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The best VR headsets transport you out of the mundane world we find ourselves normally surrounded by and into spectacular landscapes, alien worlds, and fantastical realms that were only previously accessible through giant leaps of imagination. After an initial explosion of interest, virtual reality adoption has slowed a little in recent months, but it continues to steadily drive sales and innovation, and every time there's a big step forward technologically there's an attendant spike in coverage.
If you've never gotten your hands on a virtual reality headset before, you may be very confused at to where to begin shopping around. The most important factor you should consider before diving is in a headset's library. PlayStation VR, for instance, doesn't have the massive number of titles that some of the PC HMDs offer, but it does have some of the most incredible exclusives available anywhere. You always want to think about your play space, and whether you have room to set up sensors, or if multiple cables are feasible.
Minimal screen door effect
Up to 144Hz
Individual finger tracking
Requires a beefy GPU
After partnering with HTC to help build two previous VR headsets, gaming giant Valve has ventured directly into its own hardware, producing the first VR headset under its own brand, the Valve Index — the best VR headset in its class in terms of raw specs and features. First, you’re getting a display that offers an unprecedented field of view, thanks to a new dial on the front that allows you to move the lenses right up to your eyes, thereby improving your peripheral vision.
While the 1440x1600-pixel displays are only LCD, rather than OLED, we suspect this is a deliberate design choice on Valve’s part, since LCD pixels are subtler and minimize the screen door effect — something that would otherwise be a glaring problem when the lenses are crammed up to your eyeballs. The Index starts at 120Hz but also features an “experimental” 144Hz mode. At any rate, the net gain is not only a gorgeous and immersive VR experience but the ability to game for longer without concern for eye fatigue.
Two base stations provide a 10x10 gaming field, although these are only modest improvements over the HTC Vive versions, with which the Index is also compatible. The two controllers that come with the Valve Index are also a huge step forward, offering the ability to track each of your fingers individually, and even the difference between simply closing your hand or squeezing it. That said, you’ll still need a fairly powerful PC with a decent GeForce or Radeon GPU, but no more than any other premium VR headset. After extensive testing, Emily heaped praise on the Index, largely for its superwide, crisp display.
"If you’re looking for the best VR experience possible, then you should buy the Valve Index." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
No PC required
Not as powerful as the Rift
Facebook acquired Oculus back in 2014, and in 2018 they released their first ground-up VR headset. It comes with a notable innovation: the Oculus Go is entirely standalone, meaning it doesn’t require an expensive gaming laptop or console to operate. Just don the sleek, gray headset, adjust the straps and jump into an immersive VR experience on a premium-feeling device.
With this headset, Oculus is ushering in a new era of VR for everyone, not just those on the vanguard of tech development. And while the VR hardware is not quite as powerful as the Oculus Rift, it does deliver a fairly high-end experience. The headset also comes with an Oculus Go controller, which is sort of like a point-and-click remote that, while not as immersive as the Oculus Touch, is intuitive and works for games or experiences like watching a concert.
At launch, the Go is compatible with more than 1,000 apps, streaming services, games, and 360-degree experiences, a number that is guaranteed to grow as time goes on. In her review, Emily called the Go "an affordable foray into virtual reality for those who want a simple, immersive experience without cables."
"At about $200, it is perhaps the best headset for VR film right now, and its games are a lot of fun." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
Requires a fairly powerful PC
The HTC Vive Pro is great for VR enthusiasts with some extra money to spend. It’s an expensive piece of hardware, but it's been given a graphical upgrade that offers some of the best visuals on the market.
With a dazzling 2880 x 1600 resolution (versus the 2160 x 1200 resolution on the original Vive), the Pro’s OLED screen is its best asset. It has a 110-degree view which is standard for most headsets on the market and comes with a number of design improvements that make it comfortable to wear, even over an extended period of time. These include a simple strap and built-in headphones that sit directly on top of your ears.
