Virtual Reality (VR) has really taken off over the last few years, and grown into several different platforms with significant software libraries. At PCMag.com, we try to test and review every one of them. We put each new and updated VR headset through its paces in PC Labs to determine how it stacks up against the competition. Here’s how we do it.
PC Labs consists of several rows of workbenches with computers and testing equipment. It’s good for most purposes, but pretty cramped for virtual reality. That’s why we perform most VR testing in a separate, isolated test room. Not only does it give us the space to test whole-room VR systems, it also means we can swing motion controllers around wildly without knocking over expensive electronics. It also means other people in the lab can’t surreptitiously take pictures of you playing in VR and post them online, because no one looks cool in a VR headset.
Our VR test space provides an area of about 15 by 15 feet where we can freely walk around and swing our arms in VR. A tall table sits against one wall, at a suitable height for our test PC. A shorter table sits against another wall, providing enough space for a large TV and any game console we want to test. This is useful for the PlayStation VR, and it ensures that we can test any Nintendo or Xbox VR system if they’re ever made. Brackets on the walls let us place positioning beacons and sensors, like the base stations used with the HTC Vive, to fully cover the test area.
For tethered PC-based VR systems, like the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets, we use a Razer Blade Pro gaming notebook as a primary computer. It’s a VR-ready PC with an Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU that has handled everything we’ve plugged into it. The only exception so far is the DisplayPort-only HTC Vive Pro; the Razer Blade Pro lacks DisplayPorts, and a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter didn’t enable the headset for testing, so we found an alternate gaming PC to test that headset. When changes like that have to be made, we adapt and detail any alterations in the testing process in our review.
For the PlayStation VR we have both a PS4 Pro and a PS4 Slim. The PS4 Pro is the preferred system for PS VR because of its better specs, but the PS VR can also work with the standard PS4, and when needed we can test the headset and any games for it on either system.
For untethered VR headsets that use smartphones, like the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream View, we have a series of high-end smartphones ready to plug in, including the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Google Pixel 2.
For standalone VR headsets like the forthcoming Oculus Go and HTC Vive Focus, we can just use the headsets themselves. That is, after all, what standalone means: no PC, game system, or smartphone needed. This new category of VR headset is still in development, but we’ll be reviewing the first models as soon as they become available.
What We Look For
With the space set up and the hardware ready, we put on each new headset and start testing. Because there are so many different factors between VR platforms and most are reliant on other hardware to run, we don’t have a formal benchmarking system. Instead, we run a variety of VR software and games on each headset and take extensive notes on their performance.
Visual details and display performance are the biggest things we monitor when testing VR headsets. Not only does the resolution shown to each eye matter, but refresh rate and viewing angle can mean the difference between an immersive VR gaming experience or a bout of tunnel vision and motion sickness. The type of panel used, and even the pixel structure for each headset, can also affect how good VR software looks. We note how bright, dark, and colorful the display can get, and if the arrangement of the individual pixels can be clearly seen or (preferably) fades into an immersive picture.
Design and ergonomics are also important factors we consider when testing. While VR can affect different people in different ways, a well-built harness with proper padding and an easy-to-adjust headband can go a long way in making the experience enjoyable. We note if the headset is particularly heavy, if it puts uncomfortable pressure on parts of the head, and if the face mask forms a good seal against your eyes to keep outside light from getting in.
Software is another important factor, as different platforms support different games. The PlayStation VR is our current favorite as it supports more fully formed games than small-scale tech demos. You can also use the headset to play all non-PS VR software as a giant screen floating in front of your face, similar to the Virtual Desktop software available for the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.
If you’re interested in setting up VR for yourself, our guide to the top VR headsets can show you the difference between the various platforms. Choose the one that has the games you want, and enjoy your experience in an alternate reality.