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Review: Too Good To Be True? A 4K VR Headset That Supports SteamVR For $300

Pimax's 4K PC VR headset, reviewed

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Oh, virtual reality. So much promise, so many drawbacks. Stick your hand into the Tombola Of VR Woes and see what you grab. Headaches and nauseau? High system requirements? Too many cables? Screen door effect? Apparent low resolutions? Gimmicky games? Problematic prices? Your face in a box? I could go on, but I won’t because, er, that is most of them. Both Oculus Rift and the Vive offer a real jolly good time for initial forays into lifesize 3D wonderlands, but come up short when it comes to longer term usage, for reasons we’ve opined about at length here and here. But those constitute just the first consumer generation of hardware.

The tech will be refined over time (unless the market totally loses faith in the concept), but whether that is achieved by Oculus, Valve/HTC or someone else entirely is very much up for grabs still. In the interim, here’s Chinese outfit Pimax, who are selling what they label as the first 4K VR headset for PC, which works with SteamVR. It’s also $350 (or $300 without headphones), compared to the Rift’s $599 and Vive’s $799. Two questions, then. 1) Can it really solve the image quality problem? 2) Can it really do what it needs to at half the price of the big boys of VR? I’ve been testing the Pimax for the last few days, and here’s what I think.

You’ll be wanting the nuts and bolts of the thing first, I imagine. The resolution is 3840×2160, up from Oculus and Vive’s 2160 x 1200. However, this is the total resolution – the more telling figure to bear in mind is the per eye resolution, which is 1,080 x 1,200 on Vive and Rift and, as far as I can ascertain, 1920×2160 on the Pimax. So a big step up for sure, but in practice we’re more in 1440p or 2K territory than 4K. (And thank God, because almost no PC in the world could possibly power full-4K VR right now). I’ll get onto how the image looks shortly, but first let’s run through the other vital statistics.

FOV is 110 degrees, on par with the big lads, while refresh rate (and therefore maximum frame rate) is 60 down from 90. There’s no base station or sensor or anything like that here – it just uses gyroscopes built into the headset, like the earliest Rifts did. This closes the door on fancier-pants positional tracking but can map which direction your head’s looking in. It also means that the only connections the device requires is one HDMI port and one USB 3.0 port (though 2.0 is supported to some extent, at what cost I do not know).

Finally, there’s an option for integrated headphones if you like, and it claims it can be adjusted to be usable without glasses by myopic folk – though there is space for glasses also. It also boasts some frippery such as ‘auto-demisting’ with some kind of blue laser (FWIW I have never been aware of misting or demisting on any headset I’ve tried. There is some grease on the nosepiece after using this and that is the only thing I can tell you about fluids) and its own, currently empty games store, which no-one will ever use.

No controller is included, though apparently Pimax are working on something, so before you even consider this thing you should bear in mind that it’s not going to support anything that requires Vive controllers or Oculus’ pointer thing. If a game uses pad or keyboard or mouse you’re good to go – presuming it’s a SteamVR game, anyway. Reading up, it seems support for Oculus exclusives can be hacked in without huge exertion, but I’m spoilt enough for choice on Steam that I haven’t bothered with this as yet.

So yeah, in terms of games, if it’s on Steam and doesn’t require Vive wands, it’ll work with this right out of the box. That means the likes of Elite Dangerous, American/European Truck Simulator and DCS World are all yours in VR for sub-£300. A ton of other stuff too, but my strong suspicion is that this headset will be of particular interest to sim fans who cannot countenance the high spend on a Vive or Rift given that they don’t need any of the flappy-handed stuff for their game of choice. It’s also a more convincingly high-def way of watching movies on a virtual cinema screen than the Vive or Rift if that’s your bag, although that comes with several caveats.

I should delay no longer: clearly the critical question is that of image quality. Yes, in all honesty the picture is sharper and clearer than either of the major headsets. It’s comparable to looking at 1080p where Vivulus is like watching 720p. Not relevalatory in practice, but enough to shift it from “if I squint I can just..” to “oh hey, I can see basically clearly.” This is a big win in theory. There is no screen door effect to speak of, and text is more legible – if, big if, you can coax its pupil distance adjustment feature in the software into working correctly. Right now, it’s bugged to hell, but forthcoming updates may or may not address this. It’s close to where it needs to be when I wear my glasses, but maybe too sharply in focus, which incites near-instant headaches, while without glasses or with contact lenses I can tune down the intensity but can’t escape some blur. Browsing forums, it seems this is due for a fix, so fingers crossed.

A more severe issue is that, while stuff looks fairly sharp if you’re looking at it dead-on, turning your head even a little or flicking your eyes fast is hoo-boy territory. Edges and text swim for a micro-second, long enough that you’re aware of your eyes adjusting, and given this is something you’re going to do hundreds of times during one session, it’s a huge downside. I’m not well-versed enough in the under-the-hood stuff to be able to say if this is down to the lower 60Hz refresh rate or pupil swim issues resulting from the shape and design of the lenses, but I can speak to the effects, which sadly are fairly unpleasant fairly quickly. Sickness and head/eyeache, basically, particularly the latter. For the record, I did conscript an independent volunteer to test the headset too, because I would be the first to admit to a certain motion sickness vulnerability, and he reported the same physical issues as I did, very quickly.

On Vive and Oculus, I do get headaches after extended use and nausea in any game with fast first-person movement (other types of camera and/or movement are by and large OK, and I’ve even watched a few movies in ’em without issue), but these problems simply aren’t a given in the way that they are on the Pimax, nor are they as fast to kick in. Other folk have stronger stomachs than I, and games that involve broader shapes and less reading turn down the headache aspect, but even so, my feeling is that in terms of comfort and construction, the Pimax is a throwback to modern-day VR’s devkit days, and as such is likely to be highly problematic for your long gaming or watching sessions. Even Elite Dangerous, a game I’ve been able to kick about in for a good few hours without feeling lousy in a Rift or Vive, knocks my sealegs from under me after 20 minutes or so.

