With the current popularity of immersive technologies – the most popular of them being virtual reality – you probably have often found yourself surprised at how awesome 360-degree videos and games can be in VR.
These pleasant surprises might have even sparked the need for a VR headset inside you.
However, a very common problem that most newcomers face when they decide to get into VR, is which VR headset should they buy?
Not everyone is ready to dive into the technical depths of every available VR headset in the market to decide which one works best for them.
Most of us just want someone with knowledge about available VR headsets to point us in the right direction.
This problem is now especially serious, with the many VR headsets in the market.
This article is intended for people who want to buy a VR headset but aren’t sure what type of headset would be best for them.
In this article, we will provide an update on the VR headset market, so that you can make an informed choice on the numerous available options.
What is Virtual Reality (Or VR Technology)?
First, it is necessary to clear up the confusion of terms. VR and VR Technology are almost the same.
Virtual Reality is the virtual world that a VR headset will take you into, while VR Technology is the tech that takes you to a virtual reality, like a VR headset itself.
After watching a great 3D movie, have you ever wondered how awesome it would have been, if you were able to witness that movie in real life?
Have you ever liked a video game so much, that you wanted to become a part of the game’s world?
Well, VR is your answer.
Instead of bringing the movie’s events into reality, VR immerses you in an artificial reality and lets you enjoy the movie.
Instead of putting you in a time machine, VR puts you in a very detailed 3D world that will let you experience what it was like to be a pirate during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The technology tricks our minds into believing that the virtual world we see through the VR headset is real.
After long sessions of playing a VR game, players often find the real-world disappointing, when they take off their VR headsets.
Virtual Reality is also being used as a very powerful tool for storytelling.
Whether it is an action-packed superhero movie, a dramatic story where sentiments run high, a horror movie that is very scary, or a real-life tragic documentary, everything becomes more realistic and immersive in VR.
Can You View Everything in VR?
A common misunderstanding of people, who are inexperiencede with VR, is that all possible content can be viewed in virtual reality.
That is not true. VR is a completely independent platform and its content needs to be built from the ground up.
This means that there are separate libraries of VR content.
However, thousands of talented and creative-minded experts are working diligently to develop new and exciting VR content.
Due to the popularity of VR technologies, there is already a reasonably large library of games and video content that can keep you busy for several months with more content being introduced daily.
Can A Beginner Play VR Games for Hours?
This is another common misconception among newcomers.
VR does not involve sitting on a couch and playing games with a traditional display.
In VR, your brain will be in constant conflict with itself, since it will be the first time that you have ever witnessed digital content happening in reality.
This can result in motion sickness, nausea and even headaches.
It will take some time before you can play a VR game for an hour or more without any issues.
In the meantime, you should limit yourself to 20-minute sessions with VR headsets.
VR Headsets Types
These are the kinds of questions that you won’t hear when buying a computer or a smartphone.
This is because we measure both of these devices’ suitability using their configuration.
However, there are different types of VR headsets.
The different types will be described in detail below.
If you want to play video games, but video games can be played on either a computer or a smartphone.
This is also true for watching videos, browsing the internet and most other applications.
Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars to buy a high-end gaming computer, instead of paying much less to buy a smartphone?
The reason is because the types of video games that you can play on each device is different.
A smartphone cannot adequately handle computing the graphics and mathematics that a triple-A title like Hitman Absolution or Call Of Duty WW1 requires to run smoothly.
However, a smartphone can fit in your pocket and be taken wherever you go.
It allows you to play a variety of less intensive and more casual games.
However, you will need a serious gaming PC to play the latest triple-A gaming titles with 80+ hours of gameplay and with massive backstories, like The Witcher 3.
This same logic applies to the different types of VR headsets.
There are three main types of VR headsets:
- Portable VR Headsets
- Standalone VR Headsets
- PC-Tethered VR Headsets
These different types of VR headsets will developed in response to a diverse target audience.
We will discuss each type of VR headsets to see which one is in your green zone.
Portable VR Headsets
Portable VR headsets are like shells for smartphones.
They can be fixed at the front of the VR headset and act as the VR engine, as well as the display.
A portable VR headset offers an isolated viewing environment which allows you to enjoy VR like it is supposed to be enjoyed.
In this case, the VR part of the VR headset is actually the smartphone that is tethered to the headset.
Samsung Gear VR is one of the oldest and the most popular portable VR headsets in the industry.
