Pimax 4K Review – Budget VR

The future has arrived. For no longer is VR just a thing you can have, but now China also has its own, much cheaper version vying for your affections. But would you trust it and is it worth it? These are the two questions I’ll be trying to answer in this video. CAN YOU TRUST IT? If you’re looking to get into VR properly, then the Oculus and Vive are probably the names that spring to mind.

But even with these well-known products, the technology is in its infancy and if you’re anything like me you’re wary of taking the plunge, especially when it’s such an expensive plunge to make. And you probably don’t like the idea of adding the uncertainty of a company and product you’ve never heard of from the other side of the world to that list of worries, either.

Fortunately, the kind people over at Gearbest gave me a Pimax 4K headset to review, in exchange for awareness about the product and a link to their site where they’re currently offering a discount on it so you can get VR for about half the price of the Oculus. Obviously, I was very interested in trying it out. I love cheaper versions of things! I rock a cheap Asian mechanical keyboard because it was about 80% as good as the European version for about 50% of the price. And I’d say that the Pimax is the same sort of deal. The good news is, it IS a thing! You know, like the sort of thing you buy and then receive through the post.

I discovered this when it turned up on my doorstep about 2 weeks after it was sent. Firstly, I had to assemble the thing. It does come with a simple set of instructions but honestly, I was happy to figure it out myself. That’s part of the fun right? It’s all rather fool-proof; no confusing cables or excess connections! Just the headset, some straps and some optional ear-speakers, which I recommend since it cuts down on the number of cables you need to wear to experience this. The audio quality with these is exceptionally good with decent yet not overpowering levels of bass and they possess a neutral yet mellow tone of I don’t know what I’m talking about.

But I can assure you that you’ll have no complains about the audio quality and the cups are comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. Their volume controls are on the top of the device and will be more than loud enough for what you need. Given the choice between these and the hassle of my normal headphones on top of this device, it’s a no-brainer to use these for hassle-free audio. The Pimax requires 2 connections to your PC. The first is an HDMI connection to the graphics card and the second is a common USB connection. The cable is about 8 feet long so you won’t be able to freely walk across your room with it on, but it should easily reach you in a seated position even if your PC is tucked far away under the desk or whatever. If you want a longer cable then you’ll have to buy extensions for both the USB and HDMI connections.

All in all, the Pimax headset will give anybody who wears it confidence in its design. I noticed a faint mid-pitched electrical humming sound when it was turned on, though it is very quiet and the ear cups mask it entirely. The device itself feels solid, well-built and comfortable, with padding around the eyes and a lovely squidgy bit that rests on the back of your head. I’m a bit upset there isn’t more padding for the bridge of your nose. In use it’s not painful because the device is pretty light. Their site likens it to the weight of ‘3 eggs’. For me it didn’t feel a lot heavier than your average pair of headphones since its load is spread across your entire head. It’s just a shame that the nose arch is made of unpadded plastic.

Had this been padded then I would have nothing bad to say about the Pimax’s design. Put it on and it’s pitch black and fits snugly. I certainly don’t feel that they’ve cut corners with the product itself. The same can’t be said for the software, which I think was my biggest concern with this product all along.

The software it uses is Piplay, a terribly chosen name since Googling it reveals that it’s also the name of a Raspberry Pi Operating System. You need to install the correct Piplay software before the device will work. The Pimax doesn’t come with a CD for drivers so you have to rely on their site, which is all written in adorably broken English! It wasn’t the easiest to navigate- looked more like a forum and I had to click a few times before I found the download, but eventually I did. Installation took a few minutes but was simple enough. I’ll cover Piplay more later on. Being a bit of a VR noob I didn’t know what the next step was, so I tried booting Steam VR and to my surprise it detected the Pimax immediately! At this moment I could immediately forgive the rough edges and broken English.

I was being treated the same as an Oculus or Vive user… and for a fraction of the price! I had cheated the system! China has done it again by offering something that works, and at a lower price than we can seemingly manage. So this answers the first of my two questions. This product is a thing, it exists and it works. From its lack of polish and questionable English you might not think it will, but it does. Which moves us onto the second, and far more difficult question: IS IT WORTH IT? This to me is far harder to answer as I think that everybody will have different opinions about how much they want VR and what they want from it. As far as a VR headset goes, it does the job. You put it on, you enter a VR world and can do so for a fraction of the cost that other devices are charging.

