It’s fair to say that 2016 is the year during which VR makes a real landing on the consumer market at every possible price point. VR has to be experienced, and we have done so for the past few of years, trying various developer hardware and participating to many press demos. With intense competition heating up, the options can be dizzying if you haven’t tried them for yourself, or if you’re new to all of this to form an opinion based on “specs”.
In this article, we’re cutting the fat and lead you directly to your best option, depending on your situation. We’ll sort headsets by decreasing absolute quality, but please read the details because some of them have peculiar pros and cons. Let’s see which VR Headset is the best, for YOU!
#1 HTC VIVE (Desktop)
Quality: Without a doubt, the HTC VIVE (VIVE review link) is the VR system that provides the best VR experience today. It surpasses all other VR headsets in nearly every way: tracking, controllers, the field of view, build quality. The HTC VIVE ships with dual VR controller out of the box.
We think that VR controllers are an essential part of the VR experience. A gamepad is a significant downgrade. The VIVE area tracking is also superior, thanks to a dual tracker setup that make it very hard for the computer to lose track of your headset and controllers.
The HTC VIVE is the system that offers a full VR experience, in which you move around and can interact naturally with the virtual world.
Price: At $800, it’s also the most expensive system, but we’re confident to say that while other options may be more affordable, the “value for the dollar” of the HTC VIVE remains very competitive. There no VR systems that can offer a similar experience for a better price.
Caveat: you need to take into account that high-end VR needs a robust PC that may cost more than $1000, so the VR headset in itself is only one of at least two expensive pieces of equipment.
#2 Oculus Rift (Desktop)
Quality: The Oculus Rift can claim credit for re-igniting Virtual Reality, and we’ve played with various Rift developer hardware since early 2013. Today, it comes second to the HTC VIVE in terms of absolute user experience. It doesn’t ship with dual VR controllers or dual-tracker and the build quality is slightly behind. The VIVE feels a bit more solid and nicer in general.
The Oculus Rift is more affordable and well-suited for seated VR experiences like flight simulators, racing games and discovery titles.
Price: $600 is undeniably more affordable than the VIVE. $200 is not pocket change for anyone, but you will lose a good chunk of the VR experience that dual controllers/trackers provide.
Caveat: It’s not certain how Rift users can upgrade to dual-tracking and Vr controllers and what the final cost is going to be, if they do. Although it is possible that Rift achieves feature parity with the HTC VIVE at some point, the price and timeframe for that remains uncertain. Like all desktop VR systems, the Oculus Rift should be paired with a powerful PC, which is potentially very expensive.
#3 PlayStation VR (PS4)
Quality: Sony impressed us early in the VR cycle (2014). The headset’s build quality is comparable to the Oculus Rift’s and the general experience was very good. The PlayStation VR can work with one tracker (PS Camera) and two controllers (PS Move). The combo should offer a good degree of freedom if you pick the “Launch Bundle” which includes all these items. The lack of dual-tracking system can result in tracking snafus, but it remains to be seen if that happens a lot.
The combo should offer a good degree of freedom if you pick the “Launch Bundle” which includes all these items. The lack of dual-tracking system can result in tracking snafus, but it remains to be seen if that happens a lot.
Price: The Launch Bundle with the camera costs $499 (official Sony announcement), which gives it an excellent quality for the price ratio. In addition to this, the PS4 itself costs $399, which is about one-fourth of what an entry Gaming PC would cost.
During our VR tests, we used a $1650+ Lenovo Y900 desktop PC. PlayStation VR is the best VR value for users who start from scratch and don’t already own a VR-Ready gaming PC. That said, Sony officially said that there’s a potential for using PlayStation VR on the PC, although Sony is probably weighing how it would affect it’s PS platform…
Caveat: Pricing isn’t all. The weakest point of PlayStation VR right now is the relatively low performance of the PS4 itself. Although more powerful than a phone, the PS4 can’t compete with modern PC graphics performance. Of course, console developers have done marvels thanks to clever programming, but at some point, raw power helps a lot, and that’s particularly true for VR. Maybe this is why a
Of course, console developers have done marvels thanks to clever programming, but at some point, raw power helps a lot, and that’s particularly true for VR. Maybe this is why a more powerful PlayStation 4.5 is set to arrive.
#4 Samsung Gear VR (Mobile)
If you own select Samsung phones*, you the Samsung Gear VR is by far the best Mobile VR solution. It works by using your phone as a VR display and computer. The result is surprisingly good, thanks to the high pixel density of these phones: 577 PPI for the Galaxy S7 and 326 PPI for the iPhone 6s. The Samsung Gear VR is well built, and although it doesn’t have the build-quality of the Rift, it’s comfortable and nice to use. (Official Gear VR page)
Pricing: at $100, the Gear VR has the best ratio between “quality of experience” and affordability. If you want to comfortably dip your toe into a VR world and if you own a Samsung handset, this is the best way to do it.
