HolidayBuyer's Guide

How PlayStation VR is better, and worse, than Oculus Rift and HTC Vive

How does Sony's breakthrough console-based VR experience compare to its PC-based rivals? It's a series of compromises that you may or may not want to make.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So you're thinking, maybe, about buying something that does VR. Maybe. You're on the fence. You've heard it might be cool. But what to buy? There are lots of different headsets to choose from. Some of them work with phones. Some work with PCs. And then there's the PlayStation VR.

The PlayStation VR is, in some ways, similar the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. They're the best ways to experience VR, but they only work on a Windows computer. But in other ways, the PSVR is quite different from its PC cousins.

Here's what you need to know now that the PSVR is finally on sale. I've played with it for a couple of weeks, and I've been torn on it. It's better than other VR...and it's worse.

How? Read on.

How the PlayStation VR is better

The headset feels and looks fantastic.

The PSVR attaches easily, and it feels s a lot more comfortable on my face than any other headset. Its lenses also get less smudgy and foggy, which leads to crisper visuals.

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It's less expensive than systems such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive that require a PC.

The PSVR costs $400 for the headset, or $500 for the bundle (headset, two motion-sensing Move controllers, a necessary camera, and a free game). The bundle is worth it if you don't have those controllers or the camera.

By comparison, the HTC Vive costs $800 for its headset, room sensors and controllers. The Oculus Rift costs $600, or $800 for the headset plus the new Touch controllers coming in December.

And the PS4 only starts at $300, or even less if you get a used or discounted one (the PSVR works with any PS4). And at least 40 million of us already have a PS4, so that cost is already baked in. But the bottom line is that the PSVR hardware and a full system -- including a PS4 -- is more affordable than the equivalent PC setup.

It's the cheapest way to explore "room scale" VR

Phone-based VR headsets such as the Gear VR and Google Daydream View just let you look around -- you can't move and pick up things realistically. The PSVR can track your head in 3D space, and it tracks your hands using PlayStation Move controllers. It can even use the regular PS4 DualShock4 controller, which does a nifty job of moving in VR for some games. This means you can move around a bit, poke your head towards virtual things for a closer look, and reach out to grab objects.

It works with older accessories

If you're a long-time PlayStation gamer, you'll be thrilled that the PSVR works with existing cameras and old Move controllers. It's a bit like how the Nintendo Wii U worked with old Wii remotes. Go dig that stuff out of your closet, or find them on sale used somewhere.

It's already got enough good games

Sony seems to be supporting the PSVR well at launch, and there are a lot of fun games that'll be worth the effort. Rigs, Thumper, Eve Valkyrie, SuperHyperCube, Rez Infinite, Battlezone and PlayStation VR Worlds are a good place to start.

How it's worse

It's still expensive

Compared to a mobile experience like the Samsung Gear VR and the upcoming Google DayDream View, which use a phone to play VR games and videos, the PSVR costs a lot. In fact, at $400 it costs more than a PS4. You feel like you're buying a whole new game console...but it's an accessory. That's hard to swallow.

The PSVR's graphics and resolution aren't as good as the Oculus Rift or Vive.

Odds are you'll run into a moment where PSVR games suddenly look fuzzy. That's not your imagination. The 1,920x1080-pixel display is already slightly lower-res than a Rift or Vive. And when it's split in two, it produces graphics that are clearly a step down from normal PS4 games. Some games look even worse than that, especially racing ones. Sony's Driveclub VR puts you into a race car for realistic driving, but I found myself squinting at the fuzzy road and landscape. Other games such as the horror-atmospheric Here They Lie suffered, too. Sony's upcoming PlayStation 4 Pro console might resolve some of these issues and make for better-looking VR, but that's another $400 investment.

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Those Move wands work, but...

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

The position tracking isn't as good for heavy movement.

Depending on where you're standing and how your room is lit, the camera's ability to sense those Move controllers and your helmet in space is mixed. Go too far and the experience blanks out and asks you to re-center yourself. Some games require separate calibrations, and if you turn around the PSVR loses track of your controllers. So you may need to be sure you're facing in the right direction.

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive use infrared to track motion, while the PSVR tracks visible LEDs with a single camera. This means "room scale" tracking, or using your PSVR as a room-sized holodeck, isn't really as effective. You can walk around a bit while wearing the PSVR, but things tend to get jittery or out of sync. And if you turn around, the system loses sight of your controllers. This becomes a problem for a game like Job Simulator, which involves a lot of turning. This doesn't happen with the PC-based Oculus Rift and HTC Vive controllers.

PSVR apps and games aren't as focused on creativity, productivity or education (yet).

The PSVR launched with an impressive range of games and some entertainment apps and movie-like experiences to boot. But you access them through a console in your living room. Using a VR headset with a Windows computer opens up a lot more potential for other uses, particularly 3D creation.

The HTC Vive has apps such as Google Tiltbrush, which lets you experience amazing 3D painting, and the Oculus Rift will get creative apps like Medium once its Touch controllers arrive later this year. PC-based VR can be used to model animation and view 3D objects. Microsoft plans on enabling more VR-focused creative tools in Windows 10 that will work with both Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

Bottom line: VR can be a tool on your PC. The PlayStation VR, however, is specifically designed for games and entertainment, with some outlying possibilities depending on what apps end up being supported down the road. The PS4 just doesn't hook into the same level of software that a PC can.

You might need a PS4 Pro to get the most out of it.

Sony's upcoming PlayStation 4 update, the Pro, is supposed to bring enhancements to the PlayStation VR and its software. It costs $399 or £349, and goes on sale on November 11. If that leads to games looking better, then the Pro could end up feeling like an essential part of a PSVR purchase. Sony says the PSVR will always fully support the original PS4, but I'm curious how big a difference the Pro could make.

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If you like console games and don't have a gaming PC, this is still probably your best bet.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

VR is an evolving landscape, so get what works for you

I just bought a PlayStation VR.

I did it because I already have a PlayStation 4 and I'm not really a PC gamer. So it seems fine for me. In a few years, new hardware will undoubtedly arrive that will transform all platforms. Be ready to upgrade if necessary. In other words, think of VR as tech for the now. It's not necessary, it's not perfect and it's very, very gimmicky, but its potential is fascinating. Get what you can afford, or what you'll use.

Getting a PSVR is like buying the cheapest ticket to a higher-end level of living-room VR. VR on your PC is more expensive and less living-room friendly, but it could be a doorway to a lot more types of software tools. Either way, be aware that VR is going to move rapidly. Whatever you choose will eventually be outdated. Accept the novelty, think about what you want to do with VR, and pick accordingly.