Now that the technology everyone has been dreaming has been around for a bit — the virtual reality headset — it’s time to separate the chaff from the wheat. Which headset has made the biggest advances in tricking our mind into believing we really are wielding a pair of contrasting sabers? Here, we’ve rounded up the best PC VR headsets currently available.
From the moment that Neo swallowed the red pill in The Matrix, sci-fi enthusiasts, techies, and programmers all began pondering a new meaning of Virtual Reality. Yet when The Matrix came out in 1999, VR was just something you saw in movies or read about in tech magazines and Neal Stephenson novels. Almost twenty years later, we are still a long way from plugging computers into our central nervous systems, but true VR technology isn’t just vaporware anymore.
The 8 Best VR Headsets for PC in 2021
1. Oculus Rift S
The best PC VR headset overall
Manufacturer: Oculus VR and Lenovo | Display: Fast-switch LCD 2560×1440 (1280×1440 per eye) | Refresh Rate: 80Hz | Field of View: 115-degrees | Price: 💰💰
There’s no question that Oculus is one of the top brands to look out for when you’re trying to figure out what is the best VR headset for PC. The Oculus Rift S costs less than half as much as most high-end gaming headsets while offering 1440p resolution fast-switch LCD displays and an 80Hz refresh rate.
There’s a little bit of back and forth in terms of value between the Rift S and the new Oculus Quest 2, which are both the same price. The Quest 2 has wireless functionality and a slightly higher resolution, but the Rift S edges it out when it comes down to raw PC gaming power. The Oculus Rift S has a wider field of view and more accurate motion tracking, making it the better option for PC tethered gaming. That’s why it’s our choice as the best VR headset PC gaming has to offer.
It also took the number one spot on our list of the best VR headsets for VRChat.
- USERS LIKE
- $300 price point
- Halo strap provides superior comfort
- Built-in speakers eliminate the need for headphones
- USERS DISLIKE
- DisplayPort only, no HDMI
- Facebook log-in required for use
- Not enough significant improvements over the Rift CV1
2. Valve Index
The best premium PC VR headset
Manufacturer: Valve | Display: LCD 2880×1600 (1440×1600 per eye) | Refresh Rate: 80Hz, 90Hz, 120Hz, or an experimental 144Hz mode | Field of View: 130-degrees | Price: 💰💰💰💰
If you want the absolute top-of-the-line PC VR gaming experience, you need to go with the Valve Index. It has a pair of phenomenal LCD panels, but the refresh rate is where this headset really shines. You can set the Index’s variable refresh rate at 80 Hz, 90 Hz, 120 Hz, or even all the way up to 144 Hz (although the 144 Hz mode is still considered experimental).
It also has a pair of direction-adjustable speakers that can be angled to fire directly into the ear and Base Station 2.0 lighthouses that can cover up to a 10m x 10m play space. Their new “knuckles” controllers have adjustable straps that tighten them to your hands and sensors along the grips to detect the positions of your fingers!
This is definitely the best VR headset for Elite Dangerous.
- USERS LIKE
- Room-scale VR
- Top of the line integrated audio
- Premium display with up to 144Hz refresh rate
- USERS DISLIKE
- $1000 price point
- Requires base stations
- Frustrating initial setup
3. AtlasoniX VR Headset
The best budget PC VR headset
Manufacturer: AtlasonX | Compatibility: Smartphones with 4″-6.3″ screens | Field of View: 0 | Price: 💰
Smartphone VR headsets aren’t PC-compatible on their own, but there is a workaround for those who want the best cheap VR headset for PC. An app called VRidge allows you to stream SteamVR from your computer to your mobile device. The free version is capped at ten minutes, but you can sign up for unlimited for $15.
The AtlasoniX is a mobile VR headset that is compatible with smartphones with 4”–6.3” screens. It has a padded frame and elastic head-straps to hold it in place and comes with a RoHs Bluetooth controller designed to work with Android devices. It’s the best budget VR headset for PC with a controller included.
We should mention that this solution isn’t perfect. You might experience some lag, and your image quality will depend largely on your phone and your internet speed, but it’s the cheapest way to try PC VR games. Why not check out our list of the best free VR games for immersive action as long as you’re saving money?
- USERS LIKE
- Includes Bluetooth controller
- Vent at the front prevents overheating
- Fits kids and adults with small to medium-sized heads
- USERS DISLIKE
- More comfortable options available
- Controller doesn’t work with iPhones
- Not suited to people with larger heads
4. HP Reverb G2
The best seated PC VR headset
Manufacturer: HP | Display: LCD 4320×2160 (2160×2160 per eye) | Refresh Rate: 90Hz | Field of View: 114-degrees | Price: 💰💰
The best seated PC VR headset (other than the ones we’ve already mentioned) has to be the HP Reverb G2. This headset is the result of a collaboration between Microsoft and Valve. It’s a top-of-the-line piece of tech that, on its own, could challenge the Valve Index’s claim to VR supremacy. It has two stunning 2160×2160 LCD displays and some of the best audio on the market.
