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Google Cardboard versus Samsung Gear VR

It's been an interesting year for virtual reality. We've seen massive leaps forward in helmet-style VR systems in finished form of Oculus Rift and the not-quite-finished HTC Vive, with Sony's own Project Morpheus preparing to follow suit for the PS4. By mid-2016 you'll be hard-pressed to find a AAA game that doesn't offer some form of immersive benefit that can only be found by strapping one of these things to your face.

At the same time all of this has been happening, smartphone-based VR has been gaining momentum. We've seen Samsung partner with Oculus to produce a not-quite-commercial VR system with its own ecosystem of software, with Google's Cardboard gaining well over a dozen manufacturing partners and offering support for just about everything with a screen.

Each is an impressive offering in its own right, but choosing between the two if you've got a device that supports both isn't easy. To make that decision, you'll need to think about where and why you want a VR experience, as well as what you're willing to spend on that decision.

Google's accidental success with a cardboard box

One of the coolest things about Google as a company is the number of so-called "20 percent projects" — essentially things employees work on in their free time — become successful products. (Gmail, famously, started as one.) The first version of Google Cardboard was handed out at the end of the I/O 2014 keynote in a way that felt as though it was a last-minute decision, and it didn't take long for the company to figure out this project had an immediate need for more resources.

Fast forward a year, and Google has tweaked the accessory to support all Android devices as well as the iPhone, with APIs and an SDK that supports importing existing Unity3D projects and turning them into Android apps. There are several companies making their own versions of Cardboard, including some that fold up like glasses and don't include the light blocking shield thought to increase immersion.

Vanguard V

It's sort of the Wild West of VR, with no central app pulling it all together or acting as a nav point for switching from app to app. The upside there is anyone can make a Cardboard app quickly, and at less than $20 a pop you can pick up a viewer for the whole family, but the act of handing someone a cardboard box and saying "go nuts" quickly leads to novice users not really knowing what to do next.

This gets largely resolved with the link in Google's Cardboard app showing users more apps to try, but not every Cardboard experience includes those initial instructions.

Samsung's beautiful walled garden, powered by Oculus

When one of the biggest names in mobile hardware and one of the biggest names in VR get together to make something, folks tend to pay attention. The "Innovator Edition" of the Samsung Gear VR isn't exactly a consumer product, but it's out there if you have the itch for a great VR experience and want to get in on the action early. These VR headsets currently only support the Galaxy Note 4, Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge, but when you think about it that's still a fairly sizable chunk of Android users out there today.

The headset includes volume control and a touch panel for interacting with the primary interface, and a separate gamepad is sold for those who want to do more than explore 3D worlds or play simple head tracking games. When you slide a phone into the casing, the phone immediately launches the VR experience but only draws that experience to the screen when your head is in proximity thanks to the sensor near the lenses. There'a focal ring up top for you to adjust so it is in focus even if you wear prescription lenses, and in most cases the focus change works well enough to be enjoyable.

Oculus Home

Everything is contained within the Oculus app. The games and videos are presented in a 3D VR menu, and you make all of your purchases and engage with everything from this menu system. There's even a passthrough system that activates the camera so you can see the real world for a moment, though walking around with this mode enabled is a tricky proposition.

It's a complete thought, which is a requirement for since you can only use Oculus and Samsung apps in this interface. Nothing can be side-loaded and while any Bluetooth gamepad can be used it's clear the Samsung Gamepad is preferred for interaction.

Choosing between the two

If you've got a Samsung phone, deciding which VR platform you want gets interesting. And no, you can't have both without conflicts. Samsung's software assimilates apps that work for both and force you to only use the software in the Oculus app. This is only a problem if you try to install both the Cardboard and Gear VR versions of the same app, and if you do the Gear VR version will be the only one that loads. You can keep Cardboard around if you want to quickly share YouTube360 videos or something, but otherwise you'll probably want to make a choice.

Google's platform is open, available across multiple hardware partners, and supports a ton of apps and services across the web. Each app and service works independently, relying only on the hardware in your pocket to do things. The Gear VR is a closed ecosystem by comparison, but the added hardware in the accessory means a smoother VR experience.

