The chief selling point of Google's Cardboard platform is that it's cheap. You can pick up a literal Cardboard viewer for around $20, and they're handed out like candy at tech events. The New York Times gave them away with the Sunday edition of the newspaper recently as well. Cardboard is supposed to be a low-cost, low-friction path into VR.
The Merge VR headset was $79.99 for preorders, and is now selling for $99.99. Is it worth it?
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My first note is going to be that you're better off spending $99.99 on the retail version of the Gear VR, but Gear VR requires you to have one of Samsung's 2015 flagship phones. The upside is that Gear VR will give you much lower latency, better games and more media support. It's a huge leap up from Cardboard in terms of comfort and flexibility.
Cardboard is the best, not to mention least expensive, way to get into VR if you don't happen to own a Note 5, S6, S6 Edge or S6 Edge Plus. The Merge VR headset works with your Android or iOS device, and it's squishy nature means that just about any phone will fit. If you can run the Cardboard app, you can use your device in the Merge VR.
Or at least that's the theory. The S6 Edge I put in the unit Merge VR sent us for testing worked great, but I had to really stretch the foam to fit my iPhone 6S Plus, and it was tricky to get the buttons to work with the large Apple phone. During testing I had to basically push the phone towards my face manually before hitting the buttons on the top of the headset to get button presses to register, which was far from ideal.
That being said, the fact the headset is made out of foam is a huge selling point. The straps are easy to adjust, including the optional top strap if you want a bit more support, and with just a few minutes of fiddling I was able to get the unit resting on my face comfortably, even when wearing my glasses. The soft foam felt wonderful against the skin around my eyes, and the headset stayed in place across long sessions. My children also tried it, and I was able to get it to fit comfortably on their heads as well.
Building the whole thing out of soft foam may sound like a goofy idea on paper, but it brings a ton of advantages with it. The phone is kept in place securely, and the foam will protect your expensive electronics in the case of a drop, another reason I was comfortable letting my kids play. You'll be able to throw this into a bag to take with you without worrying about anything happening to it as well.
The stock Cardboard viewer, which again is literally made of Cardboard, isn't comfortable for longer sessions or serious gaming. The Merge VR headset allows you to use the apps without holding the viewer up to your eyes, and the durability is a huge advantage. This doesn't just keep your phone still while in VR, it protects it.
Another interesting note, and somewhat double-edged design decision, is that the lenses inside the headset can be adjusted to make sure the view is perfect. You simply slide the hard plastic rings on the top and bottom of the unit to move the internal lenses left or right, and in a few seconds you'll be able to find the perfect distance for a clear, comfortable image.
The only problem is that the button you use to interact with the games and apps is also on this ring, so it can be easy to move the lens out of position if you're not careful. It's all a bit fiddly, but you'll learn how to make it fit your head perfectly after a few tries, and it's worth taking the time; this was one of the most comfortable VR headsets I've used ... once I got everything the way I liked it.
So should you buy one?
$99.99 is a high price for a platform that's supposed to be entry-level, but Cardboard played through the Merge VR headset is one of the best ways I've found to enjoy mobile VR as long as you don't have one of the phones supported by the Gear VR headset. If you have a Samsung flagship phone? Go in that direction.
The Merge VR headset is rugged, comfortable and able, but you'd expect all that for around $100. I was a bit disappointed in how poorly it handled Apple's largest phone, but anything smaller works much better. Cardboard is a great platform when you're able to strap it on your face without worrying about holding the headset, and Merge VR gives you all the options needed, not to mention the soft foam necessary, to keep even marathon sessions comfortable.
If you want the best experience on the most widely-used VR platform available today? You could do a lot worse.