Virtual reality has had a relatively recent entrance into the world of gaming. While it has not yet ousted traditional PC or console gaming, its popularity has grown exceptionally in recent years, partly due to increasing availability and affordability. No matter what games you play, all VR headsets are designed to provide a uniquely immersive gaming experience, but you’ll want to be sure you’re investing your money in a system that will truly rival your other gaming technology for the most realistic gameplay possible.
Check out quick reviews below of the top five VR headsets, then scroll deeper for more helpful buying info and full reviews of those models, plus other high-ranking options.
Types of VR Headsets
Tethered: A tethered headset connects to a gaming PC or console to run your existing games. Because the processing is taking place in a device separate from the headset itself, the experience can be much more complex and intricate, giving it better imaging and spatial movement. This kind of headset will have six-degrees-of-freedom (or DOF, which we get into below) motion tracking, meaning that it can display both direction and position changes (forward and backward, lateral and vertical, and up and down). Unfortunately, it also must connect by a long cord, which can be a nuisance when you’re moving around. A tethered option will also be on the more expensive side, the most affordable being around $400—and that’s just for the headset. In order to run properly and efficiently, it also requires a powerful PC, Xbox, or PlayStation. Any PC running a tethered VR headset should have at least 16GB of RAM, plus a solid GPU and CPU, and could significantly add to the expense. But there’s a good range of decent gaming desktops if you don’t have one already and are looking to invest for use with a VR headset.
Standalone: This was the original format that brought VR gaming into our homes. These headsets function on their own without the need for a connected phone, console, or PC. While they began as a bit of a novelty, they’ve improved to handle impressive gameplay and are arguably also the future of VR. They’ll cost roughly the same as some tethered models, but can get up to around $600. And with advances in tech, they’re now able to do essentially everything that a tethered VR console can and sometimes with better optics and spacial movement. While the headset and controllers are wireless, they do require batteries and must be charged between uses. Though some games will only run on PCs or consoles, some standalone models (like the Oculus Quest) can also connect to a PC and double as a tethered headset, significantly broadening your gaming options.
Mobile: A mobile headset functions as a sort of shell for your phone, using lenses to separate the mobile screen into two images, one for each eye. While these do provide a basic VR experience, it’s somewhat limited as it uses only three degrees of freedom, which can track your direction but not position. Most don’t include a controller for gaming, but those that do usually only offer one controller with 3DOF. The upside is that they’re generally inexpensive and can come in under $100, so if you’re looking for a budget entrance into the VR experience, this is your best bet. Also be aware that you won’t be able to play the same games on a mobile device as you can on a tethered or standalone version. All of your games will be app-based, so it’s meant more for a visual experience than gaming interactions.
Degrees of Freedom
DOF determines how realistic your VR experience will be. If you want to be fully immersed, you’ll want to opt for 6DOF, which will allow you to move through space, not just change the direction you’re looking. If you’re simply interested more in viewing the game without realistically moving through it, you’ll be fine with 3DOF.
3DOF: 3DOF can follow the direction that you’re looking, so essentially up, down, left, right. But you cannot move around in the space.
6DOF: This will follow where you’re looking—again up, down, left, right—but you’ll also be able to move through the virtual space. So when you move, you’ll be able to get closer or farther away from something. This makes your experience look and feel much more realistic.
A Note About Light Leakage
Since VR technology is relatively new, there are still some flaws—the main one being light leakage. Since it’s not possible for the headsets to fit everyone’s face perfectly, there’s often an issue with some light seeping in from the bottom. It’s usually minimal, so most people are able to ignore it, especially when they’re focused on gameplay. But if you’re particularly sensitive to light, you may want to try a few options on before buying if you can, since there’s no real way to adjust the amount of light coming in if the headset doesn’t fit correctly.
However, having a little outside light isn’t always a bad thing. VR can be disorienting, and for those prone to motion sickness, it could cause some queasiness. Some people have found that looking down at the light at the bottom of the headset can help to reset their vision and prevent further disorientation.
How We Selected and Rated Them
We researched reviews from 10 expert sources such as Digital Trends, PCGamer, and Tech Radar, as well as 7,300 consumer reviews to select the top five VR headsets. We got the Total Expert Scores from converting the evaluations of other professional reviewers to a scale of 100 and calculating the average. And our Consumer Score represents the percentage of customers who rated the product at least four out of five stars on retail sites like Amazon, Walmart, and manufacturers’ webpages.
—FUTURE OF VR GAMING—
Oculus Quest 2
Total Expert Score: 89/100
Consumer Score: 87% gave it 4 stars or more
Freedom to move and incredible motion tracking.
Type: Standalone | Controllers: 2 | DOF: 6 | Weight: 1.31 lbs.
Before standalone VR, you had the option of dropping a load of cash on not only a VR device, but also a powerful PC to make it run. Now, however, you can get a mind-blowing VR experience for around $700—no strings (or expensive upgrades) attached.
