As the hype around virtual reality (VR) builds, consumers are becoming increasingly interested in buying VR headsets. They are a great option for those looking to enjoy a fully immersive 3D experience.
However, knowing the different VR headset options available is important in order to know the best one for you.
VR headsets are not the same, they are different in terms of their connectivity, hardware, display, features, compatibility, as well as the VR/AR experience they offer. The 3 main types of VR headsets are Tethered headsets, Standalone headsets, and Smartphone headsets.
Each type is uniquely designed to cater to various uses, be it gaming, watching movies, or education. Let’s take a deeper look at how VR headsets differ based on the aspects mentioned above:
Since the technology behind each VR headset is unique, headsets from different brands connect to other devices in their own way and come with different ports. The various ways VR headsets connect to other devices include; USB, HDMI, Micro SD Card, Micro USB, Bluetooth, WiFi, mini DisplayPort, DisplayPort, and a 3.5 mm audio jack.
Therefore, depending on where and how you want to use your VR headset, you’ll need to keep in mind the connectivity options offered. Tethered headsets tend to provide more connectivity options since they are not limited in their processing power.
Hardware in VR headsets is a crucial consideration because it determines the size/dimensions, weight, durability, and performance of your device. You should particularly pay attention to the hardware in standalone VR headsets which have built-in batteries, displays, processors, sensors, and storage.
For instance, the battery capacity determines how long you can use your headset before recharging it while the processor has an effect on the graphics quality, performance speed, and refresh rate.
The quality of the display in a VR headset is important because it does not only determine how detailed the image on the screen will appear but also the field of view and refresh rate as well.
The types of displays you can expect to find in VR headsets are LCD, OLED, and AMOLED with a refresh rate of between 60Hz and 120Hz. The field of view is often between 90 degrees and 200 degrees.
Like most electronic devices, VR headsets also differ in terms of the features they offer to consumers. Some of these features include voice commands, cooling systems, built-in headphones, and built-in microphones.
These features affect how you use and interact with your VR headset. For instance, the voice command feature means that you press fewer buttons while a cooling system reduces the possibility of your unit overheating especially during extended use.
5. VR Experience
The VR experience is not the same with all headsets because certain capabilities such as room scaling, 360 tracking, eye tracking, built-in front camera, and hand tracking make a huge difference.
These features contribute to a more immersive VR experience by improving how motion is tracked and enabling the use of motion controllers such as Vive controllers for more intuitive in-game control.
VR headsets are not compatible with every device or software. Tethered headsets for instance demand enough RAM as well as high-performance processors and graphics cards on a laptop or desktop for them to operate smoothly.
For example, VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive Cosmos are compatible with only Microsoft Windows while the Sony PlayStation VR only works with the PlayStation 4 gaming console. HTC Vive Pro is one of the few headsets that work with both Mac OS and Microsoft Windows, however, it is more expensive when compared to other headsets.
The different types of VR headsets explained
There are three main types of VR headsets:
- Standalone/All-in-One VR headsets
- Tethered/Desktop VR headsets
- Smartphone VR headsets.
Let’s take a closer look at each type of VR headset:
Tethered/Desktop VR headset
Tethered VR headsets need to be connected to an external device, such as a computer or gaming console, using an HDMI or USB cable, or both. The cable is usually long enough to allow you to move around within a limited space while you’re still connected to a PC or gaming console.
Tethered VR headsets require your computer or console to have a high-performance processor and graphics card in order to provide high-quality images, positional tracking through external sensors, high-resolution images, and high refresh rates.
Some examples of tethered VR headsets include HTC Vive Pro and Sony PlayStation VR.
Standalone/All-in-one VR headset
Standalone VR headsets, also known as Mobile VR headsets, are self-contained units (they have built-in processors, graphics cards, displays, batteries, and memory) that don’t require a connection to a computer or smartphone.
A huge advantage of standalone VR headsets is that they are relatively lightweight which gives you the freedom to move around freely, unlike tethered VR headsets. However, they are limited in their graphics processing capabilities which results in lower refresh rates and resolution.
For this reason, Standalone VR headsets are primarily used for watching movies, playing games, and interacting with 360 content. They are designed for quick setup and are primarily for indoor use. One of the best examples of a standalone VR is the Meta Quest Pro.
Smartphone VR headset
Smartphone VR headsets rely on your smartphone’s display as well as its sensors and cameras to provide an enjoyable virtual reality experience. The gyroscope and accelerometer sensors on your smartphone help with tracking the orientation and movement of the smartphone in 3 dimensions especially when gaming.
