We round up the best VR headsets that you can buy right now, including virtual reality headsets for consoles and PC gaming, plus the best mobile VR headsets around.
Google Cardboard has already surpassed five million units sold, Google’s Daydream View headset is set to explode in 2017 and in the past few months we’ve seen the arrival of consumer-ready VR hardware from the likes of Oculus and HTC. So it looks like a safe bet to say VR is going to be massive this coming year.
Of course with so many VR headsets on offer, it can be ridiculously confusing to work out which VR headset is best for you. So here’s our round-up of the best virtual reality hardware right now, for console, PC and mobile gaming.
- Oculus Rift
- HTC Vive
- Recommended PC specification for VR
- PlayStation VR
- Samsung Gear VR
- Google Daydream View
- Google Cardboard
- Microsoft HoloLens
- Nintendo Virtual Boy
Oculus Rift – The one you’ll have heard of
Arguably the poster child for modern VR; after years of development the Oculus Rift is finally out of development, meaning that if you act now, you can ensure a consumer-ready dose of VR will arrive on your doorstep for the princely sum of £499 in the UK (excluding taxes and shipping costs).
Many were surprised when Oculus unveiled the pre-order price for the Rift as earlier reports had suggested that it was going to cost as little as $350 (it officially costs $599 on pre-order in the US), but as the company’s CEO, Brendan Iribe explained at CES 2016, Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR in 2014 allowed them to develop the product beyond anything they would have been able to achieve had they remained an independent company. Even with the price hike however, Iribe explained that the margins for the consumer-ready Rift are ‘razor-thin’.
The Oculus Rift has easily been the most public-facing VR product in recent history and as such has also amassed a huge developer community that means it likely features the best support of the bunch. Your money buys you a Rift headset with integrated headphones and microphone, an Xbox One controller (through a partnership with Microsoft), a tracking sensor, the Oculus Remote and two games: Lucky’s Tale and Eve: Valkyrie. The more immersive Touch controllers won’t be available until the second half of 2016.
On top of the £499 asking price for the Rift itself, you’ll need a PC that’s good enough to support it. Below is a list of components that cover the minimum requirements for a usable Rift experience and their respective prices (at the time of writing). Alternatively, you can buy an Oculus-ready PC for around £1000, assuming you don’t want to build your own system. Note that we haven’t included the cost of a monitor, keyboard or mouse.
HTC Vive – The one for big budgets
Whilst Oculus was a company built from the ground up to create VR experiences, HTC was a surprise entrant into the space when it launched its Vive system at Mobile World Congress in 2015. The Taiwanese company more traditionally known for producing smartphones, first unveiled the Vive headset at MWC in partnership with established game developer and publisher Valve.
The retail Vive was originally slated for December 2015, but the company pushed the launch back to April 2016 following the announcement of a ‘very, very big technological breakthrough,’ which transpired to be a camera for sensing and seeing the environment outside of the headset – a feature which the company showcased with the upgraded Vive Pre pre-release headset it unveiled at CES 2016.
The developer community has already lauded the Vive for the quality of the hardware HTC has implemented and the responsive, immersive experience it offers as a result, but one aspect that won’t appeal to everyone is its cost. Following the surprise from VR fans regarding the Oculus Rift’s pre-order price, it was hinted that the retail-ready Vive would ring in at a significantly higher figure come launch. Sure enough, HTC formalised pre-order pricing at the end of February and in the UK the system originally cost £689 ($799 in the US), but following Britain’s decision to exit the European Union, the Vive now costs £759.
Naturally the high-end VR experience on offer is only possible by way of powerful PC hardware so here’s a basic rundown of the parts you’ll need to get up and running.
Recommended PC hardware for Oculus Rift/HTC Vive
Compare the two tables above and you can see that the requirements of both systems are pretty similar. To make things even easier, we’ve put together a parts list of everything needed to build a system that supports either the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, and all for under £1000 (estimated prices at time of writing).
