THE ULTIMATE VR HEADSET BUYERS GUIDE
THE ULTIMATE VR HEADSET BUYERS GUIDE
THE ULTIMATE VR HEADSET BUYER’S GUIDE
If you go back to the 1990s and start reading about "virtual reality," you’ll quickly realize that the term could refer to anything from a full Lawnmower Man simulation system to a 3D model on a computer screen. Things have gotten simpler since then: outside a few special circumstances, we’re now almost always referring to things you see inside a VR headset like the Oculus Rift. Unfortunately, this definition implies that all headsets are roughly equivalent — that a $30 Google Cardboard will do the same thing as an $800 HTC Vive.
But as VR headsets start appearing on store shelves, the very real differences between them will start to matter — a lot. So if you’re looking into VR, what should you check out? There’s no one, specific device that’s right for each person; in fact, once you get down to the cheapest headsets, there are way too many for us to name here. It’s too early to even recommend specific products, given how many aren’t out yet. But we can give you everything you’ll need to sort through the options: what you’ll be able to do in different kinds of virtual reality, how much you can expect to pay, and which features you should look for.
The biggest decision for most people will be picking between the three general classes of VR. Do you want to just get your feet wet with the simplest tools available? Are you holding out for the best possible experience? Or are you somewhere in between? It’s all laid out below. For something a little more concrete, there’s also a direct comparison chart for eight of the headsets we mention.
The absolute simplest form of virtual reality is made out of nothing but a pair of plastic magnifying lenses and a sheet of cardboard, using a standard smartphone as a screen. Most people refer to this now as "Google Cardboard," but the idea was around for years before Google branded it. And Google only just started selling its own Cardboard sets — it's put most of its efforts toward a set of best practices that manufacturers can follow to get an official "Works with Google Cardboard" stamp of approval. Not all low-end headset makers follow them, but the most easily available sets are Cardboard-compatible, which means they’re guaranteed to work well with similarly certified Android and iOS VR apps.
Cardboard-compatible headsets, some made of plastic or even aluminum, are easy to get. But they offer limited interactivity, most suited for watching 360-degree video. And they’re not meant to be used for long periods of time — among other things, Google’s standard forbids head straps. Cardboard boxes are unsurprisingly pretty uncomfortable, but even more ergonomic plastic versions like the Mattel View-Master are only fun to hold up for about five minutes at a time.
Especially if you go to tech-oriented conventions or live in a major city, you can probably find a Google Cardboard for free. A lot of companies partner with Google or other manufacturers to make branded headsets, like Verizon’s Star Wars Cardboard giveaway. You can also order some cardboard and plastic lenses, print a pattern from Google’s site, and make your own. Google recently started selling basic Cardboards for $15 apiece. Beyond that, Google’s site links to several Cardboard-compatible options from companies like Dodocase and Knox Labs. Customizations and special materials can drive up the price, but they're mostly in the $20 to $30 range, including models made of more durable plastic.
GOOGLE CARDBOARDS CAN BE MADE FROM PLASTIC OR EVEN ALUMINUM
HIDDEN COSTS CHEAP
More than two-thirds of American adults own a smartphone, and that’s all you need to use Google Cardboard. This is good for anyone who doesn’t want to upgrade to a brand-new device. It’s also great for any iPhone users, even if Google tends to delay pushing new Cardboard features to the iOS version of apps like YouTube. Apple has mostly ignored virtual reality so far, so there’s no telling when the iPhone might get a high-quality mobile experience like that of a Gear VR. The downside is that especially if your phone is a couple of years old, there’s no guarantee it can handle Google Cardboard apps well. And you’ll generally get lower-quality, laggier performance than on the Gear VR or a high-end headset.
SPACE NEEDS CHEAP
While not all Google Cardboard-style headsets are easily portable, the most portable headsets are Google Cardboards. The basic Cardboard shape folds into a stackable box, and the smallest design is barely larger than a pair of eyeglasses. The best-known Cardboard experiences are live-action shorts that couldn’t use motion tracking even on a high-end headset, so the lack of it isn’t much of an issue. On the other hand, making a Cardboard-style headset more portable usually involves making it less comfortable, as well as significantly worse at shutting out the rest of the world. And even if you can take them anywhere, all headsets usually work best on a spinning chair.
To be considered fully Cardboard-compatible, a headset needs to have exactly one input. That doesn't necessarily have to be a button; the simplest headsets on the market are just boxes and lenses with a hole for one finger or thumb, letting you tap the screen directly. The buttons on headsets that do have them are usually little levers that press the screen for you. What can you do with one button? Mostly select options on a menu, or perform simple and relatively slow actions in a video game. Some Cardboard apps do away with using it altogether — you can stare at a menu for a second or two to select it, or move your head to change direction in a video game.
IF AN APP NEEDS MORE THAN ONE BUTTON, IT'S NOT FOR CARDBOARD
The simplest VR headsets aren’t just the cheapest, they’re also the most widely available. Over a dozen Cardboard-compatible headsets are on sale through Google’s site, and others — like a more sophisticated version of the already excellent View-Master Cardboard design — are on their way. Literal cardboard headsets have a limited lifespan, but they’re easily replaceable.
