The best VR headset in 2021

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There are a whole host of games released in 2020 that make having the right Virtual Reality (VR) headset a must. Whether it is Half-Life: Alyx or Star Wars: Squadrons, the action is so much more immersive when viewed from within the game. Not only is the physics more realistic but the sense that you are playing in your personal movie is just incredible.

However, to make the most of these games, and other VR opportunities, you need to be sure to buy the best VR headset. As well as assessing the resolution in the display unit, we will also report on the vital Field of Vision (FoV) that can make or break your experience with your headset.

If you do have some spare cash hanging around, then there are some amazing headsets available – but they are a significant investment. Consequently, it can be a tricky and serious decision. While there are some stand out models, such as the Oculus Quest 2, they are expensive. Here we offer a guide that assumes that money is no barrier with prices in the multiple hundreds to the multiple thousands of pounds. It is worth recognising that headsets are in a state of development that means the more money you spend will correspond with a better experience.

Valve Index

If you want the best virtual reality experience, then you probably want to invest in the Valve Index. While you will need close to a couple of grand to make the purchase, this is the best in class hardware. The display is AMOLED, the resolution a decent 2880 x 1600, a refresh rate of 120Hz and the experimental 144Hz mode. The FOV is 130 degrees.

The connections on the headset are through a USB 3.0 or USB 2.0 and the controllers are their own brand Index Controllers.

What are the headlines? Why do we put this at the top of the list? Well, the headset is comfortable to wear, which is a crucial factor with heat and fatigue that can come from extended play sessions in a game. Also, there is virtually no Screen Door Effect (SDE). While there is some sense of the pixels in the games, as you are so close, the effect is minimal.

It is the visuals that are so impressive. The display resolution is equal to the Vive Pro and the Quest but added to this the FOV is the best you will find.

While the performance inside the headset is vital, there are other features that make use of the device convenient. For instance, there is a per-finger tracking on the controllers and there is amazing audio, which is placed just above your ears.

While the cost of this headset will exclude most casual gamers, this headset does offer the best value for the technology you receive. It is right in the middle of the price band with some of the qualities of those that come in at twice the price. We also need to offer a reality check on the finger tracking controllers. While it seems cool that you can use each finger to change the way you respond in the game, there are few developers making use of this feature. The only game at the moment that uses finger-tracking controllers is Half-Life: Alyx. Therefore, although we have offered this as a major plus – it is still something for the future in reality.

Another point to raise is that there is no inside-out tracking, meaning you are reliant on a base station. This means the roomscale setup is a pain, as it has to happen through Steam through your computer and before you put the headset on. This means you need to help the system work out the floor height and measure the four corners of the room – and then Steam calculates the play area. It is a minor buzzkill to say the least when you come to want to play for the first time.

Oculus Quest 2

This is an entry level VR headset that costs a few hundred pounds. This certainly feels more accessible to the majority of gamers. There is a LCD display, resolution of 3664 x 1920 and a refresh rate that maxes out at 90Hz. The FOV is a disappointing 100 degrees. You will also need a USB C connection and a headphone socket. The controllers are the brand Oculus Touch.

As you tell, this has none of the tech wow of the Valve Index but you do get a decent spec for what is essentially a fifth of the price. Oculus have worked hard to improve the graphics and there is Oculus Link tethering. In short, for an entry level headset you should not expect as much quality as this in graphics clarity.

The bonus is that the Oculus link makes the Quest 2 a standalone headset, meaning it can be used on the move. They are also super quick to set up and you can go from unboxing to playing in a couple of minutes.

All this sounds great but there is a sizable downside. You need a Facebook account login, it is compulsory. Therefore, if you have been resisting joining the social media platform, you will be forced into an account as it is the only way to login into the functions of your headset. While the company promises this is to offer the best products and services to users, the truth is that they are liley data mining as you play.

However, despite this hint of warning, this is the best-value with decent quality headset on the market.

Oculus Rift S

Choosing the Oculus Rift S is a sound option if you want a massive choice of games on offer. This headset comes with the biggest library. As with the Quest 2, the Rift S comes with an LCD display. The resolution is 2560 x 1600 and the refresh rate is 80Hz. The FOV is marginally better than the Quest 2 at 110 degrees and you will need a mini display port and a USB 3. The Rift S also uses the Oculus Touch controllers.

The price is still reasonable, though a good 25% more than the Quest 2. For this extra money you get better resolution and refresh rate and inside out tracking – and that deep library of games.

We are excited by the Rift S because it is a massive upgrade to the original Oculus Rift while still being sold at the same price. This is the best mid-level headset that comes tethered that you can buy for a PC. It is a lot more comfortable than its predecessor, which is a welcome improvement.

In short, this is a powerful headset that won’t cost you a massive amount of money. The upgrade from the original to this S model also promises that the iterations in the future will be massive and the Oculus Rift will get even better. Therefore, if you are looking to commit to a brand – you would be wise to opt in here.

HTC Vive Cosmos Elite

HTC has had a rocky ride in the VR headset market and they have chosen to take a backward step to the base station. The problems of accuracy were enough for the brand to see improvements. The display is LCD and the resolution 2880 x 1700 with a refresh rate of 90Hz. The field of view is 110 and you will need a display port 1.2 and USB 3. The headset works with 1st-gen Vive controllers.

