VR headsets that hold your iOS and Android smartphone will be huge this Christmas 2016 - we review the best virtual reality hardware you can get for under £60[Update 13 December 2016: Now includes a review of the original Samsung Gear VR headset which has come down in price to below £60 recently]
An increasing number of people seem to be catching onto the fact that VR apps for Android and iOS smartphones are glorious fun, so we’ve decided to put together a buyer’s guide to 13 best budget VR headsets.
Or perhaps a better description of the sector may be ‘enhanced smartphone holders’. Because at these price points, none of the VR headsets reviewed have any of their own onboard sensors, apart from the Samsung Gear VR.
Instead all but one rely on the processors, gyroscopes and motion sensors of the smartphones themselves. So the rule of thumb is: the better specced you smartphone, the smoother and more immersive your virtual reality experience
Don’t go in with expectations held too high, however. Consumer VR hardware and software is very much in its infancy, and these products provide just an inkling of the immersive potential of virtual reality. That said you can find loads of fun and fascinating games and ‘experiences’ for free on the iOS App Store and Google Play.
And these VR headsets also make great viewers for the growing range of 3D 360° movies that can be found on YouTube.
Read on for our list of the very best budget VR headsets, featuring the likes of Samsung, Google Cardboard, Bobo, Freefly, View-Master, Fiit VR, Merge, Homido VR, IncrediSonic, Habor, Pasonomi and Tepoinn.
Note: if you are looking for more information on Android-only VR headsets, check out our companion piece Google Daydream vs Google Cardboard.
Homido VR Headset
We’ve talked about the Homido VR headset previously, complimenting the accessory on its comfortable face plate and compatibility with larger phones such as the iPhone 6 Plus and OnePlus One.
The Homido VR headset retails for just under £50 in the UK and offers adjustable lenses and a handy 100° field of view, also boasting three alternate settings for those with glasses: far-sighted, near-sighted and ‘normal’ vision
Being able to enjoy VR apps hands-free thanks to the headstrap is a god-send, and the foam outline running along the inside of the accessory feels comfy even during long play sessions.
We found that one of the main advantages of using the Homido was that the headset doesn’t allow light to flood into the viewer itself. Wear some headphones with the Homido on your head and you’ll feel truly immersed.
Fiit VR Headset
The Fiit VR is priced very competitively indeed and has been picking up a lot of 5-star reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s easy to see why – the Fiit VR presents itself as the next evolutionary stage in Google Cardboard-compatible VR headsets. It does all the simple things well, such as having a latch mechanism that is easy to use and is utterly secure in day-to-day use.
The field of view is a claimed 102 degrees, and while we don’t have the tools at our disposal to verify that figure (eye protractors perhaps), we can assert that you do see more of the action than on most of the other headsets in this line-up, with the possible exception of the Merge VR.
Like the Merge, the Fiit VR is also ready to play the growing number of augmented reality apps available by virtue of its translucent front panel. The only downside is that there is no button control – but we’ve often found it bundled with a Bluetooth controller on Amazon. Either Fiit VR option represents excellent value-for-money – and a real challenge to the other contenders on the market.
Samsung Gear VR (2015 Edition)
When we originally wrote this article the Samsung Gear VR was priced well above the £60 price threshold at £99.95. The arrival of a new, slightly improved 2016 edition Gear VR means that the original can now be bought for around £55 if you shop around.
It’s designed to work with Samsung’s top flight phones from last year: the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge,S6 Edge +, Note 5, S7 and S7 Edge. All these handsets have one thing in common: AMOLED displays with 2560 x 1440 resolution. So this gives a significantly better stereoscopic view than many of the other VR headsets we’ve reviewed here.
Images and text are crisper and there is far less of the blurring at the fringes of the field of view than you typically get. Another key difference between the Samsung Gear VR and the other essentially passive headsets is that the Samsung has its own on-board circuitry in the form of an accelerometer, gyroscope and proximity sensors to supplement those of the enclosed smartphone.
These help to improve the immersive feeling by reducing latency and increasing the overall responsiveness of the headset. The downside is that pushing all those pixels around a VR environment really tears through your phone’s battery life. While the extra weight taken up by the additional hardware does compromise the Gear VR’s comfortability, especially on longer sessions.
Those caveats aside, if you have a compatible Samsung phone and want to give VR a try, this is as good as it gets at this price point.