The bottom line is that the HTC Vive Pro has stunning visuals, reducing the number of grainy edges sometimes seen on HTC's older headsets. It truly is the latest and greatest in consumer VR tech. But the price is, of course, the main factor here — if you don’t already have HTC sensors or controllers, you can buy the headset in a bundle with those accessories. In testing, our reviewer Emily called the Vive Pro the best currently available headset for room-scale VR.
"The display on the Vive Pro is breathtaking. Everything looks crystal clear, with little ghosting, screen door effect, or low refresh rates to hinder your experience." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
Best exclusives in VR
Awesome refresh rate
Impressive 3D audio
Lower resolution than many PC HMDs
Now that VR has become such a ubiquitous thing — something that seemed ultra-futuristic not even 5 years ago — we’ve seen a barrage of headsets coming to the market. While most of them contain some padding and foam for comfort on the face and around the eyes, it’s somewhat surprising how many of them are still heavy, clunky blocks you strap to your face with just one horizontal support strap.
For our money, the PlayStation VR is one of the few physical designs that attempts to mitigate that with a bigger, more substantial strap that balances at an angle on your head. This takes some of the pressure off your forehead, theoretically allowing you to use it for longer. The PlayStation VR's 5.7-inch OLED display sports 1080p resolution and a super-fast 120 fps refresh rate, which isn’t that much of a surprise considering it was designed by a leading gaming manufacturer. Roll that in with an impressive 3D audio system and this is one immersive unit.
One thing to keep in mind is that this does require a PS4 for operation, as opposed to just strapping your smartphone in like the cheaper VR headsets, but with the gameplay quality, you’ll be glad you invested in the system. The PS4’s camera receiver will read the LEDs around the headset and the wireless controller to track your movement in the room. PlayStation also regularly releases VR-first games for you to make the most out of the unit. It’s expensive, but if gaming is your thing, it just might be worth it. Andrew, who reviewed the PSVR for us, loved the selection of games and reasonable price.
"A must-buy for any existing PlayStation 4 owner with even the slightest interest in VR, given the stellar game library and very reasonable cost as an add-on experience." — Andrew Hayward, Product Tester
Best standalone headset available
Big library of titles
Oculus Link gives access to more titles
Link requires cabling to a PC
Most other virtual reality sets are dependent on other devices. Whether you’re going for Google’s headset to work with your phone or you’re using a peripheral for your PS4, these devices are often meant as accompaniments, not as standalone products.
The Quest is Oculus’s latest foray into truly standalone VR headsets, meant to work no matter where you set up to play. It thrives in any environment because of the built-in room scale-tracking sensors. Coupled with the proprietary Guardian boundary system, you can play games that map you to your specific room, but also set up virtual room limits intelligently.
The two controllers that come with the system offer solid motion controls that, when paired with the motion tracking headset, give you a wide range of movements from arm gestures to ducking.
The built-in audio engine also provides a degree of surround coverage, meaning you’ll be fully immersed in your game. And because the whole thing works on the Oculus engine, it is perfectly poised for developers to add to the library for future features and iterations. Thanks to that engine and developer support, you’ll have a ton of options for compatible games and apps long into the future. Andrew reviewed the Quest for Lifewire and heaped praise on it for how well it functioned despite being completely wireless.
"The Oculus Quest is the standalone, affordable VR headset that we've been waiting for." — Andrew Hayward, Product Tester
Great balance of price and power
Beautiful OLED display
Excellent touchpad controllers
Requires sensors and cables
Having aided in its initial pioneering, the HTC Vive was one of the first on the premium VR headset market. Yet despite its age, it's still one of the best bang-for-buck options available today. Its hefty weight and typical design won't sway the unconverted, but for existing VR fans, the Vive doesn't disappoint.
Its 2160x1200 display, for instance, has now become the standard resolution among higher-end headsets, and the natural 110-degree field of view and controllers are still the best you’ll find on a VR headset. Meanwhile, the internal display is OLED and offers a buttery smooth 90Hz refresh rate.
A pair of base stations allow for a relatively sizable tracking area (up to 15 by 15 feet), and the included pair of controllers are versatile due in part to their large clickable touchpads and two-stage rear triggers. What's more, the Vive is millimeter-accurate with no noticeable lag. In other words, it works the way you’d expect it to out of the box — no laborious tweaking necessary.