The rest of the kit is where you start getting in trouble. The controllers are a particular source of frustration for many users as they require AA batteries, are frequently subject to tracking issues and controller drift, and generally feel cheap compared to the Valve Index “knuckles.” The HP Reverb is $400 cheaper than the Index, though, and is much more competitive in the mid-tier market.
- USERS LIKE
- Light and comfortable
- Stunning visuals with a good blend of resolution and
- Adjustable external speakers like those on the Valve Index
- USERS DISLIKE
- No 3.5mm jack for headphones
- Controller-drift and poor tracking
- Cheap feeling controllers with no rechargeable batteries
5. Oculus Quest 2
The best PC VR headset with a wireless mode
Manufacturer: Oculus | Display: LCD (1832×1920 per eye) | Refresh Rate: 90Hz | Field of View: 90-degrees (estimated) | Price: 💰💰
The Quest 2 is the second iteration of Oculus’ popular wireless VR headset and our first runner-up for best headset overall after the Rift S. It has an integrated Android operating system, 6GB memory, and a Snapdragon XR2 processor to play games without a PC tether. There are two variations — one is $300 and comes with 64GB storage, the other is $400 and comes with $256GB.
The Quest 2 was built to be a wireless platform, but you do have the option to tether it to a PC if you want to use the PC’s superior processing. It also comes with Oculus’s fantastic controllers, making it the best VR headset with touch for PC. We like the Rift S better specifically for PC wired gaming, but the Quest 2 wins for value and versatility. We consider it the best premium option when it comes to mobile VR headsets.
- USERS LIKE
- Accurate motion tracking
- Built-in 3.5mm headphone jack
- More affordable than other high-end VR headsets
- USERS DISLIKE
- Only ~2.5 hours battery life
- Pop-up appears at 15% battery life
- You need a Facebook account to activate it
6. Pimax Vision 8K X
The best resolution PC VR headset
Manufacturer: Pimax | Display: LCD (3840×2160 per eye) | Refresh Rate: 75Hz native 110Hz upscale | Field of View: 200-degrees | Price: 💰💰💰💰💰
It’s hard to have a list of the best PC VR headsets without including the Pimax Vision 8K. This high-end VR headset comes with two hyper-detailed 3840×2160 LED panels, each supporting up to 110 Hz refresh and a super-wide, 200-degree field of view.
It would be completely dominating the competition if you were just looking at the display. Unfortunately, the images don’t actually render at 8K. They render around the same 2560x1440p definition that you’ll find in the Pimax Vision 5K Plus. It’s also extremely expensive and doesn’t have the best motion tracking, although it would be ideal for racing games.
- USERS LIKE
- Best VR resolution available
- Super wide, 200-degree field of view
- Compatible with Oculus Home and Steam VR Lighthouse 1.0 and 2.0
- USERS DISLIKE
- Over $1,400
- Does not support 8K rendering
- Poor motion tracking compared to the Valve Index
7. HTC Vive Cosmos Elite
The best HTC PC VR headset
Manufacturer: HTC | Display: LCD 2880×1700 | Refresh Rate: 90Hz | Field of View: 110-degrees | Price: 💰💰💰
HTC’s current flagship headset is the Vive Cosmos Elite. It has six cameras and a pair of LCD screens with ever-so-slightly better resolution than the Valve Index. Another nice feature is that the screen part of the headset flips up, freeing you to look around the real world without having to remove the headset completely.
The Vive Cosmos Elite occupies a middle ground between the expensive premium setups and the affordable headsets on offer from Oculus, though the HP Reverb G2 outclasses it in most areas. Be sure to check out our list of the best HTC Vive VR games if you decide to get it!
- USERS LIKE
- Improved motion controls
- Beautiful, high-resolution screens
- Wireless capability with adapter kit
- USERS DISLIKE
- $700 price point
- Too many cables
- Didn’t innovate enough from the original HTC Vive
8. HTC Vive Pro
The best OLED PC VR headset
Manufacturer: HTC | Display: Dual-OLED 2880×1600 (1440×1600 each eye) | Refresh Rate: 90Hz | Field of View: 110-degrees | Price: 💰💰💰💰
The Vive Cosmos might be the latest addition to HTC’s lineup, but there’s a lot to be said for the Vive Pro too. Its OLED screens guarantee darker blacks, and many users have found its traditional, lighthouse orchestrated tracking to be a lot more dependable than the inside-out tracking the Cosmos uses.
