2019-07-14
Electronics Jul 01, 2019

Which VR Headset Should You Buy? Or Shouldn't You Buy One At All?

We’ve been using monitors since the early 50s, from CRTs to modern LCD displays. While it’s been working fine, we’ve only been able to interact with the virtual world through a small window. Virtual reality headsets (or VR headsets for short) aim to change that, by offering users a gateway into the digital world.

This might sound like a gimmick, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t exciting. It’s just very liberating to have seamless interactions with the virtual realm. Classic input methods like the mouse and keyboard are smooth, but not as tactile as simply turning your head in real life. With recent advancements in graphical and tracking technology, we can now place ourselves in the digital realm with just a bit of effort.

The journey to realising VR began with the Oculus Rift, a Kickstarter project. Upon release, the Rift was praised. The experience was clunky, but the results were extremely well done for a pioneering product.

Fast forward to 2019, and VR headsets are a dime a dozen. Other companies like HTC and Sony have joined Oculus as flagship manufacturers, and there’s even a market for so-called midrange headsets, which sacrifice a bit of power for a more affordable price tag (such as the Samsung Gear VR).

So, which should you buy? More importantly, are there any outright wrong choices? If you check out the metascores using our search feature, you’ll find that nearly all the big names have strong showings regardless of their price point. So, which is the best?

Well, we’re here to guide you through the selection process. Just know this, the right choice can be different for everyone. By the end of this guide, hopefully you’ll have a concrete idea of what you’re looking for. We’ll go through each individual aspect sequentially.

Power or convenience?

The big names in the VR business, such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive Pro are very competent products, with a no-holds-barred design that aims to give you the bleeding-edge of VR technology. These products use a dedicated PC to deliver detailed visuals, and multiple cameras to track motion as accurately as possible. This does require a lot of set up. Rooms need to be prepped for accurate tracking, resulting in a wire-infested experience that, while giving good results, is a bit cumbersome.

HTC Vive VR Headset
HTC Vive VR Headset

On the flipside, products like the Oculus Quest and Oculus Go focus more on convenience. These products sacrifice a bit of visual fidelity to give users an experience with less hassle. This new focus on untethered headsets aims to keep the hassle to a minimum, resulting in a streamlined, user-friendly experience at the cost of a bit of performance.

So, which one is for you? If you already own a powerful gaming rig that manages most games at a solid framerate at high settings, then you’re all set for the flagships. On the other hand, if you’re rocking a midrange set up, you might want to consider the standalone products which have internal processing that powers the visuals.

Even then, there’s a lot more to the choice. Will you accept nothing less than nearly photorealistic visuals? In that case, you’re looking for the Rift or Vive Pro. On the flipside, if you’re all about convenience and simplicity, something basic like the Oculus Go or Google Daydream will suffice.

Gaming or content consumption?

Modern games render huge detailed worlds that keep players immersed for hours on end. All this is possible thanks to the advancements in graphical hardware and rendering technology.

That’s what differentiates the flagships from the midrange headsets, the hardware.

VR Punch
Gaming without controllers is going to be tough.

Though, bigger isn’t necessarily better. VR headsets aren’t just made for gaming. You can also use VR headsets to watch videos and movies in a virtual space. Some people who suffer from claustrophobia use VR headsets as a coping mechanism for long flights and train rides, and it’s proven to be an effective deterrent.

For these people, graphics aren’t too important. In that case, there’s no real reason to go with the expensive powerhouses. The relatively basic (and affordable) Samsung Gear VR still packs enough power to play basic games, but it’s still perfectly capable at delivering a good video-watching experience.

Be sure to consider this. Not everyone games after all, and let’s be honest, some of the VR games are just there for the novelty. Practical purposes should always be placed at the forefront.

Eye safety

There’s no denying that extended use of LCD, LED or OLED screens are harmful for your eyes, and VR headsets place their lenses mere millimetres from your pupils. This is unavoidable, so it’s all the more important to be careful.

 

Here is a list of popular VR headsets, and their respective specifications.

 

Resolution (per eye)

Refresh Rate

Field of View

Tracking Sensors

MSRP

Metascore

Oculus Rift

1080 x 1200

90 Hz

90°

Outside-in

$399

81%

HTC Vive Pro

1440 x 1600

90 Hz

110°

Outside-in

$1098

80%

Oculus Quest

1440 x 1600

72 Hz

Undefined, but close to Rift’s 90°

Inside-out

$399

89%

Oculus Rift S

1280 x 1440

80 Hz

Undefined, but close to Rift’s 90°

Inside-out

$399

78%

Google Daydream View

Device dependent

Device dependent

Device dependent

Inside-out

$99

78%

Samsung Gear VR

1280 x 1440

60 Hz

96°

Inside-out

$99

76%

Sony Playstation VR

960 x 1080

120 Hz

100°

Outside-in

$299

82%


Field of Vision

FOV is a common source of headaches when playing games using the first-person perspective (which in the case of VR headsets, is all of them). Human eyes have a natural horizontal FOV of around 135 degrees. This is very hard to recreate on classic monitors due to their limited horizontal width.

Developers have compensated for this issue with a few neat tricks, such as virtually extending the FOV by artificially zooming things out. On VR headsets, this is a bit more difficult, as the screens should theoretically enclose your eyes in their entirety. In reality, this isn’t possible.

