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The Best VR (Virtual Reality) Headsets for 2019
VR is the next dimension in gaming. Whether you’re looking for a standalone headset or one that tethers to your PC or console, we’ve tested the top virtual reality headsets and platforms to help figure out which, if any, is right for you.
Virtual Reality Is Here
Virtual Reality is a fascinating way to travel using nothing more than the power of technology. With a headset and motion tracking, VR lets you look around a virtual space as if you’re actually there. It’s also been a promising technology for decades that’s never truly caught on. That’s changing with the current wave of VR products.
Oculus has the popular Rift, HTC and Valve have the Steam-friendly Vive, Sony leads the pack with the excellent PlayStation VR, Samsung recently added a separate controller to its Gear VR, and Google’s Daydream is steadily growing from the remains of Google Cardboard. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Windows 10 mixed reality platform and a variety of hardware manufacturers working on it are slowly creeping into the market with their own unified platform. Then there are standalone headsets, like the Oculus Go, the Lenovo Mirage Solo, and the upcoming HTC Vive Focus.
The Big Question: What VR Is the Best?
Modern VR headsets fit under one of two categories: Mobile or tethered. Mobile headsets are shells with lenses into which you place your smartphone. The lenses separate the screen into two images for your eyes, turning your smartphone into a VR device. Mobile headsets like the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream View are relatively inexpensive at around $100, and because all of the processing is done on your phone, you don’t need to connect any wires to the headset.
You can’t count on accurate position tracking with mobile headsets. Most use three-degrees-of-freedom (3DOF) motion tracking, which means they can follow the direction you’re facing very accurately, but can’t tell if you’re moving forward, backward, up, down, left, or right. To accurately track your position, you need a headset with six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) motion tracking. All tethered headsets have this thanks to either external sensors or outward-facing cameras.
Tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR are physically connected to PCs (or in the case of the PS VR, a PlayStation 4). The cable makes them a bit unwieldy, but putting all of the actual video processing in a box you don’t need to directly strap to your face means your VR experience can be a lot more complex. The use of a dedicated display in the headset instead of your smartphone, as well as built-in motion sensors and an external camera tracker, drastically improves both image fidelity and head tracking.
The trade-off, besides the clunky cables, is the price. The least expensive tethered options are currently around $400. And that’s before you address the processing issue; the Rift and the Vive both need pretty powerful PCs to run, while the PS VR requires a PlayStation 4.
Standalone VR headsets offer a convenient alternative to phone-based and tethered headsets because they don’t require any additional hardware to run. Fundamentally, they’re mobile VR headsets with Android smartphones and displays built in (without the cellular function). The Lenovo Mirage Solo is based on Google Daydream and uses a Snapdragon 835 CPU, and the Oculus Go runs on a platform very similar to Oculus’ Gear VR store and uses a Snapdragon 821 processor. You can expect similar performance on these headsets as you would get on a Daydream View or Gear VR with a compatible phone, and you can use them if you don’t already have a flagship smartphone in your pocket.
HTC’s Vive is a comprehensive package that includes a headset, two motion controllers, and two base stations for defining a “whole-room” VR area. It’s technically impressive, and can track your movements in a 10-foot cube instead of just from your seat. It also includes a set of motion controllers more advanced than the PlayStation Move. PC-tethered VR systems like the Vive need plenty of power, with HTC recommending at least an Intel Core i5-4590 CPU and a GeForce GTX 970 GPU.
The more powerful Vive Pro offers a higher-resolution display, outward-facing cameras, and a handful of other enhanced features, but it isn’t nearly as compelling as the regular Vive; it costs $300 more, and doesn’t include the base stations and motion controllers needed to work, so you effectively need to already have a Vive or spend even more money to get set up with it. If that isn’t enough power, the Vive Pro Eye adds built-in eye-tracking to the already advanced headset.
There’s also the mysterious Vive Cosmos, a new headset HTC has been teasing since the start of the year. Few details have been revealed about the Cosmos, however.
Besides the included motion controllers, you can now get new tracking accessories that let you play certain games more naturally. These accessories use the Vive Tracker, a module designed to enable additional object tracking in 3D space. The current first-party accessory bundles available are the Hyper Blaster and Racket Sports Set, each $149.99. The Hyper Blaster includes a Nintendo Zapper-style gun, a Vive Tracker, and a code for the shooting gallery Duck Game. The Racket Sports Set includes a small ping pong paddle and a larger tennis racket, both of which can be attached to the pack-in Vive Tracker, and a code for Virtual Sports. A third-party manufacturer, Rebuff Reality, also offers TrackStraps that add leg and foot tracking to the Vive, at $24.99 a pair.
