Mobile VR wars: Cardboard, Daydream, or Samsung Gear VR?

Competition spurs growth, which is something that has helped mobile VR get to where it’s at right now. For the vast majority of consumers, their first taste and dabbling in virtual reality is attributed to smartphones – and for the most part, it’s been the best introductory experience. Sure, there’s still a great disparity between what mobile VR offers in comparison to the complex systems we’ve seen in the VR space, like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but nonetheless, mobile VR is continually growing and evolving to produce richer, more immersive experiences.

The question that’s raised in all of this talk is what’s the best platform out there? Currently, the three leading contenders in the mobile VR space are the Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Daydream View. Fundamentally speaking, all three deliver the core qualities of mobile VR, but as we’ve seen, they all have their own particular strengths. Going beyond that, however, there are key differences that may lead you to one more than the rest.

Phone first, headset second

Now, the first hurdle you’ll need to overcome is something that you probably can’t control. The headset you might end up going with is dictated largely by what smartphone you’re using. Therefore, most people are at the mercy of what phone they end up choosing, seeing that the choices are specific to certain phones.

Take for example the Samsung Gear VR, which as its name so happens to imply, is made to work with Samsung’s smartphone – in this case, its high-end Galaxy S and Note lines. And the same thing applies to the Google Daydream View headset, which currently supports only a handful of “Daydream-ready” phones. So yeah, even when the thought of trying mobile VR first pops into your mind, chances are your decision has been made without you even knowing it.

To be fair, though, Google Cardboard offers the broadest support amongst the trio. Nearly every phone you can think of released the last several years, including Apple’s iPhones as well, are compatible with Google Cardboard. Frankly, the only thing that might prevent it from supporting a certain phone is whether it’s too big to fit into the headset itself.

Comfy versus crude

When comparing the three mobile VR headsets, one can quickly see how they differentiate from each other when it comes to their looks and designs. Out of the bunch, the Google Cardboard headset is undoubtedly the crudest looking – thanks largely to its do-it-yourself premise. And when you’re constructed from dry and rigid cardboard, comfort isn’t high on its priority list. Rather, the inexpensive price point and entry-level appeal is what suits Google Cardboard. Of course there are “Cardboard” compatible devices that are more comfortable than default cardboard-based readers.

From there, the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View headsets have their peculiar strengths. Whereas Samsung’s offering favors a sci-fi look that wraps over and around the head, the Google Daydream View opts for a more “natural” style with its fabric-like material.

The core premise of mobile VR is universal

The underlying premise of mobile VR is pretty consistent between the three headsets, as they help to establish this sense of free-looking movement within a virtual space/world. When you put them on, you’re effectively thrown into the center of what’s happening in this alternate place – like the thrills from riding a roller coaster. However, the core experience is universal because at the end of the day, you’re either sitting/standing still, while being able to freely look around in space.

From peeking at areas to your left and right, in addition to going a full 180-degrees to see what’s behind you, the mobile VR experience is reserved to an isolated space. Unlike free roaming VR experiences that require serious muscle power, such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, these mobile VR experiences are static in the way that you won’t be able to actually step forward or backwards – there’s just no reaction when you do that.

And that, folks, is what’s partly giving people the impression that mobile VR is more of a novelty than anything else. It might be captivating to the uninitiated, but there’s a limit to the appeal, and once that wears off, many often end up shelving their VR headsets.

Their strengths

Diving deeper into what separates all three headsets from one another, some factors might lead you to choose one over the others. Let’s first start with Google Cardboard, which as we’ve mentioned earlier, offers entry into the mobile VR space without taking a chunk out of your wallet. Yeah, you’ll sacrifice looks and comfort in the process, but it’s the cheapest and direct way of getting a taste of mobile VR. On top of that, it offers the broadest handset support – including iPhones and Android devices.

Even though Samsung’s Gear VR is locked to Samsung’s own smartphones, their partnership with Oculus ensures users will be treated with one of the best libraries and VR content around. Being backed by Oculus, one of the leading pioneers of VR technology, the Samsung Gear VR sees no shortage of top-notch, quality experiences – it’s almost unbelievable to see the frequency in new apps, games, and experiences coming out for it.

Despite having the fewest experiences and content, the Google Daydream View has one trump card under its sleeve – a compact motion controller. This, surprisingly enough, is probably the biggest innovation we’ve seen in mobile VR to date, as it helps to give users a new form of interaction in the VR space. Essentially, this motion controller can be used to do things like swinging a sword in a game or shooting off a gun. It’s a complementary experience, which does nicely to just go beyond the usual looking around movement.

Again, your phone ultimately calls the shots

Very few people are thinking about mobile VR when they’re buying their phone, but it’s most likely an afterthought that comes around when they see a friend or someone else using a VR headset, which then spurs that idea into their head. As we’ve detailed earlier, your phone will ultimately be the biggest factor in what headset you end up choosing.

Samsung Galaxy S and Note owners will have to settle for the Gear VR, that’s just the natural thing because it’s been bred to work with them. While in the past Samsung has bundled in a free Gear VR with a purchase of its phones, if you weren’t fortunate in partaking in those deals, then you’ll have to dish out $99.99 to buy the latest version of the headset (with the newer USB Type-C connection) or you can probably find the older (but fully compatible) Gear VR for around $50 on sale.

In comparison, the Google Daydream View headset is just $79 and doesn’t require any additional cost for the motion controller – it’s included in the box already. The only downside, though, is that its library is still pretty sparse in comparison to everyone else, as well as its support for phones. Currently, it’s compatible with the Pixel, Pixel XL, ZTE Axon 7, and Moto Z line, but more handsets are being included in the future. As time goes on, however, you can bet that we’ll see a steady stream of content, games, apps, and experiences coming to it.

And finally, we have Google Cardboard, which you can find on the web for as cheap $10 to as much as $100+, depending on the materials it is made from. The end result is that Cardboard is (typically) the cheapest, most inexpensive route for experiencing mobile VR. The content and library is pretty diverse, but better yet, it boasts the most support for handsets – Android and iPhones included! Heck, even Samsung’s Galaxy devices and Google’s Pixel phones are supported.

At the end of the day, for most people rather, their phone will ultimately be the deciding factor in what headset they’ll be choosing.

For an even better idea on which headset is best for you, head to our official VR – getting started guide.

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