February 16, 2018

Best Windows Mixed Reality Headsets of 2018

Windows Mixed Reality headsets

Do you want to know the difference between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality? Are you considering buying a Windows mixed reality headset? In this review we’ll answer the question, compare the products and give you some advice on choosing which headset to buy.

First, what’s the difference between the three so-called “realities”? In brief, virtual reality creates a fully immersive artificial world via a headset that closes out the world. Augmented reality involves wearing transparent glasses through which you see the world, while virtual objects are overlaid either by being projected onto the glass or (in theory) onto the eyes themselves.

But what about “Mixed Reality”? This is where it gets a little confusing. The general and widespread definition of mixed reality is that it overlays reality with virtual objects (or real ones that are in another location), but these objects can be “anchored” to the real world and the user can interact with them like in virtual reality. Imagine having a videochat with friend hovering before you while at the same time walking in the street and looking ahead to see where you’re going.

The problem with this definition is two-fold. The first is that it could just be considered a definition of one of the uses of augmented reality, rather than a true separate category. The second is that Microsoft has just come along and introduced something called Windows Mixed Reality. This is a new standard for headsets by Microsoft partners, but despite the name, it is really just virtual reality by another name.

The reason Microsoft treats it as different is because their mixed reality headsets use inside-out tracking but have their own built-in screens. Inside-out tracking means that unlike the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, they don’t lighthouses or external towers to track your head position or movement. Having built-in screens is important. It means that unlike Google Cardboard, Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR, they are more than just phone housing units.

In fact, this combination of inside-out tracking but with its own built-in screen has been around for a while. The Osmose virtual reality headset was built on this concept and although the company behind it lacks the resources to market it like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, they still produced a credible product.

But now Microsoft has taken matters to a new level with Windows Mixed Reality. This is a new standard that has been implemented by Microsoft’s partners: Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Samsung. These companies have already established themselves as makers of Windows-based PCs, so they clearly know their stuff. And with five of them competing in this area, there is good choice of headsets.

One of the good things about Microsoft getting in on VR - even if they insist on calling it “mixed reality”, is that it offers a cheaper alternative to getting into the virtual world via the high-end competition. At the same time, it avoids the kludgyness of the phone housing low-end units.

It is worth noting that there are two Windows Mixed Reality standards. There is the regular and then there is Mixed Reality Ultra. These headsets all support Ultra, but getting the benefits of Ultra is dependent on having WMR Ultra computer. Ultra offers a 90 Hz refresh rate, instead of the 60 Hz for regular WMR. It also offers better Field of View (100° instead of 90° for regular WMR). Other advantages of Mixed Reality Ultra are that you can interact with more than apps at the same time, and also you can capture, share and stream what you’re doing.

With all these headsets, you can install Steam and SteamVR on your PC and then install Windows Mixed Reality for SteamVR. Once you have done that, you can play SteamVr games on the headset. And with Revive, you can also play Oculus Rift games. These headsets give you access to both Rift and Vive apps, as well as Microsoft’s native Mixed Reality games. Currently, haptic feedback is lacking from Vive games because the motors used to produce vibration in the WMR controllers are different from those in the Vive controllers. Microsoft is looking into finding a solution for this, but as of yet, no solution has been implemented.

Still on the subject of the controllers require Bluetooth 4.0, so if your PC doesn’t have Bluetooth - as is the case with most desktops - you need a Bluetooth dongle. Paradoxically, Microsoft recommends plugging the dongle into a Bluetooth 2.0 port on the computer for this, even though the dongle itself is 4.0. A quirk worth bearing in mind.

 And so, with this in mind, we’ll take a look, in this review, at the five Windows Mixed Reality headsets available in the market and compare what they have to offer.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset

Acer mixed reality with controllers

Acer mixed reality with controllers

The Acer has a certain visual appeal about it, even before you take it out of the box. Unlike the other headsets reviewed here, it is a mixture of blue and black - a bit like the Sony PlayStation VR. In fact, blue is something of a theme color with the Acer because both the headset and the controllers arrive in blue boxes. The actual Head Mounted Display is wrapped in plastic and then sandwiched in foam to hold it in place.

It has a resolution of 1440 x 1440 per eye (2” x 2.89”) offering excellent visual qualities. This resolution is higher than the Vive and Rift. However, the so-called screen door effect (being able to see the gaps between sub-pixels) is not completely removed. If you focus hard on it, you will see it. But if you don’t try to actively look for it, you will probably not notice. At any rate, the image is sharper than with the HTC and Oculus products. At this resolution you can read text on the screen. But it is still not good enough for small text. Field of view is 100° for WMR Ultra 90° for standard WMR.