Caveat: It only works with select Samsung phones. The most obvious general downside of having a mobile experience is the graphics quality (vs. a PC). The simple, discovery-based ones will run fine. However, a 1-Watt smartphone simply cannot power the rich 3D experiences that a 400-800 Watt PC can.
*At the time of publishing, the compatible phones are: S7, S7 Edge, S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, Note 5.
#5 Google Cardboard (Mobile)
Quality: If you do not own a Samsung phone, the Google Cardboard is the next best option. The idea is extremely simple: you can build an approximative VR casing that works for many phones. Obviously, the quality of the experience isn’t the same at all, and it even a bit clunky sometimes, but it’s the absolute cheapest way to get started and to see if you even like the idea of
Obviously, the quality of the experience isn’t the same at all, and it even a bit clunky sometimes, but it’s the absolute cheapest way to get started and to see if you even like the idea of VR, and if it will make you sick. At this point, it’s not about fulfilling an experience, but about satisfying a curiosity. It can also be “
At this point, it’s not about fulfilling an experience, but about satisfying a curiosity. It can also be “good enough” (that’s the keyword here) for schools and other places where buying dozens of $100 headsets isn’t an option.
Caveat: This is also the least comfortable experience. In fact, this is more about “first VR experience” than really experiencing VR as it should be. However, economics reality dictates that an ultra-low cost solution remains infinitely better than… nothing. Despite the caveats, we found the Cardboard experience to be meaningful enough to encourage people to try it.
Other headsets that didn’t quite make it
Sulon Q (Desktop, Wireless)
The Sulon Q VR Headset is built on the concept of providing a 100% tether-free experience, which is a great goal to have. To achieve that, it embeds both the computer and the optics/display required to provide the VR experience. Additionally, it has an optical see-through option that makes it viable for Augmented Reality (AR) as well (read our Microsoft Hololens AR review).
We like the end goal, but the flipside of is that the headset is pretty hefty, and doesn’t pack as much power as a full-on gaming PC, although the graphics quality should be better than a Mobile VR experience. This headset isn’t available anyhow, but it’s an interesting take on this matter. Official Sulon Q announcement.
LG 360 VR (Mobile)
The LG 360 VR headset is optimized for portability and is by far the slimmest and better-looking. It also doesn’t use your phone as the main display, which is practical when some settings need to be tweaked, or the VR app restarted (it happens more often than you would care for). The small footprint does have an impact in the immersion and visual quality (vs. The Gear VR), so this is a trade-off that you need to be willing to make.
Using a non-phone display allows LG to achieve a high ~640 PPI, which is always a good thing with VR. It is estimated that 1000 PPI would be the point of diminishing returns when density is concerned. We discussed that topic with LG Electronics head of products recently.
The LG 360VR headset has minimalistic controls and one 3.5mm audio connector for your favorite headphones.
At around $300, the cost is fairly high, for a Mobile VR experience that is not the absolute best. If the small footprint is of particular interest, you can find extra info on LG’s official 360 VR page.
Zeiss VR One
This is the nemesis for the Samsung Gear VR. Using the same idea of having your phone’s screen become the main display, the Zeiss VR One is a mobile VR Chassis that costs ~$129.
The advantage of working with non-Samsung phones is evident. However, it also means that the experience isn’t as tightly controlled, or that users need to make some adjustments that they may, or may not do well, or do at all.
If you have a non-Samsung phone and are willing to pay for having a chassis that isn’t made of cardboard, this may be tempting. Check it out at the official Zeiss VR One site.
We like how the Glyph VR headset looks. The design is curiously audio-centric, and it is worn like a pair of headphones, with a visor in front of your eyes. In the visor, each eye can look at a 1280×720 display.
To be fair, Avegant doesn’t pitch this as a VR display, but more like a more immersive display which could be used with drones, or just to watch movies. It connects to an HDMI (out) imaging device, so it is compatible with most AV equipment out there. We only mention it because many people tend to lump this as a VR headset, which it is not.
The field of view (FOV) is only 45 degree, which in our opinion is too small for VR immersion. It costs $699 (Official Glyph site).
Freely VR Headset
This is another VR headset that uses a mobile phone as the main display. The emphasis is to have the ability to tweak phones ranging from 4” to 6.1” in the best possible way. That’s the reason why the headset looks a little weird, which is fine if you use it at home.
Freely also comes with its own “Glide” controller, just in case you don’t have a Bluetooth controller already – it’s a good idea since the large majority of smartphone owners don’t have a BT gaming controller. At $80, it’s an interesting option if your phone has a high-density display.