Hands on: Microsoft HoloLens 2 review

Lighter, with a better view

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Early Verdict

Microsoft's HoloLens 2 may look like it's designed for a very specific purpose, but the possibilities are endless with this mixed reality headset. The HoloLens 2 looks to improve upon the first-generation device in lots of ways, but whether you'll need to buy one right away is still uncertain.

For

  • Lighter than first-gen
  • Larger field of view

Against

  • Not bright enough
  • Very expensive

Microsoft’s HoloLens venture is now a little more than four years old, and while it initially launched with what we thought would be a consumer bent as well as its application in the business world, it seems now Microsoft believes the only purpose of this headset is for enterprise users.

HoloLens has grown in the past few years into a tool that can be genuinely useful for a wide range of businesses.

Whether it’s training a particularly difficult skill or to do a job more efficiently, mixed reality is a great way to do that, and the HoloLens has been the leader. 

That’s why HoloLens 2 – announced during MWC 2019 – has been unveiled as a purely business tool. Microsoft is doubling down on its enterprise venture, and it's even allowing third-party developers to create apps and tools for the service soon, too.

We took to the Microsoft booth at MWC 2019 to try out a demonstrations of the new headset. With time enough only for one of four demos, medical tech firm Pearson gave us a look at how HoloLens can be used to train medical students in the skill of diagnosing patients.

Microsoft HoloLens 2 release date and price 

Microsoft HoloLens 2

Image Credit: Microsoft

(Image: © Microsoft)

HoloLens 2 isn’t likely to be a device you’ll buy on a whim. As it’s an enterprise-led product, it’s not as difficult to stomach its high price, but it’s not cheap in anyone’s book. Microsoft offers packages with the price starting at $125 (about £93, AU$175) a month, or you can buy one outright for $3,500 (about £2,600, AU$4,900).

Those prices for the UK and Australia aren’t exact, and we’ll be sure to update this piece when we learn the specific price for the headset in these regions. You can pre-order the HoloLens 2 now, but we don’t currently have an exact release date for when it'll arrive.

Design and display 

Microsoft HoloLens 2

Image Credit: TechRadar

HoloLens was a well-designed mixed reality headset, but as the first-gen product it was clear there were going to need to be some improvements in the future. The main complaints were comfort, especially as this is a device some professionals may be wanting to use for a few hours a day.

That's one of Microsoft's big improvements here, with the design being both smaller and lighter. We immediately noticed the weight difference when we put it on, and it's down to the company's new carbon fiber build.

Although it's lightweight, it still feels premium. It's comfortable to adjust with a wheel at the back of the headset to either tighten or loosen the edges around your head.

There's padding all the way around, and we found it to sit securely on the head, too, so we weren't constantly worried it may fall off. This is a very expensive piece of kit to drop and break in your first five minutes of use.

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Overall, if you’ve used the first-gen headset, you’re sure to notice the difference here. If you haven’t, just know that this doesn’t feel uncomfortably heavy on your head, like some virtual reality headsets can.

One issue is you often feel like you want to pull the headset up so you can focus on the task at hand. It’s likely something you get used to over time, but we found our hands drifting toward the headset to try and get a clearer view of what we were looking at.

In fact, that view is one of the big upgrades for the HoloLens 2. It’s a 2K MEMS (or microelectromechanical systems) display that Microsoft has employed here.

It may sound obvious, but the display is transparent, so you can see the augmented reality elements overlaying on top of real world objects. For example, our demo had a patient sitting on the edge of a bed waiting for our diagnosis.

The patient was entirely augmented reality elements, but the bed in the room was real.

Image Credit: TechRadar

We found the view through the headset to be clear, but under some harsh lighting at our MWC demo we found it difficult to spot individual elements. Moving to worse-lit areas improved the display, but it's a shame the headset's brightness struggled under the light.

That's either a quirk of the headset we were using or the lighting, but considering this is a device that’s being touted to work in a clinical setting we’re surprised it struggled in this scenario.

The field of view on this headset is now 52-degrees, which beats the original’s 34-degree option. It’s also no longer in a 16:9 aspect ratio, allowing your augmented reality view to be taller.

That may not sound like much on paper, but it means the augmented reality elements are right in front of your eyes, and that's enough. You also don't feel enclosed in, allowing you to move around the real world space without the worry of knocking into items or – much worse – stubbing a toe.

Functionality 

That larger field of view is one of the biggest upgrades here, and that largely means that you’re going to see a lot more in whatever app you’re using on the headset.

Our time with the original HoloLens has been brief, but it was noticeable immediately when we placed the new headset on our head that the display technology was better here.

There are lots of minor functionality upgrades you’ll want to know about here, too.

For example, there’s eye tracking software in here that developers can build into their apps. You’ll have to calibrate this with a 30 second eye tracking demo, but that isn’t too much hassle to navigate around certain interface elements using your eyes.

During our demo, a particularly good use case scenario was simply reading text. A small boxout within the user interface appeared, and when we finished reading a paragraph you could see the text begin to scroll down slowly at the correct speed for what you’re reading at.

We sped up and slowed down our reading speeds, and after a few seconds the eye tracking technology caught up to what we were doing.

Image Credit: Microsoft

Image Credit: Microsoft

(Image: © Microsoft)

Hand tracking tech here was a little temperamental within our demo. Pressing the buttons in the virtual interface would usually produce an immediate response, but other times we were left without anything.

That may be down to this headset not running final software, but it may also be a quirk that will appear in the final version of the headset, too. The headset also comes with a microphone onboard, so you can interact through speech with certain apps.

In our demo, we were asked to speak to a virtual assistant who was helping us to diagnose a patient, but there’s a variety of different use cases for this tech in the new headset.

Back to hand tracking, and it’s worthwhile mentioning one of the big upgrades here, HoloLens 2 can track your exact finger positions, so you can navigate easier and do more minute or dextrous tasks within the interface itself.

We didn’t get much time to play around with this, but part of the calibration was with a hummingbird coming to sit on the palm of our hand. We found if you had a singular finger up, within a second or so the bird would know to fly down onto the tip of your finger.

It’s one of those simple things that makes the whole experience that much more impressive, and we can’t wait to get our hands on one of these headsets for longer to know exactly how this tech holds up.

One element we weren’t able to test is the fact the device gets used to your hands and their movements over time. We’re not currently sure how this will impact daily use of the headset, but it’s sure to be something that developers for the platform can embrace and expand upon.

Early verdict

Image Credit: Microsoft

Image Credit: Microsoft

(Image: © Microsoft)

HoloLens 2 looks to improve upon the experience of mixed reality and once again seems to be a market leading product in its own right. Whether these improvements will be worthwhile for the average HoloLens user is unclear, especially considering the price.

That said, this is a big step forward for the company with the field of view improvements proving one of the most important to keep the mixed reality space moving.

MWC (Mobile World Congress) is the world's largest showcase for the mobile industry, stuffed full of the newest phones, tablets, wearables and more. TechRadar is reporting live from Barcelona all week to bring you the very latest from the show floor. Head to our dedicated MWC 2019 hub to see all the new releases, along with TechRadar's world-class analysis and buying advice about your next phone. 

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.