The headset has both HDMI 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 connectivity. When using 1.4, the refresh rate is 60Hz. When using HDMI 2.0, it is 90 Hz. Either way, there is no flicker and no feeling of tired eyes that derives from flickering images.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset fresnal lenses

Acer mixed reality headset inside view

The display is kept in focus by two round Fresnel lenses. Unfortunately, unlike most headsets on the market (including many of the cheap ones) you can’t change the interpupillary distance (IPD). It is fixed at 63mm. But Acer uses a software system that recreate the manual adjustment between 59mm and 67mm. This is enough for many people, but not all. I won’t even say most. (Let the buyer beware!)

Although it is not standalone (in the sense that it does still have to be tethered to a computer by a cable) it does not require any towers or lighthouses for tracking. Instead, all tracking is done by that well-established triumvirate of Gyroscope, Accelerometer and (in some cases) Magnetometer. There are also two tracking cameras built into the headset to assist with “inside out” tracking. Finally, there is an IR sensor for tracking the wand controllers.

This camera is black and white, in accordance with its limited purpose. The camera does not show what is going on outside unfortunately. If they did then the headset would be able to mimic the transparency of augmented reality glasses. Then it really would be a mixed reality headset. But as I said above, this isn’t true mixed reality, just virtual reality by another name.

Acer mixed reality  headset

A view from above - the Acer mixed reality headset

The whole thing comes bundled with two controllers and a 4-meter (13+ foot) cable. That’s more than long enough to allow you a fair degree of freedom of movement. Cable-free would have been nice. But VR requires that a large amount of data must be sent to the headset. Bluetooth probably wouldn’t have the bandwidth. WiFi might, but with wireless there’s that latency problem. And with VR, low latency is crucial. Otherwise you end up with dropped frames, picture freezing and that dizzy feeling. So cable it is!

In the setup process, you start off my aiming the headset at the computer and select Trace. From this starting position (and subject to the limits of the cable) you map out your play area by moving the headset around, making off the perimeter of the area in which you will be using it.

In action, you get a high degree of freedom of movement and six degrees of freedom. The gyroscope can track head orientation (like the pitch, roll and yaw of airplanes). The accelerometer can track forward/backward, left/right, up/down. In theory, this should give you a bigger play area than a headset that has to be monitored from the outside. However, you are still constrained by that cable. (Elsewhere on this site we review
cable management systems and another system for cable management.)

Like the best headsets on the market, the Acer has a proximity sensor that can detect when you put it on. And when this happens, it activates the display.

Acer mixed Reality with a sting in the tail

Acer Mixed Reality with a sting in the tail

The headstrap is mechanical and has a moisture-proof padded section for the forehead. At the back of the strap is a blue dial that can be used to tighten the strap, I say tighten rather than tighten or loosen, because the tightening process is like a ratchet mechanism, that locks in place behind the turning of the dial. If you tighten it too much, you would actually have to take it off to loosen it again. Ideally, they should have provided a release mechanism like the Sony PlayStation VR has.

On the other hand, if you need to merely see something outside the headset, you don’t need to take it off. You can simply flip up the visor. This is a good design feature, as you never know when there might be something going on in the real world that you have to attend to. However, anything with moving parts is subject to wear and tear, and so this flip-up/flip-down visor could be a potential point of failure. In fact, it actually felt rather weak and “plasticky” for want of a better term. That is not to deny that it is useful. But it could be made better. I also found that when closed, the visor did not let light in. However, it is possible that if the user has a small face, the outside light might not be completely kept out.

 From the point of view of comfort, I was impressed. Notwithstanding our concerns about the ratchet mechanism on the strap, I felt at ease inside the headset. It is lighter than the Rift and much lighter than the Vive. In fact, it weighed less than a pound. This might be because it is quite small. In size as well as in weight, it has advantages over the bulkier Vive and Rift.

Acer Windows Mixed reality

Acer Mixed Reality Headset with Audio Jack

I haven’t yet mentioned the audio. These headsets don’t have headphones, only the standard 3.5mm audio input for plugging in your own earphones or headphones.

I also haven’t mentioned the controllers. These are basically the same across the Windows Mixed Reality range with only the label differing. They are incredibly easy to set up. Just put in the batteries, pair them with the PC and you’re all set to go. However, you might like to get rechargeable batteries and keep one set charged (or charging) while you’re using the other.

