The three best on the market right now, the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR are unsurprisingly also the most expensive. These three offer unparalleled immersion through superior refresh rates, extremely high resolutions and, in the case of the HTC Vive, both room-scale tracking and motion controllers for your hands.
The best VR headset: HTC Vive
HTC Vive wins the first battle in the VR war
Most complete and best overall VR experience
Software partnership with Valve
As of right now, the HTC Vive is the most complete VR experience on the market. As well as a headset and two base stations (which are used for tracking the headset’s movement) the Vive also includes two motion controllers in the box. This is important, since it allows the Vive to offer a much more immersive experience than using a traditional controller. Meanwhile, Oculus’s Touch controllers still don’t have a release date.
The headset itself contains two 1080p screens which makes for a very crisp image. Unfortunately it’s not quite high-resolution enough to prevent you from being able to discern individual pixels when you wear it, but this is still the highest resolution headset on the market right now alongside the Oculus Rift.
A standout feature of the HTC Vive is its room-scale feature which allows you to walk around a space that’s 4.5 x 4.5m big. This really adds another dimension to the feeling of presence that you experience while using it; you’re not just pressing up on an analogue stick, you’re using your legs to walk over to it.
That’s if you have enough space in your real room that is.
The Vive’s downside, however, is its price. It’s expensive, double the price of the most expensive console that’s currently out, and equivalent in price to the kind of beastly gaming PC you’ll need to run it.
The console alternative: PlayStation VR
Virtual reality has made it to consoles, and it’s stunning
Near PC-quality performance
Good Selection of games
There’s no getting around the fact that in order to run either the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift you need a pretty substantial gaming PC, which is a hefty investment for most people.
That’s not the case with Sony’s PlayStation VR, which requires little more than a PS4 console to run.
Considering the huge difference in power between the PS4 and PC, the PlayStation VR is a surprisingly capable virtual reality headset. Its refresh rate is nice and responsive, and we’ve had no problems with the reliability of its head-tracking.
Thanks to Sony’s backing, the selection of games is also impressive. There are dozens available at launch, and many more are on their way soon.
The biggest issue with the headset is the accessories that aren’t included in the box. In order to use PlayStation VR you’ll need a PS4 camera, and in order to get the most out of it you’ll need a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, and all of these accessories are sold separately.
It’s a shame, because if they were included in the box the PSVR would offer absolutely outstanding value for money. As it stands however, you’ll have to be wary of the additional charges involved.
A good alternative: Oculus Rift
Despite some hiccups, Oculus Rift will take your breath away
The current VR arms race is all thanks to one man: Oculus founder Palmer Luckey. As a teenager, Luckey collected VR tech and was fascinated with making his own headset in his garage. Numerous prototypes and a $2bn Facebook buyout later, Oculus is still the biggest name in VR.
Now the consumer version of the Oculus Rift is finally out and we can get our hands on the headset that started it all.
Yet compared to the HTC Vive with its room-scale technology and two included motion controllers the Rift feels like a paired down VR experience in comparison. You’re very much limited to a more static VR experience played with a traditional game controller – yes, you can stand up should you choose to do so, however, without proper hand tracking it will never quite feel as immersive as you’d like.
Still though, at $200 cheaper than the Vive, the Rift offers a very compelling mid-range virtual reality option for those with less space to spare.
Middle-of-the-road: Samsung Gear VR
Smaller, lighter… but exactly the same
Good build quality
Works with many of the most popular phones
Powered by technology from Oculus, the Samsung Gear VR was effectively the first VR headset on the market. To use it, you simply grab a Samsung phone, download apps and games from the Oculus store, and clip it into the headset.
The original model supported the Note 4, but subsequent models have expanded compatibility to a number of phones including the Note 5, Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S7.
Because of the huge number of phones that are compatible with the Gear VR, the quality of the VR experience can vary by quite a bit. Use an older Note 4 and you’ll be limited to a pixel density of 518 ppi, but a newer S7 bumps this up to 577 ppi.
The Gear VR headset isn’t the highest-quality VR experience available, but it is one of the easiest to get up and running quickly.
The best cheap VR headset: Google Cardboard
Cheap, mobile virtual reality that’s a cinch to make
Google Cardboard is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek take on VR, but it makes a great weekend project if you want to see what the fuss is about. You can either download the instructions and make your own headset, or you can buy a kit from a variety of vendors for around $25 (the most expensive model is an outlier at $85).
Once you’ve bought or constructed your headset, you can download Google Cardboard apps to your iOS or Android phone, drop your device into the headset, and get playing. It’s not the best VR experience out there, but if you have a modern phablet-sized phone with a hi-res screen, it’s actually pretty good.
The cheap alternative: Carl Zeiss VR One Plus
A premium-feeling VR viewer
Good build quality
Works on iPhone and Samsung Galaxy
Like Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, the Carl Zeiss VR One uses a mobile phone as its display. However, unlike the Galaxy Gear, it supports both the iPhone 6 and the Galaxy S5 through a removable tray that slides between the lenses and the back panel.
Even better news is the price, which at $129, is half the price of Samsung’s equivalent headset. The downside is that there’s not much content for the device from Zeiss aside from an augmented reality demo and movie app that shows videos from your phone in a virtual cinema. You can thankfully use apps designed for Google Cardboard, though, and more are sure to come down the line.
The VR One Plus isn’t the best example of virtual reality on the market, but it’s a step up from Google Cardboard for those who don’t have a Samsung Galaxy phone.