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Reviewing the Pimax Crystal VR Headset – a High Power Headset for Modern Gaming Machines

Pimax Crystal VR Headset

Advances from the VR industry are always generationally significant, such is the power these units have to influence almost all types of professional computing, vocational and gaming use. The general rule is, that a new VR headset occasionally comes along and quickly becomes the definitive best item. We don’t see many new entrants to the space but when they arrive, the higher-end gear is always a nice step up.


Fresh out of the box, the Pimax Crystal VR Headset
Fresh out of the box, the Pimax Crystal VR Headset (use coupon code: rd20) for a discount at Pimax Checkout

So it’s an exciting day today, Pimax has very kindly sent me their Crystal VR headset to try out. The Pimax Crystal is the newest entrant in the Pimax lineup, a headset that aims to blend the classical “PCVR” experience with the freedom of a standalone mode. But, with a price that places it in the premium segment, so let’s take a closer look and see how it stacks up against my previous generation Valve Index and HP G2.

Reviewing the Pimax Crystal VR Headset
  1. Pimax Crystal Setup / Installation
  2. Visual Clarity and Display
  3. Automatic IPD Explained
  4. Eye tracking
  5. The Significance of Pixels-Per-Degree (PPD)
  6. Comfort and Ergonomics
  7. Acoustics
  8. Battery, Power, and Sustainability
  9. Performance
  10. Interactive Controls
  11. Conclusion


First Impressions

Just in case you were wondering what the box looks like, here it is:

Pimax VR Headset boxed

The Pimax Crystal’s packaging is very understated, with very little by way of features, lebels, barcodes – there’s nothing on the box itself, except for the logo. It’s got a classy look.

Opening the box, you’re immediately taken aback by the (now classic Pimax) angular design:

Pimax Crystal
Pimax Crystal (image credit)

The design isn’t just to look fancy, it’s actually a design-led decision to distribute the weight/centre of gravity in a way that feels like a more natural extension of your face, rather than just a heavyweight strapped on.

Our test Pimax Crystal
Our test Pimax Crystal

We’ll see how it actually feels a little later on in the review. My view: anything done for user comfort is a good thing. My other VR bugbear, aside from comfort and cables is of course, heat management – again, let’s see where we end up during the review.

Pimax Crystal Setup / Installation

Setting up the Pimax Crystal is straightforward and can be completed in a few simple steps. Here’s how to get started:

Preparation:

  1. Ensure the controllers and external batteries are fully charged.
  2. Download and install the Pimax Play software on your computer, open it / register etc – it needs to be running
The software once actively connected to the Crystal - having problems? Use the "Guidance wizard"
The software once actively connected to the Crystal – having problems? Use the “Guidance wizard”

Connecting the Pimax Crystal:

The guidance wizard will take you through this step by step
  1. Make sure the batteries are charged – I never had a need for the power hub (although it’s very handy, with additional USB sockets too)
  2. Make sure the Pimax is in “PC Mode” (little switch to the top right at the rear of the HMD
  3. You can put the software in “Guide” mode which will walk you through the step-by-step (which is – plug USB cables in, plug DP cable into GPU)
  4. Plug the two USB cables into USB 3.0 slots on your PC (or use the hub if you’re short on USB 3.0 sockets
  5. Connect the DisplayPort connector to your computer’s graphics card

Initiating the Headset:

  1. This happened to me without any intervention – it just sprang to life! According to the instructions, you’re supposed to press the power button, located on the top right of the HMD.
  2. If you press and hold the power button to turn on the headset, It will activate within a few moments.3
  3. The Pimax Play software will recognize the headset and controllers automatically.
  4. Follow the on-screen prompts to determine your room’s centre and establish the floor height (this is super important,

Getting started:

Click on “Start Steam VR” to initiate Steam VR. After this, you’re ready to dive into the virtual experience.
The setup process is fast, in my case absolutely trouble free and took me from unboxing to gaming in just minutes. I might add I repeated this process on the main gaming rig, too – again no issues.