The headset is certainly good value for money. It is fun to play with (or work with) and comfortable to wear. It is designed for Windows and is Steam VR compatible. With Revive, it can also run Oculus Rift software. So there is no shortage of content.

VERDICT: A good virtual reality product (yes Virtual, not mixed) with a couple of minor weaknesses..

Dell - Visor

Dell Visor Windows Mixed Reality headset

The Dell Visor

The Dell Visor has that white glossy finish that we associate with Apple and before that with 2001: A Space odyssey. In other words, that space-age futuristic look. But headsets are not All about aesthetics. So let’s take a look at the functionality.

It has HDMI 2.0 video input, USB 3.0 and the standard 3.5mm input for plugging in headphones, which again, do not come bundled with it. You have to buy your own.

Like the Acer it has a flip-up/flip-down visor, so you can take a break from virtual reality and return to the real world briefly without having to take off the headset altogether. Like others in the range it doesn’t have an over-the-head strap. It has a band that surrounds the head that can be tightened with a small wheel at the back to just the right amount to stay secure. And once in place, it has a nicely balanced feeling about it.

Dell Visor Windows Mixed Reality headset

Dell Visor - inside view

You can even wear it with glasses. And the sides are cushioned with padded foam, protecting the glasses. As with Acer and others in the WMR range, there is no mechanical control to vary the interpupillary distance, only a software calibration. However, not expect to be prompted about this in the set-up process.

Notwithstanding that minor gripe, the Dell Visor feels good. It is well-ventilated and stays cool. Thus, you can play highly energetic games without sweating, without steaming up the lenses and without the headset itself overheating. This is achieved - or at least assisted - by air channels on either side of the noses. And because of the way it sits firmly on the head, there is no uncomfortable pressure on the nose.

The resolution is the same as the Acer (1440 x 1440 per eye). Also, like the Acer, and the HP below, Field of View is 100° for Windows Mixed Reality Ultra apps and computer, 90° with regular a Windows Mixed Reality computer. Similarly, for Ultra, the refresh rate is 90 Hz, for regular WMR it is 60 Hz.

frontal view of the Dell Windows Mixed Reality headset

A frontal view of the Dell WMR headset

Also, like the Acer it doesn’t have any lighthouses or base stations for the kind of outside-in tracking used by the Vive and Rift. Instead - like all the Windows Mixed Reality headsets - it relies on inside out tracking. This is achieved by the two monochrome tracking cameras on the front of the headset headset and the combination of gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer. All of this gives you six degrees of freedom. But, unlike the Acer, it does not have a proximity sensor.

The handheld controllers are versatile and comprehensive, including a thumb stick, touchpad, trigger button, grab button, windows button, menu button, pairing button. The problem is that if you move the controllers out of sight of the tracking cameras, the system doesn’t know what’s going on. However, Dell have built in a clever solution for this. The software actually predicts where your arms are likely to be based on how they were moving when they vanished from the cameras. The algorithm calculates where they ought to be based on the speed and direction in space when they went out of view.

Of course, if they stay out of sight of the cameras for too long, the system gets confused and its predictions - or rather guesses - become less accurate. But all in all, it is a pretty clever workaround and in most cases is good enough. When you consider what a pain in backside base stations and lighthouses are, this is actually quite a good solution. After all, how often do you put your hands behind your back? Especially when you’re fighting off zombies or aliens.

Dell Visor with a controller

Dell Visor with a controller

And besides that, it is clear that Microsoft wants to get away from the gaming-only world of the Vive and Rift and move VR into such useful fields as office business, and education.

At this resolution, the image is sharper and clearer than the Rift or Vive, but if you concentrate hard enough you can see a screen door effect in which individual pixels become visible. But if you’re not looking for it, you won’t notice it.

As with the rest of the range (except the Samsung), the Dell visor doesn’t have built in headphones, so you have to supply your own. This decision was probably taken because many people already have a favorite set of headphones. But the downside is that if your favorite headphones happen to be large or bulky, then you may find them competing with the headset for space.

VERDICT: Best aesthetic design. Would be our joint favorite, but for the lack of hardware IPD calibration and proximity sensor.

HP - Mixed Reality Headset and Controllers

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset

The first thing we noticed about this headset is that whereas the Acer looks a bit like the Sony PSVR and the Dell looks almost Apple-like (or space-age), the HP and Lenovo look remarkably like each other and they - together with the Samsung - are more conventional in their appearance. Or to put it another way: the HP, Lenovo and Samsung don’t look too different from the Vive and Rift.