Add to this that the headset is dramatically more uncomfortable than the big boys, particularly on the bridge of the nose due to a hard, almost sharp plastic element unwisely placed there, and unfortunately you’ve got yourself a recipe for feeling absolutely dreadful.

It’s a crying shame, because as I say, from a pure image quality point of view it’s taken the step that PC VR needed to. Even if you don’t play at the full resolution – a tall order both because of hardware demands and because not everything recognises it – the image is sharper and less pixelly. Except, tragically, there’s also noticeable ghosting (i.e. you sometimes briefly see the outline of the prior frame to the current one) and it’s also noticeably murkier than its pricier contemporaries.

The Pimax’s displays just aren’t as bright and colours aren’t as vibrant as the Rift or Vive. I couldn’t tell you if this was down to the construction of the lenses or because a different type of screen tech has been employed, but the net result is that quite a bit of the clarity gain is offset by the image being so much dimmer and duller. In some applications, such as useful Windows-in-VR tool Virtual Desktop and movie player apps, I’ve also had problems with fish-eye shaped displays and oddly shrunken images, but again I’m reasonably confident that software, either official or third party, might iron that side of things out. It can’t be guaranteed, however, and the murkiness is, I suspect, here to stay.

The good news, and this is really, really good news, is that in the main, the Pimax Just Works despite its confidence-shattering low-quality manual and support website. You have to install a driver and app package from Pimax’s somewhat mangled English site, but once you’re past that you basically only need SteamVR. (Pimax has its own store, but it is currently empty).

That it only requires two plugs, both sprouting from the end of one relatively thin’n’light cable, further endorses the Pimax as a little more of a plug’n’play device than Vive or Rift. It’s light and compact too. I even carried it over to my ‘office’ (i.e. rotting cupboard above a coffee shop) to use with the PC there instead of at home, which would be basically unthinkable for the heavyweights.

Unfortunately, there’s a further piece of bad news, which is that its gyroscopes are a bit dicky and if you take it off for a couple of minutes then put it back on again, there’s often a big lag before it corrects from whatever weird angle it got itself into, or you end up having to manually reset your position from within Steam VR’s settings. Quite possibly something that can be fixed in updates but it’s just one more way in which I felt I was battling against something that just didn’t feel slick enough. And, really, that’s the trade-off here: there is a meaningful boost in sharpness, but the price you pay is poorer construction, comfort and polish.

Which brings us onto the final critical issue: the actual real-monies price. At the time of writing, Gearbest, who sent us this review unit, sell it for $300 without earphones or $350 with. (For the record the headphones are passable – got a reasonable amount of bass, but sound a touch muffled and don’t attach to the headset very well. I would definitely use my own third-party headphones in preference, though it does involve an extra cable). UK shipping comes out at about $5. All told, that works out at about £240 in my local currency, compared to £800 for a Vive or £550 for a Rift (now that they’re available direct from stores).

So, the million dollar question. Or rather the five hundred and sixty Pounds Sterling question. Is a Vive £560 better than a Pimax? No. The room-scale is cool (if you have space), the wands are a revelation in apps which know how to use ’em, such as Tiltbrush and Fantastic Contraption, but the baseline experience is very similar in many ways. I.e. not really, truly ready for the mainstream, by which I mean a device with which you would regularly play games or watch movies rather than one that your gran might use.

The gap obviously closes a bit when it comes to the cheaper Oculus – you can get a far more comfortable headset with more motion sensing, a brighter display and an Xbox pad for ‘only’ twice the price. If the Vive, with its room-scale and its wands and thus so much more software potential over the months and years to come was the £550 device, I’d name that the go-to device in heartbeat (albeit with the caveat that I’m increasingly unconvinced that anyone should be buying into VR until at least the next generation of hardware, if it happens).

Right now, having three different headsets sat on top of my poor, confused PC, it’s the Rift I’m feeling best about, or at least ‘least distrustful of’. It’s comfortable, it’s slick, it hasn’t got too many cables and its cost isn’t totally heart-wrenching. But if I had a strong constitution, not much cash and wanted to embed myself as deeply impossible in one or two specific games, such as Elite Dangerous or American Truck Simulator? Sure, there’s a definite case to be made for the Pimax, especially as software updates might iron out some problems. And yes, alright, dammit, I’ll say it: if your major motivator is saucy VR movies, this thing is probably going to do all the awful things you need it to at a fraction of the cost.

If I were a potential customer rather than some awful bastard who got sent these things for review and thus would be far more motivated to keep using them regardless, I’d have to glue some foam under the monstrously uncomfortable nosepiece and stock up on Paracetamol, but yeah, it could work. Crucially, the price is such that I’m not going to scream at the sky for too many hours if I realise it’s mostly gathered dust a year from now.

There are a great many very sizeable drawbacks to the Pimax, particularly in terms of comfort (i.e. expect to feel rotten often), but it does get you the base fundamentals of the PC VR experience for sub-£250/$350, which is at least worth considering if you just can’t wait for a next-gen or a major price-drop from the current one. Waiting would absolutely be my recommendation, however. If someone’s made this for $300, surely someone’s going to make something even better for similar before too long.

The PIMAX 4K UHD Virtual Reality 3D PC Headset was supplied to us for review by Gearbest, and can be purchased from here for $350 with headphones or $300 without. They also offer this coupon for $40 off the headphones version, if you want: LHPIMAX. FYI RPS doesn’t receive anything however or from wherever you buy it.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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