VR headsets tend to veer towards the extremes; there are very few options in between low quality cheap hardware and high end, complex desktop devices. This, unfortunately, creates a less than optimal environment for potential users to get into VR.
However, a good number of viable consumer options exist in the smartphone headset category. Our selections found out the Google Daydream View and the Samsung Gear VR in a close race for the spot of top device, with the former narrowly being deemed superior.
The Daydream is more comfortable and has a hand-tracking controller which makes gameplay easier and more immersive.
However, due to the large similarities between the devices and the relative immaturity of the technology, the best option is instead what works best with your phone and your preferences. (Our main picks only support a handful of Android phones each and iPhone users don’t have good VR options yet).
If you don’t have a compatible phone, VR is not yet a decisive reason to get one, but it could be a factor next time you go to buy a phone.
The Top Pick
The Daydream View headset is soft, lightweight, and makes you forget about the bulky phone hanging from your face.
The included controller, which tracks hand position and location (much like a Wii remote), makes entry-level VR fun and captivating, which is something the Gear VR can’t match.
Currently, the Daydream View only works with the Google Pixel, Pixel XL, and Moto Z phones, but more phones are due to gain support in 2017.
The Daydream View doesn’t yet as offer as much content as the Gear VR, but this situation should change quickly as developers port applications over from Gear.
A Close Second
Although we gave the Daydream View top spot for its comfort and handheld controller, the Samsung Gear VR is no joke, especially if you’re one of the many people with a compatible Samsung smartphone such as the Galaxy S6, S7, S7 edge, or plan to buy a model in the future.
It has a wider field of vision than the Daydream, and both the Samsung phones and the Gear VR offer higher resolution graphics. It also has more games and is compatible with Bluetooth gaming controllers.
Alternatively, it can be controlled with a touchpad built into the right side of the headset.
The Best on a Budget
The Mattel View-Master is an entry-level VR system for those who want to dip their feet in the pool of VR technology, or for those whose phones are not compatible with either Daydream or Gear VR, such as iPhone users.
It’s good for bits of kicks and giggles here and there, but don’t expect it to be comparable to any of the other sets featured on this guide.
It’s compatible with the same apps as Google Cardboard, the basic VR system which allows you explore Google Earth and watch YouTube 360-degree videos in a user controlled manner.
If your current phone is workable with either the Gear VR or Google Daydream View, and you accept the costs of being an industry’s full steam early adopters, you should get the headset that works with your phone.
They’re both great headsets that will get anyone into VR quickly. If you’re buying a new phone and are undecided on what to get, but set on experiencing what VR technology can offer, perhaps Daydream View can serve as a tiebreaker.
Over the last two years, I have been testing and writing about virtual reality sets. The field experience has built a deep understanding of the features that matter and how to avoid some of the technology’s yet unsolved problems, and how to cope with the others.
Who Ought to Get This
Oculus Rift’s Dev Kit 1, the first version of the modern virtual reality headset, came out three years ago. This means it’s still a new idea, and it has issues to solve and a long development path before it completely meets people’s expectations.
That, however, doesn’t mean you should just shrug off the current headsets. Top of the line VR technology can take you to an immersive simulated space where you can explore and take off on your own initiative.
You need to experience it for yourself to truly understand its wonders.
When you put on a VR headset, you are taken into a digital world where you can turn and look around, and control your reality. For less than a hundred bucks, you can get a decent mobile headset with access to select movies, games, and various other content.
While desktop VR sets offer more power and more features, phone versions offer greater mobility and are more user-friendly.
They are also easier to fix and troubleshoot because they use a mobile phone as both their computer and screen, as opposed to the greater hardware and software complexity in computers.
Devoted gamers and tech enthusiasts able to spend $500 or more should look into more quality products such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR instead.
They offer much more substantial virtual experiences, and some are able to utilize specialized controllers which can track your hands in 3D space.
Among mobile headsets, Daydream is the only one that offers hand tracking, but it requires a remote, is limited to a single hand, and is comparatively inaccurate.
One of the most important advantages of mobile VR headsets over desktop versions, aside from its price, is the full mobility it offers. It’s well, based on a mobile phone, which means you are not constrained by how long the cord connecting to the computer is.
It can be taken just about anywhere in your backpack: a long car ride (as a passenger of course), a friend’s house, the toilet, you name it. Just keep in mind that ultimately, mobility is limited by how long your battery can sustain power-intensive VR apps.
This early on into the world of VR, it’s not exactly worth switching phones to get your favorite headset. Instead, choose the one that works with your existing phone.
