How to Choose the Right VR
Virtual Reality Is Here
Virtual Reality is a fascinating way to travel using nothing more than the power of technology. With a headset and motion tracking, VR lets you look around a virtual space as if you’re actually there. It’s also been a promising technology for decades that’s never truly caught on. That’s constantly changing with the current wave of VR products, especially as the biggest names in the industry are starting to really hone and tweak their headsets.
Oculus has both tethered and standalone headsets from the Go, to the Quest, to the Rift S. HTC has the Steam-friendly Vive Cosmos and the developer-focused Vive Pro. Sony has the PS4-focused PlayStation VR, and Microsoft is supporting its Windows Mixed Reality platform with a variety of headsets from different manufacturers.
Google and Samsung still offer phone-based VR headsets in the form of the Daydream View and the Gear VR, and even Nintendo has gotten into the game with its Labo VR Kit for the Nintendo Switch. However, these shell-like headsets, which require a phone or some other device physically inserted into them, feel like novelties next to more powerful headsets that can provide more immersive experiences.
The Big Question: What VR Is the Best?
Modern VR headsets now fit under one of three categories: Mobile, tethered, or standalone. Mobile headsets are shells with lenses into which you place your smartphone. The lenses separate the screen into two images for your eyes, turning your smartphone into a VR device. Mobile headsets like the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream View are relatively inexpensive at around $100, and because all of the processing is done on your phone, you don’t need to connect any wires to the headset.
While they can offer a taste of VR, mobile headsets don’t provide the full experience. They tend to offer three-degrees-of-freedom (3DOF) motion tracking, following your direction but not your position. They also only come with one motion controller, which is also 3DOF-only. You don’t get the same immersiveness you do with six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) motion tracking and dual motion controllers, which might be why Google and Samsung have been largely quiet lately about their mobile headsets. The Nintendo Labo VR Kit is its own unique case, but it’s more of a novelty for Switch owners.
Tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift S, the HTC Vive Cosmos, and the PlayStation VR are physically connected to PCs (or in the case of the PS VR, a PlayStation 4). The cable makes them a bit unwieldy, but putting all of the actual video processing in a box you don’t need to directly strap to your face means your VR experience can be a lot more complex. The use of a dedicated display in the headset instead of your smartphone drastically improves image fidelity, and either external sensors or outward-facing cameras on the headset provide full 6DOF movement tracking.
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The trade-off, besides the clunky cables, is the price. The least expensive tethered options are currently around $400. And that’s before you address the processing issue; the Rift S and Vive headsets need pretty powerful PCs to run, while the PS VR requires a PlayStation 4. If the cost isn’t a deal breaker but the cables are, HTC offers a wireless adapter for the Vive, but it requires a desktop PC with a free PCIe slot to work. There are also third-party wireless adapters for the Rift, but we can’t guarantee how well they work.
Standalone headsets were at first a useful novelty that offered a taste of VR without an investment into a gaming PC or a flagship phone. The Oculus Go and the Lenovo Mirage Solo are both capable headsets that work well on their own, but they have the same limited controls and motion tracking as mobile headsets. The recently released Oculus Quest, however, has really sold us on this category. The Quest uses similar outward-facing cameras to the new Rift S to provide 6DOF motion tracking, and uses the same Oculus Touch motion controls. Combined with a faster Snapdragon 835 processor compared with the Oculus Go’s Snapdragon 821, the Quest offers a much more compelling and immersive VR experience, all without the unwieldy cable or PC requirement of the Rift S. We hope to see more standalone 6DOF, dual motion controller headsets in the future, like the upcoming HTC Vive Focus Plus.
The Best Tethered VR Headsets
HTC Vive Cosmos
HTC’s Vive Cosmos is the upgraded version of the Vive headset, boasting a higher resolution and replacing the external base stations with outward-facing cameras for motion tracking. It’s a comprehensive package for whole-room VR, but at $699 it’s very expensive compared with the Oculus Rift S, which offers similar performance. PC-tethered VR systems like the Vive Cosmos need plenty of power, with HTC recommending at least an Intel Core i5-4590 CPU and a GeForce GTX 970 GPU. We’ve found that the cameras on the Vive Cosmos don’t handle motion tracking quite as well as the original Vive with its base stations, but the even more expensive Cosmos Elite brings the base stations back for improved tracking and a higher resolution.
Oculus Rift S
The Oculus Rift was the first big name in the current wave of VR, and Oculus is still a major player. The Rift S has a higher resolution than the Vive (but not as high as the Vive Pro or, strangely, the Oculus Quest) and newer and lighter Oculus Touch motion controllers, and doesn’t need external sensors to work. It does, however, need DisplayPort; if your PC only has an HDMI output, you might want to hunt for the previous Rift and deal with the extra cables.