Compared with the Oculus’s £550 and the Vive’s £750, the Pimax costs $375, or $359 if you use the coupon provided in this video’s description. And no: it doesn’t give me commission or anything like that. You cynical people. If you’re in England then this cuts the price to under £300. Problem is, I don’t have an Oculus or Vive and I guess the question most people will want to know is how they compare. All I can do is to say what the Pimax is like, rather than what it’s like against the competition. I’ll start with the visual quality. The Pimax has a much higher resolution display than either the Oculus or Vive do. This is full 4K, though it’s split across 2 eyes which makes it pretty much 2000×2000 pixels per eyepiece. But it’s complicated.

For a start, bandwidth limitations mean that it can’t support the full 4K resolution so instead quickly interpolates lower ones between your eyes. The one time I noticed this effect was when trying to read small text at a distance. It’s a very strange effect that I’ve only encountered in VR, but it’s like it skips bits of the words depending on how far you are from it. It feels like you have hundreds of tiny blind spots in your eyes! It’s mean to criticise this headset for this though, since you only really notice it with text and at distances where it would be impossible to read with other VR headsets any way.

What’s more disappointing is that there’s very little software that is designed run at higher resolutions. But even if you end up running things at the same resolution as the other VR headsets around, a 4K display has another advantage. Admittedly, I haven’t tried an Oculus for 6 months but I remember my first impression being that I was staring at a panel of LED lights rather than pixels, with noticeable black lines between each of them. This is known as the ‘screen door effect’. Just google it and you’ll find plenty of examples. But even with the Oculus, this was only something I noticed for a number of seconds before my mind ignored them and I felt as though I was in a 3D world. The Pimax’s resolution is far higher than this and I feel is to the point where it doesn’t distract you at all.

If you find a particularly bright scene and look for them then you can make out faint wavy lines of pixels. Sort of like that of a heated car windshield, but it’s not going to be something that annoys anybody. The resolution is one of the Pimax’s major selling points. Unfortunately, most demos I tried don’t seem designed for 4K and instead display at the lower and blurrier resolutions that the Oculus and Vive run at. But the Pimax has a very clever trick. For in its software you can enable a function that at first I thought would lower the resolution, but it instead forces this higher 2560×1440 resolution which makes anything viewable on the SteamVR store look much more crisp and clear. This is MASSIVE for the Pimax. It means you can see everything with more visual clarity than with any other VR headset right now… provided your PC can handle this higher resolution smoothly. But even if you choose lower resolutions, I still think that Pimax’s 4K display helps to eliminate the screendoor effect.

I noticed a degree of chromatic aberration with the display that ranged from fine to SO BLURRY YOU CAN’T SEE WHAT’S GOING ON, depending on where your eyes were relative to the middle of the display. After putting the device on I found that I had to finely adjust how it sat on my nose for the best results. But once I had then I was good to go. Now onto the weaknesses. On paper, the once major downside of the Pimax is that it’s only 60 hz, instead of 90, which is the standard with Oculus and Vive. This means that turning your head doesn’t feel as responsive with the Pimax and it may lead to increased nausea. Occasionally I’d stand still in a place for a couple of minutes, shaking my head about to try and catch it out but it kept up nicely.

Of course I’d prefer 90 but 60 Hz isn’t the vomit-filled deathtrap you might think it is and certainly is a long way from feeling juddery. Though there was one demo that made me feel terrible: the Deus Ex VR demo. Now, I don’t get travel-sick and haven’t vomited from anything other than illness (and alcohol) since I was a child. And even then it was because I was trapped on a roundabout while all the bigger children spun it and laughed at me. But within just 5 minutes of this demo… my God. I was sweating, breathing heavily, felt bloated and the idea of hunching over a toilet felt very appealing. I had to leave the house for a good half hour before I felt better.

I don’t think that it’s coincidence that this was the one demo I played where you could turn around using a controller rather than just your head and I’m absolutely sure it’s this that caused it. It concerned me about the implications that this could have with VR, though I’d like to stress that the demos where you look around using your head didn’t cause this to happen, despite being at just 60 hz. This could be down to the ‘brain warp’ technology it uses where it flashes images one eye at a time, tricking you into thinking it’s closer to 120 Hz. There’s no way of knowing it’s showing images one at a time in practice and I can’t possibly compare it to a 120 Hz screen because VR feels so different to use. But like I said, 60 Hz isn’t the disappointment you might think it is when it comes to VR.

But it’s not SUPER-INSTANT, either. Something more noticeable for me was the ghosting, which I could see in almost every scene when I looked for it. This could apparently be the trade-off with the Brain-warp effect mentioned earlier. This ghosting appears similar to the effect you get on a cheap TV screen, where if you move quickly you can see one or even two after-images of what was there before.

