VirtualReality101 Headset Buying Guide

ANALYSE

What exactly is VR and what does it give you?

You're in the right place, VRHeadset101 is a complete resource for everything related to virtual reality experiences.

Start out at the home page and explore the worlds of virtual reality. Learn about the different aspects of the breakthrough technologies that are driving VR

DECIDE

Decide what you want from VR entertainment.

Happy to start off at entry level VR and see if it works for you?

Need something powerful? Want to create and watch your own videos?

Limited budget?

You'll need to decide which of the headsets gives you the power to meet your needs.

BUY

What do you need to consider before actually making the decision to buy a headset?

Depending on where you are in the world, the options may vary.

Who's got the best deals for the region you're in? Who's got the greatest choice?

Do you buy online, or visit a local store?

Where do you get a chance for a good deal?

The First Decision - Mobile, PC, Console, or Untethered?

Headsets either work with a smartphone, PC, or a games console. Or as untethered, wireless connected devices with none of these restrictions.

Smartphone-based headset are cheaper, with more choice, and easily portable - a great entry level choice though don't give the quality of a desktop PC powered device.

Samsung Gear VR

PC-based headsets are substantially more powerful and generally provide a high end experience. They're more expensive and require high PC processing power.

Oculus Rift

Console based headsets are designed specifically with gaming in mind. High performance and reasonably priced if you already have the console. Play games to your hearts content.

Sony Playstation VR

Untethered headsets may be the holy grail of VR devices. They allow you to enjoy experiences with no connection to a PC, laptop, console, or Smartphone. Totally unencumbered.

AMD Sulon-Q VR Headset

Virtual Reality Headset Buying Guide

 

  Ready to see if VR experiences deliver what the reviews say they do?

  Already tried out the headset of one manufacturer and want to try something different?

  Looking to get hold of your first game, or add to an already growing collection?

  New to virtual reality, and thinking about buying your first headset?

 

If you’re ready to take your first steps into virtual reality, or maybe looking to move up to a deeper experience, buying a headset is going to be high up on the list of stuff you’ll need.

The headset is the key part of the overall experience, and can be an expensive purchase. One on which you won’t want to be making a mistake, and there are a number of pros and cons for different models.

VirtualReality101’s buying guide is designed to lead you through the maze of headset related choices you’ll need to make.

 

 

First Considerations – Why Do I Need a Headset?

The headset itself is the central piece of the puzzle (aside from the VR content of course). It’s required to let the viewer get the full immersive effect, and present the virtual information direct to the eye with no external distractions. As a starter for VR gaming (or enjoying any form of virtual reality entertainment) you’re going to need a headset from one of the following options.

 

Headset Types

  • VR headset coupled with a smartphone (HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard)
  • Headset and a suitably powered desktop PC/laptop (Oculus Rift)
  • VR games console plus headset (example:the Playstation VR)
  • Untethered device that needs no external power source

 

Each of the options has their benefits and drawbacks. Each one presents specific pricing considerations. You’ll need to consider compatibility and performance aspects, and game or content availability will ultimately definitely come into the equation.

There are some basic considerations you’ll need to make when you’re making a buying decision. Pros and cons to weigh up and options to think about, all of which can cause some confusion.

 

Basic Headset Choices

Cheaper headsets work with smartphones. They’re adequate but not perfect.

Headsets that work with PCs are substantially more expensive, but give an improved experience.

For VR headsets that operate alongside games consoles, you’re limited to the Sony Playstation VR.

Untethered headsets are possibly the holy grail for VR buyers, requiring nothing more than the device itself.

 

What’s Important

Refresh Rate

Room space

Reliability

 

Buying Smartphone VR Headsets

If you want the full VR experience afforded by the latest PC powered headsets, you’re going to need fairly deep pockets. Waiting for cheaper headsets to appear on Ebay may not be an option for a while, so buying one of the entry level smartphone devices can be a reasonably clever purchase if you’re not in a position to hit your wallet too hard. Especially if you just want to try out the virtual reality experience first to see if it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

In 2015, Facebook paid a reported $2 billion for the rights to the Oculus Rift. Clearly they believe they’re on to a winner. But first mover advantage has gone to the Gear VR from Samsung. In combination with a Samsung Smartphone, it’s already making a splash.

