Gear VR early impressions: Easily the best VR of 2015, but 2016 will bring the mother lode

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Consumer VR is here, though you'll need a Samsung phone to get in on the fun(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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Consumer virtual reality is here – at least consumer VR of the mobile variety. We have the "real" Samsung Gear VR in house (after two developer kits, this is the first full-blown consumer version) along with some early impressions.

Update: You can now read our full Gear VR review.

If you used either of the Innovator Editions of the Gear VR, then your basic virtual reality experience with the consumer version is going to be nearly identical. But there are a few key differences.

The new headset is lighter and has a slightly more comfortable padding lining the front (the part that hugs against your cheeks and forehead). We never found the Innovator Editions to be uncomfortable, but along with consumer branding for the new headset, there's also a slightly more consumer-friendly level of comfort.

There's a new cross-shaped indentation on the new model's trackpad (above) that makes it a little easier to find blindly if you need to quickly reach up while immersed in a virtual world.

The inside of the mask surrounding the lenses is now white-colored, instead of black. At first we thought this might distract from the virtual worlds, but I only noticed the white when first putting on the headset. Once the screen lit up with VR content, my eyes adjusted to the brighter content on the screen and that surrounding part may as well have been black. Nothing to worry about there.

If you used the Note 4 Innovator Edition (late 2014) then the overheating issues that plagued that model are basically gone, as they were in the Galaxy S6/edge dev kit (early 2015). Before running our full review, we'll see how long we can push the consumer kit without any heating shutdowns, but with the same phone inside (we're reviewing it with a Galaxy S6), we'd be surprised if that were any different from the early 2015 Innovator Edition – where we could play for about an hour without any external fans. If you want to play for longer than that, a simple desk fan aimed at your noggin will extend that indefinitely.

The biggest difference with the consumer Gear VR, though, is that it's compatible with four phones, instead of just one or two. The Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge, Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 edge+ will all power this magic teleporting machine. Clearly Samsung is using this deal with Oculus to sell more phones, which severely limits the Gear VR's audience, but at least those are four pretty terrific phones to be limited to.

There's a little adjuster switch inside the front of the headset to switch between the smaller (5.1-inch) GS6 phones and the larger (5.7-inch) Note 5/Edge+ phones. We'll test it with one of the larger phablets before running our full review, but based on use with the Innovator Editions, the differences should be minor. The larger phones give you a slightly larger field of view but a slightly lower pixel density; you get the inverse on the smaller phones. Neither difference is big enough to sway your smartphone purchase one way or the other – just use the phone you prefer, not one you think is going to make for a better Gear VR experience.

Gear VR content has been growing steadily since the Note 4 Innovator Edition launched a year ago, and it's in great shape for the consumer launch. We'll spend much more time with the launch lineup before running our full review, but there's a nice selection of games, videos and experiences (which are more interactive than a straight video but not quite a "game") on Day One.

Right now the Gear VR looks like an essential purchase if you own a 2015 Samsung flagship and are at least mildly curious about VR. Its US$99 price tag is very reasonable for what amounts to the Game Boy of VR (that analogy assumes that the Oculus Rift will be the NES of VR).

Speaking of the Rift, we spent enough time with it at Oculus Connect to say it's clearly several notches above the Gear VR (powered by a high-end gaming rig, how could it not be?). If you simply want great VR and don't own a Samsung phone, then just wait a few months for the Rift (or perhaps the HTC Vive). As great as the Gear VR is for Samsung phone owners, the full retail cost of buying a high-end smartphone along with the headset isn't that much lower than the cost of buying a gaming PC that meets Oculus' recommended specs.

There's lots of great content to play with now in this Samsung/Oculus walled garden, but PC-based virtual reality is a) better and b) close enough around the corner that (it's worth repeating) we don't recommend buying a Samsung phone just to use the Gear VR. If you're torn 50/50 between a Galaxy and something else, then sure – no harm in letting that push the scales towards something like the Note 5 or GS6. But the really badass stuff is coming soon and you'll need a nearly $1,000 PC to use that. As outstanding as the Gear VR is for mobile VR, the non-mobile stuff is naturally going to be where the envelope is really pushed.

The consumer Gear VR is available now for $99 from Samsung, Amazon and Best Buy (though it's currently sold out at the latter two). Stay tuned for Gizmag's full review – and for more on the groundwork laid by the dev kits, you can revisit our reviews of the Gear VR Innovator Edition for Note 4 and Innovator Edition for S6.

Product page: Samsung

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