Pimax 5K Plus Ultrawide VR Headset Offers a Glimpse Into the Future
With highest field of view you can currently buy and one of the highest resolutions, this is a premium headset and priced accordingly. You'll need to be upgrading from a Vive, or buy separate basestations and controllers though; and if you wear glasses, wait until they've fixed the comfort issues.
One of the biggest criticisms of VR today is that it feels like putting on a pair of ski goggles: you end up with unnatural black circle around the periphery of your vision. The Pimax 5K Plus is a new breed of “ultrawide” field of view headsets, which take up almost your entire vision, rendering a scene much more as you’d see in real life. It’s a tantalising glimpse into the future of VR, but is it ready for the present? Read on to find out exactly what we thought of the Pimax 5K Plus, available to buy now for $700.
Just the Headset
Before we look at hardware specifics, it’s worth pointing out that right now you can only purchase the headset itself. For a working VR experience, you’ll also need at least one Steam VR Lighthouse Basestation (v1 or 2), and motion controllers.
So if you own an or purchase new an original HTC Vive full kit, you can upgrade the headset to the Pimax 5K Plus; it is fully compatible with the older Lighthouse 1.0 Basestations and Vive Wands. Or you can purchase a new set of Index Controllers and Index Basestations (v2.0) directly from Valve. Either way, this is going to add around $600 to the total purchase price.
If you’re planning on using the Pimax exclusively for racing or flight sims, you cough get away with a single Basestation at the front of your rig and skip the controllers entirely. A second hand Basestation could be purchased for less than $100.
Pimax plans to release their own Basestations and controllers at a later date, and we can expect those to be available separately or in a package. However, no further details on availability or timing of these are yet available.
Pimax 5K Plus Specifications
- Resolution: 2560 x 1440 per panel
- Horizontal FOV: 120-170 degrees
- Screens: Custom Dual LCDs, 90Hz refresh rate.
- Lens: Custom Fresnel with physical IPD adjustment. Eye relief distance is fixed.
- Tracking: SteamVR Lighthouse (Basestations not included, but required)
- Audio: 3.5mm stereo port
- Price: $699 direct from Pimax, headset only ($799 on Amazon US)
- Headstrap: Fabric, no built-in headphones
- Weight: 514g total (including strap)
- Connections: USB2.0+ and DP1.4
If you’re not a fan of the black levels and colors offered by LCD screens, a 5K XR model is also available with OLED screens for $200 more. The resolution offered by the Pimax 5K Plus is bested only by the HP Reverb (at 2560 x 2560 per eye). But to drive that display at full resolution, you’ll need an incredibly powerful GPU, like a 2080Ti. Testing on a mid-range 1080, I needed to downsample to 0.75 for acceptable performance.
The lenses, and canted panels are absolutely massive. There’s a large sweet spot, and the displays are crisp. Though the so-called “screen-door-effect” has never really bothered me, I couldn’t find any on the headset even when looking specifically for it. The only downsides to these displays are the slightly washed-out colors and greyer blacks. For those who love playing horror games or Elite Dangerous, the murky blacks will be more of an issue. For general VR usage, I felt that the field of view more than made up for it.
You Really Can’t Wear Glasses
Out of the box, you won’t be able to wear glasses of any kind with the Pimax, as the lenses simply sit too close to your eyes. In fact, even some users who don’t wear glasses have complained that it touches their eye-lashes uncomfortably. For testing, I grabbed a spare VR cover to use as additional padding, thereby pushing the lenses further away from my eyes. It worked but was very awkward to adjust every time, and added at least a minute or two onto setup time for each VR session.
The fabric head strap is similar to that on the original Vive, and includes no built-in audio solution at all. You’ll need to provide your own pair of headphones or earbuds. The headset itself weighs 514g, which is relatively lightweight considering the massive screens on the front, and I had no issues once it was on my head. Pimax has promised to make both a rigid strap with integrated headphones and thicker facial interfaces for glasses wearers at some point, but these are not yet available at the time of writing, nor do we have a timeline on their production. We’ll update this review when we know more.