Pimax Crystal Balanced on my Cube Controls F-Pro


Visual Clarity and Display

The true essence of any VR headset lies in its visual quality, and the Pimax Crystal excels. Boasting a remarkable 2880 x 2880 resolution per eye, the visuals are crisp, detailed, and immersive. No wonder you need some serious horsepower to get this thing running!

Power use aside, this is by a reasonable margin the best VR headset I’ve used and it’s very clearly a generation beyond the G2 and several past the Index. I believe Pimax are referring to VR generation 3. I think we’re edging closer to generation 4!

Very comfortable: face padding and glass lenses (glass is superior optically to plastic)

I think the saying is: it’s all in the screens, or something like that. This QLED+MINI LED panel combination gives the graphics a detailed output all the way through from the foreground to the background. The original 35 PPD lenses (which provide a 125°) are excellent and, as I understand it the bigger FOV lenses expand the field of view by a significant 15% (to be released or not included in this test – shame, 15% is a massive step up!).

The Crystal also has integrated eye-tracking and auto IPD adjustment, so some cool technical stuff – but still comes with the current, but soon-to-be-replaced Display Port v1.45. Doesn’t matter to me (I’m an NVIDIA owner but there will be some show-off AMD owners out there pretending to be disappointed.

Batteries, handsets and the HMD
Batteries, handsets and the HMD

IPD stands for “Interpupillary Distance“, which refers to the distance between the centres of the two pupils of an individual’s eyes. This measurement is crucial for VR headsets because it ensures that each eye aligns correctly with the lenses, providing a clear and comfortable viewing experience. Automating this is a godsend – thank you!

Automatic IPD Explained

In the context of VR headsets, automatic IPD refers to the headset’s ability to automatically adjust the distance between the lenses to match the user’s interpupillary distance. Instead of manually adjusting the lens spacing, the headset uses sensors, often combined with eye-tracking technology, to detect the position of the user’s pupils and adjust the lenses accordingly.

Automatic IPD adjustment provides several benefits, ensuring that users get the most comfortable and clear visual experience without the need for manual adjustments. Ease of Use: new users, unfamiliar with the concept of IPD, can jump into VR without the need for intricate setup processes.

And, shared devices: If a VR headset is used by multiple people, automatic IPD ensures that each user gets an optimal visual experience without constantly readjusting the settings.

Eye tracking

The Pimax Crystal’s auto eye-tracking technology automatically monitors a user’s gaze in real-time, enhancing the VR experience. This feature enables dynamic foveated rendering, optimizing GPU performance by focusing on high-resolution rendering where the user’s gaze is directed. Additionally, it facilitates intuitive interactions within VR environments and allows for automatic adjustments like IPD alignment for optimal visual comfort.

More feature-rich Functionality

Pimax has always been at the forefront of integrating cutting-edge features, and the Crystal is no exception. The device’s dual-mode functionality offers users the flexibility of traditional PCVR and standalone modes. The standout feature, Dynamic Foveative Rendering (EFR), comes built into the Pimax platform. This innovative rendering technique, compatible with almost all VR games without modding, ensures optimal graphics delivery based on the user’s gaze.

Software enhancements further elevate the experience. Features such as adjustable local dimming, lens identification, enhanced distortion profiles, and AMD compatibility ensure a seamless and user-friendly interface.

The Significance of Pixels-Per-Degree (PPD)

Pixels-per-degree (PPD) is a metric that represents the number of horizontal pixels allocated for each degree of the headset’s viewing angle. In essence, it provides an assessment of a headset’s resolution. The higher the PPD value, the more detailed and clearer the visual display will be. This ensures a more immersive and visually satisfying user experience.

PPD: The larger the PPD number, the finer the display of details, and the clearer the user’s experience of the display screen.
PPD: The larger the PPD number, the finer the display of details, and the clearer the user’s experience of the display screen. Image source: Pimax.com

PPD offers an authentic measurement of VR pixel density for several reasons:

It remains unaffected by display size manipulations. For instance, enlarging a high-resolution display, which might degrade its perceived clarity, will consequently decrease its PPD.