The other big bonus with HTC Vive is that it was made in partnership with Valve, the creator of wildly popular digital games marketplace Steam, so it's one of the best virtual reality headsets to buy if you're already invested in that ecosystem. That said, you’ll need a powerful PC to use it, as HTC recommends at least an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 GPU, an Intel Core i5-4590 CPU, and 4 GB of RAM. Our reviewer Emily was very impressed by the durable design and amazing tracking.
"The HTC Vive is a fine headset, with excellent tracking and durable build." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
Cameras add a little bulk
With the Oculus Rift S, you get to make your own reality. The PC-powered VR gaming system requires no external sensors and boasts sharper graphics and more powerful responses. The graphics have been upgraded to 1280 x 1440 pixels per eye, and while refresh rate is reduced from the original Oculus Rift, the headset includes ASW, a technology that is said to optimize quality across PCs.
Upgraded with comfort in mind, the VR headset is padded and can be tightened easily with the fit wheel, though it might feel bulkier due to the outward facing cameras: two front-facing, two side-facing, and one pointing upwards. The headset includes two touch controllers, which are light and responsive as you play. The tracking ring is positioned at the top, rather than the bottom, of each, which allows the headset to better detect them and create a smoother, more realistic gaming experience.
Designed as a replacement to the original Oculus Rift, it matches it in price and hardware and can work with the same software. Like its forerunner, the Oculus Rift S is wired and is connected to your PC via a USB 3.0 port and a DisplayPort connection. Zach, who reviewed the S, appreciated the comfy, glasses-compatible fit and improved resolution.
"The Oculus Rift S is a solid and affordable option for those just getting into VR." — Zach Sweat, Product Tester
6 camera array
2 months Viveport Infinity
Wireless adapter compatible
No leg tracking
The HTC Vive Cosmos uses an array of six cameras to track your head and arm movements for better gameplay. The headset has a dial that adjusts the viewing screen distance for comfort and a more immersive experience. The front of the headset is ventilated to keep you cool while you play, and it flips up to bring you back to reality when you need a break. With integrated headphones, you won't have to bother with bulky, separate headsets to enjoy your favorite VR games.
The headband has a dial to adjust the fit so you stay comfortable during long gaming sessions. The headset uses a wired connection to access your computer, but it is compatible with the wireless adapter available from HTC for total freedom of movement around your space. This headset is compatible with both Steam and VIVEPORT libraries to give you access to hundreds of VR games. You also get two months of VIVEPORT Infinity free when you purchase this VR headset.
Compatible with other Switch games
May be difficult for young children to build on their own
If you have kids who are interested in VR games and technology, but you don't want to spend a fortune on a headset, the Nintendo Labo VR Kit is an excellent alternative. This kit works with the Nintendo Switch to turn the handheld console into a DIY virtual reality headset. The kit includes materials to build six different designs including a traditional headset, blaster, elephant, camera, bird, and wind pedal. It also comes with a game cartridge with 60 different VR games and activities for your kids to try; older kids can even craft their own virtual reality mini-games and check out behind-the-scenes information to see how the included games were made.
Kids can customize each build with stickers, markers, or paint they already have to put their own personal touches on the kit. The VR headset design is compatible with other Switch games like Toad Treasure Tracker, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, Super Mario Odyssey, and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for more immersive gameplay options when they run through the included mini-games.
"The Nintendo Labo VR kit comes with everything your kids need to build their own VR headsets: pre-cut cardboard sheets and clear instructions make it easy for older kids to put together or parents and little ones to build together." — Taylor Clemons, Product Expert
No external trackers needed
The Samsung Odyssey+ VR headset uses a specialized OLED display to deliver great 3K resolution and a 110-degree field of view for a truly immersive gaming experience. The display has a refresh rate of 90Hz so motion is always smooth and clean to prevent stutter and tearing. The headset has built-in headphones for 360-degree audio. The Odyssey+ doesn't require external trackers, reducing the amount of space you need to use it; this makes it great for smaller gaming spaces and offices.
