VR Comparison Guide

VR Comparison Guide

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There are only a few VR headsets you can buy today – or at least only a few that matter – but now that consumer virtual reality is officially here, this sounds like a good time to compare your best options (both present and near future). Read on for our very first VR Headset Comparison Guide.

In this first VR Buyers’ Guide, we’ll be comparing the features and specs of the following five headsets:

  • HTC Vive
  • Facebook Oculus Rift
  • Sony PlayStation VR
  • Samsung Gear VR
  • Google Cardboard*

Why the asterisk next to Google Cardboard? Well, not only is it a developer kit rather than a consumer product, but the Cardboard name doesn’t point to one headset so much as it’s talking about the platform itself, made up of many different pieces of gear. They range from cheap dev kits that are literally made of cardboard to consumer gear with a little more (plastic) polish. It’s like how Android refers to lots of different phones, not just the latest Galaxy or Nexus.

Consider our inclusion of Cardboard less a present-day product and more a frame of reference for a platform that’s going to get more and more important as time goes on (maybe as soon as this month, at Google I/O).

The other thing to remember is that PlayStation VR isn’t yet available – and won’t be until this October. Since it’s up for pre-order, though, and since Sony has already released all the specs and given us extended hands-on sessions, we threw it in.

… so without further ado, our first VR Comparison Guide.

Mothership

None of today’s VR headsets are standalone products (well, at least not the ones you’ll want to bother with). That means you’ll need a highish-end gaming PC, PlayStation 4 console or smartphone to provide the brains and brawn for each one of them.

Today’s very best VR requires a gaming PC. Smartphone-based VR, like the Gear VR and Google Cardboard, can be surprisingly good for what it is, but lags far behind the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift in raw horsepower and tracking (and in the Gear VR’s case, you’ll need a very specific Samsung Galaxy flagship smartphone to power it).

In theory, PlayStation VR will hit a sweet spot between horsepower and price point, but based on our event demos, we can’t currently recommend it unless Sony makes one huge change (read on).

Mothership starting price

The best VR isn’t cheap by any means – both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift cost a pretty penny for the headsets alone, and if you don’t already have a gaming PC that meets the grade, that will set you back about another US$950 or more. In the Vive’s case, it’s worth it for people who can afford it. But not everyone wants to shell out about $1,800 for a futuristic video game machine.

This is another area where Sony could have a huge advantage with adoption, as there are already more than 36 million PS4s out in the wild – giving its owners one less thing to shell out money for. If not for its shitty PS Move controls, we’d be grinning from ear to ear, bouncing around the room, with gleeful anticipation of this October, when Sony brings consumer VR to the mainstream.

The above price for the Gear VR is rough full retail pricing for the cheapest phone that plays nice with the headset, the Galaxy S6. Most people will fork over much less than that upfront, though, paying off whichever Samsung flagship they get over a couple of years.

Software

Your PC for the Vive or Rift will need to run Windows (7 or later).

None of the game libraries are exploding with content just yet, but there’s still lots of fun early stuff for the Vive, Rift and Gear VR. We’ve played some PSVR demos that look like they could be a hoot too, though our reservations about the controllers still keep us from getting too excited there.

The Gear VR runs Samsung’s flavor of Android, getting content exclusively from the Oculus app that auto-installs the first time you plug your phone into the headset. It has by far the best selection of mobile VR content.

Cardboard kits can play nice with both Android phones and iPhones, though you’ll find a better selection of VR goodies in the Play Store than the App Store (just how Google likes it).

Open hardware

As of today, the Vive, Rift and Cardboard are the only headsets in this bunch that let you choose where you get your content from.

And the Rift earns that big fat asterisk, because you have to jump into settings and tick a box to opt in for content that doesn’t come from the Oculus Store. It’s an attempt to have it both ways, saying we’re open! while also knowing full well that many (if not most) customers won’t have a clue they can tick that box and get content from anywhere else. It’s almost as if Facebook were involved somehow …

Lots of PC gamers have gotten miffed at Oculus’ approach here, considering a VR headset is basically a futuristic monitor. Would you buy a PC display that makes you opt in just to show PC content from anywhere but one store?

If the Rift is a closed but unlocked door, then the Gear VR is a door that’s bolted shut – as you have no choice but to get content from the Oculus Store. There is a hack that lets you play Cardboard games on the Gear VR, but since that isn’t official or supported by Samsung or Oculus, there’s no guarantee it won’t be borked by a future software update.

Open (primary) storefront

Conversely, only the Vive’s SteamVR and Google Cardboard’s Play Store or App Store are hardware-agnostic. Meaning if you get a Vive and buy a bunch of SteamVR games – but later buy a Rift – you may be able to play some of those games on your new headset (depending on developer support). But if you get a Rift and buy a bunch of Oculus Home content – and then later buy a Vive – none of that will work on the Vive. At least not without unsupported hacks.