There have been discussions about portable VR headsets which must have a smartphone tethered to them.
However, they will have their own displays.
Those headsets also fall in the category of portable headsets, because their processing power is provided by a smartphone.
Portable VR headsets are much less expensive than the other two categories of VR headsets.
This is because they are just a casing that can be used to view VR content through a smartphone.
However, the VR content that you can access through a portable VR headset, depends on the smartphone that it requires.
For example, the content library that a Samsung Galaxy S8 or S9 smartphone can run, is what you can access in the case of the Samsung Gear VR.
Since smartphones are general purpose computing devices, it is not possible to play hardcore graphics-intensive games like on the higher-end VR headsets.
You will, however, be able to enjoy a number of casual games and a large collection of 360-degree VR videos.
The quality of the VR video content you access, also depends on the resolution of the smartphone.
This is because you will be viewing through the smartphone’s display.
If you are into serious gaming and love to watch videos and documentaries, a portable VR headset like the Samsung Gear VR (if you have a Samsung Galaxy S-series flagship smartphone) or Google Cardboard would be an excellent choice.
Although they sacrifice processing and graphics power, portable VR headsets offer a great level of mobility and portability.
They also cost much less that the VR headsets in the other two categories.
You will, however, probably want something more powerful than a smartphone to power your VR needs, if you are into intensive gaming.
The purchase of a portable headset is not enough.
Before you make a decision, you must take into account the investment involved in buying a flagship smartphone that supports the portable VR headset you want to buy.
Standalone VR Headsets
This is where the VR game really steps up.
Standalone VR headsets are independent VR computing and displaying devices.
Therefore, you don’t need to tether them to a smartphone in order to enjoy Virtual Reality.
A standalone VR headset usually has the configuration of a flagship smartphone.
However, all of the processing and graphics power is dedicated to VR.
This allows it to perform much better than a portable headset using a similarly-configured smartphone.
If you spend approximately $200 to buy an Oculus Go or $400 for a Lenovo Mirage Solo, you’re set for VR!
The Oculus Go and Lenovo Mirage Solo are two of the most popular standalone headsets that are currently available.
However, Oculus’ latest Quest VR headset is also one of the best standalone VR headsets and is increasing in popularity.
While the Oculus Go costs about $200 and the Lenovo Mirage Solo and the Oculus Quest are both priced at around $400, the last two have a superior processor.
I, therefore, highly recommend the Mirage Solo or the Quest, if you decide to buy a Standalone VR headset.
A portable VR headset is much cheaper than a standalone VR headset.
However, with a portable VR headset, you must also purchase an expensive smartphone to power it.
For example, although a Samsung Gear VR headset costs about $130, you also need at least a $600 Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone to power it.
However, a standalone VR headset only costs $400.
People who already own a Samsung Galaxy S8, S8+, S9, or S9+ are fine, but others will have to invest about $700-800 to get VR-ready.
Standalone VR headsets are also a better choice because their processing resources are entirely dedicated to VR-related tasks.
For instance, the Lenovo Mirage Solo and the Oculus Quest both feature Qualcomm’s 2018 flagship SoC (System on a Chip or CPU) Snapdragon 835.
The same chipset was used to power most of last year’s top-tier smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy S8, Xiaomi Mi 6, and Google Pixel 2 XL.
The difference is that a smartphone must process a wide variety of tasks simultaneously, which keeps it from dedicating its entire processing power to a game’s processes and graphics.
A standalone VR headset has only one task to perform: execute the processes and graphics of a VR game.
Since it is not distracted by hundreds of other tasks, the SoC can offer the best possible performance for VR.
The Oculus Quest also offers 6DOF tracking (six degrees of freedom) which is available on most of the popular higher-end VR headsets.
6DOF tracking means that the VR headset can track your rotation and displacement actions in all three axes.
It allows you to rotate your head to look around in the 3D environment and also move your head up, down, left, right, forward and backward to also peek around objects.
Ultimately, better tracking performance due to dedicated processing power results in a considerably better and more immersive experience.
Better performance also allows developers to design games that exceed the limitations set by a portable VR headset.
Standalone VR headsets have a larger and a more versatile library of content.
If you want to spend time watching VR videos and playing casual VR games, a standalone VR headset would be an excellent choice.
These games repeat the same feedback loop, as in Angry Birds or Temple Run.
If you are into serious gaming (or “real gaming” depending on what you call it) a high-end, PC-tethered VR headset is your only remaining option.