Sony PlayStation VR – The one for console gamers
The biggest issue with the Rift and Vive systems is that they both rely on powerful, costly PC hardware in order to function, the beauty of Sony’s solution is that, as its name suggests, it’s purpose built for use with the PlayStation 4.
PlayStation VR (or PS VR), which went by the name of Project Morpheus during its three-year development, was actually a long-intended extension to the PlayStation Move motion-control experience Sony originally launched alongside the PlayStation 3 back in 2009.
A key differentiator over its PC-friendly counterparts is that the PlayStation VR experience has been built with local multiplayer in mind, so whilst one player wears the headset and plays in virtual reality, another can still play using a conventional 2D picture on a TV powered by the same console.
Following GDC 2016 in March, Sony finally addressed two of the biggest question marks hanging over its new gaming peripheral, cost and launch date. The PS VR is now up for pre-order, priced at £349.99, making it the most affordable high-end VR headset out there by far. Even when you factor in the additional cost of necessary extras like the console and PlayStation Camera, it’s still markedly more approachable than the headset/PC pairings of the Rift and the Vive. PlayStation Move motion controllers are compatible, but optional extras.
|Resolution||1920xRGBx1080 (960xRGBx1080 per eye)|
|Field of View||Approximately 100 degrees|
|Motion + Positional tracking||Gyroscope, accelerometer + 9 LEDs|
|Controller Support||PlayStation Camera w/ DualShock 4 or PS Move|
Right now the pre-order site cites an availability date of October 13th priced at £349, but we’re willing to wait for a strong launch lineup and a few creative multiplayer experience if that’s how long it takes.
Samsung Gear VR – The one for Samsung fans
The Rift may be the most prominent VR platform for desktop, but thanks to a partnership between Oculus and Samsung, the best mobile equivalent comes in the form of the Gear VR.
The beauty of Sammy’s headset is that it operates as an untethered experience, with components like your smartphone’s screen, chipset and gyroscope working in conjunction with the headset’s own proximity sensor, hardware controls and touchpad to offer up a taste of VR that’s markedly more portable and accessible.
Naturally the hardware is less powerful, the screen of a resolution lower (than the likes of the Vive or Rift) and it usage a toll on your phone’s battery, but the varied experience on offer from the Oculus Store makes it a meaningful entry into the story of VR as a movement, not to mention a great way to introduce people to what virtual reality is and what it’s capable of.
Samsung has been developing the Gear VR hardware for some time, originally with the Note 4, followed by the Galaxy S6 Innovator Edition and then with a consumer-ready version which was significantly more affordable (£80) and supported Samsung’s Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, Note 5, S7 and S7 Edge smartphones. Now, following the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the company has released an updated version of the Gear VR which supports Type C USB connections, however, it is still backwards compatible with older Gear VR-capable smartphones by way of an included adapter.
You can buy the Samsung Gear VR from O2 for £79.99
Read next: Land’s End (Samsung Gear VR) game review
Google Daydream View – The one for well-off Android fans
Google’s new Daydream VR platform is set to be huge in 2017, although right now only three phones are supported: The Google Pixel and Pixel XL, and the Moto Z. And none of those are cheap.
Simply slip your chosen premium-priced handset inside Google’s Daydream View headset and you can enjoy a selection of VR games and experiences, which at the time of writing was rather slim but quickly growing. The View headset is comfortable to wear, and the straps hold it firmly but not too tightly against your face. You get a one-handed controller to navigate menus and interact with VR apps, which is especially great for virtual reality games.
Power consumption in particular is impressive, with our phones draining much slower than with rivals such as the Samsung Gear VR.
Google Cardboard – The one for tight budgets
Google’s I/O keynotes typically close with gifts of freshly announced hardware for attendees. In the past that’s meant smartphones, laptops and digital streaming sticks; so when 2014’s I/O-goers found a cardboard box with two plastic lenses in it, they unsurprisingly felt a little miffed.
