This week, Google announced a major expansion of its Daydream virtual reality platform. Daydream, currently only available on niche Android phones, is rolling out to the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus this summer. That means that millions of smartphone owners will soon have two huge tech companies trying to sell them VR headsets.
Google is offering the $79 Daydream View, which you’ll need to launch Daydream apps on your phone. Samsung sells the $129 Gear VR, which lets you access Oculus Home, a platform created by Facebook-owned VR company Oculus. Both headsets work the same way: after you clip a phone into the headset, you can interact with VR experiences using a small handheld remote. But they look and feel very different, and each has a completely separate app ecosystem.
Unlike picking between two expensive desktop headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, buying a mobile headset isn’t a huge investment — most of the cost is in the phone itself. Retailers and manufacturers also love offering VR headsets as sweeteners, so you may end up getting one (or maybe both) for free.
But if you’re going to buy a Gear VR or Daydream View, which one is a better use of your money? We’re here to answer that question.
The short answer
You don’t want to order anything right now — it’ll likely be a couple of months at least until the update. But based on the current app ecosystem, you’ll find more to do on a Gear VR this summer, outweighing its higher price. It’s worth considering getting Daydream too, though, especially as its library expands. Keep an eye out for sales, and you may get both at a deep discount or completely free. And if you’re not wild about either one, you can hold off without feeling too much fear of missing out.
For the rationale behind this verdict, read on.
The case for Daydream
The Daydream View is $50 cheaper, for one thing. It’s more compact and less intimidating than the Gear VR, and it’s quicker and easier to insert your phone and get started. You’ll get access to YouTube VR, which is one of the default locations for posting 360-degree video. (You can access YouTube videos through Samsung’s Gear VR web browser, but it’s a lot less convenient.)
Daydream also connects you to a Google ecosystem that you’re probably already invested in. You don’t have to maintain a separate Oculus account, and Daydream lets you launch VR experiences directly from your home screen instead of going through another app. Daydream also makes it very easy to launch web-based VR experiences, and its VR version of Chrome will let you bookmark them on a desktop and come back to them later in VR.
The case for Gear VR
Games and apps. Daydream boasts of its fast-growing catalog, but it’s still small compared to the Gear VR’s offerings, and it’s unlikely to reach parity by this summer. While it doesn’t have YouTube, there is a Facebook 360-degree video app. And unsurprisingly for a Facebook-owned company, Oculus has a more robust social environment so far, with shared rooms and unusually cool avatars.
The Gear VR hardware also has benefits. Its straps are less elegant but fit on your head more snugly, and it’s got a focus dial for different pupil distances, which can make the image clearer for some people. Its side trackpad also offers a failsafe if your controller runs out of battery, an issue I’ve had with the rechargeable Daydream remote.
The Gear VR isn’t an intrinsically better product or platform, but for now, you’ll find more to do on it, unless you’re specifically invested in YouTube’s 360-degree video. When you’re in a price range between “impulse purchase” and “major investment,” it’s worth paying more for something that will likely get the most use in the short term.
The case for neither
Mobile VR headsets are primarily entertainment devices, not vital productivity tools. And the entertainment they offer is fun, but it’s less sophisticated than what you’ll find on more mature mediums, and there’s not nearly as much of it. One of the most popular kinds of content — 360-degree video — is available outside VR, too.
Mobile VR headsets are also less comfortable than desktop ones, because you’re putting the weight of an entire phone on the front of your face. The controllers work impressively well considering the technical challenges involved, but they provide a limited range of motion.
I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in VR and has a Galaxy S8 to get a mobile headset. But it won’t hurt to wait a year or two and see how things develop. Google just opened submissions for Daydream’s Google Play section a few months ago, so the app selection may look very different by then. Besides, in the next generation of VR, the best mobile headsets might not even need phones.