Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality system is a unified virtual reality platform for VR headsets made by a variety of different manufacturers, and we just finished testing our second headset that uses it. The HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset is a $449.99 device that includes both the headset and two motion controllers, designed to work with Microsoft’s VR platform. Apart from some visual differences, the headset performs identically to the first Windows Mixed Reality headset we tested, the Acer AH101-D8EY. It’s easy to set up, but we still find the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Sony PlayStation VR to offer better experiences and a wider selection of software.
The HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset is physically very similar to the Acer headset, but with a much more neutral matte black finish. The headset itself consists of a large visor mounted on a padded headband with a hinge that lets it flip up and down over the eyes. The front of the visor features a long stripe of glossy black plastic over the matte black body, covering the two cameras used for position tracking and giving the visor an almost Robocop look. A 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the right edge of the underside of the visor.
The headband is a horizontal loop of black plastic with thick padding on the front and back. A wheel on the back tightens and secures the headset, like the Acer model and the PlayStation VR. A short cable extends from the right side of the visor to the right side of the headband, held loosely under a plastic loop and terminating a few inches down in a wide connector. The connector attaches to the 10-foot cable that connects to your computer, ending in a USB 3.0 plug and an HDMI plug.
The included motion controllers are identical to the ones included with the Acer headset, and seem to be universal among Windows Mixed Reality products according to Microsoft’s documentation. They’re plain black wands that curve forward to a control surface featuring a clickable analog stick and touchpad, along with Menu and Windows buttons. Two triggers sit on the underside of the control surface. A wide ring covered in white LEDs extends forward past the grip of each controller, letting the headset’s cameras identify its position and orientation. The controllers take AA batteries and pair through Bluetooth. They’re functional, but we prefer the Oculus Touch controllers for their much more ergonomic design.
Windows Mixed Reality
Setting up the HP headset is the exact same process as setting up any Windows Mixed Reality headset. You need Windows 10 with the 2017 Fall Creators’ Update installed. All you have to do is plug the headset into your computer’s open HDMI and USB ports and follow the prompts on your monitor. It will set up the headset, walk you through pairing the two controllers, and then invite you to define a play area by drawing a box in the air around an open space where you can comfortably move (and where the headset cable can still reach your computer without any danger of getting yanked or tripped on).
After everything is set up, you can use Windows Mixed Reality by opening the Windows Mixed Reality app and putting the headset on your head. The software will also automatically start when you plug in the headset, if you keep it unplugged when not in use.
The Windows Mixed Reality interface is identical across all compatible headsets, and we go into greater detail in our review of the Acer headset. Microsoft’s VR interface is called the Cliff House, and it’s a modeled 3D space where you can place different windows and 3D constructs as you see fit. Non-VR Windows apps can be attached to blank walls or left floating in the air to let you look between them as if you were looking between computer monitors. You can even open your PC’s desktop as a window in Mixed Reality, letting you interact with any of your Windows software as if you are literally staring at your monitor. VR apps are generally large tiles that take you directly into the experience when you click on them, dissolving the Cliff House and opening the software before your eyes.
The Cliff House is a functional interface that lets you arrange your most commonly used apps comfortably across different rooms. It’s very limited, though; while you can decorate it with 3D “Holograms” you can scale and place anywhere around you, you can’t change the layout of the Cliff House itself. An option to turn the Cliff House into a large, open warehouse space, or otherwise shape your own rooms and hallways, would add a lot of personalization to the experience.
Microsoft’s app store doesn’t offer many Windows Mixed Reality apps yet. There are a few dozen choices, with standouts like Superhot VR and Minecraft among droves of very simple, tech demo-like games and experiences.
You can use SteamVR software with a Windows Mixed Reality headset, but it’s unwieldy and unreliable. You need to install SteamVR for Windows Mixed Reality over Steam, then open the Windows Mixed Reality portal. After that, you need to manually open the SteamVR software you want to use in Steam, after which the Cliff House will disappear and the SteamVR software will load.
This works in theory, but I’ve experienced multiple crashes and hangs when running SteamVR games. Rick & Morty: Virtual Rick-ality is the biggest culprit, loading only the opening menu interface but crashing whenever I try to insert a virtual game disk to play one of the games.
VR software on the Oculus Rift store officially cannot be played in a Windows Mixed Reality headset at this time, but some users have found workarounds to get the store working with them.
Desktop and Backpack
We tested the HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset on a Razer Blade Pro and HP’s own Omen X Compact Desktop PC, a system designed to work with a backpack harness and batteries to let you use virtual reality freely, without any wires running from you to a separate device on a table or desk. Both PCs support Windows Mixed Reality Ultra, which we directly compare with the Rift and Vive experiences.
The experience on both PCs was nearly identical, though the Omen X enables, with an optional $500 VR Backpack, using the headset completely untethered from a desk or power outlet. For more details on what the backpack-worn computer is like, read our full review of the system.
Graphics and Performance
Each eye receives a 1,440-by-1,440 picture across a 2.89-inch LCD, the same resolution used by the Acer headset. It’s a higher-resolution picture than the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PlayStation VR, but the refresh rate offered by Windows Mixed Reality headsets varies between 60 and 90Hz, while the Vive and Rift maintain a flat 90Hz and the PS VR can hit 90 to 120Hz.
This will of course depend on your hardware. Microsoft breaks up Windows Mixed Reality into two categories: Windows Mixed Reality and Windows Mixed Reality Ultra. On paper, even a computer with integrated graphics can run standard Windows Mixed Reality, which only hits 60Hz and isn’t capable of showing as much detail as Ultra, which requires discrete graphics. Effectively, Windows Mixed Reality Ultra is a similar experience to HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, and non-Ultra Windows Mixed Reality is scaled back to run on hardware that the other two PC-tethered headsets don’t attempt.
The headset’s display looks bright and fairly sharp, though I kept noticing the texture of the LCDs themselves when looking at bright, evenly colored surfaces. I could also make out pixel placement, which gave those flat colors a bit of fuzziness. We saw a similar issue with the Acer headset, which appears to use a very similar LCD for each eye. While the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PS VR have lower resolutions for each eye, we didn’t notice this slight fuzziness with their OLED screens, which appear much more vibrant and offer better contrast.
The gaming experience on the HP headset is likewise nearly identical to the Acer headset. Games and tech demos in Windows Mixed Reality, like Minecraft VR and the LEGO Batman Batmersive VR Experience (a 360-degree video experience) function well, and moving through the Cliff House with the motion controllers is reliable and consistent. However, another game in the Microsoft app store, Paint Arena, is awkward and unresponsive, failing to work correctly with the motion controls and rendering the game unplayable.
Still Needs Work
The HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset is just as capable a VR headset as the Acer model. Whether that makes it worthwhile to you depends on whether the Windows Mixed Reality ecosystem is your preferred VR platform (or if you really are dedicated to PC-tethered VR in the first place). We’re starting to see a consistent level of quality and specs coming out of the Windows Mixed Reality field, with similar headsets and identical controllers. They’re functional, but Windows Mixed Reality itself lags behind SteamVR and Oculus in terms of compelling software, and SteamVR for the platform remains inconsistent.
Add LCD screens that simply don’t look quite as good as the OLED screens used by HTC, Oculus, and Sony, and there really isn’t a very solid argument for spending $450 on the HP headset, or any Windows Mixed Reality headset. If the platform and hardware improve in the future this might change, but with two Windows Mixed Reality headsets under our belt, we’re starting to see a pattern of performance that feels markedly behind the competition.