VR Headsets Review
How to Choose a VR Headset
Virtual reality has the potential to shake up the world – and not just in gaming.
VR puts an exciting twist on art, movies, television and music. It can even change the way we interact with one another. When you put on a VR headset, you escape momentarily from the real world. In fact, I'm writing this right now in "outer space" and didn't even know my coworkers were here at the office yet because of my noise-cancelling earbuds and the HTC Vive strapped to my face.
If I look to my left, I see a beautiful pink nebula. On my right are millions upon millions of tiny glistening stars. When I glance down, my stomach sinks because I'm afraid of heights. Although I've been testing VR headsets for over a month, my brain still gets tricked into thinking I'm actually really high up even though I'm just sitting at a desk.
Straight ahead is my desktop and a Google Doc that I'm typing these words in. Fortunately, I'm a proficient enough typist that I don't need to see my keyboard or mouse when I write.
Although virtual reality seems like such an incredibly new product category, it's actually not. Twenty years have passed since Nintendo's 3D gaming console – the Virtual Boy – was released. And boy, we sure have come a long way.
You may not be familiar with the Virtual Boy and its strange red display, but you probably have heard of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Samsung Gear VR headsets. Now that virtual reality is more accessible than ever, you may be asking yourself two questions: "Should I get a virtual reality headset?" and "Which one is the best for me?"
We can help you answer these questions. Your choice of headset depends on a number of factors. What do you want to use the headset primarily for: VR gaming or videos? Do you have a gaming PC or do you plan to use your smartphone to experience VR instead? Do you want the most immersive experience possible or do you just want a simple experience? Another important question: How much are you willing to spend?
In this buying guide, we break down the basics of virtual reality headsets. What ones are available? What distinguishes each one and why should you pick one over another? We'll spell out what features each headset brings to the table. And we'll let you know each headset's advantages and their flaws, too, since VR headsets are a first-generation product. With all that being said, there's a best VR headset for you. We'll help you find it. You can learn more by reading our articles on VR headsets and other gaming electronics.
What options are available?
Not all VR headsets are equal. Top-tier VR headsets are few and far between. The main players in the high-end VR headset space at the moment are HTC and Oculus. Sony and Razer are both working on their own headsets, and Apple is rumored to be as well.
The HTC Vive is the most expensive and most advanced virtual reality headset on the market right now. It's also the best. It grants you the ability to get up and move about in a 15 x 15-foot space where you can jump, duck, lean and walk to interact within virtual worlds. It's an incredibly immersive and almost indescribable experience.
It has two wireless controllers that track your movement and let you move your hands in virtual space and interact with objects. The controllers not only can act as your hands but as a tennis racket, gun, shield, bow and arrow – it really all depends on what game you are playing.
The headset weighs your face down and looks and feels like an oversized diver's mask. It isn't the most comfortable VR headset available and has three long cables that rest atop your head. Its resolution is impressive: 1080 x 1200 pixels per eye, but the Vive needs a powerful gaming PC to run. Setup for the Vive isn't extremely difficult, but it requires plenty of space, about an hour of your time, three outlets, and maybe an extension cord or two. Oh yeah, and a highly powered gaming PC.
There are around 50 games available for the HTC Vive. It comes with three games: The Gallery - Episode 1: Call of the Starseed, Tilt Brush and Zombie Training Simulator.
The Oculus Rift is probably the first product that comes to mind when you think of virtual reality. Like the HTC Vive, it too requires a gaming PC. However, the Rift's experience isn't as immersive as the Vive. Rather than using two wireless controllers, the Oculus Rift includes an Xbox One controller and only has one sensor compared to the Vive's two, meaning you can't walk around. Facebook, which owns Oculus, says touch controllers for the Rift will come out later this year, however. You can still move your head around and lean back and forth in your chair, but movement definitely feels limited with this headset.
The headset is much more comfortable than the Vive, weighing 17 ounces compared to the Vive's 20 ounces. It's quite adjustable, too, with two Velcro straps on its side and lenses that can be calibrated so you get the best view.
The Oculus Rift launched with 30 games available, and the headset is expected to have more than 100 games out by the end of 2016. The headset comes bundled with two games: Lucky's Tale and Eve: Valkyrie.
