2019 was a great year in the world of virtual reality, with updated VR headsets from the likes of Oculus now on sale and promises of new standalone headsets from Vive too. Even the prices have begun to drop, making VR accessible to more people than ever before.
The flip side is that there are now more VR headsets on the market than ever before, making it hard to choose one to buy. Don’t fret; we at Tech Advisor have used all of the popular VR headsets, and here’s where we tell you what to look out for when buying a headset, along with our recommendation of the best VR headsets on the market right now.
VR headset buying advice
So, what kind of things should you consider if you’re on the market for a VR headset?
Mobile, PC or standalone?
The biggest factor to consider when on the market for a VR headset is how you’re planning on powering it. There are three types of VR headset on the market at the moment; smartphone-powered, PC-powered or standalone, with the latter being a relatively new option for prospective VR users.
Mobile VR headsets are shaped like a VR headset, but they require a smartphone for the display, internals, tracking and everything else needed to provide a mobile VR experience. This is generally thought of as a beginner’s VR headset; it gives you access to a budget range of experiences, 360-degree videos and basic games, but doesn’t provide much in the way of actual interaction with virtual environments.
The next step up is to opt for the Gear VR or Google Daydream; these mobile VR headsets only work with certain smartphones, and aim to deliver a higher quality experience than those provided by generic mobile viewers. Both platforms have dedicated app stores full of VR experiences and games, and both come with controllers that allow you to interact with the games and apps you download.
If mobile VR isn’t your cup of tea, the second option available to you are standalone VR headsets. These started appearing in 2018, with the Oculus Go and Oculus Quest being the two most popular option on the market at the moment. These are, as the name suggests, standalone VR headsets that don’t require a smartphone or PC for use.
The experience is similar to premium mobile VR headsets like Gear VR and Google Daydream, and come with a dedicated controller for VR interaction. These are slightly more expensive than mobile VR headsets but with upgraded visuals and simplicity of use compared to cheaper options, it’s ideal for many consumers.
Finally, you have the option to buy a PC-powered VR headset. These headsets are the most capable on the market, providing high-end games and VR experiences with incredibly accurate location-based tracking and advanced controllers for full immersion. The catch? The headsets are also the most expensive available at around £400+, and require a £500+ PC to be able to power the experiences.
Though it may not sound like it, controllers are a very important area when it comes to picking a VR headset. That’s because the controllers vary depending on the system, with some offering true 1:1 positional tracking while others don’t. Controllers are your gateway into the virtual world, allowing you to reach out and interact with the environment, so you want them to be as accurate and comfortable as possible.
Generally speaking, the high-end VR headsets like the Vive and Rift offer great controllers with true 1:1 positional tracking. PlayStation’s VR headset offers positional tracking, but it’s not quite as accurate as Oculus’ and HTC’s options.
Standalone VR controllers are okay, offering the same kind of quality that you get from premium mobile VR headsets, but they don’t offer the same kind of tracking as high-end controllers – usually limited to 3 Degrees of Freedom (which tracks rotation, but not movement in the physical space).
Speaking of controller tracking, tracking, in general, is another important area to consider in the world of virtual reality. Mobile VR headsets and the majority of standalone VR headsets only offer 3DoF, compared to 6DoF on offer by more premium headsets. 3DoF means that you’ll be able to stand in place, look around, up and down, but any movement forwards, backwards, up or down won’t be tracked.
6DoF, on the other hand, has the ability to track your location within the physical space. This really improves immersion as, with the Rift S, Quest and Vive, you’re able to physically walk around virtual worlds, bend down and retrieve items from the floor. It's also worth noting that unlike the Vive, Oculus' VR headsets don't require external sensors to provide 6DoF tracking.
Resolution, refresh rate and FOV
It’s a good idea to check out the resolution and refresh rate of any VR headset before buying, as both are integral to a decent VR experience. The resolution is fairly self-explanatory: the higher the resolution, the better quality the images produced by the display will be. It’ll mean crisper edges and easy-to-read text, and a generally more premium VR experience.
But, the resolution doesn’t matter if the refresh rate is terrible. There were a lot of tests undertaken in the early days of VR to work out the ideal refresh rate to combat motion sickness experienced by early VR users. The general consensus is that 90Hz is the minimum requirement for fast-paced VR, although you can get away with 70Hz if the app or game isn’t particularly intense.
Anything lower than 60Hz, though, and you’ll start to notice motion sickness when using VR as the display takes a little too long to refresh when you move, causing lag. Thankfully, most mainstream VR headsets offer at least 70Hz, so you shouldn’t have to worry, but it’s something to consider if you’re looking at non-branded VR headsets.
Lastly, field of view – or FOV as its commonly referred to – essentially gives you an idea of how immersive the VR headset is. Generally speaking, you should aim for a VR headset that provides a FOV of between 100- and 110-degrees, which seems to be the market cap (for the moment anyway!). For reference, human eyes have a FOV of around 220 degrees.
Now you know a little more about what to look out for when on the market for a VR headset, take a look at our recommendations of the best.
Best VR headsets of 2020
1. Oculus Rift S
The best virtual reality headset on the market right now is the Oculus Rift S; it boasts a range of improvements over the original and fixes most of the complaints without a price increase. The Rift S is comfortable, boasts high-end optics and offers inside-out tracking that completely eliminates the need for external sensors like those required by the HTC Vive.
Like the original, the Rift S ships with two Oculus Touch controllers that lets you reach out and interact with the virtual world around you, enhancing the virtual experience tenfold. Our only complaint is that they’re powered by standard AA batteries, opposed to a built-in rechargeable battery.