Samsung phones are compatible with the Samsung Gear VR, while Google’s Daydream headset is designed for Pixels and a growing set of Android products. Unfortunately, most phones don’t work with either, such as iPhone, who got the complete short end of the stick.
The Mattel View-Master and other cheap headsets work with smartphones on a generic basis, including the iPhone, but their capabilities are more limited and have less availability in app selection.
Testing and Deciding
I have been reading user reviews on Amazon and guides from reputable sources such as PC Magazine to get a better sense of the current choices. I have sought out expert knowledge from the editors and tech correspondents of such publications, to great success.
They have pointed out important features to take note of as well as the inescapable early faults.
High-end VR headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR offer the best experiences on the market, but it comes at a hefty price on your pocketbook.
Each system requires an expensive gaming PC or console as well as $500-800 for the VR system itself, so they’re just not worth the price for most people. The Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream headsets only represent the middle of the range.
They offer relatively rich content and decent software, as opposed to primitive “VR” like Google Cardboard, and the otherworldly league computers are in. Low-range devices, which utilize Google’s Cardboard software, are the most abundant in the spectrum.
To find a good Cardboard headset, my search looked for positive product reviews and the producers’ level of establishment and experience. Native content, comfort, and ease of use were also taken into consideration.
While wearing each headset, I first evaluated the graphics. The system’s graphic features are largely determined by the quality of the lenses and the quality of the screen. I furthermore took note of how color and brightness were rendered.
Lens operate through a light phenomenon called refraction- in which light bends after passing through a medium- like how a straw looks distorted when one half is above water and the other under.
Due to wavelength properties of light, low quality lenses suffer from chromatic aberration, that is the distortion of colors. Looking at the graphics can tell us a lot about the engineering quality of the overall product.
For processor-heavy games, I also looked for lag, and pondered whether it might be a hardware issue or a software one. I considered how comfortably the headsets sat on my face and how they felt temperature-wise.
I also monitored my level of nausea because VR makes some people experience motion sickness due to movement inside of the headset not aligning with their actual physical movement.
I also compared input devices; the ways in which we interact with VR can either add to or detract from immersion.
Hand tracking implementation, a feature associated with higher-end headsets, in a mobile VR headset earns extra brownie points in the immersion category.
As for content, I spent a while looking at the selections each device had to offer, and sampling out the games and media.
Google Daydream View
For the optimal mobile VR experience, I would thoroughly recommend Google’s Daydream View. We selected Daydream View because of great design choices such as its light, soft feel and hand control capabilities.
These two features made all the difference against the Gear VR.
Daydream relies on specially designed Android phones to serve its processing and display needs.
Currently, the list of capable devices only includes the two variations of Pixel phones and the Lenovo Moto Z, but more and more Android phone makers have agreed to add compatibility going forward.
Once I installed the system software, setting up the Daydream headset didn’t take much time at all. The ergonomic design makes it easy to put it on and take it off, insert the phone and remove it.
The headset is made from clothing-grade fabrics, which makes it easy and comfortable to wear, very reminiscent of my favorite blanket as a kid.
On the other hand, Samsung’s Gear VR is weighty and made from hard plastic, which alone gives off a vibe of less than optimal comfort. The weight, combined with heat accumulation, puts a bit of a strain on the user.
After balancing each device’s strengths and weaknesses in display, content, and comfort, it looked as if the Gear were better. But the Daydream still held one crucial trump card- the controller. The controller is a small oval device which fits in your hand.
It has two buttons and a clickable touchpad, and also tracks the approximate location of your hand, bringing it into virtual reality to interact with things.
In Mekorama, a puzzle game where you guide a robot through fluidly shifting buildings, you can reach out and manipulate the game world to suit your needs.
Hand tracking adds an astonishingly immersive feel to Daydream that was hitherto only found in higher-end VR, and opens up a whole new dimension for games to explore. This feature simply can’t be matched by the touchpad on the side of Gear VR headsets.
Daydream only entered the market in November 2016, so there aren’t very many apps developed for it yet, but more should be on their way. CNET has a nice listing of available apps and services here.
As more phone makers release Daydream-compatible headsets, developers will be keen to adapt their Gear content onto the Daydream. The network effect of self-propagating popularity is getting ready to push Daydream forward.
