Augmented reality. Virtual reality. Head-mounted displays (HMD). Thanks to popular culture cultivating a desire for this type of hardware, we’re finally starting to get our hands on some proper science fiction gadgetry. Today we’re comparing Google Cardboard versus Samsung Gear VR versus Oculus Rift VR Headsets. Do these devices live up to your Hollywood-inspired hopes and dreams?!
Some of my favorite movies growing up were the Back to the Future trilogy. In 1989 they released the sequel (B2tF2) where Doc Brown pilots his flying Delorean through traffic and spots someone following him in his “rear view” display. But instead of a mirror mounted on the windshield like a normal car, he saw this through a camera whose video feed was displayed inside his trendy silver/aluminum augmented reality glasses. We see similar optics in the same movie, as worn by Marty McFly Jr when he is watching TV in the kitchen while enjoying a snack.
We might not yet have flying cars, but plenty of the tech you see in movies like Back to the Future is actually turning into real products today. Movie buffs have been yearning for this sort of hardware since Minority Report (2002) or even Robocop (1987) were released. Even more recently examples of AR/VR tech can be found in the Iron Man franchise, where pretty much every scene of Tony Stark in his lab includes some augmented reality screen or hologram.
Devices sadly have not yet reached the functionality that Hollywood presents on the silver screen. But what features they can offer today have already found a way into the workplace. From medical applications, to educational environment, current variations of AR/VR already have begun to impact lives on many levels. And we’re only just now in the first wave of seeing what this technology can really do, with plenty of room for future growth and development.
Recently kickstarted by the first generation of Google Glass augmented reality glasses that then eventually expanded to their cardboard initiative, Google is leading the way in this segment, but has recently been joined by some other heavy hitters. We’ve chosen to test the three most available and worthwhile options on the market today: Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, and Oculus Rift. Now that these devices are readily available (or ready for pre-order) and getting lots of public attention, these devices are very tangible to even the most conservative of consumers. Their prices and features range, and we’ve broken it all down below by each device.
In recent news Google announced that over 5 million Google Cardboard VR viewers have shipped worldwide. Publications such as the New York Times, franchised movies like Star Wars, and even toy companies have jumped on board to hand out free cardboard holders for your phone. These virtual reality (VR) googles, like the one shown above, serve to propagate the brand/company who distributed the device. To compete the experience you are told to download a specific smart phone app that works within the VR experience, but from there you’re free to use the device for a multitude of other apps.
For those new to VR, or Google Cardboard, what you’re in for is quite a treat! You take this free (or inexpensive) cardboard box with two eye holes and lenses, drop your smart phone into the backside, and run apps designed for this unique experience. These apps present video in a split-screen fashion, allowing each eye to see a slightly different picture, tricking you into seeing a 3D picture. Beyond that, the motion sensors in your phone allow you to spin around (turn), completing the journey into an alternate world. You hold the device up to your face, exploring by looking around a full 360-degrees, immersing yourself into the video or story that is presented by each individual app running on your smart device, ranging from games, to movies, and more!
What I love about Google Cardboard is that it works relatively well, especially given the low-to-no cost of entry. My daughter loves cats, and a family friend brought us back our cardboard from a marketing event she attended. This provided us a free opportunity to download a variety of apps to my iPhone 6S (see photo of apps, above), which my 8 year old daughter thoroughly enjoyed. There are dozens of apps you can download, many of which are games. Some are free, others cost money. Luckily there are plenty of free iOS/Android apps, making this a great way to play with VR without spending a dime.
If you want to dabble with a Google Cardboard device but haven’t yet managed to score a free unit, you can find templates that allow you to download, print, and create your own. But you still need the lenses, and may want other hardware components too. Ultimately the time required ends up not usually being worth the hassle versus just buying a low-cost unit. One of my favorite low-cost options is the Google Cardboard Kit V2 by MINKANAK. On sale right now at only $20 this is one of many options you can purchase from Amazon or other outlets. And of course, always keep your eyes out for a free unit too!
While there are cheaper options out there, the MINKANAK device offers two extras that I think are important to make the whole experience as positive as possible. First of the two features I strongly recommend when it comes to Google Cardboard is an elastic head strip to hold the device to your face. This helps so that you can avoid having to hold your hand/arm up for long viewing periods. And secondly, the push button on the side is a feature you might enjoy. That button is a necessary item for the native Google Cardboard app, to make on-screen taps/selections. And many other applications also require this screen tapping, which you can’t do with some of the other/cheaper devices which lack the button. You don’t need the button, but those Cardboard units with a button certainly make your VR play-time easier, and exponentially more enjoyable.
