The Best VR Headsets for 2020
Virtual Reality is a fascinating way to travel using nothing more than the power of technology. With a headset and motion tracking, VR lets you look around a virtual space as if you’re actually there, or play a game like you’re really in it. It’s been gaining traction in recent years thanks to some very compelling games and experiences, though it still seems very much in a state of flux, with headsets coming and going fairly rapidly. We’re tracking the best of what’s currently on the market here.
Oculus has both tethered and standalone headsets in the form of the Quest and the Rift S. HTC has the Steam-friendly Vive Cosmos and the developer-focused Vive Pro. Sony has the PS4-focused PlayStation VR, and Microsoft is supporting its Windows Mixed Reality platform with a few third-party headsets. There’s also Valve, with its expensive Valve Index headset providing the only taste of a new Half-Life game (Alyx) we’ve gotten in over a decade in the form. Here’s what you need to know about all of them.
The Big Question: What VR Is the Best?
Modern VR headsets now fit under one of two categories: tethered or standalone. Tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift S, the HTC Vive Cosmos, and the PlayStation VR are physically connected to PCs (or in the case of the PS VR, a PlayStation 4). The cable makes them a bit unwieldy, but putting all of the actual video processing in a box you don’t need to directly strap to your face means your VR experience can be a lot more complex. The use of a dedicated display in the headset instead of your smartphone drastically improves image fidelity, and either external sensors or outward-facing cameras on the headset provide full 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) movement tracking.
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The least expensive tethered options are currently around $400, and that’s before you address the processing issue; the Rift S and Vive headsets need pretty powerful PCs to run, while the PS VR requires a PlayStation 4.
Standalone headsets offer the greatest physical freedom by building The Quest uses similar outward-facing cameras to the Rift S to provide 6DOF motion tracking, and uses the same Oculus Touch motion controls. Combined with a faster Snapdragon 835 processor compared with the Oculus Go’s Snapdragon 821, the Quest offers a much more compelling and immersive VR experience, all without the unwieldy cable or PC requirement of the Rift S.
We hope to see more standalone 6DOF, dual motion controller headsets in the future, but few consumer models have been released in North America so far.
Oculus: Rift S and Quest
The Oculus Rift was the first big name in the current wave of VR, and it’s still a major player with both a tethered and standalone headset. The Rift S is the tethered Oculus headset, connecting to your PC over DisplayPort and accessing a wide selection of VR games on PC through the Oculus Store and SteamVR. It abandons external cameras in favor of a pair of outward-facing cameras for motion tracking, which means fewer cables to deal with.
The Oculus Quest, on the other hand, is an all-in-one VR headset with a Snapdragon 835 processor. It doesn’t have nearly the processing power as a Rift S tethered to a gaming PC, but it also doesn’t need cables at all, and fully supports 6DOF motion tracking with dual motion controllers (the same controllers as the Rift S). It doesn’t have the same software selection as the PC-based Rift S and its much bigger Oculus Store, but it still offers hundreds of different experiences including some very compelling games like Beat Saber and Superhot VR. It’s also currently the only VR platform that can use Spatial, an intriguing new VR teleconferencing service with free access for consumers.
Oculus did offer a simpler, less expensive standalone VR headset in the Oculus Go, but it recently discontinued that model. The Go was an affordable, $200 all-in-one headset that offered a solid taste of VR, but only had 3DOF (three degrees of freedom) motion sensing and a single directional remote, so it was much more limited than the Quest, which has surpassed it.
Sony PlayStation VR
The PlayStation VR is compelling thanks to Sony backing development for it and the affordability and availability of the PlayStation 4 compared with gaming PCs. All you need is the headset, a PlayStation 4, and a PlayStation Camera (now included with most PlayStation VR bundles).
There are some excellent games on PS VR like Moss, Rez Infinite, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and Five Nights at Freddie’s: Help Wanted. Many PlayStation VR games work with the DualShock 4, so you don’t even need motion controls. However, those motion controls are where the PlayStation VR lags behind; the headset still uses the PlayStation Move wands from the PlayStation 3 era, and they aren’t nearly as capable or comfortable as the Oculus Touch controllers. They’re also expensive, and not always included in PlayStation VR bundles.