With Flashlight Mode, you can view your actual surroundings with the push of a button; perfect for when you need to use your computer's keyboard or have a short conversation. The headset is compatible with Steam, Viveport Infinity, and Microsoft Mixed Reality games. It also includes two months of Viveport Infinity to give you access to hundreds of games right out of the box.
If you want the best VR experience currently available, an incredible balance of visual quality, extra features, and library size, pull the trigger on the Valve Index. For an affordable, completely standalone headset, the Oculus Go is perfect for those who crave a VR experience without the clutter and cables.
Our expert reviewers and editors evaluate HMDs based on design, performance, display type and resolution, FOV, SDE, and features. We test their real-life performance in actual use cases, including spaces of various size, and note whether or not they require a high-end PC to deliver satisfactory frame rates across their libraries. Our testers also consider each unit as a value proposition—whether or not a product justifies its price tag, and how it compares to competitive products. All of the models we reviewed were purchased by Lifewire; none of the review units were furnished by the manufacturer or retailer.
Taylor Clemons has over three years of experience writing about games and consumer technology. She has written for IndieHangover, GameSkinny, TechRadar and her own publication, Steam Shovelers.
Meredith Popolo is an experienced tech journalist who specializes in PC hardware, peripherals, and accessories, and a number of other corners of the consumer technology landscape. Originally from New York, she now resides in Stockholm, Sweden.
Emily Ramirez is a tech writer and narrative designer who's extensively covered AR, VR, and XR trends, and specializes in wearable technology and audio and visual equipment.
Andrew Hayward has been covering the tech industry for more than 14 years now, and developed expertise in wearable technology, smartphones, and gaming. His work has appeared in a number of top tech publications.
Zach Sweat is a tech writer, photographer, and editor, who specializes in gaming, mobile tech, and consumer electronics. He earned a dual degree in multimedia journalism and photography from the University of North Florida.
Virtual reality is here to stay, and the impressive variety of virtual reality headsets on the market means that it isn’t just for hardcore gamers with money to burn anymore. You’ve probably at least heard of the big players, including Facebook’s Oculus, HTC’s Vive, and maybe Valve’s Index, but dozens of others have their own take on the technology, including mobile virtual reality headsets that are designed to work with your smartphone.
If you’ve never tried virtual reality before, it’s worth giving the technology a shot at least once. Some people experience uncomfortable motion sickness, but the technology is game-changing for just about everyone else. The combination of a stereoscopic display and motion tracking combine to help transport you into a virtual world in a way that you’ve never experienced before.
When choosing a virtual reality headset, it’s important to consider how you plan on using the headset, what type of computer or phone you have, and what kind of budget you’re working with.
If you just want to play around with some basic VR content, for example, you can buy an inexpensive Google Cardboard headset and dip your toe into the world of virtual reality. If you want to play real games in VR though, you’ll need to go with a tethered or standalone headset, and your choice there will be dictated by whether or not your computer can handle a tethered headset, and whether you’re willing to upgrade if it doesn’t.
When you start looking for the best virtual reality headset, the first thing you need to do is decide whether to get a tethered headset or a standalone headset. Mobile headsets also provide a third option, but only if you want a very basic experience that’s powered by your phone.
Tethered virtual reality headsets are designed to be connected to a computer, and that computer typically needs to be fairly powerful. If you don’t have a gaming PC, or your gaming PC has an older video card, then you have to be prepared to buy a new rig or upgrade your old one to use a tethered headset.
The most powerful virtual reality headsets on the market are tethered. If you want the best possible experience, and access to the most games, then you’ll want to choose a tethered unit. The best tethered headsets are also the most expensive though, aside from the fact that you may need to buy a pricey video card to upgrade your computer, so this isn’t the way to go if you’re working on a budget.
Standalone virtual reality headsets don’t have to be connected to an external PC to work. In addition to all of the hardware that’s found in a tethered headset, standalone headsets also come with all the built-in computer hardware that’s necessary to run virtual reality games.
