Types of VR Headsets: PC, Smartphone & Standalone VR

— 7 minute read

Back in the good ol’ days, Virtual reality could have referred to anything ranging from a Lawnmower Man simulation to computer-generated 3D models. Fortunately, though, things have only grown simpler over time. Post its rejuvenation in 2012, the phrase “Virtual Reality” has almost exclusively been used to describe 3D digital content viewable in a VR head-mounted display (HMD), more commonly referred to as the VR headset.

types of VR headsets

At its core, a VR headset is just a delivery device for Virtual Reality that, as its name suggests, is worn on the head. The most minimalist devices only consist of a cardboard sheet and a pair of stereoscopic displays or specialized lenses. The best VR headsets, however, integrate high-quality stereo and graphics, and state-of-the-art technologies like motion-tracking.

Types of VR Headsets permalink

While there is a lot of variation between different makes and models, the VR headsets can, generally, be classified into 3 major categories, namely:

1. Tethered Headsets/Desktop VR/PC VR permalink

As the name suggests, tethered headsets are physically connected to a computer/console by cables. They make use of the potentially limitless processing power of the computer and, therefore offer the most immersive VR experience. HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Playstation VR are some of the most popular tethered headsets available in the market today.

2. Standalone VR Headsets permalink

Standalone headsets function as fully autonomous devices featuring built-in processors, displays, sensors, storage, and batteries. Also known as all-in-one headsets, the standalone VR HMDs offer increased mobility and comfort. Standalone headsets like the Oculus Quest 2 can even be used lying down. This comfort, however, comes at the cost of reduced power and consequently lower resolution and refresh rates. Oculus Quest 2 and HTC’s VIVE FOCUS are widely regarded as two of the best standalone headsets going around.

3. Smartphone VR Headsets permalink

Smartphone VR HMDs are the simplest type of headsets available. They make use of the user’s smartphone and employ a pair of lenses to create an illusion of depth. The most minimalist smartphone VR headsets are comprised of a cardboard sheet supporting a pair of magnifying lenses. The higher-end models, however, also feature built-in controls, tracking sensors, focus wheels, and straps, and can cost well into 3 figures. Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View 2 are some of the most notable Smartphone VR headsets going around.

Tethered vs Standalone vs Smartphone Headsets permalink

Having gotten our feet wet, it is time we dig a bit deeper and explore the differences between tethered, standalone, and smartphone VR headsets in more detail. The following portion of the guide features a detailed comparison of the 3 types of VR headsets with regards to features, cost, quality of experience, hardware requirements, and uses.

Tethered vs Standalone vs Smartphone Headsets: Features permalink

Tethered headsets are the most feature-rich of the 3, followed by standalone and smartphone headsets. The best ones combine motion-tracking with high-resolution graphics to deliver an ultra-realistic experience free of motion sickness.

Without the aid of beefy rigs to manage the billions of computations needed for simulation, standalone VR HMDs are no match for the power of tethered headsets. Unsurprisingly, they offer lower graphics quality and refresh rates. Then again, they don’t restrict you to your rooms. Featuring built-in motion trackers, wireless headsets make up for their shortcomings by offering increased mobility.

It is hard to describe the features of smartphone headsets because they can be as simple as cardboard cutouts featuring a pair of magnifying lenses that you can, probably, create for yourself at home. More sophisticated options, however, include motion tracking sensors, focus wheels, straps, and built-in controls.

Tethered vs Standalone vs Smartphone Headsets: Cost permalink

Mobile headsets start as low as $9 and can climb well into 3 figures. The simplest ones, i.e., google cardboards can cost anywhere between $9 and $40. More sophisticated headsets, featuring durable plastic builds and straps for easy viewing start at $50 and may climb up to $200.

Both standalone and tethered headsets cost considerably more owing to their superior builds and featured tech. A decent mid-range VR headset may set you back $300 to $500, while top-tier headsets have price tags well north of four figures. That may seem like a lot, but in the case of tethered headsets, that’s only a fraction of the cost. The rest is known as the “hidden cost” and consists of the cost of assembling a highly powerful computer that could deliver an immersive lag-free experience.

Tethered vs Standalone vs Smartphone Headsets: Quality of Experience permalink

You might get your feet wet in virtual reality with mobile headsets, but with regards to the quality of experience, they hardly compare to either tethered or standalone headsets. A major reason for this unsurmountable difference in the quality of viewing experience is that smartphone headsets rely heavily on your mobile phones to provide the goods. You can enhance the experience by using a better pair of lenses, but there is only so much you can do when the core is the bottleneck. It is also worth noting that lower-end mobile headsets require you to hold the device at all times. That’s anything but comforting.

In this regard, tethered and standalone headsets are more comparable. Having already explored the difference in resolutions and refresh rates in detail, there isn’t much that I can add to the discussion of picture quality except that standalone headsets often experience jolty gameplay due to limited processor capabilities. That being said, there is more to the viewing experience than just the quality of graphics. Tethered headsets support a greater catalog of games and applications, allowing users greater freedom of choice. Then again, they have cables that are not only annoying but, in the worst-case scenario, can lead to physical injuries.

Tethered vs Standalone vs Smartphone Headsets: Hardware Requirements permalink

As far as hardware requirements are concerned, standalone headsets are inarguably the simplest. As self-contained units, they offer plug-and-play functionality, without you actually needing to plug in anything (see what I did there?) All you have to do is charge the battery (and occasionally create a user profile) and you are good to go.

Smartphone headsets are a close second, requiring only a smartphone. Just choose the proper app/video on your phone and slide it into the VR headset.

Tethered headsets, though, aren’t as simple. They rely on the rig to provide for the millions of computations needed every second. So, you need a computer with quite a bit of processing power. What complicates things further is that no two headsets have the same specification requirements. While some can make do with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 GPU, others struggle even with a much superior Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti. For a seamless experience, though, you will need one of the best computer for VR, packing one of the most powerful GPUs.

Tethered vs Standalone vs Smartphone Headsets: Uses permalink

Smartphone headsets have limited applications. Sure, you can use them for watching videos, and the occasional gaming but that’s just about the extent of their usability. Standalone headsets extend upon the applications of mobile VR HMDs, offering a more immersive gaming, viewing, and social experience, brought about by advanced technologies like motion tracking. Tethered headsets, on the other hand, have widespread applications in art, tourism, education, and gaming.

The Last Word permalink

Tethered, standalone, and smartphone headsets are the 3 types of VR head-mounted displays. They vary in almost all aspects, including but not limited to features, cost, quality of viewing experience, hardware requirements, and uses. While tethered headsets are generally the most powerful and offer the best viewing experience, they are also the most expensive as well. Smartphone headsets, on the other hand, are the cheapest and the most minimalist, offering a frills-free service to get your feet wet in VR. It goes without saying that standalone headsets often find themselves in the middle of the two.


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