The ultimate VR headset buyer's guide

Design High End

The absolute best-quality VR experiences can’t be powered by a mobile phone. The Oculus Rift, Valve and HTC’s Vive, and Sony PlayStation VR — the three high-end headsets we’re currently waiting for — all run off external computers or game consoles. This means that they can offer sophisticated features like motion tracking, high-resolution screens, and the best graphics possible. They’re also generally more comfortable, better at blocking outside light, and less prone to inducing motion sickness. But they won’t be released until later this year, and for now, they’re expensive and intended mostly for early adopters.

Up-front price High End

By almost any metric, high-end headsets cost a lot. The Oculus Rift is $599, plus the still-unknown cost of its motion controllers. The HTC Vive is $799. The one headset that we don’t know anything about right now is PlayStation VR. Early price estimates for both the Rift and Vive were way off — people underestimated the former and overestimated the latter — so we’ll refrain from making any guesses on PSVR. But we know it’s going to be “several hundred dollars,” and it’s not just a headset; there’s also a box that upgrades the PlayStation 4’s graphics capabilities. These prices will come down over time, but it’s hard to say how long that might take.

Hidden costs High End

Most people have a desktop or laptop computer. But the only ones likely to own VR-ready PCs (sorry, no Macs for now) are film or video editors, big-budget video game fans, and other people who routinely need lots of processing power. To be clear, computers that don’t meet the Rift and Vive’s recommended specs might still be able to run some VR games and videos, which will vary in complexity and size. But to get a guaranteed good experience, expect to spend around $1,000 if you’re buying a new desktop — maybe a little less if you buy a combined headset and PC bundle. With PlayStation VR, though, the calculation is a lot simpler: all you need is a PlayStation 4 console.

Space needs High End

One of the big features you’re getting with high-end headsets is the ability to move or even walk through space. The standard way to do this — used by Oculus and Sony — is to put LEDs or some other set of markers on the headset, then track them with an external camera. This kind of positional tracking is very effective, but how far you can move in it depends on how much space the camera can capture. PlayStation VR mostly lets you lean, crouch, and shift around. The Rift can let you move a few feet in any direction, though we’ve only seen this done with multiple tracking cameras.

Unlike these, HTC’s Vive uses a laser tracking system that lets you walk around a 15 x 15-foot room. It’s by far the most freedom you’ll get from any headset, especially with a “chaperone” system that turns on a camera to show you when you’re getting close to an edge. But that also means you’ll need to install a high-powered computer next to a totally clear patch of floor. The Vive can work in smaller spaces as well, so it’s fine to buy if your house or apartment is a little more cramped. But it makes less sense to get the most expensive headset on the market if you’re not taking advantage of its biggest perk.

Controllers High End

Tethered headsets tend to be more focused on video games than the rest of the pool, and both the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR make frequent use of gamepads. The Oculus Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller, which will be the primary method of using the system at launch. PSVR uses PlayStation 4 controllers for several experiences. But the thing that really sets these high-end headsets apart is their motion controllers, which let you do everything from play realistic virtual ping-pong to paint in three dimensions.

Sony already had its Move motion-tracking wands, and the PlayStation 4 gamepad has a light strip that tracking cameras can pick up as well. The Rift and Vive use their own specially designed controllers, and which one you prefer largely comes down to feel, since they have similar capabilities. But there are a couple of logistical concerns: the Rift’s controllers won’t come out until months after the headset is released, and the Vive only uses HTC and Valve’s motion wands — no traditional gamepads included.

Availability High End

April is going to be a huge month for high-end headsets. The Oculus Rift ships at the end of March, and the HTC Vive ships shortly thereafter, marking the first two high-end headset launches. Many people, though, might be getting their orders closer to this summer. The Oculus Rift is heavily backordered, with a current shipping date of July for new buyers — though buying a PC bundle might get you one sooner. Vive preorders have just opened, and we’re not sure how much inventory HTC is working with. The Rift (and probably Vive) will appear in stores, but don’t count on seeing large quantities.

If you’re looking at PlayStation VR, the timeline gets a bit longer. We’ve recently heard that Sony will ship it this fall, and it’s possible we’ll hear an exact date at this year’s Game Developers Conference, where the company has released VR news in the past. Sony introduced around 17 launch games last year, although developers have generally been more secretive about their plans than they have with the Rift or Vive. And while there are free games bundled with the headsets — Rift orders will come with platformer Lucky’s Tale for everyone and EVE: Valkyrie for preorders, and Vive preorder customers get Tilt Brush, Fantastic Contraption, and Job Simulator — everyone has also been pretty coy about how much you’ll pay to buy a game.

Unless you’re determined to be a super-early adopter, waiting a few months may well be the best option. Oculus and Valve have both lined up several dozen titles for the Rift and Vive, but the full catalog will take some months to come out, and it will take time to squash the inevitable bugs that come with new releases. For the Oculus Rift particularly, many of its best experiences — like sculpting tool Medium — won’t work until the Touch motion controllers ship later this year. And if you wait, the hardware needed to run these high-end headsets will only get cheaper.

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