The Best VR Headsets for PC Users
After long being a pipe dream of 90s cyber-culture, virtual reality has finally made solid inroads as a serious consumer technology. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on low-resolution video glasses, you can now get an eye-filling, motion-tracking, comprehensive VR headsets for a few hundred dollars. VR’s return was kicked off by the Oculus Rift, which got its start as an inexpensive development kit a few years ago and has since seen a full retail release. What was once a promising prototype is now a Facebook-owned, Samsung-collaborated VR ecosystem.
Hot on the tail of the Oculus Rift was the HTC Vive, the result of HTC’s collaboration with Steam to create a non-Oculus gaming headset for PC gamers. The Vive is the Rift’s biggest competitor, and since its launch it’s seen a beefed-up Pro version and an upcoming wireless adapter.
While they come from very different places, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are the biggest PC-tethered VR headsets out there, with the most comprehensive libraries of VR games and other softwares and most fully-developed motion controls. Now that they’ve both had a couple of years to grow and refine their experiences, let’s put them head-to-head and compare every feature and characteristic of the headsets to see which one is better!
The core of any VR system is the headset itself. VR depends on a head-mounted display that can fill your field of view with an image and accurately track every small movement you make while looking around. It’s simply the most important part of virtual reality. It’s also where the Rift and the Vive are the most similar.
Both headsets display a 1,080-by-1,200-pixel picture for each eye with a 110-degree field of view and a 90Hz refresh rate. Both have built-in motion sensors and work with external beacons/sensors to track head movement accurately. And, frankly, both offer identical video and motion-sensing performance.
The HTC Vive Pro offers a significant upgrade in video quality, with dual 1,400-by-1,600 displays. However, it’s $799 and doesn’t include the required motion controllers or base stations that the regular Vive comes with, so we’re not considering it as part of this comparison as close alternative to the Vive.
Winner: Tie (but the Vive Pro is more powerful)
Video is almost always paired with audio, even though it’s easy to forget that when most of the focus is an eyeball-saturating picture that virtually puts you somewhere else. Headphones provide the sound for both the Rift and the Vive.
The Rift has built-in on-ear headphones, while the Vive has a 3.5mm headphone jack for use with either the included earphones or your favorite pair of headphones. Which is the better option is a matter of taste, but I find the Rift’s headphones to be easier to use; the Vive’s phsycial jack adds another wire to worry about while using the headset, and actually getting a pair of headphones to sit comfortably on your head alongside it can be difficult. Both headsets also include built-in microphones for voice communication and commands.
Winner: Tie (personal preference)
You need a pretty powerful computer to use either VR headset. The requirements for the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are nearly identical, and if one VR headset works with a system, you can expect the other one to, as well.
For either headset, you need a PC with at least an Intel Core i5-4590 CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290 GPU. HTC recommends at least 4GB of RAM for the Vive, while Oculus says 8GB is needed for the Rift, but you should err on the side of more memory for either headset, and shoot for at least 8GB no matter which one you choose.
Connectivity is the biggest difference in the sytem requirements: The Vive needs just one USB 2.0 port in addition to an open HDMI port to work, while the Rift needs at least two USB 3.0 ports along with an open HDMI port (and a third USB 3.0 port will be necessary when the Oculus Touch controller is released).
We used gaming notebooks that far exceed the system requirements in our hands-on coverage of both VR headsets. We tested the HTC Vive with the Asus ROG G752VT-DH72, and the Oculus Rift with the Origin EON17-X. If you can afford it, VR runs very smoothly on a Intel i7 CPU, GTX 980 M GPU, and 16GB of RAM. For more, check out The Best Graphics Cards for VR.
Winner: HTC Vive (by a hair, for USB port requirements rather than processing power)
The last generation of game consoles taught us that controlling games with motion is a really tricky thing to get right. It’s even trickier in VR, if you want to give the impression that you’re moving your own virtual hands in a virtual space. While the Oculus Rift didn’t launch with motion controllers, it now includes a pair in the standard package. The Vive came with controllers from the get-go.
The Vive’s motion controls are button-covered wands that it can track in space with remarkable accuracy. When one of the motion controllers are activated, it will appear in the Vive’s virtual loading area exactly where it is in the real world, letting you reach out and pick it up with the headset on. Each controller features triggers and prominent touchpads.
We love the Oculus Touch motion controllers, which were originally released as optional accessories for an extra $100 on top of the price of the headset. They feel much more comfortable to hold than the Vive motion controllers, and their analog sticks work better for most video games than the Vive controllers’ touchpads. The Oculus Touch controllers are now included with every $399 Rift, which flips this category in Oculus’ favor.
