Smartphone VR headsets are a great way to try virtual reality without spending a fortune. They’re the only midrange options between cheap cardboard and expensive, complicated desktop VR devices. In our testing, Google Daydream View narrowly beat out Samsung Gear VR as the best mobile virtual reality headset. It’s comfier to wear and comes with a hand-tracking controller that makes gameplay easier and more immersive. However, the competition is so close, and the tech so new, that you can’t go wrong picking whichever headset works with your phone. (Our main picks only support a handful of Android phones each; iPhone users don’t have good VR options yet.) If you don’t have a phone that works with either, VR isn’t enough reason to buy one, but it could be a factor next time you buy a phone.
The Daydream View headset is made from soft, lightweight materials that allow you to forget you have a phone hanging from your face. The included controller, which tracks the position and location of your hand, makes entry-level VR fun and approachable, and is something Gear VR can’t match. The Daydream View only works with the Google Pixel, Pixel XL, and three Moto Z phones right now, but more phones should have Daydream support next year. There also isn’t as much to do in Daydream View yet as there is in Gear VR, but that should change quickly as developers port apps from Gear.
Although we prefer the Daydream View for its comfort and handheld controller, the Samsung Gear VR is great too, especially if you’re one of the many people with a compatible Samsung smartphone like the Galaxy S6, S7, S7 edge, or S8. It has a wider field of view than Daydream, and Samsung’s phones have crisper displays, so Gear VR does too. It also has more games and is compatible with Bluetooth gaming controllers (like our favorite, the Sony DualShock 4 controller). Otherwise, you control it with a touchpad built into the right side of the headset.
The Mattel View-Master is an entry-level VR option for those who want something even cheaper or for anyone (like iPhone users) whose phone is not compatible with Daydream or Gear VR. It’s good for 20 minutes of fun here and there, but don’t expect an experience approaching that of the other headsets included in this guide. It’s compatible with the same apps as Google Cardboard, the barebones VR experience that lets you watch 360-degree videos on YouTube or explore Earth in Google Street View.
If you already own a phone that’s compatible with either the Gear VR or Google Daydream View, and you’re okay with being an early adopter in a fast-changing industry, you should get whichever headset works with your phone. They’re both capable headsets that will get anyone into VR quickly. If you’re buying a new phone, you don’t know which one to get, and VR compatibility is a factor, Daydream View could be a tiebreaker.
I’ve spent the last three years testing and writing about virtual reality headsets for publications like TechCrunch, MIT Technology Review, and Gigaom. This has helped me build a deep understanding of the features that make a difference and how to detect (and avoid) the annoyances inherent to this emerging technology.
The first iteration of the modern virtual reality headset (Oculus Rift’s Dev Kit 1) came out three years ago. That means it’s still a fresh idea, with kinks to work out and a long road before it works as well as most people expect. But that doesn’t mean you should write off existing headsets. At its best, even current VR technology can transport you to an immersive virtual space where you can explore, fight, and create. It’s the kind of thing you really have to experience to understand.
When you put on a VR headset, you’re immersed in a virtual world where you can turn your head and look around, just like in the real world. For less than $100 (if you already own a compatible smartphone), you can get a passable mobile VR headset with access to content like short movies, adventure games, and puzzles for adults and kids. These devices are more portable and much simpler to set up than the higher-end desktop VR headsets. They’re also easier to troubleshoot because they use a mobile phone as their computer and screen.
One of the biggest benefits of buying a mobile VR headset instead of a desktop version, aside from the price tag, is its true mobility. You can wear it on a plane or bring it to a friend’s house for show and tell. (You can even wear one on the subway, but you probably shouldn’t.) At this early stage, everyone wants to try VR. Mobile headsets allow you to become a traveling evangelist. Just be warned that your phone’s battery won’t be happy about it.
At this early stage, it’s not quite worth switching phones to get the VR headset you want. Instead, choose the option that works with your existing phone. The Samsung Gear VR is compatible with Samsung phones, while Google’s Daydream headset is built for Pixels and an expanding range of Android headsets. Unfortunately, most smartphones don’t work with either headset, and iPhone users are flat out of luck. Cheaper headsets like the Mattel View-Master work with most high-end smartphones, including iPhones, but they are much more limited in what they can do and in the types of apps that are available for them.
To get a sense of the best current choices, I read user reviews on Amazon and guides from respected sources such as The Verge and PC Magazine. I also sought expert advice from Road to VR cofounder Ben Lang, AltspaceVR head of experience Bruce Wooden, Visionary VR CEO Gil Baron, and SVRF CEO and co-founder Sophia Dominguez. They pointed out important features to compare and unavoidable early drawbacks.
