Buying a virtual reality headset in 2016 is difficult, especially if you haven’t gotten hands-on time with the various systems. It can be even more difficult when you realize there are incredibly simple, and low-quality, VR headsets available at most retailers. We’ve seen these systems at Target checkout lines, bins at Home Depot, Michaels, and Barnes & Noble, for example, meaning that as you look for presents this year for loved ones it would be easy to pick up one of these headsets at practically any retailer, and give them as a stocking stuffer. Unfortunately, if someone on your list has expressed interest in virtual reality, it is unlikely these kinds of headsets are going to blow them away.
Here’s our guide to picking the right virtual reality headset this holiday.
These are headsets which rely on a phone to display the VR experience. The headsets are inexpensive, and your buying decision is likely driven by the phone you have or plan to buy.
Google Cardboard VR viewers are convenient and universal, because they work with practically any modern mobile phone. The phone slots into the viewer and you download compatible apps from the app store on your phone, either the iOS App Store or Android’s Google Play.
Not all Cardboard viewers are made from actual cardboard, and these are the kinds of viewers you are likely to find in Michaels, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers unable or not interested in carrying higher-end equipment. In stores, you’ll find headsets ranging from around $30 for a View-Master to $130 for a Zeiss VR One Plus. You’ll find dozens of Cardboard-like headsets on Amazon, for example, some you need to hold to your face with your hands and others with straps on the back. All of them have the same problem — they are limited in terms of how you interact with a virtual experience and by the quality of the phone’s hardware.
Every virtual reality experience tracks your head movement to create the illusion that you are in a virtual environment, and the wide range of phones and apps that work with Cardboard just aren’t optimized for long or deeply engrossing VR sessions.
Recommendation: A Cardboard viewer is worth consideration only as a stocking stuffer, and even then you should make sure the person you’re buying for specifically wants Cardboard and not some higher end headset. It’s hard to recommend one over the other, but it is worth noting that with Cardboard, a more expensive headset does not equate to a dramatically better experience.
What Daydream does that other phone-based systems don’t right now, is feature a simple motion controller that lets you point at virtual objects in a very intuitive way. The controller stores inside the headset for travel and Daydream View is just the first headset in what should be a whole set of phones and headsets that are compatible with one another.
Think of Daydream as Cardboard on steroids, with excellent apps from Google including YouTube, Photos, and Street View anchoring the experience.
Recommendation: If you own a Pixel or Moto Z, Daydream View is a no brainer — you should definitely get it. If you don’t own one of these phones, we’ve been absolutely blown away by the quality of the Pixel’s camera and receiving both the phone and Daydream View this holiday season would likely be very appreciated by anyone.
The Gear VR was the first high quality mobile virtual reality viewer, with Daydream following the lead of Samsung and Oculus. Any Samsung phone released in the last two years works with the $100 Gear VR, and Facebook has spent a ton of money getting games and apps made for the mobile system.
If you’re looking for content, Gear VR is going to be the leader on mobile, though the absence of Google’s apps on Facebook’s platform is painful and the motion controller on Daydream View is a nice step forward. With Gear VR, you’ll control apps either through a touchpad on the side of the headset or through a bluetooth gamepad controller. There are a number of compatible controllers, with the Steel Series XL being the one Oculus gave away at its 2015 developer conference. We’d recommend getting a controller, though you can find many cheaper than the Steel Series.
Recommendation: If you own a recent Samsung phone then Gear VR is a no brainer — you should definitely get it.
These are headsets which require a wire running from a console or PC. They are fundamentally different from mobile VR, allowing you the freedom to lean or move around a virtual space.
The PlayStation 4 is around $300 new, assuming there isn’t a sale, and the PlayStation VR headset is an additional $400. That doesn’t capture the full cost, though, as you need a camera and some games require the Move controllers. So all in all a full virtual reality system from Sony costs around $800. There’s also the recently released PS4 Pro, which doesn’t boost the experience enough in our testing to warrant the additional cost for the higher end system, but additional games may be released that take advantage of the extra horsepower and you might want 4K support. That sytem is typically around $400.
The PS VR headset is subjectively the most comfortable of the three wired systems, fitting on the head like a baseball cap and resting comfortably against the eyes. Games available for the headset have the most variety of polished, finished, non-tech demo experiences with a good balance of genres for all gamers. However, it does lack educational, experiential, and non-core gamer apps when compared to the Rift and Vive.