Likewise, it’s easy to find apps for Cardboard, even if the range of experiences is limited. Vrse, Jaunt, Ryot, IM360, and other apps offer VR video, and there are a few individual apps worth checking out, like clever thought experiment Cardboard Crash and the Brickbreaker-esque game Proton Pulse. On Android, Google has even made its entire YouTube library viewable through Cardboard — 360-degree videos play in full virtual reality, and normal ones play on a VR simulacrum of a big-screen TV. And as Google pushes further into the space, more options could be available in the coming months.
Mid-range headsets are a grab bag of options that are a step up from Google Cardboard. Where Cardboard is essentially just a funny-looking smartphone case, these phone-powered headsets might have additional tracking sensors, more sophisticated built-in controls, focus wheels, or even their own screens. The best-known — and by far the most sophisticated — mid-range headset is Samsung’s Gear VR. But there are also a few more obscure options, like the Zeiss VR One or the French Homido device. LG just revealed its own mobile headset, and Google is widely rumored to be announcing one in a few months.
Unlike the high and low end of the market, the overall quality and features of these vary dramatically. The Gear VR is the clear front-runner right now, for example, while the LG 360 VR currently suffers from poor design and lag. Homido and Zeiss’ designs, meanwhile, are more like Google Cardboard than either of the above.
If you’re looking for a sturdy mobile headset with a strap, expect to pay between $75 to $125. With the Gear VR, you’re paying for software optimization, a better control system than Cardboard, and a lot of attention to detail, including a dedicated app store. It’s harder to swallow that price with headsets like the VR One and Homido, which are more like Cardboards with high-end lenses (for Zeiss) or a focus wheel (for Homido) — both seem designed for passive experiences. We’re also waiting on some prices: LG’s 360 VR headset remains a mystery, as does whatever Google might have in store. With the right timing, though, you can get a Gear VR for free — Samsung has started throwing it in as a perk with new phone preorders, and Best Buy has offered similar bundles in the past.
If you’re planning to trade in your old smartphone, it’s worth thinking about VR. The Gear VR and LG 360 VR headsets only work with the latest Samsung and LG flagship phones. If Google introduces a non-Cardboard mobile headset, it could also require specific new phones, like ones from its Nexus line. While generic mid-range headsets might fit iPhones, there are no specialized options, and we have no idea when (or if) Apple or anyone else might change that.
Mid-range headsets are in an odd place. In some sense, they have the best of both worlds: they’re easily portable, but also more comfortable and immersive than Google Cardboard. Untwisting headset cables is a major headache that devices like the Gear VR neatly avoid. But by offering experiences that would be too interactive or fast-moving for Cardboard to handle, they also open the door to motion sickness. Positional tracking — which senses the spatial movement of your head instead of just the direction it’s turning — can mitigate this significantly. But right now, VR systems need an external tracking camera to do it, so it’s really only a feature for tethered headsets.
In the future, mobile headsets could use a phone’s internal camera to map space (something known as "inside out" tracking), but nothing on the market has managed to pull this off yet. Will Google, when it finally tips its hand? We’ve got our suspicions, but it’s too early to say.
The controllers on mid-range headsets are all over the place. Some headsets, like Homido and the Zeiss VR One, don’t have anything at all — they’re actually a step down from Cardboard in that respect. LG’s virtual reality headset has a simple two-button set-up. The Gear VR has the most sophisticated system so far, a laptop-like trackpad that sits on the side of the headset. It’s not perfect, but it offers several different input options, like swiping, tapping, or pressing a separate "Back" button. Technically, you can pair a Bluetooth gamepad with most mobile phones and use it as a control system, but that’s usually a clunky, inconsistent experience, and it just adds more equipment to carry around.
The Gear VR was the first major virtual reality headset to see consumer release, and after a period of being sold out almost everywhere, it’s easy to find. Generic headsets like the Zeiss VR One are also already on sale. Otherwise, it’s a waiting game. LG hasn’t announced a date for its headset, and other phone makers (as well as Google) are only rumored to have their own products on the horizon.
Of the options right now, the Gear VR is the only one with a substantive non-Cardboard catalog. It’s actually got a couple of hundred games, apps, and little experiments, many of which take advantage of its relatively complex controls. And while apps like Jaunt or VRSE are on both Google Cardboard and Gear VR, Samsung’s Milk VR app adds a few more video options, including the short mystery series Gone. Gear VR games are very much works in progress, but Oculus and Samsung have put their weight behind them in a way no other mobile headset makers have. And while they cost more than your average mobile game, the $5 to $10 price tag isn’t bad — especially for the most substantive VR experiences currently for sale.
