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Portable virtual reality just got a bit better

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The first version of the Gear VR, Samsung's virtual reality device that uses the Galaxy Note 4 for its screen processing power, provided a virtual reality experience that was much better than anyone had any right to expect from a smartphone and a $200 device.

It's not an inexpensive device, especially if you factor in the cost of a new phone, and it still has a long way to go before it's a full retail product for the masses, but the hardware was a large first step toward consumer-ready, portable virtual reality.

Samsung has released a new version of the product, and we've been sent the Gear VR, a Bluetooth controller and a Galaxy S6 Edge for testing. While no huge improvements have been made in the hardware, a bunch of small adjustments and changes make this a more comfortable, usable experience.

What's changed?

If you put both versions of the Gear VR next to each other, it would likely take you a moment or two to tell them apart. The Gear VR for the S6 is slightly smaller and lighter, and combined with the smaller S6 itself, the entire system is more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. The focus dial also spins a bit farther in either direction, which may allow you to get a clearer picture depending on your eyesight.

The S6's screen is 0.6 inches smaller than the Note 4's, although they both pack a 2560 x 1440 resolution. In practice, this means that the S6 screen boasts 577 pixels per inch compared to the 515 ppi of the Note 4.

This is what we're talking about when we discuss incremental differences. That's a 12 percent increase in pixel density, but you lose a bit of your field of view due to the smaller overall size of the screen. So it's a clearer but slightly smaller image. It's not better, it's not worse; it's different.

This isn't a small thing. The Gear VR brings the phone close to your eyes, and the optics magnify and distort the screen to give you a clear view of the image, which means even a 12 percent increase is welcome in this use case — even though it's hard to make out in normal, non-VR use. Every bit of added pixel density helps in that situation, and the clearer screen is a welcome improvement, even if your peripheral vision has been hacked down a bit.

gear vr side

There are other small improvements. A USB port on the bottom of the device allows you to charge while you play. It's a trade-off, just like everything else; it's nice to be able to play for as long as you'd like, but you lose the portability and the ability to spin all the way around. The touchpad on the side of the Gear VR now has a raised bump so you can feel it more easily with your hand while in virtual reality.

The system feels a bit better, and definitely lighter, on your face, but wearing glasses while using it is still somewhat uncomfortable. I tend to switch over to contacts, but that's far from a perfect solution for most people.

The Gear VR now sports a silent internal fan that kills the fogging that was so annoying in the first-generation hardware. I also had fewer issues with overheating during long play sessions, although whether that's due to the new phone or the fan or some combination is unknown. The point is, it's better.

These multiple, small improvements won't make early adopters of the Note 4 version of the device throw down their first-generation units in disgust, but the S6 version of the Gear VR is noticeably better due to these incremental tweaks.

The retail version of the hardware, the one aimed at the average user and not developers and enthusiasts, is slated to come out by the end of the year. It's likely it will see another series of improvements, with possibilities like positional tracking coming down the line, but the rest of the technology is shackled to the phone you put into the shell, for good or ill.

I asked Max Cohen from Oculus VR if we would see a version of the Gear VR that allowed the use of multiple models of phones and was told that decision was ultimately up to Samsung. The larger jump will likely be in software and media features; my review unit came with multiple full games that have yet to be released, and which offer a much deeper experience than most of the content released to date. We'll be tackling those games in the next few days.

gear vr angle

Most players will be best served by waiting for the retail version of the hardware, but this is close to what we can expect from that product in terms of hardware. "There are a lot of places we'd like to get better. You can always get optics better, you can add positional tracking, but trying to do that again in six months is unrealistic. The product in terms of hardware will be fairly similar to what you're seeing now," Cohen told Polygon. The main change between now and the retail launch will be the "maturation" of the software, content and games, said Cohen.

In other words, there may be small changes from what I'm describing here to the retail version, but the main jump will be in what you do with that hardware, not how it's done.

The experience has already been improved, even if you're on the original hardware. The drab loading screen in VR has been replaced by what appears to be a virtual representation of something that looks very much like Tony Stark's house. It's easy to browse content and download new programs without leaving virtual reality. The Gear VR remains the system with the best UI in virtual reality, but that bar isn't very hard to clear at the moment.

I've spent hours in virtual reality in the past few days while using the latest version of the Gear VR and getting ready to write about these new games, and it's still amazing that virtual reality powered by a smartphone is already at such a high level. It's magical to throw a device this small into a bag and take it to a friend's house to show off, or to use virtual reality on a plane to watch a movie.

Oculus and Samsung have created something that delivers real, operating virtual reality in a portable form factor. While there's no major leap here, all the small changes add up to a product that feels at least a bit closer to what the mainstream may want from VR. The Gear VR feels like something that comes from the future, and it's only getting better.

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