Read More: Best PlayStation VR Games
Recommendation: PS VR hits a sweet spot between quality content, comfort, affordability and ease of use that makes it an extremely tempting addition to the living room if you already own a PS4. Buying a PS4 and PS VR rather than a PC for the Rift or Vive isn’t just less expensive, it’s also just simpler not having to think about the different PC parts that may or may not run the best VR apps in 6 months’ time. Of course, the Sony system is limited in some ways compared to the Vive and Rift, such as its use of a single tracking camera and lower resolution. If money is tight and you know mobile VR isn’t going to cut it, this is likely the system to get.
The Oculus Rift is the $600 headset from Facebook. It ships with a gamepad controller and a single camera, which works fine for a variety of games like Eve: Valkyrie, The Climb and Damaged Core. But it’s not nearly as empowering as having virtual hands, as with the Vive and Move tracked controllers. The single sensor on the $600 Rift limits the size of the VR play area too, and the soon-to-launch Oculus Touch controllers, which will come with an additional sensor for $200, may open up the ability to access the entire Oculus and Steam VR content libraries. Oculus is also offering additional sensors for $80, and during its presentation at the company’s developer conference earlier this year suggested that a total of three of these sensors spread around the room could offer room-scale VR functionality.
You’ll also need a powerful PC to run the Rift, though Oculus has made progress in offering software solutions allowing the Rift to run on PCs as cheap as $500, but we wouldn’t recommend buying a minimum specification PC as those software solutions can create visual artifacts that can make some people uncomfortable. Instead, aim for a PC hitting at least the recommended specification — that starts with an NVIDIA GTX 970 or AMD 290 for the graphics card and an Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater for the CPU.
Read More: Best Oculus Rift Games
Recommendation: Facebook is investing a lot in VR content and the company is just starting to hit its stride with the release of Oculus Touch and games built from the ground up for the intuitive input method. The $100 store credit Black Friday deal is a tempting one as it’ll help you get started with some great games. Superior visual fidelity — your eyes will see more detail — sets Rift apart from PlayStation VR while ease of use (just place a sensor on your desk and put on the headset to enter VR) sets it apart from the HTC Vive.
The $800 Vive ships with a headset, two base stations for room-scale tracking, and two motion tracked controllers. The recommended PC specification for the Vive is very similar to the Rift, so essentially any PC meeting the Rift recommended specification will also work for the Vive. Since its debut, the Vive has offered room-scale VR from day one as well as hand controls, wherein you can set up these base stations at opposite ends of the room and your head and hand movements will be tracked throughout the entire space. It’s a big price tag for some very advanced hardware.
Hitting the market early with room-scale VR has led to an incredible period of creativity among developers and it’s truly a pleasure to have that freedom to walk a few steps in any direction. Active room-scale apps like The Gallery and Raw Data passed big sales milestones on Vive, suggesting there are enough Vive headsets in the market to support small teams. And killer apps like Google Earth VR and Tilt Brush hit Vive first, and whether or not those apps will make the jump to Rift is still an open question.
The tracking base stations with Vive are really nice because they don’t need to be plugged into the PC to operate. With Rift, each of those cameras (3 or more of them for room-scale) needs to find its way to a USB port on your computer, and that’s a huge pain to consider wrapping cords around the perimeter of the room, but the Vive’s firmware updates and long list of moving parts invites occasional hiccups and trouble shooting, which can be frustrating considering the price tag.
Read More: Best HTC Vive Games
Recommendation: We can’t definitively make a recommendation between Rift and Vive because we have yet to see their full content libraries or definitively test Oculus Touch — we expect to have more detail on that question in December, but in short the Rift edges out the Vive slightly in comfort and ease-of-use. Vive, on par with the Rift, also edges out PlayStation VR in terms of resolution. The Vive is discounted to $700 for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, representing the best deal for the system we’ve seen all year. If you’ve got the room to enjoy room-scale, it’s certainly a pleasure to have in your home.
If you aren’t dying to get into VR this year, or you find the full investment for a Rift or Vive too expensive, it might be worth waiting to see what CES in January holds in store with new VR headset announcements.