It doesn’t look blurry, but rather like a video rendered on Vegas with resampling enabled. It doesn’t get in the way of the immersion, and I can’t say I can remember what the Oculus and Vive were like in comparison, but I suspect that this is the one area that the more expensive headsets will be a lot better. If you’re sensitive to ghosting, or already have a Vive or Oculus, then this would be the one issue I can think of that would convince you to avoid the Pimax. Another thing you might notice are the dozen or so vertical strips going down the displays. These are only really obvious when looking into the eyepieces when they’re not on your FACE.

I’m assuming that these are de-misting strips to reduce how much it fogs up in use. Once you’re wearing the displays your vision doesn’t focus on them and they fade out of sight and mind, but there were a few situations where they seemed to appear for a while before disappearing again. Maybe this is them kicking in and out of action. I don’t know. I wouldn’t say you can ‘see’ the lines but when moving your head about against a white background, at its worst it can look like uneven back-lighting. Field of View is the same as the Oculus and Vive at 110 degrees. Your eyes are closer to 180 though so you will be aware that you’re viewing the world through circular goggles. You see enough for it to not feel claustrophobic and, like most issues I had with the Pimax’s image quality, unless you’re looking for it your brain quickly hides it and you’ll forget about its limitations.

It’s hard for me to balance how bad these issues sound with how little they bothered me in practice. Like, they weren’t things that immediately stuck out to me until I started looking for them, and the friends that I’ve forced to test this product didn’t mention them. I wouldn’t accept these things from a new monitor, where my standards are a lot higher. But when it came to VR, the novelty and excitement of exploring a virtual world in 3D far outweighs these issues.

But remember I don’t have fresh memories of the other headsets to compare it to. And I suspect that these issues are the price you pay from saving on a cheaper device. And I have no doubt that in a few years I’ll frown on these issues a lot more once the platform has matured. But right now these things aren’t deal-breakers for me. And the second part of ‘is it worth it?’ comes down to software and support for VR in early 2017, which I know isn’t directly to do with this product but it’s important to cover.

What you get with Pimax is the headset. It has built-in gyroscopes that track your head motions. And these are great, by the way. So much so that I almost didn’t remember to include them in this video because it does such a good job of tracking that you take it for granted. What you DON’T get are base stations that track your body’s movement. These let you walk about in an area of your room, ducking below things and peering over others. So while you can look around 360 degrees and there’s a clever bit of movement manipulation depending on how much you tilt the device, you don’t get to properly explore a 3D world just by walking about an open bit of your room. Being able to use your hands as controllers to pick up and to interact with stuff has become one of the biggest selling features of VR! And unfortunately, Pimax doesn’t come with these controllers either, which seriously reduces the number of titles available to experience right now on the Steam VR store.

You can boot them up but won’t get past the main menu. It feels sort of like trying to use a PC without a mouse. This isn’t to say that Pimax won’t ever have base stations or controllers of its own. In fact, preview pictures of the upcoming 8K version of the device appear to feature both, so I’m very hopeful that this 4K model will also get them. And I’ll be sure to cover them once I can! But until then, you might be able to get it working with other VR controller products, I just don’t know. I feel silly for not knowing. But this whole jump into VR has been a real adventure for me. I discovered I could use a mouse and keyboard to navigate Nvidia’s Funhouse, but still had to look in the direction I wanted to move using my head, which took some getting used to.

And by lucky chance I had a Playstation 2 controller plugged in and it began vibrating at one point, which was when I realised that I could fully control some games using this, complete with dual shock! Having to discover these things isn’t a plus point for the Pimax. But I can’t deny that it’s fun to mess about with. Getting devices to work with the Pimax seems to be less a case of ‘will it work’ and more of ‘how much will it work’. One game that really deserves mention is ‘Dimensional’ and can be found on the SteamVR store. It was the one demo I tried that seemed designed for a PS2 controller. Whereas Funhouse’s aiming seemed to involve you moving your hands about -which made some of the stages pretty much impossible without VR controllers, Dimensional worked with head movements. I quickly learned to teleport about the world, navigating areas by looking around. This is about as close to a full VR game that I’ve got working with the Pimax and I felt no nausea with it at all.

Although simple, it felt very natural to play in VR and was proof that it could indeed work with a classic controller… if developers bothered to develop for it. I would have had a lot of fun in many more titles if they let me control with my head rather than hand controllers that I don’t have. Yes, I accept that they’re the way VR is meant to be played! But please don’t shut out everybody else completely. If you enjoy discovery and want to be one of the first to explore VR then you might find just tinkering with the Pimax an enjoyable experience.