Smartphone headsets have benefits and drawbacks. Benefits obviously include price and to some extent their portability. In particular, if your mobile is a Samsung Galaxy 6 or similar then all you need to do is get a Gear VR for around $100 and you’re away. There are costs for extras such as good headphones, and the body tracking element of the experience will be missing, but the Gear and other smartphone devices do give some great results.

Don’t have a Galaxy?

All is not lost. The Merge VR is one of a host of alternatives that are compatible with different phone models, and also offer access to a varied library of content.

Certainly in the early days it’s the mobile phone headsets that are likely to see widespread shipments given the attractive price point compared to their more advanced competitors.

 

Buying Desktop PC Headsets

If you can afford it – and remember the headset may not be the only cost if you’re going the desktop PC route – then PC based headsets offer some clear advantages in quality over smartphones. Just don’t forget to make sure you have a powerful enough PC to give the results you’re expecting.

PC headsets offer powerful graphics, the most storage space, and the widest range of options for integration with add on accessories.

In the early days of 2016 it’s the Oculus Rift that is expected to take highest rank, but there’s a potential problem. And it’ll have an impact on how VR is perceived for all of these type headsets.

That problem is that some estimates suggest that only around 1% of PC’s are currently powerful enough to run VR games in the way they should be, with the main problem being the graphics performance.

Facebook are trying to address the issue in advance with recommendations that Oculus Rift users ensure their PC hardware is equipped with powerful graphics cards such as the Nvidia GeForce 970 or AMD Radeon 290. In addition, you’ll need to be running on a strong enough processor (intel i5 class recommended), with over 8gb of memory and two spare USB ports.

While the processor, memory, and USB ports might not be too much of an issue, the graphics cards don’t come in cheap at around $300, which starts to bring the cost into games console territory.

There’s a very good reason why VR demands such processing power: Anything less, and you might hurl. Early VR prototypes caused many testers to suffer from motion sickness due to slight delays in the screen’s responses to the user’s movements. A standard PC game runs at 30 frames per second. But to deliver the fluid, natural motion our brains need to be convinced an image is real, VR needs to achieve 90 frames per second on two video projections (one for each eye). Right now, that means a $1,500 laptop.

We’ve seen on other pages that a suitably powered PC might set you back around $1500 or more, though already there are some bundled deals on the cards.

 

Buying Console Headsets

At this point both Microsoft and Sony are developing their solutions. Sony with the Playstation VR (formerly known as Project Morpheus), and Microsoft with the Hololens. Both are expected to hit the market in 2016. The plus point here is that Sony’s VR headset will work with the Playstation 4, removing the cost of buying the console (assuming you have one already).
At time of writing, the choice here is straightforward. And you’ll need to wait for it anyway. The Playstation VR is the only console based headset on the horizon.

If you’re a Playstation 4 owner it may be worth holding on for a while to see how the reviews go when it’s released in October 2016, but either way you’re not going to have to pay out for the console itself. Pricing for the headset itself has been set at $399 in the US and £349 in the UK , with extra for add-ons such as the camera.

 

 

Buying Untethered Headsets

The first announced untethered device is the AMD Sulon Q. This headset clearly has significant promise, being the first to offer totally unencumbered virtual reality experiences.

This of course makes it the most versatile solution, and it may be the first in line of the type that will ultimately become the preferred for headset buyers.

At time of writing, the Sulon Q is expected to be released to market some time in mid 2016.

 

 

System Requirements

It’s obvious that headsets that work with mobiles need a suitable smartphone, and the appropriate smartphone models vary from headset to headset.

Similarly a console headset will only work with the associated manufacturer’s games console.

It gets a little more complicated with PC based devices, which have quite specific needs from the PC they work with – mainly in the specification of the graphics card.

Visit the page on VR Ready PCs for more info.

With unencumbered devices it’s clearly only the headset itself you’ll need to be worrying about.

 

What’s The Simplest Headset Option?

The simplest and cheapest option to get involved is just to use a smartphone with a VR headset connected. You’ll most likely already have the smartphone, so the cost will come from buying a headset and content.

