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The Galaxy S7 and Gear VR make virtual reality incredible and affordable

The jump from niche techy gadget to consumer-ready product isn't an easy one to make, but that's exactly what Samsung is trying to do with the Samsung Gear VR.

Asking someone who has never used a VR headset before — which is most people — to shell out $99 for a plastic accessory that makes them look funny isn't going to happen. Giving hundreds of thousands of them away to people who are pre-ordering the best phone to use with that headset is a little different. It's an attempt to get as many people as possible past the look of the strange plastic thing on the shelf and into the experiences contained within. It's also working, though to what degree is anyone's guess for now.

If Samsung and Oculus are going to succeed in pushing the Gear VR out of techy nerd hell and onto the faces of people who would otherwise never consider something like this, a combination of capable hardware and feature complete software needs to exist. Previous combinations of Samsung phones and the Gear VR headset have shown that smartphone-based VR can be fun and engaging, but not exactly easy for everyone. With the Galaxy S7 and a fully stocked Oculus Store, the Gear VR gets a new chance to pull people in.

This is our Samsung Gear VR review, Galaxy S7 edition.

About this review

We've been using the Samsung Gear VR for quite a while now, back as far as the Galaxy Note 4, but have only been using it with the Galaxy S7 for ten days. This phone is running Oculus Store version 1.91 (Build 25307937), which is also available on the Galaxy S7 edge, Galaxy Note 5, and the Samsung Galaxy S6 variants.

Read: How the Galaxy S7 edge compares to the GS7 in the Gear VR

Oculus Setup

Please insert your phone to continue

Samsung Gear VR initial setup

Samsung and Oculus have built the Gear VR experience to be something isolated from the rest of the experience on the Galaxy S7. The user isn't aware that any of the Oculus services even exist on the phone until the first time they connect the phone to a Gear VR. This can be a little confusing if you're already familiar with the interface and want to download games ahead of putting the headset on your face, but as far as set up systems go Oculus has done a lot of good here. You connect the phone to the headset, and the phone immediately knows what to do.

For a system that isn't dedicated to this experience, the initial set up process for the Gear VR is as good as it can be.

What happens next is not so smooth. The thing the phone does next is tell you to disconnect the phone from the Gear VR in order to install the Oculus app and set up your account. There's no way to do this setup in VR, and there's no way to set up the Oculus experience before the phone is connected, so users are stuck with this back and forth in order to get set up the first time. The good news is you only ever have to do this once, but it's still an unusual hurdle to jump for someone who has never used VR before.

After you've created your Oculus account, it's time to actually use the Gear VR. Putting the phone back into the headset launches a tutorial on how to navigate the interface. Oculus has created a series of short tasks for users to solve by moving across the touch pad on the side of the headset, and when those tasks are complete users are taken to the main system environment. From this point, connecting the phone to the Gear VR launches the Oculus VR environment.

As initial setup experiences go, the Gear VR is a mixed bag right now. The Oculus Store can't exist in the Google Play Store due to Google's policies on running a competing app store, and having the app live on every Samsung phone would take up a lot of unnecessary space, so this compromise is understandable. Once you actually get into the Oculus environment, the tutorials to familiarize the user with what's happening are perfect. The execution is visually appealing and there's no doubt the user understands how the interface works when the tutorial is over. For a system that isn't dedicated to this experience, the initial set up process for the Gear VR is as good as it can be.

Oculus App

Your house will never be this nice

Samsung Gear VR interface

Using a VR headset breaks down into two key components: being comfortable enough on your face to use for the duration of the app you're using, and being easy to navigate the interface. The Gear VR is more comfortable than most VR headsets you'll find out there today, but its real strength is the interface. Putting on a Gear VR transports you to an incredible outdoor pavilion with floating menu options fixed to the position you started in. You can look around and take in the sights, but the position you started in is where you'll be when navigating menus.

Before you get into any of the apps and explore those experiences, the Oculus menus and environments are genuinely enjoyable to use.

Oculus has paid special attention to the design of their menu system. In a VR environment frequently described as having a "screen door" effect in white spaces due to the ability to see pixels on the screen, text is sharp and images are clear everywhere. When you go to buy an app, there's plenty of information about the game that is easy to read and easier to scroll through. Purchasing an app offers a similar experience, with a convenient pin system for authorizing a payment. It's an interface that has slowly evolved over time, and has reached a point where you can easily navigate through existing apps to select something to do or install a new experience with a couple of taps. There are no menu options asking you to aim a pointer at a specific place for a few seconds to register a click, it's all straightforward and clear.

