5 Things to Consider Before Buying a VR Headset

Learn what to look for in VR headset

This buying guide will help you find the right virtual reality (VR) headset for your gaming or entertainment needs, whether you already have a powerful gaming PC or you need a VR headset that will work on its own without any additional hardware.

What Is a VR Headset, Anyway?

A VR headset is a device you wear on your head like an oversized pair of glasses or goggles. The headset covers your eyes and contains either two displays or a single display that’s split in half and shows two different images. Each image is shown to one of your eyes in a manner that prevents your eye from seeing the other image. Since the image shown to each eye is from a slightly different angle, your brain interprets the images as three-dimensional.

Some VR headsets are designed to work with expensive VR-ready PCs, and others have built-in computer hardware and don’t require a separate PC.

Several different types of VR headsets.

Katrin Sauerwein / iStock / Getty Images

Top 5 Things to Consider When Buying a VR Headset

There are a ton of VR headsets on the market that all kind of look the same if you’re new to VR, but there are five critical factors you can use to identify the right one:

  • Price 
  • Standalone or Tethered 
  • Wireless or Wired 
  • Tracking Method 
  • Resolution 

How Much Is a VR Headset?

The price of a VR headset depends on a number of factors, like whether or not you can use it without a PC, the resolution, control methods, and tracking methods. The most expensive VR headsets also require an expensive computer to use.

Here’s a general guideline of what to expect:

Price Range  Features 
 <$300 Standalone
May have the option to use tethered
1832x1920 resolution per eye
Can’t play high end games without a tethered PC
Inside-out tracking
 $300-600 Tethered
Not wireless
May not include controllers or tracking
Outside-in tracking
1440x1600 resolution per eye
 $600-1000 Tethered
Not wireless
May not include controllers or tracking system
Outside-in tracking
2880x1600 resolution per eye
 $1000-1200 Tethered
Not wireless
Will include controllers and tracking system
Outside-in tracking
2448 × 2448 resolution per eye
$1300-1600 Tethered
Will include controllers and tracking system
Outside-in tracking
2448 × 2448 resolution per eye

Do You Need a Standalone VR Headset?

Typically VR headsets require a standalone computer to run the games, but there are some models with the computing power built right in. Some VR headsets are coming to market with the ability to do both: work with or without a standalone computer, but they aren't common yet.

When a VR headset is connected to a computer, the computer does all the heavy lifting and just sends video and audio signals to the headset. That means performance is based on how powerful the PC is. In general, connecting a VR headset to a powerful PC will result in higher frame rates, better graphics, and more characters and objects on the screen at once. Some games will only run on a VR-ready PC and not directly on a standalone VR headset.

If you don’t have a VR-ready PC, and you aren’t interested in making the investment, then a standalone VR headset provides the same essential experience but is pared down a little. Many of the same games are available, with graphical and gameplay tweaks to allow them to run on the less powerful hardware that’s built into standalone VR headsets.

A VR headset connected to a gaming computer.

Tatyana Berkovich / iStock / Getty Images

Should a VR Headset Be Wireless or Wired?

When you connect a VR headset to a VR-ready PC, you can do so with one cable, several cables, or a wireless connection. Some VR headsets require an HDMI cable, data cable, and power cable, while others only require a single USB-C cable to transfer everything. In either case, the cable needs to remain connected at all times. That can result in tangling during gameplay, especially if you’re walking around the room while you play.

If you want to have the best, most realistic, safest experience with VR, a wireless connection is what you’re looking for. Standalone VR headsets are wireless by definition, but some tethered VR headsets can be connected to a VR-ready PC via a wireless connection. In some cases, you need to purchase a separate wireless peripheral to turn a VR headset into a wireless VR headset.

Tracking Your Movement in VR

All VR headsets have a limited amount of built-in tracking, which allows you to turn your head in the real world and have your view turn at the same time in the virtual world. To enable additional movement, like moving your head forward and back, or even getting up and walking around, the VR headset needs to be able to track your movement in the real world.

The two types of VR movement tracking are outside-in and inside-out. The names refer to the way your movement is tracked in the real world.

Outside-in systems use base stations placed on your desk or around your room. The base stations then track you, or the VR headset tracks the base stations, depending on the specific technology used by the headset. Two or three of these trackers, combined, can track and calculate your movement in real-time, allowing you to move around in a virtual space by moving in the real world, which is called room-scale VR.

