Lenovo Explorer headset
£399.99 | $449.99 www3.lenovo.com The best Windows Mixed Reality headset yet?
Windows Mixed Reality headsets are already shaking up the VR market, with big-name brands introducing more affordable headsets than VR competitors such as the HTC Vive.
Since Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) headsets are all pretty similar in terms of specifications, what really differentiates them is design and comfort. With Lenovo being one of the more respected brands we’re expecting big things from the Explorer, both in terms of performance and build quality.
Price and availability
Like other WMR headsets, the Lenovo Explorer was launched to coincide with the arrival of the Fall Creators Update, which brings Mixed Reality to Windows 10.
The price of the Explorer, which includes two wireless motion controllers, is £399.99 ($449.99). This is cheaper than the HTC Vive, which costs £599 ($599), and around the same as the Oculus Rift, which costs £399/$399. Acer’s WMR headset sells for $299 in the US on its own, or $399 (about £399) with a pair of wireless motion controllers.
Aside from price, the key difference between WMR headsets is their design with the Lenovo Explorer dressed in understated black.
At 380g, the Explorer is light enough to wear for a decent amount of time, and a large dial at the back enables you to adjust the headset so it sits comfortably – it’s easier to use than the straps-andVelcro design of the HTC Vive.
The Explorer’s visor can also be lifted up – handy when you want to rejoin the real world temporarily – but its hinge movement isn’t as smooth as it could be.
The Lenovo Explorer uses two inside-out motion-tracking cameras, a gyroscope and an accelerometer for tracking movement. You don’t need additional devices like the HTC Vive’s Lighthouses, which keeps the installation simple.
A 3.5mm audio socket is also included, enabling you to attach your own headphones. This is nice if you have a pair you like to use, but unlike the Oculus Rift the Explorer doesn’t come with its own headphones. The headset attaches to your PC via a 4-metre cable that splits into a USB 3.0 and HDMI connection. This is better than the mass of cables that spills from the HTC Vive, although a wireless version would have been nice.
Two 2.89-inch lenses with a combined resolution of 2,880x1,440 pixels and an LCD display offer up the visuals. This resolution is higher than the Vive’s 2,160x1,200, but lower than that of the upcoming HTC Vive Pro, which will boast 2,880x1,600 pixels. It’s worth noting that the Vive’s PenTile OLED display is superior to the Explorer’s LCD.
The lenses have a field of view of 110 degrees and a refresh rate of 90Hz – similar to the Vive.
As with other WMR headsets, the Lenovo Explorer is bundled with two motion controllers – oddlooking devices that are similar to the HTC Vive controllers, being a wand with a circular head and a number of buttons, a trigger at the rear, a side button to replicate grabbing motions, and a touchpad. These similarities mean you can play some games designed for the Vive with a WMR headset.
However, WMR controllers differ from the Vive’s in that they include a Windows button to bring up installed apps in the Windows Mixed Reality Portal program, and a thumbstick for movement. The thumbstick is a nice addition, and makes movement easier in VR, but until WMR headsets become more popular we may not see many VR games or experiences make use of it. The rings at the top of each controller also have lights that illuminate when in use, so the headset can track their movement.
The controllers have a light and plastic feel to them, and don’t feel as robust as the Vive’s controllers.
Each one is also powered by a AAA battery, so you’ll need either single-use or rechargeable cells.
Because there’s no need for external sensors, and Mixed Reality is an integral part of Windows 10, the installation process for the Lenovo Explorer is straightforward. You plug in the headset, download the WMR Portal from the Microsoft Store, and then go through a step-by-step calibration process.
You can use the Lenovo Explorer either sitting down or standing up. If you want to use it standing up, you’re asked to hold the headset and walk along the perimeter of
“The Explorer uses two inside-out motion-tracking cameras, a gyroscope and an accelerometer”
the area you’re going to be moving around in. This is a simple way to help WMR apps keep track of you, while keeping you in a safe area away from obstacles. It’s simpler than the HTC Vive setup procedure.
With the Lenovo Explorer set up, we tested it out on the virtual reality ‘house’ from which the Mixed Reality Portal launches WMR apps. Graphically, the Lenovo Explorer does a good job, and thanks to the higher resolution the ‘screen door’ effect – where you can see lines between pixels – was less noticeable than on the HTC Vive, although overall image quality is lower on the Explorer thanks to its use of an LCD display; that’s an acceptable compromise given the difference in price, however.
Apps built for the WMR platform perform well with standout apps, although the smaller lenses of the Lenovo Explorer do mean your field of vision isn’t entirely filled, which does affect immersion slightly.
We also tried out a few SteamVR games, which requires you to download Windows Mixed Reality for SteamVR in Steam and then launch the games from there.
Many of the games we tried worked fine, although there were some issues – Nvidia VR Funhouse, for example, detected the motion controllers, but got them mixed up, so the right controller showed up as our left hand in the game.
Throughout our time with the Lenovo Explorer the motion controllers worked well, and responded accurately and they’re comfortable to hold. They’re also graphically represented in WMR apps and supported SteamVR games, making them easy to use.
We have high hopes for WMR headsets and, if the Lenovo Explorer is anything to go by, those hopes seem justified. This is a headset that offers very good virtual reality experiences, sometimes comparable to what you get with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, while also offering more choice and better value.
The Lenovo Explorer is a good example of the potential of the Windows Mixed Reality platform.