It’s hard to imagine a more difficult buying decision than one in a new product category like virtual reality, especially when innovation seems to be happening in the blink of an eye. We’ll witness many changes in VR platforms in the coming years, including significant enhancements to the VR ecosystem, like eye tracking inside HMDs, peripherals and controllers that add more realism to games, hand and gesture tracking, and various forms of precision body tracking.
September 2016 Update
After several months of testing and daily exposure to the current crop of revolutionary devices and VR content, we’ve made our definitive VR HMD choice: HTC Vive offers the most complete and compelling package. As the industry matures our perspective is sure to change, maybe even as soon as the new Oculus Touch controllers ship. For now, the choice is clear.
Best Virtual Reality Headsets
These are the early days of VR and you’d be excused for sitting on the sidelines for a while. For one thing, the cost of entry is nothing to sneeze at. On top of the already steep cost for your HMD, you’ll need a powerful gaming PC just to get started. For the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, you’ll need a GTX 970 or R9 290 or better on the GPU side of things. The current generation of mid-range GPUs, AMD's RX 480 and Nvidia’s GTX 1060, should provide an enjoyable experience, which brings the cost of a VR-ready system down a little bit, but you still need a powerful CPU. If you don’t have a modern Intel Core i5 or i7, or one of AMD's top chips, you’ll be due for an upgrade to achieve enjoyable performance in VR.
Still, the first generation of virtual reality hardware already delivers an incredibly compelling and indescribable experience. If you’re not afraid of being an early technology adopter, and you want to have a front row seat to the next wave of gaming and computing experiences, today’s options are definitely worth considering.
The HTC Vive is the first VR HMD built on Valve’s SteamVR platform. The system includes a VR HMD, two 6-degrees of freedom motion controllers, and two base stations that provide the tracking information. The Vive is currently the only VR system to feature room-scale tracking, so you can get up and move around inside virtual worlds. In fact, the Vive is capable of two different setups: Seated/Standing, which tracks the headset and controllers from stationary positions, but isn’t configured to let you walk around; and Room-Scale, which allows you to move around within a space as large as 15 x 15-feet.
Of course, all of this hardware and capability comes at a cost. The HTC Vive is the most expensive consumer VR option on the market. You’re looking at $800 for the package on top of the pricey gaming PC to make it work. There’s plenty of content for the Vive to keep you busy, though. Valve’s Chet Faliszek recently tweeted that there are over 400 pieces of VR content on the Steam store, and you’ll find that much of it is free.
Valve has a big content delivery advantage over Oculus thanks to more than a decade of managing Steam, the world’s largest digital game distribution platform. SteamVR piggy-backs off the Steam platform, making it easy and familiar for developers to share their wares with gamers. Valve even opened up the platform for other hardware developers by releasing OpenVR (an API and runtime) on Github earlier this year. OpenVR makes it easy for any VR HMD to interface with SteamVR and its content. By doing this, developers get an even wider customer base, which incentivizes them to release content on the platform. In the end, everyone wins.
The Oculus Rift is probably the most common household name in the VR space, so it might surprise some people that we didn’t make it our recommendation. Don’t get us wrong, the Rift is an excellent product. Oculus spent considerable time and money refining the fit and finish of its HMD. The Rift is wrapped in a soft fabric, instead of being enclosed in a hard plastic shell, which reduces the weight of the device. The custom optics that Oculus designed for the Rift also provide a superior visual experience in some respects.
The Vive takes our top pick this time around because of its robust software catalog and the additional hardware that it includes, but the Rift could very well top our list in the coming months. The Oculus Store offers a much smaller array of content, but the Rift has a distinct advantage in that regard: Oculus isn’t supporting other devices, so you can’t play Rift games on the Vive without third party software; and yet Valve has added support for the Rift to SteamVR. This means that much of the Vive’s wide array of content is available to Rift owners as well.
Rift owners can play most of the seated content on SteamVR, but the Rift falls on its face when it comes to room-scale content. Oculus is developing its own motion controllers, called Touch, which will be available later this year. The company has been talking solely about standing experiences, but the most recent software update added support for up to four sensors, which could open the doors for room-scale gaming on the Rift HMD after all.
If you have no intention of playing room-scale games, and you’re willing to wait for the Touch controllers, you should definitely consider the Rift. Plus, it will set you back $200 less than the Vive. If you’re building a racing or flight simulator, the Rift is a better buy.
OSVR HDK 1.4
The Open Source VR (OSVR) Hacker Developer Kit (HDK) 1.4 is a more affordable option to get into VR, but as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. The HDK 1.4 is only $300, but there’s good reason for that. As the name suggests, the OSVR HDK is both open source and a developer kit. As such, it is a far cry from the refined consumer products that HTC and Oculus are offering. However, the OSVR HDK is by far the most customizable option. If tinkering is in your blood and price is a factor, this might be the HMD for you.
There is some OSVR native content out there, and the collection of VR companies that has joined the consortium is working towards building that catalogue and making it easier for others to add to it. The OSVR HDK is also compatible with SteamVR thanks to Valve’s OpenVR initiative. The HDK is capable of playing many of the seated experience titles on SteamVR. The kit doesn’t include an input device, though, so you’ll have to provide your own gamepad to play most of the experiences.
The OSVR HDK is really designed to be a developer kit, but it does have one compelling advantage going for it: The kit has a single 60Hz 1080p screen, instead of parallel 1080x1200 90Hz panels that you’ll find the Rift and Vive. Technically, of course, the screen is a downside, unless you consider the hardware needed to operate it. You need a fairly high-end gaming machine to run the Rift or the Vive, but the OSVR HDK 1.4 can be driven by much older and weaker hardware.
There is another OSVR kit available, although we haven't had our hands on one yet. The OSVR HDK 2 was announced at E3 2016 in June. It features a dual-screen setup that puts the resolution, and by extension, the system requirements of the HMD at parity with the Vive and Rift HMDs. This kit may turn out to be a great budget option; it's offered for $400. You can also upgrade your HDK 1.4 to include the dual screen configuration of the HDK 2 thanks to its customizable nature.