Back in 2016, 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. So which headset would we recommend to you now? Well, the HTC Vive is still at the top of our list, but it’s no longer the only VR headset that’s worth investing in. Here are our picks for the best VR headset you can buy.
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.
How much will it cost: $600
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 its library of games is massive, 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 $600 price tag.
Room-scale experiences are the HTC Vive’s biggest draw, though. The space starts at 5 x 6.5 feet, and reaches 16 x 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.
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 $600 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 is getting a little long in the tooth, but that just means the platform is fully mature. The second generation headset is at least a year away, so it’s not a bad time to buy.
The best console VR
Why you should buy this: You have a PS4 Pro, and you want to play VR games like Moss.
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
Console VR setups have come a long way since the Nintendo Virtual Boy from 1995. The first wave of modern VR headsets, like a lot of high-end hardware, were only available to the PC gaming side of things. But since the launch of PlayStation VR in 2016, serious console gaming in VR has finally become a reality.
Although significantly cheaper than the HTC Vive, the PSVR is a surprisingly effective headset. Its technical specifications (which are 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 and a more immersive experience.
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 the Vive. Unfortunately, the PSVR also suffers from the screen door issue in the visuals even more so than the Rift or Vive.
The Sony 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 the Rift still offer an overall better experience.
Should you wait: If you’ve recently upgraded to the PS4 Pro, and you’re not planning on picking up a gaming PC, the PSVR is an excellent addition to an excellent console.
The best mobile VR
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 who have a new Samsung phone, or don’t want to pay through the nose for VR.
How much will it cost: $130
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. Ready 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 $130 — or even free with some smartphone purchases.
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 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 and squares up pretty solidly against the Google Daydream View.
If you’re just looking to dip your toe in 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 VR value
Why you should buy this: Easily upgradeable in the future, cheapest PC solution.
Who’s it for: You want a premium VR headset at a discounted cost.
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift has definitely matured since its release. With the release of its Touch controllers and the complete revamp Oculus Home is getting, the Rift keeps getting more and more competitive. However, there’s one additional reason you should consider picking one up: It got a significant, permanent price drop.
After getting the price cut, the Oculus Rift — with Touch controllers included — will run you only $400.It still may not be dirt cheap, but it’s very inexpensive for a VR headset. It’s two hundred less than the HTC Vive, and the same price as the PSVR (for a much more robust VR experience). The Oculus Rift, paired with a powerful computer, is every bit as capable from a technical perspective as the HTC Vive. While we still like the Vive better for a number of reasons, including that the Oculus struggles in room-scale experiences, the price drop makes the Oculus Rift awfully tempting.
In terms of software, Oculus’ owner Facebook is really doubling down on the Oculus platform with a slew of software updates coming in 2018. For instance, among the updates coming to the Oculus platform in 2017 is a complete rework of its user interface. Called “RiftCore 2.0,” the new software update will radically alter the way users interact with applications and games.
Now, instead of using an external application to emulate a desktop environment, you’ll be able to access our applications right from the new Oculus Dashboard. You can open windows, re-arrange them, and even jump into the Dashboard right from your VR games. It’s just one of many changes coming to the Rift platform in the coming year, and these new features alongside the new pricing makes the Rift a very attractive VR platform for newcomers.
The last thing to consider is that Oculus will soon be releasing its standalone VR headset, the Oculus Go. It requires neither a smartphone or a PC and instead relies on its own internals for powering its VR experiences. While it probably won’t compare with the Rift on a technical level, it’ll give you access to all the Oculus software for just $200.
Should you wait: The Oculus Rift just got a price cut, and it’s only going to get better. Now is a great time to buy.
Should you buy now, or wait?
There’s another question haunting this whole discussion, and it’s whether right now is the correct time to buy a premium VR headset at all. 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 at a lower price.
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 on the way but won’t actually see widespread adoption until 2018. The Project Santa Cruz headset from Oculus brings a wireless experience to VR, alongside its standalone system the Oculus Go, but both of these are coming out in 2018 and they fill different niches than the full-sized VR headsets like the Rift, Vive, and PSVR.
There are also a host of Windows Mixed Reality headsets just around the corner, like the Dell Visor, the Samsung Odyssey. These are all going to be in the $350 to $500 range and offer similar experiences to what you’d get out of the Vive and Rift, but the jury’s still out on whether or not they’re really comparable. So if you’re curious about the future of VR, or you’re not quite sold on the above options, it might not be a bad idea to wait.
But, if you’re ready to take the plunge, there are enough games and experiences out there that you’ll have plenty to do — as long as you go with one of the established headsets like the Vive, Rift, Gear VR, or PSVR.
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.
This post was updated on November 10, 2017 by Jayce Wagner to reflect current best picks. The article was originally published on May 26, 2016.