But at this early stage of development this may not necessarily give the best results. In fact, it’s a fairly basic solution, and is likely to be superceded by more powerful solutions.

Of course it starts getting more costly with the other options. Buying a games console plus the headset is likely to set you back many hundreds of dollars. If the console manufacturers get it right though, this could end up as one of the strongest options.

Buying a headset with the intent of using a PC or laptop to run the games is going to be the wallet buster, because the hardware needed to run games successfully needs to be high powered. Unless you’re a high end PC gamer already, it’s unlikely you’ll have sufficient power in your current device/setup.

 

Pricing Range

Of course it’s not just what a headset can do and how good it is that count. Pricing considerations rank highly too.

The cost of the headsets may not be the only factor. Some headsets are powered by potentially expensive external devices. Check out the individual headset reviews for other operating requirements that might bump up the overall cost.

To give a rough of costs you can expect, here are the latest estimates against the four highest rated headsets:

 

Samsung Gear VR Pricing

Samsung got a head start over other manufacturers, releasing the Gear VR in 2015. The low relative price of around $100 has helped Samsung to sell significant numbers.

 

HTC Vive Pricing

There is no released pricing yet for the Vive, best advance estimates place it at around $650. But remember that the Vive works with a PC which will need to be at a reasonably high end spec – count on anywhere from $1000 up to around $1800 if you don’t already have a suitable setup.

 

Oculus Rift

Similar to the Vive above, if you want the best out of your Oculus headset you’ll need to look carefully at the specifications of your PC.

Fortunately Facebook and Oculus have teamed up with PC manufacturers Dell and Asus to get a range of VR Ready PCs available at a price of around $1500 with the headset included.

The headset alone is selling at pre-order stage for $599.

 

Playstation VR

PlayStation VR is likely going to cost less than $600, as it can’t cost much more (if any more) than the $350 price tag of the PlayStation 4 itself (which is required to use the headset).

 

AMD Sulon Q

At this point there are no clues as to the likely price of AMD’s ground-breaking untethered unit.

Where’s The Best Place To Buy VR Headsets?

Whenever you’re looking for the best of something to buy – no matter what it is – it’s best to start by considering what ‘best’ means to you.

Does it mean best as in top of the range? Does it may mean best priced? Best for support if it goes wrong? Or maybe what you really want is the best range of options, of choices?

But many times it’s a balance of all of these, and most often you’re going to find the best balance online. Shopping online lets you hunt around easily for a combination of keen pricing and all the other factors, maybe even with free delivery thrown in. It’s better than trotting out to the shops with thousands of other shoppers, though that does have its benefits too.

Here are a couple of online stores that are always worth a look-in:

 

Amazon

Amazon need very little introduction. Free shipping on a lot of models. No questions asked return policy – 30 days with no return shipping cost on Amazon purchases (but always check the fine print, sometimes Amazon themselves are not the actual seller).

Good prices, exemplary service…and plenty of Amazon buyer reviews to help with choices.

 

The Apple Store

The Apple Store is another online option. In early 2016 the well known technology giant began selling a Google Cardboard competitor headset known as the Mattel View-Master Virtual Reality Starter Pack. Priced at $29.95, this was the first VR headset to make its way into the Apple Store, and may well have been chosen by Apple to test out the waters in a lead up to potentially marketing their own VR device.
The Mattel starter pack comes with a basic set of demo VR apps, but you’ll need to fork out extra cash if you want more.

 

How Can I Find A Good Deal On A Headset?

In these early days of headset use there are unlikely to be any big price reduction deals. These will come later, though you may be ale to pick up a second hand headset on one of the auction sites like Ebay or Craigslist.

For now, lets take a look at each of the factors in determining a good deal. One of these may be the clincher that gets your order in place for your first taste of virtual reality.

 

Price

As the early headset models are released throughout 2016 and the game library grows, the price of hardware is likely to remain static. The market needs to grow before any of the manufacturers are in a position to start dropping prices. You may of course find occasional deals with the end stores, but that’s unlikely for a while.

But for when the time comes when there is some price-cutting taking place, or after a period where plenty of units have been sold already, there are a few tried and trusted ways you can look for a great deal on the equipment you want.

Remember to always check that prices haven’t dropped on a buy-it-new website before diving in on any deals you’ve found.

Online stores don’t have the overheads of high street or mall stores, so it’s not surprising to find cheaper prices online.

But it does entail shopping around, reading reviews, and checking out comparisons of different retailer offers. There’s always the chance of getting a price match deal if you find something cheaper at a store other than your preferred supplier, so always remember to check prices across multiple sites.

And don’t forget to include any shipping costs plus check out the return policies. These can turn a good deal on an expensive purchase into a poor one.

 

Shopping Around – Deals & Bargains

Once you have a good feel for headset model that’ll give you what you want, it’s time to hunt around for the best deals and pricing. There are a number of places to look, ranging from the easy option of online ordering to the more time consuming visits to brick and mortar stores.

 

Auction Sites

The first is to keep an eye open for auction websites. These can be useful destinations for comparing the prices offered by many of the online electrical retailers. Personally I find them frustrating at times, often not returning the results I’m really looking for. That said, if you’re precise with your search entries they can be useful.

One great example is Ebay. Some of the major online electrical retailers and superstores will sell VR devices on Ebay. At first, anything you do find is likely to be listed at a buy it now price, rather than an auction.

Some major retailers might run their own auction websites for clearance, refurbished, or returned items. Buying at any of these is a case of ‘buyer beware’, but often returned or refurbished items may have been sent back because they were an unwanted gift, arrived with some cosmetic damage, or simply might have been because the original buyer changed their mind.

 

Price Comparison Websites

There will be a number of websites springing up that list out different types of headsets in an easy to compare layout. These will definitely cover pricing comparison, but the most useful will also compare the features and other aspects like performance, ease of use, and comfort.

 

End Of Line Sales

Clearly a sale of this type won’t happen for some time, but it’s worth looking out for the arrival of new models. Quite often this results in stores selling their older versions at reduced prices, either because they know that the newer model is going to be more desirable, or that they need to make space for it. New releases will mean lower prices for existing VR devices.

 

Selection

Many bricks and mortar stores have great selections – especially the superstores – but the ranges of equipment online are always going to be best. That selection may not be at any one specific online store, but spread among a combination. Across different retailers if necessary, you’ll be able to find any items of virtual reality related technology that you might want.

Great places to start would include Amazon, Costco, and Best Buy for the deepest ranges.

 

Quality

You might think that driving out to a store and actually holding your new VR headset before you buy will improve your handle on its quality. That’s true to a point, but information online is so widespread and easily available that getting trustworthy reviews is easy. Do your research in advance, read up on reviews and comparisons, and you’re unlikely to get it wrong.

Of course it’s wise to try out some VR experiences before you lay out a significant pile of cash – particularly if you’re looking at buying high end PC or console headsets which might involve extra cost. If that’s the case, then maybe the best approach is to determine what will suit you first, and then find a store that has a demo version.

The alternative is to make your purchase online before seeing in real life. Provided your selected retailer runs a ‘no questions asked’ return and refund, this is not a bad option. Sending stuff back is normally pretty straightforward.

 

Warranty

Unless you’re looking at the cheaper mobile headsets, any purchase of one of the higher end headsets is going to cost a reasonable sum, especially if that includes the cost of a VR ready PC, or additional hardware for your existing PC. So warranties will be an important consideration.

Virtually all online stores provide forms of warranty cover for newly delivered items, and for a period after delivery. For a PC or headset, improving on that with an extended warranty is not necessarily a good idea (unless it’s free of course!). Technology of today is normally reliable.

But if you do want to buy extra peace of mind, just be sure you’re not being taken for a ride. Remember all those big purchases you made where the salesman is selling additional warranty on top? That’s not for no reason. Companies make money out of warranties. Make sure you’re not overpaying.

It’s worth remembering that a payment by credit card might offer an extension of the manufacturers standard warranty as well. You should check whether this applies to your credit card supplier.

 

Extra Buying Tips

It’s always worth looking out for when a model gets replaced by a newer version. Often this results in discounted prices for the older models, which actually might well be high performing Smart TVs in their own right.

It won’t work online, but being a cash buyer has its advantages if you’re prepared to bargain a price downwards. Knowing the prices a set is up for sale at in other stores is an advantage too. You’ll need to ask for a price match or reduction to beat the competition, but if you don’t ask you don’t get.

 

Buying Video Guide

We can anticipate seeing plenty of video-based buying guides released as headsets hit the market. For now, there are a limited number posted on Youtube. See below this section for a useful guide I’ve found.

 

…And The Negatives? Why Not To Buy Yet?

I’ve covered a lot of positives in this VR headset buying guide, but we do also need to consider the reasons why it may not be a good idea to get involved just yet.

 

1. It’s Early Days, Isn’t It?

Most certainly, and there are more developments to come. Firms like Facebook, Google, Sony, Samsung, and many more have all shown their hand with early headset models. They’ll surely all have development teams working in the background on enhancements and improvements.

It’s a sure bet that other big names will enter the market too. Keep an eye open for any efforts by Apple to take their piece of the VR pie.

 

2. Is The Current Content Availability Really That Great?

Well, this one is fairly straightforward to answer. The reports coming from those who’ve tried out VR experiences or games already have been highly favourable. As the technology grows we’ll see ever increasing amounts of content.

For now, there’s plenty to keep you going. Lack of content is not a good reason to leave off any purchase to later.

 

3. Are We Really Likely To See Innovative Improvements?

VR technology is only just away from the starting blocks. It’s easy to see that it has astounding potential, and it’s virtually certain that the devices involved will evolve and improve. Over the next few years we can expect to see huge enhancements to what’s available now.

 

4. Could I Buy Too Early?

I think the answer to this rests heavily on prices, but you’ll also need to take into consideration the different technologies concerned and hwo they might be improved over time.

It’s unlikely you’ll regret buying into an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, given the quality they offer. Though of course they come at a price, and you need to consider the potential PC cost too. In October 2016 you’ll be able to get your hands on a Sony Playstation VR bundle that will be very cost effective if you already have a PS4 games console.

There’s every possibility that starting off with one of the cheaper mobile headset options will result in a need, or at least a desire, for an upgrade to a more powerful solution. As we move forward, those cheaper solutions will improve in quality, so it may be worth waiting.

There is a risk that if technological enhancements do come, the headsets of today and the near future will become obsolete. I’d say this is not a huge consideration, given you’ll have missed out on the possibilities that VR entertainment affords right now.

 

So it’s difficult to be certain whether now is really the right time to buy, although there are definitely some great headsets on the market already.

 

Resources

Clearly VirtualReality101’s buyers guide won’t be the only one. Here are a few alternatives I’ve found:

First up is the guide from The Washington Post. It’s fairly basic but offers a good starting point if this is the first time you’ve even heard of VR headsets, while the version at TomsGuide is along similar lines but gives a little more detail on models.

Most others – and even these two in fact – are more like ‘best headset’ type write ups rather than full buying guides. I’ll post links here to any I find that attempt to go into the same depth as the one you’re on currently.

 

Summary

Congratulations if you’ve managed to battle your way through my buying guide. By now you should have some good understanding of the decisions you need to make before buying a VR headset.

If you’ve decided that buying now is right for you, then draw up a list, read up on some VR headset reviews, and hunt around for the best prices. Perhaps visit some stores and get some demonstrations, and remember that in the end it is what’s right for you that really counts.

You won’t be alone. There can be no question that 2016 is going to see significant sales volumes in VR headsets, games, and other associated equipment, though it’s likely to be 2017 before the numbers really start to take off.

Currently the choice is fairly limited, although of generally good quality. Surely the right course at present is to hold on. It’ll probably be 2017 before the time is really right to buy your first VR headset. By the time we move into the next year we should know whether VR really has taken off in the way it seems assured to.

Innovations from manufacturers will have had a chance to get seen, tested and reviewed.

If you have the spare cash, then go for it now but just be prepared that you may want to upgrade. If you just have to get VR now, think carefully about what experience you want, and be prepared that to buy it might mean going high end.

More interesting stuff is coming in future. VR might change the face of the entertainment industry forever.