Little did we know, Google had just created the most accessible VR platform ever. Born out of two employee’s 20% Project, the cardboard housing simply slots around your smartphone and using a free companion app grants you access to a wealth of VR experiences. The Cardboard app (Android and iOS) features tailored experiences for watching 360 and 3D videos within YouTube, as well as a dedicated version of Google StreetView.
You can either build your own Cardboard viewer at home with a few basic components and blueprints available to download direct from Google or fork out a little cash for a pre-made version. There are alternative compatible viewers made from cardboard as well as other materials such as foam, aluminium and even some premium plastic iterations from the likes of toy maker Mattel (see them here).
Following I/O 2016, the company announced Daydream, the next step in the evolution of Its VR platform. By the end of the year, we’ll have Daydream-ready smartphones and reference designs for new viewers and a motion-tracked controller are also in the mix.
Microsoft HoloLens – The one that goes beyond VR
Whilst we’re still a ways off from the consumer-ready launch of Microsoft’s HoloLens, the company’s already used the developmental version to give us a glimpse of the future of virtual reality and more importantly, augmented reality.
Similarly to the Gear VR, HoloLens operates as an untethered experience, but in place of a high-resolution display pushing pixels into each eye, the system projects holograms over the environment around you. It’s the closest thing we have right now to the holodecks of Star Trek fame, but based on the examples Microsoft has already demoed, it packs real potential for useful applications in the real world for everything from entertainment, to design, and even healthcare.
Until recently only a small number of people outside of Microsoft had had the chance to test drive HoloLens presently, but the majority of the reports suggest that it’s not just chest beating from the Redmond-based company, the technology genuinely works and it’s going to change the way we perceive both virtual and augmented reality.
A development version of Hololens started shipping to developers on March 30th, 2016, but if you want to get your hands on it, you’re going to need at least $3000. Here’s hoping that like the Gear VR, things get a little bit more affordable come retail time.
StarVR – The one to watch
There are a ton of other companies out there building hardware and experiences for virtual reality, but one that really caught our attention was Starbreeze Studios. The creation of this Stockholm-based developer, StarVR hopes to tackle one of the key challenges of virtual reality; immersion.
The most prominent element of StarVR’s design has to be its display setup, boasting angled dual 5.5-inch Quad HD displays that offer up a 210-degree field of view. By comparison, the new Gear VR features a 101-degree FoV and the Rift and Vive boast FoVs of around 110 degrees. Starbreeze says that being able to include your peripheral vision in the VR experience is a key component in achieving true immersion.
Much like the Rift, StarVR also employs a six-axis motion tracking system and the company is in talks with eye-tracking specialists Tobii to integrate foveated graphical rendering – where only the area your eyes are focused on is fully rendered in colour and at full resolution, whilst content in your peripheries are rendered at a lower quality and without colour to save on processing power, without the user noticing (as eyes to perceive information in those areas in the same way).
Starbreeze is also developing its own games for StarVR and through a number of important acquisitions and other partnerships (with the likes of Acer), is bringing new methods of interactivity to the table, like ePawn’s sensor carpet technology. We’re still waiting on a release date and pricing, but when we know, you’ll know.
Nintendo Virtual Boy – The blast from the past
Last time the world made a bid to harness the power of VR, things didn’t pan out so well. One of the most eye-catching attempts (and ultimate disasters) was Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. The headset/controller combo launched in July 1995, but the system was discontinued less than a year later.
There were a number of reasons for its disappointing sales figures (less than 800,000 units sold worldwide). Nintendo had supposedly mishandled the Virtual Boy’s multi-million dollar marketing campaign, it was priced notably higher than rival consoles at the time and the parallax technology was perceived as too crude, with games only displaying in a single colour, not to mention the discomfort many reported when playing using the system.
Whilst it might have gotten a lot wrong, it should still be considered an important step in the evolution of VR technology and perhaps as a lesson in what not to do.
One thing we can say with certainty is that the VR landscape will have changed considerably by the time we ring in 2017.
This article was originally published January 28th, 2016. Last updated: August 9th, 2016.