VR Headsets for 2019
VR is the next dimension in gaming. Whether you're looking for a standalone headset or one that tethers to your PC or console, we've tested the best virtual reality headsets and platforms to help figure out which, if any, is right for you.
Virtual Reality Is Here
Virtual Reality is a fascinating way to travel using nothing more than the power of technology. With a headset and motion tracking, VR lets you look around a virtual space as if you're actually there. It's also been a promising technology for decades that's never truly caught on. That's constantly changing with the current wave of VR products, especially as the biggest names in the industry are starting to really hone and tweak their headsets.
Oculus has both tethered and standalone headsets from the Go, to the Quest, to the Rift S. HTC has the Steam-friendly Vive and the developer-focused Vive Pro. Sony has the PS 4-focused PlayStation VR (that will apparently work with the PlayStation 5 if and when that system comes out), and Microsoft is supporting its Windows Mixed Reality platform with a variety of headsets from different manufacturers.
Google and Samsung still offer phone-based VR headsets in the form of the Daydream View and the Gear VR, and even Nintendo has gotten into the game with its Labo VR Kit for the Nintendo Switch. However, these shell-like headsets, which require a phone or some other device physically inserted into them, feel like novelties next to more powerful headsets that can provide more immersive experiences.
The Big Question: What VR Is the Best?
Modern VR headsets now fit under one of three categories: Mobile, tethered, or standalone. Mobile headsets are shells with lenses into which you place your smartphone. The lenses separate the screen into two images for your eyes, turning your smartphone into a VR device. Mobile headsets like the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream View are relatively inexpensive at around $100, and because all of the processing is done on your phone, you don't need to connect any wires to the headset.
While they can offer a taste of VR, mobile headsets don't provide the full experience. They tend to offer three-degrees-of-freedom (3DOF) motion tracking, following your direction but not your position. They also only come with one motion controller, which is also 3DOF-only. You don't get the same immersiveness you do with six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) motion tracking and dual motion controllers, which might be why Google and Samsung have been largely quiet lately about their mobile headsets. The Nintendo Labo VR Kit is its own unique case, but it's more of a novelty for Switch owners.
See How We Test VR Headsets
Tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift S, the HTC Vive, and the PlayStation VR are physically connected to PCs (or in the case of the PS VR, a PlayStation 4). The cable makes them a bit unwieldy, but putting all of the actual video processing in a box you don't need to directly strap to your face means your VR experience can be a lot more complex. The use of a dedicated display in the headset instead of your smartphone drastically improves image fidelity, and either external sensors or outward-facing cameras on the headset provide full 6DOF movement tracking.
The trade-off, besides the clunky cables, is the price. The least expensive tethered options are currently around $400. And that's before you address the processing issue; the Rift S and the Vive both need pretty powerful PCsto run, while the PS VR requires a PlayStation 4. If the cost isn't a deal breaker but the cables are, HTC offers a wireless adapter for the Vive, but it requires a desktop PC with a free PCIe slot to work. There are also third-party wireless adapters for the Rift, but we can't guarantee how well they work.
Standalone headsets were at first a useful novelty that offered a taste of VR without an investment into a gaming PC or a flagship phone. The Oculus Go and the Lenovo Mirage Solo are both capable headsets that work well on their own, but they have the same limited controls as mobile headsets. The recently released Oculus Quest, however, has really sold us on this category. The Quest uses similar outward-facing cameras to the new Rift S to provide 6DOF motion tracking, and uses the same Oculus Touch motion controls. Combined with a faster Snapdragon 835 processor compared with the Oculus Go's Snapdragon 821, the Quest offers a much more compelling and immersive VR experience, all without the unwieldy cable or PC requirement of the Rift S. We hope to see more standalone 6DOF, dual motion controller headsets in the future, like the upcoming HTC Vive Focus Plus.
HTC's Vive is a comprehensive package that includes a headset, two motion controllers, and two base stations for defining a "whole-room" VR area. It's technically impressive, and can track your movements in a 10-foot cube instead of just from your seat. It also includes a set of motion controllers more advanced than the PlayStation Move. PC-tethered VR systems like the Vive need plenty of power, with HTC recommending at least an Intel Core i5-4590 CPU and a GeForce GTX 970 GPU.