Freefly VR Headset
The Freefly VR headset is one of the most expensive of the items we’ve listed, but in many ways you get what you pay for.
From the plush faux leather padding to the slick smartphone clamping mechanism, you can see attention to detail throughout the Freefly proposition.
The bundled GLIDE Bluetooth controller is slicker than most accessories of its type, and even includes a mini-joystick along with the control pads. But sadly, even this device is neutered by Apple’s iOS 9.2 update on iPhones.
The build quality, relatively light weight and secure straps combine to make the Freefly VR comfortable to wear even during extended sessions – although you will get sweaty, bleary-eyed and a little dizzy.
Find out more on our in-depth Freefly VR review – but for those who have sampled smartphone VR and like what they see in stereoscopic vision, this is a smart choice.
Merge VR Goggles
The Merge VR goggles are the most impressively produced and packaged of the first wave of Virtual Reality headsets that we’ve reviewed. They are made from lightweight and flexible foam and are available in any colour you want – as long as it’s bright purple.
You slide your iPhone or Android device into the slot at the front – Merge claims the goggles will accommodate any phone made in the past 2 years – and you are ready to rock and roll.
User controls and the dual-lens focus is ingeniously managed by 2 sliding buttons at the top of the Merge VR goggles. Pushing down makes the touch-friendly, conductive widgets prod the screen, offering a modicum of control, although its hardly immersive.
Moving the button-levers left and right also brings the lenses into focus, although we had difficulty keeping the display crystal clear over extended period of time (yes, our eyes might be too close together).
The well-laid out Merge website features a large number of VR games and VR promotions – including interactive demos for films like Goosebumps and The Walk.
Overall this is an impressive piece of kit for the price point – and a great way to dip a toe into the developing market of VR without breaking the bank.
For more information read our comprehensive Merge VR headset review.
Pasonomi VR Glasses
The Pasonomi (note, not Panasonic) VR Glasses stand out from the growing crowd in this sector by virtue of its funky black and white ABS plastic case. Now this makes no difference to the performance of the glasses, and you will still look goofy when lumbering around your VR environments – but at least you’ll be goofy with a sense of style.
The unusual looks reflect a build quality that is a step up from the norm – it feels solid, despite the relatively light 297g weight, and the non-magnetic clasp shuts firmly. The model we reviewed came bundled with a Bluetooth controller, as the device itself has no buttons. As usual, the controller did not work with our iPhone, although it paired perfectly with our Moto X Android smartphone.
Once again, we could never get our field of vision to be perfectly in focus all the time, but the lenses are individually adjustable which is some help. At around £27 in the UK, these are not the cheapest VR glasses we’ve tested, nor are they the best in terms of performance. But they work as well as can be expected for the price point, are built to last (there’s a 5 year guarantee!). And at the end of the day, they look rather special.
IncrediSonic Vue Series VR headset
The IncrediSonic Vue Series VR glasses is designed for smartphones with screens from 4.7 inches up to 6 inches, which means that the iPhone 6S can be accommodated. If you want to use a smaller phone such as the iPhone 5 you’ll need to slot in the included widget.
That attention to detail typifies the Vue – the package comes with a bluetooth remote (which is Android only, sadly), batteries, 2 spare nose pads and a microfibre cloth to clean the lenses. We liked the fact that there was no need to manually adjust the lenses, although like all the headsets we’ve tested we could never manage to get perfect focus across all of the screen all of the time.
The Vue was also relatively comfortable to wear, helped by its modest 400gm weight, although prolonged use did start to make our noses a little sore. Overall, though, the Vue emerges as possibly the best value VR headset we’ve tested in this first wave of virtual reality accessories.
View-Master Virtual Reality Glasses Starter Pack
We had a nostalgia blow-out when we opened up our View-Master Virtual Reality Starter Pack. The headset itself is modelled on the classic View-Masters of yesteryear, even down to the sliding lever on the side.
In this case it acts as an action button rather than rotate a disc of stereoscopic images. But Dads will rejoice in the fact that discs still appear in the package – although now they act as prompts to get the View-Master app to create cool 3D augmented reality icons.
It’s a thoroughly winning combination of nostalgia for the grown ups, and cool (if gimmicky) features for the younglings. The viewer is well built and easy to set up, but the lack of a headstrap means it is better for short burst of fun. Some people have had problems with the non-adjustable lenses but we found the View-Master kept our iPhone 6 screen in reasonable focus.
