Let's start with the major differentiator. The Oculus Rift requires a gaming PC with not-insignificant minimum specs. Together, the whole package makes for an extremely powerful and immersive experience.
The Gear VR runs of off a late-model Samsung Galaxy smartphone, which is mounted right into the headset. The latest version of the Gear has a USB-C port to stay compatible with the Galaxy Note 7, but it also has microUSB adapters for Note 5, S6, S6 edge, S6 edge plus, S7 and S7 edge devices. These are all capable smartphones, but they don't pack the punch of a gaming PC.
The Oculus Rift requires USB and HDMI cables running from the headset to the PC at all times, but the Gear VR lets you enjoy a wireless VR experience.
Want to travel with your Gear VR? No problem. All you need is a phone and the headset. Try to pull that off with Oculus Rift, and you'll be hauling a PC, sensors, headset, cables and all that jazz.
When exploring the virtual world, you'll be moving your head around a lot in order to explore the 360-degree views. Little differences in weight add up and contribute to neck strain more easily than you might expect.
Without the USB cable, the Oculus Rift headset weighs 470 g. The Gear VR weighs 312 g, but that's without the phone inserted and the detachable front plate removed. Bear in mind that compatible Galaxy phones weigh around 151-171 g each. (In the past, the Gear VR could be played with or without the lid on, but with the current model, the phone needs to be removed before the lid can snap on.)
One of the big draws about Oculus Rift has yet to be challenged by mobile VR: Rift can detect your movements through space. If you lean, stand up, jump, etc. in the real world, you'll do it in the virtual world too. On the other hand, Gear VR detects your head's movements only.
Oculus Rift ships with an Xbox One gamepad in the box. With the Gear VR, gamepads need to be purchased separately.
Oculus Touch – though delayed – is a set of unique-looking controllers that promise to let you use your own hands in VR. They're sold separately, and, while we've enjoyed using Touch in multiple event demos dating back more than a year, their full utility can't be verified until the consumer version is finally released. On the other hand, Gear VR hasn't shown any sign of releasing movement-based controllers in the near future.
Oculus Rift comes with a remote control to navigate menus and make home screen selections (you can also get that done with the Xbox controller). The Gear VR has a built-in touchpad with home and back buttons on the right side of the headset, which lets you navigate with swipes, taps and clicks.
In Gear games, the touchpad is utilized pretty heavily, so lack of a controller isn't always a deal breaker.
Oculus has 'phones built right into the headset rig. They're nothing special – they're foam and they sit on top of your ears without noise cancellation – but the platform does support spatial audio so you can hear which direction the sound is coming from.
Gear VR uses your smartphone's speaker, or you can plug some earbuds into your phone and listen to the action that way. In theory you wouldn't need special headphones to get spatial audio on the Gear VR, but the platform doesn't directly support it just yet.
Both devices are mostly hard plastic with fabric and foam components. Both are only available in black.
The straps on the Gear are elasticized fabric; on the Rift, they're a stiffer plastic material. On the Gear, the part that touches your face is foam with a soft fabric covering. On the Rift, it's a rubbery foam.
Remember, on a Rift you're looking through the headset to see a different mini-monitor with each eye. With a Gear, you'll see a stereoscopic view of your smartphone screen.
Rift has a 1,200 x 1,080 per eye resolution. The Gear's resolution depends on the smartphone's, but currently, that's the same on all compatible options. That translates into 1,440 x 1,280 resolution per eye.
Higher resolution isn't necessarily a feather in the Gear's hat. The computing might behind the Oculus Rift trounces a smartphone's rendering capabilities, so Oculus Rift still provides a richer, smoother experience.
OLED displays are VR standard. IPS LCD is too backlit and subject to motion blurs by comparison.
Field of view
Rift eclipses Gear by about 9 degrees. For what it's worth, Samsung upped the field by about 5-degrees since the earlier version of the Gear VR, and a difference of that size wasn't enough for us to really notice anything. But ideally, in the long run, we'll be as close to 180-degrees as possible – that's the natural field of view of a pair of human eyes.
Rift goes through frames 30 percent faster, resulting in a silky smooth viewing experience.
Interpupillary distance (IPD)
IPD is the distance between your eyes. Ideally, your headset (like prescription glasses) hugs your eyes as best as possible, so you see exactly what you're supposed to without unwanted distortion. Rift lets you adjust your headset for this; Gear VR doesn't.
Good news for glasses wearers: both headsets can fit a pair of specs underneath if you choose to wear them. In the Gear VR documentation, Samsung does occasionally recommend wearing contacts instead of glasses (for example, for eyes with two significantly different prescriptions) but we have not experienced too much trouble.
The Gear VR helpfully has a focus adjustment dial built in, so you might be able to skip wearing glasses and contacts altogether. Oculus lacks a similar feature.
Though we still wait for Oculus Touch with baited breath, it will include a second positional sensor. That suggests we'll be able to have a full-on VR walkabout in the near future through Oculus Rift, but not Gear VR.
The caveat is that for true room-scale, Oculus will need to add something like the Vive's Chaperone system, which puts up a virtual barrier when you're getting near the edge of your playing space. Without that, room-scale on the Rift would be clumsy and perhaps unsafe.
Software (host device)
Oculus Home supplies software for both devices. There's a Windows-based platform for gaming with the Rift and an Android app for the Gear VR.
Oculus Rift ships with Lucky's Tale, a third-person platformer. While there are some free games for the Gear VR in the Oculus store, they are not advertised as bundled, and they certainly aren't AAA-quality.
While we are on the subject, there are some great independent games for the Gear, it's safe to say that the bigger-budget Rift has all-around better content.
The 2016 versions of these headsets hit the market in March (Rift) and August (Gear).
Starting price (full retail, headset only)
Yes, Rift includes an additional sensor, cable, controller and game, but it's also six times the price. Oculus Rift is US$599; Gear VR is $99. That extra power and positioning comes at a premium.
Starting price (host device)
Of course, there's more to the cost comparison. We still have to account for the fact that you'll need another machine to run these headsets. A minimally decent gaming PC costs about $900 when all is said and done (the one shown is just an example – you can spring for a package deal, or you can build your own).
The Galaxy phones aren't cheap, either. They range from $575 - $850 a pop. But at least phones can easily be bought in monthly installments, and chances are, you'll be purchasing a smartphone anyway.
In a way, setting Oculus Rift up against Gear VR is like comparing apples and oranges. The former is a double-monitored headset rocket fueled by advanced graphics processing; the latter is a fun way to play with your phone. But considering that many VR users are simply looking for entertainment, a $100 headset investment could seem perfectly acceptable when a more powerful $600+ experience is out of the question.