There is no better time to invest in a VR headset, with high-end headsets like the Valve Index and Vive Cosmos available to buy, and the hybrid Oculus Quest 2 has many excited about the future of VR. Better yet, the price of VR headsets has begun to drop, making VR accessible to more people than ever before.
The flip side is that there are now more VR headsets on the market than ever before, making it hard to choose one to buy in 2021.
Don’t fret; we at Tech Advisor have used all of the popular VR headsets, and here’s where we tell you what to look out for when buying a headset, along with our recommendation of the best VR headsets on the market right now.
Best VR headsets 2021
1. Oculus Quest 2 - Best Overall
The Oculus Quest 2 is hands-down the best VR headset you can buy. Like the original, the Quest 2 boasts standalone functionality and inside-out tracking, albeit in a smaller form factor this time around.
The star of the show is the display; at nearly 2K per eye, the Quest 2 has the most detailed display of any VR headset in our chart right now, which is incredible when you think about the entry-level price that has actually dropped compared to the first-gen Quest. There's also Qualcomm's Snapdragon XR2 Platform available, offering a serious improvement to performance that'll expand the experience of standalone apps and games over the coming months and years.
If that wasn't enough, thanks to Oculus Link, you can hook up your Quest 2 to your PC and experience PC-exclusive VR titles like Half-Life: Alyx. The hybrid functionality simply isn't matched by any other VR headset available right now.
If you're looking for a VR headset, the Oculus Quest 2 is the one to go for. It's available for pre-order now ahead of release in October.
Read our full Oculus Quest 2 review
2. HTC Vive Cosmos - Modular PC VR
The Vive Cosmos isn't the cheapest VR headset available to consumers. But, with a much higher resolution than the competition, the Vive Cosmos undoubtedly provides one of the most detailed virtual experiences available right now.
It’s the modular nature that makes the Cosmos range unique, and why it costs a little more too. Rather than having to buy an entirely new headset when HTC reveals new tech, Cosmos owners can simply buy a new faceplate and attach it to their existing headset, offering huge savings down the line.
The Cosmos itself, with six-camera tracking, offers a decent VR experience for low- to mid-intensity VR games, but the camera tracking isn't perfect and the loss of tracking in fast-paced VR titles can be frustrating at times.
But that’s where the Cosmos Elite comes in: for a little extra, you can grab a Cosmos with true 1:1 SteamVR tracking, but at the cost of long setup times and having to use the first-gen Vive wands.
Read our full HTC Vive Cosmos review
3. Oculus Rift S - Affordable PC VR
For quite some time, the Oculus Rift S was the best VR headset for most consumers; it boasts a range of improvements over the original and fixes most of the complaints without a price increase. The Rift S is comfortable, boasts high-end optics (albeit bested by the Quest 2) and like a growing number of headsets, offers inside-out tracking that completely eliminates the need for external sensors.
It isn't the perfect headset though, lacking built-in headphones, and the use of a single display instead of dual displays means it offers a fixed IPD of 63.5mm.
Plus, Oculus has confirmed that it'll be discontinuing the Rift S line in Spring 2021, making it a much less tempting option than it once was.
Read our full Oculus Rift S review
4. PlayStation VR - Perfect for PS4 gamers
Interestingly, the PlayStation VR headset is the only VR headset for console gamers – Microsoft offers a way for gamers to play Xbox One games through the Oculus Rift S, but it isn’t VR-enabled. Sony’s virtual reality offering features a 5.7in OLED display that’ll provide gamers with low persistence and, consequently, less motion blur when being used.
It also boasts ultra-low latency (18ms) and a 120Hz refresh rate, which is better than the Oculus Rift S and the HTC Vive's 90Hz offering. It means that, theoretically, beautiful 120fps gameplay is possible, although we’re not sure the PS4 (or even the PS4 Pro) could handle it.
It seems that Sony had the same thought, and provides an additional box (smaller than the PS4) that handles the brunt of the graphics processing. It’ll track the position of your head, and can also be used with Sony’s (failed) Move controllers, giving the old controllers a new lease of life.
The tracking is basic though; it uses a PlayStation Camera, and the area that you can move around in is very small - the smallest of the 'big three' VR headsets. It's designed for sit-down VR experiences, and it does it well.
Read our full Sony PlayStation VR review
5. Oculus Go - An interesting starting point
The Oculus Go had the potential to really show the masses the potential of VR. While smartphone-powered VR has always been the go-to, the Oculus Go provides a much better overall experience in a nice, simple package that requires no smartphone or PC to work. And despite all the tech being crammed into the headset, it’s still sleek, lightweight and comfortable to wear over long periods.
The display is impressive too, boasting a fast-switch LCD display that almost completely removes SDE, an issue prevalent even in high-end VR headsets.