At the moment some of the best applications for virtual reality are available across all of the platforms we reviewed (iOS, Android). And most of the good ones remain free. If you pick up either this device, or the one below, we suggest that you start off with apps like NYT VR or VRSE for video watching. From there you can explore horror films like Sisters: A Virtual Reality Ghost Story or another, Insidious VR. Take a ride on a roller coaster in Dive City Rollercoaster. Or just search your app store for VR! Although there are other apps to download, we suggest these free ones as a starting point. If you want help finding other options, a quick google search turns up plenty of options for “best VR games” if you choose to go down that path. Be prepared to spend anywhere from $1 to $15 for the a decent VR game, and like any other apps some are better than others.
For those looking to just get a small taste of what VR can do, we suggest the Google Cardboard, and specifically the MINKANAK device. Be careful to make sure the smart phone device you have will fit the sizes/dimensions listed on the one you buy, as many of the cardboard hardware options cater to smaller displays. Our free unit fit my iPhone 6S, but not my wife’s iPhone 6S Plus. All in all, this is a great way to get started, spending little or no money, and you can even use your earbuds/headphones if you truly want to delve deeper into the whole experience.
Google Cardboard – Hardware Alternatives
When people speak of Google Cardboard, they are typically talking about an actual device made of cardboard like the cat unit in the prior section, or the MINKANAK device we talked about above. But in truth there are tons of other options, ranging from $5 to $50 and plenty of choices in between. All of these devices work the same, in that you drop your smart phone in (iOS, Android, etc), and all of them are truly nothing more than holders for your smart device just like the cardboard units. What makes these premium/alternate units differ is the quality of their construction, and some of the hardware adjustments they provide as well.
For this segment the unit we purchased to test is the Akally 3D VR Headset from Amazon, as it had good reviews and was a nice mid-priced unit. What really lets it shine versus the sub-$10 units like the Blisstime or Blingkingdom is build quality, offering up a solid plastic housing. This makes it stronger, but also a bit heavier. You also get adjustments for depth of view, allowing glasses-wearers to even remove their spectacles if they need or desire (or you can adjust to help leave your glasses on, and get more clearance). By having adjustments for the lenses you can appeal to a great range of people, with varying eye sight and head shapes/sizes.
Another reason I like this particular unit is that it has an internal capacity large enough to allow me to use my wife’s iPhone 6S Plus for testing. This gave us a chance to see how the 5.5-inch 6S-Plus screen worked when compared to my 4.7-inch 6S unit. And this unit is versatile enough to also fit the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 in the same unit, giving us 2-platforms and 3-total devices to compare, all in the same $35 housing.
What we found most interesting was that the screen on the Galaxy comes closer to the edge of the device (narrower bezels). This means that when you’re using the Akally 3D VR Headset you won’t notice the top speaker or bottom button as much with the Samsung versus the iPhone devices. That is to say that if you looked to the far right/left of your field of vision, you could see the edges of the phone, but this was less noticed with the Samsung. My 6S was the worst, where you could clearly see the home button and top bezel at the far right/left in your field of view. The 6S Plus iPhone was better, but still not as good as the Galaxy. The bigger the screen, and more narrow the bezel, the better.
That being said, all the devices we tested were white, and the housing was also a white unit, and allowed for a fair amount of light into your view, making the experience a bit less believable. One other item that pestered me a bit on the Akally 3D VR Headset was the lack of any sort of user input button. When we attempted to run the native Google Cardboard app we were unable to get past the main menu, due to our lack of ability to input a selection. To resolve this we tried to use our SteelSeries gaming controller connected via bluetooth, and while it did connect to the phone, it failed to work in the Google app to make the on-screen selections.
Ultimately this means that you have to get a video started, and then place it into your viewer, at least in the case of the Akally device. This works fine for certain apps, like the NYT VR app which provides a countdown before it begins playing a video. But in many cases apps require on screen taps, such as Google Street View, and the Akally device just won’t cut it there. So as you shop for your Google Cardboard experience, regardless of iOS or Android, keep this in mind.