Oculus and Facebook are building the Rift’s brand on top of exclusive games – most of the Rift’s best stuff is Oculus only, at least for now. Depending where you stand on this, that’s either a compelling reason to choose the Rift or a customer-hostile practice that will push you towards the Vive.

We can see both sides. Oculus has invested loads of money into the development of these exclusives, so it makes sense for it to reap some reward from that. On the other hand, we do appreciate the consumer-friendly, open VR standards friendly philosophy behind Valve’s no exclusives approach.

Ultimately, though, we recommend going with the better headset. And that’s the Vive.

Build

Back to the headsets themselves, the Rift has the sleekest build, with its smaller profile and fabric-covered front side.

On the other hand, it’s not like the others are hideous monstrosites. Besides, virtual reality is meant to be used in the privacy of your own home. Looks shouldn’t weigh too heavily (if at all) in your decision.

The Rift’s design also has some drawbacks, like the fact that it isn’t as good with glasses underneath (more on that in a second) and that if you don’t wear it loosely its lenses will fog up like Cheech and Chong’s van. We haven’t had a single lens fog issue with the Vive or in any of our PSVR demos.

Built-in headphones

One of the coolest things about the Rift is the unified look and feel it gives you with its built-in headphones. No need to fuss with audio cables; just slap on the headset and get to playing.

The Vive doesn’t have built-in earphones, but it does include a pair of earbuds in the box. It’s also easy to plug in any old pair of headphones you have lying around. Ditto for the other headsets.

Display resolution

Believe it or not, the Gear VR has the highest display resolution. Just don’t mistake that for meaning it will have the best visuals – the Vive’s and Rift’s much higher-end graphics far outweigh this relatively minor difference in pixel count.

Field of view

Field of view is a complicated subject that we aren’t going to pretend can always be summed up by one number (just look at this analysis). But for a ballpark idea, these numbers can be a good start.

Also keep in mind that the Gear VR’s field of view gets a little lower if you’re using one of the 5.1-inch Samsung phones (Galaxy S7, S6 or S6 edge) vs. one of the phablets (S7 edge, S6 edge+ or Note 5).

If you’re thinking about picking up a Cardboard headset to use with an iPhone 6s or smaller (4.7 inches or less), know that you’ll see some cut-off in your field of view with that smaller display. You need a pretty big phone for good mobile VR.

Display type

OLED or AMOLED panels are the de facto standard with today’s VR, thanks to their low persistence and deep blacks. The only headset here that doesn’t necessarily fall into that party is Cardboard – that is, if you’re using it with an iPhone or Android phone that has an IPS/LCD display.

Lens (distance from eyes) adjustment

Only the Vive and PlayStation VR let you tweak the distance between the lenses and your eyes – a great help with the next category.

Glasses support

All of the headsets (except maybe some Cardboard hardware) let you wear glasses underneath. Those lens slider adjustments make the Vive and PSVR better with glasses than the Rift and Gear VR, though, so four-eyed folks can find the perfect balance between field of view and comfort.

Focus adjustment

In a way, though, the Gear VR is the easiest for glasses wearers, as you can just take off your specs and use the built-in focus adjustment to get a clear picture. It’s kinda like taking a vision test at the optometrist’s office.

IPD (horizontal) adjustment

All three of the headsets in the first row let you tweak the interpupilliary (horizontal) distance to line the picture up just right.

Things work a little differently, though, with PSVR. The Vive and Rift both have two display panels inside, so their IPD adjustment is physical. PSVR only has one display panel, so its IPD adjustment is apparently going to be software-based.

Refresh rate

PSVR has the highest supported refresh rate, at 120 HZ, though it will also have a 90 HZ mode to keep things flexible for developers (especially those porting over from the PC headsets).

Wireless

Apart from price and portability, this is mobile VR’s only advantage today. It’s wireless, while PC- and console-based VR is tethered with a cable.

Positional tracking

… and here’s one of mobile VR’s biggest disadvantages. Without any external tracking, when you lean or move your body, the virtual world leans or moves with you (as opposed to you leaning or moving inside the virtual world). It’s a quick way to break your sense of immersion.

External trackers

The Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR both use optical sensors (cameras) to track the headset’s position in space. The Vive works almost exactly the other way around, with base stations emitting lasers that photosensors on the headset and controllers use to determine their own precise position in space.

The results are similar, but the Vive’s approach opens a few doors that may be impossible with optical sensors (read on).

Seated VR

Seated VR is the least common denominator. This just means parking your tush in a chair (usually with a gamepad) to play either third-person or first-person VR games.

Standing VR

One level up from that is standing VR, where you can get up on your feet, crouch down, lean to the side and move maybe a step or two in any direction.

Of course you can stand up while wearing the mobile headsets, but without positional tracking there’s no difference from sitting. By our definition, standing VR requires external tracking.

Room-scale VR

We probably should have made this the very first category, because this is what separates the HTC Vive from the Rift and every other current headset. The Vive is designed for 360-degree room-scale tracking, letting you walk around a large space, putting your full body into the experience. It’s the kinds of first-person VR experiences we always dreamed of.

