Gear VR with controller review: VR’s casual gaming wonder machine
Samsung and Oculus are back with another Gear VR – the third in 17 months (or fifth in two and a half years, if you count the two semi-consumer Innovator Edition models). While the headset itself is barely changed from the previous model, it adds a Bluetooth motion controller that appears to be a direct answer to Google's Daydream View. Read on, as New Atlas reviews the 2017 Gear VR with controller.
The first thing to know is that the Gear VR controller isn't the same kind of motion controller as Oculus Touch or the Vive controllers, found on the two big PC-based VR systems. For starters, there's still no positional tracking on mobile VR, so you can't walk around, stand up and down or lean. There's also only the one controller (you can't pair two together).
If you haven't used it, the best analogy for the Gear VR controller (as well as the Daydream controller) is a smaller version of a Wii remote. Like the wand from Nintendo's decade-old console, Gear VR games mostly use the controller for pointing at things or simulating basic weapons or magic wands.
While the novelty of using a motion controller isn't the same as it was 10 years ago, this kind of input still works remarkably well for the types of games the Gear VR is known for.
As long as you go into it knowing its limits, the Gear VR controller adds more fun and immersion to mobile VR. It injects fresh life into the Gear VR platform, which has always been stacked with content but had been growing a little stale next to the more expensive PC systems that have been available for the past year. Even having just one hand engaged in a VR experience tricks your brain into feeling like more of a part of the virtual world.
You could also argue, though, that the new Gear VR's killer feature is little more than a response to Daydream View, which launched in November with a very similar remote. Samsung and Oculus spearheaded mobile VR (and, of course, Oculus kick-started this entire VR movement back in 2012), so it's unusual to see another company leading and the Gear VR following.
Mobile VR is, unsurprisingly, taking shape as virtual reality's casual platform. Rather than playing a game of lead and follow with the high-end Rift, as an Oculus executive had suggested it would a couple years ago, the Gear VR is instead filling its own niche as an affordable, wireless and casual alternative to the premium stuff. It's less Oculus Rift Jr. and more VR's Wii.
On the Rift and Vive, you're more likely to find games that are deep and immersive journeys that cost at least US$20-30, allow for physical movement and use dual motion controls to simulate hands.
On the Gear VR, controller-friendly games are stationary experiences, cost $5 or less, and employ the motion controller to blast zombies to smithereens or levitate objects with a wand. It's usually a simpler, more pick-up-and-play type of experience. It's an appropriate choice for VR newbies who bought the headset out of curiosity or got it for free with a Galaxy S8 pre-order.
The controller does require you to frequently re-center it, as games where you spin around can lead to the headset/controller spatial relationship drifting off. (For example, after a few minutes you might be physically pointing the controller straight ahead, but your virtual gun is aiming slightly to the right.) We run into the exact same thing with the Daydream controller, though, so this is likely an Android hardware or software limitation.
While the drifting tendency is mildly annoying, it's quick and easy to fix: Hold down the controller's home button for a couple seconds and an onscreen visual cue lets you know it's been re-centered.
Apart from the re-centering, controller tracking is fairly solid and fluid. You can't expect precision and smoothness that's on par with Oculus Touch or Vive controllers, as those two are using much more advanced tracking systems that are part of $1,000+ purchases. But it does what mobile VR needs it to do.
Otherwise the Gear VR is more or less exactly the same as it was when we reviewed the 2016 model, which itself was only an incremental change from the first consumer version in 2015. (And remember we've been using Gear VRs since the Innovator Editions that launched in late 2014 and early 2015.)
The phones inside the headset are, however, getting more advanced. Using the Gear with the new Galaxy S8+, I'm seeing more visually striking content that looks far beyond where mobile VR was just a year ago. Affected: The Manor, for example, is a recent thrill ride with A+ presentation, providing realistic environments that could easily pass for Rift or Vive quality.
If you're choosing between Gear VR and Daydream, well, your phone is basically going to make the decision for you. Owners of Samsung Galaxies buy the Gear; owners of the Google Pixel or Moto Z (and a few other lower-tier handsets) can use Daydream.
I'm not sure if many people today buy smartphones based on which VR headset they work with, but if you are torn between buying a Gear VR-friendly Samsung phone or a Daydream-ready handset, we think the Gear is currently the much better product. The controller now matches Daydream's main perk. The Gear also gives you a wider field of view, the option of using a classic gamepad (for games like Herobound and the upcoming Term1nal) and – most importantly – a vastly superior content library.
Daydream's last remaining advantage (unless you count its sleek fabric design) is that it's cheaper: $79 including controller compared to the $130 you'll pay for the 2017 Gear VR with controller. But considering the smartphone makes up the bulk of a mobile VR purchase, we think the Gear's stacked game library makes its $50 higher price easy enough to swallow.
If you want the very best VR today, you'll need to pony up around $1,000 for the Oculus Rift. But if you own a high-end Samsung flagship phone released from 2015 to today, the new Gear VR provides a fun and casual dip into virtual reality's waters without breaking the bank.
And if you're waiting for higher-end VR to go wireless or get cheaper, the Gear VR is the best affordable way to whet your appetite in the short term.
The 2017 Gear VR with controller is available now for $130. If you already own an older Gear VR, you can also pick up the controller by itself for $40. (It works with any combination of Gear VR headset and Gear VR-ready phone.)
If you're considering the Gear and want to know about its content, you can hit up our picks for the best Gear VR games.
- Buy Gear VR (2017) on Amazon