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If you’ve been holding out for VR hardware to mature, you chose wisely. Headsets have come a long way since the launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive five years ago. Standalone devices like the Oculus Quest 2 let you hop into virtual reality anywhere, while also giving you the flexibility of streaming virtual reality from powerful PCs. And if you don’t care about dealing with a wired headset, there are a plethora of high-end options out there. Most importantly, there are plenty of memorable VR experiences like Vader Immortal and Half-LIfe: Alyx that you can’t experience outside of a headset.
So what makes a good VR headset?
I tend to judge them on a few basic criteria: Ergonomics, immersion and controls. It’s not that hard to shove a mobile display into a plastic headset and strap some cheap elastic headbands onto them. But it takes skill to craft something that’s well balanced and doesn’t feel uncomfortable after 30 minutes.
Immersion, meanwhile, comes from having high resolution screens with fast refresh rates, so everything looks sharp and smooth. Field of view is also a major element, as it describes how well VR screens can cover what you see. Having a low field of view makes it look like you’re looking through a pair of binoculars, which limits the sense of “presence” you can feel in VR. But a wide field of view can make it seem like you’re actually flying over the globe in Google Earth.
And when it comes to controllers, the best options fit naturally in your hands and offer accurate tracking. The industry has practically adopted the design of Oculus’s excellent touch controllers, but we’re also seeing intriguing leaps forward like Valve’s finger tracking gamepads.
Best VR headset for most people: Oculus Quest 2
Almost a year since its release, the Oculus Quest 2 remains the best VR option for the vast majority of consumers. It’s completely cordless, relatively inexpensive (starting at $299) and it’s comfortable to wear for long sessions. There’s also a huge library of titles that you can experience anywhere, and it’s bundled with Oculus’s great motion controllers. You can also connect the Quest 2 to a gaming PC to stream more complex VR experiences.
The Quest 2 features fast-switching LCDs with a resolution 1832×1920 per eye, the highest we’ve seen from Oculus. It also has a smooth 90Hz refresh rate, which is impressive for something running entirely on mobile hardware. The Quest 2’s field of view isn’t the best — it’s been measured at just around 90 degrees — but it’s still enough to enjoy most VR experiences. You can also use different face pads to increase its field of view a bit. And if you want an even more comfortable fit, you can snag Oculus’s Elite headstrap for $49 (or $129 with a built-in battery and case).
Facebook has recalled the foam inserts from the original model and is offering silicone covers to make the headset more comfortable. We didn’t experience any issues during our review, or during the past year of usage, but there have been enough complaints for Facebook to take action. The base $299 Quest 2 will also come with 128GB of storage when it returns to store shelves on August 24th. That’s double the storage of the original model, giving you even more room to cram in games and VR apps.
The Quest 2 may not offer the best overall VR experience, but it’s certainly the most accessible headset on the market.
Best PC VR headset under $600: HP Reverb G2
If you don’t care about wireless VR, and you want to invest a bit more in a high-quality PC headset, HP’s $599 Reverb G2 is meant for you. It was developed in cooperation with Valve and has some of the best features from the pricier Index headset, like near-field speakers. The Reverb G2 also has sharp screens, offering 2,160 by 2,160 pixels per eye, a 90Hz refresh rate, and a relatively wide 114-degree field of view.
It’s also the first Windows Mixed Reality headset to include four tracking sensors, which helps to ensure more accurate VR tracking, especially during fast-paced games. I also give HP credit for making a headset that’s extremely comfortable thanks to its luxurious amount of cushioning around the eye-piece and rear strap.
The Reverb G2’s motion controllers weren’t my favorite, but they’re still a big step up from HP’s previous model. You could also upgrade it to use Valve’s finger-tracking controllers, but that involves snagging SteamVR sensors and a lot more setup. Still, it’s nice to have the upgrade path available.
Best PC VR headset for gamers: Valve Index
Valve’s Index kit remains one of the best high-end VR solutions on the market. For $999 you get the Index headset, Valve’s finger tracking controllers and two SteamVR base stations. While we’ve seen higher-resolution headsets arrive in the last two years, it’s still a very solid option, with a 1,440 by 1,600 pixel resolution, an eye-watering 144Hz refresh rate and a massive 130-degree field of view. I’d gladly lose a few pixels to get a smoother and more expansive screen, which are still far beyond any other consumer headset.
As a SteamVR product, the Index requires installing two sensors at opposite corners of your room. And of course, it’s wired to your PC. But that clunkiness is worth it for the higher refresh rate and more accurate tracking. Sure, it’s not as easy to use as the Quest 2, but at this price range, we assume you’ll suffer a bit of inconvenience to get a truly high-quality VR experience.
Valve’s finger tracking controllers are fantastic as well, with a convenient strap that locks them onto your hands. They make playing Half-Life: Alyx feel like a dream. It’s unfortunate that other VR games haven’t fully taken advantage of the finger tracking though.
Best VR quality, no matter the cost: HTC Vive Pro 2
HTC’s Vive Pro 2 is the best-looking PC VR I’ve seen. It has an astoundingly sharp 5K screen and a solid 120Hz refresh rate. Just be prepared: the full kit, which includes the headset, two SteamVR sensors and wand controllers, costs $1,399. You can also buy the headset separately for $799 as an upgrade to the original Vive Pro, or the Valve Index.
For the price you get a well-balanced and supremely comfortable VR headset. The Pro 2 is a clear sign that Valve has practically perfected the art of making high-end hardware. I’m less impressed with the large wand controllers, which are exactly the same as the ones that came with the original HTC Vive in 2016. They’re functional, but they’re nowhere near as ergonomic as Oculus’s Touch Controllers.
I’m mainly recommending the Pro 2 here based on the astounding quality of the headset.
True VR fans may want to just grab that separately along with SteamVR base stations and Valve’s finger-tracking controllers. That way you can ensure you have the best experience while playing Half Life: Alyx.
What about the PS VR?
We adored Sony’s PlayStation VR when it launched… but that was nearly five years ago. While it’s still a very comfortable headset, and it does magic with the PS4’s limited power, it’s not the smartest buy today. That’s particularly true when Sony has been eager to chat up its sequel VR headset for the PS5. We know that device will come with more modern controllers and have hardware similar to PC VR headsets. The only problem is that you’ll have to wait for it — Sony says it won’t be ready in 2021.