It’s already a fun experience, and it seems that consensus agrees with us. Daydream has received a multitude of positive reviews from CNET, Wired, Gizmodo, Tech Radar, The Verge, Ars Technica, and the users themselves
Daydream View’s low weight and small size comes with drawbacks. The field of vision is noticeably smaller than in Gear VR, giving a slight sense of tunnel vision, regardless of phones’ screen sizes and resolutions.
The 5.5-inch 2560×1440-pixel screen of the Pixel XL I used on the Daydream did not look quite as sharp as the same display on the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge I used the Gear VR with. It seems as if the lens system is inherently inferior.
The headset also has a tendency to lose the controller’s positioning. Fortunately, recalibrating it only requires you to press and hold a button, but it can get pretty annoying pretty quickly.
Samsung Gear VR
For those with Samsung phones, the Samsung Gear VR is the one for you!. It works with Samsung’s Galaxy S6, S7, and Note 5 phones — some very popular models from a popular company — so you’re much likelier to own a phone that’s compatible with it than one compatible with Daydream.
The headset’s lenses give it a wider field of view, and it appears that the lenses and display systems are fundamentally better than its competitor. Because the Gear VR has been around longer and more development has taken place, there are much more things to do on it.
However, it doesn’t have a hand-tracking controller it’s heavier and less comfortable than the Daydream View.
Due to having more head straps and a more complicated attachment method, the Gear VR took a bit longer to set up, but it was still sort of fast.
While Daydream has one singular flap holding the phone, Gear VR has two clips, and a cable which plugs into the phone’s Micro USB port. The headset plugs directly into the phone’s Micro-USB port so the touchpad on the side of the headset can be used to control the phone.
It’s admittedly a bit annoying to use compared to the Daydream’s controller, since it’s on the side of your head as opposed to directly in your hand. It feels less awkward as you continue to use it, but it isn’t nearly as intuitive and comfortable as the Daydream controller.
If I bought a Gear VR, I would likely also get a Bluetooth controller. (Personally one that resembles the GameCube or Xbox design, but to each their own).
Inside the headset, there’s a lot to explore. I recommend looking up lists of games and content to download, because there’s a lot of comparative junk to sort through to find the diamonds in the rough.
I spent the most time playing Minecraft, a great VR recreation of the (in)famous block creation game which only now brings out the fullest potential of the first person view mode. Enhancing the classic first person view has added a new way to experience the Minecraft world.
There are fairly significant titles already out there which demonstrates Gear VR’s main advantage over Daydream View; though with current development patterns, the tables may just turn in the near future.
The Mattel View-Master is a significant step up from the Google Cardboard headset, which is literally made out of cardboard.
Compared to the Daydream and Gear VR, it’s cheaply built, but succeeds in its intention to get as many people as possible into VR as quickly as possible. It has no accompanying software, and works with nearly all smartphones, including iPhones.
Unlike our other picks, the View-Master focuses more on 360 degree observation, rather than of interactivity and immersion. Indeed, the device is not attached to the head, but held like binoculars.
This can still be a wonderful experience and an attractive teaser for new technologies yet to come. I recommend starting with the Google Cardboard app and exploring all the free content developed for it.
Google’s product allows you to explore the Earth inside a 360 degree version of Street View, and watch 360 degree videos on YouTube. The company Mattel, the producer itself, offers basic and paid experiences which mostly aims to provide kids with educational content.
You get to play simple games, watch some videos, and go on virtual expeditions.
The View-Master device is made of plastic and can accommodate most smartphones within the 5 – 6 inch screen size range. Out of the three headsets covered in this guide, it is the only one iPhones are compatible with.
It’s also the only headset we tested that doesn’t have a strap, meaning users need to hold it up to their face using their own hands, unless they jury rig some sort of holding device. This makes the headset unsuited for gaming, compared to the Daydream or the Gear VR.
This is in line with Google’s doctrines for Cardboard-compatible headsets. It’s not intended to be used beyond VR observation, nor is it made to be durable.
A huge number of other headsets are available for Google Cardboard, from DIY cardboard constructions to expensive gadgets. Nonetheless, View-Master is the best value given the current features of Cardboard.
It’s not worth spending more than the View-Master until Cardboard becomes more capable. At this point, you’re better off spending a bit more and getting the Daydream View or Gear VR if possible with your phone.
Conclusion: A Changing Market Ready for Consumers
Like all emerging technologies throughout history, virtual reality is going through its growing pains. There will be lots of experimentation done in both hardware and software going forward.
Many excellent developments and products will be made, and many more mediocre products will flop in the continuous innovation through trial and error. Prospects are certainly high for VR, and it looks to deliver each of us brand new personal worlds to pioneer.