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How to buy the right VR headset: Our complete guide

Despite all the publicity about virtual reality, for the average consumer that wants to participate, it isn’t easy to figure out how to get started — and in particular which VR headset to buy. The good news is that 2016 has finally seen the launch of several fairly well-polished offerings, and will see more before it’s over. We’ll help you decide which to buy, or whether you’re better off waiting.

Samsung Gear VR product shotIf you simply want to get a taste of VR, you might not need to buy anything at all. A visit to one of the lucky Microsoft or GameStop stores that are demoing the high-end Vive headset may be enough to let you know whether you want to go further. Or you can get a demo of the lower-priced Samsung Gear VR (based on the Oculus platform), at Best Buy or some other locations. You can get a very basic idea of what’s possible by purchasing Google cardboard or one of the many other passive viewing devices that fit on your smartphone for $10 – $30. But you are really getting the 21st century of the old-fashioned View-Master at that point, as those devices don’t do a great job of tracking, don’t support motion, and don’t offer good controls.

If you’re fortunate enough to own one of the few Samsung phones supported by Gear VR (or are planning to buy a new one and can take advantage of the free Gear VR offer) the $100 you spend on it is by far the best value for getting a start on VR. It isn’t great for long sessions, as the frame rate is relatively low, and the tracking isn’t ideal. But it is blissfully easy to set up when compared with a high-end model, and it runs completely untethered, which is nice. If you want to try some gaming on it, a Bluetooth game controller is really helpful (I use one from Moga, but SteelSeries is probably the most popular). The Gear VR doesn’t come with earphones, so for the most immersive experience you’ll want to use it with some headphones or wireless earbuds.

One big plus with Gear VR is you can take it with you. If you want to use it one road — no problem. If you want to take it over to a friend’s so they can see why you think it’s so cool — no problem. Have them look at some of the immersive videos, like the National Geographic one of rafting on the Zambezi. Make sure to remind them to turn their head — folks who are used to staring at monitors usually don’t think to do that right away. Another plus for the Gear VR is that it has a lot of 360 video content, thanks to plenty of investment from Samsung, and its compatibility with Android.

I almost feel like saying, “If you have to ask…” Seriously, with the state of things today, the headsets on offer are really targeted at either those with a commercial need for a virtual reality application, or who are hardcore gamers. You need a beefy PC (Mac users need not apply) with a beefy GPU, USB 3.0 ports, an extra HDMI output, and room to leave all that set up. For the Vive, you also need wall mounting points for its “Lighthouse” beacons that support room-scale VR. Then you have to chip in $600 for an Oculus Rift (figure on another $100-$200 for their planned touch controllers) or $800 for an HTC Vive (which includes two pretty-cool touch controllers). Oh, and then wait a few months until the back orders clear.

What you get for all this time and money is a few things. First, the frame rate is much higher on these devices — currently at least 90fps. That makes for more realistic experiences and less nausea. Second, you get full 6-axis motion tracking. Gear VR, for example, does a fairly good job of following rotational movement in any direction, but does not have any way to track translation — moving side-to-side, closer-or-further, or higher-or-lower. Third you get some better controllers (an Xbox controller and a simple remote for the Rift, and Touch controllers for the Vive). Fourth, you get audio — included ear buds with Vive, and integrated headphones with Rift. Finally, you get access to a lot more high-end content. The limited battery and graphics capability of the phones used with the Gear or other similar smartphone-based offerings means they can’t run games or immersive experiences that are nearly as detailed or realistic as the dedicated headsets. (For more, we let you compare the leading VR headsets, by the numbers.)

If you’re glued to your couch, it’s tough to make much use of full 360 experiences, and of course you can’t move around much. Plus, unless your couch is in front of a massive PC, you probably aren’t going to be in the right position to use a high-end headset. Your best option is probably a Gear VR, or waiting until other products reach market (we expect some interesting announcements at Google I/O in May, and at some of the VR shows this spring).

HTC ViveFor experiencing 360-degree games and content, a swivel chair on a smooth surface is ideal. Long sessions don’t have to be tiring, and your neck won’t wear out trying to turn around to see what’s behind you. The Rift is a really good fit for that model. It only requires a single tracking unit, which you can set up directly in front of you — on your desk, or even perched on top of your monitor. The Rift definitely supports gaming standing up, but without touch controllers (yet), and with its limited scale, standing up is definitely optional.

By contrast, the most unique feature of the Vive is its room scale support — complete with a virtual “fence” that warns you when you are reaching the edge of the space you’ve defined for it. To get all that to work, you need to place its two beacons up in the corners (or edges) of your room. So if you don’t have a large, cleared, space to dedicate to gaming, or don’t want to mount things to your walls, you’re probably not going to be happy with a Vive — especially since many of the showcase games are naturally designed to take advantage of the room scale technology.

However, if you have the room, the VR experience with a Vive and touch controllers is really cool. For a pure “wow” factor, it is the best of the consumer devices available. Of course, if you mostly want to play racing sims on a controller or sitting behind a wheel, or float around virtual worlds, you’re not going to be making much use of this capability. In that case, the greater comfort and integrated headphones of the Rift may be compelling advantages.

With Valve being a major force behind the Vive, I was worried that its Steam gaming platform wouldn’t have good support for Rift. Fortunately, that is far from true. Nearly Day 1, Steam VR was updated to work with the latest Rift runtime, and many Steam games that are also in the Oculus store work equally well wherever you purchase them. In contrast, the Oculus store seems to be a bit of a one-way street. You pay the same price for a game, but it is only for the Oculus. Plus, the Oculus store, while pretty, isn’t nearly as useful as the very-evolved Steam system.

In my case, I’m using Steam to purchase games for my Rift, as I can then also play them directly on the PC screen. That’s important to me, because while the VR experience is great, it can be tiring and sometimes I just want to fire up a game on the regular monitor instead. One other thing to be aware of with Rift is that some apps and content relied on its early architecture of being an extension of the PC’s screen. That is no longer supported, so make sure when you check to see what you can run on it, that you look for content that works with the much-improved “Direct Mode” and the retail launch 1.3 (or later) runtime. Others require additional software, or only work in “theater” mode (where you aren’t really gaming in VR, as the game appears on a simulated flat screen in your headset). So all this, along with the rapid addition of VR support for games, make it hard to do a definitive comparison of content available for the various headsets. Giantbomb gives you a taste with their launch lineup for Oculus Rift, and launch lineup for HTC Vive.

If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t rushed out to buy one of the headset solutions on offer, waiting may be the right solution. You’ll probably be waiting anyway, since both the Rift and Vive are back-ordered for months. On the horizon lurks Sony’s PlayStation VR, with an expected ship date of October and a $500 pre-order bundle that includes controllers. If you’re a PS4 gamer, that’s probably the way to go. There are plenty of other devices that look interesting and are also making their way through the development process, like the Sulon Q, and the intriguing OSVR-based Hacker Dev Kit from Razer. If you’re at all interested in fiddling with the hardware yourself, the $300 Hacker Dev Kit is fully open source.

Longer term, we should start to see more comfortable, and more capable, offerings — hopefully including some that are un-tethered (like the Microsoft HoloLens, which right now is only available as a $3K dev kit). Also, we expect second-generation devices from HTC and Oculus in 2017, if you can wait that long. Eventually Magic Leap should also have some amazing mixed reality solutions on offer. In short, if you are a gamer, VR is very exciting now, so if there is a headset that matches your platform and your budget, great. Or if you just have to have the latest, or experience some pretty interesting virtual content, then take the plunge now. But if you do, remember that you’ll likely be looking to give away whatever you buy this year when you upgrade next year.

Check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.

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