Big VR test: Oculus, Vive, PS VR and Windows Mixed Reality go head-to-head

Battle of the realities
Big VR systems go head-to-head

It seems like only yesterday we were anxiously awaiting our first glimpse of modern VR; today, we're spoilt for choice. There's a whole spectrum of VR headsets available, from the cheap-as-chips mobile VR all the way up to premium, best-on-show options at the high end.

It's those top-line VR headsets we're focusing on in this piece: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Windows Mixed Reality. The last of those encompasses a range of differences, so for the sake of ease we're including the entire platform. Though the quality of VR varies between these, functionally they all behave the same.

Essential reading: VR is cool, but how do we get to amazing AR?

You can check out our full standalone reviews of these headsets, but we've also put them side-by-side here for a better idea of how they compare.

Design and comfort

Big VR test: Oculus, Vive, PS VR and Windows Mixed Reality go head-to-head

Here's a non-virtual reality for you: you look like a buffoon wearing anything on this list. VR won't stop looking dorky until we're slipping on VR glasses - and trust us, that's going to be a while - so it feels unfair to be too critical on looks alone, especially as a lot of the time you'll be using these in the isolation of your own home. Comfort, however, is a different matter.

Oculus Rift

To our eyes, the Oculus Rift and PS VR are tied for first place when it comes to design. The Oculus headset looks more consumer-ready than the Vive and more elegant than most of the Windows MR gang. The Rift also includes built-in headphones, making the experience feel more complete out of the box. If you want something more noise-isolating, Oculus offers some in-ear headphones you can buy instead. VR can be messy to set up, so just including headphones as part of the headset can make a lot of difference. Weight distribution on the Oculus is good too, with 470g spread comfortably across the headset. We've had no problems with comfort with the Rift in long play sessions, and the slider at the bottom lets you adjust the interpupillary distance (IPD) for added clarity.

HTC Vive

The Vive is a bigger, beefier headset, and in our opinion still looks like a work in progress. We're still using the version with the original strap, but you can now pick up one with an adjustable audio strap, which is more comfortable and includes integrated headphones like the Rift. The Vive has also got lighter since launch, dropping from 555g to 470g. 37 sensors dimple the front, letting the external Lighthouse trackers keep careful precision in following your head movements in VR, which is what gives the Vive a less polished look. It does a good job of hugging to your face, though.

PlayStation VR

PlayStation VR weighs 610g, making it a bit heavier, but Sony has done a good job of distributing that weight across the head to avoid any aches and pains. The PS VR uses a mechanism that lets you slide the headset towards or away from your face by pushing down a button on the underside, while there's a tightening wheel (check) on the back to keep it from sliding once it's in place. In terms of getting it on our noggin, we like the PS VR's system best. We also reckon it's a good looking headset thanks to those blue lights (which are used for tracking) adding a touch of flair.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality

As for Windows Mixed Reality, that'll depend on which headset you go for. For this test we used the Acer headset, but designs will vary by maker. In terms of comfort we have had no big complaints, although we did have a bit of a problem with the Acer headset in keeping the visual "sweet spot" locked in place due to the helmet's design. When it slipped, we lost focus. One thing we love about the Acer headset, and something other Mixed Reality headsets are also doing, is that you can flip up the front of the visor for those moments you need to jump back to reality, but don't want to end the entire play session. The other headsets in this test will need you to remove them completely. Well actually, the PS VR does let you slide the lenses forward for a small window into the real world, but it's not as good.

Oculus Rift: 4/5

HTC Vive: 4/5

PlayStation VR: 4/5

Acer MR headset: 3/5

Setup

Big VR test: Oculus, Vive, PS VR and Windows Mixed Reality go head-to-head

One of the problems virtual reality brings - especially high-end VR - is space restrictions. Do I have enough room to use it? Do I need to move the couch? Am I going to have to drill a hole in the wall for the sensors? Again, the end game is plug-and-play, but right now all of these headsets need some level of setup.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality

We'll start with Windows Mixed Reality this time because it's the winner on this point. Where all the other headsets need some type of external sensor for room-scale tracking, the Windows Mixed Reality HMDs use inside-out tracking, which means all of it is done from the headset. Setup currently requires you to download the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, but from there it's a smooth process assuming your PC has the minimum requirements. There are two brackets here: Windows Mixed Reality and Windows Mixed Reality Ultra. As you might have guessed, Ultra is the higher setting that only more powerful machines can support, an you can check out the differences and requirements here. Once you've got the OK, you need to pair your controllers and then set up your play space by walking around the room and marking out your perimeter. And then, well, you're pretty much done.

Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift needs at least one external sensor for tracking the headset, which you'll need to place wherever you're going to be looking. But the Rift Touch controllers need a second sensor to avoid occlusion - so clear a bit more space on that desk. With two sensors you've got enough tech to set up proper room scale, which you'll be prompted to do during setup. This took a little while in testing as the sensors do need angling in a particular way. Assuming you're using the Rift in front of a desktop PC then you're likely to put the sensors there too, but technically you can stick them anywhere in the room you like. With two sensors the play space isn't going to be as large or effestive as if you use three, and putting the sensors up higher got us better results. Whether you buy the Rift with Touch or the Touch controller separately, you'll be given the requisite duo of sensors to make this happen. If you want more, you'll need to buy them separately.

