Virtual reality has finally come of age following the release of three long-awaited new systems. For PC gaming, the consumer version of Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive have significantly raised the bar, while PlayStation’s VR headset is the first console-based system. There are also a host of cheaper models that link to your mobile phone, for those looking to dip their toe into the world of virtual reality without breaking the bank.
The key question to ask yourself before buying a VR headset is whether you want a mobile or tethered headset.
Tethered v mobile headsets
What does that mean? Well, mobile headsets such as Google’s Daydream and Samsung’s Gear are essentially plastic (or even cardboard) frames with lenses inside. You simply buy a virtual reality app on your smartphone, place the phone inside the device and strap it to your head. The lenses then filter the app to give the virtual reality effects. Considering the apparent simplicity of the headset itself, the effect is surprisingly impressive.
Simplicity also means most are very affordable at well under £100. The very cheapest cardboard models can be picked up for a few pounds. The smartphone is where the technology is and an added bonus is that, unlike tethered systems, you don’t need to connect any wires.
The key downside is that, because phones aren't designed specifically for VR, the picture is never going to be as good as with PC or game console-based VR, such as Oculus or Vive.
VR headset prices
The obvious trade-off with the tethered systems is the price. They are several times more expensive. They can also be slightly unwieldy, with wires attaching the headset to the console or PC - sometimes not ideal when you are trying to shoot aliens in a virtual reality world and you can’t see the wire. However, you get used to where to place everything so it causes minimal annoyance.
Unlike phone headsets, tethered systems have all of the tech built in. This includes motion sensors and external camera trackers, which drastically improve how realistic the VR world feels. Your actual movements are far more faithfully reflected in glorious 3-D.
If you decide to take the plunge and go for one of the full tethered systems, you’ll need to spend a few hundred pounds to get all the relevant kit. But it’s well worth it for a truly immersive experience.
Of all the headsets we tested the cheapest was the Google cardboard at £10, the most expensive was the HTC Vive at £750.
The main other criteria we looked at were the graphics and gaming experience, the range of games available and ease of use.
There are really only three headsets to consider here at the moment: Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. The Vive and Oculus will both need to be hooked up to a fairly powerful PC, while the PS VR obviously requires a PlayStation 4.
1. PlayStation VR: £349.99, Game
The PS VR is an attractive piece of kit; all white curved plastic and unnecessary, but cool-looking, LEDs. It is the cheapest of the three systems, though you will have to shell out another £40 for the PlayStation camera if you don’t have one. The headset won’t work without it. The VR launch bundle is around £400 and comes with two Move motion sensor controllers, which allow you to play a wider variety of games.
Set up is simple but does result in a bundle of cables around the living room. It’s important to get the set up right or the tracking doesn’t work properly, which spoils the whole experience. Sony’s tracking system seems to be vulnerable to the odd glitch but generally this is not an issue. Unlike the Vive, you can’t turn full 360 degrees but it’s not far off and this doesn’t hamper the experience.
In terms of gaming, the visuals are impressively rendered, only slightly less crystal-clear than the more expensive PC systems and well ahead of the phone-based headsets. Where the PS VR excels is the number of games available, something which has been an issue for other systems, though it is improving.
We particularly enjoyed Farpoint, a first-person shooter, and Eve: Valkyrie, which perhaps best shows off the benefits of VR. As you fly through space in the cockpit of a fighter craft and get a real feeling of scale and speed that you don’t get with traditional gameplay.
2. HTC Vive: £759, Currys
HTC’s Vive is at the top end of the market and presents some truly stunning graphics. It is the most complete of the three tethered systems we looked at. You won’t have to buy a whole host of extra accessories to use it to its full potential, though you will need a high-spec PC.
The bundle includes a headset, motion controllers, and external sensors for setting up a virtual room to play in. These allow full 360 degree gaming which makes for the most realistic experience and allows you to move around the room without going out of range. You do really feel part of the VR world in a way that the other headsets can’t quite match.
There isn’t quite the variety of games available for the PS VR but there are enough to keep all but the most hardened gamer entertained. It’s not as nice to look at as Sony’s offering but this scarcely matters since you’ll be on an alien planet when you’re wearing it.
