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Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset review: Mixed emotions

The first of the new wave of Windows VR/AR headsets is easy to use, but the software isn't there yet.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
7 min read

Editors' note: Acer's Mixed Reality headset relies on Microsoft's Mixed Reality ecosystem, which launched October 17 as part of the Fall Creator's Update for Windows 10. That ecosystem is too new and unpopulated to fully judge, so this preliminary review will be updated with a final rating at a future date. 

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset

The Good

Simple setup, no extra sensors required, comfortable to wear, and works on a very wide range of computer hardware.

The Bad

Very limited software, some motion controller tracking issues, and the more-advanced Oculus Rift now costs the same.

The Bottom Line

Acer's lower-cost PC hardware gives you access to a few cool VR experiences, but Microsoft's mixed-reality world feels too empty at this early stage.

Throughout this year, I've had several opportunities to try out early versions of Microsoft's Windows Mixed Reality platform. The headsets, from Dell, Acer, HP and others were all largely similar, built around a Microsoft-provided list of specs. Those experiences didn't leave a particularly positive impression on me. The software was lacking, the interaction limited, and the actual tracking of the headset, and therefore the view from inside it, could be stuttery and jumpy.

Now that the final retail versions of several of these Windows Mixed Reality headsets are shipping (everyone just calls it WMR for short), I'm pleasantly surprised to say that it's far better than it was just a few months ago. Performance has greatly improved since those earlier demo sessions, and setting up the hardware -- long a pain point for VR headsets -- is quick and easy. But for now, the overall Windows Mixed Reality experience still leaves me with mixed emotions

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset
Sarah Tew/CNET

The first unit across the line is Acer's Windows Mixed Reality headset, which runs $399 for a headset and a pair of handheld controllers. It's £399 in the UK and not for sale in Australia yet (but the Microsoft Store in Australia is selling the similar Dell and HP models for AU$799). That's about the same as the other WMR headsets, give or take $50. You can also save $100 by buying just the headset without the controllers, but that seems pointless.

Besides being one of the least expensive, the Acer headset appeals to me because it allows you to easily flip the eyepiece up on a hinge, while keeping the device mounted on your head. That makes it much easier to quickly check the room around you, talk to someone, or just make sure you're not about to run into a wall (there's also a user-set boundary that shows up in the headset when you approach the edge of your space). 

Acer's Windows Mixed Reality Headset brings cheaper VR to your PC

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The WMR headsets, from Acer and others, work now only because Microsoft has released the Fall Creators Update for Windows 10 . That update adds the actual software and support for the headsets, and in conjunction with that, the first round of Mixed Reality apps have entered the Windows App Store. For now, you have to get your software from there, and the selection is rather thin. There are a bunch of 360-degree video players, a handful of games already available for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift (including Superhot VR, Arizona Sunshine and Space Pirate Trainer), but not much else. 

A Halo-themed free app, called Halo Recruit, has gotten some buzz but only because almost no one has actually played it. You get to see a few decent-looking but non-interactive 3D models of Halo characters, then you shoot at 2D targets on a computer screen within the game itself. And that's the entire thing. It's hard to feel ripped off by a free app, but Halo Recruit somehow manages that feat.

All mixed up

So, if we're plugging in a headset and connecting handheld controllers, then playing Superhot and Space Pirate Trainer, why is everyone calling this a mixed-reality headset instead of a virtual-reality one?

It's more of a marketing distinction than a technological one. These are VR headsets in all but name, putting dual screens in front of your eyes. This isn't like Google Glass or Microsoft's Hololens , which blends digital images with the real world right in front of you.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset
Sarah Tew/CNET

However, there is an opportunity to bring the real world into these headsets. All the WMR systems, including the Acer WMR, have dual cameras on the outside. These are used for the system's inside-out positioning, which keeps track of where you are in the room, and replaces the need for external sensors, like the ones needed for the Rift and Vive. But, they can also capture a view of the outside world and transmit it to you inside the headset, so this is technically capable of augmented reality. Since it does both virtual and augmented, we call this a "mixed reality" device. (The HTC Vive also has an external camera.)

Virtually the same

The biggest physical difference between the Vive and Rift and the Acer headset is the Acer's lack of outside sensors. That makes for simpler setup and makes the entire rig more portable. All you need is a laptop, the headset and the controllers -- no need to drag extra sensors around.

