Update: After spending a month with the new headset, we've run an updated Gear VR for S6 review. The original review follows below.
NEW ATLAS NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT
Upgrade to a Plus subscription today, and read the site without ads.
It's just US$19 a year.UPGRADE NOW
We found the original Gear VR for the Note 4 to be an exciting new product, but this new version for the GS6 is a big step forward. Not only does it work with two phones that are likely more popular than the Note, but it also fixes that first headset's biggest flaws.
That original Gear VR provided an exciting glimpse of the future, but after going through all the rigmarole required to use it for longer than 20 minutes or so without overheating, it was clear you were testing some early adopter gear. This was the biggest issue that Samsung needed to address with future versions.
Mission accomplished. With the new Gear VR's built-in fan, we can game for almost exactly an hour before having things cut short with an overheating message.
... and that's with the brightness cranked up to 100 percent. When we dropped that down to 50 percent, it only added about four minutes to that window, so we recommend setting the brightness to "10" and enjoying your full hour of gaming. If you want to stay inside these mesmerizing virtual worlds for longer than that, then you'll need to sit next to an external fan that's aimed towards your head.
The Gear's fan isn't noticeable at all: it's built into the left side of the headset (it's beneath that panel in the picture below). If you wear headphones (as we recommend) you only hear a very faint whirr – and only when your game is silent. It does its job well, and it does it discreetly.
The fan alone makes the Gear VR for S6 much better than the one for the Note 4. But it has a few more cool tricks too.
You can now plug a microUSB cable into the headset (the plug is on the bottom front side) to keep your phone's battery from draining. It doesn't actually charge your phone, it just uses the outlet's electricity to power the headset while you're playing.
Our only complaint is that it doesn't seem to play nicely with third-party microUSB cables; you'll need to use the Samsung-made one that came with your phone. Since longer cables make the most sense here, and the stock Samsung cable is short, this is an annoying limitation. We even tried using a USB extender cord along with the Samsung cable and wall adapter, but we got the same incompatibility message.
The charging feature is nice, but it would have made more sense if it were compatible with most microUSB cables. As it stands now, it makes the most sense connected to a portable battery pack that you drop in a front pocket.
The virtual reality experience itself is terrific, just as it was on the Note 4 version. The headset's field of view (FOV) is slightly lower in this new model, but we didn't find it to be noticeable or to take anything away from the experience. And you do get a higher pixel density, with slightly less of a "screen door effect," to balance things out (both of these are due to the fact that the GS6 and GS6 edge have 20 percent smaller screens than the Note 4 does, with the same Quad HD resolution).
Developers have also been stocking the Oculus Store with games and videos. Lots of them are good, some are pretty forgettable and there are still a few demos among the full games. But there are three absolute gems: Viral, Herobound: Spirit Champion and Dreadhalls. All three are full games, and would feel right at home on a console.
If you've heard the buzz about virtual reality, but haven't tried it yourself, these three games are a great place to start. It's a completely different kind of gaming, and the most immersive kind of entertainment we've experienced.
The headset itself feels about the same as it did the first time around, which is to say it's light, comfortable and looks a bit like a precursor to a Stormtrooper helmet. Like with the original, you'll still want to grab an Android-friendly game controller to use with it (Samsung makes one, and we've had no issues with the US$28 Moga Hero Power A).
If you invest in the Gear VR, know that you'll need to have a regular routine of caring for your lenses. That includes using anti-fog treatment, something like Clarity Defog It wipes (without something like this your vision will get clouded up quickly). It also means cleaning your headset regularly (we recommend an air canister, spray-on lens cleaner and a microfiber cloth).
You can read Gizmag's tips for the original Gear VR for more on cleaning and maintenance.
Though the first consumer version of the Oculus Rift isn't launching until 2016, the Gear VR is also an Oculus product – a wireless one at that – and you can buy it today. After using this GS6 version, we think it's just about consumer-ready. The biggest issues that need addressing are padding that app selection even more (it's in pretty good shape already, but just limited enough to be considered "early adopter" territory) and either making it compatible with third-party charging cables, or including a long cable with the headset.
If you can live with those (relatively minor) limits, though, you have an accessory that can turn your phone into a futuristic gaming and entertainment console. Yes, your Galaxy smartphone can power a platform that's more immersive than any movie theater or any PC, console or mobile game you've played. Virtual reality is something special, and Samsung and Oculus are off to an excellent start.
If you own a Galaxy S6 or Galaxy S6 edge and are interested in virtual reality, the new Gear VR for S6 might make for the most "magical" purchase you've ever made. VR that's fully consumer-ready isn't quite here yet, but this is by far the closest you can get today.
The Gear VR for S6 is available now, and costs $200.
For more on Oculus' and Samsung's virtual reality, you can revisit Gizmag's Gear VR for Note 4 review and our list of what we've learned from the Oculus Rift and Gear VR.
Product page: SamsungView gallery - 14 images