The Oculus Store has plenty of fantastic VR games, just like SteamVR. You can also use SteamVR games with the Rift, but this requires some software wrangling, and can have its quirks.
Sony PlayStation VR
The PlayStation VR is compelling thanks to Sony backing development for it and the affordability and availability of the PlayStation 4 compared with gaming PCs. All you need is the headset, a PlayStation 4, and a PlayStation Camera (now included with most PlayStation VR bundles). There are some excellent games on PS VR like Moss, Rez Infinite, and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, with Sony and other developers working on several more (including Five Nights at Freddy’s VR).
Many PlayStation VR games work with the DualShock 4, so you don’t even need motion controls. However, those motion controls are where the PlayStation VR lags behind; the headset still uses the PlayStation Move wands from the PlayStation 3 era, and they aren’t nearly as capable or comfortable as the Oculus Touch controllers. They’re also expensive, and not always included in PlayStation VR bundles.
Windows Mixed Reality
Microsoft has been promoting its partnership with multiple headset manufacturers to produce a series of Windows 10-ready “mixed reality” headsets. The distinction between virtual reality and mixed reality is so far dubious, but it indicates an integration of augmented reality (AR) technology using cameras on the helmet. Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Samsung are some of Microsoft’s partners in this mixed reality program.
From the different headsets we’ve tested, the hardware is sound and the setup is simple, but position tracking isn’t as accurate as tethered headsets with external sensors or the Rift S’ new outward-facing tracking cameras. Also, the Windows Mixed Reality store doesn’t have as many compelling VR experiences as the Rift and SteamVR stores, though you can use SteamVR games on Windows Mixed Reality headsets, again with some software wrestling. Windows Mixed Reality does have one thing going for it, though: the highest resolution in consumer VR with the HP Reverb, at 2,160 by 2,160 pixels for each eye.
If you thought the HTC Vive Cosmos was expensive, just wait until you see the Valve Index. Valve’s own PC-tethered VR headset costs a whopping $999 if you want everything you need for it to work (except the computer, of course). You can save some money by reusing your HTC Vive base stations, cutting the price down to $749, or get only the headset (and provide your own motion controllers and base stations) for $499. Those are hard prices to swallow, even if the Index sports a 120Hz refresh rate notably higher than most of its competitors (with an experimental 144Hz mode), and the controllers feature an advanced grip system for more natural, precise interaction. We have yet to test the Valve Index.
The Best Standalone VR Headsets
The Oculus Go is the least expensive way to jump into virtual reality. At $200 it’s pricier than mobile VR headsets, but unlike those headsets, you don’t need a compatible (and usually expensive flagship) smartphone to use it. The $200 investment gets you right into a Gear VR-like virtual reality experience, complete with an intuitive controller. It makes some compromises for the price, like using a dated Snapdragon 821 processor and offering only 3DOF motion tracking, but it’s still enough to try out Netflix on a virtual theater screen or play Settlers of Catan in VR.
The Oculus Quest costs twice as much as the Oculus Go, but it’s well worth it. It has a more powerful Snapdragon 835 processor and a sharper OLED screen, but more importantly it offers full 6DOF motion tracking with dual motion controls. In fact, it uses the same Oculus Touch controllers as the Oculus Rift S. It’s limited to Oculus’ mobile software store, like the Oculus Go, so it won’t provide the same selection as the PC-based Rift S and its much bigger Oculus Store. Still, there are already some very compelling experiences on it, like Beat Saber and Superhot VR, that make it well worth your attention. It’s also currently the only VR platform that can use Spatial, an intriguing new VR teleconferencing service with free access for consumers.
Lenovo Mirage Solo With Daydream
The Lenovo Mirage Solo is the Google Daydream version of the Oculus Quest, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. It has the same Snapdragon 835 processor and outward-facing cameras for 6DOF position tracking for the headset itself, but it includes only a single 3DOF motion controller, which severely limits its capabilities. It feels like a half-step between the Go and the Quest, using Google’s Daydream platform instead of Oculus, and simply isn’t as compelling as the other standalone headsets because of it.
The Best Mobile VR Headsets
Google and Samsung were the biggest names in mobile VR, with Google Cardboard and the Daydream View, and Samsung’s line of Gear VR headsets. They respectively worked with Google’s and Samsung’s flagship phones, like the Pixel 3 and the Galaxy S9. However, both companies have been very quiet over the last year or so about the category, with Samsung in particular not having pursued a Gear VR that works with the S10 or Note 10 phones.
Google continues to support the Daydream View, though we’ll see if any update is revealed when the Pixel 4 is announced later this year. If you have compatible phones, these headsets offer functional 3DOF VR experiences for just $60 to $130. You slide your phone into one, put it on your head, and start tapping away with the included remote. It’s interesting, but underwhelming next to tethered and 6DOF standalone VR experiences. And, if you don’t have the right phone and are fine with 3DOF, spending $200 on an Oculus Go is less of an investment than using either of these.
