Where has the year gone? In less than two month’s time, the bell will strike midnight and we’ll leave behind what has arguably been one of the best years yet for virtual reality.
In the last 12 months alone we’ve gotten the consumer version of the Oculus Rift, the first iteration of the HTC Vive and, to top it all off, the first console-powered VR headset, PlayStation VR.
It’s probably the best time to be interested in VR because there are three really awesome options out there right, with even more sweet headsets coming in 2017.
The only problem with all this new freedom is that it can be tough to choose which one is the best on the market – a decision that becomes even more difficult when you look at each of their sticker prices.
You can skip down below to see our choices and explanations in depth, but there’s one tried and true piece of buying advice that everyone should know when it comes to picking out the best VR headset: You get what you pay for.
That said, 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.
- Pair a VR headset with one of the best gaming laptops of 2016
Each headset has its own distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and if you’re not aware of these before you buy then it could be a very costly mistake to make. And that’s exactly why we put this guide together.
We thoroughly expect this list to grow over time as more headsets are released, but these are the ones that are available as consumer versions right now.
HTC Vive wins the first battle in the VR war
Availability: Out now | Price: $799 / £769 / AU$899
Best overall VR experienceSoftware partnership with ValveRequires a high-end GPUMost expensive
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.
Read the full review: HTC Vive
Virtual reality has made it to consoles, and it’s stunning
Availability: Out now | Price: $399 / £349 / AU$655
AffordableNear PC-quality performanceGood selection of gamesLacking required accessories in boxPoor job sealing out lightSpotting motion controller tracking
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.
Read the full review: PlayStation VR
Despite some hiccups, Oculus Rift will take your breath away
Availability: Out now | Price: $600 / £499 / AU$649
VR pioneersFacebook backingNo motion controls (yet)No room-scale
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.
Read the full review: Oculus Rift
Smaller, lighter… but exactly the same
Availability: Out now | Price: $199 (£169, AU$249)
Good build qualityCompatible with most 2016 phonesA bit bulkyExpensive for what it is
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.
Read the full review: Samsung Gear VR
Cheap, mobile virtual reality that’s a cinch to make
Availability: Out now | Price: Free – $85 (depending on model)
Super cheapAffordable funQuality not the bestLimited functionality
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.
Read the full review: Google Cardboard