The Pro is an especially great option if you’re looking to upgrade from your original HTC Vive since the Vive Pro headset can be bought as a $599 standalone, and it’s compatible with first-generation lighthouses and controllers!
- USERS LIKE
- Excellent motion control and view quality
- OLED screens for high-contrast colors and blacks
- Can upgrade headset while keeping original Vive equipment
- USERS DISLIKE
- Didn’t change enough from the original Vive
- More expensive than the Valve Index for the full kit
General Thoughts on the Best VR Experience
It’s taken a long while, but virtual reality technology has finally taken off. Last year, in particular, saw an explosion of VR gear. Oculus had the Rift, the welcome partnership between HTC and Valve gave us the Vive, Sony offered the excellent PlayStation VR for its PS4 gaming consoles, Samsung improved the Gear VR, and Google’s affordable Daydream View made virtual reality accessible to more Android phones than any other platform.
Although we still have a long way to go, the market now has something for everyone; from the casual smartphone user to the fun-loving console gamer, and ultimately to the invested PC gaming enthusiast. However, each has its strengths and weaknesses, all which a serious shopper should be made aware.
Regardless of your pick, having the best VR around comes at a price. If you already own a Playstation 4 (or the new Playstation Pro), you can pick up the PS VR for only $400, but the required peripherals start to add up quickly. On the other hand, the Rift and Vive both require robust gaming PCs to run smoothly, which can run anywhere from $600-$2,000. Despite also needing Sony’s Playstation Camera and its Move controllers, the PS VR is much less of a commitment when it comes to sunk cost, especially if you’re one of the 60 million people that already own a PS4.
History of Virtual Reality
Any idiot could walk into a room, utter the letters ‘v’ and ‘r’, and VC’s would hurl bricks of cash at them – Erlich Bachman, HBO’s Silicon Valley
Today, virtual reality is becoming big business.
In fact, most of today’s tech companies are banking that Virtual Reality is the future of entertainment… Just ask Palmer Luckey, one of the world’s richest 25 year-olds.
Palmer Luckey started out a modern whiz kid from Southern California, into video games and sci-fi movies. Gifted with a talent for tech, he began fixing iPhones for extra cash in his spare time. Today, he is one of the hottest names in VR.
Luckey attended California State, Long Beach, where he worked as a part-time engineer at the Institute for Creative Technologies. Frustrated with the low quality of current VR interfaces, his knowledge of smartphones gave him a breakthrough idea. He went to work in his mom’s garage and not only invented a new kind of Virtual Reality Headset, but literally kick-started an entire new generation of VR.
He called his prototype goggles the Oculus, and eventually sold them to Facebook for over $2 billion dollars. That’s just the beginning. Fortune magazine predicts that within 4 years VR will be a $150 billion industry. In fact, just last year Facebook had over 400 people working on Virtual Reality alone. The social media monster is only 1 of the 230 companies that were developing VR tech or VR gaming systems as of 2016. Nearly all of the big tech giants from Sony to HTC to Apple have thrown their weight in the virtual ring.
Virtual Reality might have started out as a techie’s fantasy, but today a quick Google search brings up page after page of articles with headlines such as “15 Best VR Apps” or “10 Best Phone VR Headsets.” When Palmer Luckey opened the floodgates, every big name in Silicon Valley hopped on the bandwagon.
Mobile vs. Tethered: Which is Which?
Modern VR headsets typically fit under one of two categories: mobile or tethered. Going the mobile way will get you a shell with a couple of lenses, into which you’ll slot in your smartphone. The lenses separate the image on the screen into two, turning the phone into a VR device.
Mobile headsets are relatively inexpensive because your smartphone does all the processing. You, therefore, won’t need to connect any wires to the headset. However, phones aren’t particularly designed for VR, and even the latest of the bunch is notably underpowered compared to PC or console VR.
Tethered headsets, on the other hand, are physically connected to PCs or gaming consoles. The cables make them unwieldy, but the use of powerful hardware, a dedicated display in the headset instead of your phone, motion sensors and cameras, drastically improve the overall experience.
The trade-off is, of course, the price. The cheapest option is the PS VR at $400, which you’ll have to pair with accessories ranging from $60 to $160 to make it work. Both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift will set you back an excess of $600, and that’s excluding the powerful gaming PC you’ll need to render VR.
With that in mind, anyone looking for a laid-back experience will be just fine with mobile headsets like the Daydream or the Gear VR. However, if what you want is unparalleled immersion through high resolutions and above-average refresh rates, along with room-scale tracking and motion controllers, tethered headsets are better worth your money.
What is Augmented Reality?
Unlike the ill-fated 3D trend that hit store shelves a few years ago, the majority of VR Headsets out there seem to be more than just gimmicks. That being said, VR tech is still a long way from capturing the wide audience that companies like Google, Facebook, and Sony are hoping. Despite the advances in VR tech, most consumers will shy away from having to strap large wired goggles to their faces, not to mention the money they will have to shell out just to bring it home.