High-end VR headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR offer the best VR experiences right now, but at the cost of, well, cost. Each requires an expensive gaming PC or console on top of the $500-800 for the VR system, and they’re just not worth the price for most people yet. The Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream headsets represent the only midrange options. They offer relatively rich content ecosystems and nice software that’s a step up from barebones “VR” like Google Cardboard, plus handheld input devices so you can interact with games. Low-range options, which make use of the Cardboard software produced by Google, are much more abundant. To find a good Cardboard headset, I looked for those made by established companies and backed up by positive consumer reviews. Native content, comfort, and ease of use were also big pluses.
While wearing each headset, I evaluated how the screen looked, which is partly a test of the headset’s lenses and partly a test of the display of the smartphone inside. I watched for visible pixels, how the screen rendered dark and light colors and how wide the field of view appeared. In processor-intensive games, I also looked for lag. I made note of how comfortably the headsets sat on my face and whether they felt too hot. I also monitored my nausea level. VR makes some people experience a form of motion sickness, usually when movement inside the headset doesn’t match up with their actual physical movement.
I also compared input devices for the headsets. The ways in which we interact with VR can add to or detract from the feeling of immersion. Finding hand tracking (a feature associated with higher-end headsets) in a mobile VR headset is a bonus.
Then I searched for a combination of puzzle, action, and cinematic content, spending at least two hours inside each headset.
If you want the best mobile VR experience and have (or are about to get) a compatible smartphone, get Google’s Daydream View. Daydream View is our pick because of smart design choices like soft, wearable materials and a hand-tracking controller that make it easier and more enjoyable to use than the Samsung Gear VR.
Daydream relies on specially designed Android phones to be its screen and its brains. Right now, that only includes the two sizes of Pixel phones and the Lenovo Moto Z and Moto Z Force, but more Android phone makers have pledged to add Daydream support to upcoming models. For my testing, I used a Pixel XL phone.
Once I installed the necessary software on the phone, it took less than a minute to set up my Daydream headset. The headset is made from t-shirt-like fabrics, which makes it especially light and comfy to wear. It clings to your head with the help of a single strap. Samsung’s Gear VR is heavier and made from hard plastic, with a strip of foam that sits against your face, so it’s much less comfortable.
Despite the fact that there isn’t as much to do in Daydream as in Gear VR, it’s our top pick because it offers hand tracking. The Daydream controller is an oval device that fits in the palm of your hand. It has two buttons and a clickable touchpad, but it also tracks the approximate location of your hand, bringing it into virtual reality. In Mekorama (a puzzle game where you walk a robot through shifting buildings), you can reach out and manipulate the world like it’s made of building blocks. In Wonderglade, you can play minigolf by swinging the controller like a golf club. Hand tracking adds a surprisingly immersive feel to Daydream that was previously only found in higher-end VR and can’t be matched by the touchpad on the side of Gear VR headsets.
Inside the headset, you’re greeted on the home screen with a cluster of apps. Google kept the user interface clean and pleasant. Just point at an icon with the controller in your hand and click to select.
Daydream only went on sale in November, so there aren’t that many apps for it yet, but more should be coming. CNET has a nice roundup of available experiences here. As more phone makers release Daydream-compatible headsets, developers will be eager to adapt their Gear content for Daydream. It’s already a fun experience, and we’re not the only ones who think that. Daydream also received positive reviews from Wired, CNET, Ars Technica, The Verge, Tech Radar, and Gizmodo.
Daydream View’s compact size (it’s the smallest and lightest of the three headsets in this guide) comes at a cost. The field of view is noticeably smaller than in Gear VR, giving a slight sense of tunnel vision, even when using phones of the same screen size and resolution. The 5.5-inch 2560×1,440-pixel screen on the Pixel XL I used also didn’t look quite as sharp as the 5.5-inch, 2560×1440 display on the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge I tested the Gear VR with.
The headset also has a tendency to lose the location of the controller. Luckily you just need to press and hold a button to recalibrate it, but you should expect to do so a few times per gaming session.
If you have a Samsung phone, you should get the Samsung Gear VR. It works with Samsung’s Galaxy S6, S7, S8, and Note 5 phones—the top phones from the past two years by the biggest Android phone maker—so you’re much more likely to own a phone that works with it than with Daydream. The lenses on the headset give it a wider field of view, and the Galaxy phones it works with have better screens than the Pixel and other Daydream View devices. Because Gear VR has been around for longer, there are more things to do with it, too. But it’s heavier and less comfortable than Daydream View, and it doesn’t have a hand-tracking controller.