It appears that the PlayStation VR will work with the upcoming PlayStation 5. Sony has not announced any new VR hardware, though the PS5 will have a new camera accessory that will presumably enable PS VR.
HTC Vive Cosmos
HTC’s Vive Cosmos is the upgraded version of the Vive headset, boasting a higher resolution and replacing the external base stations with outward-facing cameras for motion tracking. It’s a comprehensive package for whole-room VR, but at $699, it’s quite expensive compared with the Oculus Rift S, which offers similar performance.
For even better motion tracking, the Vive Cosmos Elite brings back external base stations to augment how it follows your head and motion controllers, though it’s pricier at $899. The Vive Cosmos works with SteamVR just like the Oculus Rift S, and has its own VR software store in the form of Viveport. Viveport also offers the Viveport Infinity membership that provides unlimited access to VR experiences through a subscription service instead of a la carte software purchases.
If you think the HTC Vive Cosmos is expensive, Valve’s own PC-tethered VR headset, the Valve Index, costs $999 if you buy everything you need for it to work (except the computer, of course). You can save some money by reusing your HTC Vive base stations, cutting the price down to $749, or get only the headset (and provide your own motion controllers and base stations) for $499. Those are hard prices to swallow, even if the Index sports a notably higher 120Hz refresh rate than most of its competitors (with an experimental 144Hz mode), and the controllers feature an advanced grip system for more natural, precise interaction. We have yet to test the Valve Index.
Windows Mixed Reality
Microsoft has been promoting its partnership with multiple headset manufacturers to produce a series of Windows 10-ready “mixed reality” headsets. The distinction between virtual reality and mixed reality is so far dubious, but it indicates an integration of augmented reality (AR) technology using cameras on the helmet.
From the different headsets we’ve tested, the hardware is sound and the setup is simple, but position tracking isn’t as accurate as tethered headsets with external sensors or the Rift S’ outward-facing tracking cameras. Also, the Windows Mixed Reality store doesn’t have as many compelling VR experiences as the Rift and SteamVR stores, though you can use SteamVR games on Windows Mixed Reality headsets, again with some software wrestling. While several third-party manufacturers worked on Windows Mixed Reality headsets over the last few years, the only current-generation Windows Mixed Reality headset is the upcoming HP Reverb G2.
What Happened to Phone-Based VR?
VR headsets that use your smartphone to serve as both the brains and display of the system used to be common, with Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR letting anyone with a compatible phone get a VR experience for under $150.
These headsets have slowed to a trickle, and Google has discontinued its Daydream View headset while Samsung hasn’t updated the Gear VR since the arrival of the Galaxy S9. You can still find cheap shell headsets, but the software ecosystem and support for these is almost nil. For now, phone-based VR is effectively dead.
The Best Augmented Reality Headsets
You might have seen some other famous visual headsets pop up over the last few years, including the Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap One. They aren’t on this list for a few reasons, but the biggest one is that they’re augmented reality (AR) headsets, not virtual reality headsets. And yes, there’s a difference.
Basically, these AR headsets have transparent lenses that let you look at your surroundings instead of completely replacing your vision with a computer-generated image. They can still project images over whatever you’re looking at, but those images are designed to complement and interact with the area around you. You can make a web browser pop up in the middle of a room, for instance, or watch animals run around your coffee table. It’s fascinating technology that could hint at the future of computing.
The emphasis here is on the future, as in several years away. That brings us to the second biggest reason the HoloLens and Magic Leap One aren’t on this list: They aren’t consumer products. Both devices are purely intended as development hardware, so AR software can be made for their platforms. Considering each headset costs several thousand dollars (the Magic Leap One is $2,300 and the HoloLens 2 is $3,500), you shouldn’t expect a large library of AR experiences for a while. Outside of specific enterprise and education uses, AR headsets are an early adopter playground at best, and not for most users.
With that in mind, we’ll continue to track the best new VR headsets here as they are released, so make sure to check back soon for updates. And when you find the right headset for you, head over to our list of the best VR games.