That it's hard to explain, in great detail, why the Lenovo Explorer is different to the handful of other Windows Mixed Reality headsets is both a good and bad thing. Bad for me having to write it, and maybe a little bad for Lenovo in carving out a unique space in the crowd of VR headsets, but good for Mixed Reality as a whole in achieving its goal of VR parity.
That's not to say the Explorer is identical to all the others, and there are a few key differences I'll highlight, but the visual quality of the VR is more or less what you'll find on the HMDs from Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Asus; Samsung's is a tad more premium.
We've been spending a bit of time getting to know the Lenovo Explorer and what sets it apart from the rest, while also delving into some of the new software available for these headsets. Here's the full verdict.
Lenovo Explorer: Design, controllers and tracking
Like Acer's headset, and like the PlayStation VR, the Lenovo Explorer has a headband design that tightens around the head with a rotatable wheel on the back. I find this system quicker for getting it on my head than the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, though the Explorer (also like the Acer and PS VR) doesn't come with built-in headphones, so you'll need to spend a few more seconds plugging in/adjusting those each time you want to jump into VR.
The design of the Explorer means the weight is mostly focused on your forehead but it only weighs 380g, making it lighter than the Acer HMD by, well, a whopping 20g, but a fair big lighter than the 470g of the Rift and Vive.
It's very comfortable, and I've had no problems with longer play sessions. My favorite feature is the fact the front visor flips up, something that's super handy when you're in VR and need to take a quick reality check, or just talk to someone without feeling like a total dork. You can just pull it up, do what you need to do, and put it back down again, without having to take the whole headset off.
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It also does a fine job of keeping out the light. That said, the foam padding, which keeps the light out, stops being attached at the nose, so the foam kind of just hangs loose. It's not an immediate problem, but I'm really worried I'm going to snag it on something and tear it off. I'm not exactly sure why this couldn't have just been attached.
On the plus side I find that it all feels a bit more comfortable than Acer's. Not that the Acer headset is uncomfortable, just that Lenovo's feels like it's ever-so-slightly more flush with my face, which also helps it keep a little more secure. Down side: it has more of a tendency to pinch my hair when I pull up the visor. Not the kind of immersion I'm after. Ouch.
The entire headset is made of plastic but has a more unified look than the Acer, all grey and black in this case, where the Acer combines blue and black. I prefer Lenovo's. Maybe you'll like Acer's more, or perhaps the polygonal shape of Asus's offering is more to your taste. That's the beauty of choice.
Whichever Windows Mixed Reality headset you pick up, you'll get the same bundled controllers, just branded with the respective company's name. These controllers sit somewhere between Oculus Touch and the Vive wands. They're more plasticky than both of those, but they include both a directional touchpad and a thumbstick, along with four other buttons, one of which is a trigger. It's pretty easy to learn your way around the controller and they're perfectly comfortable to use.
The top of each controller forms a ring that lights up and is used for tracking its position, bringing me to the next really good thing about this headset: you don't need to set up external cameras or sensors.
This is one of Mixed Reality's big boasting points over its rivals. When you first set up the headset, you can choose to have either a seated experience or one where you move around. If you want the room-scale feature, you just have to map out the room by holding the headset in front of you and walking the perimeter of your desired play space. There are no cameras to set up, no need to drill any holes in any walls; it's pretty straightforward.
The reality of this is that it makes Microsoft's brand of VR feel more accessible, even if the tracking isn't quite up to par as having a 360 setup with the Rift or Vive. But the Mixed Reality tracking, I've found (once I moved it away from a large mirror that seemed to throw it off) has been impressive for an inside-out system. Tracking controllers can get a bit hairy if you start edging close to your perimeter or moving them too far from the view of your face. You haven't got the external room sensors of the Vive here, so it's not going to be as perfect.
In fact, given that Mixed Reality is still in its early days, you can expect to come up against a few glitches here and there. One day, for example, the controllers just stopped showing up for me, even though they were paired. It was a Bluetooth problem (when is it not, eh?) but a bug that probably wouldn't exist if I was doing this six months down the line.
Lenovo Explorer: VR quality and Windows Mixed Reality
The VR experience of Lenovo's Explorer is almost identical to the Acer, which is to say it's very good for a $399 headset. The 110-degree field of view pips Acer's 95 degrees but it's not very noticeable. I've found it more noticeable, however, when moving to the Oculus Rift. On the Lenovo the smaller FoV means those black edges obscure more of your vision, like you're looking through ski goggles.
But the per-eye 1,400 x 1,400 resolution means it's also sharper than the Rift and Vive, which come in at 1,080 × 1,200. It's a noticeable upgrade, particularly, I found, when viewing objects up close.
As for the Windows Mixed Reality experience, this is still in its early days so I don't want to be too critical. For starters, to use any of this you'll need to upgrade Windows 10 to the Fall Creators Update. You'll then be automatically booted into the Mixed Reality portal when you plug in the headset, and assuming you don't change your setup, you'll be taken into the Cliff House each time.
Cliff House is home base for Mixed Reality users. It's a house where you can pin apps and games to walls, decorate with furniture, and even watch videos in. It's customizable, and your changes will remain in place no matter what (even if you swap to a different headset, like I did).
There's a handful of games and apps available to launch from here, including Microsoft's own suite of software, and you can use the mouse to interact with windows and move about, rather than the controllers, if you prefer. Microsoft wants this to be a place of both work and play, and that means using everything from email to Skype, as well as Minecraft and Superhot, all without leaving Cliff House.
Yes, that VR Excel spreadsheets, baby. This is the future you wanted.
It's what Microsoft means by Mixed Reality because, as we must press again, there's no passthrough experience on this headset or any other in the MR cohort. It's just VR, but VR as Microsoft defines it. Which is a tad confusing, we get it, but it also meant I could move from browsing in one window to playing Minecraft (on a window the size of a wall) without removing my headset - and that's pretty cool.
Lenovo Explorer: Games, videos and more
With Mixed Reality in its infancy, the available games are still thin on the ground. There are some favorites like Superhot and Fantastic Contraption, while Microsoft is doubling down on its biggest franchise with Halo Recruit, which is just a glorified target shooting game, but it's a fun way to kill a few minutes.
The Mixed Reality platform is still building up its catalogue. For the price of $399, the cost of the Lenovo Explorer, you could also get an Oculus Rift and Touch controllers, which already has a much larger base of content.
However, SteamVR support has just rolled out for Mixed Reality, opening up Lenovo's and other headsets to a world of existing games, though not all of them support the Mixed Reality system including controllers out the box.
To get into SteamVR you need to boot it up while in Cliff House, either by opening it in a window in the house, or just doing it on the desktop. You'll then be transported into the SteamVR hub and able to peruse the catalogue of games.
This is still a public beta, and one that's just a week old at the time of writing, so it's little surprise that not everything is working. What's more it feels like the whole thing could be better integrated with the Mixed Reality hub, something that'll hopefully happen come the official release. Because otherwise it all looks just as good on Mixed Reality. We'll be spending a bit more time using SteamVR with Windows Mixed Reality, so look out for a separate piece on that in the near future.
- Comfortable for long play sessions
- Higher resolution than Rift/Vive
- No external sensors needed
- Mixed Reality lacks software
- Controller tracking can be spotty
- Some design choices feel flimsy