That is why companies like Microsoft and the amazing Magic Leap are relying on VR’s cousin, AR. Augmented Reality (or Mixed Reality) is the incorporation of the real world with virtual objects to produce a new environment where physical and digital objects can co-exist and even interact with each other in real time. Instead of being closed off in a digital space like a VR headset with controllers, Mixed Reality superimposes the virtual world on top of the world around you.
Remember last summer when everyone under 40 was running around town playing Pokemon Go? The game was really just a map of the world around you that would beep when its GPS picked up a nearby Pokemon. That’s when the camera would pop up and show you a small creature hovering in the air nearby. All players had to do was flick a digital ball at it in order to capture them, and then go about their business.
Pokemon Go from Niantic Labs was a massive hit, and the practical applications of such a simple game sent a shockwave through the software community. Other companies are fighting for the chance to cash in on the experience that Pokemon Go offered. So much so, that Apple just announced their next mobile operating system will include a developer’s kit for Augmented Reality apps and games due to release this fall on iOS 11. They also showcased a new Augmented Reality game from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s new studio, Wingnut AR, which will release later this year.
Bill Gates’ Windows has turned Microsoft into one of the largest corporations on the planet. If you sit and think about how many computers are running some version of Windows, the numbers are astounding, something like 1.25 billion PCs. That’s why it made a lot of sense when Microsoft purchased Minecraft for a whopping 2.5 billion dollars. After all, the latest release of the uber-popular game includes premium content microtransactions with a new Minecraft currency.
Now Microsoft wants to bring Minecraft into your living room in a completely new way thanks to Augmented Reality.
I’m a traditionalist. I grew up on Star Trek the Next Generation, so when I think of Virtual Reality, I think of a Holodeck where I don’t have to put anything on my head… and while the technology is still a long way out, Microsoft’s Hololens looks as if it’s a step in the right direction.
The Hololens (and its AR counterparts) isn’t just another VR headset for pc gaming, it’s an entirely new way of seeing and interacting with the world around a user. Looking something like a metal headband with a pair of glasses hanging from one side, the Hololens is one of the first Augmented Reality headsets shipped to developers and businesses.
Unlike a traditional VR headset with controllers, Hololens projects its digital reality on top of the world you can see through its lenses. So when a giant flying dragon swoops in from the ceiling and sets your couch on fire, you don’t have to run and grab a fire extinguisher.
Although the hardware is still in its initial phases, products like Hololens and Magic Leap have their sights set on eventually replacing your smartphone. AR headsets, and eventually even smart lenses, will bring a whole other level of interaction with the world around you… Instead of closing you off like VR headsets.
What’s Next for VR?
Somewhere in a lab in South Korea, Samsung is working on bringing the best of both worlds to consumers. With a combination of VR Headsets and AR lenses, Samsung just patented a wearable smart lens that will eventually put the power of VR in your eyes. Like Google’s patented contacts that detect blood sugar levels in a wearer’s tear fluids, Samsung is actively pursuing virtual reality that ditches the headgear.
Imagine wearing a contact lens powered by blinking and the kinetic movement of the eye, with a built-in mini camera and graphical display. You could open emails in thin air, watch movies or make video calls on invisible screens, and immerse yourself in video games like never before. All without the need for cables or heavy headsets.
Smart lenses might still be in the concept phase, but one thing is for sure, nearly every big name in the tech industry is looking to inch us closer to some kind of virtual world. After all, it opens up an entirely new virtual world of products for them to sell, products they can produce with a few lines of code.
Virtual reality works by creating presence and experience, or hardware and software. First, by manipulating the senses, VR gives a user presence by tricking the body into feeling or believing as though it is somewhere else. VR headsets hijack the visual and auditory cortex, tricking the users’ brain into believing whatever it tells it. VR presence is more than an illusion of light and sound, but a combined experience more like a gut feeling.
The second part, and really the holy grail of VR these days, is experience. Experience is what happens after presence after the novelty of being in a virtual reality wears off. VR headsets will get you there, but it’s the software counts… Once the technology advances and the hardware is more or less the same, users will be clamoring for experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Feel like stepping off the Eagle lander and walking on the moon? Or maybe you’d like to explore the depths of the Mariana Trench or battle aliens in some far-off galaxy? These are the experiences that will eventually bring virtual reality home to more than just a niche market.
Google and Samsung can give you a taste with their VR headsets for iPhone or Android, they can show you pictures in 360 degrees and movies on giant virtual screens, but only the best VR headsets for PC and consoles are going to keep you coming back for more. It’s the difference between a gimmick and a reality, between a presence and an experience.