But despite all that, the Oculus Go isn't as popular as the Quest and, as such, Facebook-owned Oculus has confirmed that the Go will no longer get new apps and games, making this a much less appealing option than it once was.
Read our full Oculus Go review
6. Google Cardboard - Great for beginners
Google Cardboard is, essentially, a virtual reality starter kit for those that are unsure of VR and want to experience it without having to fork out a lot of money. In fact, you don’t really have to part with any money to get a Google Cardboard as, as the name suggests, it’s made from Cardboard and there are various sites online that'll show you how to make your own at home.
It uses your existing smartphone as the display and brains of the VR system, allowing the company to cut the cost and enable users to use existing VR apps available for iOS and Android.
If building the Google Cardboard seems like an effort to you, then you can pick one up relatively cheap, or even make your own. It should fit any smartphone up to 6in, so if you’re interested in VR on a budget, it’s an ideal option.
It's worth noting that there's also the high-end Valve Index to choose from, but as we're yet to use it in person, we can't recommend it in our chart. We've also removed the original Oculus Quest as it was discontinued around the release of the updated Oculus Quest 2.
VR headset buying advice
So, what kind of things should you consider if you’re on the market for a VR headset?
Mobile, PC or standalone?
The biggest factor to consider when on the market for a VR headset is how you’re planning on powering it. There are three types of VR headset on the market at the moment; smartphone-powered, PC-powered or standalone, with the latter being a relatively new option for prospective VR users.
Mobile VR headsets are shaped like a VR headset, but they require a smartphone for the display, internals, tracking and everything else needed to provide a mobile VR experience. This is generally thought of as a beginner’s VR headset; it gives you access to a budget range of experiences, 360-degree videos and basic games, but doesn’t provide much in the way of actual interaction with virtual environments.
The next step up is standalone VR. These are, as the name suggests, standalone VR headsets that don’t require a smartphone or PC for use. They started off a little basic, but the likes of the Oculus Quest 2 are on a par with PC-powered headsets.
PC-powered VR headsets are generally the most capable on the market, providing high-end games and VR experiences with incredibly accurate location-based tracking and advanced controllers for full immersion. The catch? The headsets are usually the most expensive available and require a powerful PC to be able to power the experiences.
Though it may not sound like it, controllers are a very important area when it comes to picking a VR headset. That’s because the controllers vary depending on the system, with some offering true 1:1 positional tracking while others don’t. Controllers are your gateway into the virtual world, allowing you to reach out and interact with the environment, so you want them to be as accurate and comfortable as possible.
Generally speaking, the high-end VR headsets like the Vive Cosmos Elite offer great controllers with true 1:1 positional tracking, while inside-out tracking like that offered from the Rift S, Quest 2 and standard Vive Cosmos is a little more unreliable. PlayStation’s VR headset offers basic positional tracking, but it’s not quite as accurate as Oculus’ and HTC’s options.
Speaking of controller tracking, tracking, in general, is another important area to consider in the world of virtual reality. Mobile VR headsets only offer 3DoF, compared to 6DoF on offer by more premium headsets. 3DoF means that you’ll be able to stand in place, look around, up and down, but any movement forwards, backwards, up or down won’t be tracked.
6DoF, on the other hand, has the ability to track your location within the physical space. This really improves immersion as, with the Rift S, Quest 2 and Vive Cosmos, you’re able to physically walk around virtual worlds, bend down and retrieve items from the floor.
Resolution, refresh rate and FOV
It’s a good idea to check out the resolution and refresh rate of any VR headset before buying, as both are integral to a decent VR experience. The resolution is fairly self-explanatory: the higher the resolution, the better quality the images produced by the display will be. It’ll mean crisper edges and easy-to-read text, and a generally more premium VR experience.
But, the resolution doesn’t matter if the refresh rate is terrible. There were a lot of tests undertaken in the early days of VR to work out the ideal refresh rate to combat motion sickness experienced by early VR users. The general consensus is that 90Hz is the minimum requirement for fast-paced VR, although you can get away with 70Hz if the app or game isn’t particularly intense.
Anything lower than 60Hz, though, and you’ll start to notice motion sickness when using VR as the display takes a little too long to refresh when you move, causing lag. Thankfully, most mainstream VR headsets offer at least 70Hz, so you shouldn’t have to worry, but it’s something to consider if you’re looking at non-branded VR headsets.
Lastly, field of view – or FOV as its commonly referred to – essentially gives you an idea of how immersive the VR headset is. Generally speaking, you should aim for a VR headset that provides a FOV of between 100- and 110-degrees, which seems to be the market cap (for the moment anyway!). For reference, human eyes have a FOV of around 220 degrees.