Oculus is at the top of the heap, and the Quest 2, as the brand’s standalone model, is its best offering. It has two controllers, which are outfitted with 6DOF—as is the headset—to give you the most realistic movement possible. Since the Quest is wireless, it also allows freedom of movement—something that’s not possible with tethered models. The headset is lightweight and comfortable and has adjustable elastic straps to ensure that it will stay in place.
Compared to the first Quest, this one is lighter, easier to set up, and improved on structure, but it now also requires you to have a Facebook login—so if you are not willing to get a Facebook account, you may want to invest in a different set.
Sony PlayStation VR
Total Expert Score: 89/100
Consumer Score: 90% gave it 4 stars or more
Affordable intro to VR gaming—especially for PS owners.
Type: Tethered | Controllers: Not Included | DOF: 6 | Weight: 1.31 lbs.
The Sony PS VR is a great introduction to VR gaming—and it comes at an introductory price of just around $400. Despite being on the budget end, it has a great selection of games—and a pretty decent VR experience. There is some light leakage in the viewfinder, but it is not aggressively intrusive.
In order to work, it does require a PS4 or PS5, so if you do not already have one, the budget aspect of this set goes out the window. A bit of a bummer, you also need to purchase the controllers which do not come in the set and cost another $130. Since it uses only one camera instead of two, it doesn’t have the most reliable room tracking, so you will definitely recognize a difference between this and the HTC Vive—but since it is a tethered model, you can’t take more than a few steps in any direction anyway.
Overall, it is a great starter model for anyone looking to get into VR gaming, and it won’t break the bank.
HTC Vive Cosmos
Total Expert Score: 65/100
Consumer Score: 45% gave it 4 stars or more
Smooth movements for your most involved games.
Type: Tethered | Controllers: 2 | DOF: 6 | Weight: 1.4 lb.
If you’re willing to shell out for it and can look past its chunky exterior and clunky cable, the Vive Cosmos is sure to please. Its advantages include an impressive resolution that edges out the Oculus Quest, providing a stunningly clear image, while the 90HZ refresh rate makes graphics smooth. The two controllers are improved from HTC’s previous iterations, more comfortable and accurate, and now appear quite Oculus-esque with their secure plastic rings that wrap around your wrists. In order to use this set, however, you will connect the cable to a link box, which then connects to your PC.
The Cosmos requires a PC with at least an Intel Core i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 CPU, 8MB of RAM, a DisplayPort 1.2 output, a USB 3.0 port, and an Nvidia GTX 1060 or Radeon RX 480 graphics card. If you don’t already own a gaming PC, or one with all of these components, keep in mind that all that doesn’t come cheap. If you do try to connect to a PC with inadequate specs, the graphics will suffer—if it allows you to run the game at all.
—GREAT MOTION TRACKERS—
Oculus Rift S
Total Expert Score: 80/100
Consumer Score: 90% gave it 4 stars or more
Move accurately and freely with this tethered headset.
Type: Tethered | Controllers: 2 | DOF: 6 | Weight: 1.2 lb.
Another tethered device, the Rift S also requires a powerful PC. But since it’s cheaper than the HTC Vive, it makes the cost easier to stomach if you do want to upgrade your VR headset and desktop at the same time. And despite being less expensive, the Rift holds its own with incredibly accurate motion trackers. The design is sleek and comfortably adjusts to fit your head snugly. Instead of headphones like the previous Rift, it has speakers that project the sound, which can be more comfortable during a long gaming session.
While it does have a cable, it’s 16 feet long, which gives you decent mobility (so long as you don’t trip on it). Unlike some other options that require adapters, it plugs from the headset directly into the PC, making it easy to set up via USB. In order to make sure that your PC is powerful enough to handle the headset, Oculus suggests that you have at least a Nvidia GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 graphics card, an Intel i5-4590 or AMD Ryzen 5 1500X or higher CPU, and at least 8GB of RAM.
—FOR MOBILE VIEWING—
Zeiss VR One
Total Expert Score: 70/100
Consumer Score: 65% gave it 4 stars or more
An easy and mobile entry into the world of VR.
Type: Mobile | Controllers: none | Weight: 1.4 lb.
If you’re hesitant to get a headset because of the cost but are interested in dipping a toe in the VR waters, a mobile model like the Zeiss VR One is a good option. Costing less than their tethered and standalone counterparts, mobile headsets make VR more accessible without compromising on imagery. However, you will find it limited in other areas. Since your viewing is mainly dictated by your phone, there are no external controllers, so this is meant more for VR viewing rather than gameplay.
While you’ll be able to play some games, if you want to expand your choices, you will have to purchase a separate controller like this one ($13). The tray accommodates phones with screens between 4.7 and 5.5 inches—think a Google Pixel XL or iPhone 6 Plus but not much bigger. And it automatically aligns the phone in the center, but it can sometimes cover the part of the phone where the settings are displayed, forcing you to take it out and replace it in the headset to change them. Ultimately, if you’re looking for a cheap headset to enhance the experience of movies or videos, this is a great choice with top-end optics and a solid build.
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