Our main issue with the View-Master experience is that the various software packs, though well presented, are over-priced (£7.99) and have limited long-term appeal. Still, you can always use the View-Master with all the Cardboard-compatible apps on the App Store and Google Play.
Habor VR Glasses
This is an updated version of the Habor VR headset (the original is now referred to as the ‘classic’ design), although apart from the removal of the white trim on the front we didn’t spot much that has changed.
The Habor is a curious mix of the marvellous and the mediocre. On the plus side of the equation stand the comfortable mock leather padding and blue-tinted lenses which combine to make longer sessions much more endurable than most other VR goggles we tested. The twin axis control of focal distance and the phone distance also makes it a little easier to keep the screen in bearable focus.
On the negative side is the fact that the headsets have no built-in action buttons or bundled bluetooth controller, which means that VR apps that require user input are rendered useless. Of course, bluetooth controllers are easy enough to buy for around £7 ($10) but it would have been nice to have one bundled in the box.
Tepoinn VR Headset (VR Shinecon)
Our very first impression of the Tepoinn 3D glasses was one of confusion. They are sold as Tepoinn but the packaging and the product itself are branded VR Shinecon. Adding to the initial bemusement was the fact that a random Tepoinn branded stylus was included in the box. Bizarre. It’s like the marketers had been playing Chinese whispers.
The next impression was one of pleasant surprise. The Tepoinn VR headset is relatively well put together: the build quality is solid, the dual lenses can be adjusted for focal length and distance apart and the unit slots comfortably into place on your head. The unit is designed for smartphones ranging from 3.5 to 5.5 inches in length, so while it will easily handle an iPhone 6S, the Plus size model is a no-go.
In use it performed well – helped by the dual-axis adjustment of the lenses and the fact that it was quite pleasant to wear. At its current, heavily discounted price on Amazon it offers excellent value for money.
Note: if you wear glasses or have a particularly big head, you may want to pass on the Tepoinn 3D.
Archos VR Glasses
Archos’ VR glasses are the cheapest on our list (aside from Google’s DIY headset, of course) and offer a sturdier Cardboard alternative for around a tenner.
This VR viewer was originally listed at £25 but has since come down in price. In our minds, £20 is a great deal for Android and iOS owners with a casual interest in mobile VR.
The Archos VR glasses support most phones, even boasting enough space for 6-inch screens for gadgets such as the Nexus 6.
There are no input buttons on the side of the gadget like there are on the Lakento headset and Google Cardboard, but the build quality here remains solid.
We’re slightly disappointed there’s no foam padding to keep our nose comfy, but when you factor in the small price tag it’s hard to fault the accessory based on this one omission.
Bobo VR Z4 Virtual Reality Headset with Headphones
The Bobo VR headsets are a welcome attempt to try something a little different from the other Google Cardboard contenders. It’s USP is that it comes with built-in speakers, so can just plug in the minijack to the headphones socket on your smartphone and hear stereo sound. The quality is as good as you can reasonable expect on a piece of kit costing under £30, but the convenience factor is undeniable.
The Bobo VR’s build quality is rather good, although the weight is a rather hefty 748g. The headsets allow fine control of the focus of both lenses and the unit thankfully comes with a proper Google Cardboard QR code which makes set-up a doddle and helped us achieve acceptable clarity with a wide field of view.
The Bobo Z4, like the Merge VR, has a capacitive OK button for user interaction which worked sporadically on our iPhone 6, but was better than a non-functional Bluetooth controller.
We liked the Bobo Z4 – it’s a refined and well thought out contender that performs well in the areas that matter most and is priced aggressively. Well worth considering.
Google Cardboard / DODOcase
Of course, we couldn’t put together a list of the best VR headsets without mentioning the original Google Cardboard, a cheap, DIY alternative to the premium headsets listed above.
Whilst Google Cardboard can’t offer the comfort or functionality of some of the more expensive headsets we’ve already mentioned, it is a fraction of the price.
Google Cardboard isn’t as well made as the ‘premium’ headsets we’ve discussed, but this DIY method will cost a fraction of the price.
You’ll have to assemble the headset yourself if you’re buying the cardboard VR headset, but putting it together only takes around 10 minutes and the experience is actually semi-enjoyable.
Both the original Google Cardboard and DODOcase feature a mechanism on the side of the headset, which acts as a clever button input when users pull down and release the circular magnet.
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