Under the hood, all these devices share a lot of similarities. The Acer has two 1,400x1,400 displays inside, while the Rift and Vive are both 1,080x1,200. But those latter two are OLED displays, while the Windows Mixed Reality headsets have LCD displays. (Samsung has an AMOLED version coming next year.)

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset

This dial makes it easy to get a custom fit. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The field of view -- how far to the left and right the in-headset image extends, is about 105 degrees in the Acer WMR headset, and 110 degrees in the Rift/Vive. All of them have a certain inside-a-spacesuit feel, but again, the higher-end VR headsets do a little better.

All three platforms have motion-sensing handheld controllers with plenty of buttons and triggers. The Oculus Touch controllers are easily my overall favorite, and the Vive wands are also very good but way too big. Both track extremely well, with no lag and near-perfect accuracy. The hand controllers that come with the Windows Mixed Reality headset are smaller than the Vive wands but have a similar style. Unfortunately, the tracking was spottier, and they would often not keep up with my hand movements or randomly vanish for a few seconds at a time. Sony's PSVR wands behave the same way; usable, but not always as responsive as you'd want.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset

One of the included motion controllers. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Let's play house

It's the in-use experience that's really what differentiates these different platforms. Windows Mixed Reality sets you up in a Frank Lloyd Wright-style cliff house, where you can pin different apps and features to the walls around you, as if they were paintings. I liked how easily the Windows-centric experience makes it to do things like surf the web from inside VR, or to capture video footage of what you're seeing. 

Tracking and overall seamless movement are not up to the high standard set by Rift or Vive, nor were the visuals as crisp and detailed. If you've used one of those other headsets extensively, the WMR experience will pale in comparison. If you're going in cold, it's pretty impressive.

But, there are only a limited number of things one can do in the WMR world right now. In the cliff house, you can watch videos in a "home theater" room, or you can pull 3D models from a wall-mounted menu and position them around the house. They range from tables and chairs to birthday cakes, astronauts and a creepy clown/mime.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset
Sarah Tew/CNET

That was easily the most interesting, engaging feature of the overall WMR experience. I grabbed the mime figure, which was a fully 3D-rendered animation with mime-y music, and planted him on the front lawn of the cliff house. Then I grabbed one corner of a bounding box around the mime and pulled, making the 3D design larger, until it dwarfed the cliff house, and was at least 20 virtual feet tall (as seen in our video). If you want to experience something genuinely creepy in VR, try walking around a giant 3D animated mime. Pennywise has got nothing on that.

Other than that and a handful of video and game apps, there's not much else to do in the WMR world right now.  But, like the Vive and Rift before this, the ecosystem can easily grow into something much more impressive. Even better, the Steam PC game store, which is the home base for the Vive and also offers a lot of Oculus-compatible software, is adding Windows Mixed Reality support in the near future (but there's no exact date yet). When that happens, it'll be a huge boost to the system.

For now, the Windows App Store version of Space Pirate Trainer, a popular cross-platform VR shooter, looks and plays much the same as it does on Vive or Rift. But the tracking doesn't feel as tight, and the hand controllers aren't as well-suited for fast-paced shooting. The triggers in particular lack the tight response found in other VR controllers.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset
Sarah Tew/CNET

Elephant, meet room

There's another big elephant in the room. When the first wave of Windows Mixed Reality headsets was announced, $399 (or a little more for some brands) was a great price for a PC-based VR headset. The Vive and Rift were originally hundreds more, and even the PlayStation VR was $499 (£449 or AU$650) with a pair of controllers and tracking camera. But since then, prices have come down, and the Rift, including its Touch controllers, now costs same $399. Someone from a major PC maker recently told me the entire WMR category was now threatened from day one by price pressure from Facebook-owned Oculus.

As good a first effort as the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset is, I'm very hard-pressed to think of a good reason why you'd pick that instead of the Oculus Rift. If I had to come up with something, I'd say the WMR headsets work on lower-end PCs, they don't need external sensors, and they're easier to set up and use. Eventual Steam store support and more general-interest apps from Microsoft could eventually make a stronger case, but we're not there yet.