There's one really tried and true piece of buying advice when it comes to picking out the best VR headset: You get what you pay for.
While there are certainly some great low-end options out there if you're not looking to drop your next paycheck or two on a virtual reality headset, the best-of-the-best experiences are going to cost you.
The two best on the market right now, the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, are unsurprisingly also the most expensive. These two offer unparalleled immersion through superior refresh rates, extremely high resolutions and, in the case of the HTC Vive, both room-scale tracking and motion controllers for your hands.
- Pair a VR headset with one of the best gaming laptops of 2016
But while these headsets might now be available to buy, it's not exactly easy to try out the likes of the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, and unless you do so then it's tough to know which one is right for you.
Each headset has its own distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and if you're not aware of these before you buy then it could be a very costly mistake to make. And that's exactly why we put this guide together.
We thoroughly expect this list to grow over time as more headsets (like Sony's upcoming PlayStation VR) are released, but these are the ones that are avaiable as consumer versions right now.
If you're interested in what's on the horizon, check out our list of the best upcoming VR headsets.
The best VR headset: HTC Vive
HTC Vive wins the first battle in the VR war
Availability: Out now | Price: $799 / £689 / AU$899
As of right now, the HTC Vive is the most complete VR experience on the market. As well as a headset and two base stations (which are used for tracking the headset's movement) the Vive also includes two motion controllers in the box. This is important, since it allows the Vive to offer a much more immersive experience than using a traditional controller. Meanwhile, Oculus's Touch controllers still don't have a release date.
The headset itself contains two 1080p screens which makes for a very crisp image. Unfortunately it's not quite high-resolution enough to prevent you from being able to discern individual pixels when you wear it, but this is still the highest resolution headset on the market right now alongside the Oculus Rift.
A standout feature of the HTC Vive is its room-scale feature which allows you to walk around a space that's 4.5 x 4.5m big. This really adds another dimension to the feeling of presence that you experience while using it; you're not just pressing up on an analogue stick, you're using your legs to walk over to it.
That's if you have enough space in your real room that is.
The Vive's downside, however, is its price. It's expensive, double the price of the most expensive console that's currently out, and equivalent in price to the kind of beastly gaming PC you'll need to run it.
Read the full review: HTC Vive
A good alternative: Oculus Rift
Despite some hiccups, Oculus Rift will take your breath away
Availability: Out now | Price: $600 / £499 / AU$649
The current VR arms race is all thanks to one man: Oculus founder Palmer Luckey. As a teenager, Luckey collected VR tech and was fascinated with making his own headset in his garage. Numerous prototypes and a $2bn Facebook buyout later, Oculus is still the biggest name in VR.
Now the consumer version of the Oculus Rift is finally out and we can get our hands on the headset that started it all.
Yet compared to the HTC Vive with its room-scale technology and two included motion controllers the Rift feels like a paired down VR experience in comparison. You're very much limited to a more static VR experience played with a traditional game controller – yes, you can stand up should you choose to do so, however, without proper hand tracking it will never quite feel as immersive as you'd like.
Still though, at $200 cheaper than the Vive, the Rift offers a very compelling mid-range virtual reality option for those with less space to spare.
Read the full review: Oculus Rift
Middle-of-the-road: Samsung Gear VR
Smaller, lighter... but exactly the same
Availability: Out now | Price: $199 (£169, AU$249)
Powered by technology from Oculus, the Samsung Gear VR was effectively the first VR headset on the market. To use it, you simply grab a Samsung phone, download apps and games from the Oculus store, and clip it into the headset.
The original model supported the Note 4, but subsequent models have expanded compatibility to a number of phones including the Note 5, Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S7.
Because of the huge number of phones that are compatible with the Gear VR, the quality of the VR experience can vary by quite a bit. Use an older Note 4 and you'll be limited to a pixel density of 518 ppi, but a newer S7 bumps this up to 577 ppi.
The Gear VR headset isn't the highest-quality VR experience available, but it is one of the easiest to get up and running quickly.
Read the full review: Samsung Gear VR
The best cheap VR headset: Google Cardboard
Cheap, mobile virtual reality that's a cinch to make
Availability: Out now | Price: Free - $85 (depending on model)
Google Cardboard is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek take on VR, but it makes a great weekend project if you want to see what the fuss is about. You can either download the instructions and make your own headset, or you can buy a kit from a variety of vendors for around $25 (the most expensive model is an outlier at $85).
Once you've bought or constructed your headset, you can download Google Cardboard apps to your iOS or Android phone, drop your device into the headset, and get playing. It's not the best VR experience out there, but if you have a modern phablet-sized phone with a hi-res screen, it's actually pretty good.
Read the full review: Google Cardboard
The cheap alternative: Carl Zeiss VR One Plus
A premium-feeling VR viewer
Availability: Out now | Price: $129 (£116, €129)
Like Samsung's Galaxy Gear, the Carl Zeiss VR One uses a mobile phone as its display. However, unlike the Galaxy Gear, it supports both the iPhone 6 and the Galaxy S5 through a removable tray that slides between the lenses and the back panel.
Even better news is the price, which at $129, is half the price of Samsung's equivalent headset. The downside is that there's not much content for the device from Zeiss aside from an augmented reality demo and movie app that shows videos from your phone in a virtual cinema. You can thankfully use apps designed for Google Cardboard, though, and more are sure to come down the line.
The VR One Plus isn't the best example of virtual reality on the market, but it's a step up from Google Cardboard for those who don't have a Samsung Galaxy phone.
Read the full review: Carl Zeiss VR One Plus
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