Gear VR took slightly longer to set up due to the need to attach the included straps. It also has a slightly different mechanism for attaching a phone. While Daydream has a flap that holds phones in place, Gear VR has two clips, one of which plugs into the phone’s Micro-USB port. I had to swap in a different clip to attach the S7 Edge, but setup still took under five minutes.
The headset plugs directly into the phone’s Micro-USB port so you can use a touchpad on the side of the headset to control the phone. It’s a bit annoying to use compared to the Daydream’s controller, since it’s on the side of your face as opposed to right in your hand. You also need to remember which combinations of tapping and swiping to use, since you can’t see your hand to get visual feedback. You’ll get it after one play session, but it isn’t nearly as intuitive as the Daydream controller, and the lack of hand tracking means Gear VR is less immersive. If I owned a Gear VR, I would likely purchase a Bluetooth gamepad. UltraVR recommends the Steelseries Stratus XL, but our favorite gaming controller, the Sony DualShock 4, works too.
Once you’re inside the headset, there’s a lot to explore. I recommend looking up curated lists of games and content to download because a lot of the available experiences are pretty mediocre. I spent the most time playing EVE: Gunjack, a shooter game that’s stationary enough to not cause nausea and Minecraft, a faithful VR recreation of the popular game that finally takes advantage of its first-person-view mode. I’m also a big fan of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a party game that requires people not wearing a headset to consult a manual for how to defuse a bomb only the Gear VR wearer can see. These are all fairly big titles and demonstrate Gear VR’s advantage over Daydream View; since it’s been around for longer, there’s more stuff to do in it, at least for now.
PC Mag, CNET, Engadget, IGN, and Tom’s Guide also all had positive experiences with Gear VR.
In late March, Samsung announced a hand-tracking controller for Gear VR, which will make navigating the Gear VR more intuitive. Although the new battery-powered controller will ship with Samsung’s Gear VR headset starting on April 21, the headset itself hasn’t been overhauled in any way. Oculus has updated the Gear VR’s home screen, too, with faster load times, better pixel resolution (by using cylindrical layers), and support for Oculus Avatars. The Gear VR with controller will be sold for $130 in April, or you can purchase the controller separately for $40.
The Mattel View-Master offers a substantial upgrade over the official Google Cardboard headset, which is literally made of cardboard. Compared to the Daydream and Gear VR, it’s cheaply made and inexpensive, and it’s designed to get anyone into VR as quickly as possible. It works with nearly all smartphones, including iPhones. Unlike our other picks, the View-Master is designed to be held up to your face like a pair of binoculars—so they’re more for looking, not so much interacting. But this can still be an impressive experience. I recommend starting with the Google Cardboard app (iOS, Android) and exploring the free content developed for the ecosystem. Google-built content allows you to explore Earth inside a 360-degree version of Street View, or there are a plethora of astronomy apps that label and explain different parts of the cosmos. The New York Times VR app (full disclosure: The Wirecutter is a wholly-owned subsidiary of The New York Times Company) is another great source for immersive 360-degree documentaries pertaining to current events. And Mattel itself offers basic and paid experiences that mostly target kids with educational content. You can play basic games, watch films, and take virtual expeditions.
The View-Master device is made of plastic and has a sliding phone gripper that can accommodate most smartphones with screens between 5 and 6 inches. Out of the three headsets covered in this guide, it’s the only one compatible with iPhones. It’s also the only headset we tested that doesn’t have a strap, meaning users need to hold it to their faces with their hands like a pair of binoculars, making the overall experience less immersive and less suited for gaming than either the Daydream or the Gear VR. This is in line with Google’s guidelines for Cardboard-compatible headsets, which aren’t designed for long-term use.
Your experience in the View-Master—or any Google Cardboard headset—greatly depends on the size and quality of your phone’s screen. While the screen of my iPhone 6s looked sharp enough, I could see its edges. A phone with larger screen would be better.
A huge number of other headsets are available for Google Cardboard, from the literally cardboard to the obscenely expensive. But the View-Master is the right price for what you can get out of Cardboard right now; it’s not worth spending more—not even the $40 for the Deluxe version—until Cardboard is more capable. Even then, you’re better off spending a little more and getting the Daydream View or Gear VR if they work with your phone.
(Photos by Signe Brewster.)
Originally published: December 20, 2016