Another issue is size, and weight. You’ll see at the end of this article some side by side comparisons of the Gear VR next to the Akally device. This Akally unit was bigger than the Gear VR, and felt noticeably heaver too. It was generally speaking less comfortable to wear than the other units we tested, though obviously better than just a piece of cardboard. We wanted to like it, but couldn’t get it to sit comfortably on the head of any of the three testers who put it through its paces. The lack of pitch adjustment (eye-to-eye distance) also made it less ideal for my daughter’s smaller sized head/face.
But there are still reasons to consider the Akally 3D VR Headset, or any of the dozens of other identical devices on Amazon branded differently. They offer a safer housing, should you drop the device with the phone enclosed. These plastic units are easier to clean than cardboard, especially to disinfect between users. And they offer better straps and curvature, typically providing a better fit to your face than the conventional cardboard, even if not as good as the Samsung or Oculus units we’ll talk about momentarily.
Although I’d probably expect most “casual” users who just want to get their feet wet would be happier with the smaller investment of the MINKANAK we first mentioned in the prior section, the Akally is a nice unit, even though it lacks a selection button. If your goal is along the lines of sitting back and watching a video about sharks while swimming underwater (all in the safety of your bathrobe on your couch), the Akally 3D is worth considering for your Google Cardboard fun!
Remember that all of the units we’ve talked about up to this point work with BOTH iOS and Android devices. Though some of the VR apps we looked at were only offered on one platform versus the other, the hardware shown up to this point works with either platform, so long as you make sure the dimensions will accept your phone. There might even be support for other devices (Microsoft/Windows phones?) that we didn’t test here.
In the end neither the Akally nor the MINKANAK win our top pick, even if they are good starting points, low-cost, and versatile to handle various smart phones. Next up are the two most expensive items we tested, but also the two most powerful, and featured packed. Keep reading to find out what makes them better than the Google Cardboard experience.
Samsung Gear VR
Up until this section the devices we’ve shared work across both Android and iOS devices, and costs under $50 while using your existing smart phone device. That all changes when you get tot he Samsung Gear VR Virtual Reality Headset, which is a bit more closed of an offering.
While the Samsung Gear VR still requires the use of your existing smart phone, it limits your options since it only works with the Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, or S6 Edge+ devices from Samsung. And the cost also jumps to $99 MSRP compared to the lower cost Google Cardboard hardware. Realistically this doesn’t make for a drastic price jump from the plastic Google Cardboard device, but it does greatly limit the potential audience if you don’t already own one of those four compatible Samsung smart devices.
For our purposes here we tested the Samsung Gear VR with both a Galaxy Note 5 as well as a Galaxy S6 device. This gave us a chance to compare the Note’s 5.7-inch display to the S6’s 5.1-inch display. Both of these smart phone devices offer the same 2560 x 1440 resolution, meaning that the Note has a 518 PPI density, giving the upper hand to the S6 with 577 PPI density. However, the smaller screen meant your field of view width would be more narrow.
Placing the Note 5 or Galaxy S6 into the Gear VR is a very easy and straightforward process, and if you forget to unlock your phone before you cradle it into the headset a voice prompts you to remove it and unlock it, and then reinsert it after. The first time you place the phone into the Gear VR it will ask you to remove it, so that it can download the necessary software. We liked this feature, as it saves you the headache of searching the app store for the appropriate piece of software. We also liked the micro USB pass through feature on the Gear VR, allowing you to charge the unit while leaving it cradled inside the headset.
Rather than downloading tons of apps to clutter your Android device, Samsung was smart here, and within the Gear VR app is its own little app store. Powered by Oculus, the app provides you a curated list of games, video viewers, and other experiences to download. We loved the fact that you could download apps easily from the store, without having to wear the headset, simply by entering into the Gear VR “Oculus” app. You can also download apps from the store while wearing the headset, but it was far easier, faster, and more comfortable to do this ahead of time while holding the phone. We suggest you save the headset time for actual gameplay or video watching.
When using the Gear VR we found no real distinguishable difference between the Note 5 or Galaxy S6 devices, and feel confident saying any of the four compatible devices would work fine. If you’re like us, an Apple user with no Samsung hardware in your home, then keep in mind you can score used Samsung devices on places like Craigslist or eBay. We opted for something a bit safer, ultimately choose to acquire a refurbished unit. Options for those are available through plenty of vendors as well, such as Best Buy or Amazon. If you’re not already in possession of one of the four necessary devices then your investment rises, driving the total cost up to $800+ potentially, but we think you’re spending good money. We find that the Gear VR is our current favorite of all the options we tested, based on “bang for the buck” compared to the cheaper cardboard, or pricer Rift below.
