The highest-resolution PC VR headset available.
As a fairly new type of consumer technology, VR is always evolving, and there are plenty of niches a manufacturer can choose when introducing a product into the category. Aukey is out with what it claims to be the industry's first 4K VR headset for the PC. While there are many elements to what makes a VR headset good, resolution is certainly one of the more important ones, as it ultimately creates a clearer picture and helps keep the user focused on content instead of pixel structure. Is this your next VR headset purchase? Let's take a look.
For this review we used a PC running Windows 10, build 1703, with 8GB DDR3 RAM, an Intel Core i5-3570k processor, and a GeForce GTX970 4GB card, along with an SSD drive.
In the Box
The Aukey Cortex 4K VR Headset retails for $399, and that includes the headset itself and a few extras as well. The headset itself features built in, non-removable USB and HDMI cables, but everything else is detachable. Three straps hold the unit on your head, and two over-the-ear style headphones are included, both of which attach to the headset's straps and include the 3.5mm cables necessary to plug them in. There's a pair of manuals and not much else inside the box.
Visually the headset doesn't distinguish itself too much from the rest of the pack out there. It looks most similar to the Oculus Rift, with flat edges and a flight curve to the front where the display is housed. Along the top you'll find volume adjust buttons, as well as a power button, giving easy access to these important features without having to pull up a menu. Two of the three straps connect to the side of the display unit itself, and feature circular swiveling connectors for comfort. The third strap velcro's around a plastic connector on top, and all three straps meet together at the back where a separate padded piece sits.
This padded piece adds some extra comfort and support that other headsets with straps don't offer, as it's a strong, yet comfortable way of helping secure the straps to the back of the cranium. The biggest difference in the design is the way the included headphones mount onto the unit. Each earpiece is a separate circular can style, and features strap holes near the back to thread the straps through. This means they are inherently tied to your head as the unit is attached, as they become part of the straps. These are over-the-ear can style headphones, which cup the ear and bring about extra support for the unit as a whole, keeping it stabilized when swinging your head around to see something in VR. These headphones connect to the headset via built-in 3.5mm audio cables, and plug into each side of the headset via the same sized 3.5mm ports. Sound quality from these headphones is actually quite good too, delivering great bass response, and a good range of sound that's sure to please most consumers.
Mounted to the face is a plush foam padding, similar to other headsets out there, and feels comfortable on the face. While foam pads are more comfortable than a pleather like material, they tend to trap sweat and heat more, leading to a necessity of buying additional pads if the unit is shared, or for longer play sessions if it really gets sweaty. Many times this extra heat will build up inside the headset itself, fogging up the lenses and forcing the user to wipe them down periodically.
Aukey states in its specs that it has an auto demist function, which presumably keeps the lenses from fogging, which appears to be done by some simple "breathing" holes around the perimeter of the unit itself. At the very least the Cortex 4K seemed to fog far less than other headsets I've used. There's also a sensor inside that detects whether or not a face has been inserted into the unit, and keeps the screen off if nothing is detected. There's enough room inside the unit for glasses, although there's no way to expand the space inside to fit more into it. Instead Aukey relies on the IPD adjustment to help with focus, as the lenses have a fixed focal point.
Display and Motion Detection
Considering the display is part of the name of the product, one would imagine this is a killer panel inside the Aukey Cortex 4K. While it sounds nice on paper, and indeed it is higher resolution than other panels on the market, the display itself is fairly mediocre for VR purposes. First off this is an LCD display, not an OLED one. Headsets like Vive and Oculus ship with OLED displays for a reason; they offer a far better experience for VR content for a number of reasons. OLEDs feature true blacks, as the pixels individually turn off, better contrast ratios, punchier colors, and most importantly in VR, a lower persistence rate of the pixels.
It's this last part that's the only truly offensive part of the Aukey Cortex's 4K display, and one that will ultimately make this unit impossible to use for some folks. Displays with a higher pixel persistence rate create a type of blur that's not as noticeable when it's on a phone or TV display, but is irritating, or even sometimes sickening, when in a VR unit. This is because your eyes are right next to the display, and any imperfections like this are very noticeable. The image blur here is very noticeable in some titles with bright colors, like Lucky's Tale for instance, but not so much in ones with more dull colors or less object detail, like Battlezone.
Users with VR motion sickness will likely have issues because of this, and the standard 60Hz refresh rate doesn't help that either. Aukey supports 90Hz asynchronous projection though, and if enabled will likely help some users significantly in this regard. Asynchronous projection essentially takes a game that's rendering at 45 frames per second and interpolates that to a 90Hz output, making things feel more smooth than they actually are. This needs to be enabled in SteamVR instead of the PiPlay software the headset requires for use. Many users find that asynchronous projection significantly helps make titles feel less janky, and at this resolution you're going to need it.
Speaking of resolution, the 4K panel on the Cortex 4K is a bit of a misnomer, not because the panel itself isn't actually 4K, but because the included HDMI 1.4 cable is incapable of outputting the correct resolution. Instead of games split rendered in 3840 x 2160 (4K) resolution, they're actually rendered in 2560 x 1440 (2K) and then subsequently upscaled to 4K. Images are noticeably more crisp and clean than you'll find on the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift CV1, but maybe not quite as much as the jump to 4K would make you think. While it's not actually rendering in 4K, the jump to a 4K panel means that the screen door effect found on other VR headsets, like the Vive and Oculus, is almost completely gone. This means pixels are almost completely unnoticeable, and in general text and distance detail is clean and clear.
This is definitely a big jump up from other headsets, and so long as you have the hardware to support the resolution bump, you'll benefit significantly from the advances here. That pixel persistence rate is still an issue though, and you'll find colors are less vibrant, and the panel overall is darker than the ones found on the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. On the bright side for some users, the lenses here are not Fresnel lenses, meaning no weird rings or God rays like you'll see on the aforementioned headsets, but it also means a smaller sweet spot for clear viewing.
Aukey's lenses provide a 110-degree field-of-view (FOV), one that's not quite as wide as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but is wider than mobile VR solutions like the GearVR and Google Daydream View. There's also proper IPD adjustments found in the PiPlay software that allow users to adjust the distance between pupils. That's incredibly important for anyone who's eyes are further apart or closer together than the average human, of which I fit in that spectrum. Without IPD adjustment, users like myself get terrible headaches, as you need to cross your eyes or look awkwardly at the screen.
Motion interpolation is restricted to simple head movements though; swiveling and tilting, but not panning or vertical movements. This is because the headset relies entirely on the built-in gyros instead of using an outside camera or lighthouse unit as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets do. Essentially this is a high resolution Oculus DK1, and movement will feel extremely restrictive if you've ever used any of the newer Oculus units, not to mention something like the Vive's out-of-the-box room scale. Not being able to look under or around objects makes the virtual world feel oddly restrictive, but different games will handle this better than others.
Since there's no room scale or movement of any kind, you'll be forced into seated experiences 100% of the time. This works fine for movies and other seated games, but ones that require more significant head motion, or motion controllers of any kind, are completely out. Still this is a great way to experience lots of VR content, so long as you can get past the blur that some things will inherently have thanks to the display.
Interface and Setup
Aukey uses the PiPlay app to interface with the headset itself. Designed for Windows-based PCs, this app seems to have primarily been developed in Chinese and has decent enough English translation throughout. Installation is simple, with a 620mb download from the PiMax website, as instructed in the installation guide included with the headset. Everything in the installation is automatic, including the Java, C++ and DirectX prerequisites, which is good since there are so many software prerequisites to get the product working.
Once installed you’ll configure most of the headset’s properties through here, and can even launch any installed games from SteamVR or the Oculus Store here. ReVive is also installed for compatibility with Oculus games out of the box, although there’s no guarantee of this always working in the future as a way to play Oculus Store content. This support for any SteamVR content or Oculus content out of the box is incredibly important, and one of the things that makes the Cortex 4K such a viable piece of VR hardware.
