ARVR

A diamond in need of some polish


The Pimax 8K X impressed us back in 2020 by offering the highest resolution visuals and widest field of view that we’d ever seen on a VR headset. The problem we encountered with that headset, though, is that it was a lot of faff to set up correctly, requiring Vive base stations and controllers to function, not to mention a beast of a gaming PC. The Pimax Crystal brings the promise of a more streamlined experience, with inside-out tracking, Pimax’s own controllers and even a tether-fee standalone mode (like the Quest 2) – but that’s something yet to be implemented.


The visuals have been tweaked on the new headset, too, utilising QLED panels with Mini-LED backlighting to offer better contrast and black levels than ever before. I’ve been playing with it for the last few weeks, and here’s what I found out.

Pimax Crystal

Pimax

Pimax Crystal

The Pimax Crystal provides exceptional visuals and promises to deliver eye-tracking and standalone functionality in future updates. It’s an impressive bit of kit, but at present, it just feels unfinished.

Pros

  • Exceptional resolution and clarity
  • Wide field of view
  • Excellent black levels
  • Great audio (with DMAS earphones)
Cons

  • It’s massive and heavy
  • Eye-tracking and standalone mode don’t work yet
  • Battery system needs a rework

Design and batteries

  • 280.1 x 108.2 x 135.9mm, 960g with battery / 1.1kg with DMAS earphones
  • Motorised stepless IPD adjustment (58-72mm)
  • 6000mAh Replaceable battery + 120mAh internal hot-swap battery

The Pimax Crystal has a similar aesthetic to previous Pimax models, which means it’s almost cartoonishly large and very angular, looking like something straight out of an anime. The 8K X was already a heavy headset, but the Crystal is even more so, as it now includes all the hardware for standalone operation, eye-tracking and a battery pack. Thankfully, the battery pack is mounted at the rear, which helps to evenly distribute the weight, and the elastic over-head strap helps here, too. I’ve used it for numerous gaming sessions in the region of 2-hours plus and never found it to be uncomfortable, although it does get a little toasty having such a bulky device strapped to your face.

Pimax Crystal (1)

It’s made from mostly black plastic, and while I wouldn’t say it feels cheap, it doesn’t feel especially premium either – a little disappointing considering the cost of this device. The finish reminds me of a typical TV remote, it’s functional and hardy enough, but it’s not likely to impress anyone either.

There’s a rigid strap that encircles your head and it fastens with a knob at the rear, much like the Pico 4. Then there’s the aforementioned rubber and elastic strap going from front to back. There are two foam padding options included in the box, one that has a padded area for your forehead, like the Quest Pro, and a more typical pad akin to ski goggles. I stuck to the larger pad for my testing, as I feel it does a better job of taking some of the weight away from your face.

Pimax Crystal (5)

There’s a large connector located in front of your left ear, and this is where you’ll connect the proprietary Pimax DisplayPort and USB combination cable. It requires two USB-A ports and a DisplayPort output on the PC side, and it connects with a single proprietary connector on the headset side. There’s a cable guide on the rear of the strap to route the cable behind you. In its current state, the Pimax Crystal needs to be tethered to a PC with this cable in order to function. At some point in the future, it’ll work standalone and should support wireless PC VR, too, but currently, the relatively thick and heavy cable has to be attached at all times. As someone who typically plays PC VR games wirelessly with the Pico 4, this took some getting used to.

Interestingly, it needs to have the battery installed to function, and the battery won’t charge via the tether cable. This means that you have to swap batteries every 4 hours, or take a pause to charge during longer play sessions, just as you would with a standalone headset. Thankfully some thought has been put into this, a spare battery and charging dock come included in the box, and there’s a small battery in the headset itself that gives you a minute or so to hot-swap battery packs.

Pimax Crystal (23)

Unfortunately, the battery swap process is one of the most frustrating aspects of this headset. The battery latch is in dire need of a redesign, it’s incredibly hard to press down the levers on either side, they’re far too rigid and it feels as if you’re about to break something every time you do so. I was rarely able to complete the hot-swap process in the allotted time, simply because it’s so hard to remove the pack.

It’s all the more frustrating when you consider that every other tethered VR headset works without a battery – and most standalone headsets will charge while tethered, too. Pimax has made some steps to address this frustration, and headsets now come with a powered hub in the box that will extend the playtime up to 6-8 hours, no such hub was included with my review sample but those who pre-ordered early will be sent one free of charge.

Set up and performance

  • 2880 x 2880 resolution per eye at 90/120Hz
  • 200nit QLED panel with MiniLED backlighting
  • Aspheric optical lenses with a 140-degree field of view
  • Optional high-fidelity DMAS off-ear headphones with DTS

I have to admit I was a little nervous about setting up the Pimax Crystal for the first time, I had seen other reviews that talk about the tinkering and frustration required to get this headset running, but that was not the case for me at all. For me, the headset was about as plug-and-play as it gets, I simply installed the Pimax application, plugged everything in, and it was all immediately recognised and ready to go. Just for reference, my PC is running Windows 10 on a GeForce RTX 3070 and an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X.

Pimax Crystal (4)

The same was true of most games, too, the only tinkering required was lowering some graphical settings to allow my humble RTX 3070 to run the games smoothly at such a high resolution and occasionally rebinding controls that weren’t optimised for the Pimax touch controllers.