Standalone headsets are great because you aren’t tied down by any wires, but they have a few drawbacks. They have access to fewer games than tethered units, and performance is typically lower than you would get from a tethered headset and a high-end PC.
Due to the fact that standalone headsets have built-in computer hardware, they tend to be fairly expensive. Older tethered headsets tend to cost less than standalone headsets, but standalone units tend to cost less than the latest tethered hardware.
Mobile headsets make up the third category of virtual reality headsets. These headsets are designed to work with smartphones, and you actually insert your phone into the headset to use it as a screen.
The result of using a phone for a VR display is a lower resolution and a smaller field of view than dedicated virtual reality headsets. The virtual reality experiences you can enjoy with a mobile headset are also limited in comparison to the games that are available for tethered and standalone headsets.
The other main limitations of mobile headsets are degrees of freedom and controls, which will be addressed in more depth later on. In basic terms, mobile headsets don’t allow you to move freely around virtual worlds, and they suffer from fairly basic controls.
The benefit of mobile headsets is that they are extremely affordable, which makes this a good entry point. If you’ve never tried out virtual reality before, then buying an inexpensive mobile headset to use with your phone can at least give you an idea as to whether or not you’ll experience motion sickness.
In virtual reality, degrees of freedom refers to positional tracking and how you move and view the virtual world. The two main categories are three degrees of freedom and six degrees of freedom.
Three degrees of freedom is also referred to as rotational movement, because you can tilt your head from side to side, nod your head up and down, and rotate your head from side to side. Virtual reality headsets with this type of movement essentially allow you to look around a virtual world while remaining stationary.
Headsets with three degrees of freedom include all mobile headsets and some standalone headsets like the Oculus Go.
Six degrees of freedom is also referred to as rotational and translation movement. In addition to the rotation movement from three degrees of freedom, you can also move up and down, left and right, and forward and back. This allows for full movement through a virtual environment just by moving your head, or your entire body if the headset supports that.
All tethered headsets, and most standalone headsets, support six degrees of freedom.
Motion tracking is tied very closely to degrees of freedom, and it comes in two flavors: outside in, and inside out. Outside in systems require sensors or base stations placed around the headset that determine the headset’s location in space. Inside out systems place the sensors on the headset itself, so there are no external sensors required.
Outside in systems are more difficult to set up and calibrate, while inside out systems usually work right out of the box. Outside in systems have historically been more reliable and precise, while inside out can have tracking issues if your body blocks line of sight from your controllers to the headset.
Resolution is extremely important in virtual reality, because virtual reality headsets place the displays so close to your eyes. In lower resolution headsets, you tend to experience an unpleasant screen door effect where it seems like you’re looking at the world through a screen door. Higher-resolution headsets take care of that problem.
Field of view is also important, as it affects how much of the virtual world you can see by looking around with your eyes without turning your head. Headsets with a narrow field of view make it seem like you’re looking at the world through a narrow tube, while headsets with a wider field of view feel more natural and less claustrophobic.
Every virtual reality headset has its own control scheme that you use to interact with virtual worlds. Mobile headsets and some standalone headsets have very basic controls with only three degrees of freedom, while tethered and most standalone headsets have more complex controllers with six degrees of freedom.
Since your controllers represent your hands in a lot of games, and they represent your only method of interacting with the virtual world in every game, they’re pretty important. Look for a headset with controllers that support six degrees of freedom for the best experience.
The best controllers on the market are Valve’s Knuckles controllers, which are able to register the movement of your individual fingers. Oculus Rift controllers are also pretty good, but nothing really compares to the Valve Knuckles controllers. The Knuckles were designed for the Valve Index, but you can also use them with the HTC Vive.
However great a virtual reality headset may be, it’s no use without games to play. That’s why it’s important to think about what games you want to be able to play now, and what games you want to be able to play in the future.
If you want access to the most games, then you should select a tethered virtual reality headset like the Valve Index, HTC Vive Pro, or Oculus Rift. Windows Mixed Reality headsets also fit the bill, as they are fully SteamVR compatible. Most virtual reality games are designed with these headsets in mind, and then they are ported over to standalone headsets if the hardware can handle it.
