Here's the best doorway to another world: via PC, game console, phone or standalone.
Virtual reality seemed like a wild taste of the future in 2016, when a wave of headsets began to appear. Today, it's more like a work in progress. Plenty of perfectly good VR headsets are available that you can buy now. Whether you need to is another matter. Depending on who you ask, virtual reality is either alive and well (and might just help keep you healthy), it's dead, dead, dead, or, at the very least, an immersive promise still unfulfilled. Since you're reading this, I'm guessing you're either in the first category or looking for new signs of life.
Virtual reality is still evolving, into possibilities that could eventually stun us even more: totally standalone headsets already exist, like the Oculus Quest, and they're amazing and immersive. Fully standalone, self-contained systems seem like the future of virtual reality, but so do low-cost, lightweight devices that plug right into phones. Some headsets also have eye tracking. There may be a lot more virtual reality in the future, or virtual reality may never end up being the future at all. You can do some amazing things in virtual reality now, though, and some new headsets are worth considering if you're looking for the best VR headset.
VR devices come in a few different forms: there are cheap ones that works with your phone, and ones that require a high-end PC or gaming console and some space to move around. In between those are standalone mobile headsets that are cord-free and don't require any additional external hardware to run.
So, in 2019, what do you do to find the best VR headset? My buyer's guide advice for the best VR headset is: don't spend a lot, and get something for the hardware you have.
At $400 with nothing else needed, Oculus Quest delivers games and an immersive experience anywhere, and has self-contained tracking and full-motion six degree of freedom (6DoF) motion controllers with vibration that can also track finger movements with VR gaming: they're the same touch controllers you get on the PC-required Oculus Rift. Quest has a surprisingly great higher-resolution display and built-in speakers, and apps are downloaded right to the headset's onboard storage. The mobile Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor the Quest uses may not sound powerful, but it plays games like Beat Saber, Moss and SuperHot VR extremely well. The Quest reminds me of the Nintendo Switch for its versatility and fun and takes mere seconds to start up. The Quest also fits really well over glasses.
Good: Self-contained, wireless, great touch controllers, comfortable design for gaming.
Bad: More limited library of apps, not compatible with larger Windows/mobile software ecosystems.
Sony's 3-year-old VR headset is still the only VR head-mounted display for gaming consoles, and it's surprisingly good and immersive. Even better, it's often on sale for as low as $200 (sometimes with games thrown in, too). Sony's delivered (and continues to deliver) a lot of excellent PSVR games, many of them exclusives. All you need is a PlayStation 4 and you can start playing the games. (A few good games to start with are listed here.)
Good: Great gaming support, lower price, works with many PS4 gaming controllers like DualShock and Move.
Bad: Lower resolution isn't cutting-edge; Sony hasn't made great VR controllers yet that match the competition.
The Oculus Rift S is an improvement over the 2016 Rift PC headset, adding overdue features like a higher-resolution display (1,280x1,440 per eye) and self-contained room tracking via five cameras studded in the Rift S headset. No more external cameras or sensors are needed, making Rift S a lot easier to use casually.
Oculus' collection of games and apps is excellent, and the Oculus Store is easy to browse for games for first-time Rift users (a little easier than the sometimes confusing Steam VR layout). In-headset tracking for the Rift S isn't always as seamless or as large-scale as the holodeck-like room tracking on HTC Vive and Valve Index, but not needing to install any extra hardware (just like Microsoft's VR headsets) is a huge help. The Rift S still uses a cable tethered to your PC, but at least that one cable is pretty compact.
Good: Reasonable all-in price; crisp display; in-headset room tracking; really good controllers.
Bad: Bulky headset isn't very portable; can't flip up like some Microsoft Windows VR headsets.
Valve's new headset might be the most interesting PC VR this year, just for its fancy new controllers. Valve's "knuckle" controllers are pressure-sensitive and can track all five fingers, making them almost like gloves. Not many apps make the most of them yet, but Valve's hardware is mix-and-match compatible with HTC Vive, which also is built on Steam VR. The Index headset has excellent audio and slightly wider-than-average field of view, too.
Because the Index uses the same room-tracking sensor boxes that the HTC Vive does, existing Vive owners may not need the complete (and expensive) set of Index hardware. But you need those little sensors and boxes set up in a room, and you also need to tether with a long cable to your PC. It's not as self-contained as Oculus' Rift S, which can track the room with in-headset cameras, or Microsoft's Windows VR headsets. And, it's definitely not wireless.
Good: Amazing futuristic controllers, high-quality headset, works with Vive hardware.
Bad: Expensive, requires room setup and tethering cable.
To help deal with the space and computer requirements of VR headsets as well as their high costs, Microsoft developed Windows Mixed Reality headsets with its PC partners. WMR headsets use what's called inside-out tracking, so you don't need to set up camera sensors for motion tracking. They start at around $200, and they all have the same features for the most part. The $649 Reverb headset is more expensive but has a significantly higher-resolution display (2,160x2,160 per eye) and compact, comfy feel. It doesn't flip up like some earlier Windows virtual reality headsets do, but if you want to see 3D objects and textures at a higher resolution, this might be your pick for the best VR headset. Alternatively, if you're a serious pro VR content creator, you might prefer the HTC Vive Pro for its larger-scale room-tracking accuracy, but it's not as compact or convenient.
Good: Higher-res display, smaller, lighter-weight design, built-in tracking.
Bad: No flip-up visor.
HTC's Steam VR-compatible Vive works with the same app library as Valve Index, and can deliver full-room holodeck-like experiences, if you're interested in creating or exploring them. Professionals tend to use Vive hardware for its flexibility and ability to track motion in larger areas.
HTC introduced the $799 Vive Pro virtual reality headset in 2018 with a 78% bump-up in display resolution (2,800x1,600; or 1,400x1,600 per eye), and there's a wireless adapter, and an even more expensive version with eye tracking.
This still makes sense as a best VR headset pick for any PC VR user looking for a lot of hardware options, or who is looking to create location-based experiences -- but consider the Valve Index and Vive Pro, too.
The Go is essentially like using a phone headset, but without using your phone. This mobile VR headset is relatively inexpensive at $200 considering everything's built in, and it includes a controller. The display inside looks sharp and the built-in speakers have convincing spatial audio. You can't move around like the Oculus Quest, but for videos and simple experiences, the mobile VR Go still works fine.
Essentially a nicer version of the bare-bones Google Cardboard, the Google Daydream View is comfortable to wear. Daydream also works with a variety of new and old Android phones, and the Daydream list of compatible apps continues to grow. At $99, Daydream is affordable (though obviously not as cheap as the $15 Google Cardboard). Google Daydream also has a controller to make navigating a snap.
The biggest drawback to the Gear VR is that it only works with Samsung phones. If you've got one of those, this is the best VR headset to get. Like Daydream View, the Gear VR comes with a controller for navigation and gaming. Oculus powers the software and apps of Gear VR, bringing a large selection of compatible apps.