When considering FOV in your purchase, higher angles are preferable. Simply imagine things this way, presume you want to look sideways to see things in your peripheral vision. With a low FOV count of 90 degrees, you would see nothing past the rendered cone of vision, which is both visually jarring and uncomfortable.

Head-tracking

Head-tracking has been one of the most complicated issues to solve with VR headsets. The experience is based around immersion, and having an inaccurate tracking solution results in a disconnect that could be hugely disconcerting.

Currently, there are two main tracking methods, inside-out and outside-in tracking.

Outside Tracking

Outside-in tracking is the original VR headset tracking method, and utilizes cameras and sensors placed in stationary positions around the tracked object (in this case, the user), and achieves this by scanning the room. This is an accurate method of tracking, with the main issue being the convenience factor, as you can’t leave the room.

Inside-out tracking uses multiple trackers attached to the user to track positional and rotational movement. The sensors then adjust the virtual room based on the received signals. This method is less reliable than the original outside-in, but has gradually ramped up in popularity thanks to its ability to be used in any room.

Even when two headsets use the same tracking method, there are minute differences. Some headsets don’t offer six degrees of freedom (6DOF). Cheaper headsets like the Oculus Go only track positional movement, but don’t recognize rotational changes.

Even the cameras don’t have a standardized sensor either. Sony’s PSVR uses a dual camera with depth perception, whereas the Rift uses a constellation camera. While there isn’t a clear-cut winner (even before factoring in room-scale differences and lighting), it’s generally accepted the outside-in tech wins out in terms of accuracy. Though, given time, inside-out sensors may just catch up (and headsets like the Oculus Quest are already very competent at tracking with patented technologies).

Interpupillary Distance

Finally, this is a controversial topic brought up with the release of the Oculus Rift S. Since no two human beings are identical, that means our eyes have different shapes and spacings. The main issue is with interpupillary distance (IPD), which the spacing between our two eye slits.

Most VR headsets use two screens, one for each eye. As such, you were able to modify the spacing between the screens with a dedicated control. This meant a VR headset could theoretically work with everyone with a quick tweak.

The Rift S used a single LCD display instead, and the lenses have fixed positions. This means people with pupils that are far apart (more than 72mm) are out of luck. That’s why I can’t recommend the Rift S in good faith (unless you happen to be among the lucky majority).

Games

Finally, if you’re a gamer, you need to consider the game library. What use is a console without games?

Superhot
Feel like 'Neo' from 'The Matrix' with Superhot.

While most of the popular VR games like Superhot and Beat Saber are platform agnostic, and work identically on most systems, there are some exclusives for each platform.

For example, Capcom’s Resident Evil 7 is only available on the PSVR, and the Star Wars VR game Vader’s Quest is only available on Oculus’ Quest. If you’re really interested in a certain game, do ensure that it’s available on your system of choice.

Also, you might need to consider the cost of games. While some of these games aren’t what I’d consider triple-A experiences, they still cost a lot. This is where HTC stands ahead of the competition. Every month, you get 5 games a month with HTC Viveport, and the first month is free too.

Head Comfort

An underrated factor when it comes to VR headsets is the weight balance. VR headsets are still new, and the tech isn’t as streamlined as you’d expect. With smartphones, the tech has gone through leaps and bounds in the past few years. The slim, clean designs of today are a product of multiple years’ worth of innovation, and I’m sure VR headsets will undergo the same metamorphosis.

As they are right now, I’d rank the PSVR as being the most comfortable, though not by a long shot. The main issues lie with the main display. Having a front-heavy design is not too conducive to long extended VR sessions, and it’s not going to be easy to overcome this hurdle.

The front panel needs to hold not just the screens, but also the sensors, speakers, accelerometers and gyroscopes. This adds up to a bit of mass, which isn’t something you want weighing you down. I highly recommend testing out the system you want before confirming your purchase.

Conclusions

To summarize, consider these things before purchasing a new VR headset.

·         Power

·         Convenience

·         Eye comfort

·         Games

·         Head comfort

Also, don’t hesitate to wait a bit. As previously stated, VR headsets are still new, and innovations are still coming out at a comfortable pace. Gaming giant Valve has announced their own VR headset, the Valve Index, and updates to currently available systems are constantly being pushed as well.

If you want the best and you want it now, I recommend getting the HTC Vive Pro, only if you’re willing to pay the premium price. You also need to have a beefy gaming PC to handle the graphical workload, but if you’ve got all the checkboxes ticked, you can’t go wrong.

Alternatively, if you’re not a fan of the camera set up and cable management, I recommend the recently released Oculus Quest. This might just be the turning point where VR becomes mainstream, as the Quest truly nails the balance between power and convenience. You turn it on, scan the room, and you’re in game (albeit with less polished graphics).

Finally, if you just want a basic VR headset without all the fancy bells and whistles like games and detailed tracking, I recommend Google’s Daydream View (or the Samsung Gear VR if you own a Samsung smartphone). The Daydream works with most Android smartphones, and it makes VR accessible to the general public. This might not be the best headset out there, but most importantly, it just works.

To make quick, informed decisions, use our search bar to quickly compare different VR headsets and their metascores. You can quickly find critic reviews and compare products with our website, so go ahead!

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