The more powerful Vive Pro offers a higher-resolution display, outward-facing cameras, and a handful of other enhanced features, but it isn't nearly as compelling as the regular Vive; it costs $300 more, and doesn't include the base stations and motion controllers needed to work, so you effectively need to already have a Vive or spend even more money to get set up with it. If that isn't enough power, the Vive Pro Eye adds built-in eye-tracking to the already advanced headset.
Oculus Rift S
The Oculus Rift was the first big name in the current wave of VR, and Oculus is still a major player. The Rift S has a higher resolution than the Vive (but not as high as the Vive Pro or, strangely, the Oculus Quest) and newer and lighter Oculus Touch motion controllers, and doesn't need external sensors to work. It does, however, need DisplayPort; if your PC only has an HDMI output, you might want to hunt for the previous Rift and deal with the extra cables.
The Oculus Store has plenty of fantastic VR games, just like SteamVR. You can also use SteamVR games with the Rift, but this requires some software wrangling, and can have its quirks.
Sony PlayStation VR
The PlayStation VR is compelling thanks to Sony backing development for it and the affordability and availability of the PlayStation 4 compared with gaming PCs. All you need is the headset, a PlayStation 4, and a PlayStation Camera (now included with most PlayStation VR bundles). There are some excellent games on PS VR like Moss, Rez Infinite, and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, with Sony and other developers working on several more (including Five Nights at Freddy's VR).
Many PlayStation VR games work with the DualShock 4, so you don't even need motion controls. However, those motion controls are where the PlayStation VR lags behind; the headset still uses the PlayStation Move wands from the PlayStation 3 era, and they aren't nearly as capable or comfortable as the Oculus Touch controllers. They're also expensive, and not always included in PlayStation VR bundles.
Windows Mixed Reality
Microsoft has been promoting its partnership with multiple headset manufacturers to produce a series of Windows 10-ready "mixed reality" headsets. The distinction between virtual reality and mixed reality is so far dubious, but it indicates an integration of augmented reality (AR) technology using cameras on the helmet. Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Samsung are some of Microsoft's partners in this mixed reality program.
From the different headsets we've tested, the hardware is sound and the setup is simple, but position tracking isn't as accurate as tethered headsets with external sensors or the Rift S' new outward-facing tracking cameras. Also, the Windows Mixed Reality store doesn't have as many compelling VR experiences as the Rift and SteamVR stores, though you can use SteamVR games on Windows Mixed Reality headsets, again with some software wrestling.
Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR
Google and Samsung were the biggest names in mobile VR, with Google Cardboard and the Daydream View, and Samsung's line of Gear VR headsets. They respectively worked with Google's and Samsung's flagship phones, like the Pixel 3 and the Galaxy S9. However, both companies have been very quiet over the last year or so about the category, and we've yet to see a Gear VR headset compatible with the Galaxy S10 series.
If you have compatible phones, these headsets offer functional 3DOF VR experiences for just $60 to $130. You slide your phone into one, put it on your head, and start tapping away with the included remote. It's interesting, but underwhelming next to tethered and 6DOF standalone VR experiences. Perhaps we'll see some 6DOF updates, but we aren't counting on it.
Nintendo Labo VR Kit
Nintendo's Labo series of games/arts-and-crafts sets for the Nintendo Switch have interested us since the first Labo Variety Kit came out. You build your own controllers with cardboard and play games using the Switch and motion-sensing Joy-Con controllers. Now Nintendo has returned to VR (a field it hasn't set foot in since the ill-fated Virtual Boy) with its fourth Labo package, the Labo VR Kit.
The Labo VR Kit has you building a mobile VR headset out of cardboard, like the older Google Cardboard headsets, which you insert the Nintendo Switch into. You then build other controllers, like a camera or a blaster, and attach them to the headset to play games. It's fun and engaging, but even with an impressive game development kit in the software, it's ultimately just a novelty. The Labo VR Kit mostly provides 3DOF motion control, even if it uses the Joy-Cons' motion sensors in some very clever ways (one controller creates a triangulated 6DOF motion control system using both Joy-Cons in tandem), and the Switch's 720p screen offers some of the simplest and grainiest VR graphics we've seen in years. It scores so highly with us because as its own product, a crafts kit for kids who want to learn about VR and game development, it's excellent. It just isn't a feasible VR platform like the other systems discussed here.