There are some encouraging Youtube videos where people seem to have got it working with all sorts of devices, many of which mimic how the Oculus and Vive work. For games I found myself spending most of my time with SteamVR. I feel Valve really should work on Half Life 3 but have to admit that what they’re doing to get VR off the ground is much appreciated by me right now. I would go as far as to say that they’ve single-handedly moved VR out of the ‘regrettable purchases’ category and into something with enough distractions to keep you occupied until the big VR titles eventually come out. The software that lets Pimax work with everything else is called PiPlay. You don’t need to explore this if you don’t want to, though do occasionally have to switch between the 2 3D modes depending on what you want it to be compatible with, and changing it causes the device to throw a hissy fit for about 30 seconds, bombarding your PC with messages about how it isn’t working before suddenly working and going quiet again.

Piplay’s interface looks very primitive and has an unprofessional ‘feel’ to it that I first found worrying but have now decided it’s rather charming. It also has its own library of ‘experiences’, which was completely empty for a couple of hours after installation, before suddenly filling with more than you can be bothered to look at. They’re all using that adorable broken English I mentioned earlier. When it described a large pendulum as very stimulate I knew that it would be a bit of Software that I’d treasure for a long time to come.

Especially when you discover the Kodi Player. Get this: it can run any videos you have on your computer. It’s as though you have a massive screen right in front of your FACE. I’m definitely going to use this to watch stuff in bed. And maybe some movies too! This is undisputedly a win for the Pimax’s higher resolution screen and if you’re the kind of person who enjoys watching stuff in bed- let’s face it, who isn’t- but you get a sore neck trying to see the screen then this is the perfect device for you. Stuff in the very corners of the image can be hard to see, but there is the option to scale the image so that more of it is close to the middle, but it’s at the expense of resolution.

There are a number of 360 degree pictures and videos you can view from the PiPlay software. And although the Pimax site makes it very clear that it NOT ALLOW PORN, a lot of these 360 degree ‘experiences’ seem to rely on you being interested in watching smiley looking ladies acting a bit tired in their bedrooms. Though really, I find 360 degree views a bit limited.

I much prefer the 3D content. And what is on the store is impressive, though sadly it’s hard to capture for this video and there’s not a lot of proper 3D videos on the Piplay right now. You can probably get it to work with Youtube in 3D as well but it’s not something I’ve tried yet. Oh and be sure to disable the PiPlay software if you don’t have the Pimax plugged in or the cheeky rascal of a program will pester you every couple of seconds informing you of it. SO, the conclusion. There are many things about this that I could point at and say that I’d like it to be better. But right now the Pimax does deliver on its ultimate promise of putting you into a VR world and at a very competitive price.

Honestly, if you want a perfect VR experience then I’d suggest waiting a year or so to give both the headsets and the software time to mature. But if you have an itch for VR that you need to scratch but also happen to be poor then the Pimax is a working budget alternative that will get you access to the bulk of the experiences. Whether you can play them is another question, but investing in a controller will improve your chances. When it comes to image quality, Pimax does some things excellently and the rest acceptably.

It surprised me by being so good for viewing movies. It’s a feature I really think I’m going to use it for more than I expected. When it comes to games, I can definitely think of things they could work on to improve it but I don’t think there’s any one issue that’s going to make using it intolerable. If you’re looking to experience VR then I certainly think you can quench your thirst with this headset, provided you also have compatible controllers and motion trackers as I feel these are as much a part of the VR experience as the headset itself.

I don’t believe that this product is as well-rounded as the more expensive Oculus or Vive gear will be and if they were the same price then, sorry Pimax, I’d rather go for the others. But they’re not the same price! You have to be the judge of what VR is worth to you. I’d say that the Pimax, in true Asian style, delivers 80% of the performance for 50% of the cost. Honestly though, what the Pimax desperately needs are compatible base stations and controllers, or at least concrete information somewhere saying when to expect them or what it can work with already. This would allow me to confidently recommend it as an all-in-one, working budget VR system, rather than just a working headset with questionable controller support. This whole thing is infuriating for me too since it seems like the groundwork is in place for something with real potential.

All it’s waiting for are a couple of last connecting pieces and if it waits too long then it will be up against the next generation of VR devices. And if you can wait, there are some exciting things around the corner. Earlier this year Pimax showcased an 8K prototype with a field of view of 200 degrees! Although I’d like to add that it’s not proper 8K, but rather a 4K screen for each eye. Though it still looks like it’ll be at 60 Hz. In conclusion, I am very happy to have had a chance to test the Pimax and can definitely vouch for it being something that exists and works.

As found on Youtube

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