PC-Tethered VR Headsets
VR headsets that require a high-end gaming PC to run, are the best VR headsets in the market.
PC-Tethered VR headsets are expensive and also need to be tethered to an even more expensive gaming computer.
However, top-tier VR headsets feature super crisp displays with an amazing refresh rate of 90 Hz.
A PC-Tethered VR headset is a shell that is useless without a powerful computer.
However, unlike portable VR headsets, they have their own dedicated displays and most of them have built-in headphones.
In addition, the graphics and processing functions are performed by the PC.
If you are into serious gaming and you don’t want to play casual games (or “knitting games”), these VR headsets are your best option.
However, you must have a serious gaming computer.
Although VR headsets, like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, cost between $350 and $600, they require a $2,000 investment in a powerful gaming computer that can seamlessly handle VR.
Sony PlayStation VR
The Sony PlayStation VR is not part of the comparison because it requires a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 4 Pro to work.
If you are into VR gaming and you have a Sony PS 4 or PS 4 Pro console, the Sony PS VR is the best option for you to get into VR.
It costs about $200, which is all you need to set it up.
You can swap out your dual shock controllers with the PlayStation Move controllers, which you must buy separately.
If you have a PS 4 or PS 4 Pro, you are not likely to have a very powerful gaming PC.
This is reason is not useful to compare the PSVR with windows PC-based VR headsets.
The biggest flaw in the Sony PSVR, compared to top-tier PC-tethered headsets, is that it features a single 1080 x 960 display, while VR headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive feature one display of 1080 x 1200 resolution “per eye”.
The advantage of PSVR is that Sony has been able to encourage several developers to build VR experiences.
The PSVR also features the largest library of “real games,” compared to the libraries of other headsets, like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
HTC Vive Pro
While the HTC Vive Pro is a very popular PC-tethered VR headset, it is also not part of the comparison.
This is due to its ridiculously high price, compared to the other top-tier VR headsets in the same category.
However, the HTC Vive Pro is definitely the best VR headset that you can now buy.
The Vive Pro is similar to an upgraded HTC Vive VR headset.
It features a denser display resolution than the Vive and the Oculus Rift.
It also has a very detailed design that offers comfort and complete isolation from the outside environment.
The Vive Pro also requires a much more expensive gaming computer to work, compared to other VR headsets in the same category.
As a result, there are several graphics intensive games for the Vive Pro that are either not supported by the regular Vive VR headset or are unplayable, even if they do launch.
For the VR video content, everything on the Vive’s video library can be viewed with either of the two headsets.
However, due to a better resolution, VR videos look much better in the Vive Pro than the regular Vive.
Therefore, if you are a gaming maniac who wants to spend about $1,000 to get the best that the VR industry now has to offer, you should buy the Vive Pro.
However, you should remember that if you don’t have a computer with a 5th gen (or above) Intel i5 processor and a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 (or better) graphics card, you will need to invest about $2,000 to build a gaming computer that can offer seamless VR for the Vive Pro.
Oculus Rift versus HTC Vive
The ultimate comparison of the best VR headset, based on the price-to-value ratio and best performance, comes down to the two most popular VR headsets and fierce rivals, the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.
These headsets are usually discussed together.
This is because HTC and Oculus were both among the first companies in the market to launch a PC-tethered VR headset.
In my opinion, this was the ultimate jump start that the VR content industry needed.
The Rift and the Vive have been competitive in their pricing.
Both companies have encouraged many VR content developers to create exclusive VR content for their respective headset.
We will compare different aspects of these two VR headsets, to help you make your final choice.
While the Oculus Rift costs less, a difference of $100 is not that much of an issue for most people.
The price of both VR headsets started at $800. However, Oculus has made several aggressive pricing moves, which created a major price difference between the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
In April 2017, Oculus reduced the price of the Oculus Rift by $200.
This brought considerable attention to the Rift. Four months later, Oculus reduced the price of the Rift by $200 again.
However, this time HTC decided to match the competition by also reducing the price of the Vive to $600.
You can now buy the Oculus Rift for approximately $400 and the Vive for around $500.
These prices vary based on the time of the year and the online store.
However, the difference is usually within the $100 and $150 range.
If the difference between the two headsets reaches $200, the Oculus Rift might be the best choice.
The essential accessories needed to play VR games on an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive will be included in the package.
However, many experienced VR gamers will recommend other accessories that don’t come with these headsets.