Secondary to the main Oculus menu is the system menu that can be accessed from anywhere by holding down the back button on the Gear VR. In the past, this menu system was a series of small floating buttons that required you to either memorize the icons or hover a pointer over the icon to know what your options were. Now that menu is a set of large blocks with clear text that explains what you need to do. This includes brightness controls camera passthrough, and of course returning to the main menu if you're done with whatever it is you are doing right now. This menu has been greatly improved recently, and the end result is significantly more user friendly.

The most interesting pair of features in this system menu are the camera passthrough and notification settings, mostly because you'll either use them all the time or not at all. Camera passthrough is exactly what is sounds like, a way to access the camera on the back of your phone so you can see the real world without taking the headset off.

There's less lag in this mode than previous Samsung phones using this mode, but walking around with this mode on is still a bad idea. Notification controls in the Oculus UI allow you to bring notifications from your phone into the virtual environment. This Do Not Disturb mode is off by default, but it's not entirely clear why since users aren't able to interact with notifications when they appear in the Gear VR. All you really get is a rectangle that interrupts whatever it is you are doing with a truncated version of the notification you'd normally get on your phone.

Oculus Screenshot

Finally, Oculus has made it easy to share your virtual experiences with others. The system menu now includes the ability to take screenshots and record video, both of which are available to share once you're out of the Gear VR and back on your phone like usual. These screenshots and video shots are a 1024x1024 sample from one eye, so they're square and ready for sharing without any additional cropping. This looks a whole lot nicer than recording on your own with a third-party app, and on the Galaxy S7 the video is more than smooth enough to share with friends.

Oculus has done a lot to grow this interface over time, and now it feels more like a complete thought. Before you get into any of the apps and explore those experiences, the Oculus menus and environments are genuinely enjoyable to use.

Oculus App Galaxy S7

At long last, a search button

Samsung Gear VR app

Once you've set up your Gear VR, you'll find an Oculus icon on your home screen. The Oculus app on your phone is designed to make it easy to manage your VR apps before you get to the virtual environment. When you consider the size of your average VR game and the time required to install it, the app is a much better way to browse for things you haven't tried yet. This interface is set up more like a traditional app store, which means you can search for apps, browse categories, and take a look at detailed explanations of what the apps are about before installing.

Oculus apps are all vetted before they reach the store, so they include things like content ratings and hardware requirements at the top of the description. If a game requires a gamepad to use instead of just the touchpad, this is where you'll see it. Similar descriptions exist when browsing these apps in the virtual environment, but in the app they're all available at a glance. Once you've installed an app you're interested in, you can launch that app from the Oculus app, making it so when you put the phone in the VR headset you're taken right to that app.

The Oculus app is the gateway to a virtual environment that happens to live on your phone, but it doesn't play nice with the rest of your phone or its features.

The Oculus Store uses a separate payment mechanism than the Google Play Store, so you enter your credit card information here and the transactions are separate from your Google Account. In doing so, Oculus allows you to create a pin for quick authentication in and out of the virtual environment, as well as emails for transactions when you've completed a purchase. It's a simple enough system once you get it set up, and is simple enough to adjust as needed.

Social experiences are going to be a big part of the Gear VR in the future, but it'll be a while before this is a truly social platform. As part of your account creation in the Oculus app, you now have the ability to find friends and add them to your account. This makes it easier to jump into apps together to do things like watch videos together, but it's not yet widely adopted across all of the games you can play on the Gear VR. Long term, it's clear Oculus wants this to be almost like Xbox Live, where users can jump in a game together and play together. All of the pieces are there now, and over time we'll see this social tab become more important to Oculus.

More than anything, the Oculus app is a reminder that this experience is not a part of your usual phone experience. The Oculus app is the gateway to a virtual environment that happens to live on your phone, but it doesn't play nice with the rest of your phone or its features. Some of that is on Oculus, but most of the limitations are in place because Google says so, and at the end of the day this is still an Android phone being used to do the heavy lifting for this platform.

Gear VR

Bring on the competition

Samsung Gear VR: the bottom line

As VR headsets go, the Gear VR is in a fascinating position. It exists as an infinitely more capable system compared to the only other smartphone-based system — Google Cardboard — yet it makes no real sense to compare it to the desktop-class VR experiences. The closest thing you could compare the Samsung Gear VR to and have it make any sense is Sony's PlayStation VR, but even then it's nowhere near an apples to apples compare.

In a way, standing out in the crowd is what has created the opportunity for Samsung to push their hardware to as many new users as possible. Oculus and Samsung have refined this experience over the last two years, and what they've come up with by combining the raw performance of the Galaxy S7 with the Gear VR headset is unique and fantastic. It's polished, capable, and full of interesting things to explore and play with. Gone are the days of overheating warnings or batteries that only last 45 minutes, due in no small part to the work Samsung has put into their latest smartphone. This combination is without equal, and it's unlikely we'll see real competition for this experience this year.