Nintendo Labo VR Kit
Nintendo’s Labo series of games/arts-and-crafts sets for the Nintendo Switch have interested us since the first Labo Variety Kit came out. You build your own controllers with cardboard and play games using the Switch and motion-sensing Joy-Con controllers. Now Nintendo has returned to VR (a field it hasn’t set foot in since the ill-fated Virtual Boy) with its fourth Labo package, the Labo VR Kit.
The Labo VR Kit has you building a mobile VR headset out of cardboard, like the older Google Cardboard headsets, which you insert the Nintendo Switch into. You then build other controllers, like a camera or a blaster, and attach them to the headset to play games. It’s fun and engaging, but even with an impressive game development kit in the software, it’s ultimately just a novelty. The Labo VR Kit mostly provides 3DOF motion control, even if it uses the Joy-Cons’ motion sensors in some very clever ways (one controller creates a triangulated 6DOF motion control system using both Joy-Cons in tandem), and the Switch’s 720p screen offers some of the simplest and grainiest VR graphics we’ve seen in years. It scores so highly with us because as its own product, a crafts kit for kids who want to learn about VR and game development, it’s excellent. It just isn’t a feasible VR platform like the other systems discussed here.
What About Augmented Reality Headsets?
You might have seen some other famous visual headsets pop up over the last few years, including the Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap One. They aren’t on this list for a few reasons, but the biggest one is that they’re augmented reality (AR) headsets, not virtual reality headsets. And yes, there’s a difference.
Basically, these AR headsets have transparent lenses that let you look at your surroundings, instead of completely replacing your vision with a computer-generated image. They can still project images over whatever you’re looking at, but those images are designed to complement and interact with the area around you. You can make a web browser pop up in the middle of a room, for instance, or watch animals run around your coffee table. It’s fascinating technology that could hint at the future of computing.
The emphasis here is future, as in several years away. That brings us to the second biggest reason the HoloLens and Magic Leap One aren’t on this list: They aren’t consumer products. Both devices are purely intended as development hardware, so AR software can be made for their platforms. Even the HoloLens 2, the second iteration of Microsoft’s AR headset, is aimed specifically at developers and enterprise users rather than consumers.
Considering each headset costs several thousand dollars (the Magic Leap One is $2,300 and the HoloLens 2 will be $3,500), you shouldn’t expect a large library of AR experiences similar to the Oculus and SteamVR stores for a while. It’s an early adopter playground at best, and not for most users.
Nintendo Labo: VR Kit
Pros: Accessible, immersive VR experience for beginners.
Toy-Cons are clever and fun to build.
Toy-Con Garage VR lets you make your own games.
Cons: No way to share your Toy-Con Garage VR creations.
Switch screen is much grainier than nearly any other VR headset available.
Bottom Line: The Nintendo Labo VR Kit turns your Switch into a simple VR headset for playing a variety of mini games, including ones you can create yourself.
Pros: Full 6DOF motion tracking with dual controllers.
Some excellent games are already available.
Cons: Less powerful and has a slightly lower refresh rate than high-end tethered VR headsets.
Bottom Line: The Oculus Quest VR headset combines a wire-free experience with six-degrees-of-freedom motion tracking and two controllers, all without the need for a separate computer to use it.
Pros: No phone, PC, or game system required.
Crisp, fluid display.
Cons: Single, limited motion controller.
Bottom Line: While details remain vague, the wire-free Oculus Go is a promising standalone virtual reality headset.
Oculus Rift S
Pros: Accurate motion tracking for both headset and controllers.
Full software library.
Easy to set up.
Cons: DisplayPort-only; no HDMI.
Still uses a physical cable to connect to a PC.
Lower resolution than the Oculus Quest.
SteamVR requires tinkering to use.
Bottom Line: The Oculus Rift S improves on the previous Rift headset with a sharper screen and a camera array that doesn’t require external sensors.
Sony PlayStation VR
Pros: Immersive VR experience.
Works with non-VR apps and games.
Motion control support.
Low cost of entry compared with PC-based headsets.
Cons: Requires PlayStation Camera, which is not included.
Slightly less powerful than its main competitors.
Some motion-tracking hiccups when playing in brightly lit rooms.
Bottom Line: The Sony PlayStation VR headset brings powerful, compelling virtual reality, with motion control support, to the PlayStation 4.
HTC Vive Cosmos
Pros: Doesn’t require external sensors. Improved motion controls. Sharp display. Large software library with Viveport and SteamVR.
Cons: Expensive. Clunky cable. Requires a full-size DisplayPort 1.2 port.
Bottom Line: The HTC Vive Cosmos VR headset is a technically impressive improvement on the original Vive, but it’s very expensive and you still have to deal with a cable.
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