PPD factors in the influence of optical lenses on the apparent pixel density. If a headset’s optical components either enhance or degrade visible pixels, this will be accurately reflected in the PPD measurement.

PPD in the content of the human eye
PPD in the content of the human eye (image course: Pimax.com)

PPD in the Pimax Crystal Context

The Pimax Crystal offers two lens options, catering to varying user preferences. There’s a 42 PPD lens providing a 120° Field of View (FOV) and a 35 PPD lens which offers a wider 140° FOV. This implies a design trade-off: a higher PPD offers richer detail but at the cost of a slightly reduced FOV.

Comfort and Ergonomics

No matter how visually stunning a VR headset might be, its value diminishes if it doesn’t prioritize user comfort. Pimax recognizes this. I just experienced a bit of discomfort around the nose – loosening the clasp made that very easy to ignore, I’d over tightened it, being completely honest with you! We’re all different and if that’s as bad as it gets, I’m totally fine with it.

The Cristal has DP (DisplayPort) and two USB plugs for the PC. The improved cooling system ensures that extended sessions remain comfortable. The headset’s ergonomic design ensures even weight distribution, minimizing fatigue. The durable exterior material, an upgrade from its launch version, not only promises longevity but also adds a touch of elegance to the device.

Acoustics

The headset I received features features off-ear headphones, with an upgrade option to the DMAS variant. I received the latter with my headset, and the sound quality is impressive, rivalling notable competitors like the Valve Index and HP Reverb G2 speakers. This contemporary trend of off-ear speaker designs in VR headsets is commendable; it allows users to remain cognizant of their surroundings while delivering exceptional audio. Although I don’t consider myself an audiophile, the Pimax Crystal’s audio has met all my expectations. The DMAS off-ear speakers truly enhance the sound experience.

Pimax Crystal's audio is very good
Pimax Crystal’s audio is very good

The auditory experience in VR is as crucial as the visual. The Pimax Crystal offers optional DMOS headphones equipped with DTS audio. This feature ensures that users are not just visually immersed but also audibly engrossed in their virtual environments. Every footstep, every distant chatter, and every environmental nuance is captured, elevating the overall VR experience.

Battery, Power, and Sustainability

Sustainability in VR sessions hinges on power efficiency. The Pimax Crystal introduces an all-new power hub, designed to extend the headset’s battery life up to (maybe?) eight hours. Such longevity ensures that users can indulge in extended VR sessions without the constant worry of a draining battery.

spare battery on charge
Spare battery on charge with a standard USB-C charger

The unit itself is supplied with two batteries, so including the batteries and two (supplied) handsets, there were lots of things on charge at the office yesterday! These battery charging adapters are a hack of a tight fit to get the battery in and out. There’s not quite enough leverage on the two release tabs to get the battery out without some sort of adventure following. I might add, that you can always charge the battery in the Pimax by leaving it plugged in (it has two USB-C sockets as it happens).

Requiring an external battery for operation, even in PCVR mode, could be considered a “unique design choice” but I don’t see VR going any other way. The perfect headset would be battery-powered, lightweight and wireless at full colour, resolution and FPS.

The Crystal includes two 6000mAh replaceable external batteries and a charger, allowing users to power the device with one battery while the other charges. Additionally, the headset is equipped with a 120mAh internal battery, facilitating hot-swapping of batteries without turning off the device. That won’t last long so be ready with the fresh battery!

A 6Ah battery is quite a large-capacity battery, as you may know. Keeping one charged nearby is not a bad shout. For the sim racing, I do (sprint, mostly – none of this is a problem). If you want to do a 24-hour race, usually we plan in 2-hour stints – again that’s enough to put the headset back on charge and ready for the next session. I can’t see why this is anything other than a good idea!

