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This article was published on July 9, 2019

TNW’s mid-2019 guide to virtual reality hardware

The future is now

TNW’s mid-2019 guide to virtual reality hardware

Virtual reality is a booming technology. Like artificial intelligence and blockchain, it’s on a meteoric rise and every big tech company on the planet wants in. But there’s more to VR than market value and technical specifications. Hardware such as the Oculus Quest and games such as Beat Saber are bringing VR into the mainstream, and that means there’s never been a better time to dive in.

There are more options than ever in 2019 when it comes to VR hardware. With new headsets launching one after another it can be difficult to cut through marketing hype and figure out what each one actually does. You could be stuck with something that’s obsolete by the time you open the package. And even if you buy the best headset available, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to play the experiences you want on it. Luckily, we’re here to help cut through the crap so you can figure out which VR solution is the right one for you.

Getting started

For the most part, the current generation of VR headsets and hardware has been defined by HTC and Oculus. The original Vive and Rift headsets will almost surely be remembered as the turning point for consumer VR technology – and they’re still pretty good options a few years later.

But if you’re entirely new to VR, you probably shouldn’t start by spending hundreds on something that you might not even be able to enjoy (some people experience VR sickness). Instead, you can use your smartphone with a cheap plastic VR headset or an even cheaper Google Cardboard setup to get a very basic VR experience. Keep in mind this is the VR equivalent to using a $50 tablet instead of a Macbook Pro.

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Once you’re ready for a more robust experience, you’ll need to start making choices. First off, are you looking for a standalone experience or a more robust PC or console-enabled one?

In the standalone arena you’ve got Oculus’ Go and Quest headsets out now and … well nothing else really to speak of. HTC’s Vive Focus Plus fits this bill for a standalone, but it’s prohibitively expensive for casual consumers at $799. And it’s really designed for business customers anyway.

Oculus Go

Credit: Oculus

Let’s start with the Go. Hands down, it’s the most underrated of all the headsets in my opinion. It’s easier to use than any other VR gadget, which is why I use it the most. But, admittedly, I use it mostly for work — not gaming. If you’re primarily planning to watch videos, surf the web, and access non-gaming apps this is probably the headset for you.

As a standalone headset, you don’t need a PC or phone handy to use it which makes it perfectly portable. I also dig how easy it is to check my work with the Oculus Go when I’m shooting video with a VR camera, so it’s a must-have for anyone considering getting into VR content-creation.

My favorite thing about the Go is that it’s designed to get you in and out of VR immediately. You can set it to automatically turn on and off when you don or doff it. And it has built-in speakers which emit sound right next to your ears so you don’t have to fumble with headphone wires and earbuds. You literally grab it, toss it on, select an app with its single, simple, pointer-style controller, and you’re there.

Working against the Go: it’s not powerful enough to play many of the most popular VR games. For that, you’ll need a Quest.

Oculus Quest

My colleague Nino de Vries says the Oculus Quest is “exactly what VR needs to hit the mainstream” (full review here). It’s a standalone headset that’ll set you back $400 (compare to the Go at $200), but it can actually play some AAA VR games. It’s the closest thing you can get to PC-powered headsets like the Vive and Rift in a standalone headset. If you want to play games like Moss and Beat Saber, but you don’t have a powerful PC or a PlayStation 4: you should probably consider the Quest.

If you do happen to have a powerhouse PC (you can check if it’s VR ready here or here) or a PlayStation 4, you’re ready for a real headset – in the sense that many VR experiences are reserved for only this top-end hardware. Basically if you want to play games like Skyrim VR, LA Noire: The VR Case Files, and Borderlands 2 VR, you’re going to need a PC or console to power your experience.

Oculus Rift S

Facebook-owned Oculus recently launched an updated version of the Rift headset and slapped an S on it. The Rift was one of the first high-end VR headsets, but the S updates its specifications. If you already own an original Rift, it might not be worth it to shell out for the S version – it’s still functionally the same, the differences are mostly in the visuals. Otherwise, I’d recommend this one to anyone who wants portability and power. It costs $400, the same as the Quest, but it does require a PC to power it.

