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Gear VR’s latest iteration is more about the phone than the controller

Future facing phone meets VR with a twist

Samsung Gear VR and new Samsung Gear VR (right) with controller
| Brian Crecente/Polygon

Viewed from outside the virtual worlds it creates, the latest iteration of the Samsung Gear VR looks no different than the last version of the virtual reality headset released in 2016 alongside the doomed Note 7.

And, in fact, the specs are identical down to the size, weight and features, with one key addition: a new included controller.

But that’s dismissing the fact that this fifth iteration of the headset is releasing alongside Samsung’s latest phone. The S8 and S8+ are both beautiful powerhouses capable of pumping out better, smoother graphics for your endless exploration of the virtual.

I’ve spent about a week using the S8+ as both my daily smartphone and as the heart of my portable VR rig. As with the Note 7 Gear VR, the S8 Gear VR headset weighs about twice what the phone does, or 312 grams. It offers up a 101-degree field of view, up from the original version of the headsets which only delivered 96 degrees. To put it another way, that’s slightly more than the PlayStation VR’s 100-degree field of view and less than the Vive’s 110-degree FOV.

While the headset now comes with a controller, it still includes a touchpad located on the right side of the device along with home and back buttons. There are also still volume buttons on the device and, of course, a dial used for manually adjusting the focus.

Gear VR with controller

The headset’s straps remain unchanged, as does the padded liner that presses up against your face to block out most light. There is now a small circular strap that can be slipped over a side strap to hold the controller when not in use.

The controller looks a bit like a bent spoon. It features a smallish handle with volume buttons as well as a home and back button. The bit of the controller that makes it look like a spoon is actually a perfectly round, clickable button that also tracks swipes. There’s also a trigger located on the bottom edge of the top of the controller.

The controller is nicely weighted and shaped in a way that the Google’s Daydream controller and even the Oculus Rift’s original controller aren’t. Where the Rift’s controller feels awkwardly small and wide for my hand and the Daydream’s click surface gets lost in its simplistic design, the Gear’s slightly bent shape results in a controller that sits easily in your hand and places the trigger right at your finger.

Thanks to a rather recent overhaul of the of the Gear VR’s home, everything inside the virtual world of the headset feels fast and fresh. That’s even more noticeable when using the S8 +. I had the good fortune to test out the Note 7 on the Gear VR headset released alongside the device before it was recalled and appreciated the upgrade the phone delivered.

The same can be said of the S8 and S8+. Where the Note 7 delivered a 1440 by 2560 resolution screen and 518 pixels per inch, the S8 + features a 1440 by 2960 resolution screen with 529 PPI. (The S8 cranks that up to 572 PPI).

Gear VR controller

Early on, I was surprised to find that the games I checked out ran into the occasional audio or visual stutter. Specifically, when I was playing Drop Dead, a fun light gun zombie game, the lines delivered in cutscenes would pull a Max Headroom on me every once in a while. The same happened in collectible card game Dragon Front, which also once filled my peripheral vision with a black screen until I moved my head to look at it.

It’s unclear if this was because of the games, the Oculus software or the phone itself, but this morning when I retried the games and experiences, those problems seem to have disappeared.

The controller turns into a laser pointer, floating off to the side, but still within view, while in Oculus Home. You simply point at categories or software and pull the trigger to launch or move around. You can also swipe your thumb across the pad to quickly scroll through titles.

Having a motion-tracking, touch-sensitive controller adds a lot to some games, specifically titles like Drop Dead which has you doing a lot of pointing and shooting. I did find that the controller tended to drift off of its tracking over time, requiring me to recenter the controller by holding down the button. It was an annoyance, but not a deal breaker.

The thing is, this isn’t the sort of one-to-one tracking that a gamer or VR aficionado might expect from their experience. Like the headset itself, the controller seems more focused on capturing a sense of fun and play without worrying over the details of nitty-gritty motion control perfection.

That said, I found the experiences much more enjoyable when using a controller in my hand than when needing to hold my hand up to my temple and control things that way, or even simply needing to endlessly tap.

Drop Dead

Currently there are about a half-dozen experiences and games designed specifically with the new controller in mind. Samsung says that there will be nearly 20 by the end of the month and 50 more coming over the “next few months.”

And, of course, you can use the new controller to play the games that support the existing touchpad apps. There are currently more than 700 of those in the system, according to Samsung.

The Gear VR headset comes with the controller included for $129, but unless you have a seriously outdated version of the headset (from 2015 or before) it’s likely not worth the stand-alone price. Paying $39 for the controller on its own, especially if you’re a fan of your headset already, seems much more reasonable.

The S8 and S8+, which release on April 21, both come with the new headset and controller if your pre-order either phone by April 20.

The phone itself is a significant upgrade over nearly everything currently on the market. As a longtime iPhone user, I’m seriously considering making the leap from iOS to Android simply because of the S8’s quality and Samsung’s ever expanding ecosystem of technological doodads like the 360 camera, smartwatch and Gear VR headset.

The most obvious upgrade that comes with the S8 series is that amazing, bezel-less screen. The lush colors provided by HDR support and up to WQHD resolution can’t be understated. The screen has an infinite edge which, instead of ending in a hardline, curves away from the front of the screen to the back.

Samsung even did away with the physical buttons that mar the front of most smartphones. Instead, they embedded the home button under the glass and display where you can only feel it, but not see it. It takes a bit of getting used to, like doing a trust fall with a robot, but once you adapt, it’s the sort of thing you might never way to return from.

Samsung S8 +

Where the home button is one of those things you never realized you didn’t need to see, the S8’s headphone jack reminded me that it’s one of those things that, in fact, I really don’t want to do without. And to make that extra clear, Samsung includes a solid pair of earbuds by AKG and Harmon along with every phone.

Other neat little bells and whistles that I’ve come to love as a potential former iPhone user is the built-in wireless and fast charging, two forms of NFC credit card payment and a robust app store that is more overgrown forest than walled garden.

This isn’t meant to be a full phone review (for that check out the excellent coverage from The Verge) but as a technophile who has been using smartphones and their ilk since those early Forerunner days, this particular amalgam of tech scratches just about every one of my itches.

It uses the latest Bluetooth, which means you can stream to two devices at once. It’s relatively waterproof, supports GiGA bit LTE and GiGA bit WIFI (so it’s super fast) and while it doesn’t have dual cameras on the back, the pictures it takes are simply amazing. Oh, and thanks to that absurdly tall screen (it has an 18:5.9 ratio), you can run two apps at once without having to swap back and forth.

Sure, there are some things that makes this phone feel a bit like a work in progress. Bixby, Samsung’s take on Siri, is still not up and running. Not all apps can make use of the phone’s full real estate thanks to its wonky aspect ratio and there are so many ways to tweak the phone’s hardware that you can’t actually make it look or behave in a way you may not want to. (Pro tip: Maybe leave the advanced display settings be unless you know what you’re doing.) And, yes, the fingerprint reader isn’t centered.

But here’s the thing: This is a phone that makes changes, that strives to push the limits and redefine a lot of design conceits that have remained staid at best.

This is a phone that aims toward the future and often delivers. Where it doesn’t, I trust in software fixes. Besides, I’d rather own a risk taker that mostly delivers than pay for the same phone I’ve owned for the past ten years.

Now if only Samsung could start to apply that risk taking to its virtual reality efforts and design something that focuses on moving forward rather than catching up.