The HP can connect to any PC with Windows Mixed Reality or Windows Mixed Reality Ultra. With the latter you get a better field of view (100° - as distinct from 90° with regular Windows Mixed Reality).

It can connect via either HDMI or the more powerful VESA Display Port. Please note that Display Port 1.2 can support both the 60 Hz (Windows Mixed Reality) and 90Hz (Windows Mixed Reality Ultra) refresh rates. But with HDMI you need HDMI 2.0 for 90 Hz or HDMI 1.4 for the 60 Hz. The headset comes with a combined USB-HDMI cable that splits at the end into its respective components.

Technically, the HP headset has the same specs as all but one of the others in the range. 1440 x 1440 per eye, choice of 60 Hz or 90Hz refresh (depending on whether the app and hardware are WMR Ultra or just plain old WMR), 3.5 mm combo jack for external headphones. Tracking by gyroscope, accelerometer and the tracking cameras. There is a proximity sensor so that it knows when you are wearing the headset.

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset with cable

The HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset with cable

The HP fits around the head like the Dell and tightens with the same wheel at the back. The visor portion can be flipped up and down like the Dell. This has been compared to a welder’s face mask. One of the problems is that HP have used quite a lot of padding on the face mask. Far from preventing or absorbing sweat, this seems to encourage the buildup of sweat and causes condensation and fogging up. This is in complete contrast to the Dell which is well-ventilated.

Another problem is that the HP is quite heavy, weighing almost twice as much as the Acer. This may not be a problem for everyone, in fact it means that the headset is sturdy. But some people find it easier to forget that they are wearing a headset if it is light. On the other hand, the headset is big enough to accommodate glasses, without having to worry about the glasses bumping against the lenses of the headset.

Setting up the headset is straightforward, though if you want to use it with SteamVR there are a few extra steps. Unlike the more expensive headsets with outside-in tracking, you are less restricted in your play space - although you are still limited to the length of the cable. The long cable is 4 meters (just over 13 feet), the same as the Acer and Dell.

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset and controllers

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset and controllers

As with the other Windows Mixed Reality headsets, the system can lose track of the controllers when they go out of view of the headset. I stress “of the headset” because the tracking cameras are mounted on the front corners of the headset, so even if you cannot see the controllers, as long as they are within “sight” of the tracking cameras, you can play on as normal.

In practice, the HP headset is not as accurate or as quick to respond as a the Vive or Rift. But it is pretty good, and, in any case, the slightly slower responsiveness and accuracy is more than offset by the higher resolution.

We had some issues running SteamVR, such as video memory being hogged unnecessarily by the virtual room from which mixed reality apps are launched when you put the headset on. However, you can bypass this and launch SteamVR directly. The virtual room (or "cliff house" as they call it) will run in the background but will hog less video memory.

VERDICT: Worked okay, but the weight made it feel awkward.

Lenovo Explorer Bundle

Lenovo Windows Mixed Reality Headset

Lenovo Windows Mixed Reality Headset

Although all the Windows Mixed Reality headsets have to comply with a minimum spec set by Microsoft, some of them have higher specs than the minimum. Such is the case with the Lenovo Explorer headset. Instead of the WMR standard 100° Field of View, you get 110°. The actual resolution is the same as the other: 1440 x 1440 per eye. As with the others, this is still not enough to completely eliminate the screen door effect - that enables you to discern the individual pixels. But again, that only happens if you are looking for it. If you forget about it, it goes away.

The front cameras track the controllers, like the others in the WMR range and as long as the controllers don’t disappear from view of the cameras, your playing can continue uninterrupted. In fact playing with the Lenovo Explorer went quite smoothly most of the time. And it must be stressed that while this and other WMR headsets sometimes have problems tracking the controllers, the head tracking is perfect and not in any way hampered by the lack of base stations. This is true of both this headset and the others in the range.

Thus, as with the others in the WMR range, you get better resolution and almost as good tracking for a substantially lower lost than the Vive or Rift. To some VR purists, the limitations to the tracking are a dealbreaker. For others, the problem is negligible. It depends what and how you play. Indeed, for some, it is the price that is the deal breaker. And it is quite possible that those who have been holding off buying a virtual reality headset until now, might just take the plunge because of the low prices on these headsets (except the Samsung).

Lenovo Mkixed Reality Headset and controller

Lenovo and controller

Another advantage to the inside out approach of WMR over the base station method used by Vive and Rift is that it’s almost plug and play, with virtually no set up. You plug it in, trace out your play area by moving the headset and that’s it.

