Samsung Gear VR on display at Oculus Connect 2 Developers Conference 2015 at Loews Hollywood Hotel on September 24, 2015.
Photograph by Charley Gallay--Getty Images for Samsung

Samsung’s partnership with Oculus has produced the most robust (and compelling) consumer virtual reality system on the market today.

By Kif Leswing
November 20, 2015

The Samsung Gear VR is the world’s first consumer-focused virtual reality system. The headset is a byproduct of a two-year collaboration between Samsung SSNLF and virtual reality pioneer Oculus OCLS . The device works by using a 2015 Samsung smartphone (which includes the Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 Edge+, Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge) as the mobile headset’s brain and viewing screen.

If you’ve got a current-generation Samsung Galaxy Note or S6 smartphone, all you need is a $99 headset, sold separately, and you’ve got one of the most effective VR systems on the market today. In this partnership, Samsung handled the hardware, but the software is all Oculus and its roster of third-party developers. When a phone is placed inside the Gear VR headset it takes the user directly into the Oculus app, which is basically a free app store. Beware: When the Gear VR is securely mounted on your head, you’re using an Oculus platform, not Android’s system, to navigate the system, which can take time to get used to.

The Oculus experience

One of the main issues with being an early adopter of any hardware product is that the software might not have had time to keep up with last-minute product changes, and that’s certainly the case here. The Oculus Store has about 100 apps from third-party developers, but it’s unfortunately difficult to find what you’re looking for while using the headset. For example, there’s no search field, which can make finding a particular app difficult.

While downloading apps, you’re often reminded that VR is a nascent technology. Many of the games are demos instead of fully realized products, with many important apps missing altogether. For example, there’s no YouTube app in the Oculus Store, which is unfortunate given that it’s probably the leading platform for user-uploaded VR content.

Since Oculus initially started as a game-focused company, it makes sense people will end up spending the majority of their time on the Gear VR playing video games. Eve Gunjack, available for $9.99 in the Oculus Store, puts you in the cockpit of a gun turret in outer space. You aim a laser cannon, and various other weapons, using your line of vision. It’s not going to keep you occupied for hours, but it’s fast-paced and fun.

There are other options if you don’t like shooters. Land’s End is a $9.99 puzzle exploration game made by Ustwo, the London design studio behind hit mobile game Monument Valley. It’s immersive, and reminiscent in pace and temperament to Myst, an award-winning puzzle game by Brøderbund.

Hopefully, there will be more games coming to the Oculus store soon. The games currently available on the system are more akin to short-term mobile games: you can pick them up and play them at anytime, but they’ll probably only entertaining in short bursts.

Next year Oculus will release its own virtual reality head-mounted display called Rift that will be a gaming machine first and foremost, and deliver the kind of in-depth experiences gamers crave. Users would be best served waiting for the display when it goes on sale in 2016, if gaming is what they intend to use the headset for most of the time.

It’s a top-notch VR system for watching videos

It’s important to note that Samsung’s new system can be used for more than just gaming. In particular, 360-degree video has emerged as a compelling reason to use VR headsets, says Max Cohen, head of mobile at Oculus. The video viewing experience while using the VR headset is second to none thanks to additional sensors built right into the Samsung hardware, including a gyroscope, accelerometer, and proximity monitor.

The Gear VR’s closest competitor is Google’s Cardboard software, which uses the same concept of using a smartphone as the VR headset’s screen and processor. But compared to the $99 Gear VR headset, Google Cardboard headsets are cheap and nearly disposable because, well, they’re usually made of cardboard.

Earlier this month the New York Times sent out over 1 million free Google Cardboard headsets to promote its VR movie The Displaced, which takes a closer look at refugees displaced from their homes due to persecution or war. It’s worth watching both for the powerful story it tells about migrants and as a great example of what high-quality VR content can offer. But if you have choose between watching it through Google Cardboard or Gear VR, Samsung’s system is the obvious choice.

Google Cardboard uses your phone’s accelerometer to track your head movements, so that when you turn your line of sight to the right or left the screen follows along, and shows you 360 degrees around you at anytime. However, the Gear VR has its own built-in motion sensor, which is more finely tuned. The result is significantly smoother head tracking, which means the experience is far less likely to make you sick.

The screens on the compatible Samsung phones are also among the highest resolution on the market today, which makes a big difference when they’re a few inches from your face. The result is an experience that feels as if you’re watching videos in higher definition than on other phone-based virtual reality headsets.