If you aren’t concerned about missing out on a few great games here or there, then you’ll do fine with a standalone headset. These devices typically have access to fewer games, but developers usually try to support them if the hardware is capable.
Mobile headsets aren’t really an option if you want to play games. While there are basic virtual reality games designed for phones and mobile headsets, you’ll miss out on the best stuff, which is all designed for tethered and standalone headsets.
Each virtual reality headset has its own unique fit and weight distribution. Some are heavier than others, some have counterweights, some have flip-up visors to help out if you feel claustrophobic or need to rest your eyes, and there’s really no way to tell which one will feel the best until you’ve tried them.
In general, lighter headsets are more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. However, everyone has a different comfort level. Some people are quite comfortable wearing older, heavier hardware, while others do better with newer, lighter hardware.
If you’ve never worn a virtual reality headset before, it may be useful to visit a store that offers demos. Actually trying on a few headsets is the only way to gauge your own comfort level.
Most virtual reality headsets come with everything you need right in the box. The main exception is that headsets with outside-in tracking sometimes ship with the bare minimum in sensors. To have the best experience possible, you may need to purchase additional sensors. If you choose an outside-in system, then look up the optimum number of sensors and make sure you have enough.
For tethered virtual reality headsets, you may want to buy extension cables for both USB and HDMI. Some headsets have factory extension cables, while others require you to buy HDMI and USB extensions separately. In either case, an extension cable gives you greater freedom of movement.
The last accessories to be on the lookout are also for tethered systems. Some of these headsets have accessories that allow you to use them wirelessly, including battery packs and transmitters so you aren’t tied down by wires at all.
There are far too many virtual reality headset manufacturers to name them all, including a bunch like Dell and HP that exclusively make Windows Mixed Reality headsets, and others that only make mobile headsets. Here are the most important virtual reality headset manufacturers to check out.
This company is best known for manufacturing phones, but their partnership with Valve brought about the HTC Vive. The companies have since parted ways, with HTC continuing their own solo development of the Vive product line, which has led to some of the best virtual reality hardware on the market.
Oculus really kicked off the current interest in virtual reality with a Kickstarter that funded their initial development. They were later bought by Facebook. Their Oculus Rift remains a rock-solid option, while the Oculus Quest is an interesting standalone headset.
Best known for the Half-Life games and the Steam platform, Valve has dabbled in hardware a few times over the years. Their virtual reality hardware is top of the line, with their Knuckles controllers being of special interest.
Samsung is known for making everything from phones to televisions, and their interest in virtual reality headsets started with the mobile Samsung Gear VR. They also make some excellent headsets based on the Windows Mixed Reality standard.
Virtual reality enthusiasts who don’t want to break the bank, or don’t have computers capable of keeping up with the latest VR hardware, should look at the Oculus Quest. While Facebook’s VR division has lagged behind in tethered hardware, the Quest is a fantastic standalone experience that doesn’t require a computer. This is also a fairly affordable entry point, although the trade-off is that the library of games available for the Quest is limited compared to tethered VR systems.
If you prefer something at a lower price point that’s good enough to tide you over until the next big advancement in VR, then a low-priced Windows Mixed Reality system from Samsung or really any other manufacturer might do the trick. While a lack of support from Microsoft is somewhat troubling, WMR systems are fully compatible with SteamVR, so you won’t be left out in the cold even if Microsoft eventually does abandon the project.
If you want the best virtual reality headset money can buy, it’s a dead heat between the Valve Index and the HTC Vive Cosmos. The Index is a fantastic system that’s priced accordingly, while the Cosmos promises tremendous flexibility with a price ceiling we haven’t yet sighted due to the way HTC’s modular system can bring out new components at any time. The Index is probably the better out of the box experience, while the Cosmos is more promising in the long run.
Mobile VR headsets are more of a novelty than anything else. If you’re brand new to VR, then you can grab a cheap Google Cardboard headset just to give the technology a spin, but be aware that the limited three degrees of freedom and lack of advanced controls puts a serious damper on the experience.