Are those cheap VR headsets worth it?

The absolute coolest thing Google has done with VR is make it something truly accessible to everyone. Earlier this year, Hallmark started building Google Cardboard headset into some of its premium cards, just to give you an idea of just how accessible this simple bit of immersive technology is now. While $13 and tax is a little much for a greeting card, it's right on par with some of the cheapest VR headsets you can buy today, and that level of accessibility is amazing.

That having been said, just because you can buy a VR headset for less than an average movie ticket doesn't always mean you should. Here's what you gain and lose by looking at the cheapest form of VR as your default purchase option.

The cost of immersion

Google Cardboard

Good VR isn't cheap, but cheap VR can be pretty good.

There are two big things that make VR interesting, and they both have to do with that sense of immersion. A successful VR experience tricks you into thinking, if only for a moment, that you are actually a part of the thing you're watching or interacting with. Immersion is a lot easier with the big Desktop VR headsets, with motion controllers and the ability to walk around in the virtual environment. With portable viewers like Google Cardboard, those moments of true immersion rely on your ability to shut out the world around you for a moment.

A big part of this can be resolved with audio. A set of decent headphones connected to your phone can make you feel more present and immersed in any VR experience. The other thing is comfort, which is often difficult to accomplish when holding an actual cardboard box to your face with both of your hands.

While it can be helpful for a VR headset to have a head strap and headphones built in, so you can just put the headset on and have your arms resting at your side, it's not a requirement by any means. It ultimately comes down to personal comfort, which for some people means not having anything tightly secured to your face but still able to fill your field of view with the experience playing out on your phone.

Inexpensive and cheap aren't always the same thing

Homido Mini

There are inexpensive VR headsets worth taking a look at to see if the experience provided is enough for you to appreciate the immersion, but they're often a little unusually designed when compared to the traditional Google Cardboard experience. Some headset offer a rigid plastic shell to hold the phone and strap to your head, but several others fold up like prescription glasses and can actually be carried your wallet when not in use. There's no one answer here for the "right" kind of mobile VR headset, because comfort is a very personal thing. This is a big part of why Google Cardboard is so open to new designs and concepts, because accessibility is the most important part of this particular experience.

It's important to remember Google Cardboard apps were never meant to be the kind of thing you enjoyed for more than a few minutes at a time. Those little bursts of immersion are enough to make you say "wow let me share this" and pass the headset around a group of friends. If your goal is to put this headset on and wear it for an hour or more, you really should start looking at Google Daydream and not too far beneath that level of build quality and immersion.

More: Samsung Gear VR (2017) review

Russell Holly

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter