2021 VR Headset Guide: Breaking Down the Best
Technology continues to advance at a dizzying pace. Consider this, the smartphone in your pocket may well be more powerful than the desktops and laptops most people were using at the turn of the century. Indeed, smartphones now are more powerful than the vintage super computers that helped put spaceships into orbit and Neil Armstrong on the moon.
We’re now seeing similar advances in virtual reality technology. Some decades ago Nintendo released one of the first VR headsets, the laughable (by today’s standards) VR Boy, that played Gameboy quality games on a low resolution, red only screen. Now, VR headsets resemble those found in Sci-fi movies.
The VR headsets already launched in 2020 and so far in 2021, along with any headsets queued up to launch later in the year, will continue to raise the bar for virtual reality experiences. Beyond that, consumers have far more choices today than they did just a few years ago.
The most difficult question right now is figuring out which VR headset is right for you. First, you’ll want to figure out if a stand-alone VR headset, a PC VR headset, or a console unit is the right way to go. There are advantages and drawbacks to each.
Even after you narrow down the type of VR headset you want, you’ll have further choices and picking out the brand & model, which can be stressful. Before jumping into specific units, however, let’s first take a look at the differences between stand-alone, console and PC VR headsets, and which one might be best for you.
The Great Debate: Stand-Alone, Console, and PC VR headsets Compared
If you purchase a stand-alone headset, you can enjoy the VR porn experience without needing to purchase any additional devices. The VR headset itself will contain the necessary processors, screens, hand controls, battery, and everything else you need to enjoy virtual reality.
Stand-alone VR headsets offer a lot of flexibility and you can use them in many different places. If you purchase a VR headset tied to a PC or console, you’ll typically have to use this headset near that PC or console which will obviously limit your mobility.
That said, a PC or console VR headset can lean on the computing power provided by the console or computer. A VR headset, on the other hand, has to cram a lot of powerful hardware into a limited space. Of course, you’ll have to buy a console or the right PC to support a PC or console VR system. The PS5 console itself costs at least $400 while a high-end gaming PC can easily cost more than $1,000.
If you opt for a stand-alone VR system, you won’t have to pay for a PS5 or PC.
Generally speaking, a high-end gaming PC will provide the best graphics, with a current generation console (PS5, for example) providing the next best graphics quality. A stand-alone VR system often provides lower quality graphics. Still, many users will find that the graphics on a stand-alone unit still offer a fun and enjoyable experience.
If you already own a powerful PC that can support virtual reality, or likewise own the right console, picking up a PC or console VR headset makes sense. If you don’t own a console or the right PC, a stand-alone unit is likely a wiser choice. And remember, the stand-alone headset offers more flexibility overall.
Now, let’s take a look at the best VR headsets in each category. If you’re still unsure of which headset you should pick up, our first choice is a safe and generally affordable option.
The Best Stand-Alone Headset: Oculus Quest 2
The Oculus Quest 2 has emerged as one of the more popular VR headsets, and for good reasons: it’s a relatively affordable stand-alone headset that gets all the basics right.
The Quest 2 headset also offers a lot of improvements on the first-generation device, being both lighter and more comfortable to wear. When it comes to VR headsets, ergonomics are essential. Even if a unit offers great graphics and other features, if it’s uncomfortable to wear, it may end up gathering dust.
The Oculus Quest 2 features a somewhat limited Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 mobile processor and 6Gb of RAM. These specs aren’t earth shattering, but you can still play pretty advanced VR games, such as The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners, which first premiered on the PC.
If you’re into horror, by the way, The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners provides a good example of what VR has to offer. This game features long, intricate missions, and unlike some early VR games, it’s meant for deep dives.
The Quest 2 offers refresh rates between 60 to 90 hz, up to 256 Gb of storage, and an 1832 x 1920 screen. Battery life lasts a solid 2 to 3 hours.
You need to set up a Facebook account to use the Oculus Quest 2, which is kind of annoying. Given that Facebook owns Oculus, however, the requirement isn’t very surprising.
Is The Oculus Quest 2 The Best Overall VR Headset? Pretty much.
If we had to choose an overall best VR headset, we’d probably go with the Oculus Quest 2 even over premium PC and console headsets. Quite simply, at around $300 (£299 in the UK currently) it offers the best bang for your buck and still affords users with an excellent VR experience.
Best Budget Stand Alone VR Headset: The Original Oculus Quest
As of right now, Facebook has a strong hold on the stand-alone headset market. Strong challengers may emerge in the future, but starting with an Oculus is a good decision. If you’re looking for a budget pick, consider the original Oculus Quest, which you can typically pick up on eBay and other sites for less than $200.
The Oculus Quest 2 offers enough benefits and better ergonomics that we still recommend it over the original unit, even with price factored in. That said, if you’re not sure if VR is right for you, the original unit offers an affordable way for you to dip your toes.
Best PC VR Set: The Valve Index
If you’ve got the money to spend and want a premium VR experience, the Valve Index is an excellent albeit pricey choice. The Valve Index kit (includes controllers and base stations) typically sells for around $999, making it far more expensive than Oculus units and many other VR headsets. Keep in mind, you’re also going to need a decent gaming PC, which can easily cost over a grand.
So, what do you get for all that money? Arguably the best consumer-grade VR experience currently available. A 120 hz refresh rate and two 1440×1600 LCD panel AMOLED screens in combination with substantial graphics prowess ensures an immersive experience.
The Field of View on this unit comes in at 130 degrees, offering best in class performance. Audio quality is great. Build quality is also great and the Valve Index offers some of the best weight distribution out of any VR headset currently on the market.
Really, the only downside is the overall price, which is substantial. But if money is no object, the Valve Index is an object worth buying.
Best Budget PC VR Headset: Oculus Quest 2
Don’t want to spend a grand on a VR headset? Okay with a bit lower resolution and slower refresh rate? You can plug the Oculus Quest 2, our pick for best stand-alone VR headset, into a gaming PC to play more graphically intense games. You’ll be tethered via a USB cord but can still enjoy many great PC VR games.
Oculus also sells a PC-only headset, the Oculus Rift S. However, this unit costs about the same as the Quest 2 and requires a PC to run. Also, Oculus is also expected to discontinue PC-only VR headsets in the not-so-distant future. All-in-all, most users will be better off with the Quest 2.
Other PC VR Headsets Worth Considering
The HTC Vive Cosmos offers a solid experience and can often be bought for $700 or less. Tracking isn’t as good, and the controllers don’t stand up to the Valve Index. The refresh rate is lower as well. Quite simply, you’re better off spending a few hundred bucks more on the Valve Index, or else going the other way pricewise and picking up the Quest 2.
That said, you should keep an eye on new products. The VR market is just starting to heat up and we expect strong competition over the next few years!
Best Console VR Headset: PSVR
When it comes to console headsets, you don’t have many choices. Surprisingly, Microsoft has thus far resisted calls to develop an Xbox VR headset to compete with Sony’s PlayStation VR headset.
Thus far, the PlayStation VR system struggles to compete with Oculus units, let alone the Valve Index VR headset. Still, this console VR unit offers a comfortable and generally affordable experience, assuming you already own a compatible PlayStation 4 or PS5.
Crazy Cheap VR Alternative: Labo VR Kit by Nintendo
If you own a Nintendo Switch and would like a cheap way to dabble in virtual reality, you can pick up the Labo VR headset for less than $50. The Labo kit itself consists of a lot of cardboard and other cheap bits. For processing and motion sensing, you rely on the Nintendo Switch’s screen and controllers.
The Labo VR kit is a bit of a gimmick compared to the other units on this list. That said, it’s a cheap and fun gimmick, and a great way for Nintendo Switch owners to dip their toes in the virtual reality water.