With the holiday shopping season ready to kick into high gear, maybe you’re considering buying some virtual reality at the tail end of this supposed “Year of VR.” We’ve spent time with all of the major headsets – both in our offices and at events – and have picks for the best VR headsets of 2016.
Before we jump in, note that we’re breaking down top picks separately in high-end and mobile VR. Nobody in their right mind is going to think the US$79 Google Daydream, powered by a smartphone, is better than the PC-based, $799 HTC Vive. It only stands to reason they should be in their own separate award categories.
We also left out mid-ranged VR, as we don’t currently have any recommendations in this tier. That’s a polite way of saying we don’t think PlayStation VR, basically the only option in this middle ground, is up to snuff. While it’s great with gamepad games, its oft-used motion controls have major tracking issues that break VR’s core illusion. Without that stable and consistent “magic” of virtual reality, we see little reason to bother.
In a year or two, though, after Microsoft (perhaps) comes out with something for the Xbox and if Sony launches improved controllers, the console-based, not-too-expensive middle ground may be the sweet spot.
Best high-end VR: Oculus Rift with Touch controllers
If you read our reviews of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive from back in April, this pick might confuse you. At the time we preferred the Vive, and were confident enough in saying it would probably be the better pick throughout this first generation of VR.
While we would still pick the Vive over a gamepad-only Rift, we now believe we were wrong about the “throughout this first generation” part. Having spent more quality time with the Oculus Touch controllers (and their games) at OC3 and other events since then – and having seen some strategic pivots from Oculus in response to the Vive – we’re now confident in saying the Rift with Touch is your best bet.
While good Vive games have popped up since launch, the gap in what we’d describe as “high-quality games” has only grown wider in favor of the Rift. Facebook’s funding is paying off, as evidenced by excellent post-launch Rift titles like Damaged Core, Edge of Nowhere and even the ported Castlestorm VR.
Meanwhile, the majority of new Vive games we try feel more like rough cuts than finished products.
Three Oculus Touch titles (clockwise, from top-right): VR Sports Challenge, Oculus Medium, The Unspoken
We’ve also spent enough event-demo time with Oculus Touch titles like The Unspoken, VR Sports Challenge and Medium (among many others) to fairly-confidently say the ergonomic Touch controllers are going to have a truly badass launch lineup.
As for those pivots we mentioned, this was another surprise that shifted our recommendation. When the Rift launched in March, it offered 180-degree tracking with no room-scale option or virtual boundaries (necessary to keep you from bumping into stuff). Since then Oculus announced an optional 360-degree tracking system for Touch (by buying a third sensor for $79) and a built-in “Guardian” bounds system of its own to enable Rift room-scale.
The Rift already had a leg-up in game selection, hardware ergonomics (both headset and controllers) and audio. With added 360-degree tracking, room-scale and boundaries, what’s left to set the Vive apart from the Rift? Kudos to Oculus for making these competitive shifts, while padding its content lead.
The Oculus Rift costs $599, while the likely-essential Touch controllers (which we’ll cover sometime after their early December launch) will add another $199 to that. You’ll need an adequately-powered gaming PC as well.
Best mobile VR: Samsung Gear VR
This is a no-brainer. While Gear VR finally has a real competitor in Google Daydream View, the latter has a lot of catching up to do in the content department.
Consider this: Gear VR currently has over 400 total apps, the majority of which are games. At the time of publication, we’re seeing a grand total of 12 Daydream games in the Google Play Store.
On a hardware level, the Gear VR also has a wider field of view and works with more phones (all Samsung flagships from 2015-16). And Oculus’ legion of developers has been stocking the Gear VR with games, apps and experiences since late 2014, when the first “Innovator Edition” dev kit launched. Its selection has only grown since then, with a commanding lead in quantity and quality.
Daydream (above) will, of course, get better over time, and its reach will grow wider as more Android phones support it. The headset itself is also very sleek, with its fabric build.
Daydream View also has a nifty gesture controller included in the box. But it isn’t like Oculus Touch or Vive controllers: Its experience is closer to that of a Wii remote than to today’s high-end VR motion controls. There’s no depth tracking, so moving your arm around in the air won’t make any difference. It’s more pointer than anything – a far cry from having virtual hands in VR.
The content-rich Gear VR costs $99, but you can still pick up last year’s model (which works with all the same Samsung phones) for as little as $60. You’ll also need a 2015-16 Samsung flagship smartphone to power it.