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6 best VR headsets for immersive virtual reality gaming

The latest tech offers incredible realism, depending on how much time and money you want to spend

Steve Hogarty
Monday 24 January 2022 15:07
<p>Among other things, these headsets are rated by how comfortable they are to use in confined spaces</p>

Among other things, these headsets are rated by how comfortable they are to use in confined spaces

Virtual reality is on course to replace actual reality. Or at least that’s what the dead-eyed avatar of Mark Zuckerberg would have you believe, as he hovers around lifeless digital conference rooms like some dreadful, office-bound ghoul.

But even if the thought of living inside Zuckerberg’s so-called “metaverse” leaves you feeling cold, the world of VR headsets goes way beyond the corporate realm of virtual Zoom meetings with distant colleagues. A cyclical trend in tech, the most recent iteration of virtual reality earned its foothold in the video games industry with the soft-launch of the Oculus Rift headset in 2012. A clunky affair, the Rift needed to be tethered to a powerful gaming PC with a physical wired connection you could easily trip over.

Despite the limitations of the hardware and the relatively low-resolution display, the sensation of being transported to virtual worlds and alien landscapes was convincing in a way previous generations of VR headset never managed. It wasn’t long before Facebook saw the potential of the Oculus Rift and purchased the company for $2bn in 2014. Now part of the Meta conglomerate, the completely wireless Oculus Quest 2 leads the company’s charge in convincing users that VR is more than just a novelty.

Around the same time, other companies were developing their own VR headsets. HTC launched the HTC Vive shortly after the Oculus rift, games publisher Valve created the Valve Index headset to support its own VR games, Sony has the PlayStation VR with plans to launch a new model for the PS5 in 2022, while Google dabbled with budget VR solutions with its cheap Daydream (now discontinued) and cardboard products.

As consumer interest in VR grew and investment capital poured into the industry, competing companies launched incrementally improved versions of their headsets every year or so. Resolutions improved, meaning what you see inside the headset looks more crisp and believable. Controllers were added so you could pick up and interact with things in the virtual world. Product lines split into wired and wireless headsets, the former able to produce far more realistic graphics thanks to the processing power of an external PC, and the latter more convenient to pick up and start using straight out of the box.

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The expertise and money needed to produce a viable, mass-market VR headset today is so prohibitively high – and the risk that this might be yet another fad is so big – that there really aren’t many major players in the industry yet. Oculus and HTC dominate in the world of business, entertainment and professional applications, while the likes of Sony and Valve are trying to corner the games market with their specialist headsets. So let’s take a look at the best each of these brands has to offer.

How we tested

Our testing area is a relatively small room of a flat, so among other things these headsets are rated by how comfortable they are to use in confined spaces. With the exception of the self-contained Oculus Quest 2 (and the also-ran Google cardboard), we tested each headset while tethered to a moderately powerful games PC.

We used SteamVR as our main games platform, and tested out games including Job Simulator, Superhot VR, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, and Half-Life: Alyx. The PSVR was tested with a PlayStation 4 console, on games such as Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, Beat Saber and Resident Evil 7.

The best VR headsets for 2022 are:

  • Best overall – Oculus Quest 2: £299.99, Argos.co.uk
  • Best for Steam – Valve Index: £919, Steampowered.com
  • Best budget VR headset – HTC Vive cosmos elite: £639, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best console VR headset – PlayStation VR: £259.99, Argos.co.uk
  • Best for gaming – HTC VivePpro 2: £1,299, Vive.com
  • Best for iPhone – Google Cardboard: £7.40, Maxboxvr.com

Oculus Quest 2

Best: Overall

Rating: 9/10

  • Release date: October 2020
  • Resolution: 1832 x 1920p per eye
  • Refresh rate: Up to 90Hz
  • Storage: 128GB / 256GB
  • Weight: 503g
  • Standalone? Yes

The Oculus Quest 2 is not the most technically advanced virtual reality headset out there, but it’s the first genuinely user-friendly one. You don’t need an expensive gaming PC to plug it into, and there are no snaking cables to trip over. Instead you just slip it on, grab hold of the controllers, and are immediately immersed in a believable 3D space. This simplicity is a big reason behind the company’s acquisition by Facebook, now Meta.