The Oculus Rift was the first big name in the current wave of VR, and Oculus still a major player. While the retail version of Oculus Rift is more expensive than the developer kits were, it’s also much more advanced. From a technical standpoint, the headset is nearly identical to the Vive. It also includes the excellent Oculus Touch motion controllers, can support large-area VR like the Vive, and at $399 is a full $200 less than the HTC Vive—and even less than the PlayStation VR with Move controllers.
Sony PlayStation VR
Sony’s PlayStation VR is our current Editors’ Choice for virtual reality, offering the most polished and easy-to-use tethered VR experience with a relatively reasonable price tag. You can only play proprietary titles on it, like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, but a theater mode lets you play any PS4 game as if you were sitting in front of a large screen, and the VR games we’ve tried have impressed us.
Like the Rift, it also requires an additional investment for full functionality; you need a PlayStation Camera for the headset to work at all, and a PlayStation Move controller bundle for motion controls. Still, a bundle including all of those things is available for $350.
Windows Mixed Reality
Microsoft has been promoting its partnership with multiple headset manufacturers to produce a series of Windows 10-ready “mixed reality” headsets. The distinction between virtual reality and mixed reality is so far dubious, but it indicates an integration of augmented reality (AR) technology using cameras on the helmet. Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo are some of the early partners in Microsoft’s mixed reality program, and they have most recently been joined by Samsung, which has its own Odyssey headset.
We’ve already checked out Windows Mixed Reality headsets from Acer and HP and found them a bit wanting. The hardware is sound and the setup is simple, but position tracking isn’t as accurate as tethered headsets with external sensors. Also, the Windows Mixed Reality store doesn’t have as many compelling VR experiences as the Rift and SteamVR stores, though you can use SteamVR games on Windows Mixed Reality headsets with some software wrestling.
Google Daydream View
Google’s Daydream is similar to Cardboard in concept. You still put your phone in an inexpensive headset (the $99 Daydream View), and it functions as your display thanks to a set of lenses that separate the screen into two images. A pairable remote you hold in your hand (similar to the Oculus Remote) controls the action. It’s impressive when you can find apps that work with it, and an SDK update allowing for simultaneous Cardboard and Daydream support is helping to expand the platform’s library.
Samsung Gear VR
Samsung’s Gear VR is one of the most accessible VR systems, with a catch. To use the newest Gear VR, you need a compatible Samsung Galaxy smartphone, which narrows down potential users, since buying one just to use with the Gear VR pushes the price to HTC Vive levels.
The $130 Gear VR is a bit more expensive than both the previous iteration and the Google Daydream View, but it comes with a Bluetooth controller equipped with both a touchpad and motion sensing, in addition to the touchpad built onto the headset itself. Samsung collaborated with Oculus to build the Gear’s software ecosystem, which features a solid handful of apps and games, and multiple ways to consume 360-degree video.
Qualcomm-Compatible XR Viewers
The newest breed of mobile headsets could also be considered “tethered,” because instead of inserting your phone into the headset itself you physically connect your phone with a USB-C cable. Qualcomm has been emphasizing the VR and augmented reality (explained below) capabilities of its Snapdragon 855 processor, and is promoting a new ecosystem of XR viewers (including both AR and VR devices). These use the aforementioned USB-C connection to run all processing from a smartphone, while keeping the display technology built separately into the VR headset or AR glasses.
The Oculus Go is the least expensive way to jump into virtual reality. At $200 it’s pricier than the mobile VR headsets, but unlike those headsets, you don’t need a compatible (and usually expensive flagship) smartphone to use it. The $200 investment gets you right into a Gear VR-like virtual reality experience, complete with an intuitive controller. It makes some compromises for the price, like using a dated Snapdragon 821 processor and offering only 3DOF motion tracking, but it’s still enough to try out Netflix on a virtual theater screen or play Settlers of Catan in VR.
Lenovo Mirage Solo With Daydream
The Lenovo Mirage Solo is the Google Daydream version of the Oculus Go. It’s twice as expensive as the Oculus Go, but it’s also more powerful thanks to its Snapdragon 835 processor and external-facing cameras, allowing 6DOF position tracking for the headset (the controller is still 3DOF). It feels like a half-step, though, especially when the tethered PlayStation VR offers a much more compelling, if wired, experience for just a bit more money.
HTC Vive Focus and Vive Focus Plus
HTC has branched out beyond tethered headsets with the standalone Vive Focus series. Originally launched only in China, the Vive Focus came to North America late last year, and its 6DOF-controller-compatible follow-up Vive Focus Plus will see worldwide release later this year. Both are completely self-contained VR headsets similar to the Lenovo Mirage Solo, capable of full motion tracking and room mapping. The Vive Focus headsets are currently being aimed at the enterprise market rather than consumers, emphasizing their ability to offer virtual training and conferencing in a business context.
