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With a higher resolution and lower price than high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the Aukey Cortex 4KVR should be a compelling entry point into the world of VR. But is it?
It’s available now for just under $400
The Aukey Cortex is a tethered headset, meaning it needs to be connected to a computer. It isn’t a plastic tray to put your mobile in, and nor is it a self-contained Android VR system. It’s essentially a 4K PC monitor that you strap to your face. It could be thought of as a competitor to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive – we’ll certainly be making comparisons throughout this review – but it’s also not really.
Specifications and Image Quality
The lenses are conventional domed style like the PSVR; not fresnel, like the Vive or Rift. That means there’s a smaller sweet spot on Aukey Cortex, but you also won’t find any concentric rings or god-rays with high contrast scenes. Many would argue these lenses are superior for that reason alone. The field of view feels roughly the same as the Rift, but a little smaller than the Vive. There’s no hardware IPD adjustment, but it can be changed in software. Since I have a normal IPD, I can’t test how effective this is. An occupancy sensor prevents screen burn out by only activating the screen when you’re actually using the headset.
The screen is where the real differentiator lies: it’s a 4K resolution LCD, split between both eyes. In theory, this should allow you to see text with more clarity, a task which is particularly difficult on the current crop of high end headsets simply due to low resolution. In reality, you can’t actually pump a 4K resolution image to the display. It uses HDMI 1.4b, and is limited to 1440p at 60Hz. This is then upscaled in the hardware to the actual screen resolution.
While this does have some concrete benefits, such as not being able to see the so-called “screen door effect” (the gap between pixels in other headsets with a lower pixel fill rate), it has introduced some serious limitations elsewhere.
The biggest problem with the Aukey Cortex is the decision to use an LCD (Liquid Crystal Display), rather than OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode). LCDs are slow to update, and lead to a large amount of image ghosting. Essentially, any time you move your head around, you’ll be seeing a little trail of the world left behind, a sort of double image. Given that moving your head around is somewhat critical to VR, this is a fundamental design problem. However, the degree to which you’re going to notice this will vary. In testing, some games really highlighted the issue, while in others, it was less noticeable.
Colors also felt a little muted compared the Oculus, and it wasn’t nearly as bright as the Vive – again, probably due to the use of LCD rather than OLED. There’s a reason those leading companies haven’t chosen 4K LCDs for their headset: there isn’t a low persistence, good quality, small 4K screen available yet.
Headphones and Comfort
Just like the Rift, the Aukey Cortex has a pair of optional headphones – nice, large cans that fully enclose your ear in comfortable velvety audio goodness. They sound great, though I wouldn’t say they’re particularly better sounding than the Rift headphones. Fitting them requires threading the elastic headband through them, such that removing them would be a bit of a hassle – unlike the Oculus headphones which can simply be turned away if you want to continue listening to the outside world.
The headset strap design is a little unwieldy, eschewing the triangular “cup” of the Vive and Oculus, and instead opting for a single piece of plastic that awkwardly rests on the back of your skull. It’s difficult to fit perfectly, with too much tension on the top strap forcing it to tilt upwards, while not enough means the headset with sag on your face. In the end, I found using the side straps to take most of the tension was preferable. Though far from perfect, it is perfectly comfortable for extended periods of time –with no motion controls or positional tracking, you won’t be moving too much anyway. In terms of actual weight, it’s roughly 500g – a little lighter than the Vive, a little heavier than the Rift – but not by much either way.
The facial interface is removable, and looks as though it might be compatible with third party covers designed for Vive. You should also be able to wash it, though I’d suggest buying a spare first.
There’s also a power button and volume controls on the top, which I appreciated, instead of having fumble around for the Oculus controller, for example.
Setup and Software
Setup involves downloading the PiPlay drivers and application from the PiMax VR site (for those of you wondering, yes, this is almost certainly a rebranding of the PiMax 4K headset), but sadly the download button seemed to go missing from their English site. Instead, I Googled around and found the link in their forums – to a file hosted on MEGA. Installation of Java is also required, as well as some ancient versions of DirectX.
SteamVR games mostly work out of the box thanks to the open nature of the Steam platform – very few games are locked to a specific headset. However, you are of course limited to games which don’t require motion controllers. Most of my current Steam VR library does require motion controllers – even the new PleVR Plex client wouldn’t work with a mouse or Xbox controller. There’s also some compatibility issues with specific games.
I already had a number of Oculus games installed, and I’m pleased to report that PiPlay and the Cortex headset worked immediately with those (at least, the ones that didn’t need motion controllers), populated automatically into the PiPlay software list. In order for this to work, the PiPlay software must also have installed the ReVive injection hack in the background, commonly used by Vive owners to play Oculus store games due to unofficial support. While this does work at the time of testing, it should be noted that there’s no guarantee this won’t be broken again (as it was before) in future versions of the Oculus software.