A tutorial teaches you the basics of picking up and interacting with virtual objects using your virtual hands, while sensors and cameras embedded in the headset can track your physical location in the room and translate your movements at 1:1 scale in the game world. That is to say: when you take a step forward in real life, you take a step forward in the virtual world, cementing the illusion that you exist within the virtual space. The Guardian system is particularly clever too, prompting you to trace out your playing area with the controllers beforehand, then warning you in-game if you’re about to accidentally walk face-first into your living room wall.

The Oculus Quest 2 requires a Facebook account to work, giving privacy-conscious users pause for concern, and the company has begun implementing digital billboard advertising into its virtual spaces, which feels grimly inevitable. But if you want a VR experience without the fuss, there’s no better entry point than the Oculus Quest 2. The fact you still have the option to plug it into a gaming PC for high-end VR gaming is a real bonus, too.

Valve Index

Best: For Steam

Rating: 9/10

  • Release date: June 2019
  • Resolution: 1440 x 1600p per eye
  • Refresh rate: Up to 144Hz
  • Weight: 809g
  • Standalone? No

Valve’s betting the house on the future of gaming being virtual, producing its very own VR headset to power its ambitious SteamVR games and experiences. The Valve Index is one of the most expensive gaming VR headsets around, and like the HTC Vive Pro 2 it requires tethering to a gaming PC to work.

It also requires you to mount a pair of base stations in either corner of the room to track your position in real-time, though these are the same base stations found in the HTC Vive range. That means if you’ve already got an HTC device, you can continue using your base stations and upgrade your headset, your controllers, or both without overspending.

The display is sharp and responsive at 120Hz, but the controllers are what really set the Valve Index apart from other VR headsets in this list. They can track the movement of your individual fingers with unnerving precision, which not only allows for a greater degree of control within virtual worlds, but creates an unbeatable sense of immersion. As ridiculous as it sounds, simply wiggling the fingers of your virtual hand in front of your virtual face dupes our monkey brain into thinking we’re somewhere we’re not.

HTC Vive Cosmos Elite

Best: Budget VR headset

Rating: 7/10

  • Release date: October 2019
  • Resolution: 1440 x 1700p per eye
  • Refresh rate: Up to 90Hz
  • Weight: 650g
  • Standalone? No

The original HTC Vive Cosmos was launched to rival the now-discontinued Oculus Rift S, and was intended to be a cheaper and more user-friendly headset for those who simply wanted to plug in and start playing VR games immediately. Unlike the more expensive HTC Vive Pro 2 it didn’t require any external base stations, which meant that while setting up the headset was a breeze, tracking accuracy suffered. Hand movements occasionally wouldn’t register properly, so what you saw in the game sometimes didn’t reflect what your limbs were doing in the real world.

To address these issues, the newest Cosmos Elite reintroduced the need for base stations, while retaining some of the best features of its budget-friendly predecessor. It’s a light and versatile headset with a convenient flip-up design that makes it easier to wear and remove, and it’s compatible with existing base stations and controllers. These improvements bring the Cosmos Elite much closer in line with the HTC Vive Pro, though the latter headset still offers much improved resolutions and viewing angles over the leaner, cheaper Cosmos Elite.

That makes the Cosmos Elite headset a worthy upgrade from an older HTC Vive if you’ve already got the base station accessories. But new users who’ll need to shell out for the full kit should consider the more premium HTC Vive Pro 2 if they can afford it.

PlayStation VR

Best: For consoles

Rating: 6/10

  • Release date: October 2016
  • Resolution: 960 x 1080p per eye
  • Refresh rate: Up to 120Hz
  • Weight: 600g
  • Standalone? No

Launched in 2016 for the PlayStation 4, the PSVR marked Sony’s entry into the world of virtual reality gaming. The hardware is primarily designed for a seated VR experience, which means you stay parked in your chair or standing still while wearing it, rather than walking around inside a virtual space. It requires a PlayStation camera and a pair of PlayStation move controllers, all sold separately, and can be made to work on the PlayStation 5 using an adapter for the camera, which is also not included.