It’s not the perfect headset though; it doesn’t feature built-in headphones like the original, and the use of a single display instead of dual displays means it offers a fixed IPD of 63.5mm. That should be fine for most users, but those with wider IPDs may struggle to enjoy the experience on offer.
Find out more in our Oculus Rift S review.
2. HTC Vive
Valve, arguably one of the biggest names in PC gaming (creators of Half-Life, Portal & DOTA 2 and operators of Steam, the online marketplace) paired up with HTC to create the HTC Vive, a fully-fledged virtual reality headset that, at launch in 2016, was the best on the market.
However, while other VR companies have since released updated variants, the standard HTC Vive remains untouched. While it still provides a great VR experience, the tech is beginning to look a little old - especially the need for external sensors to track your room-scale VR experience.
The headset features two 1080x1200 screens, along with two touch-and-button enabled controllers that can simulate anything from a gun to a paintbrush. While it's still a premium VR headset, the Vive has dropped in price significantly since launch in 2016.
If you're looking for something a little more premium, take a look at the £1000+ HTC Vive Pro.
Read about our Vive experience in our HTC Vive review.
3. Oculus Quest
The Oculus Quest is an impressive bit of kit; considering the £399/$399 price tag, the standalone VR headset offers a lot. It’s versatile, comfortable, offers inside-out tracking with no need for external sensors or a PC to power it, and yet still manages to provide a gaming-focused VR experience comparable to that provided by the Oculus Rift S. You've even got access to the same Oculus Touch controllers as the PC variant.
Of course, there are slight differences between the Rift S and the Quest, but if you’re a VR enthusiast without access to a high-end gaming PC, it’s the ideal entry into the world of high-end virtual reality.
Find out more in our Oculus Quest review.
4. PlayStation VR
Interestingly, the PlayStation VR headset is the only VR headset for console gamers – Microsoft offers a way for gamers to play Xbox One games through the Oculus Rift S, but it isn’t VR-enabled. Sony’s virtual reality offering features a 5.7in OLED display that’ll provide gamers with low persistence and, consequently, less motion blur when being used.
It also boasts ultra-low latency (18ms) and a 120Hz refresh rate, which is better than the Oculus Rift S and the HTC Vive's 90Hz offering. It means that, theoretically, beautiful 120fps gameplay is possible, although we’re not sure the PS4 (or even the PS4 Pro) could handle it.
It seems that Sony had the same thought, and provides an additional box (smaller than the PS4) that handles the brunt of the graphics processing. It’ll track the position of your head, and can also be used with Sony’s (failed) Move controllers, giving the old controllers a new lease of life.
The tracking is basic though; it uses a PlayStation Camera, and the area that you can move around in is very small - the smallest of the 'big three' VR headsets. It's designed for sit-down VR experiences, and it does it well.
Find out more in our PlayStation VR review.
5. Oculus Go
The Oculus Go has the potential to really show the masses the potential of VR. While smartphone-powered VR has always been the go-to, the Oculus Go provides a much better overall experience in a nice, simple package that requires no smartphone or PC to work. And despite all the tech being crammed into the headset, it’s still sleek, lightweight and comfortable to wear over long periods.
The display is impressive too, boasting a fast-switch LCD display that almost completely removes SDE, an issue prevalent even in high-end VR headsets.
The content available is more entertainment-focused than what you'll find from the likes of the Rift S and Vive, but it's a great option for casual gamers and general VR enthusiasts.
Find out more in our Oculus Go review.
6. Google Daydream
Daydream is a platform rather than a specific headset, though there is an official Daydream headset from Google too.
You'll need to buy a Daydream Ready Android phone, headset (not necessarily Google's) and controller.
The good news is that it's not just a fancy update to the Google Cardboard: this is a high-quality VR experience that's affordable to most people, rather than the expensive Oculus and HTC options.
It's a similar experience to that provided by the Oculus Go, without the £199 price tag.
Find out more about Daydream.
7. Samsung Gear VR
Samsung’s Gear VR is another smartphone-powered VR headset, although this one is slightly different. For one, it features Oculus Rift technology for a great overall VR experience, although this comes at a cost – it can only be used with specific Samsung Galaxy handsets.
Simply slot the Galaxy smartphone into the slot in the side of the headset, and plug in the supplied MicroUSB cable. Then you’ll be using a high-res Super AMOLED display as your VR screen – not too bad for the price (although this relies on you already having an AMOLED display-powered smartphone).
Samsung also boasts a marketplace of VR-ready content including apps and 360-degree videos, ready for users once they take the plunge and buy the Gear VR.
8. Google Cardboard
Google Cardboard is, essentially, a virtual reality starter kit for those that are unsure of VR and want to experience it without having to fork out a lot of money. In fact, you don’t really have to part with any money to get a Google Cardboard as, as the name suggests, it’s made from Cardboard and there are various sites online that'll show you how to make your own at home.
It uses your existing smartphone as the display and brains of the VR system, allowing the company to cut the cost and enable users to use existing VR apps available for iOS and Android.
If building the Google Cardboard seems like an effort to you, then you can buy one for around £10-15. It should fit any smartphone up to 6in, so if you’re interested in VR on a budget, it’s an ideal option.
9. Homido VR
The Homido virtual reality headset aims to bring Virtual Reality to your smartphone while offering something a little more premium than Google’s Cardboard VR headset without breaking the bank.
The Homido VR headset boasts some pretty interesting features including custom-made VR lenses that offer a 100-degree Field of View and an adjustable IPD (distance between the lenses) as the gap between the eyes isn’t the same for everyone and can affect the overall experience.
You also have the option of buying a Bluetooth controller along with the headset to bring true VR gaming to your iPhone, as touch-based games won’t work in Homido as you can’t tap the display while it's being used in the headset.