Samsung's offering has noticeably less to do currently, but the apps that are cross-platform are noticeably better on the Gear VR. Samsung's hardware also includes fully adjustable head straps and focuses to whatever your eyes need, where Google Cardboard needs to be held securely to your head with your hands and if you require glasses you'll need to force them into the equations yourself.

Samsung Gear VR

Portability and social sharing are big parts of the VR experience as well. Samsung's bulky travel case doesn't compare to the collapsible Cardboard frame, and adjusting the straps and focal ring for every person you want to share the Gear VR with is somewhat tedious, especially if you're sharing in a group. When you include the price of the hardware into things, most folks are a whole lot more likely to share the all-but-disposable Cardboard unit over the $199 Gear VR. This price may change when a final version is made available, but it's unlikely to be wildly different from the current price point given what its capabilities.

Ultimately the choice is yours, and the cool thing about the content available is there's no wrong answer. If you want a portable, almost disposable experience that can be shared with tons of people, Cardboard is clearly the way to go. If you are looking for the best possible VR experience your smartphone can generate through a controlled content store with a lot of high-end Samsung partners, the Gear VR is clearly what you're looking for.

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

25 Comments
  • Main page, lead-in sentence for this article needs to be corrected. "Smartphone-based VR has become is growing in power and capability, ..."
  • That would definitely be a sentence that doesn't make sense. We snagged it :)
  • Correction needs to be corrected too. "Smartphone-based VR his growing in power and capability, ..."
  • its growing
  • I'm sorry, but the Gear VR is in a completely different league from Cardboard - the level of immersion is not comparable. It's like comparing the drive of a Yaris to an Audi R8. If you've never been in a car I'm sure you'll think the Yaris is amazing.... I bought Cardbaord, thought it was neat for about 10min, and then it sat on my shelf. Few months later I got the Note 4 version of the Gear VR and my mind was completely blown (as was my wife's who really isn't into this type of thing). Combine 360 video with 360 audio and I've had experiences where I forget I'm in my living room. And while you might not be able to side-load apps outside of the Oculus store (that's not entirely accurate - I've seen cases where you can launch apps outside of Oculus), you can easily load your own videos (2D, 3D, 180o, 360o). If I'm alone I prefer to watch movies in the VR - you lose a little detail in the image, but it really feels like you're in a theater. It's a very powerful and trippy experience.
  • +1
  • Agreed. It would make more sense to compare, say Carl Zeiss VR one to Google cardboard - comfort, hand free experience or a "viewmaster" (which has its own VR in the works). Posted via the Android Central App
  • I bought a $30 VR headset that came with a controller. For the price it's fantastic and much better than a $15 cardboard setup. Between the $15 cardboard and the $200 Galaxy Gear there are lots of options. It's not one or the other. It's one out of dozens of options. For $30 I'm extremely happy with my purchase. I have not figured out movie watching, yet, though. I can watch pre-made content but can't figure out how (or if) I can load my own.
  • My words exactly
  • +1000. The experience is not even in the same league. Another useless AC article...
  • Bought the Samsung Gear VR, returned it in two days because the lack of support Samsung offers on the software side. Disappointing really because other then that it is a night and day difference to me which may just stem from the quality and neat ideas like using your phones camera to see the outside world while the VR is on your face. They always shoot themselves in the foot on software by locking it and then failing to provide even close to the amount of apps as Google cardboard. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Two days? I'd prefer a minimal amount of high quality content as opposed to a plethora of okay content. Plus there's a hack to use Google Cardboard apps with Gear VR. The most practical use Gear VR has is movie watching. But I still look forward to those occasional experiences because I know how good they are. Google floods Cardboard with content and I don't care about any of it. I did try Crazy Swing VR though... with my Gear VR headset.
  • VR Gear defenders, take note: the vast, vast, VAST majority of people are going to compare $10-$20 headset cost & much more content against $200 headset cost & limited content. That is what is known as a "no brainer." Since you have to purchase either unit before trying them, Google Cardboard is going to quickly bury the systems costing 10X, 20X. There only way to get VR to go "mainstream" is by having a system that works on Apple & Android phones, tablets, & laptops and Windows laptops; software that is compelling, and equipment that is affordable as an "add-on" to smartphones, tablets and eventually TVs. Until that happens, VR is just a toy to play with. The $15 - $20 toy is the choice 99% of the buyers will make.