Most smartphone VR headsets have adjustable lenses that help with magnifying and focusing the images displayed on your smartphone display. The quality of the images displayed depends on the quality of your phone’s display, the higher the resolution the sharper the images.
To use these headsets, you simply have to slide your phone into the headset and you are set. The headsets are usually compatible with most android and iPhone smartphone sizes. Some popular examples of smartphone VR headsets include Atlasonix and OIVO.
Tethered vs Standalone VR headsets (Pros and Cons)
If you’re torn between buying a Tethered or Standalone VR headset, knowing the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of headsets will help you make a more informed decision.
The table below shows the pros and cons of standalone and tethered VR headsets:
Tethered vs Standalone VR headsets comparison table
|Tethered VR headsets
|Standalone VR headsets
|Less mobile because they are constantly connected to the PC or gaming console during use.
|You can move around freely because they are all-in-one units that have no reliance on an external device.
|Produce sharp high-quality images at a high refresh rate because they rely on a powerful PC or console to render images.
|Offer lower-quality graphics at lower refresh rates because their processing capabilities are limited.
|Ease of Set-up
|Harder to set up because of the cables, controllers, and sometimes external cameras that need to be connected.
|They are pretty much plug-and-play once you’ve created an account.
|They are more expensive to operate because, besides buying the headset, you also have to purchase the accompanying PC or console.
|They have a low cost of operation since you only need to buy the VR headset.
|Battery life is not a problem since they are powered by an external connecting device.
|Low battery life. For example, the Meta Quest Pro offers about 2-3 hours of battery life.
|Less portable because of the extra cables, external cameras, and controllers they come with.
|They can easily be carried in a small carry-case.
|Since they are less power restricted, they are able to accommodate more functional accessories such as controllers, stand sensors, and trackers.
|Accessories available are mainly to improve comfort and battery life.
Do VR headsets break easily?
VR headsets do not come cheap, and a common concern among first-time buyers is how durable they are. Will they break within a year?
VR headsets do not break easily when they are treated and used with care. Considering that most are used for gaming, they are designed to withstand some level of abuse. If you avoid dropping them, crashing into objects/walls, yanking the cables, and scratching the lenses they should last long.
How VR headsets are powered
With the exception of Standalone VR headsets, Tethered and Smartphone VR headsets do not need batteries. Standalone VR headsets such as the Meta Quest Pro have rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are used to power their built-in display, processor, memory, and sensors.
Tethered VR headsets rely on power from the connecting device while smartphone VR headsets use the smartphone’s battery.
The Oculus Quest 2 for example, comes with a 5000 mAh lithium-ion battery that provides 2-3 hours of battery life. The battery life of standalone VR headsets can be extended using head straps with rechargeable batteries.
VR controllers also need batteries to communicate with the headset. Often, you will find non-rechargeable AA batteries in these controllers, but you can always replace them with rechargeable ones.
How long standalone VR headsets last on battery
Standalone VR headsets generally last about 2-3 hours on battery. How long the battery lasts depends mainly on the battery capacity, the type of display (LCD displays consume more power than OLED), as well as how the headset is used. For example, gaming will drain the battery a lot faster as compared to watching a movie.
Do VR headsets need internet to work?
VR headsets need an internet connection when; setting them up, downloading games and movies, streaming movies on platforms such as Netflix, updating firmware and games, and buying games or other content online.
However, most VR headsets have an offline function that allows you to download videos or games and view or play them offline. For example, the SteamVR offline gaming library allows you to download games online and play them later when offline.
Do you need headphones for VR?
For the best experience, you need headphones for VR in order to get full 3D audio. In fact, some of the most high-end VR headsets come with their own high-quality headphones either integrated into them or separate.
Without headphones, you might miss key cinematic cues or lose the ability to know precisely where sounds are coming from. Most headphones designed specifically for VR use noise isolation technology that blocks external sounds to keep you focused on the virtual environment.
If you still want to be able to hear the outside/real world you can use the sidetone feature often found in the system settings.
Conclusion: Types of VR headsets
There are different types of VR headsets available on the market today which include Standalone VR headsets, tethered VR headsets, and Smartphone VR headsets all of which have different features designed for specific audiences. Future VR headsets may be able to support AR, which will act as a link between the physical and digital worlds.
When deciding which VR headset to buy, it is important to keep in mind how you intend to use it. Other factors such as price and portability also play a significant role in the decision-making process.