You can find The Displaced through the free VRSE app, along with a selection of other videos from the New York Times, Vice News, and Saturday Night Live. Another third-party app, NextVR, streams live events such as NBA games and political debates in virtual reality and is only available through the Oculus Store.

Oculus has its own video app, which you can use to purchase Hollywood movies. However, the movies themselves aren’t in virtual reality—instead, the Gear VR transports you into a virtual theatre where you watch the 2D flick you just downloaded on a flat screen. The Oculus Video app only has a few 360-degree videos. I was excited to watch Lebron James work out in VR, but was disappointed to find out that in the end it was merely a three-minute trailer.

Netflix also has an app on the Oculus Store, but it has the same problem as the Oculus Video app: the content is old-fashioned and flat. (Entering your account and password with your line of sight is also a pain.)

I was able to watch the same Netflix shows on the headset that I usually watch on TV, but this time from a computer generated apartment nestled in some snowy mountains. The potential for the video viewing experience to radically change the TV viewing experience is there, especially if it was possible to “hang out” with a friend using Gear VR to watch shows at the same time from the same virtual house.

One of the most surprising software features is passthrough mode. In this mode, the phone uses its rear-facing camera to record video of the world around out, and shows the resulting footage on the Gear VR’s screen in front of your eyes. Essentially, it allows you to look “through” the Gear VR headset at your immediate surroundings. The resulting experience is clearly lower fidelity than simply taking your headset off, but it’s oddly compelling. I found myself flipping into it often, usually to (regrettably) check my phone.

Passthrough mode could become an essential feature for any virtual reality headset, because it allows you to flip from the virtual world to the real world at the touch of a button. And, if VR headsets are worn out in public, a robust passthrough mode will be necessary just to get around.

Unfortunately, Oculus says that the Gear VR just isn’t powerful enough to do any augmented reality in real-time, so there probably won’t be any Hololens-like applications providing information about the world around you anytime soon—although that doesn’t mean that other companies won’t try to create it in the near future.

The hardware gets out of the way

The ideal VR headset is designed to be forgotten if the experience isn’t immersive enough. For the most part, Samsung has succeeded in making the Gear VR hardware unremarkable, and that’s a good thing because it puts the focus squarely on the software.

Samsung says the mostly-plastic headset is 19% lighter than its older developer editions, and the reduced weight makes it more comfortable for long sessions. There’s a plush ring of foam where the headset meets your face and includes two thick elastic straps to affix the device to your head, which makes the entire system feel like a slightly heavier pair of ski goggles. The main control is a trackpad found on the device’s right side.

If there’s one part of the experience that Samsung really nailed it’s turning the system on. Simply slide the micro-USB port from the headset into your phone as if you were charging it and snap your phone into place with a satisfying click. The Oculus platform will start up automatically.

But there’s also a downside to the Oculus Store launching automatically, and that is you can’t use the headset to view Google-Cardboard-compatible Android apps, the most important of which is YouTube.

The Oculus software goes to sleep when it’s not on your head, which is handy and saves battery, and will automatically wake up once you put it on again.

The hardware isn’t perfect. A higher-resolution screen would be nice since is all too easy to see individual pixels, an unfortunate phenomenon referred to in the industry as the “screen door effect.” Meanwhile, the phone has to do a lot of processing, which can make the device pretty hot at times.

The “wow” factor

Virtual reality is difficult to describe. It’s a visceral experience like none other. Several people in the industry talk about a “wow” moment people experience after their first in-person VR experience.

Currently, the Samsung Gear VR is the easiest, simplest, most “Apple-like” way to get that “wow” moment in your own home. And at $99 for the headset, it might be the most inexpensive too.

But the $99 price can be a little misleading. The system requires one of four late model Samsung phones, which start at $600 off-contract. And if you’re gaming, you’ll want to pick up a controller, which adds another $50 to the price tag.

The Rift will come out next year, and Oculus has said it will cost between $200 and $400. However, the device will need to be plugged into a powerful gaming computer for it to work, which is sold separately, and you won’t be able to take it on the road like the Gear VR.

Unlike the Oculus, the Gear VR is also particularly well suited to VR video; it has different strengths than the Rift will and includes a potentially game-changing platform in the making.

If you’ve already got a Samsung phone and you’re interested in VR, the headset purchase is a no-brainer. The more difficult choice is whether to purchase the system (and additional Samsung phone) if you want the best VR system but are, say, committed to your iPhone. It’s not inconceivable that some people will buy a new Samsung smartphone not to use as phone, but rather to use exclusively for virtual reality.

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