Integration with SteamVR is pretty tight too, as it’ll show up with the Cortex 4K logo inside of the SteamVR status window, and all the options that are built into SteamVR are supported by the Cortex 4K. This includes special rendering methods like asynchronous projection, always on reprojection, super sampling and the rest of the gamut inside SteamVR. While in VR, the Steam VR Big Screen interface can be called up by pressing "home" button on your controller of choice. That's usually the X logo on an Xbox controller, the Steam logo on a Steam controller, and so on and so forth.
Games and Apps
As the Cortex 4K completely supports Oculus and SteamVR content out of the box, the only real restriction you’ll run into are games that require specific motion support. Many driving games, platformers and VR experiences should work with this, including titles like Lucky’s Tale (an Oculus exclusive), Battlezone (the 2017 VR version on Steam), Detached and more. Games like Detached have options for multiple different types of headsets, and considerably change the interface and input modes depending on the headset attached.
During the review I tried about a dozen or so titles, most of which worked pretty well. Titles like Battlezone, Trackmania Turbo, Special Delivery, Lucky's Tale, Thumper, Marble Mountain and Detached worked perfectly without any issues at all. In fact the only title where the high pixel persistence was even super noticeable was Lucky's Tale, and after a while it melts away a bit as your brain gets used to it. Other titles like Chronos, for instance, wouldn't work at all because they required spatial positioning of the headset, which requires a camera or other object to detect where the headset is physically in the room. Games that require motion controllers cannot be played either.
I swapped between the Steam Controller and an Xbox 360 controller for the entirety of the review period, depending on which I preferred for a specific game. Both controllers work perfectly for various titles, and if you’ve ever used either you’ll know which games work better for each type of controller. Again since there’s no motion controller support, you’ll be somewhat limited in what can be played, but given the fact that the Oculus Rift didn’t support more than just an Xbox One controller for the first 8 months, there’s no shortage of seated content that works with a controller.
Comfort and Longevity
The Aukey Cortex 4K headset is incredibly comfortable, partly thanks to the great strap design and support on the back of the head, and also thanks to the fact that it weighs less than 500g. Another great part about the design is that there are no batteries to charge or replace; everything is powered by the USB cable, including the headphones. The entire package is about as simple as VR on a PC can get thanks to a simple strap system, and since the headphones are built into the straps, there’s not much to adjust either.
Given the lenses are high quality and there’s IPD adjustment, there’s not much in the way of bad design to keep this headset on your face for hours at a time. The biggest hangup, as was discussed in the display section, is the relatively higher persistence rate of the panel, which leaves behind trails on some moving objects, depending on their color and contrast with other objects in the vicinity. 90Hz asynchronous projection helps alleviate some strain that could be caused by a janky frame rate, caused by the higher resolution of the panel
No batteries or charging required
Compatibility with SteamVR and Oculus Store out of the box
Plug and play compatibility with existing VR applications and games
Good driver support and frequent updates
High pixel persistence on the display
Limited range of movement options
No support for motion controllers
No support for room scale VR
Unofficial Oculus support means it might not always work
High price for the value
The Aukey Cortex 4K seems to be a rebranding of the Pimax 4K headset in every way, but it doesn't seem that Aukey did too much to improve upon that design. The $399 price tag of the Cortex 4K makes this headset feel worse than it actually is, if only because it's priced far too close to the competition. For about $50 more, which is the cost of the needed controller anyway, you could get an Oculus Rift CV1; a headset that comes with a controller and a camera, giving it proper spatial awareness and movement that's needed in many games. Other headsets also offer the ability to add in motion controllers, something the Cortex 4K doesn't support in any capacity, and makes the $399 price tag here simply seem too steep. If it were even $100 less it would be much easier to recommend the Cortex 4K as an entry-level VR system, but as it stands the negatives and restrictions here are far too many to consider at this price.