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Samsung Galaxy S8’s VR headset delivers refined graphics, so-so controller

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S8 comes with new VR headset

Samsung Unpacked 2017 photo
Samsung Unpacked 2017
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Samsung today showed off its latest iteration of the Gear VR, its phone-powered headset. This new version, due out April 21, has once more been slightly tweaked to make it lighter and more comfortable.

Most importantly, though, the new headset now comes with a controller. You can pick up a bundle for $129.99 or, if you have one of the earlier headsets, you can get the controller on its own for $39.99.

Samsung had the duo on hand at its Unpacked event in New York City today. But they took a backseat to the bigger news of Samsung’s next flagship phones, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus.

The S8 does away with hardware face buttons and wraps the screen seamlessly around the edges, eliminating the bezel on the sides. It’s faster, it’s slicker, it’s more powerful than any Samsung phone that has come before it. But most importantly, the company promises that you can trust it will be reliable (read: won’t explode).

The show, which ran for about an hour inside a hall at Lincoln Center, kicked off with a subtle acknowledgment of Samsung’s bad year and its disastrous Note 7 launch.

“As you all know, it has been a challenging year for Samsung,” said D.J. Koh, president of Samsung’s mobile communications business. “A year filled with valuable lessons, hard decisions and important new beginnings.”

He said he understood the value of consumers trusting the products Samsung makes.

“This is why our most important commitment is to quality, safety and craftsmanship,” he said, “all driven by a passion for constant improvement. This commitment is a foundation for every step that we take.

“We are honored that millions of people around the world trust Samsung Galaxy phones to organize their lives, store their memories and manage their work.”

With that he shifted the focus to today, to the day the company spent unpacking the new devices it plans to sell throughout the year. The rest of the hour was packed with cheers, executives popping up on stage to show off gadgets or talk about tech, and lots of smartphone glamour shots.

Galaxy S8 colors
The Galaxy S8’s many colors. (Only black, silver and gray will be available in the U.S.)
Brian Crecente/Polygon

The S8 was the big crowd-pleaser, with a beautiful seamless screen that wraps around the device to create what Samsung calls an “infinity display” for both the 5.8-inch and 6.2-inch models.

The redesign does away with a physical home button as well, opting instead for something built into the guts of the system and software. There’s also no fingerprint reader on the front; it’s been moved around back.

The result is a curved piece of glass that rests comfortably in your hand, displaying, from edge to edge, whatever sort of content you want to consume on the go.

While the phone’s front is button-free, the sides, back and bottom of the device all have plenty of ports and buttons, including a 3.5 mm headphone jack. (It’s also worth mentioning that this will be the first phone to support Bluetooth 5.) Between the front -facing camera built under the glass of the screen and the rear fingerprint reader, a person can use a password or pattern, fingerprint scan, iris scan, or face scan to unlock their phone.

There’s also Bixby, an AI assistant that seems to be Samsung’s attempt at Siri 2.0. (It’s currently in beta, so I didn’t have a chance to check out the final version.) Bixby promises to not only respond to your requests but to learn from them and to be able to interpret them within the context of who you are and what you’re doing.

In the U.S., the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ will be available in Midnight Black, Orchid Gray and Arctic Silver. Pre-orders for both Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ will begin on March 30. AT&T, Cricket Wireless, Sprint, Straight Talk Wireless, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless will carry the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ in stores beginning April 21.

In addition, the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ will be available at all Best Buy stores as well as BestBuy.com, ShopSamsung app, Target and Walmart.

There were plenty of neat gadgets to show off too like DeX, a little charging dock that lets you connect your phone to a monitor, keyboard and mouse. The experience is nifty and gives you a lot more room to work with, but it also doesn’t seem to support a lot of native apps. Touch games, for instance, won’t be supported at all, one rep told me when I gave it a try.

Samsung also showed off, and gave away, a redesigned Gear 360 camera, which does away with the tripod and replaces it with a small handle and the ability to livestream 360-degree videos.

Finally, the company announced that the S8 would come with a swanky pair of $99 Harman AKG headphones. Customers who pre-order the phone will also get the new Gear VR headset and its controller, Samsung said in a news release.

Samsung Gear VR headset for Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus
The new, new Gear VR headset.
Brian Crecente/Polygon

After wrapping up the show, Samsung guided attendees back out to the waiting area, which was now packed with hands-on tables for all of the upcoming tech.

I spent a fair amount of time playing with the six games and virtual reality experiences that were loaded up on the S8 Plus models locked into the new Gear VR headsets. (The headset also supports the Galaxy S7, S7 edge, Note5, S6 edge+, S6 and S6 edge)

The headsets do feel lighter and slightly more comfortable than before, though it’s likely that most people won’t notice. The most apparent difference was how much crisper the view looked, likely more a byproduct of the new phone’s 2960 x 1440 resolution than the headset it was mounted into.

The games all featured support for the new controller. A rep told me that Oculus VR expects 70 or so games to come designed with the controller in mind.

Of the various experiences I tried, the most telling was a new version of Drop Dead, a first-person shooter that has you using the controller to kill zombies with a variety of guns. The aesthetic of the game is very cartoony, and the fact that your weapon sort of floats around in the air in front of you is a little weird, but it gave me a good sense of how well the new controller will function for games.

The black plastic controller looks a bit like a remote control with a small, slightly skewed paddle affixed to its top. That paddle is both a touchpad and giant button. Underneath the button are smaller “back” and “home” buttons, as well as a volume control. Around back there’s a single trigger.

Inside the games, the controller essentially operates like a laser pointer, allowing you to aim at things. The pad offers another way to manipulate objects. And it seemed to work ... OK — “OK” as in, what you might expect from a light gun game. It’s fairly accurate, but it also tends to float around, and the aiming seems to drift slightly over time.

It got the job done, but it wasn’t exactly an addictive experience. I suspect, I hope that there are some reasons for that beyond it simply not being very good.

The area was crowded, for instance, so I couldn’t fully extend my arm to hold the controller the way I normally would. These are all also early games.

Samsung Gear VR controller for Galaxy S8
The new Gear VR controller.
Brian Crecente/Polygon

I think, I sort of hope, that the controller will feel better as developers have time to refine its use (and when used in a more natural setting). It does feel better than the shape and design of the Google Daydream controller (which looks almost exactly like an old DVD remote I used to own), but they both seem to suffer from that same sort of issue with drifting aim.

Other games had me building plastic models by rotating, moving and then snapping them together with the controller; looking for requested items in a sort of virtual reality hidden object game; and solving a puzzle that involved shifting rocks and teleporting around a cave.

They were light experiences, reminiscent of the sorts of things found on both the Gear and Daydream when both headsets originally launched.

The controller doesn’t feel like a game-changer just yet, but that’s likely because, ironically, the games themselves haven’t changed to adapt to its inclusion.

Giving developers the tools to build games that don’t require a player to hold their finger to a temple-mounted touchpad can only be good for what eventually comes to the Gear VR. But from what I saw during my brief time with the controller, no one should be expecting this little chunk of plastic to match the quality or tracking of the controllers used with the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift Touch.