Virtual reality is undoubtedly one of the hottest tech topics of the moment, with HTC (plus Valve), Oculus (owned by Facebook) and Sony all competing for your cash. But what exactly are the differences between them and where should you drop your hard-earned moolah?
To ease you gently into the world of VR technology we’ve explained the key specs and the major differences between the headsets below, as well as outlining how other headsets, such as Samsung’s Gear VR, Google’s Cardboard and the various other devices on the market, fit into the picture.
The raw specs
As we’ll see later, the hardware specs don’t tell the whole story of these VR headsets, but they’re a good starting point anyway. The Rift gives you two 1080 x 1200 pixel OLED displays (one for each eye), a 90Hz refresh rate and a 110-degree field of view.
Those fundamental specs happen to be exactly the same as those of the HTC Vive, though the field of view in the headset from HTC and Valve is slightly taller. It’s possible those specs will change before it goes on sale, but at this late stage it seems unlikely.
The PlayStation VR, meanwhile, boasts a resolution of 960 x 1080 pixels for each eye, a slightly higher 120Hz refresh rate and a slightly narrower 100-degree field of view. As far as raw specs are concerned, we’re talking very slight differences between these headsets, although if we had to rank them in terms of pure hardware, then we’d place the HTC Vive at the top and PlayStation VR the bottom.
There’s so much more to these headsets than the basic specs we’ve mentioned though. HTC’s hardware can track you around a room, for example, whereas the other two only offer head tracking via sensors placed close by – at least for the time being.
They each have their own immersive audio systems for keeping you in the moment and each have slightly different headset designs – you really need to consult hands-on reviews to get a feel of these differences, as they don’t really show up in specifications lists.
One feature unique to the HTC Vive is a forward-facing camera: this opens up the possibility of augmented reality applications, where the real and virtual worlds are combined (and is also used to warn you when you’re about to walk into a wall).
All these headsets need a system to work with: the PlayStation VR makes most sense for PS4 owners, as you’ll be good to go already basically asides from the purchase of a PlayStation Camera and Move controller. If you don’t already have Sony’s latest console then you’re going to have to fork out for that as well as the headset and peripherals.
Both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift need a fairly powerful Windows PC to run with – Oculus has already published the recommended specs for its headset, namely a minimum of an Intel i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD 290 graphics card installed.
The Vive is likely to require a similar level of power (though we’ve yet to hear specifics). Each headset comes with its own input devices, both traditional gamepads and more VR-focused devices (namely the Oculus Touch, Steam Controllers and PlayStation Move).
The games and software
The games and apps available for each headset are an important part of any comparison, and so far Oculus leads the way: buy a Rift and you get Eve: Valkyrie and Lucky’s Tale included. More than 30 other games have also been revealed in an explosive sizzle reel video.
There’s 50 games supposedly launching for Sony’s PlayStation VR headset too this year. And with HTC partnering up with Valve in the development of the Vive, and Valve recently announcing that evey game in its Steam library will be playable through SteamVR Desktop Theatre mode, there’s going to be plenty of software support there too.
This is definitely something to keep an eye on though until the market has settled down (easier said than done of course). The available software could end up being far more significant than any hardware spec.
The main alternative to the major players is the Gear VR from Samsung: while its optical specs are as good as (and indeed developed by the same people as) those in the Oculus Rift, you don’t get the head tracking functionality or as quite as much processing power.
That means the graphics are just a notch below the Oculus. However, it is wireless – so you don’t need to lug around a PC with it to enjoy VR – and it’s much cheaper to get hold of, assuming you already have a Samsung S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or Note 5 to hand.
Google Cardboard and its ilk are another step down again in terms of both capabilities and price – great for a cheap entry point but not really the full VR experience offered by the expensive gadgets – while there are a few niche products too, such as the Fove.
If you’ve got a Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or Note 5, buy the Gear VR and start enjoying immersive virtual reality at a great price; if you’ve got a PlayStation 4, wait for the PlayStation VR (unless you happen to have a gaming PC lying around as well). And when we say wait, we mean until next year, when the inevitable teething problems have settled down and the gaming catalogue is more of a known quantity.
That leaves everyone else and two headsets in the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive that are very similar across the board: the Rift is likely to have the edge in content whereas the Vive has augmented reality potential and full motion tracking across a room.
But really there’s not too much in it. Both offer mind-blowing virtual reality experiences, and ultimately the choice is yours.