  • The Gear VR is around 200€, that is an affordable "extra" imho.
    Of course it should be usable in most devices, and I'm sure that's something that's solveable. But to say that a cardboard device is the only thing that makes VR go mainstream is a bit far stretched I think.
    Plus, like others noted, you cannot even compare the two device types.. it's night & day
  • 89€ actually. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I've had the Gear VR for a few months now and love it! Watching my 87 year old grandma do the African Safari experience was priceless. The video quality from my Note 4 is amazing. It may not have a ton of content, but my favorite part is enjoying facilitating other people to experience virtual reality for the first time. Overall I'm very happy with it, I only wish it was compatible with more phones so I could let people borrow it. I thought about buying a bad ESN Note 4 just for that purpose, but thats a few extra $$$.
  • The Gear VR can sideload apps with the Sideload VR tool.
    And you can use all Google Cardboard apps on Gear VR aswell, some even using the Touchpad and Back button with the Package disabler with which you can disable Gear VR service for using cardboard and enabling it again when using Gear VR. With Samsung phones you can even activate low persistance in developer mode, which makes Cardboard apps more pleasant but still by far worse than Gear VR apps. Android Central hardly mentions that the Gear VR uses it's own faster and better calibrated sensors, compared to the slower ones used in Smartphones which Google Cardboard uses. Combined with low lewel CPU access through the software, the Gear VR offers <20ms headtracking latency which is much better than what Google Cardboard can achieve.
  • Thank you! I was wondering if Cardboard apps could be used with GearVR...and the article wasn't very clear about it. My biggest fear is that people will try the Cardboard VR and say "it's a gimmick" or get an otherwise negative experience with VR. I FINALLY got to try a GearVR this weekend at Best Buy and was ready to plop down my $200 on the spot! Unfortunately, Best Buy is only stocking the SGS6 version, not the one for my Note 4...so the impulse buy was not happening. That said, I am probably going to get one soon...the experience was amazing! I was playing with one app that had you underwater...a shark came out of nowhere, and I actually flinched! The head tracking is excellent, and I noticed no blurring, even when moving my head quickly. It was a little grainy...but it was MILES ahead of my last VR experience in the mid 90s! I am, however, a little more excited to see Sony's offering...some of the software they have been showing looks absolutely fantastic! Either way, after using GearVR, I am sold on the concept!
  • I don't buy Samsung phones anymore, so I guess I'll never buy Samsung accessories, since they don't seem to want my money. That being said, I have a plastic "Google Cardboard", and even my luddite wife likes it fairly well. If you can't be device agnostic on your toys, you're simply shooting yourself in the foot... because other people have legitimate options that work as well as or better than yours. I see the Cardboard as a first strike on my wife's reluctance to spend money on an Oculus Rift by the way... :D
  • I have a plastic Cardboard headset that is a step up from the Ritech. I've also spent about 30 minutes on the Gear VR for the Galaxy S6 at the local Samsung store over two trips. Since my main reason for getting a VR headset is to enjoy a movie inside a cinema while lying on my bed, I only tested the Oculus Cinema app on the Gear VR. To put it plainly, there is no comparison between Cardboard and the Gear VR, at least in terms of watching movies. The sense of "being there" with the Gear VR is utterly mind-blowing, whereas with a Cardboard app -- any app (and I've tried them all) -- you always get the sense that you're in an emulated environment. No matter how much I tweak the Cardboard viewer profile parameters, the app settings, or the positioning of the phone inside the headset, I could never achieve anywhere near the immersion that I felt while strapped to the Gear VR. I couldn't even finish a music video on Cardboard without getting a bit of a headache and eyestrain. My wife, who is a complete non-techie, only tried the Gear VR for a minute and right away she told me Cardboard felt like a toy compared to the Gear VR. Whatever secret recipe Samsung and Oculus put into the Gear VR -- likely a combination of superior optics, superior tracking, superior software, perfect tuning (since Gear VR can only fit one phone), and the S6's 577 dpi Super AMOLED display -- the final output is pure magic. I'm surprised that I'm saying all this since I never liked the Samsung brand, but man...now I'm very tempted to get an S6 just so I can get the Gear VR.