DESIGN HIGH END
The absolute best-quality VR experiences can’t be powered by a mobile phone. The Oculus Rift, Valve and HTC’s Vive, and Sony PlayStation VR — the three high-end headsets we’re currently waiting for — all run off external computers or game consoles. This means that they can offer sophisticated features like motion tracking, high-resolution screens, and the best graphics possible. They’re also generally more comfortable, better at blocking outside light, and less prone to inducing motion sickness. But they won’t be released until later this year, and for now, they’re expensive and intended mostly for early adopters.
PRICE HIGH END
By almost any metric, high-end headsets cost a lot. The Oculus Rift is $599, plus the still-unknown cost of its motion controllers. The HTC Vive is $799. The one headset that we don’t know anything about right now is PlayStation VR. Early price estimates for both the Rift and Vive were way off — people underestimated the former and overestimated the latter — so we’ll refrain from making any guesses on PSVR. But we know it’s going to be "several hundred dollars," and it’s not just a headset; there’s also a box that helps the PlayStation 4 process video. These prices will come down over time, but it’s hard to say how long that might take.
HIDDEN COSTS HIGH END
Most people have a desktop or laptop computer. But the only ones likely to own VR-ready PCs (sorry, no Macs for now) are film or video editors, big-budget video game fans, and other people who routinely need lots of processing power. To be clear, computers that don’t meet the Rift and Vive’s recommended specs might still be able to run some VR games and videos, which will vary in complexity and size. But to get a guaranteed good experience, expect to spend around $1,000 if you’re buying a new desktop — maybe a little less if you buy a combined headset and PC bundle. With PlayStation VR, though, the calculation is a lot simpler: all you need is a PlayStation 4 console.
SPACE NEEDS HIGH END
One of the big features you’re getting with high-end headsets is the ability to move or even walk through space. The standard way to do this — used by Oculus and Sony — is to put LEDs or some other set of markers on the headset, then track them with an external camera. This kind of positional tracking is very effective, but how far you can move in it depends on how much space the camera can capture. PlayStation VR mostly lets you lean, crouch, and shift around. The Rift can let you move a few feet in any direction, though we’ve only seen this done with multiple tracking cameras.
Unlike these, HTC’s Vive uses a laser tracking system that lets you walk around a 15 x 15-foot room. It’s by far the most freedom you’ll get from any headset, especially with a "chaperone" system that turns on a camera to show you when you’re getting close to an edge. But that also means you’ll need to install a high-powered computer next to a totally clear patch of floor. The Vive can work in smaller spaces as well, so it’s fine to buy if your house or apartment is a little more cramped. But it makes less sense to get the most expensive headset on the market if you’re not taking advantage of its biggest perk.
CONTROLLERS HIGH END
Tethered headsets tend to be more focused on video games than the rest of the pool, and both the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR make frequent use of gamepads. The Oculus Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller, which will be the primary method of using the system at launch. PSVR uses PlayStation 4 controllers for several experiences. But the thing that really sets these high-end headsets apart is their motion controllers, which let you do everything from play realistic virtual ping-pong to paint in three dimensions.
Sony already had its Move motion-tracking wands, and the PlayStation 4 gamepad has a light strip that tracking cameras can pick up as well. The Rift and Vive use their own specially designed controllers, and which one you prefer largely comes down to feel, since they have similar capabilities. But there are a couple of logistical concerns: the Rift’s controllers won’t come out until months after the headset is released, and the Vive only uses HTC and Valve’s motion wands — no traditional gamepads included.
ALL THREE HEADSETS LET YOU MOVE AROUND IN PHYSICAL SPACE
AVAILABILITY HIGH END
April is going to be a huge month for high-end headsets. The Oculus Rift ships at the end of March, and the HTC Vive ships shortly thereafter, marking the first two high-end headset launches. Many people, though, might be getting their orders closer to this summer. The Oculus Rift is heavily backordered, with a current shipping date of July for new buyers — though buying a PC bundle might get you one sooner. Vive preorders have just opened, and we’re not sure how much inventory HTC is working with. The Rift (and probably Vive) will appear in stores, but don’t count on seeing large quantities.
If you’re looking at PlayStation VR, the timeline gets a bit longer. We’ve recently heard that Sony will ship it this fall, and it’s possible we’ll hear an exact date at this year’s Game Developers Conference, where the company has released VR news in the past. Sony introduced around 17 launch games last year, although developers have generally been more secretive about their plans than they have with the Rift or Vive. And while there are free games bundled with the headsets — Rift orders will come with platformer Lucky’s Tale for everyone and EVE: Valkyrie for preorders, and Vive preorder customers get Tilt Brush, Fantastic Contraption, and Job Simulator — everyone has also been pretty coy about how much you’ll pay to buy a game.
Unless you’re determined to be a super-early adopter, waiting a few months may well be the best option. Oculus and Valve have both lined up several dozen titles for the Rift and Vive, but the full catalog will take some months to come out, and it will take time to squash the inevitable bugs that come with new releases. For the Oculus Rift particularly, many of its best experiences — like sculpting tool Medium — won’t work until the Touch motion controllers ship later this year. And
if you wait, the hardware needed to run these high-end headsets will only get cheaper.