This is a great system overall, but the downside is the price. It’s £750 for the headset bundle but if you don’t have a computer capable of running it, you’ll probably have to spend that much again to get up and running, meaning it’s certainly not for everyone.
3. Oculus Rift: £499, John Lewis
The Oculus Rift is perhaps what comes to most peoples’ minds when they think about VR. It was the first to be announced, way back in 2012, when it began as a Kick Starter project before being bought out by Facebook for $2bn. The full mass market version was released in 2016 and it was worth the wait.
Like the Vive, you’ll need a pretty fast computer to run it at its best, and the extra Oculus Touch motion sensor controllers (£99) are highly recommended. With a fairly understated black design, the headset is not quite as stylish as Sony’s but it’s comfortable. Set up on the PC is simple: just plug it in and follow the walkthrough on the software.
The Oculus Touch controllers are as responsive, fluid and natural-feeling the Vive's and the gameplay is very similar. The 110-degree field of view means the virtual reality world feels like it’s really wrapped around your head. Graphics are sharp, although, remember that performance will depend to some extent on your PC hardware.
These are a really good way to try out VR for a surprisingly small outlay. There is not as much difference between these headsets as there is between the PC and console systems. They are essentially a housing for your phone, so much will be governed by what handset you have. Beyond that the things to consider are comfort, style and most importantly, range of games and apps available.
4. Google Cardboard: £15, Google
The most basic of them all, this is literally a folded up cardboard box for your phone. But, somehow, the lenses manage to create the feel of being in a virtual reality world.
This is ideal for beginners and a great way to get a taste of VR. It almost goes without saying that setup is simple. You simply fold the box up with your phone in the front and you are away. It’s compatible with almost all Android devices and apps are available from the Play store for minimal cost. We particularly enjoyed Galaxy VR, which combines the best of a space flying game with a first-person shooter.
Clearly, the Cardboard is not built to last forever. The design is pretty flimsy but no one could expect more for the price.
5. Google Daydream: £69, Google
The Daydream is a great upgrade from Google’s entry Cardboard model, though it is currently compatible with a much smaller range of phones. It eschews the futuristic, almost Robocop, pretensions of most of the other headsets for a softer fabric design that comes in grey, white or red. It’s also really comfortable to wear and, unlike the Cardboard, comes with a remote control.
This is handy for using apps like Netflix VR, which gives you the full cinema screen experience in your living room.
As it is relatively new, the Daydream has yet to build up a huge range of apps and games but more are being added every week
6. Samsung Gear2: £89.99, Scan
The Gear is only compatible with Samsung phones so is only an option if you have one or intend to buy one. In terms of design, it is quite boxy, somewhat reminiscent of an old Sega GameGear, for those that remember. If it’s looks you’re going for, Google’s Daydream is slightly more elegant.
For a greater variety of top-quality games and apps, however, the Gear is currently well out in the lead. For this fact alone, it was the best of the phone-based headsets we tested. Apps are available to download from the Oculus store and there are plenty. For non-stop action, try Gunjack or for more of a stealthy experience, Hitman Go is well worth £8.
Setting up the Gear is pretty much as simple as, downloading an app and plugging in your phone.
7. Carl Zeiss VR One: £129.99, Selfridges
The first thing you will notice, as you might expect from the German lens maker, is excellent build quality. The headset is far more solid than most other competitors. It is also more stylish and feels exceptionally well made. This is the main factor justifying the £100 price tag. It comes with a tray for smartphones which will accommodate most models.
Carl Zeiss has made a few of its own apps, but in terms of games, it is the same selection as the Google models, which means less than the Samsung Gear at present.
This is a good option for people who want something a bit more classy than the cardboard and are willing to pay extra for it.
The Verdict: VR headsets
Sony’s headset is easier to use and more reasonably priced than its rivals, making it an ideal introduction to virtual reality but also high-spec enough to keep serious gamers happy. We were also impressed with the range and quality of games on offer.
The phone-based headsets are impressive considering the cost but the experience is some way behind the tethered systems and is likely to remain so. There is not a huge amount to choose between the Samsung Gear 2 and the Google Daydream, but with a larger selection of apps, the Samsung edges it.
At the other end of the market, both the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive had extremely impressive graphics. HTC’s whole room set-up allows for the most “complete” virtual reality experience. That said, it’s only for those who already have a pretty hefty PC at home.