Qualcomm-Compatible XR Viewers
The newest breed of mobile headsets can also be considered "tethered," because instead of inserting your phone into the headset itself, you physically connect your phone with a USB-C cable. Qualcomm has been emphasizing the VR and augmented reality capabilities of its Snapdragon 855 processor, and is promoting a new ecosystem of XR viewers (including both AR and VR devices). These use the aforementioned USB-C connection to run all processing from a smartphone, while keeping the display technology built separately into the VR headset or AR glasses.
The Oculus Go is the least expensive way to jump into virtual reality. At $200 it's pricier than mobile VR headsets, but unlike those headsets, you don't need a compatible (and usually expensive flagship) smartphone to use it. The $200 investment gets you right into a Gear VR-like virtual reality experience, complete with an intuitive controller. It makes some compromises for the price, like using a dated Snapdragon 821 processor and offering only 3DOF motion tracking, but it's still enough to try out Netflix on a virtual theater screen or play Settlers of Catan in VR.
The Oculus Quest costs twice as much as the Oculus Go, but it's well worth it. It has a more powerful Snapdragon 835 processor and a sharper OLED screen, but more importantly it offers full 6DOF motion tracking with dual motion controls. In fact, it uses the same Oculus Touch controllers as the Oculus Rift S. It's limited to Oculus' mobile software store, like the Oculus Go, so it won't provide the same selection as the PC-based Rift S and its much bigger Oculus Store. Still, there are already some very compelling experiences on it, like Beat Saber and Superhot VR, that make it well worth your attention.
Lenovo Mirage Solo With Daydream
The Lenovo Mirage Solo is the Google Daydream version of the Oculus Quest, but it doesn't quite hit the mark. It has the same Snapdragon 835 processor and outward-facing cameras for 6DOF position tracking for the headset itself, but it includes only a single 3DOF motion controller, which severely limits its capabilities. It feels like a half-step between the Go and the Quest, using Google's Daydream platform instead of Oculus, and simply isn't as compelling as the other standalone headsets because of it.
HTC Vive Focus and Vive Focus Plus
HTC has branched out beyond tethered headsets with the standalone Vive Focus series. Originally launched only in China, the Vive Focus came to North America late last year, and its 6DOF follow-up, the Vive Focus Plus, will see worldwide release later this year. Both are completely self-contained VR headsets similar to the Lenovo Mirage Solo, capable of full motion tracking and room mapping. The Vive Focus headsets are currently being aimed at the enterprise market rather than consumers, emphasizing their ability to offer virtual training and conferencing in a business context.
What About Augmented Reality?
You might have seen some other famous visual headsets pop up over the last few years, including the Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap One. They aren't on this list for a few reasons, but the biggest one is that they're augmented reality (AR) headsets, not virtual reality headsets. And yes, there's a difference.
Basically, these AR headsets have transparent lenses that let you look at your surroundings, instead of completely replacing your vision with a computer-generated image. They can still project images over whatever you're looking at, but those images are designed to complement and interact with the area around you. You can make a web browser pop up in the middle of a room, for instance, or watch animals run around your coffee table. It's fascinating technology that could hint at the future of computing.
The emphasis here is future, as in several years away. That brings us to the second biggest reason the HoloLens and Magic Leap One aren't on this list: They aren't consumer products. Both devices are purely intended as development hardware, so AR software can be made for their platforms. Even the just-announced HoloLens 2, the second iteration of Microsoft's AR headset, is aimed specifically at developers and enterprise users rather than consumers.
Considering each headset costs several thousand dollars (the Magic Leap One is $2,300 and the HoloLens 2 will be $3,500), you shouldn't expect a large library of AR experiences similar to the Oculus and SteamVR stores for a while. It's an early adopter playground at best, and not for most users.
Apple and AR/VR
So far, Apple has been very cool on VR, but that's slowly starting to change, at least from a software development side. OS X High Sierra enables VR development on three major VR software platforms: Steam, Unity, and Unreal. It also uses Apple's Metal 2 framework, which the company says provides the performance necessary for VR. No plans for any Apple-branded VR headset have been announced—we'll much more likely see Rift or Vive compatibility added to Macs.
Apple has been more enthusiastic about its ARKit platform, with phones ranging back to the iPhone 8 seemingly built for the system. However, like we said before, AR isn't VR, and while some Google Cardboard software and headsets work with iOS, there isn't a specifically Apple-centric VR product currently available.