After Oculus’ motion controllers launch later this year, you’ll be able to stand and move around some too – and Sony also says PSVR will support “room-scale.” But we consider the Vive the only real room-scale option, thanks to the next category.

Virtual boundaries (Chaperone)

The Vive’s most brilliant and innovative feature is its Chaperone system, which pops up virtual walls if you get too close to the edge of your playing space. It’s a VR safety net, giving you freedom to move around without worries that you’ll smack into a wall or piece of furniture.

Chaperone makes so much sense that any “room-scale” VR without it would be at best clumsy – and at worst unsafe. It’s one of the biggest reasons we think the Vive is easily the best first-gen VR headset.

Motion controllers

First-person VR experiences don’t make a lot of sense without tracked controllers that give you hands inside virtual worlds. Right now only the Vive has this.

The Rift has an excellent pair of motion controllers coming later this year, though, in Oculus Touch. But since Oculus is asking developers to make their games with 180-degree tracking (as opposed to the Vive’s 360 degrees), its games will encourage you to face mostly in one direction. Our Touch event demos so far line up with this.

This is the category that transforms the PlayStation VR from enticing mid-ranged headset to a colossal turd that’s going to be hard to recommend to anyone, at any price. In our event demos, its PS Move controllers aren’t remotely close to the Vive’s and Rift’s, with choppy and inaccurate tracking technology dug up from the Wii era.

The Vive’s controllers have what HTC and Valve call sub-millimeter accuracy; PS Move’s feels more like sub-meter accuracy. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but you get the drift.

We can’t stress enough how disappointed we are that Sony is taking this cost-cutting shortcut. Going from the Vive’s and Rift’s tracked controllers to PS Move is like going from a high-end gourmet brew to instant Folgers. It’s so bad we sent an open letter to Sony begging it to cook up some better tracked controllers before launch. Since pre-order bundles that include PS Move are already sold out, it looks like our pleas fell on deaf ears, at least for the short term.

Motion controllers price

The Vive’ controllers are bundled in the box, while the Rift’s will be sold separately (for an unknown price) later this year.

Sony splits the difference, selling its terrible controllers either separately or at a slight ($10) discount in a $499 bundle with the headset and camera. We also included the PlayStation Camera in this price, since you’ll need one to do anything with PSVR.

Gamepad support

You can use gamepads with all the headsets, but the Rift is the only one that includes one in the box with the headset (an Xbox One controller). While the PSVR itself doesn’t include a gamepad in its box, its PS4 mothership includes a DualShock 4 gamepad.

Since we haven’t exactly been subtle in our opinion of the PS Move controllers, you won’t be surprised to hear that our favorite PSVR demos have used the DualShock.

Built-in camera

The Vive has a nifty forward-facing camera that you can toggle at any time by double-tapping a button on the controller. It joins Chaperone in giving you a real-world safety net when you need it – great for when you need to quickly jump out of VR to do things like take a sip of water, untangle a cable or have a quick chat with a family member.

Mobile VR has cameras too, because, well, all flagship smartphones have cameras. But the Cardboard platform doesn’t currently have any built-in means of using the shooter while in VR. The Gear VR does, like a slower-to-launch and software-triggered version of the Vive’s camera. Since you can’t walk around in Gear VR games, though, that has less value there.

Release

The Vive, Rift and Gear VR are all available now, and there are plenty of Google Cardboard options to choose from too if you like your VR cheap and sloppy (just keep in mind Google likely has some much better VR up its sleeve come I/O later this month).

Part of the reason the consumer Oculus Rift is hard to recommend is because right now it relies exclusively on a gamepad. It will get a lot better later this year when Oculus Touch launches, but just remember that, even then, it still won’t be a viable room-scale option.

PSVR launches this October and is up for pre-order now, though batches are currently sold out across the board.

Starting price

If you did a double-take when you saw the Vive’s price, just remember that it’s the very best VR out there, by a wide margin. Also remember that its excellent motion controllers are not only available now (the only headset we can say that about), but are also included in the box with your purchase.

Considering the Oculus Rift sparked this VR flame back in 2012, it’s a little surprising that the first consumer version gets lost in the enormous shadow of the superior Vive. With all respect to Oculus’ innovation from the last few years, the Vive’s room-scale and Chaperone simply put it on another level.

When you consider a) the lower price for the PlayStation VR headset and b) the fact that there are already millions of PS4s in the wild, it should have an enormous advantage with mass consumer adoption. If that’s the case, though, we’re a little worried about what mass consumers will think of VR. Those motion controllers are that bad.

The Gear VR looks like a terrific deal, and if you already own one of the Samsung phones required to spring it to life, it is. But if you own another smartphone, we’d recommend either investing in a better option like the Vive, or just holding out for better mobile VR that works with your current phone. The Gear VR is good, but not so good you should buy a new phone just to get it.

For more on these headsets you can hit up our reviews (or event demo impressions):

Check back soon for much more from us in this big year for consumer virtual reality.

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