All of that having been said, there's still a lot about this experience that still feels geared to the early adopter. Samsung is introducing users to this platform in droves right now, and the initial setup is still confusing. It's still not immediately clear that you need to have the phone awake and unlocked before you put it in the Gear VR, and the spoken warning to do so doesn't appear until you've already got the headset on your face. Once you get into the virtual environment, the experience is exceptional. The journey there needs to match that, and right now it doesn't. Oculus and Samsung need to work together to create simple solutions to these pain points, both of which can be addressed with relative ease.

Should you buy it? Absolutely.

If you're interested in VR, but aren't planning to build a powerful gaming desktop or a PlayStation 4, the Gear VR is the way to go. If you're interested in the best possible experience for the Gear VR, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is the way to go. Combining these two ensures you have a great phone and a great VR experience, one that is picking up new video and gaming experiences every day.

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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

44 Comments
  • Waiting on my s7 promotion approval to get mines Posted via the Android Central App
  • I got my approval says it won't ship till end of April. Posted via the Android Central App
  • It said it can take up to 6 weeks so I've just forgotten about it lol Posted via the Android Central App
  • I understand waiting is not what you want. If I were you I would go to Best Buy and if you are not already a member of their silver elite club or whatever they are calling their loyalty program. Why, because it gives you 45 days to return any purchase for a refund. Then I would buy the headset from Best Buy and when you receive your free headset you can return it for a refund. If you have a Best Buy close to you, you can't go wrong. One thing to verify before you make the purchase is that the Headset is returnable. Best Buy has a few items that cannot be returned like video games, some Apple products, etc...But over the last 15 years I have never had a problem returning anything to BB. My wife and I often are surprised how little they actually inspect an item being returned, a lot of the time they do not even open the box of a product that comes with lots of cables, software, etc...there could be nothing in the box and they would not know. I find it strange since they have people that handle returns...Best of Luck either way!...I am planning on buying one this week myself...Take it Easy!
  • I finally got the email telling me my pre-order was verified and it said the Gear VR will ship to me on April 1st! Can't wait to try it out.
  • I have my gear vr and my s7. I got mine from best buy. I like the videos. Some of them are very low quality though. I haven't tried any of the games yet because I don't have a controller.
  • You don't need a controller for some of the games. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm not sure if this is something I would have ever bought if Samsung hadn't handed me a free one. After a few minutes, though, I was hooked. I've been an unofficial member of Samsung's marketing department ever since. Posted via the Android Central App
  • my approval doesn't have a ship date yet, if it takes too long, I'll just go ahead and buy one
  • My s7 will arrive tomorrow, then I will finish filling out the promotion application!
  • We need 8k screens :)
  • My VR arrives April 1st. Can't wait to check it out. Posted via Samsung's beast S7
  • Affordable? Definitely? Incredible? IMHO, not so much. I see it more as demonstration of what the future holds than a really useful product today. Why am I not enamored? 1. It's really too damn heavy, and too uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Especially if you wear glass, as I do, it just hurts to wear. I can take my glasses off, and adjust the focus, but (1) that doesn't correct for astigmatism and (2) it's still too heavy and not very comfortable for very long. The problem isn't just the weight, it's that the heaviest weight (the phone) is hung out at the far end of the device, adding leverage to the forces pulling on your face. Maybe with the S7, instead of the Edge, it would be better, but I think not enough better. 2. Quad HD is overkill for a phone, but not really enough for VR. When you view white text you can see all the individual color pixels. It's less noticeable on more complex images, but the pixelation is still there. 3. Streaming their sample videos is an exercise in frustration. The bandwidth required is just too high. Moving images pixelate frequently. You can get around this by downloading them, but be prepared to shell out for lots of storage. As a technology demo, it's really cool. As a product I'll actually use, not so much. But a purpose designed VR headset that puts the heavy parts behind the head to balance the weight of the screen, lenses and housing, offers at least 4K display, and includes lots of storage would probably be really awesome. And a lot more expensive.
  • IF you dont like the gear vr because of the resolution you might not like the others either. The gear vr has a slightly higher resolution then the pc version of the rift and the vive.
  • Not personally used either, but from what I understand from reading previews the optics on the Vive and Oculus are much, much better than in the Gear VR, so they look superior.
  • Maybe you should do some neck exercises to build up strength to support your head and gearVR :)