What makes the Gear VR so great? First off, the housing is dark/black inside, so no natural light gets in, giving you true immersion. Secondly, the dedicated app store makes it easier to find apps, and there are TONS to choose from! You’ll find that the Oculus-powered Gear VR has a broader spectrum of games and apps to choose from than the other platforms, and the dedicated app store makes it super easy to find them, and quicker to download them than the Rift (this may change with the final Rift when it comes out soon).
Granted some of the games out there cost money, but some of these are worth the price. We like VR Karting, and the Dreadhalls game, both which cost a few bucks. We found that the apps on the Gear VR were more rewarding more than the other units, which never felt quite as polished and didn’t captivate us quite as long.
Another add-on we got that helped with the overall enjoyment of game-play was our purchase of a MOGA Pro Power Gaming Controller. Samsung sells their own game pad, and the options exist such as the SteelSeries Free, too. There are some games that require, or simply benefit from, a gaming controller. Having a light and comfortable headset on your face helps frees your hands up to use these controllers, and truly experience one-of-a-kind entertainment.
Take note that since the Samsung Gear VR also has a D-pad on the right side (near your temple), you don’t even need a controller to navigate most menus. This D-pad makes moving around menus a breeze, and the fact that there is a menu structure within the Gear VR itself, which inherently makes it the most plug-and-play unit of this bunch. Where the Google Cardboard require you start an app on your phone, and then drop it into the hardware, and the Rift requires you launch an app on your PC/Mac, and then don the headset, it is only the Samsung Gear VR that lets you do all of this navigation while wearing the headset. You don’t need to do anything other than unlock your phone, slide it into the headset, and put the headset on. All of the other app launching and such is done on-screen in the headset, using that D-pad!
And really, that is what makes the Samsung Gear VR the best one right now. You simply just cradle your phone inside, and go! It holds your hand every step of the way, from the orientation at the start that helps you learn the navigation, to their app store that you can view in your phone OR in the headset, to the focus adjustment knob, wrapped up with a low cost of entry for those who already have the right device… it just rocks! Even if you don’t have one of the Samsung devices you need to run the Gear VR, we think picking one up makes sense!
We realize not everyone has the right phone to plug into the Samsung Gear VR. And those users who do not may also be unwilling to invest in the added cost of another smart phone. In those cases we think a Google Cardboard will suffice for the experimental newbie. And there are still a few shortcomings compared to the Oculus Rift below. Let’s take a look at how the Samsung Gear VR compares to the Rift, and then we’ll throw some final thoughts together at the end of this blog entry.
Oculus Rift (Developer Kit 2)
As of right now pre-orders are open for the final version of the Oculus Rift (CLICK HERE). Or you can score the Oculus Rift Developer Kit 2 (DK2) for sale on places such as Amazon (CLICK HERE), or search eBay and places like that, too! Our testing was done with a DK2 unit, so we’ll update this post or make a new review if/when we test a final version device.
Retail pricing on the Oculus Rift is $599, and that includes the headset, location sensor, remote, cables, and an Xbox One control for game play. You don’t use your existing smart phone, which makes it quite different than all of the other units we’ve tested here. Instead of relying on a smart phone to process the apps, you need an “Oculus Ready PC” to handle the computations and processing of the apps.
This makes sense, because the Oculus Rift can do a lot more than the other units as we’ll explain more momentarily. But what this also means is that the cost of entry here will be higher than the others for most folks. You can purchase an Oculus Ready PC directly from Oculus (LINK) or build your own for about the same money (LINK), but either way you’re going to be about $1,600 in the hole total for the HMD and the computer. Just like the Samsung section above where some users will already possess the right smart phone, there will be some Oculus Rift users who already have a powerful enough gaming PC here. Either way, it can get pricey!
Sadly neither myself nor contributing editor Holly have a PC that meets these requirements. Instead we tested on both a MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, which is what we had easy access to here. After seeing latency issues and low FPS, we consulted the Internet and found various articles (EXAMPLE) that assured us these problems were based on our computer, not the Oculus Rift itself. Still, we can’t help but question how many folks have the right PC to do this task. Then again, the Oculus Rift has already pre-sold over 3+ months worth of product, so obviously some folks are willing to spend the money!
