How to Choose a VR Headset

Article By:
David Wise


Last Updated:
Thursday
September 21, 2017

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Baffled by virtual reality? Wondering why normal reality wasn't good enough? We take a look at the myriad of different types of VR systems available on the market today, why you might even think about getting one and what they are used for, as well as what you actually need to make one of these systems run properly. VR is a rapidly advancing technology and can be a bit daunting to the new user, but we break down exactly what to look for and what you can expect when purchasing a new system in this article. You may also want to check out our comprehensive VR headset review for more information on how specific models fared when we tested them head-to-head.

One of testers enjoying virtual bow hunting.
One of testers enjoying virtual bow hunting.

Why Should You Even Get a VR Headset?


It's hard to convey how amazingly cool a VR experience until you experience one yourself. For example, VR gives you a chance to be completely immersed in a video, making for a much more immersive and interactive experience than simply watching it on a flat screen. You can look around at what you want to and, if the experience is properly done, actually feel like you are climbing Mt. Everest or cage diving with white sharks.

The underwater experience felt very life like; Watch out for sharks!
The underwater experience felt very life like; Watch out for sharks!

More and more content is being produced every day that is filmed specifically with virtual reality in mind. As more and more filmmakers and documentarians embrace VR, the library of available experience is growing exponentially. Various news outlets are creating VR experiences to give you a first-hand look at events happening all over the world and nonprofits are creating content to elicit a greater emotional connection to their causes using virtual reality. In addition, many movie studios are creating small VR experiences to release in tandem with their films, allowing you to enter a small piece of their cinematic universe.

There are also plenty of games available, either VR versions of popular existing games or ones specifically made for VR.

It is easy to turn down the volume on the Rift  just move the integrated speakers away from your ears.
It is easy to turn down the volume on the Rift, just move the integrated speakers away from your ears.

All in all, VR is rapidly becoming a large portion of the way that we view media. Many companies are placing bets that VR will be the predominant media viewing method in the future and it's worth checking it out. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to look good when wearing a VR headset, so expect some slight teasing when you are using it. Now we will look at some of the various VR systems out there and the questions you should be asking yourself before you make your final purchase.

Step 1: Mobile or Tethered?


First and foremost when thinking about picking a VR headset is deciding whether you are looking for a mobile or tethered headset. VR predominantly falls into these two categories at the moment, though this may change as the technology matures. We'll break down the pros and cons of each type and why you should select one over the other in the following sections.

Like the Samsung Gear  you need to reset the center every so often.
Like the Samsung Gear, you need to reset the center every so often.

Mobile


A mobile VR system refers to a standalone headset that uses your smartphone as its VR engine. These headsets usually have some sort of adjustment method to allow you to focus the image, a holder for your phone, as well as strap to hold them on your head and may have a remote or some buttons on the headset to allow you some level of interactivity. Mobile headsets are significantly less expensive than a tethered model but lack the level of interactivity and visual immersiveness that a tethered headset has. The VR experience available on mobile models are usually much less extensive, relying on the processor in your phone, rather than a full-blown computer CPU. Regardless, the experiences can still be amazing and quite fun and a mobile headset is a good bet for an introduction to VR without spending a ton of cash and time setting up a tethered system.

It may look strange on the outside  but inside the awkward movements are practical.
It may look strange on the outside, but inside the awkward movements are practical.

Tethered


Tethered headsets are the current cream of the crop when it comes to VR systems. Named due to the bundle of cables that connects the headset to the gaming computer or console, these products are the best you can get at the moment. These products have dedicated hand controllers that track your motion, adding a ton of interactivity to your VR experience. These experiences are usually much longer and more fully-fleshed out than those found on mobile headsets, due to the additional processing power and memory available to the developer. Tethered headsets are significantly more visually immersive than their mobile counterparts. Consequently, these products are much more expensive, especially when you take into consideration the cost of the required hardware — the gaming computer or console. Tethered headsets are also much more work to install, requiring you to place sensor around the room or mount them on the walls.


These products are for serious gamers or VR enthusiasts — those that are confident that they want the best and are willing to invest the time and energy in making it happen. You also need plenty of floor space for these systems, so be prepared to devote a small room or be willing to clear furniture out of the way whenever you are using it.

You need a pretty powerful computer to run the Vive.
You need a pretty powerful computer to run the Vive.

Step 2: What Hardware Do You Already Own?


The next question that you should ask yourself when thinking about purchasing a new VR headset is easy: What hardware do you already have that is VR compatible? None of the systems that we tested are standalone, meaning that they are meant to upgrade either a gaming computer, gaming console, or mobile device into a VR viewing machine. Most people are going to be somewhat limited in picking a VR headset by their existing hardware, as fewer people are going to invest in purchasing an entire setup from scratch simply to experience VR. If you are considering this, we would recommend caution, as VR headsets are rapidly moving towards completely standalone systems and it may be prudent to wait until these are released, rather than investing a ton of money in a high-end gaming computer and a tethered headset.

Those who already have a higher-end gaming computer should look at two of our award-winning, tethered headsets, the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. These are both excellent models, with the Vive being the best you can get and the Rift being a great budget option. Both of these headsets have similar requirements that most higher-end gaming computers should easily satisfy.

In the zone.
In the zone.

For those that already have a PS4, the PlayStation VR is an obvious choice. This is a great VR system on its own merits, made even better if you already have the majority of the required hardware.

The PlayStation camera has some trouble tracking if it is too dark in the room.
The PlayStation camera has some trouble tracking if it is too dark in the room.

Moving on to the mobile VR viewers, those with Samsung phones should consider the Samsung Gear VR or those with a Daydream-compatible phone should consider the Google Daydream View. A few phones are compatible with both, so you can consult our full review to see which one matches your needs the best.

Sometimes you will need to recenter the view inside.
Sometimes you will need to recenter the view inside.

Those that don't have a smartphone that is compatible with either are limited to the remaining headsets in this review. These headsets are based on screen size and will work with almost any phone. However, lower-end smartphones can lack the processing power to run VR, causing them to overheat and crash. If that is the case, you are pretty much stuck upgrading your hardware to truly experience VR.

VR headsets ready for testing.
VR headsets ready for testing.

Conclusion


Hopefully, this article has taken some of the mysteriousness out of the various VR systems and helped you narrow down your choices. You can check out which headsets we recommend in our complete review of these products, or consult our detailed How We Test article for a comprehensive look at our testing plans and procedures.

David Wise
About the Author
Born and raised in South Lake Tahoe, David Wise earned his B.S. in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering at MIT, where he participated on the marine robotics team and interactive STEAM education in the community. After graduation, David went on to work for a startup company building underwater autonomous robots used for seafloor mapping and ocean exploration. Unable to resist the mountains' calling, he returned to Tahoe in 2015 to join TechGearLab as a senior review editor. When he's not testing the latest and greatest tech gear, David enjoys skiing, mountain biking, baking amazing bread, building silly electric vehicles, and spending time with his amazing girlfriend and extremely large dog.

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