VR Headset Buying Guide - November 2019

Written by BradzTech on Nov 23, 2019

Thinking about taking the plunge with a VR headset? Depending on what features you're looking for, now might be the time. Virtual reality, much like gaming in general, remains an expensive hobby, but a current deal on the market begs to challenge this notion:

(Please note these are just my recommendations; this is not a comprehensive review. Please check out the opinions of independent reviewers like this one on Mixed Reality TV.)

A Full-Fledged Experience on a Budget

The Samsung Odyssey+ Windows Mixed Reality headset is not the newest VR headset on the block, but it still holds its own in late 2019. This is in part due to the pricing situation. Its MSRP "regular" price is a somewhat lofty $500, but it has been going on sale increasingly deeply and frequently. In fact, for this Black Friday, the Odyssey+ can be had for a mere $229!

Like most quality VR headsets right now, the Odyssey+ has 6DOF tracking, meaning you can stand up and move around a predefined playspace, having every movement translated to the virtual world. It comes with two tracked controllers, one for each hand, for interacting with the virtual world. Everything is designed with compatibility in mind, granting access to almost any experience designed for the more popular and pricey headsets. Here are some key hardware specifications:

  • 1600x1440 resolution. Two years ago this was a defining feature for Odyssey+, being handily above the original Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Today, it still falls right in line with pricier headsets.
  • 90hz refresh rate. This used to be standard and is now will actually offer superior smoothness to Oculus' 2019 offerings.
  • OLED display. Other headsets with LCD screens make areas that should appear black appear gray, worsening immersion in games in dark environments.
  • Built-in headphones. Not a feature to overlook, as dealing with separate headphones all the time is a hassle.
  • Inside-out tracking. This is another convenience aspect; it is much quicker to get going when you do not need to set up sensors around the room.

At the software level, the Windows Mixed Reality platform is a fairly positive experience. Personally, I find the actual WMR home environment to have limited usefulness, so I spend most of my time in the convenient SteamVR compatibility layer. It is not as pure as using an actual SteamVR-native headset but is largely issue-free. Almost every game in the massive SteamVR catalog works fine, as well as Oculus games through a bridging utility.

So, what are the drawbacks to paying 23% as much as the latest Valve headset?

  • Support and Ecosystem. Once you buy this headset, it's likely a done deal. If you're still in the warranty period, I hear Samsung's support is sub-par. Out of warranty, if something happens to a controller, or perhaps the cable connecting the headset to the computer, you're out of luck because it's nearly impossible to order new parts like these. And forget trying experimental setups like a wireless adapter or extra trackers.
    • EDIT: My friend had audio issues with his Odyssey. Upon sending back the unit for repair, he was informed they have no repair inventory and could only issue a refund. We later discovered the issue is likely with his computer's motherboard as opposed to the headset.
    • The moral of the story is you need to get lucky that the headset is perfectly functional, and that your computer supports it, since even if your computer is supported on paper, there still may be glitches. If you would rather not have this hassle, the Oculus Quest will work more consistently with compatible computers.
  • Controller tracking. Moving the controllers outside the view of the two cameras loses positional tracking, which is noticeable but not usually critical. I personally ran into a more serious problem where in fast-paced games where controller must be moved quickly, such as Beat Saber, the controllers would lose tracking and appear to be thrown across the room (which I eventually diagnosed to be due to Bluetooth mouse interference). However, the Samsung Odyssey has Bluetooth built in unlike my headset, so it is less likely to have these serious issues. The tracking will never be Index-level, but it is likely to be satisfactory enough if you are prepared to tweak factors like how bright the room is and the exact batteries in use.
  • Cutting-edge features. The Oculus Quest and Valve Index have some extra features up their sleeves, described later.

While this "cons" list might seem longer than the "pros" one, I just wanted to be clear what exactly you are missing. I think it's clear that if you already own a sufficient computer, the Samsung Odyssey+ is the best way to get into VR in late 2019. At $229, the headset is a legitimately great value, given it comes within spitting distance of the latest ones from more prevalent brands.

If the Odyssey's price rises back to $300+ or the support issues put you off, check out the Oculus Quest below. You could also consider other Windows Mixed Reality headsets such as the Dell Visor, HP WMR, or Acer WMR. These drop the Odyssey+'s the OLED display and built-in headphones and Bluetooth, but are otherwise quite similar, offering the full VR experience not far behind the pricier options currently on the market. If you can find one of these around $200 with controllers, they, too, are considerable options.