It’s clear from the look of this headset that it values visuals over everything, and I’m happy to report that on that front, it does not disappoint. I have never seen VR look this good before: it’s quite astonishing. So much so, that it made me load up almost every VR title in my Steam library just so I could admire how good they look through this headset. The field of view is extremely wide, not quite as wide as the 8K X, but wider than anything that I’ve personally used before, and there’s excellent clarity across the whole display. I’m not sure if it’s due to the resolution, field of view, or some other trick of the mind, but it feels like the 3D effect is much more pronounced and there’s a great sense of depth on this headset, too.

Pimax Crystal (7)

The local dimming provided by the Mini LED backlighting makes for excellent black levels and the QLED panel offers excellent colour reproduction. There’s also the least highlight blooming that I’ve ever seen on a VR headset, which is something that I usually find quite distracting.

My review unit was provided with the optional high-fidelity DMAS earphones, which are sold as a €99 add-on. These earphones are attached to the head strap by articulating arms which can be positioned next to, but not touching, your ears – a bit like the Vive Pro 2 earphones. I enjoyed these, the fact that they’re more like near-field speakers than headphones means that people can easily get your attention if required, while the openness also adds to the spacious feel of the in-game audio.

Of course, there’s a bit less bass than you’d experience with over-ear headphones, but there’s still some decent rumble from the 40mm drivers. My only real complaint is that they’re easily knocked out of place, and I found that I needed to readjust their position every time I put on the headset. If you don’t purchase the upgraded earphones, you still get speakers located in the same position, but they don’t offer quite the same fidelity. I’ve never heard these, so can’t speak about their performance, but I do think they offer a sleeker look with their low-profile design.

Pimax Crystal (6)

The controllers look a lot like the classic Quest 2 controllers, with a tracking ring up top and a very similar button layout. These are finished in the same black plastic as the headset and it’s the same story when it comes to build quality here, the lack of any kind of texture on the controller gives it a low-end look and it just doesn’t feel especially premium. They work decently, and I was happy playing my favourite titles like Half-Life: Alyx, No Man’s Sky and Beatsabre for hours on end. I do feel the tracking is a step behind the mainstream headsets, though, I noticed more stuttering and errors with these than I ever have with my Pico 4. It didn’t happen often enough to bother me much, but if you’re a competitive Beatsabre player, these might not be up to your standards.

If that’s the case, Pimax will be releasing a faceplate that’s compatible with the Vive lighthouses, so those who require more accurate tracking (or full body tracking) can opt for that instead. It’s another thing that’s not available at the time of writing, but Pimax says it’ll be hitting its store in the next couple of months.

Future functionality

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 + proprietary PC VR engine dual-processor chips
  • 8GB RAM + 256GB storage
  • 120Hz eye-tracking with sub-degree accuracy + 5-dot calibration for foveated rendering
  • Inside-out tracking or optional lighthouse cover

The most puzzling part about this headset is that its most exciting features are not currently available. The biggest difference between the Crystal and the rest of the Pimax headsets is that it can work standalone, except for the fact that it can’t, not yet at least.

Pimax Crystal (16)

The standalone feature is currently in beta testing, and the same goes for eye tracking, automatic IPD adjustment and wireless PC VR tethering. This means that the headset has similar hardware to the Quest 2 inside it, but it’s just sat there not doing a lot at the moment. I can’t comment on the quality of the standalone experience, as I have yet to try it. But, considering it’s a brand new area for Pimax, I can imagine there being some bugs to overcome, as well as a relatively small library of games to work with at launch.

So, that leaves us with a very capable PC VR headset and the promise of an exciting standalone future that remains to be seen. The weird part is that I’m reviewing it now, it’s not a prototype, this is something you can purchase right now, and it still seems quite a long way from being finished. This begs the question, why has Pimax released it now, rather than waiting until everything works? Your guess is as good as mine.

Verdict

The Pimax Crystal is an unusual product. On one hand, it provides the best visuals that I’ve ever experienced with a VR headset. Throughout my testing, everything worked quite well, and I had a fantastic time playing with it. So much, in fact, that I’m afraid of the visual disappointment I’ll experience when I go back to my usual Pico 4 – although its lightweight design will give my neck a break.

On the other hand, it just feels like an early prototype that’s far from finished, and the fact that customers can buy it now is quite strange. Pimax is even making hardware revisions, like adding a powered USB hub, at a stage where the first units have already shipped. It’s good that the brand is trying to improve the experience, but it’s a messy approach and not the kind you’d expect when spending so much money on a premium VR headset.

I never advise buying a product based on features that may or may not come to fruition in the future, even if I believe that Pimax has the best intentions. So, we have to evaluate the Crystal with what it offers right now. It’s a $1600 wired PC VR headset with exceptional visuals, decent inside-out tracking and some frustrating design decisions. That means it’s still a lot cheaper than the Varjo Aero (which doesn’t even come with controllers), and I can imagine that being enough for those seeking the best visual fidelity for their buck.

In the future, with standalone mode and eye-tracking working as advertised, it could prove to be a pretty great deal, but in its current state, it left me wanting more.



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