  • Overall, this is the future of VR and AR. Looking at Google's Project Tango and the slew of multi-camera addons that smartphone companies are developing, there will be no need for Oculus, Hololens, Playstations VR or any other device tied to a system. Magic Leap is interesting, but again, you're tied to a complete system and their sensors can easily be mounted on something like Gear VR or a Cardboard device. As far as the difference between the two, there really shouldn't be any; it's kind of frivolous that Samsung locks up their content; all apps should be accessible easily, like any other app. Sure, cardboard is fairly limited ATM, but it's also open ended, cheaper and has more of a profit model for companies to latch onto; whereas Gear VR is locked to only software development and maybe some extent accessories. I don't think there is really a format war going on either, since both platforms are the same platform; basically Gear VR is just another app and hardware. What will be interested is to see if Cardboard can get up to the same level of use and quality that the Gear VR apps have. And please stop using the actual Cardboard viewer, those things are cheesy; there are tons of cheap viewers, with a better build, on Amazon, which get you a lot closer to the Gear VR experience.
  • I know this is old but FYI: the reason there is a real difference between cardboard and gear vr and the reason the content must be locked is because the gear vr has better sensors built into it which provide a much better vr experience be decreasing latency. It has it's own gyro and accelerometers. The software works in conjunction with the hardware. So it would not work to try and use a gear vr app with cardboard. And you can use cardboard apps with gear vr but they will feel laggy. And lag, in vr, induces motion sickness.
  • Second paragraph is erroneous, but I agree with the rest. The gear vr is a different level than cardboard due to the hardware itself. As a vr developer I dont see this issue with cardboard's quality being solved in software. However I do expect some incremental improvements through software combined with future phones shipping with higher res/frequency sensors.
  • I actually just noticed my cardboard vr most definitely has a head strap or rather "head strap" it came with a surprisingly comfortable rubber band at least as comfortable as it could be... my issue was using my note 3... it actually works as an S model would and I favor it over the S highly despite not being an artist the stylus is most definitely a lot of fun and has even more potential if you have a real urge, my brother has the note 4 and does all his coffee shops designs/clothing on it.. but wow I saw for the first time this morning I'm just blown away
  • I have an s7 with a gear vr consumer version. I make VR games and experiences. I can tell you two things: 1) it's really easy to use cardboard apps with the gear vr as long as you pay $1 for the cardboard for gearvr app. It works really well and is a must in my opinion. It even makes the touch pad on the gearvr act like the magnetic button on cardboard. 2) The gear vr is much much better than cardboard (on the same device and same headset, keep in mind). It's not even close. The gear vr is much more on par with the performance I have with my DK2 Rift on a PC. Titans of space is a great example (and a great app). It runs very close to how it runs on the pc for gearvr. For cardboard it is considerably worse, and of no fault of the developer. The cardboard, using the built in phone's sensors, has much worse head tracking in the sense of drift, lag, and jitter. I'm currently working on a vr game and tested it on gearvr and cardboard. I'm considering not releasing it for cardboard because it kind of ruins the core mechanic of the game. One long point I'll touch on is the little things that make gear's experience great. In fact the gearvr experience is the best, even compared to on PC. The major one is using the light sensor to detect when the unit is on your face. It automatically plays and pauses as you put it on and take it off. There's audible feedback and a graceful fade in when you put it on. This sounds like a simple thing but it really make a big difference. PC or cardboard compared to this is a little uncertain, a little wonky. The home screen, launcher, store are comfortable and once again the best, compared to the current alternatives. The options screen (hold back button) is really nice, you can change a lot of stuff with the headset on. You can even enable the pass-through camera to see whats going on in the real world. Pop-ups for phone notifications works great too. The hardware is great.. I keep saying great. But it is, it's the best one I've used and I've used a lot. Also having on-device input controls (track pad, back button, volume, focus wheel) sets it apart. Even if you are using a gamepad, it's nice to have these for quick actions. In closing, gear vr might be a limited market compared to all of the android devices that could use cardboard, but samsung's phones are also consistently the highest selling phones in the market. Not every samsung device can use gearvr, but the best ones can. And technically it only just launched the consumer version in the past month. Everyone who bought an s7 got one for free, and it's just the beginning. As a developer I can also say that it's far easier to make games for it compared to the DK2 since I'm not tethered to a high powered gaming rig. I can do this from my macbook, which I can't with a PC Rift.