A woman uses a VR headset with inside-out tracking.

Daniel Lozano Gonzalez / Moment / Getty Images

Inside-out systems use sensors built into the VR headset to track the relative positions of objects in your environment and determine the direction and speed of your movement based on that. These headsets can also track the position of VR controllers that you hold in your hands. These systems are easier to set up and use, as they work right out of the box without any additional setup, but they aren’t always as accurate. 

If you’re new to VR, and you want something that just works, then inside-out is the better tracking method because there is no complicated setup process. If you want the option for full body tracking, outside-in is more flexible.

What Resolution Should a VR Headset Be?

The perfect resolution for a VR headset would be about 8K per eye, but that isn’t an option yet. In general, a higher resolution is always better. The issue is the displays in VR headsets are extremely close to your eyes, much closer than you would normally hold a phone, so lower resolutions make it more likely you’ll be able to make out individual pixels. When that happens, you feel like you’re looking at the world through a screen door.

A comparison chart of common per-eye VR resolutions.

At 1440x1600 and below, the screen door effect is very evident. At 1832x1920, the effect is greatly reduced, but still apparent. Some people no longer notice the screen door effect at 2448x2448, but different people report different experiences.

Who Should Buy a VR Headset?

Anyone who plays a lot of games should consider buying a VR headset, but creatives, cinephiles, and a lot of other people should also consider a purchase. As VR headsets become more ubiquitous, they’ll also become increasingly useful for other activities, from socializing to work.

Here are some people who should think about getting a VR headset:

  • Gamers. If you’ve never gamed in VR, then you’re missing out on a completely new experience. You can play a lot of your old favorites in VR, but there are also a ton of games you can only play in VR.
  • Creatives. Virtual reality isn’t just for games, and it can be a tremendous creative outlet. Whether you just want to doodle in a 3D art app, or rapidly prototype something in real-time, VR is a game-changer.
  • Cinephiles. If you’re looking for a real cinematic experience at home, a VR headset can provide it better than most home theater setups, and for a lower initial investment.
  • Early adopters. If you jumped into VR early on, it’s time to upgrade. This is a rapidly changing field, so it’s time to take advantage of wireless play, improved resolution, and everything else.
  • Holdouts. If you were initially interested in VR but held out because of low resolutions and the screen door effect, or the expense of buying a VR-ready PC, it’s time to take the plunge. The best VR headsets have done away with the screen door effect, and you can get a standalone headset that doesn't even need a PC.

What to Do After You Buy

If you’ve never owned a VR headset before, then you’ll have some work to do if you want to be ready and jump right in as soon as it arrives. Here’s a quick rundown of the things you can do right after you make your purchase, and what to do when it arrives:

  • Make sure your PC meets the minimum specifications. If you’re using a tethered VR headset, it’s important that your video card, RAM, and other hardware meet the minimum specifications for your VR headset. If they don’t, you’ll need to upgrade.
  • Identify and tidy up your VR play space. If your new headset supports room-scale play, consider setting up a dedicated VR area cleared of obstacles and safe for both you and others.
  • Purchase any necessary peripherals. If your VR headset uses outside-in tracking, make sure you have enough tracking stations. You may also need to buy a special HDMI cable or USB cable to play in tethered mode or buy the controllers separately.
  • If you wear glasses, check to see if the headset works with glasses. You may need to purchase a spacer to use your VR headset with glasses, or the manufacturer may provide one for free upon request.
  • Make sure you’re comfortable in VR. Sit down before you put the headset on for the first time, and ease into the experience. Some people feel discomfort, like motion sickness or vertigo, and you don’t want to be standing up if you have a bad reaction.
  • How do I make a VR headset?

    Building something like the Oculus or PSVR at home is a pretty tall order, but you can make a basic VR headset that uses your phone as a display. The general makeup of a DIY VR headset are a frame to block light and hold the display steady and two lenses that focus the images on each side. You can find templates online and use materials including 3D-printed plastic or cardboard.

  • How do I clean a VR headset?

    You can clean most of a headset using the same methods you'd use to clean a keyboard or any other PC peripheral. However, you should always be careful when you clean the lenses. Use a microfiber cloth and water to avoid scratches or clouding.

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