The Rift S runs just fine on a high-end gaming laptop. And, since its tracking sensors are designed to set up anywhere and the entire Rift system is USB-powered, you can jam the whole shebang into a backpack with your laptop and you’ve got high-end VR on the go. This is a great solution for people who don’t have enough space to play room-size experiences – you can just play in the backyard or take it to the park.

HTC Vive and Vive Pro

Next up in PC-powered headsets we’ll discuss HTC’s Vive and Vive Pro. I’ve personally found the Vive headsets to be slightly more comfortable to wear than the Rift ones, but your results may vary. What’s more important is that the Vive produces a noticeably better visual experience with superior tracking (note: I’m only comparing the Vive and Rift with their respective, standard two-sensor configurations). 

The Vive headset, at $499, is actually my favorite for gaming, but that’s because I also have the Wireless Adapter (which costs an extra $300). As far as I’m concerned, wireless is the only way to play. There’s nothing worse than getting immersed in a virtual world only to have your momentum snatch the headset off your head.

Credit: Nicole Gray

The Wireless Adapter also works with the Vive Pro, HTC’s premium VR headset. The Vive Pro has a different form-factor, upgraded guts and screens, cushioned headphones, and comfy straps. In essence it’s the Cadillac of VR headsets with a price to match. The Vive Pro bundled with tracking stations and controllers is $1,039, but if you already have those you can get the headset by itself for $799.

With the Vive Pro you’re getting the VR experience that developers intended (check out our full review here). As long as your computer can handle it – and in this case you’re probably going to need a high-end desktop – the Vive Pro delivers VR in a way almost no other headset can.

Valve Index

Credit: Valve

I say almost, because of the Valve Index. While it’s arguably the worst-named of the modern headsets, it’s also among the most glorious. The headset, by itself, costs $500, but just like the Vive Pro it can use the tracking stations and controllers that come with the HTC Vive. If you don’t already own a Vive, you can get the whole Index bundle (including fancy new controllers) for $1,000.

We haven’t had a chance to review the Index yet, but early previews have been positive. On paper, it appears superior to the Vive Pro, but it won’t support the HTC Wireless Adapter, and that means you’ll be stuck tethered to your PC unless Valve announces its own solution.

There are other PC-powered headsets out there including Windows Mixed Reality devices, the HP Reverb, and these 5K headsets from Pimax – but we only have the space to cover the most popular and well-reviewed ones.

PlayStation VR

I’ll be dead honest: having tried almost all of the major VR headsets (and more crappy plastic phone-powered headsets than I’d care to admit) it comes down to PSVR or a Vive with Wireless Adapter for me. The Quest is phenomenal, but I’ll always be thinking about the games I can’t play on it when I use it. And though the Rift provides a brilliant portable alternative to my Vive (which, for optimum use, required me to mount sensors in my walls), it doesn’t do enough to make me forget that my head is leashed to my laptop. Sony’s PSVR does.

Firstly, it’s the most comfortable headset out there. It’s also the most practical to use. A button on the front of it lets you slide the lens housing away from your face so you don’t have to lift the headset and lose your fit when you need to peek outside VR.

Credit: Sony

Sure, It looks a bit like something from the 1990s, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The reason I’ve fallen head over heels in love with PSVR is because it’s the only VR system that bridges the enormous gap between console gaming and VR. If you already have a PS4, you’ll probably enjoy achieving trophies with VR games the same as with regular titles, and linking up with your PS friends for multiplayer. Also, with exclusives such as the excellent Borderlands 2 VR, Everybody’s Golf VR, and Blood and Truth, you’re getting AAA titles you can’t get on any other platform – plus most of the ones you can.

It’s wired, so that’s a bummer. But Sony’s already said the upcoming PlayStation 5 will support the current PSVR system, so there’s always hope for a PSVR2 in the future. In the meantime, you can dive into the current generation of top-tier VR experiences without purchasing a new high-end gaming PC if you already have a PS4, and your investment won’t be obsolete next year when PS5 launches. Currently, you can get a PSVR bundle for as little as $237

Also, don’t sleep on the fact that PSVR works with regular PlayStation games. No, it won’t let you play God of War II in VR, but it will let you play it on a gigantic virtual screen where its 2D action appears literally larger than life.

We hope this guide’s helped clear things up but, ultimately, the headset you choose should depend on which experiences you’re most interested in and how much you’re willing to spend.

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