HTC Vive

The Vive setup is the most convoluted of the lot. Both the Rift headset and sensors are plugged directly into the HDMI and USB ports, but the Vive comes with a Link Box, a half-way house for plugging the wires into and contains the Bluetooth that talks to the room-scale base stations. That means the sensors aren't tethered to the PC, but this means they also require their own power supplies. Unlike the Rift sensors, these are meant to be placed higher up in the room, and this is where things can get tricky. The sensors need good vantage points in order to be able to track all of your head and hand movements. This means you'll get get full 360-coverage - no occlusion - but the downside is that you'll need to find somewhere up high to put them. In fact, the setup recommends either having tripods or "tools you may need for mounting the base stations, such as a drill". That doesn't make it ideal for a lot of people, and in our testing the Vive was definitely the most awkward to set up. The minimum play area you can set is 5 x 6.5 feet and the maximum distance between base station is 15 feet diagonally, so the upside is quite a large space to play with, but it demands more faff to make it happen.

PlayStation VR

PlayStation VR's setup process is a seemingly endless process of plugging wires into ports. Like the Vive it also has an HDMI/USB half-way box between the PlayStation 4 and the TV. This means you can still use the PS4 as normal when not in VR, and you won't have to switch any wires the moment you're itching for a bit of Superhot. PlayStation VR does offer room-scale but it's far more limited than any others on this list. That also means setting up your play space is a little easier at the start. Most games are going to be ones you can play from your seat or while stood in one position. There's only one sensor tracking everything, the PS4 camera you'll need to place and set up during installation. This tracks the headset and the PS VR controllers and is meant to sit either above or under the TV right in front of you. The hard part with PS VR is getting all the right wires in the right places; the software setup isn't too finickity, though be prepared to move that camera around a bit to get the optimal distance.

Oculus Rift: 3/5

HTC Vive: 3/5

PlayStation VR: 4/5

Acer MR headset: 5/5

Controllers

Big VR test: Oculus, Vive, PS VR and Windows Mixed Reality go head-to-head

Controllers can make or break the immersion in VR, and each system has its own answer.

Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift wins it for us in this category. The Oculus Touch controllers are easy to use, follow the contours of your hands, and add to that all-important immersion. Not only do they offer the full 6DOF tracking, they're also touch-sensitive, detecting small changes in hand positions so you can point a finger, clench a fist or give a thumbs up. Sadly it can't track the exact position of your fingers but what's there allows for a degree of freedom that rivals don't. This is particularly nifty for social games like Facebook Spaces, letting you give a few friendly gestures to others. The one problem we've found with them is occlusion when we were using just two sensors, placed on the desk. If you have a more 360-degree setup this won't be such a problem, but otherwise you'll find the sensors losing placement of your hands in those moments.

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive controllers are more wand-like and feel less intuitive. The sensors track them with a high level of precision, but you certainly can't clench a fist or give a thumbs-up. That said, the new knuckle controllers, which developers are already playing with, track individual fingers. For now, the wands are good for feeling like you're holding a sword, but not as effective or immersive as Touch. They also use touchpads instead of the Rift's Touch thumbsticks.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality

The Windows Mixed Reality controllers are somewhere between the two above. These controllers will be the same no matter which headset you buy and will come bundled in the box (they'll also be available to buy separately should you lose one). They have the wand-like design of the Vive controllers but with a ring around the top, like the Oculus Touch, which lights up. They use both thumbsticks and touch pads too, which means developers have more to take advantage of. On the downside the MR controllers feel more plasticky and cheap than either of the above and tracking hasn't been quite as accurate in testing the Acer HMD. This is because, while the inside-out sensors afford more freedom in some ways, they don't get quite as much of an all-encompassing view of the surrounding room at any time, so we found it could occasionally lose track of those controllers or have them track at funny angles, especially when arms are flying around at high speeds.

PlayStation VR

As for the PS VR controllers, there's a good chance you've seen or possibly used these even without trying PS VR. That's because Sony is using its existing PS Move controllers, which have been around for seven years, and repurposing them slightly for VR. The PlayStation camera tracks the orb on the top of each, so they need to be in view at all times, and each controller has a set of action buttons but no directionals. The Move controllers are the most basic on this list, and it's strange that Sony chose to retrofit such an old peripheral for such a bold new bit of tech, rather than make something totally new. Move feels too limited; it's high time for Sony to give us something better.

Oculus Rift: 4/5

HTC Vive: 3/5

PlayStation VR: 3/5

Acer MR headset: 3/5

Experience

Big VR test: Oculus, Vive, PS VR and Windows Mixed Reality go head-to-head

In terms of visual quality, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are pretty much on a par. Both have a two-eye resolution of 2160 x 1200, a refresh rate of 90Hz and a field of view of 110 degrees. In comparing the two, games have looked as good on both, and the OLED display keeps motion blur at a minimum.

