The three big names in VR are currently out in the world, taking up space in warehouses and on shop shelves. All of them hoping to be purchased for a happy life of gaming, because gadgets definitely have feelings. While premium VR gaming doesn't have quite as much choice as, say, premium PC gaming, you still have to decide which headset is right for you.
Let's take a look at the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PS VR, and work out which headset you should throw money at without feeling sad afterwards.
Virtual reality is a relatively new technology, and there aren't a great deal of offerings out there -- premium or otherwise. With that in mind, I'll be taking lots of different factors into account for the final ranking. Those who pay regular attention to our Battlemodos will know that price generally doesn't get a huge amount of consideration, but this time it's different. Because there are only three items on the list, and because VR requires a pretty serious investment to get started, the overall cost (headset, accessories, and external hardware) will play a part in what goes where.
That said, it's not going to be key factor. Google Cardboard headsets are cheap as hell, but anyone claiming they're better than the Oculus, Vive, and PS VR probably needs to have their head checked out. What each headset has to offer will be more important than how badly it'll affect your bank balance.
Key factors include resolution (and what the picture's like when it's pressed up against your face), comfort, ease of setup and use, how it feels to use for extended periods of time, and what sort of compatibility options there are (including controlllers and machines). I'll also consider the same factors for the motion controllers, along with how easy they are to use while you're basically blind. I'll look at tracking too, and how well everything flows during use. I won't, however, be discussing the complicated systems behind tracking -- if you're interested I refer you to my earlier post about how the different headsets work.
Finally, I'll also keep a very close eye on how I'm affected by the symptoms of motion sickness. Poorly-made VR has a reputation for causing nausea, something I've experienced first-hand using cheap systems like Google Cardboard. Motion sickness is something I've had a serious problem with for many years (I'm not too fond of 3D films either), so if I don't suffer any effects then that's a very good sign.
Testing for the PS VR was done with an original model PS4. Vive testing was done with an Asus ROG G20 VR-ready PC. Oculus Rift testing was done in Oculus's own demo booths.
First Place: PlayStation VR
I'll get this out of the way. If you want to start yourself off with serious virtual reality gaming, the PlayStation VR is the headset you want to buy. There's absolutely no contest, especially if you're looking for some entry-level tech. Naturally, if you already have a power-packed gaming PC instead of a PS4, this is going to be a lot less appealing, but for everyone else this is the one. It's not perfect, but its faults aren't serious enough to make it inferior to the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Unless you're a die-hard member of the PCMR, but I already covered that.
The PS VR is a very comfortable headset. It looks quite large, but it doesn't weigh your head down too much. This seems mainly due to the headband. It looks a bit strange, but the design redistributes the weight across your head. This means the display doesn't push down against your nose and face, essentially just hanging in front of you.
One thing I found with the Vive and Oculus are that light still manages to get in around the nose area. Not a huge amount, or enough to distract from the game though. The PS VR, on the other hand, does a much better job of keeping the light out -- but only if the screen is fairly close up. The lens-to-face adjustment is done by moving the entire display unit away from your face. The Vive's, however, moves the screen away from you without shifting the faceplate. The Vive's adjustment is also a lot more precise, since it relies on two mechanical dials rather than you physically moving the display.
One of the main concerns some people will have is that the PS VR has a lower resolution than the Oculus and Vive. The other two have a combined resolution of 2160 x 1200, split between two panels that offer 1920 x 1080 (aka 1080p) per eye. The PS VR has a total resolution of 1080p, with 1080 x 960 delivered to each eye. I'll be honest with you, the difference is noticeable, and not just among snobs. Despite this, both the Oculus and the Vive still have noticeable pixelation issues that mean the up-close view doesn't look quite as good as plonking yourself right in front of your TV.
Personally I don't think what the PS VR offers is considerably worse than the other two, but it's up to you whether or not you want to pay more for better resolution. Until we get headsets that offer 4K or higher, you won't be getting crystal clear VR from any of the three options.