Winner: Oculus Rift
We haven’t reached the point where our every move can be translated to virtual reality, but the HTC Vive offers the next best thing with whole-room VR. By mounting two included sensor beacons on your wall at different points, you can define a space measuring at least 6.5-by-5.0 feet that serves as your virtual play area. With SteamVR’s Chaperone and the Vive’s front-facing camera (which is used only for this feature), you can move freely around that space. Virtual walls appear when you get too close to the edge, and the camera kicks in so you can make sure you don’t trip on anything in front of you when you start to stray outside the bounds.
The Oculus Rift’s movement was limited when it first launched, since it only came with one motion-tracking camera you place on your desk. Oculus Touch requires an additional camera, so now two are included with the Rift in addition to the motion controllers. With two cameras, the Rift can offer room-scale VR similar to the Vive. This again flips the cateogry from the Vive’s favor to a tie.
Whole-room VR works very well for what it is, but it suffers from a technical limitation no major VR headset has managed to overcome: wires. Both headsets might have long cables to offer plenty of slack between you and your computer as you wander around VR, but since you can’t actually see them while you wear either headset, they’re just begging to be tripped over (which happened to me at least once while testing the Vive).
Virtual reality is a complicated technology, but it doesn’t have to be complicated to use. The setup process for both headsets is fairly direct, though the Rift’s is much, much simpler than the Vive’s. Download the Oculus software, plug the headset into a free USB 3.0 port and HDMI output, and plug the external sensor into another USB 3.0 port. With that done, all you have to do is go through some simple orientation steps in the software, and you’ll be able to use the Rift by putting it on your head when you want to play.
The Vive is a bit more complicated. It uses a small Link Box that serves as a bridge between the headset and your PC. HDMI and USB connections must be made from your PC to the Link Box with the included cables, and then from the Link Box to the headset through the attached 10-foot bundled HDMI/USB cable. You also have to hook the Link Box up to power through the included wall adapter (the headset’s cable also has a separate power connection for the Link Box). Only after all of that can you use the Vive.
Winner: Oculus Rift
VR hardware needs VR software, and both the Rift and the Vive have their own content stores. The Rift has the Oculus Store, a proprietary digital store for use only with the Rift. The Vive has SteamVR, Valve’s built-in VR platform for its Steam store (the biggest and most popular digital PC game store on the Internet). Each store has some compelling and interesting VR experiences, though there isn’t a major headset-selling AAA title in either yet.
The Rift edges out the Vive in terms of selection, because it can easily access both SteamVR and the Oculus Store. The selection on Steam is a bit more limited than it is for the Vive because of the lack of motion controls, but the access is there. Vive users, on the other hand, cannot enter the Oculus Store at all (at least, not without a hack that neither HTC nor Oculus endorse). For more, see The Best Oculus Rift Games.
Winner: Oculus Rift
Both headsets are a few hundred dollars less expensive than they were when they launched. The Rift is $399, down from $599, while the Vive is $499, down from $799. Since both now feature motion controls and whole-room VR in the box, the Oculus Rift is the better value.
Winner: Oculus Rift
Who Wins, Rift or Vive?
It’s very close, and for many users it will boil down to personal preference and desired features. But for us, the Oculus Rift wins. It can access two full VR content stores without any frustrating workarounds, and is easier to set up. You need more USB 3.0 ports than the Vive, but plugging in the headset and sensor is much easier than running cables from a central link box to the headset, your PC, and a power outlet, while making sure two additional sensors on your walls are plugged into their own outlets. The Rift is also much more comfortable, making it a better headset for anyone who wants to use VR regularly.
On top of all of that, the Rift is less expensive than the Vive and now offers the same features. For these reasons, the Rift is not only the winner of this comparison, but also our Editors’ Choice for PC-tethered VR headsets.
Overall Winner: Oculus Rift
What About the Vive Pro and the Oculus Go?
The HTC Vive Pro is technically the most impressive headset available, beating both the standard Vive and Oculus Rift in clarity and comfort. However, it’s also the most expensive by far. It’s $800 just for the headset, and you need to spend another $300 for the Vive Accessories Starter Kit to get motion controllers and the required external sensors. That makes it cost well over twice as much as either headset. With that in mind, we can’t recommend it over the Vive or the Rift unless you have money to burn.
The Oculus Go is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s a $200 standalone VR headset that lets you easily try out virtual reality without any additional devices. It’s inexpensive and accessible, but it also isn’t a replacement for the Rift or the Vive. It’s effectively just a midrange smartphone built into a Samsung Gear VR, which means the graphical fidelity and processing power isn’t close to what what you get with a tethered VR headset. It’s also much more limited with motion, featuring only three-degrees-of-freedom (3DOF) motion tracking for both the headset and single included controller. This means it can only track what direction you’re facing, and not if you’re moving. It’s an interesting, affordable way to try VR, but it’s not capable of the serious, immersive experiences of the Rift and Vive.
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