You might have seen some other famous visual headsets pop up over the last few years, including the Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap One. They aren’t on this list for a few reasons, but the biggest one is that they’re augmented reality (AR) headsets, not virtual reality headsets. And yes, there’s a difference.
Basically, these AR headsets have transparent lenses that let you look at your surroundings, instead of completely replacing your vision with a computer-generated image. They can still project images over whatever you’re looking at, but those images are designed to complement and interact with the area around you. You can make a web browser pop up in the middle of a room, for instance, or watch animals run around your coffee table. It’s fascinating technology that could hint at the future of computing.
The emphasis here is future, as in several years away. That brings us to the second biggest reason the HoloLens and Magic Leap One aren’t on this list: They aren’t consumer products. Both devices are purely intended as development hardware, so AR software can be made for their platforms. Even the just-announced HoloLens 2, the second iteration of Microsoft’s AR headset, is aimed specifically at developers and enterprise users rather than consumers.
Considering each headset costs several thousand dollars (the Magic Leap One is $2,300 and the HoloLens 2 will be $3,500), you shouldn’t expect a large library of AR experiences similar to the Oculus and Steam VR stores for a while. It’s an early adopter playground at best, and not for most users.
So far, Apple has been very cool on VR, but that’s slowly starting to change, at least from a software development side. OS X High Sierra enables VR development on three major VR software platforms: Steam, Unity, and Unreal. It also uses Apple’s Metal 2 framework, which the company says provides the performance necessary for VR. No plans for any Apple-branded VR headset have been announced—we’ll much more likely see Rift or Vive compatibility added to Macs.
Apple has been more enthusiastic about its ARKit platform, with the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X (and now the iPhone XS and XS Max) seemingly built for the system. However, like we said before, AR isn’t VR, and while some Google Cardboard software and headsets work with iOS, there isn’t a specifically Apple-centric VR product currently available.
Pros: Immersive VR experience. Works with Oculus and SteamVR platforms. Now includes both conventional gamepad and Oculus Touch controllers.
Cons: Requires four USB ports (three 3.0, one 2.0) to fully function.
Bottom Line: The Oculus Rift is a powerful, PC-tethered VR headset that’s even more appealing now thanks a lower price and the inclusion of Oculus Touch motion controllers.
Pros: Immersive VR experience. Works with non-VR apps and games. Motion control support. Low cost of entry compared with PC-based headsets.
Cons: Requires PlayStation Camera, which is not included. Slightly less powerful than its main competitors. Some motion-tracking hiccups when playing in brightly lit rooms.
Bottom Line: The Sony PlayStation VR headset brings powerful, compelling virtual reality, with motion control support, to the PlayStation 4.
Pros: Immersive experience. Includes motion controllers and external sensors for whole-room VR.
Cons: Expensive. Tethered headset makes whole-room VR tricky.
Bottom Line: The HTC Vive is a comprehensive PC-tethered virtual reality system that supports both motion controls and whole-room VR.
Pros: Relatively affordable. No phone, PC, or game system required. Cable-free. Crisp, fluid display.
Cons: Doesn’t track position. Just one motion controller. Underpowered compared with tethered and flagship smartphone-powered headsets. Limited software library.
Bottom Line: The Oculus Go is an affordable, comfortable standalone virtual reality headset that lets you try out VR without making a big investment in hardware.
Pros: Includes comfortable, easy-to-use controller. Compatible with Galaxy S6, S7, S8, and Note 5. Inexpensive for VR.
Cons: Some older software isn’t compatible. Non-game content is stale. Few apps officially support controller.
Bottom Line: Samsung’s Gear VR headset becomes much more usable with a handheld controller, but finding good virtual reality content is frustrating.
Pros: Crisp, high-resolution graphics. Good sound. Solid, comfortable build.
Cons: Expensive. Doesn’t include the base stations or motion controllers it requires to function. DisplayPort only.
Bottom Line: The HTC Vive Pro is the most technically impressive tethered VR headset we’ve tested, but it doesn’t offer enough over the standard model to justify the steep increase in price.
Pros: Comfortable. Doesn’t require a smartphone, game console, or computer.
Cons: Expensive for the performance. LCD, graphics, and single motion controller pale when compared with tethered VR headsets.
Bottom Line: The Lenovo Mirage Solo is a standalone Daydream-based virtual reality headset with a high price tag that isn’t quite in line with its performance.