The other major downside is that the connection to the console is the most irritating one I used. Like the Vive, it has multiple wires stuck together, but there's also an adaptor part-way between the headset and the connection hub. For me, this adaptor sits at just about ankle level, which is incredibly irritating. Trying to put it into my pocket is a bit of a pain as well, since the wires coming out of each end complicate things and make it fall out.
The tracking on the PS VR is incredibly rudimentary, unlike the brand new systems developed for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Rather than using complex systems of invisible light, the PS VR uses visible LED lights tracked by the PS Eye camera. In principle, this is the same type of tracking that was first released to the public back in 2010, with the launch of the PS Move. This also becomes apparent by the fact that the PS VR uses the same controllers, which don't appear to have changed even slightly in the past six years.
This means the tracking relies on visible line of sight using a glorified webcam, rather than the array of sensors used by Valve's Lighthouse and Oculus' Constellation systems. That restricts the play area somewhat, and I've found that the camera sometimes loses sight of the Move controllers if I bend down to do something during gameplay. Any attempt to rectify that field of view just ends up with the camera not being able to see the lights on the headset.
This also means that the tracking isn't anywhere near as fluid as it is with the Vive and Oculus. It's mostly noticeable with the Move controls than with the headtracking, however, since they move in a more juttery fashion when movements are translated into in-game actions. Fortunately it's not horrifically bad, and isn't even remotely close to being experience-ruining.
In a way I can understand why Sony opted for this fairly low-tech system. The tech it's using already exists, and integrating it into the PS VR meant Sony didn't have to devote time and resources into developing something new. So you can see it as a precaution against VR being a passing fad, and helping to get some more money out of accessories that never really took off. It also means the company doesn't have to recoup the investment by dumping the cost onto the consumer, and even though the Move controllers are quite expensive they're less than half the price of the Oculus Touch.
But it still doesn't stop the fact that using them makes you feel like you're conducting an ELO concert.
Despite its limitations, the PS VR is one hell of a headset. Even if you take into account buying a PS4, it's still cheaper than buying the Oculus Rift (plus the Touch controllers) and HTC Vive. And that's before you take into account the cost of the PC needed to use it. There's also the fact that it can be used as a screen for all sorts of different devices, including the Xbox One, Wii U, and PCs. You don't have headtracking or any other VR features, but you can see what should be on your TV.
Second Place: Oculus Rift
Includes: Headset, single IR sensor, Xbox One controller and wireless PC adaptor (£549)
Also Available: Oculus Touch controllers and secondary IR sensor (£190), additional IR sensors (£80 each), in-ear earphones (£50)
Minimum PC Specs
- GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290 or better (currently, soon to include AMD's 400 series and NVIDIA's 900 and 1000 series)
- Intel Core i5 4590 or greater
- 8GB RAM or more
- HDMI 1.3
- 2 USB 3.0 ports
- Windows 7 SP1 or newer
Comparing the Oculus Rift with the PS VR is fairly easy. Oculus has superior hardware and a better visual experience, while the PS VR is cheaper and much more appealing to casual gamers. Comparing it to the HTC Vive, however, is much more difficult. While there are a few design differences (that primarily work to the Rift's favour), the overall experience is almost identical. Both have the same screen resolution, require PCs with similar specs (the amount of RAM needed is the only serious difference), and cost roughly the same price when you include the Touch controllers.
So why has it been ranked above the Vive? Easy, because the Touch controllers are much, much better than what HTC and Valve have to offer. They are, by far, the most intuitive and well-designed motion controllers of the three headsets tested. It's like comparing the Xbox 360 controller to the Nintendo 64 controller. Both do what they need to do well enough, but one has a design that is much, much better suited to human hands.
When you're holding the PS Move and the Vive's wands, there's no hiding away from the fact that you're clutching a controller. Touch, on the other hand, barely feels like anything. The controllers are small, lightweight, and designed around the shape of the hand. They're far less obtrusive than what the competition has to offer and also have analogue sticks, which I personally prefer to the Vive's trackpad and the Move's... nothing. Some people, especially those who are fond of the Steam controller, might not agree, but it doesn't change the fact that Touch has the superior design. The duel triggers also offer a much nicer, immersive experience than the single trigger action offered by the Vive and PS Move.
