The rapid development of virtual reality (VR) headsets has been one of the most exciting leaps in tech in the last five years. What was once a clunky, expensive technology relegated to university research departments has become mass-produced and cheap enough for anyone to enjoy. We’ll break down what types of headsets are out there, plus what’s on the horizon, and then recommend the best system for most users.
Types of VR Headsets
VR headsets are split into three types—mobile, standalone, and tethered. Mobile headsets rely on smartphones placed behind a pair of lenses that magnify the images into a 3D world. Examples of these are the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream View. Mobile VR headsets run cheaper (around $100) since they contain no processing power themselves. Typically, these units feature rotational tracking only (meaning they can track the direction your head is tilting), but they don’t track movement forward or backward.
Standalone units are self-contained products that have all the processors, sensors, memory and display inside the unit. Examples of these types are the Oculus Go and the Lenovo Mirage Solo With Daydream. Tracking on the Go is limited, but the Lenovo Mirage Solo features built-in sensors that track you as you move around the room (aka “six degrees of freedom” or 6DoF).
Tethered units require a PC to drive the displays, such as the Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, and HTC Vive. The benefit of tethered headsets is that the processing power is handled by a gaming computer, which means better quality images and tracking. When properly set up, these units can provide room-scale tracking—in which a user can move around inside a whole room. The drawback is that the headset is connected to a cord unless you have an additional wireless unit.
The Best Value VR Headset for PC Right Now: Oculus Rift
As one of the first mass-market VR headsets, the Oculus Rift ($350) features a strong library of games and apps, and it comes with a pair of touch controllers that are some of the best in the industry. The Rift is fairly easy to set up and is priced lower than its main competitor, the HTC Vive ($500). Both headsets have displays that run 1080×1200 per eye with a refresh rate of 90 Hz.
Is Standalone the Future?
Over the past 6 months, Oculus and HTC announced upcoming standalone VR products: the Oculus Quest and the HTC Vive Focus Plus, respectively.
The Quest, releasing in Spring 2019, is entirely self-contained (requiring no external sensors or cords). According to Oculus, the new system will be able to run many of the games that the PC-tethered Rift can, including Robo Recall, The Climb, and Superhot—although we suspect this won’t be the case for all the games in the Oculus library. Sensors on the headset will provide “inside-out tracking,” which means it can track six degrees of freedom without the need of external sensors.
The Focus Plus, releasing Q2 2019, is also going to be a self-contained VR unit with six degrees of freedom and compatibility with the existing Vive game library. But the Focus Plus, unlike the Quest, is currently being advertised as a high-resolution product for “enterprise” customers; this implies that the price tag will be hefty, with an eye toward developers, companies, arcade business, and the like (at least for the time being).
But VR manufacturers are still committed to tethered headsets, too. HTC recently announced the Vive Pro Eye, a headset with an upgraded display and an internal sensor that tracks users’ eyes. Eye tracking allows something called “foveated rendering,” which cuts down the processing load by reducing the image quality in the peripheral vision. HTC has not yet released pricing details on the Vive Pro Eye.
At CES this year, HTC also announced the Vive Cosmos. Details are slim, but the Cosmos is reported to be a tethered headset (although HTC is hinting that you can use it “at home or on the go“). Further hints suggest a “modular” design, which might bring the benefits of mobile, standalone, and tethered headsets into one.
Recommended Specs Required to Run VR
Running a VR headset isn’t actually that taxing on a computer. You’ll need a computer at least in the “Good” or “Very good” range of the Logical Increments table.
Namely, at a minimum:
- GPU: nVidia GeForce GTX 1060 3GB / AMD Radeon RX 480 equivalent or better
- CPU: Intel Core i5-4590 / AMD Ryzen 5 1500X equivalent or better
- Memory: 8GB RAM
- USB port: 1x USB 2.0 (Vive); 3x USB 3.0 ports, plus 1x USB 2.0 port (Rift)
For a more complete account of what to build for VR (including various full example builds), you should also check out our big guide article on building a PC for VR gaming.
It’s a great time to get into VR. Mainstream platforms like Oculus and Vive have mature libraries of games and apps, featuring everything from fun party games like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes to inventive, story-driven epics like Lone Echo. Moreover, the early adoption phase has passed and prices have started to come down. Now—with a variety of budget options in mobile, standalone, and tethered headsets—there’s something for everyone.