On that note, the design was met with some criticism, but I think it offers a bit more freedom. It supports the Pimax Crystal’s dual functionality as both a PCVR tethered and standalone headset and directionally makes it very easy to see where Pimax’s thinking is going.

Performance

The performance of a VR headset is often gauged by its FPS refresh rate and pixel resolution per eye. The Pimax Crystal pushes the boundaries with a 120 HZ refresh rate, even at its native resolution.

So I have two gaming PCs. One, older machine with a 3090 FE and an Intel i9-9900K CPU @ 3.60GHz. This is the machine that acts as my workhorse but I also test desktop gaming setups which I think have huge potential in sim racing.

In iRacing, with graphics settings tentatively set to medium, and the FPS in the config software set to 90 the Pimax ran at around 60fps. The Crystal is a heavyweight bit of kit and clearly needs a bit of power. The 3090 got nice and toasty but it was interesting to see a 3090 named as the minimum GPU for this hardware.

VR Headsets are difficult to photograph - makes my setup look very nice!
VR Headsets are difficult to photograph – makes my setup look very nice!

On my “main” rig gaming PC (an i9 10850k with a Zotax 4090 GPU). The performance was drastically better, with no lagging and a much higher FPS – with everything set to maximum in iRacing I was managing around 100 fps. Not bad – and it looked amazing!

Interactive Controls

Interactivity in some VR applications is pivotal. Not so much in sim racing (it would be nice if you could control the sim racing app with an actual VR controller but, there you go).

I did use the controllers though, for fun, in a game called “Timberman VR” (that’s $6 I’ll never see again) but brought my 7-year-old some pleasure. The Pimax Crystal’s controller makes interacting with virtual environments pretty intuitive.

I like that you can “see” where the controllers are in VR, making yourself a little less accident-prone around the room. The inclusion of eye-tracking further refines this interaction, making the experience more natural and engaging – everything is very intuitive, even to a new VR user. Comparing it to the setup difficulties I had with the G2, the P:imax Crystal is a walk in the park.

Conclusion

The Pimax Crystal, with its Summer 2023 updates, stands as one of the best VR headsets you can buy at the moment. Yes, it has had early-stage problems – that Pimax acknowledges and is working to resolve – literally while I was writing this review another firmware update arrived to make some incremental improvements. They’re frequent and are clearly addressing user feedback at a pace:

firmware update available pimax

Conclusion

Pros:

  • Visual Clarity and Display: The headset boasts a 2880 x 2880 resolution per eye, offering crisp, detailed, and immersive visuals.
  • Comfort and Ergonomics: The design prioritizes user comfort with even weight distribution and an improved cooling system for extended sessions.
  • Acoustics: Features off-ear headphones with an upgrade option to the DMAS variant, providing impressive sound quality.
  • Battery, Power, and Sustainability: Includes an all-new power hub designed to extend battery life up to eight hours, with two 6000mAh replaceable external batteries.
  • Performance: Offers a 120Hz refresh rate at its native resolution, ensuring smooth visuals.
  • Interactive Controls: The controllers and eye-tracking technology make interactions within VR environments intuitive and engaging.
  • Software Enhancements: Adjustable local dimming, lens identification, enhanced distortion profiles, and AMD compatibility enhance the user experience.

Cons:

  • Initial Discomfort: Some initial discomfort around the nose, which can be mitigated by adjusting the clasp.
  • Battery Design: The external battery requirement for operation, even in PCVR mode, might be seen as a unique but potentially limiting design choice.
  • Early-Stage Problems: Acknowledged early-stage issues, although many have been addressed through firmware updates.

What I see as the main problem now facing Pimax is the number of “early” reviewers who were less impressed. Some 6 months down the road the time I spent with the Pimax Crystal VR headset was, really good – evidently, so many early issues have been addressed making this a reliable, powerful and (slightly) pricey VR headset. I’m adding it to our list of best VR headsets – which I think says it all.


Reviewing the Pimax Crystal VR Headset – a High Power Headset for Modern Gaming Machines

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