For PS VR it's a bit of a step down, though not a massive one. The 1920 x 1080 resolution display is lower than the Rift and the Vive, and yeah, it's noticeable. It makes some of those blurrier environments and objects look a bit murkier, and if you go from using one of the higher end PC headsets to the PS VR, you'll notice it's not quite as crisp. The 120Hz refresh rate is higher than the others, but it's technically being upscaled, and if anything we've found ourselves feeling more queasy with PS VR than any other headset in testing, especially in fast-moving games. Driveclub has been a particularly bad offender. Position tracking quite isn't as good either, especially when the action gets frantic, and you'll completely lose your hands if they go behind you. On a few occasions we found ourselves having to reposition ourselves when moving about in Job Simulator, which is not so much a problem on the Vive. It sounds like we're laying hard into the PS VR, but bear in mind we're comparing it closely to the cream of the crop. Sony's headset is still a great choice for PS4 gamers, especially those without a PC, who want to dive into VR at the higher end.

The others have their downsides too. A problem that's particularly irritating on the Vive (and also the Rift if you have the larger play space set up) is the cable. Having the space to roam around is great, but you're constantly reminded that you're tied to reality, while being careful not to trip up. The TPCast Vive adapter does allow for wireless freedom, if you can pick one up, but sadly Oculus doesn't have its own version - until we get Santa Cruz.

As far as the tracking and use experience goes for Windows Mixed Reality it's, appropriately, a mixed bag. Most of our time has been with the Acer HMD but we've tested all of the others in shorter play sessions to get a feel for the full spectrum. The visual quality will vary depending on which you go for; the Samsung Odyssey, for example, has a combined resolution of 2880 x 1600 while the Acer's is 2,880 x 1,440, both of which are pretty good. The big benefit of Windows MR is how easier it is to set up and get going, with all the tracking done from the outside in. This is where Windows Mixed Reality stands apart, and while the tracking is by no means perfect, it's good enough to make these headsets serious competition for the Rift and Vive right now.

Oculus Rift: 4/5

HTC Vive: 4/5

PlayStation VR: 3/5

Acer MR headset: 3/5

Games and experiences

Big VR test: Oculus, Vive, PS VR and Windows Mixed Reality go head-to-head

For Windows Mixed Reality it's very early days, and the pool of games and software reflects this. Some games from other systems, like Superhot and Space Pirate Trainer are already available, but it'll be when SteamVR goes live that the games should really start pouring in. For now, the offerings are thin. There is, however, Cliff House, which is the portal from which you'll be launching all your games and apps. Think of it as an upgraded version of the Oculus Tuscany demo from the DK2 days, but in this one you can load all your Windows apps - from email to Skype to music to games - or just decorate the place wth animated "holograms" for fun. It's a big sandbox for both work and play, and nothing quite like it exists on any of the other systems. For example, I was able to throw one app at a wall to send an email, then move to another to watch a video. If you have a mic set up you can even call on Cortana to perform some of these tasks.

For a while the HTC Vive had the advantage in games, but now I feel like Oculus is leading the way. That's mostly because Facebook has poured a lot of money into exclusives, an idea that some critics have been very against. While I understand the argument from the side saying exclusives aren't helpful to VR growing as a medium, you could also argue that these cash injections have given developers the opportunity to build really good games they might not have otherwise been able to. Robo Recall and Lone Echo/Echo Arena are particularly good games you'll only get on the Rift (unless you use a workaround).

Sony was good in getting PS VR off the ground with a large handful of games, and since then it's amassed a nice collection. There are some good games coming down the line we're particularly excited for too, including Doom VFR and Skyrim. We were particularly impressed by the table-top tactics game League of War: VR Arena, which just launched, while we got a sneak preview of Farpoint's upcoming multiplayer mode, even if it, again, made us feel a tad nauseous. While we love how we can jump into PS VR with relative ease from the comfort of our couch, it's less technologically powerful than its rivals; these Multiplatform titles tend to perform a bit better on those more capable PC systems.

Oculus Rift: 4/5

HTC Vive: 4/5

PlayStation Vive: 4/5

Acer MR headset: 3/5

Winner: Oculus Rift

While we haven't ranked the systems in the way we have in other tests, we do have a winner of the bunch: the Oculus Rift. That's especially the case it was brought down in price to $399, making it - in our eyes - the best value proposition.

The Rift offers excellent visuals, a comfortable experience, solid tracking (though we'd advise three sensors if you can) and, perhaps above all, some of the best games and experiences right now. Things may change before long, and for a while it felt like HTC Vive had a comfortable lead, but Facebook has been working hard to build up the Rift in both hardware and software, and it's now paying off. None of the headsets on this list are bad choices by any means, and whichever you go for may simply be determined by your setup. That's fine. Just be aware of the pros and pitfalls that define each of these headsets. After all, it's still early days.


1 Comment

  • Arklight says:

    Oh boy I sure do love the Playstation Vive ahahaha

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