Here’s a summary of my experiences on Aukey Cortex so far:
- Eve: Valkyrie (Oculus, but uses SteamVR/OpenVR) was quite playable for an hour or so. In fact, it looked great. Perhaps not any better than it does on Oculus, but certainly no worse and the image ghosting didn’t appear to be significant.
- Distance (SteamVR) is a F-Zero type arcade racer; the image ghosting or low frame rate made this completely unplayable.
- Radial-G (SteamVR); I used “Oculus mode”, and the it ran great. Another F-Zero type racer, but with a great soundtrack and more forgiving courses.
- Dirt Rally (SteamVR). I was unable to get this running at all, and those who have managed to force it open said the game wouldn’t run anyway due to not detecting any positional tracking from the HMD, a signal which it uses to detect the presence of a headset.
- Elite: Dangerous (cross-platform). Extraordinary lagginess, completely unplayable.
- Civilization 6 (SteamVR big screen mode). Playable, but uncomfortable at larger virtual screen sizes, and text difficult at smaller screen sizes. I tried to up the resolution to cope, but it was locked to 1920 x 1080p, presumably because that’s the maximum resolution of the primary monitor I had attached (which it needs to render on first, then gets brought into the virtual environment by SteamVR).
- BigScreen Beta (Oculus): a social virtual desktop style application, this was unusable due to incorrect screen size rendering issues for the main interface.
In short, a very mixed bag. While some games – predominantly native Oculus games – appeared to run without issue, others wouldn’t run at all or were unplayable due to performance issues that I’ve not found before.
Another win came from Whirligig, a virtual cinema and video player that can handle 360° or 180°, SBS or top-bottom 3D, and anything else you throw at it. Videos looked superb, and even the lower resolution ones were more bearable thanks to the 4K upscaling and less screen door effect. Audio was great. I would happily sit here and watch movies through that.
The native PiPlay experience is ultimately disjointed though, with a handful of questionable 3D and 360 videos on offer at excruciatingly slow download speeds. Downloaded 3D movies open with the included Kodi install (after switching the headset to “video” mode), but the 3D didn’t even work on those I tried, as I could see both sides of the screen. I assume there’s some keyboard shortcut needed to make them 3D, but it wasn’t obvious. Kodi doesn’t have a native VR interface, so it’s a curious choice of software to bundle. Downloaded 360/180 videos launch with yet another built-in VR player, but those worked fine – again, the upscaling helps here.
In short, it can be frustrating, but if you find some key games and experiences that work for you, you should be pleased with the results.
Don’t Stand Up, and Don’t Touch Anything
The Aukey Cortex has rotational tracking via a gyroscope, but lacks any kind of positional tracking as well as motion controllers. You can therefore forget any concept of “room scale” gaming – you just can’t move around. You can look around, by rotating your head, but fixed in one position. This isn’t such a big issue for cockpit games like flight and racing sims, or virtual cinema applications – many people are still using the old Oculus Rift development kits for their sim racing setups. But if you want the “full” VR experience, with motion controls and the ability to move around – save up for something better.
“Proper” VR remains expensive. HTC Vive is $800; the Oculus Rift is $600 with the Touch motion controllers, but you’ll probably want to spend more on another tracking camera and USB extension cables, so it more or less works out the same price as a Vive. That’ll get you a full room scale VR experience, though. The Aukey Cortex is half the price at just less than $400. If everything else were equal, and the Aukey Cortex offered the same feature set, it’d be easy to recommend and the shortcomings of the screen could easily be forgiven.
However, without the motion controllers, it’s more appropriate to compare the Cortex to the basic Oculus Rift headset, which Oculus recently lowered the price of – to just $500. For that, you’re also getting a little remote control, an Xbox one controller (which I’ve been using to test the Aukey Cortex, I should note), and positional tracking via an external tracking camera. That’s only $100 more than the Aukey Cortex. You also get the possible upgrade path to buy the Touch controllers at a later date, when you’ve begun your journey into the VR money pit. And as bad as Oculus Home software is, it’s better than PiPlay.
Given the price of entry for the Oculus Rift then, I’ll go back to my “half the cost” equation: if you can find the Aukey Cortex on sale for $250, it’s a great entry point for desktop VR. It’s just a little too expensive at $400.
A little overpriced for what it is, the Aukey Cortex is nonetheless a solid low price entry point into tethered desktop VR. But if you spend a little more, you’ll get a vastly better experience with higher end headsets.