Six months ago, the world of consumer virtual reality changed forever with the launch of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift VR headsets. While both were solid options in their own rights, our favorite was the HTC Vive. With room-scale experiences, bundled motion controllers, and a pretty decent starting line up of launch titles, it provided a fulfilling experience right out of the box. When the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were in the Digital Trends office, almost everyone preferred the latter, from first-time gamers to veterans.
But time, as with everything, changes things and the VR landscape is certainly much busier than it was earlier this year. So which headset would we recommend to you now?
It should come as no surprise that the HTC Vive is still our pick for computer-powered VR headsets. However its roomscale focus isn’t necessarily for everyone. Oculus’ Rift has an expanded library of games now and with Touch controllers just around the corner, it’s certainly worth considering.
Other potential claimants to the throne of the VR king have also arisen, so let’s take another look at why we think the Vive is the best out there, and what the competition offers in the hotly contested virtual reality gaming scene at the tail end of 2016.
Why you should buy this: It’s the best virtual reality system available.
Who’s it for: Those happy to pay that bit extra for the full package right now.
How much will it cost: $800
Why we picked the HTC Vive
HTC and Valve’s virtual reality headset is, at least at the moment, the most complete and engaging VR experience available. It’s specifically built for room-scale experiences and now, six months on from release, its library of games is well over 300, all of which capitalize on the the SteamVR platform’s power and openness in various ways.
The device also backs up that software support with powerful, well constructed hardware. The twin OLED displays tout a combined pixel resolution of 2,160 x 1,200, with a 90Hz refresh rate and a 720p camera for tracking and obstacle detection. The headset also includes a pair of motion controllers, two lighthouse trackers, and a pair of earbuds to go along with its $800 price tag.
Room-scale experiences are the HTC Vive’s biggest draw, though. The space starts at 5 by 6 and a half feet, and reaches 16 by 16 feet with the two bundled sensors. You can walk around freely in the space, and even crouch down and lean around corners for a closer look at what’s around you. It’s incredibly immersive, and it also sidesteps many of the issues early headsets had with motion sickness.
Motion controllers also contribute to the Vive’s lead over the Oculus Rift. Although Oculus Touch controllers are set to arrive before the end of 2016, but they only support front-facing use, and their price is still an unknown.
For now, with the HTC’s Vive’s ability to reach out, grab, touch, and manipulate objects in a game, it makes a huge difference in regards to immersion — one that a traditional gamepad simply can’t match. The Vive’s motion controllers are incredibly intuitive as well, equipped with just a few buttons and powerful clicking touchpad that allows for precise movement and settings.
If there’s one thing that’s holding computer-based VR headsets back, it’s the price. That doesn’t just mean the $800 price tag affixed to the headset, but also the $600 or more you’ll need for a capable system. Both the Rift and Vive require at least an Intel Core i5-4590 or greater, along with a GTX 970 or AMD R9 290 (GTX 1060 and RX 480 in the current generation) for fully operational VR.
Should you wait: The HTC Vive isn’t even halfway through its lifecycle and the competition still hasn’t caught up. Buy now.
We’re excited about PSVR
Why you should buy this: We can’t say you should … yet, but we’re excited about it.
Who’s it for: Those who already own a PS4 and want to experience VR without buying a whole PC for it.
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the Sony PlayStation VR
The first wave of VR headsets, like a lot of high-end hardware, are only available to the PC gaming side of things. But in just a few weeks’ time, PlayStation VR will officially launch, making it the second console virtual reality headset, the first being the classic, and fatally flawed, Nintendo Virtual Boy.
Although significantly cheaper than the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the PSVR looks like it will be a surprisingly effective headset. Its technical specifications (which are also weaker than its contemporaries) demonstrate the difference in power between modern game consoles and desktop systems. The fact that it features more subpixels on its OLED display than the ones used both main competitors too, means better color reproduction, but the screen door issue is still worse than you’d see on the Rift or Vive.
If also offers great visuals and decent tracking with its camera system, but does fall behind in terms of controller input. Its Move Motion controllers are fine for broad strokes, but the older tracking technology can’t match the advanced systems offered by Vive.
The PSVR has the hardware, competitive price and the large user base to potentially become the first big mainstream VR solution for gaming, but purchasers should be aware that the Vive and Gear VR still offer a better experience.
Should you wait: You have to wait a few weeks at least as it’s not out yet, but it will be on October 13. We will have a full review
The best for those on the go
Samsung Gear VR
Why you should buy this: It gives you a good idea of what basic virtual reality is like.
Who’s it for: Those buying a new Samsung phone, or don’t want to pay through the nose for VR.
How much will it cost: $100
Why we picked the Samsung Gear VR
Don’t have a gaming PC of your own? Always on the go? There are a lot of smartphone virtual reality solutions out there right now, but the Samsung’s Gear VR is still the best of the bunch. Able to run on a number of high-end Samsung smartphones, the Gear VR is the cheapest of the headsets we’ve covered here, at just $100 – or free with some smartphone purchases.
