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The Best Smartphone VR Headsets

A full-scale VR rig is expensive, but you don’t need to spend a fortune to try out VR. If you have a decent modern smartphone, you can use one of these headsets to get into VR on the cheap.

Most of the big name devices in VR like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive or high-quality headsets with precise motion tracking, quality displays, and a wide selection of games to play. They’re also expensive, and  you need a powerful gaming PC to run the games on.

If you don’t want to invest the money just yet, smartphone-based headsets are a great, cheaper option. They’re basic headsets that use the phone you already have to create a VR experience. These won’t be as immersive as a more expensive rig, but you can play games, watch movies, and try out a virtual world without missing rent this month.

Google Daydream ($99): The Smartphone Headset For (Almost) Everyone

Google’s attempt at bringing VR to the masses is relatively simple compared to the Oculus or Vive. It comes with a basic motion controller with a touch pad and three buttons. When in VR, you can aim by moving the controller in the air and navigate menus with the touch pad. Google has also pushed for Daydream-compatible versions of Android apps like YouTube, Plex, and Netflix. Between that and an array of VR-compatible Android games, you’ll have plenty to do with it.

The headset itself is a hard plastic case, covered in a comfortable fabric with extra cushions around the eyes to make sure it feels comfortable when you wear it for long periods of time. The front flap is attached via a stretchy cord that can expand to fit large or small phones, which comes in handy since the headset is designed to work with a wide array of devices.

That array of supported devices, for the curious, includes Google’s line of Pixel phones, the LG V30, Samsung’s Galaxy S8, S8+ and Note 8, the Moto Z, and a few others. This is far from a comprehensive list of all Android phones—Daydream has some pretty hefty system requirements for a phone, after all—but it is a healthy selection of devices so you don’t have to buy from just one company to use this headset. Which is something we can’t say of our next option.

Samsung Gear VR ($130): A Mini Oculus For Samsung Owners

Samsung’s Gear VR is a lot like the Google Daydream. It also has a padded headset with a custom controller that pairs with your phone and allows you to aim in VR space. However, there are a few key differences. The controller is a little more comfortable, and there’s an additional touch pad on the side of the headset itself, giving you a lot of ways to control your apps.

The biggest difference, however, is the Oculus library. Samsung has partnered with Oculus to get a library of games and apps that you can’t get with the Daydream. This isn’t quite the same as using the Oculus Rift, but it’s in the same ballpark and it’s much cheaper.

Well, at least cheaper than a full Oculus Rift. At $130, the Gear VR is more expensive than a Daydream headset. You also have to have a recent Samsung phone in order to use it. If you prefer phones from Google, LG, or HTC, then you’re out of luck. We wouldn’t recommend switching to Samsung if you’re happy with your phone just to get VR, but if you already have a Samsung phone, then the Gear VR is a pretty nice headset.

Merge VR For Google Cardboard ($35): The Cheap Way Into VR

Before Google came up with Daydream, the company already dipped their toe into the VR waters with Google Cardboard. Cardboard was a template for a headset so simple you could make it out of a piece of cardboard and a couple lenses. Then, just tap the VR button in apps like YouTube and you can see what VR is like.

It wasn’t long before manufacturers started building on Cardboard by building nicer, more durable headsets. The Merge VR is one of the best headsets on that front. It has comfortable foam to make it easier to wear for long periods of time, and a nice stretchy strap to keep it attached to your head (which is not always a given with Cardboard kits).

The Merge VR is by far the cheapest on this list, and it’s not even the lowest Cardboard headsets can go. You can get actual cardboard kits for as low as $6. However, this method comes with some downsides. First, there’s no controller so most apps are controlled by aiming your head or using a magnet attached to the headset to “click.” There are also way fewer apps because, well, there aren’t a lot of games and apps that work without a controller. Still, if all you want is to see what it looks like to watch a video in VR, this is the cheapest way to do it.

Eric Ravenscraft Eric Ravenscraft
Eric Ravenscraft has nearly a decade of writing experience in the technology industry. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, PCMag, The Daily Beast, Geek and Sundry, and The Inventory. Read Full Bio »