many of the tech demos take advantage of this and get you to turn right around 360 degrees. The reason it’s wireless is because the software is running directly from your phone which holds up very well. All the demos and software we threw at the phone run very smoothly however it does lead to one major issue after extended plays with overheating.

The Note4 can get pretty warm when playing games and we did get an overheating warning when playing Herobound for just over an hour. We chose to ignore this warning and play on but a short time later we started to see some performance issues with dropped frames so we decided to take a break and start again after a 10 minute rest period. It’s a bit worrying that this happens but we found no such issue when watching movies and we could quite happily watch 3 hours of movie content in one session without any issue.

The big disadvantage of the GearVR over the DK2 is the loss of positional tracking. It’s hard to describe how important positional tracking is for achieving presence inside a virtual world but going from DK2 to the GearVR is a big step backwards in this department. Moving forward or backwards in the gear or standing or sitting has no effect on what is displayed on screen. This can be jarring as your eyes are registering no movement but your inner ear is telling you that you should be seeing a different view. This is a real immersion breaker but it’s not a deal breaker.

Also because no external camera is tracking your position tracking drift is back. This is where even if you look straight ahead your view will drift slightly to the left or right over time. It’s nowhere near as bad as the DK1 days but it is noticeable from time to time. Thankfully you can centre your view by holding the back button and selecting from the options screen. One option that really needs to be added to this screen is a Bluetooth toggle switch. I have so many times started up my GearVR only to find out that I forgot to enable Bluetooth so my controller doesn’t work. This results in having to take the GearVR off and taking the phone out of its holder to enable Bluetooth.

bluetooth controllerControl of the apps and software on the GearVR is handled either by the touch pad on the side of the device or a Bluetooth controller. We purchased the GearVR with the Samsung Bluetooth controller bundled in. Although the controller is functional it is by no means the best available. Navigating menus with the Gear’s touch pad is fine but your arm will get tired if playing games but thankfully most of the software available supports Bluetooth controllers with the majority requiring a controller to be playable.

The major issue with the GearVR at the moment is not the technology or lack of positional tracking but the lack of compelling software. The GearVR has been available 5 months now and you can still spend a full day and get through every piece of content on the GearVR quite easily. Currently the best piece of software on the GearVR is the cinema APP which allows you to watch movies stored on your Phone. Almost every other piece of software on the GearVR is a short experience or just a demo of an upcoming game. Oculus are trying to fix this with the Oculus JamVR which is running over the next few weeks and it seems to be working with over 500 entries but  only time will tell if the library of content will live up to the devices full potential.  For now quite a lot of the content on the GearVR is 360 video content or 360 photos with a few exceptions which we will be reviewing over the next few weeks.

Final Thoughts

gear vr 2If you have a Note4 phone or plan on changing your smart phone soon then purchasing a GearVR is a no brainer. For $200 dollars you get a really well built product that offers the best mobile VR experience to date however currently there isn’t a lot of software available but this is something Oculus are working on and we expect to see a glut of new content at the end of the VR Jam competition in the coming weeks.

Getting a Note4 and GearVR together will set you back the best part of $900 dollars which is expensive to get into VR. If you’re happy with your current phone and still want to experience VR we would strongly recommend you get a decent graphics card and a DK2. It’s not as polished as the Gear VR and the resolution is lower but it has so much content available and the importance of positional tracking cannot be understated.

Overall we do love our GearVR even though we don’t have much to play on it yet. It’s a massive achievement to get such quality out of a mobile device but the lack of software is really hampering it at the moment. If you’re a film buff then this is without doubt the best personal viewer available today. If you’re a gamer then you really need to get a DK2. If you have a spare $900 dollars and need a new phone then this should be on your list of things to buy.

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About the Author

David

David Whelan a professional web developer has been a serial early adopter of the latest technology. From an early age playing on a C64 he always dreamt of entering virtual worlds and exploring the endless possibilities that could be offered up by the platform.

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