As I mentioned before, the Oculus experience is very similar to that of the Vive, but the design of the Rift headset is slightly better. It can't quite beat the weight distributing headband of the PS VR, but there's no denying the fact that Oculus offers a much more comfortable experience than HTC. Most of this is down to the fact that the Rift doesn't weigh down on your face like the Vive. I couldn't quite pin down why this was the case, but I've narrowed it down to two factors: the Rift is smaller and much lighter than Vive, and the strap is supported by hardened plastic (unlike the Vive which uses a cloth headstrap).
Playing with the Vive meant constantly having the headset weigh down on the bridge of my nose, and while it wasn't that uncomfortable, the Rift stayed exactly where it was supposed to be, sitting still in front of my eyes.
It was also revealed (today of all days, after I'd already uploaded my final draft of this piece) that the Oculus Rift will soon be compatible with PCs running less powerful graphics cards. Using a process called Asynchronous Spacewarp (ASW), the time required for the CPU and GPU to process framerate smoothing is being halved. That means older/slower hardware will be capable of producing the same output as faster guts. It means you'll be able to use the Oculus with machines that use AMD's RX 400 series or Nvidia's 900/1000 series GPUs. Oculus has more information on that here, but has yet to announce a release date or any other updated specs. It did, however, reveal that ASW will require Windows 8 or 10.
Obviously that is a huge deal, since a decent graphics card can be one of the most expensive purchases in a gaming machine. That makes it a much worthier purchase than the Vive, provided you don't already have a top-tier gaming PC.
On top of all this, the Rift has the simplest setup procedure, though the method Oculus utilises is itself a drawback. The PS VR and Vive both plug into a mini hub that then plugs into the associated machine. The Rift, on the other hand, requires the headset and sensors to be plugged into individual USB ports. This is good because it's completely idiot-proof and incredibly simple to put together, and it helps that only a single wire comes out of the headset. It's bad because, well, you need to use up extra USB ports.
One thing the Rift has that its rival headsets don't is integrated headphones. The PS VR has in-ear earphones in the box, and the Vive comes with nothing. The look reminds me of the old Walkman-style headphones from back in the day, so I initially assumed they'd be just as rubbish. I was wrong. They offer excellent quality sound with positional -- also known as 3D -- audio. They're also quite good at blocking out sound, though you can hear people talking if they're standing right next to you.
There is an obvious downside to the built-in headphones, however, in that you have to buy replacements from Oculus. Or at least you do at the moment. The Oculus Store doesn't seem to carry replacements for the base headphones, which are removable, but it does sell an in-ear variant for £50 a pair. That's quite a lot, especially when you remember that positional audio, beyond standard surround sound, isn't exactly a new thing.
The Oculus is the only headset I experienced any motion sickness on, but I must make it clear that I deliberately went out of my way to find a game that could induce some of the symptoms. The game that got me was Adrift, which is basically a VR adaptation of Gravity. Naturally, spinning around in micro-gravity miles above the surface of the Earth is going to have a few unwanted side-effects, which is why it's categorised with a comfort level of 'intense'.
That's one of the handy things about the Oculus Store. Games have one of thee comfort ratings determined by how much motion sickness you might experience. That way you know exactly what's what before you download the game. Steam doesn't have that and neither does the PlayStation Store, and to be honest they both really should.
It's the little things that put the Oculus ahead of the Vive. The Touch controllers alone are enough to edge it in front, but there are also all the little things I mentioned that make it a much nicer product. Yes you need more USB ports and twice as much RAM, but they're not exactly huge problems. I mean, what high-end gaming PC only has 4GB of RAM? You need 8GB to play Skyrim Special Edition for crying out loud.
Third Place: HTC Vive
Minimum PC Specs
- GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290 or better
- Intel Core i5 4590 or AMD FX 8350 or greater
- 4GB RAM or more
- HDMI 1.4, DisplayPort 1.2, or better
- 1 USB 2.0 or faster port
- Windows 7 SP1 or newer
So we come, at last, to the Vive. The headset created from a partnership between Valve and HTC. It's a nice headset with some great features, though it does have a few flaws that relegate it to third place. But at least sit safe in the knowledge that while it may not be as worthy a purchase as the Vive or PS VR, it's still a thousand times better than any cheap or mobile-powered option.
