Hands on: Samsung Gear VR (2016)

Samsung's new Gear VR is sleeker, blacker, and better than ever before

Samsung’s $100 Gear VR was Digital Trends’ favorite product of 2015, and is still the best introduction to VR you can buy. Samsung knocked it out of the park, and it plans to keep on swinging. A brand new version of the portable headset, launched alongside the Galaxy Note 7, is looking better than ever.

The new Gear VR (no, not the Gear VR 2 or anything like that) is not a radical departure from last year’s model. It looks a little different, but the fundamentals are all the same. You can snap any Galaxy Note or S device from the past two years into the headset, and use the screen and processing power of the phone to create full VR for games and apps. It has the same basic interface and still uses the Oculus app store, which now has about 250 games and apps (mostly games) on it.

Gear VR pre-orders begin August 3, and it will hit shelves August 19, and our initial impressions are below.

Black and ready for action

The number one (and possibly only) thing you’ll notice about the new Gear VR is that it’s black — well, mostly black. It’s more of a blue black, but we’re splitting hairs. Less light bleeds into the inside of the headset now, which means you may not get distracted when you’re looking through the lenses.

Gear VR remains the best way to experience virtual reality on a phone.

Speaking of the lenses, they’re also larger and now have a separator between them, which ensures you see a slightly larger 101-degree field of view, and no light bleeds between them. This change is noticeable when you look at the lenses, but we didn’t notice much of a difference while we were wearing them.

Watching a GoPro video of skateboarding down a hill, the experience very immersive. Perhaps it was the gripping fear of falling off the skateboard, but the picture quality did appear ever so slightly better. We’ll need to do direct side-by-side tests to find out. Regardless, this Gear VR is all about fixing the small details.

Another one of those small details is the phone cover, which looks nicer and more easily snaps onto the front of the device, so it doesn’t look like a hot mess while your phone is plugged in.

Finally, the touchpad on the right side of the headset is now flat again, like a computer touchpad. The indented pad on the last Gear VR seemed to confuse novice users for some reason, so hopefully a blank touchpad will work better. The Back button and focusing wheel are both the same as last year.

USB Type C brings new powers

Since the Galaxy Note 7 now charges with USB Type C (it’s faster and nicer, trust us), the Gear VR now runs on Type C as well. This is fantastic, but the best part is that even if you have an older Galaxy S7, Galaxy S6, or Galaxy Note 5 with Micro USB, you can still plug in just fine. The movable connector now slides off, and you can slide on an old Micro USB connector if you have an older device. Samsung is including the adapters in the box, so it shouldn’t be a huge concern for most folks.

We didn’t have any trouble swapping connectors or sliding a phone in or out. Like the last Gear VR, it takes a try or two to get the hang of it, but after that, you’re good to go.

Another USB Type C port on the bottom of the device can charge your phone and pass data. This means that you could potentially use a wired controller with the Gear VR or any number of wired accessories. Samsung hasn’t announced any, but representatives hinted that developers and accessory makers would be able to use this port for far more than charging. It will just take some time before a great idea emerges. For now, it’s a port with a lot of potential.

Evolution works for us

Gear VR may not rock the boat, but it continues to set the standard for mobile VR. Just as Samsung pioneered phablets with the original Galaxy Note, the Gear VR has been instrumental in expanding the reach of VR. You can bet it has executives at Apple thinking hard about how to replicate the experience for iOS. Until it does, a Galaxy phone is the only way to use the Gear VR, and Gear VR remains the best way to experience virtual reality. That is, unless you have $1,500 to burn on a new PC and HTC Vive. We look forward to reviewing the final version of the 2016 Gear VR.

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