The batteries on the controllers have a reasonable life, but if you play a lot you would be well advised to get rechargeable batteries and a charger. By keeping a spare set permanently charged, you can ensure that your gaming experience is not subjected to anything more than a minimal interruption.

On the comfort side, the results are mixed. It is light, weighing less than a pound (380 grams in fact). Having said that, it might not be big enough for everyone. After all some people have bigger heads than others. The padding around the nose is quite tight. This is good for keeping out the light, but bad news for people with big noses, at times feeling almost suffocating. This also means that the ventilation if not great and it tends to overheat, causing sweating. Finally - and again, a common negative feature across the range - there is no mechanical adjustment for inter-pupillary distance, just the rather limited software adjustment.

 And like the others, it has that flip-up/flip-down feature that makes it possible to return to the real world briefly, without having to take the headset off and put it back on again.

VERDICT: Solid spec, but mixed results on the comfort side.

Samsung HMD Odyssey

Samsung Odyssey Windows Mixed Reality headset

Samsung Odyssey headset

Finally, we arrive at the king of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets. Samsung haven’t allowed Microsoft’s specs to hold them back to the minimum requirements. Far from it. They have gone for the gold with the Odyssey. In the process, they have made the most expensive of the WMR headsets. So what do they have to show for it?

First of all, other headsets in the range have taken advantage of the minimum requirements, to give the user flexibility by allowing them to use their own earphones or headphones.  But Samsung have taken off in a different direction. They have chosen instead to aim for the best user experience by providing a set of good quality built-in AKG “premium” headphones.

These boast “360-degree spatial sound” - which means that they can create sounds coming at you from different sides and angles. So, if, for example, the game calls for a helicopter approaching from behind you and then flying overhead and landing in front of you, the headphones will recreate this experience. The headphones are hinged rotationally, so that they can be flipped down 90° from parallel to the headband to a perpendicular position such that they cover the ears.

The headset also includes an integrated microphone array that you can use to talk to Cortana, the Windows 10, voice-activated smart assistant.

Samsung Odyssey controllers

Samsung Odyssey controllers

On the other hand, Samsung seem to have missed some other opportunities for premium enhancements over and above the minimal spec. For example, the controllers use the same AA batteries as the other WMR headsets, instead of being rechargeable. Of course, the owner could get their own rechargeable AA batteries - and even keep a spare set charged at all times as we recommend - but Samsung missed a trick by not being proactive about this.

In game play, the Odyssey is at least as good as any of the others, working best if the tracking cameras are able to assist the gyroscope and accelerometer. That calls for the play area to be at least moderately well-lit and for there to be some level of detail. If you were playing in an empty hall, this might be a problem. But in practice it is unlikely to be as most homes have some defining detail. Even floor tiles or grained floorboards will help.

This means that in most situations, the Odyssey feels no less responsive than a Vive or Rift. And while a problem can arise if the controllers drop out of view of the cameras in the headset, you can at least turn round with the controllers and keep them (and yourself) in play.

Another point in favor of the Odyssey is the graphics. Samsung have opted for an AMOLED display instead of the LCD displays that the other headsets in the range have chosen. These are sharper and more responsive to rapid change than the LCDs. Also, Samsung has given the headset a resolution of 1440 x 1600 per eye, instead of the 1440 x 1440 of the others.

Samsung Odyssey side viee Windows mixed reality

Samsung Odyssey in profile

One thing the Odyssey lacks is the flip-up/flip-down feature of the other headsets. In that respect, the Odyssey is more like the Vive or Rift. After experiencing the flip feature, it was hard to adapt to no having it with the Odyssey. It is a useful feature. And one feels almost deprived without it.

Esthetically, the Odyssey is closer to the Rift or Vive than say the Acer, which looks like the Sony PSVR, or the Dell which looks the most futuristic. In other words, the Odyssey has a solid, sturdy look about it. It is also the second heaviest of the headsets in the WMR range, weighing in a hefty 650 grams.

The Odyssey is more like the Vive and Rift than the other WMR headsets in another respect too: it has a hardware adjustment for interpupillary distance. Whereas the other WMRs reviewed here are limited to a fixed physical 63mm IPD with a 4mm “software” calibration in either direction (for an effective 59-67mm), the Odyssey can be physically varied between 60mm and 72mm. This makes allowances for larger heads in the way that other WMR headsets do not. Unfortunately, there's stil no focus adjustment capability.

The question of value for money for this headset is hard to answer, because the prices of these headsets are constantly changing (and falling).

VERDICT: Our Choice. Lack of a flip visor is more than offset by higher-resolution, built-in headphones and hardware IPD control.