The main point of concern with the Vive is that it's incredibly heavy and tends to rest on your nose. The Rift feels light enough to avoid this problem, and the PS VR has a headband seemingly designed to distribute the weight of the display across your whole head (much like Microsoft's Hololens). It's not a game-breaking issue, but it is very noticeable and rather distracting.
The lenses are also a bit of a problem. Looking through the headset, you'll notice they're covered in rings. Unfortunately those rings don't completely disappear during play and, worse still, they can get in the way. The Oculus and the PS VR don't have this problem, so whose bright idea was it to put them in here?
Both the Vive and the PS VR have issues with wiring, requiring a very large heavy wire to connect to the PC. The Vive is held back to a slightly lesser extent in that it doesn't have a massive adaptor that rests at my ankle, but it's not quite as good as the Rift, which only has a single thin wire coming out of the headset. Obviously, though, each Oculus component requires its own dedicated USB port, so the number of things connected to the headset is minimal (it's one wire that branches off into separate USB and HMDI cables closer to the PC).
The Vive, on the other hand, has HMDI, USB, power, and headphone audio cables coming out of the back separately, which in comparison is a really strange design choice. Not only does the wire get in the way quite a lot, the fact that it's so big, bulky, and attached to the headstrap means it gets in the way when you're actually trying to put the headset on. While the Oculus and PS VR let you focus on getting the headband/strap on correctly, the Vive forces you to wrestle with this obnoxiously large cable at the same time.
Thankfully this cable issue is getting a fix, but it will end up costing you more money. HTC and Valve has announced that the Vive is going wireless, thanks to a gizmo from TPCast. The extra components sit on the top and the back of the headset, and while that may make it heavier it could help even out the weight and stop the headset from pushing down quite so much. I can't know for sure, since it was announced this morning and I haven't been able to test one. Thankfully it also means no more wrangling that ridiculous wire.
The downside is that the wireless upgrade only seems to be available from the Vive's Chinese website, in limited numbers. It'll also cost 1,499 RMB (£174 directly converted), which makes it quite a pricey piece of kit - even though it's something the Vive desperately needs. Pre-orders open on 11th November 2016 at 11pm Beijing time (3PM GMT).
It's also well worth mentioning that the HTC Vive is a bit of a pain to set up. While everything kind of makes sense, there were no proper instructions accompanying the headset I was sent -- only a link to the setup page on the Vive website. Even from there it wasn't clear where the instructions were, though when I found them I was able to put everything together pretty easily. Looking back the setup process felt worse than it actually was, but it wasn't anywhere near as simple as the Oculus Rift or even the similarly-composed PS VR (at least that had paper instructions in the box!).
While it seems like I'm being rather critical of the Vive, I don't think it's a bad headset and I don't dislike it. It just so happens that there are a number of areas where it just can't compete with the other two headsets -- especially the Oculus. But the Vive excels in one area: tracking. While it's true the feel of the tracking (in terms of lag, latency, and so on) is no different to that of the Oculus Rift, the tracking system included with the Vive is clearly superior.
The system uses two sensors that emit invisible light (lasers and LEDs) that's detected by sensors within the headset and controllers. Everything in the box offers a 15 square foot tracking area (provided you set everything up the way the instructions tell you to), and is capable of tracking 360-degree movement within this space. The Oculus Rift cannot claim that, even with the second sensor packed in with the Touch controllers. If you want 360-degree roomscale tracking, you're going to have to buy another sensor (for a total of three) for an additional £80.
I can't seem to find any definitive measurements in the Oculus' tracking area when three sensors are in play (it's 5 feet x 11 feet with one), and reps told me that they don't define the exact tracking area since there are numerous variables that affect how it's calculated.
