Update: We have an updated version of this comparison with the latest model of the Gear.
If you're looking at these devices for the first time, the first thing to know is that the Oculus Rift connects to a highish-end gaming PC, while the Gear VR is powered by a Samsung Galaxy smartphone that you insert in the headset: the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 5 or Galaxy S6 edge+, or the 5.1-inch Galaxy S6 or Galaxy S6 edge.
That makes the Rift the much more powerful device. With that said, it's surprising how close some Gear VR games/experiences get to what you see on the Rift, and Oculus execs say the Gear may only take a couple of years to catch up with where the Rift is today.
Being powered by a smartphone, the Gear VR has the advantage of being completely wireless. With the Rift, a cord stretches between the headset and a USB port on its PC mothership.
Being wireless and smartphone-powered means the Gear is also the portable option: it's easy to throw into a backpack and take to a friend's house or on a trip.
You could technically do that with the Rift, but it means lugging around a PC and sensors along with the headset and cables.
This, however, is a huge advantage that the Oculus Rift has over the Gear. The Rift includes an optical sensor (camera) that plugs into your PC. It detects the headset's position in space, so when you lean your real upper body forward (or stand up, or crouch down ...) you lean, stand or crouch in the virtual world.
When you try to do these things with the Gear, the world moves with you. The Gear only detects your head's rotation – everything from the neck down is controlled by a gamepad.
Speaking of gamepads, you'll need to supply your own Android controller for the Gear VR. If money is no object, we recommend the US$62 Steelseries Stratus XL. If you want a solid budget option, the $29 Moga Hero Power gets the job done too.
The Oculus Rift includes a wireless Xbox One gamepad in the box.
In the second half of 2016, Rift owners will be able to buy Oculus Touch, the terrific motion controllers that make you feel like you have hands inside virtual worlds. They use a combination of grip sensors, haptic feedback and traditional buttons to let you do things like pick up and fire virtual guns and manipulate a wide range of other objects in first-person games.
The Gear VR doesn't currently have any motion control options.
The Gear VR has a touchpad on the right side of the headset, which you can use to make selections and control action in some games (we much prefer gamepad controls, though, as holding your hand to your right temple can get tiring).
We haven't used it yet, but the Oculus Rift includes a small handheld remote to help make home screen selections when you don't have your Xbox controller handy.
The Rift also has built-in headphones with spatial audio (so if an explosion happens behind you to your left, it will sound like it's coming from behind you to your left).
The Gear VR requires you to plug in your own headphones or earbuds. Otherwise it will use your phone's speaker, which will sound lousy.
Both headsets use a combination of fabric and plastic, though the Gear only uses fabric on the part that hugs against your face (the rest is plastic). The Rift has fabric in other places, to conceal invisible LEDs that help with motion tracking.
No different color options for either – it's a black Rift or white Gear.
The Gear VR has the higher per-eye resolution, but based on our hands-ons, there's no noticeable downgrade in visual clarity on the Rift. On the contrary, because the PC can power much richer visual images than the Gear, the Rift ends up looking much more impressive on the whole.
OLED displays are the current standard in virtual reality, owing largely to their low persistence (so when you move your head quickly, there's no noticeable motion blur).
Field of view
We don't know the exact field of view of the Oculus Rift, but Oculus execs have said that it's no lower than anything they've shown us before. We interpret that as meaning it's at least 110 degrees diagonally, which was the FOV of the first Rift development kit (DK1).
The Gear VR has a 96-degree field of view when you're using either the Note 5 or Galaxy S6 edge+. If you're using one of the smaller Samsung phones (Galaxy S6, GS6 edge) then that goes down a little bit. It isn't a dramatic difference, but we do notice a slightly higher sense of presence (feeling of being somewhere else) when using the larger/wider FOV Galaxy phablets.
Higher frame rates also add to the sense of presence in virtual reality, and the Rift comes in at a higher 90Hz.
Interpupillary distance (IPD)
As its name suggests, IPD measures the distance between your pupils. On the Gear, this is fixed but covers the range listed above. You can adjust this on the Rift, so if there's an unusually small or large distance between your eyes, you can find just the right fit (this helps tighten up the resulting stereoscopic image).
If you wear glasses, you can keep them on underneath either headset, though it isn't necessary on the Gear because of the next category.
There's a wheel on top of the Gear that lets you tweak the lens focus, giving glasses-wearers the option of leaving them off.
Though it won't at launch, at some point the Rift will support wireless streaming from an Xbox One to Rift/PC. And it sounds like Oculus is open to supporting a direct (physical) connection between Rift and Xbox at some point further down the road.
Oculus isn't centering its marketing around this the way HTC is with the Vive, but after Oculus Touch launches later this year, you'll have the option of using a second positional sensor to have larger-scale, free-roaming experiences on the Rift. It isn't yet clear, though, how much (if any) Oculus content will be tailored to this in the near term.
Software (host device)
Both devices use Oculus Home software to buy and download content – and of course that's a Windows-based platform on the Rift and an Android-based one on the Gear.
The Oculus Rift will ship with two AAA-quality games – third-person platformer Lucky's Tale and first-person space shooter Eve: Valkyrie – in the box.
You could say the Gear VR has some bundled games as well, since there are some high-quality games in the Oculus Store that don't cost a thing (two Herobound games for starters), but Samsung and Oculus aren't promoting any of them as being "bundled with" the Gear.
The consumer Gear VR launched late last November, while the first Oculus Rift pre-orders start shipping late March. Current Rift orders are (at time of publication) estimating a July ship date.
Starting price (headset only)
If you already own a 2015 Samsung flagship smartphone, then the $99 Gear VR is a no-brainer purchase. The much more powerful Rift rings up for a heftier $599, which includes the headset, sensors and cables, the two games and Xbox controller.
Starting price (host device)
If you're either building your own PC or buying one of Oculus' partner bundles (Rift + PC) then the host PC comes out to roughly a $900 minimum (the Asus PC shown is merely one example; it doesn't matter what brand PC you use, as long as it meets Oculus' minimum specs).
By far the most expensive part of the Gear VR is the Samsung phone, though you can buy those on carrier installment plans to help ease the blow. The listed prices are approximate for the Galaxy S6; any of the other three phones will likely ring up for a bit higher than that.
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