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Samsung GearVR (Note 4 edition) review: Virtual reality gets a great demo kit

Hayden Dingman | June 5, 2015
Should you buy a GearVR? Eh. Should you try a GearVR? Absolutely. As soon as you can.

Listen, I love my DK2 but anyone who owns one can tell you it's sort of a nightmare to demo, especially on the road. It's a hydra of wires, especially once you add in the position-tracking camera, headphones, and a controller or mouse/keyboard. At any given moment, I'm using between two and five of my computer's USB slots for the DK2. That's not demo-friendly--both because it's intimidating to anyone who's not a hardcore PC gamer/tech enthusiast and because it's a huge pain to haul around.

The software experience? Just as bad. You're ever-conscious of the fact you're running demos that may or may not work on your machine. After two years of VR I have a stable of favorites I trot out for people who're interested, but even then there's a 50-percent chance something goes wrong before we're done.

By contrast, no other VR device is as sleek or easy to set up as GearVR right now. Your Note 4 (or S6) simply slides into the familiar MicroUSB slot on the headset and clicks into place. Voila. You're done. Put it on (it's not too heavy) and you can control all of the GearVR's functions with the controls on the side of the headset--a touchpad for swiping/tapping, a back button, and a volume rocker.

And because it's a phone, you can plug headphones right into the 3.5mm jack, pair a Bluetooth controller if you want, and off you go. There's no positional tracking unfortunately, but there is head tracking, thanks (again) to the fact it's a phone with internal gyroscopes.

Some other neat phone-only perks that aren't in the DK2: The back camera can act as a video pass-through, allowing you to walk around and do tasks with GearVR still on your face if you're so inclined. The front camera senses whether you've removed the device and automatically turns off the screen and pauses what you were watching.

My favorite addition is a built-in focus adjuster, though. With both the Rift DK1 and DK2, demoing to someone with glasses means literally removing the lenses from the headset and replacing them with a different pair. What happens when you remove the lenses? Well, if you're not careful hairs and dust fall inside and end up on the screen, and become an enormous pain to clean out.

GearVR with glasses? "Turn this knob until the words look clear." Brilliant, and something the Oculus Rift/HTC Vive consumer versions definitely need to ape.

It's also impossible to overstate how freeing GearVR feels with no wires attached. Even with SteamVR's single cord, I was constantly aware of something tethering me--and afraid I'd get tangled in it. With GearVR, I never have to pause someone's demo to say "Wait, you're getting wrapped by the cable. Spin the other way."

 

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