But if you can run this gauntlet and manage to get everything set up, you’ll be rewarded with the only VR experience backed by the deep pockets of a mainstream gaming company. Sony’s investment in the nascent technology has led to some of the best VR experiences you can find on any platform. Astro Bot Rescue Mission is the greatest game nobody’s ever played: a bouncy 3D platformer happening inches from your face, in which you can use the DualSense controller to knock down walls, or physically blow on virtual windmills to open gates.

Development of virtual reality games on PlayStation has slowed since the advent of the PSVR, but we’re expecting to see a revived interest soon. Sony announced the PSVR2 at this year’s CES, renewing its commitment to VR gaming, but little else is known about the upgrade or when it might launch.

HTC Vive Pro 2

Best: For gaming

Rating: 9/10

  • Release date: June 2021
  • Resolution: 2448 x 2448p per eye
  • Refresh rate: Up to 120Hz
  • Weight: 850g
  • Standalone? No

The HTC Vive Pro 2 requires considerably more setting-up than the self-contained Oculus Quest 2. Firstly, the headset needs to be tethered to a powerful gaming PC or laptop. You also need to mount a pair of Rubik’s cube-sized sensors in opposite corners of your room, which scan the play area continuously to track your location in 3D space.

For premium VR gaming, the benefits of this type of set-up outweigh the inconvenience. The HTC Vive Pro 2 provides an incredibly realistic experience, with a refresh rate of up to 120Hz and the highest resolution-per-eye of any of the headsets we’ve tested. Lower resolution VR headsets produce a “screen door effect”, which happens when your eyes can make out individual pixels in the display. At higher resolutions this effect is diminished, and in the Vive Pro 2 the effect is barely noticeable.

In games the impact is impressive. In Half-Life: Alyx you can make out more detail in the world around you. Distant objects have more definition, and the world feels more real. Hold a tin of virtual food up to your face and you can make out the ingredients list. The sense of immersion is boosted even further by the accuracy of hand- and body-tracking and the wide field of view, which all leads to a substantially less janky gaming experience.

The full Vive Pro 2 kit doesn’t come cheap, but with access to a rich and growing library of PC VR games behind it, this is the headset of choice for those who want the most immersive gaming experience possible.

Google Cardboard

Best: VR headset for iPhone

Rating: 4/10

  • Release date: June 2014
  • Resolution: Depends on the phone
  • Refresh rate: Up to 120Hz
  • Weight: 90g
  • Standalone? Yes

An honorary mention goes to Google Cardboard, the sub-£10 virtual reality headset that PR and marketing agencies became briefly obsessed with circa 2015. Though no longer officially supported by Google, the project is now open-source and anyone can create their own headsets to Google’s original design. Google even provides instructions for building your own at home.

This literal piece of cardboard can be folded into a rectangular box, into which you slide a compatible smartphone to act as your virtual reality display. A pair of lenses focuses a stereographic image from your phone into your eyes, while the phone’s accelerometer is used for 360-degree head tracking. This is the same principle seen in other VR headsets in our list, but much, much simpler.

The Google cardboard app is loaded with fun little experiences, simple games and short, educational videos – you can take a virtual tour through the rainforest, or to the bottom of the ocean, or explore Google Street View in VR – but don’t expect much more than a disposable (and recyclable) novelty.

The verdict: VR headsets

Despite being relatively underpowered compared to traditional PC-tethered gaming headsets, the Oculus Quest 2 is a genuine breakthrough for the technology. Not only does it look smart, with no protruding cables or messy wiring to worry about, but it’s straightforward enough to set up that even the most tech-averse users will be able to experience VR within minutes of opening the box.

For more serious gaming and professional applications, the HTC Vive Ppro 2 is the most technically advanced VR experience in our round-up, with the highest resolution and refresh rate of any headset we’ve tested.

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