You would choose this headset because of the high resolution of the display and the accurate tracking. Also, if you purchase the Cosmos Elite bundle then you will also enjoy Half-Life: Alyx and six months of a Viveport Infinity subscription. It means you have quality games to use to try out the headset from the start. The Elite is similar to the original Cosmos bundle but you get a different faceplate and you will need a decent amount of space for movement as you play.

The downside of this bundle is the price. You are looking at some close to a grand. However, this is a step up from cheaper VR gaming experiences and you might want to pay for the boost in resolution. The opinion of serious gamers is that this is the headset of choice if you have the money to spend. The accuracy is amazing and the future opportunity to experience 4-camera inside-out tracking might lure you towards the HTC.

Unfortunately, at the moment, this is not a plug and play headset and you will need to set aside a good amount of time to install it and set up your play area. The wizard tells you how to do this step by step, so it doesn’t pose a technical challenge – it is just a challenge of patience. Oh, and you will need five electrical sockets for all the wires… this is a beast of a bundle when it comes out of the box.

Samsung Odyssey+

The Samsung Odyssey+ is by far the best virtual reality headset from the Windows Mixed REality group. It comes with the same resolution as the Vive Pro but for half the price of its competitor. Samsung have worked hard to reduce the annoying SDE (it comes with the propriety anti screen door feature) and the headset comes with inside-out tracking.

The Odyssey+ is a refresh of the original Odyssey headset and comes with an AMOLED display. The resolution is 2880 x 1600 and it has a refresh rate of 90Hz. The field of vision is a standard 110 and you will need a HDMI and USB 3 connection. This is a substantial improvement on previous WMR products. While you might be worried by the name Mixed Reality but in truth this is a VR headset. In short, this headset offers the most remarkable levels of immersion and is worth a try.

Which should you buy?

We made no secret of the fact that the Oculus Quest 2 is the best in class headset for virtual reality gaming. There is a decent balance in technical detail and price. For a fifth of the price of the Valve, you get a similar tech spec. You also get access to some top games while all the time spending less than on the original Quest. We also choose this headset because of the rate of evolution. Oculus seems to be making improvements at a greater pace than competitors and it is always good to get on board at the start with a future market leader.
There is a bit of terminology we haven’t mentioned to date, which is whether the headset it tethered or untethered. If you choose a standalone VR headset, such as the Oculus Quest 2, and means it works independent of the games console and does not limit your use of space while playing. You are given 6 degrees of freedom and allows you to move your body as well as what you can look at. This is clever stuff and makes the immersive experience so much more vital – which at the end of the day is the reason we choose to play virtual reality games.

While other headsets offer you a bigger games library and do not force you into a Facebook login, you get most from the Quest 2 in terms of experience. We may have put the Valve Index at the top of the list for quality of tech but who has nearly two grand to spend on a VR headset at the moment.

Breaking down the jargon

So, having read these reviews of the best virtual reality headsets on show, you might wonder what the hell some of these words mean. Well, to help you understand what is good or bust in the world of VR, we will take you through some of the jargon.

Field of View (FOV)

The field of view is a reference to the amount of the gaming environment that is visible to the player wearing the headset. In other words, it is the extent that the world is visible on the display. Assuming that as human beings we can view 180 degrees of the world from the corner of our eye, we then can assess whether 90 – 110 degrees is good enough or not. The broader the field of vision in the headset is central to the need for immersion in the best games.

Head-mounted display (HMD)

Generally, virtual reality kits come with a display that can be mounted on the head – using a googles style package.

Inside-out tracking

The inside out tracking is the system that is used to track your movement in virtual reality . It tracks the movements that originate inside the headset rather than those from the outside-in tracking where the headset using external sensors. Inside-out tracking offers more accuracy.

The method of tracking is also crucial to the three degrees of freedom, which enables the user to look around in any direction or six degrees of freedom, where you can look around and move your body in any direction.

Latency

Latency is a problem if it is noticeable to the player. It is the delay between the inputs you make and the response in the game. In reality, to enjoy a game you need the lowest latency possible. Not only does this improve the quality of the game play but it also reduces the chance that you will suffer travel sickness. Nausea from the stuttering of a headset with a higher latency can be debilitating.

Resolutions

Resolution is measured in pixels – which are the small squares that make up the display. The measurement is in the number of squares on the horizontal multiplied by those on the vertical. The higher the numbers the better the display. The figures need to be high because the display is so close to the user’s eyes and low numbers can cause pixelation and jagged lines appearing in the vision.

Low pixelation can also result in screen door effect. Imagine looking into your backgarden through a screen door. The image will be split up into squares and there will be a lack of coherence in the image.

Refresh rate

The number of pictures that can be displayed per second is measured in hertz. The higher the refresh rate the better and is directly linked to the level of latency. If you have a slow refresh rate then the image will stutter and freeze and you will feel sick more often than not.

Now you know the jargon, skip back through the reviews and you will feel like the best tech-geek in the world. Call over your mate – let him know what all those stats me and boss the VR headset chat for a while.