Both Microsoft and Sony are in the race to take over the console VR market. Microsoft has announced Project Scorpio, an upgraded version of the Xbox One, which plays 4K-resolution games and supports virtual reality. Sony's upcoming 4K PlayStation 4, codenamed NEO, also is designed to help customers experience virtual reality games.
Sony has been demoing its PlayStation VR headset at tradeshows and in select retailers. The headset will be released in October of this year. It isn't as powerful as the Vive or Rift and has a lower resolution – 960 x 1080 pixels compared to 1080 x 1200. Its field of view is also slightly lower at just 100 degrees instead of 110 degrees. But the headset comes in at a much lower price of $400. That's half the price of the HTC Vive and $200 less than the Oculus Rift.
PSVR doesn't support room-scale VR like the HTC Vive does, similar to the Oculus Rift, and is designed to be a seated experience. Fortunately, it supports Sony's PlayStation Move and PlayStation Aim controllers. The Move controllers are a lot like the two wands that come bundled with the HTC Vive since they track your hands, and the Aim controller is designed for shooters.
Razer's foray into virtual reality seems quite promising after the company's introduction of the Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) headset. This virtual reality headset has dual OLED screens with a 1080 x 1200 resolution and a 110-degree field of view, bringing it to the same caliber as more expensive headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The OSVR even has a higher, 90Hz, refresh rate than these competitors.
The OSVR doesn't have as strong of tracking as the HTC Vive since it only uses one camera, similar to the Oculus Rift, instead of dual sensors like the Vive. Another downfall is it doesn't come with a controller. When we tested the OSVR we just paired the headset with an Xbox One controller. However, the OSVR headset is compatible with the Gloveone, which lets you use both hands to sense and interact with objects in virtual reality.
On the other hand, there are much cheaper headsets made from cardboard, plastic or aluminum. The most popular of these is Google Cardboard, which sells for around $10 online. Cardboard and other headsets like the Homido VR and Zeiss VR ONE have plastic magnifying lenses and rely on your Android or iPhone's screen. The best mid-grade virtual reality headset is the Samsung Gear VR, which is the result of a collaboration between Samsung and Oculus.
Since virtual reality is such a new technology, it's still pretty inaccessible thanks to its expensive price. Beyond the headset itself, the best virtual reality headsets need a gaming computer to operate. Enter Samsung's Gear VR. Samsung partnered with Oculus to create the headset, which only costs $99. It's compatible with the Galaxy S7, S7 edge, Note 5, Note 7, S6 and S6 edge smartphones.
The headset is comfortable, senses movement and has a touchpad that can be used to control apps and navigate menus. It's the best way to experience VR without investing in an expensive gaming PC or console.
The headset does suffer from overheating issues occasionally, especially when using it for long VR sessions.
The most affordable VR headset is Google Cardboard, which sells for around $10 online. These headsets flooded the market and can even be acquired for free oftentimes at tech conferences or during email promotions. The headset is literally made of cardboard and has plastic magnifying lenses. It relies on your Android or iPhone's screen.
Google Cardboard is powered by your smartphone and apps on the App Store or Google Play. Don't expect any serious games or experiences with Cardboard though; it's an easy way to just get a little taste of virtual reality. Besides poor image quality, its biggest downfall is its lack of straps, so you have to actually hold up the device to your eyes with your hands.
Homido VR lets you dabble in virtual reality for less than $100. However, this headset is just a glorified Google Cardboard headset and relies on your smartphone display. It's made from plastic and has a strong elastic strap and adjustable lenses.
It doesn't play nice with glasses and requires you to remove your smartphone from the headset each time you want to play a new game or watch a video. That is unless you have a Bluetooth controller, which will cost you extra.
Homido VR is 3D compatible, so you can watch your favorite 3D movies in a new and exciting way.
Zeiss VR ONE
Zeiss is known for making outstanding camera lenses, and the German company has taken its expertise to enter the virtual reality market. Its Zeiss VR ONE headset is a step up from the Homido VR headset, but the experiences it provides still aren't the same caliber as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Zeiss has developed two apps for its headset: a cinema app for watching videos and an augmented reality app. We like that the headset has some padding and has a solid construction, but its field of view isn't impressive and the headset doesn't have any built-in navigation controls like the Gear VR does.