If you own the original Deluxe Audio Strap for your HTC Vive, and have access to a 3D printer, you can print some adaptors.
The Field of View is Incredible
Total immersion is hard to achieve, but visually at least, even the normal (roughly 150-degree) FOV setting of the Pimax is simply breathtaking. There is a small amount of distortion at the periphery, but nothing noticeable. On the largest FOV setting, the distortion is significant enough to be slightly distracting, but I suspect continued use would minimize this.
Field of view is not an exact science though. It’ll depend very much on your face shape, IPD, and how far the lenses are from your eyes. Those who don’t wear glasses and have a normal IPD will find the greatest benefits. Still, even with the extra padding for my glasses, I was blown away by the difference.
Experiencing an ultrawide FOV is truly a moment of “oh, wow – this is how VR really should be”.
PiTool and SteamVR
Despite using the StreamVR Lighthouse tracking, the Pimax 5K Plus is a sort of hybrid SteamVR headset. It requires the installation of a third party software and driver tool: PiTool.
The PiTool software is best described as functional for the most part, and even integrates the Revive drivers to offer direct access to Oculus Store games. It also replicates some core functions of SteamVR, like pairing controllers and defining a boundary. More importantly, it allows you to configure aspects of the screen such as contrast, brightness, and FOV.
Presumably, the software and additional drivers are needed in order to run a display with such a high field of view, which no other SteamVR headsets are as yet capable of. However, requiring third-party drivers does present some issues. For instance, when I initially tested the PiTool software, it wasn’t compatible with the new Valve Index controllers. It seems the PiTool software is not passing through the controller definitions natively, so SteamVR couldn’t actually recognize Valve’s own controllers when paired with the Pimax headset. Running the beta version of the PiTool software fixed this and a number of other graphical glitches I was experiencing.
For some games, a little extra configuration is required in the PiTool software, such as enabling compatibility mode. Even then, I experienced some slight popup distance glitches for objects in No Man’s Sky, which weren’t present when testing on the Valve Index. There weren’t game-breaking by any means, but do show that there’s entirely separate render pipeline here.
The PiTool is functional then, but a bit of a kludge. It would be nice if it wasn’t needed, and perhaps in future SteamVR will offer native support for high-FOV headsets.
This is The Future – But Maybe Not The Present
If I haven’t already conveyed this enough: the increased field of view is absolutely breathtaking. Other headsets pale in comparison. If you have a powerful enough gaming PC, if money is no object, and if you don’t wear glasses – this could well be the headset you’re looking for. Existing Vive owners can easily upgrade to the Pimax 5K Plus.
At around $700 though, it’s not the best value for money. For those not upgrading, you need to add on the cost of Basestations and controllers. To purchase new Valve Index Controllers and matching Basestations, you’d be looking at a combined total cost of closer to $1300. That’s beyond the limit of most VR enthusiasts, and you still get a subpar experience thanks to the poor quality head strap and lack of integrated headphones.
I’d be lying though if I didn’t say that overall I’ve had a somewhat frustrating experience with the Pimax 5K Plus. You may have a better time, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments. But for me, the added faff of trying to get comfortable with extra facial padding and putting on my own pair of headphones just doesn’t justify the increased field-of-view. The extra few minutes of setup time – or more, if you need to tweak settings for a new game that perhaps isn’t displaying properly – is too much. SteamVR isn’t exactly a robust system at the best of times; adding in a third-party software tool increases the odds that you’re gonna have a bad time. For every day VR, this won’t be my go-to headset.
The Pimax 5K Plus offers a breathtakingly immersive experience; that much is true. But it’s not quite there yet on aspects other than the display. By the time it is ready, there may be other options. Still, at least you have time to save up for that inevitable graphics card upgrade you’re going to also need.