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, or play a game like you're really in it. It's been gaining traction in recent years thanks to some very compelling games and experiences, though it still seems very much in a state of flux, with headsets coming and going fairly rapidly. We're tracking the best of what's currently on the market here.
Oculus is focusing its efforts on a standalone VR headset, the Quest 2, but providing the option to use it as tethered to a PC with a cable. HTC has the tethered Steam-friendly Vive Cosmos and the developer-focused Vive Pro. Sony has the PS4-compatible PlayStation VR (which will presumably work with the PlayStation 5 when it comes out), and Microsoft is supporting its Windows Mixed Reality platform with a scant few third-party headsets. There's also Valve, with its expensive Valve Index headset. Here's what you need to know about all of them.
The Big Question: What VR Is the Best?
Modern VR headsets now fit under one of two categories: tethered or standalone. Tethered headsets like the HTC Vive Cosmos, PlayStation VR, and Valve Index 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. Either external sensors or outward-facing cameras on the headset provide full 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) movement tracking for both your head and your hands thanks to motion-sensing controllers.
The Best Selling VR Headset This Week*
- HTC Vive Cosmos Elite Virtual Reality System — $899.99
- HTC Vive Cosmos Virtual Reality System — $699.99
- PlayStation VR Marvel's Iron Man Bundle — $394.00
- Oculus Quest 2 All-in-One 256GB VR Gaming Headset and Controllers — $399.00
- Oculus Rift S VR Gaming Headset — $399.00
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The least expensive tethered options are currently around $400, and that's before you address the processing issue; the Vive Cosmos and Valve Index need pretty powerful PCs to run, while the PS VR requires a PlayStation 4.
Standalone headsets offer the greatest physical freedom by completely removing the cables and not requiring any external device to handle processing. The Oculus Quest 2 uses similar outward-facing cameras to the Oculus Rift S to provide 6DOF motion tracking, and similar 6DOF motion controls. It doesn't have the same processing power that a separate, dedicated gaming computer, but its high-end mobile processor can still push some pretty detailed, smooth graphics.
Oculus Quest 2
The Oculus Rift was the first big name in the current wave of VR, and Oculus is still a major player in the category. It's bowing out of the dedicated tethered VR headset, though, discontinuing the Rift S in favor of focusing entirely on the standalone Quest 2. This doesn't mean you can't enjoy PC VR on the company's new headset; you'll just need to get an accessory cable for it.
The Oculus Quest 2 is a $300 standalone VR headset powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, a considerable upgrade in power over the original Quest and its Snapdragon 835. It offers a comprehensive VR experience in a single package with no wires needed (except to charge the headset), and currently provides the highest resolution of any consumer VR headset at 1,920 by 1,832 per eye. It has two motion controls for full 6DOF head and hand motion tracking, and offers a surprisingly robust library of VR software in its onboard store.
This doesn't mean you can't enjoy tethered VR with the Quest 2, though. The $79 Oculus Link cable is a five-meter USB-C cable that lets you connect the Quest 2 to your PC and use it just like the tethered Rift S to play PC-specific VR games like Half-Life: Alyx. The cable is expensive, but considering the Quest 2 is $100 less than the original Quest, it still comes out ahead in value even after adding the accessory.
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, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and Five Nights at Freddie's: Help Wanted. 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.
It appears that the PlayStation VR will work with the upcoming PlayStation 5. Sony hasn't announced any new VR hardware, though the PS5 will have a new camera accessory that will presumably enable PS VR.
HTC Vive Cosmos
HTC's Vive Cosmos is the upgraded version of the Vive headset, boasting a higher resolution and replacing the external base stations with outward-facing cameras for motion tracking. It's a comprehensive package for whole-room VR, but at $699, it's quite expensive compared with the Oculus Quest 2.
For even better motion tracking, the Vive Cosmos Elite brings back external base stations to augment how it follows your head and motion controllers, though it's pricier at $899. The Vive Cosmos works with SteamVR just like the Oculus Quest 2, and has its own VR software store in the form of Viveport. Viveport also offers the Viveport Infinity membership that provides unlimited access to VR experiences through a subscription service instead of a la carte software purchases.
If you think the HTC Vive Cosmos is expensive, Valve's own PC-tethered VR headset, the Valve Index, is even pricier. It costs $999 if you buy everything you need for it to work (except the computer, of course). You can save some money by reusing your HTC Vive base stations, cutting the price down to $749, or get only the headset (and provide your own motion controllers and base stations) for $499. Those are hard prices to swallow, even if the Index sports a notably higher 120Hz refresh rate than most of its competitors (with an experimental 144Hz mode), and the controllers feature an advanced grip system for more natural, precise interaction. We have yet to test the Valve Index.
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. 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 Quest 2 with its 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.
While several third-party manufacturers have worked on Windows Mixed Reality headsets over the last few years, the only current-generation consumer Windows Mixed Reality headset is the HP Reverb G2.
What Happened to Phone-Based VR?
VR headsets that use your smartphone to serve as both the brains and display of the system used to be common, with Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR letting anyone with a compatible phone get a VR experience for under $150.
These headsets have slowed to a trickle, and Google has discontinued its Daydream View headset while Samsung hasn't updated the Gear VR since the arrival of the Galaxy S9. You can still find cheap shell headsets, but the software ecosystem and support for these is almost nil. For now, phone-based VR is effectively dead.
The Best Augmented Reality Headsets
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 on the 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. Considering each headset costs several thousand dollars, you shouldn't expect a large library of AR experiences for a while. Outside of specific enterprise and education uses, AR headsets are an early adopter playground at best, and not for most users.
With that in mind, we'll continue to track the best new VR headsets here as they are released, so make sure to check back soon for updates. And when you find the right headset for you, head over to our list of the best VR games.