While VR might not have taken off quite to the degree some tech companies had hoped, there’s no doubt that it’s a fun niche that can be a worthwhile investment for those looking for something truly different from their gaming and media experiences.
Don’t know much about VR and simply want to try it for cheap? Stop reading, buy a Google Cardboard VR headset for just $6. All you need is an Android phone or iPhone. You can find compatible games and apps for easily as well.
What is VR?
What is VR exactly? While you’ve likely at least heard of the technology, maybe you don’t fully understand it. In simplest terms, VR stands for “virtual reality”. The aim is to make a new reality that you can look around using a special headset, giving a more immersive experience than what you’d find from traditional media that uses a television or monitor. The types of content available in VR aren’t too dissimilar from traditional media – think movies, games, porn, and you can even just browse the web in VR if you so wish
There plenty of technical aspects involved in making this experience feel all the more real. This includes the use of high frame rates to provide a fluid experience that prevents nausea and promotes immersion. Additionally, a higher-resolution allows crisp, quality graphics that further enhance the VR illusion.
Field of view is equally important for quality virtual reality. Field of view is the extent of the visible world that can be seen at any given time. For example, humans have about a 180-degree FOV while looking straight ahead, and 270 degrees with eye movement. Different VR headsets offer different FOV targets, with Cardboard offering 90-degrees, Vive and Rift featuring 110-degrees, and Gear VR featuring 96 or 110-degrees (depending on the model).
At the end of the day, all these little techniques built a great VR experience.
Okay, so VR is a new way to consume media, but how do you do it? First, you’ll need the right hardware. This will come down to what you already own and how much you are willing to invest. There are three main paths forward, which we’ll discuss below.
Path of entry 1: Mobile VR
Mobile VR is basically the ‘gateway VR’. Most of the experiences are a bit limited, graphics aren’t as nice, but getting started with mobile VR is considerably cheaper. Mobile VR headsets can cost as little as free to as much as a few hundred dollars, depending on their feature set.
How do you know if mobile VR is right for you? In short:
- You are looking for your first taste of VR but don’t want to spend much to get it.
- You already have a phone that’s compatible with mobile VR or are interested in getting the stand-alone Oculus Go.
- If you’re only looking to get into VR for VR porn (this is the cheapest route and VR porn will look about as good as it would with more expensive headsets)
- You are looking for something truly immersive with more realistic graphics and more longer form games and experiences.
So what kind of mobile VR options are out there for you? If you’re an iPhone user, head here for our iPhone VR guide. Android users have a few options, which we’ll discuss next in our list of the best VR headsets for mobile users.
Essentially the first two platforms – Daydream and Gear VR – are equal in most measures when it comes to quality and are highly recommended if you have compatible devices. The last option is a bit less feature-rich, but it’s a cheap way to enter into the VR game.
If you have a Pixel or Daydream compatible phone, there’s Google Daydream. The Daydream has a growing library of games and apps, it’s own custom UI that makes getting these experiences easy, and is slowly but surely supporting more devices. Without a doubt this is the best VR headset for Google Pixel owners or those that have a compatible phone.
Samsung Gear VR
If you have a Samsung device you have Gear VR. Both Daydream and Gear VR platforms are similar, offering a curated place to get VR apps and games. The experience is fun and easy to get it to, though you’ll need a compatible Samsung phone — any flagship from the Galaxy S6 onward.
If your phone isn’t compatible with Daydream or Gear VR, you’re going to want to get Google Cardboard instead. Cardboard headsets are traditionally made literally of Cardboard and are sometimes found for free or can be purchased online for as little as $6. For those that want a more premium experience from their Cardboard devices, there are plastic and foam versions out there that are still fully compatible with all the Google Cardboard VR games and apps, they just look and feel nicer. We highly recommend the Cardboard-compatible Merge VR, which will set you back just $35.
The last mobile VR option is a bit.. different. You don’t need a phone for this one. Instead, all the tech is built right into this $200 VR headset. That makes the Oculus Go super portable, and yet it doesn ‘t tie down your phone to operate it. It is worth noting you will still need a smartphone, however, as you’ll need to connect via Bluetooth to a phone to download apps, updates, and a few other things.
As for games and apps? Essentially the Oculus Go is identical to the Samsung Gear VR in terms of what is available. This makes sense when you realize that the Gear VR was made in partnership with Oculus.
Path of entry 2: PlayStation VR, the only console VR choice
Console fans looking for VR have just one option, the Sony PlayStation VR. As you probably guessed, using the PSVR requires ownership of a Sony PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 4 Pro.
- You are own a PlayStation 4 (or Pro) or don’t mind investing in one.
- If you want quality VR experiences that are better than you’ll find with mobile VR.
- You want the VERY best VR experience. For that you’re going to want to invest in a PC VR solution.
The PlayStation VR headset is not the most top of the line VR system out there. At its price point, it’s one of the cheaper tethered options, but it doesn’t require a computer which costs thousands of dollars to run. This is a major benefit. In fact, if you’re still reading this section, there’s a good chance you already have the hardware you need to run the system. Sony is continuing to push VR in innovative ways, with a tethered option with a lower barrier of entry.
Path of entry 3: PC VR
There’s no denying it, PC VR offers the best home VR experience you’ll find. Higher resolution displays in the headset, typically better field of views, beefier hardware that allows for the best possible graphics — these are all reasons to consider PC VR.