From what I can see online, Oculus' own demo chambers are 12 square feet and, while that's a big area, it's three square feet smaller than the Vive's. If you have a big living room, and want to make the most out of the space you have, the Vive seems to be the better option. The downside is that the Oculus can funntion with only a single sensor, while the Vive needs both to be working for Steam VR to set everything up.
It's also worth mentioning that HTC/Valve's Lighthouse tracking system is supposed to be more accurate than Oculus' Constellation, but I struggled to notice much difference. There's also the 'Chaperone' mode which lets you see your own living room with a tracking grid over the top. Unfortunately this is only a temporary thing you can see, and is no good for playing games AND seeing where you're going.
Also working in its favour is the fact that the Vive is intrinsically linked to Steam. Sure the Oculus Rift is compatible with Steam VR, but the fact that the Vive is being developed by the most popular PC gaming platform around means its going to have that extra advantage of being ahead of the curve. At least where Steam is concerned. It's also worth mentioning that the Vive is not directly compatible with Oculus games, though a software mod called Revive ensures that the headset does become compatible with Oculus Home and lets you play exclusives as a result.
When it comes right down to it, the HTC Vive is a cheaper purchase than the Oculus Rift. It's a bigger up-front investment, but buying the whole lot will cost you £759. The same experience with a Rift will cost £60 more at £819, though you have the option of spreading that cost out over three purchases. But the Rift also comes with an Xbox One controller and wireless adaptor, which cost £56 on their own anyway. A controller is always a handy thing to have, especially when you're using a device that blocks your view of a keyboard, but you could always sell it and get a bit of your money back. What I'm saying is that making a decision purely from a price perspective is rather difficult.
The HTC Vive is a great headset, and it does its job incredibly well. If you choose to go out and buy one instead of the Rift or the PS VR, then you're going to get a great piece of kit -- especially with that wireless upgrade on the way.
It's just worth remembering that it isn't perfect. It's pricey, that display does weigh down on your face a bit, and the controllers are't nearly as good as the Oculus Touch (they're not all that different from the PS Move, just a bit chunkier). There's also the fact that (at time of writing) Oculus has revealed plans to make the Rift more accessible to people with slower graphics cards, while the Vive will still require the same high-end guts announced many months back.
Notes on VR
I should be extra clear, none of these headsets are bad. They're all pretty spectacular if I'm honest, and even though they do have small differences that set them apart, whichever headset you choose should serve you well. To finish things off, here are some of my thoughts about virtual reality based on the testing experiences.
- The PS VR is exclusive to the PS4, even though it can be used as a basic 2D display on other HDMI-out devices. The Oculus Rift works with Steam VR titles if you do some fiddling first (though Oculus claim this is more intended for developers rather than consumers), and there are apps available that let Vive users play Rift exclusives. For now.
- A long fringe is the VR enthusiast's worst enemy. Make sure you're able to keep it well out of the way, lest your view of the lenses be blocked by stray hair.
- Wires are a problem across the board, especially with the Vive and PS VR. Hopefully 2nd gen headsets will offer wireless connectivity without lag issues.
- Some games with VR integration (like Elite Dangerous) don't work so well with a headset. It's difficult to play command-heavy games when you can't see your keyboard
- Testing the headsets finally meant I've found a use for the stupid head I got with the Modern Warfare 2 Prestige Edition that really should have been thrown away years ago.
- VR is far from perfect. Wires get in the way, the displays are still noticeably pixelated, and the entry cost (even with the lower-priced PS VR) is incredibly high. Losing sight of everything around you also has its problems.
- All three headsets started fogging up when I first started using them. Apparently when I breathe through my mouth (which I tended to do with the headset on, for some reason), I blow the air upwards without even noticing - which seemed to be the root of the problem.
- All three headsets had features designed to make using the headset more comfortable -- including the distance between your eyes. The Vive and PS VR also let you adjust your distance from the screen/lenses, while the Oculus relies on removable inserts for a similar effect.
- All three headsets had issues with seeing the interior edges of the display (left and right). That said, it's much less apparent when your eyes are closer to the lenses and display.
- All three have been designed so that glasses wearers can use them without having to go out and buy contact lenses.