That’s $300 less than the nearest competitor on this list.
There are a few issues with the Gear VR, however. Even the newest generation of Samsung devices don’t have anywhere near the graphical performance required to pull off high-end VR experiences, and the games, while vast in number, can often be underwhelming. You’ll also need to provide your own Bluetooth gamepad — we recommend the SteelSeries Stratus XL — if you want to improve the experience, so make sure to consider that as part of the cost. However, many games don’t require a controller at all.
There is also a lack of positional tracking – the ability to translate through space, as well as rotate in it. In practice, that means turning and rotating is fine, but leaning won’t cause the headset to respond correctly. Missing that does somewhat take away from the Gear VR’s immersion.
While we wouldn’t suggest going out and buying a Samsung phone simply to use as a VR headset, it might be enough to swing you toward the brand if you’re already considering a new phone anyway. The Gear VR also massively outpaces the Google Cardboard in terms of performance, clarity, and software offerings.
However if you’re just looking to get a taste for VR, something like Google Cardboard, or one of the $20 or so headsets that are out there may suffice as a stepping stone – just don’t let it be your last one, there’s a whole virtual universe of VR content out there waiting for you to enjoy.
Should you wait: No, there’s no need to hang on for this one. Grab one now, especially if you’re buying a new phone.
The best headset for tinkerers
Why you should buy this: Easily upgradeable in the future, cheapest PC solution.
Who’s it for: Those who want to tinker and don’t want to be tied down to one platform.
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the OSVR
Both the HTC and Oculus options are focused on providing easy, streamlined solutions for users who might not be that familiar with hardware. If you prefer to get a little more hands on, the OSVR headset may be right up your alley.
Built on an open-source design, the real beauty of the OSVR headset is its potential. Every piece is modular, from the faceplate to the lenses. There’s also already support for third-party accessories like the Leap Motion controller, and it boasts a special diffusion film that helps cut back on the screen door effect.
The OSVR headset had some issues in its early days, before the advent of SteamVR. Now, with a little elbow grease, the OSVR can run SteamVR-supported games with a controller or a keyboard and mouse. It also had a recent update to the HDK2 model, which improves the displays to 1,080 x 1,200 per eye (2,160 x 1,200) each operating at 90Hz.
That upgrade has meant the price has risen from $300, to a slightly weightier $400. While still cheaper than the alternatives on the PC based platform, this does put it in the same price bracket as the PSVR. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the HDK2 only comes with one positional tracking camera and lacks any form of motion controllers out of the box.
But that’s because the HDK2 and all previous versions of the OSVR headset are designed for tinkerers. They’re there to let you play around with the technology, see what you can make work with it and upgrade it in the future. Having spent some hands-on time with the device, we feel confident saying it provides an excellent experience, but it’s not for general consumers.
Should you wait: The HDK2 is still quite recent. Any future upgrades will likely be compatible with your headset. Go for it.
Should you buy now, or wait?
There’s another question haunting this whole discussion, and it’s whether now is the right time to buy a VR headset. If you don’t already have a high-end gaming PC or PlayStation 4, the price is very high right now. Plan on spending $1,000 or more when all is said and done.
These are also all first-generation devices, and as such, there’s a strong likelihood the second wave will substantially overcome their technical limitations.
How long will that be until they come out? It’s hard to say. Features like inside-out tracking, gesture control, and haptic feedback are even newer than the VR headsets they supplement, and they’re unlikely to find their way into the mainstream for at least a year or two.
The biggest feature you may miss out on is wireless connectivity. The Vive and Rift both sport heavy cables that are tied to a computer, and a lot of users become tangled in them. HTC is already reportedly working with a company to bring the tech to the Vive, but it’s unknown whether that would be a different device, or an add-on for the current generation.
There are enough games and interest at the moment, at least, to satisfy regular first adopters and avid gamers. For everyone else, it’s probably just worth convincing your neighbor so you can play with theirs from time to time.
How we test
At this point, you might be wondering how we came to these conclusions. It’s a valid question, and one we try and be as transparent as possible about.
We start by learning everything we can about an HMD, often long before we have a chance to use it. Once we have it in our hands, we try to play as many titles as we can, and push the hardware into awkward situations to see how it responds.
After that, we put it in as many of our coworkers’ hands as possible. We give them free reign over the device, allowing them to choose demo titles and work with it freely. The less instruction we give, the more we see regular users finding hidden corner use cases that reveal the hardware’s mettle, and often points out issues like nausea and controller familiarity that wouldn’t be issues for reviewers.
Most importantly, we take the time to compare the headsets to other offerings on the market. That includes HMDs we’ve spent time with, and products that aren’t available yet, to determine whether each offering represents a good value.