When we tested the Samsung Gear VR we hooked up a bluetooth gaming controller, so we felt it was only fair to do the same with the Rift. So long as the computer you are using has bluetooth, you can do this. We also tested a Leap Motion Controller, adding yet another layer to the experience. Oculus also has their touch controllers, so the options are limitless as it pertains to input devices. In contrast, the Gear VR is limited right now, though it is worth noting they did show off their Rink controllers at CES, which we think would be quite a welcome add-on down the road.
Other key differences between the Gear VR and the Rift exist. Though a runtime for Mac exists right now, the final version is PC only, limiting the powerful computer you need to Windows. This also means the Oculus Rift isn’t portable, like the Gear VR, and it even has a cable that constantly tethers you to the PC at all times. You do get positional tracking with the Oculus, allowing you to do things like crouch or stand/sit, and have the sensor take notice of these differences.
Oculus has included headphones with the Rift, though they can be removed to use your own if you prefer. With the Gear VR no headphones are included, but you can use your own there as well. Display resolution is slightly higher on the Gear VR, but with the processing power of a strong PC behind it, the Rift tends to offer a slightly greater image. But at this point the section of games/apps for the Rift was a bit limited, so our testing wasn’t 100% sadly.
Overall we found the Oculus Rift to be an amazing device, but we felt that the apps were somewhat limited. Admittedly our using a lower power Macintosh instead of a PC gave us difficulties, and also removed some app availability from the Oculus store. Still we did our research and found others complained about this as well. However, we have high hopes that the final version will be more plug and play (we had our fair share of issues getting the screen to mirror correctly), such that it will come closer to the awesome Gear VR experience we had.
Assuming you make the investment for the Oculus Ready PC, there is no doubt in our mind that the Rift will be able to do “more” than the Gear VR. But is that more worth the price of admission? Do you really want to wander around the room and have positional accuracy, or are you happy with just a swivel chair? Will the games that eventually come out for the Oculus Rift be better than the Gear VR, and will they cost more? Will Oculus make good on their plans to get the Rift to work with game systems, like the Xbox?
All of these are open-ended questions. Once the final Oculus Rift starts shipping we might get more answers to these questions, and we’ll be better able to see how things unfold. For now, check out our final thoughts below.
We would like to say the above data is all inclusive, but it definitely is not. For starters, we tested a developer version of the Oculus Rift, where the final release version is still a few months away from hitting consumers. We did our best to explain above what we expect from the final version, however we admit the review here lacks the full depth we’ll need. Look for a final version review in the near future.
There are also some really cool options on the horizon right now, many of which grab our attention at the moment. Those include but are not limited to: HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, Microsoft Hololens, Qualcomm Vuforia, Steam VR, and many more! The list would honestly be too long to list here of all the VR/AR companies working on projects, some due out in just months.
Many of our friends & family members haven’t even held a VR headset, and would be hesitant to spend a lot of money on a technology that they remain quite unfamiliar with. We hold fast to our suggestion then that a cheap Google Cardboard is the best way to enter into this segment, and test the waters. We’ll once again say that the Google Cardboard Kit V2 by MINKANAK is a great low-cost entry option that works with virtual all smart phones, and won’t break the bank.
From there, the only other option we’d really rave about is the Samsung Gear VR, as it really doesn’t cost a whole heck of a lot (for some, only $99 if they have the right device already). And it just offers the most plug-and-play, fun, easy going experience. Add in a cheap gaming controller (we really liked the MOGA Pro) and you have a great, well rounded experience. For well under a grand you can have one of the most cutting edge consoles on the market, and it does so much more than just games.
We expect that 6 or 12 months from now, this review will look a LOT different. Why? First off, the HTC Vive is about to come out, and their unit is supposed to be nearly identical to the Oculus Rift. That means there will be two consumer versions of a premium HMD, which we smell cooking as a great head-to-head battle down the road. Secondly, we think VR headsets for gaming consoles, like the PlayStation VR, will also change this landscape quite a bit.
Stay tuned here– we plan to test and review more AR/VR headsets in the near future. This is a technology we’re passionate about, so you can expect more coverage of these devices down the road. Thanks for reading!