Of course, PC VR is also the most expensive path of entry. Not only do most PC VR headsets cost $500 or more, but you also have to invest in a PC capable of running these experiences. At the low end, we are talking $500+ if you are really cutting corners, but it’s more like $1000+ if you want the best possible experience.
- You want the very best VR technology available to consumers.
- If you don’t mind investing well over $1000 into VR technology.
- If you like the idea of having tons of VR accessories and even possibly room-scale VR (where you can move in real life with your headset on)
- You aren’t interested in spending top dollar for VR.
- You aren’t sure if VR if right for you — in this case we recommend testing waters with console or mobile VR first before taking the plunge.
Okay, so you think PC VR might be the right option for you – now what? The main PC VR platforms are the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive series. There’s also Windows Mixed Reality headsets for those looking for a third choice.
HTC Vive Pro
The HTC VIVE Pro is the latest version of the HTC VIVE. It boasts an upgraded display, integrated audio, and USB 3.0 integration. The field of view and refresh rates of 110 degrees and 90 Hz remain the same as the original VIVE. So, why the difference in price? Well, the HTC VIVE Pro boasts 78 percent more resolution than its predecessor. The audio experience is much improved — you won’t be using ear buds with the VIVE pro.
What you will need
The $799 that you’re dropping for the VIVE Pro gets you the headset, and that’s about it. You don’t get any controllers or base stations which are included in the VIVE bundle. Those are going to run you more than a hundred dollars a piece, so keep that in mind.
You’ll also need a computer with an Intel® Core™ i5-4590 or AMD FX™ 8350 and NVIDIA GeForce™ GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon™ RX 480 or better. This thing won’t run off your netbook.
Should you buy it?
If you want the absolute best VR experience, the Vive Pro delivers. That said, it’s not that much better than the Vive and Rift, and yet costs a lot more. In other words, unless you are SUPER dedicated to VR, we’d probably recommending passing.
The HTC VIVE is HTC’s original venture into VR. It’s a bit overshadowed by the HTC VIVE Pro now, but there is a lot to like about the original HTC VIVE. HTC did a lot of things right in the creation of the VIVE, including as mentioned above, great attention to detail. For $500, you’re getting the original VIVE, plus two controllers, and the base stations to help set up your VR room. That’s a lot of value for a previous generation device.
What you will need
The computer specifications for the VIVE are remarkably similar to the HTC VIVE Pro: Intel® Core™ i5-4590 or AMD FX™ 8350 and NVIDIA GeForce™ GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon™ RX 480 or better. The only difference is the VIVE Pro requires USB 3.0 while the VIVE requires 2.1
Should you buy it?
If you are interested in getting a Vive product, we’d pick this over the Pro for the majority of folks. While the Oculus Rift has come a long ways, the HTC Vive family is still arguably superior. Of course it will really come down to preference.
The Oculus Rift is arguably one of the main reasons why we’re discussing VR today. Oculus saw the future in VR and made itself the go-to name. The Oculus Rift came to consumers initially via Kickstarter, but since then has been sold as a consumer product. Oculus is owned by Facebook, which also sees a big future in VR.
What you will need
Like the HTC VIVE, you need a computer with some chutzpah to run the Oculus Rift. You’ll need a PC with an Intel Core i5-4590 equivalent or greater, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970/AMD R9 290 graphics card and 8GB of RAM or more.
Should you buy it?
If you want PC VR and aren’t impressed by the HTC Vive, yes, this is the best alternative. Oculus has a huge library of content and now even supports Steam, so the vast majority of games for the HTC Vive work with the Rift as well.
Windows Mixed Reality headsets
Windows Mixed Reality headsets are the newest VR offerings. There several choices here including the Samsung HMD Odyssey, Acer headset, Dell Visor, HP headset, and Lenovo Explorer. These options range from $399 to $499.
What makes the Windows Mixed Reality headsets different from the Vive or Rift is that they tend to require much less aggressive specs to run. In fact it’s entirely possible to use them with PCs that start around $300. Obviously this comes at a sacrifice for graphics and other performance bits. Basically, WMR headsets are similar in tech performance to the PSVR, but use a mid-range PC instead of a PlayStation VR.
They actually work with many of the same games as the Rift and Vive, thanks to Steam support. Just don’t expect them to look as pretty when playing in VR.
What you will need
Integrated Intel graphics and a Core i5 are about all you need. Here’s the full rundown:
- CPU: Intel Mobile Core i5 (e.g. 7200U) Dual-Core with Hyperthreading equivalent
- GPU: Integrated Intel® HD Graphics 620 (GT2) equivalent or greater DX12 API Capable GPU
- RAM: 8GB+ Dual Channel required for integrated Graphics
- HDMI: HDMI 1.4 or DisplayPort 1.2 for 60Hz head-mounted displays
- HDMI: HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort 1.2 for 90Hz head-mounted displays
- HDD: 100GB+ SSD (Preferred) / HDD
- USB: USB 3.0 Type-A or USB 3.1 Type-C Port with DisplayPort Alternate Mode
- Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0 for accessories
Should you buy a Windows Mixed Reality headset?
Personally, if you are willing to invest into PC VR, we’d recommend sticking with the Vive or Rift. That said, if you are looking to save some money, the WMR headsets will still offer great experiences while saving you a fair amount of cash.