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Here’s how the 4 top virtual reality systems stack up

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
The HTC Vive in action.

Sony’s PlayStation VR has finally hit the market, joining Facebook’s (FB) Oculus VR, HTC and Valve’s Vive and Samsung’s Gear VR as the first in-home virtual reality systems you can buy. The PSVR, which costs $400 ($500 if you get the bundle including the PlayStation Camera and two Move motion controllers), connects to any of the nearly 40 million PlayStation 4s already in consumers’ hands and is one of the least expensive options available.

Of the four headsets, the best option for most consumers is still Samsung’s Gear VR. It’s less expensive than its competitors and offers a variety of quality virtual reality experiences.

But if you’re looking for something that will actually pull you into the world of VR, you’ll want to check out one of the other three options on our list. That said, here’s how the best VR systems compare.


Oculus Rift

Let’s kick things off with one of the biggest names in virtual reality: Facebook’s Oculus Rift. The device that helped revive VR in the eyes of consumers, the basic Rift package includes the headset, a tracking camera and an Xbox controller for $600.

The Oculus Rift headset.

Throw in the optional Touch motion controllers, though, and that price balloons to $800. And if you’re interested in turning your Rift into a room-scale VR, that is, a VR system that allows you to walk around a virtual space by translating your physical movements into the game world, you’ll need to spend an additional $80 on a third tracking camera. All together that’s $880 for the Rift if you want the full experience.

That price, however, doesn’t take into account the cost of the PC you’ll need to run the Rift. Oculus recently announced that it has worked with PC makers to ensure the Rift runs at its minimum specs on machines priced at about $500. PCs that meet Oculus’ recommended specs can cost at least $1,000.

In terms of visual clarity, the Oculus features a resolution of 1080 x 1200 pixels per eye. That means you’re less likely to notice individual pixels, so you won’t get that strange effect that makes the image appear as if you’ve got your face pressed up against a screen door and can see the faint outlines of hundreds of tiny squares.

The Rift also has a refresh rate of 90 Hz, which is the same as HTC and Valve’s Vive and just about average for VR systems. The refresh rate of a headset determines how fast its screen updates its image. The higher the refresh rate, the faster the image is updated, and the more realistic the VR experience feels.

As far as games go, the Rift gets access to Oculus’ own digital store, as well as the popular game distribution hub Steam’s SteamVR platform. So there is a good bit of content available for your viewing and playing pleasures.

HTC Vive

HTC and Valve’s Vive was designed to be a multimodal system that lets you play games seated, standing or by walking around in a 15 x 15 foot space. It’s an impressive system, but a bit of a pain to set up thanks to its two infrared base stations used to track the headset and motion controllers.

HTC and Valve’s Vive.

At $800, the Vive is a pricey piece of hardware, just $80 shy of a fully built-out Oculus Rift, in fact. The price does, however, include the aforementioned motion controllers and base stations, so it’s not like you have to purchase any additional hardware to take full advantage of the system’s capabilities. The PCs required to run the Vive, however, are still expensive, running in the $1,000 range, which puts the headset out of reach for most consumers.

The problem is, unlike the Oculus, which allows you to purchase a basic version of the Rift at a cheaper price, the Vive is only available for $800. So start saving your change.

As far as its display quality, the Vive is strikingly similar to the Rift. Both headsets feature 1200 x 1080 pixels per eye and get 90Hz refresh rates. That means the Vive and the Rift should offer roughly the same visual fidelity.

The Vive was built by HTC in conjunction with video game titan Valve, which also runs the SteamVR games marketplace and community. Naturally, that means the Vive is built to run on the company’s SteamVR software and all of its available VR content. HTC also has its own VR portal for the Vive, the aptly named Viveport. From here, you can access content like Discovery VR, Vice’s VR documentary “Cut-Off,” and a variety of other options.

Sony PlayStation VR

Sony’s long-awaited PSVR is the first virtual reality headset you can connect to standard game console. Instead of using a high-powered gaming PC, you simply plug the PSVR into your existing PlayStation 4 (there are close to 40 million of them in consumers’ homes) and you’ve got access to the world of VR.

Sony’s PlayStation VR.

There are two reasons the PSVR is such an intriguing device. The first is that it’s far less expensive than its PC-powered Rivals. The headset starts at $400, though you’ll likely end up spending $500 on the bundle, which includes a PlayStation tracking camera and Move motion controllers. Add a $300 PlayStation 4 to the mix, and you’ll end up paying about $800 for everything you need to enjoy the PSVR.

The second reason the PSVR is so interesting is that Sony’s install base for the headset is massive. Forty million people already have the system needed to run the PSVR, which gives Sony a decent chance of turning the headset into a winner. That, in turn, could attract more developers to the platform, which would mean more games for consumers.

Unfortunately, the PSVR’s lower price comes with tradeoffs. For example, the headset’s visuals aren’t nearly as sharp as the Rift or Vive’s. Whereas both of its competitors pack 1200 x 1080 pixels per eye, the PSVR gets a lower resolution of 960 x 1080 pixels per eye. As a result, if you squint, you can see individual pixels, causing the dreaded screen door effect. It’s only really noticeable in a few games, but the worst instances are exceptionally bad.

Samsung Gear VR

Samsung’s Gear VR has been one of the easiest ways for mainstream consumers to experience virtual reality. The $100 Gear is pretty inexpensive, but that low price doesn’t take into account the cash you’ll need to spend on a Samsung smartphone that’s compatible with the headset.

Samsung’s Gear VR.

See, your smartphone’s screen acts as the display for the Gear VR. So without a Samsung phone, you’re not going to see any VR goodness. But let’s face it: If you’ve got an iPhone, you’re not going to go out and buy a Samsung Galaxy S7 just to use the Gear VR.

The fact that the Gear VR uses your phone’s screen as a display also means you get that same screen door effect as the PSVR — though the Gear’s screen door effect is much worse than the PSVR’s.

Since the Gear VR doesn’t require any external cameras or a fancy PC, you don’t have to worry about any wires cluttering up your living room. Unfortunately, the lack of an external tracking sensor means the Gear VR can’t translate your real-world movements to games as well as its more expensive counterparts. For example, the Gear can sense when you swivel your head, but it can’t tell if you’re ducking down or jumping up.

The Gear VR gives you access to two virtual reality portals: the Samsung VR store and Oculus Home. Both provide you with games and virtual reality experiences, but don’t expect anything on par with what the Gear’s more powerful console and PC-powered competitors.

But that’s not the point of the Gear VR. This is a headset for mainstream consumers, and it’s pretty good at what it does … as long as you have a Samsung phone.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.