A Near-Full-Fledged Experience Without PC

If you don't own a gaming PC yet and don't plan to buy one very soon, the Oculus Quest may be more your cup of tea. After all, sufficient PCs are likely to cost at least four digits, so the Quest quickly looks like the better deal even compared to the Odyssey+ at $400. Hardware specs:

  • 1600x1440 resolution. Matches the Odyssey+. Text is quite readable. I think there's no need to go much higher than this today, since the lens technology quickly becomes the limitation.
  • 72hz refresh rate. This is among my largest gripes with the Quest, as 72hz is still enough to feel immersive, but it will look significantly worse than 90hz in games involving quick movement such as Beat Saber.
  • OLED display. Thumbs up here; like the Odyssey+, games in dark environments will be more immersive.
  • Built-in speakers. Again no requirement to deal with the hassle of separate headphones. However, the speakers broadcast the user's sound to others around them.
  • Inside-out tracking. Like WMR, there's no need to hassle setting up sensors around the room. The tracking is greatly improved compared to WMR however, partly thanks to the unit containing twice as many cameras.

Of course, the Quest's shining feature is that is does not require a PC at all. It has a computer and battery built-in. The headset is therefore totally wireless; not having to worry about tripping on a wire is a huge immersion benefit.

In a recent feature update, the Quest has gained an ability called Oculus Link. It effectively establishes the Quest as the "Nintendo Switch" of VR: you can plug it into your computer and play any PC VR titles. This means you can buy the Quest and get into VR now and later choose to buy a gaming computer to access the full range of all VR games available.

While the Quest has a lot going for it, I am reluctant to wholeheartedly recommend it as I did the Odyssey+. Here's why:

  • Locked down store. Ignoring Oculus Link, the only way to buy games for the Oculus Quest is from the Oculus Store. This creates a number of issues:
    • Oculus Store games are liable to be more expensive than the same games that often go on sale on Steam.
    • There is only a subset of what VR has to offer on the Oculus Store. This is partly a headset limitation, because it cannot offer the same processing power as a PC. It's also a Facebook limitation, as they can pick and choose what is available on the store in their sole discretion to maximize profits.
    • Your Quest games are likely to be stuck on your Quest, in that when Oculus unveils its next headset in a couple years, there is no guarantee the Quest games you purchased will work on the new one. This is in stark contrast to SteamVR's open philosophy, where if I buy a game on Steam, I can be reasonably confident it will work on virtually any other PC VR headset, including feature ones.
  • Limited graphics. Not only will some games not run on standalone Quest at all, but those that do will run on low graphics settings. For cartoon-ish games this is not a problem, but for realistic ones it may break immersion.
  • 72hz. Let's say none of the above points really apply to you, because you plan on using the Quest primarily with a gaming computer. Perhaps, you consider, you can still take advantage of the standalone ability from time to time in free applications, such as YouTube or Rec Room. The issue is you still have to deal with the low refresh rate. While not low enough to break immersion, it will make motion appear choppy, which is a serious detriment for fast-paced games. You're also losing the wireless ability of course.

The Oculus Quest remains the only prevalent no PC-required option on the market, and the ability to Link it to a PC down the line now gives it additional utility. If you have no PC and are fine with the above "console-like" limitations, then I would recommend it. But I think the world of standalone VR has a ways to improve. At the rate of graphical processing improvements right now, it's not out of the question that a "Quest 2" in a few years might support a much larger subset of PC games with more realistic graphics. So, you may want to consider waiting if you fit into this category.

It's worth mentioning the Oculus Rift S matches the Quest's $400 price point while being a PC-required headset. It slightly ups the refresh rate to 80hz. It's apparently a bit more comfortable due to the lower weight without an internal computer. It has a touch lower resolution and lacks the OLED display. It may be worth considering if you are confident you will never use the standalone mode and still want more reliable controllers than the Odyssey+. Personally, I'd rather get the Quest even if just to chill and watch YouTube VR from time to time.

A Cutting-Edge Experience where Cost is Not an Object

The best headset on the market right now in most ways is the Valve Index. It features new controllers that track each of the user's fingers individually, making for much more realistic interactions in some games. It also features an up to 144hz display, which can make motion seem incredibly smooth and even help improve your skills at fast-paced games like Beat Saber. Neither of these features are currently available in any other headset. And it has a notably wider Field of View than most other headsets, creating less of a "binoculars" effect.

But the price is $1000.

There will, no doubt, be a wealthy minority that purchase the Index. It is a truly interesting headset that is pushing the world of VR forward. But for most people, the feature set is simply not compelling enough to recommend spending that much money at this time.

I bring this up to further exemplify how good of a deal the Odyssey+ is. No, you don't get quite the same well-supported SteamVR ecosystem, nor the hyper-speed refresh rate, and the controllers are certainly not the same. But these sacrifices are downright trivial when you consider the Odyssey+ is one-quarter the price of the Index!

VR is certainly going to keep moving forward, but I think now is a good time to get involved given the Odyssey+ offer.

About BradzTech

Welcome! I'm BradzTech, a Computer Science student at Rochester Institute of Technology. I am passionate about computers and analyzing the latest happenings in the rapidly developing modern field of technology, specifically, using it to help people. I share my thoughts on Twitter and, occasionally, here on my blog. Learn more about me.