  • I had one and everything was blurry to me. Especially the text in the menus. I spent forever trying to get things in focus etc.. maybe my vision is so good that it makes it seem worse. Who knows. Posted via the Android Central App
  • The eximent of having my galaxy s7edge was a short one. I use it with the VR and the phone got extreme hot after a few minutes. The LCD colors faded and bleeding colors, red and green smudges all over the screen. This got worse as the phone was in my use. I sent it to Samsung today for repair. If your phone is getting hot when using the VR, you may ruin your phone's LCD. P.s. I am using my dear and awesome BB z30 in the meantime.
  • Lil off topic, but in the article u mention that it's a power move on Sammy's part to give away the vr with preorders. Now here's where I go off topic. Sonys vita has been struggling to take off from the beginning. Why not make a gotdamn ps4/vita bundle to get them out in the kinda same manner? Especially with that remote play it's great I can attest from 1st hand experience Posted via the Android Central App
  • That would be a big fat NO THANKS
  • Is Sprint the only carrier that was giving the VR with the phone at point of sale? Posted via the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 on the Sprint Network
  • If you got the s7 from bestbuy you got the gear vr with the phone. This goes for att or verizon.
  • Mine got approved. Said it will ship to later than april 1st Posted via the Android Central App
  • Mine said it would ship April 1st also, then I just received an email saying it shipped, looked into the tracking info and it delivered today at my house. Can't wait to get home tonight!!!
  • Sams here looked at the tracking info. Got shipped on the 22nd and just got the email today. Should get it by Saturday Posted via the Android Central App
  • Nvm i just got an email saying it shipped lol Posted via the Android Central App
  • Hey Folks, Any suggestion on the best App or Video for a knock your socks off type of experience? Mine should arrive today and I have a bunch of relatives over so want to blow them away...
  • You could try the planet thing. Don't know the name of the app. But it feels crazy real though. I got nauseating at times on the ride. Well the spaceship ride Posted via the Android Central App
  • I was majorly impressed with the 'Star Chart' app. you can get up close and personal with planets and constellations, really crazy to have earth right in front of your eyes!
  • It is titans of space. Free app. Great VR Posted via the Android Central App
  • Download Hulu. There are a bunch of cool free things. There's one with a jaguar that's both cool and creepy. Especially when he walks up and is sniffing "you."
  • Used my s6 edge and the gear vr to watch the Insidious vr movie trailer. The trailer is really unnerving to watch. One of the better ones out there. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I got my shipping notice today!
  • "Asking someone who has never used a VR headset before — which is most people — to shell out $99 for a plastic accessory that makes them look funny isn't going to happen." If the phone does the vast majority of the work and the headset is just plastic, lenses, and a D-pad; then how is $99 the price?
    Is it really 10 times better than a cheap cardboard?
  • Have you seen how much lenses cost? Eg Microsoft developed replacement lenses for the Oculus. They cost $200. Per eye.
    http://arstechnica.co.uk/gaming/2015/06/microsoft-claims-to-have-develop...
  • It also has the tracking tech built in.
  • No, it's not 10 times better but it is a 'bit' better. I took it because it came free with the phone - I wouldn't pay $99.
    One gripe: almost every pair of binoculars I ever had came with 2 eye adjustments, focus and the diopter adjustment which lets you adjust just one eye in order to compensate for differences between your two eyes. The Gear only has a focus adjustment which leaves you with a problem since hardly anyone has eyes which are identically matched. With 'real' reality the difference is less noticable but with this type of VR your eyes are focused close at a fixed distance the whole time so you notice the difference. With binoculars you have a more fixed focal distance also which is why it's needed there as well. I didn't expect that on a $20 carboard headset but somehow I did on a $99 one. I goolged around a bit and noone is talking about this yet it seems an obvious ommision to me.
  • I just got my promo approved Monday. They said April 4th as expected ship date. Luckily, I received my Gear VR yesterday and it's pretty cool. Galaxy S7 Edge: Silver Titanium
    Posted via the Android Central App
  • Are you guys going to ever review those new reality headsets in the Google store? #TeamFrosty Nexus 6P
  • Do we get the same VR experience with the Note 5? Or are there new VR features in the S7 that the Note 5 doesn't have? Posted via the Android Central App
  • It's all the same. Posted via the Android Central App
  • My S7 Edge and Gear VR should be arriving tomorrow! I want to get a game-pad, any suggestions?
  • is the oculus launcher the only app that launches into the vr i guess what i mean is can you use like google cardboard or something and get games and such from the google play as opposed to the oculus store???
  • I have tried the VR with my S7e and it was horrible. Too "fuzzy" to be enjoyable, even after using the focus wheel. I'm sure glad I didn't pay $200 for it! I would have returned it if I had. Head tracking is very poor too, as the view was always off centered to the left. The resolution is so poor I would never watch a movie on it...even Youtube videos are hard to watch they're so poor. I wish I would have chosen the smart watch as my promotion!