Buying these items will definitely enhance your VR experience.
The HTC Vive controllers and base stations can flawlessly track your moves.
However, you will probably need a third sensor for the Oculus Rift in order to achieve a close-to-flawless tracking.
The sensor costs about $60, which isn’t a major problem for most people.
Oculus has manufactured Rift with a built-in headset and a very comfortable strap.
However, your experience with the HTC Vive would be much better if you bought the $100 Vive Deluxe Audio Strap.
This strap is very comfortable.
It has an excellent weight distribution with keeps you comfortable with the bulky Vive VR headset on your forehead, even after hour-long sessions.
The Deluxe Audio Straps also feature built-in headphones, that aren’t available in the regular Vive strap.
We would highly recommend that you buy a high-quality cloth-based face cover for your VR headset, so that it absorbs all of the sweat from your face.
You will be surprised at how common it is to sweat, while playing VR games.
VR headset controllers can greatly increase or completely destroy the immersion of a VR experience.
If the controller is light, small, and has good ergonomics, you may forget that it is even in your hand when you are in VR.
By contrast, a large, bulky, and heavy controller does not let you enjoy the immersion.
It constantly reminds you that “it’s just a trick, it’s not real, your hands are not empty and you have a very heavy object in your hands that is being used to manipulate the fake environment around you”.
In this situation, the Oculus Rift has a much better controller than the HTC Vive Controller.
However, HTC is working on a completely new type of VR controller that is attached to your palm with the help of a strap.
As a result, you don’t even have to hold it.
The new controllers will even be capable of tracking your finger movement, which I think is pretty cool.
However, until HTC launches the new Vive controller, the Oculus Rift Controller is still the winner.
The immersion of a VR experience can be destroyed by an inaccurate or glitchy tracking system.
The Oculus Rift’s tracking is considered to be good. However, “good” has no place in VR.
A “good” tracking system will have many glitches and inaccurate responses that will ruin your VR experience.
It could even result in your loss of interest in VR.
It could result in problems ranging from not being able to pick objects to more serious issues, like having your hand flying away, as you watch hopelessly in the middle of an intensive fight.
This can make the experience very frustrating.
HTC has done a much better job of developing a super-accurate tracking system than Oculus.
Vive’s tracking system is outstanding.
Every simple action is registered immediately.
There are no false-positives which are one of the main causes of glitches.
There are two lighthouses that come in the Vive in the package which can achieve this feat.
By contrast, the Oculus Rift tracking system is objectively sub-par out of box.
So I highly recommend to invest into a third tracking sensor. This will make your experience with Oculus as precise as with HTC Vive.
Few things you should keep in mind.
First – you don’t need third sensor if you plan to use Oculus mostly while sitting.
I’ve faced most problems with tracking only when I played games that require a set area to be experienced properly.
Games like Gorn, Arktika and others will not function properly if you try running them while you are sitting.
Second important aspect is that third sensor will require 3rd USB 3.0 port.
So if you don’t have 3 x 3.0 USBs, Oculus might not be the best option for you.
Both of the headsets feature the same display resolution of 1080 x 1200 per eye.
This resolution is adequate, if it is not compared to the 2880 x 1600 pixels resolution of the HTC Vive Pro.
This is why these headsets are both inferior to the Vive Pro.
All three headsets by comparison, have a 90 Hz refresh rate which is sufficient for serious VR gaming.
It would be disrespectful to the VR developer community, if it was asserted that the content library of one headset was better than that of the other VR headset.
Most of the VR video experiences that you can get on the Vive, are also available for the Rift.
Both of these headsets also share a large majority of VR games.
There are a few exceptions that occasionally come out as “exclusives”, which are launched exclusively for only one of the VR headsets.
If you are looking for a serious, comfortable VR gaming experience and saving money is your priority, then the Oculus Rift is the best VR headset for you.
If you are willing to spend an additional $100-$300 and sacrifice some comfort for a truly seamless and flawless tracking system, the HTC Vive is the recommended choice.
You will need serious gaming computers to power these two headsets.
If you don’t have a gaming computer that supports this level of VR, you should consider the cost of buying an upgraded PC.
If you don’t have the money and can’t wait any longer, you should settle for mobile games with a gigantic VR video library and buy an Oculus Quest or a Lenovo Mirage Solo.
If you are a console gamer with a Sony PlayStation 4 or 4 Pro, then the Sony PlayStation VR is the best option for you.