Lenovo Explorer review: Hands on with Lenovo’s MR headset

With the Lenovo Explorer, Lenovo joins Dell and Acer in building a Windows Mixed Reality-powered headset for PC. Lenovo being Lenovo, however, has managed to do close the impossible – create a wonderfully lightweight VR device with specs that trump the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for a fraction of the price.

There is, however, an elephant in the room here. As with all the Windows Mixed Reality devices coming to market, Lenovo’s isn’t actually mixed reality – it’s straight VR. That’s not Lenovo’s fault – it hasn’t pushed or explained the Lenovo Explorer in these terms – but rather down to the confusing terminology Microsoft’s Windows platform has decided to take.[gallery:1]

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That niggle aside, it looks as though the Lenovo Explorer could really win out in the Windows MR-powered headsets thanks to some smart design and pricing decisions.

Lenovo Explorer review: UK price, release date and specifications

  • Display: 2 x 2.89in 1,440 x 1,440 pixel LCD
  • Field of view: 110 degrees
  • Dimensions: 185.1 x 94.8 x 102.1mm (WLH)
  • Cable length: 4m
  • Weight: 380g
  • OS: Windows 10 Fall Creators Update
  • Connections: HDMI and USB 3
  • Price: £399 with controllers
  • Release date: October 2017

Lenovo Explorer review: Design, key features and first impressions

Holding the Lenovo Explorer, the first thing you’ll notice about the Lenovo Explorer once it’s in your hands is just how wonderfully light it is. Weighing just 380g, it’s easily the lightest headset on the market – beating out the likes of the PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in one fell swoop and sneaking in under the slightly weightier Dell and Acer headsets coming to market.[gallery:2]

This makes a huge difference, and could be key to Lenovo Explorer’s success in an emerging market of Windows Mixed Reality-powered devices that all seem remarkably similar.

Donning the headset is also rather painless: you simply slip it over your head like a baseball cap, and then tighten the headband. Instead of adopting a headband like on Google Daydream, Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, Lenovo has taken cues from Sony’s PlayStation VR. The majority of the weight is supported on your forehead, with the visor floating in front of your eyes, making it simultaneously comfortable for long durations and not too claustrophobic.[gallery:3]

What’s more, it’s also painless to set up. Thanks to the two cameras mounted on the front of the device, the Lenovo Explorer uses “inside-out” tracking map a playable space, meaning you have no need to set up room-scale beacons or computer-mounted cameras to track your movements. Because of this, you only need to plug in two cables – a USB 3, and a HDMI 2. If your laptop doesn’t have a HDMI 2 port because it uses USB Type-C, worry not, a USB Type-C adapter works just as well.

If you’re wondering why I said laptop rather than desktop PC, that’s because the Lenovo Explorer can run on lower specs. You can plug it into almost any mid-to-premium notebook made in the last year or so with zero worry it won’t work. There’s no need to fork out thousands of pounds on a VR-ready gaming laptop to enjoy Windows Mixed Reality experiences, and the Lenovo Explorer makes the most of that.

Obviously, hooking it up to a beefier machine will the experience. As the Lenovo Explorer boasts a 1,440 x 1,440-pixel panel per eye, a machine that’s capable of outputting 4K levels of gameplay or video will certainly create a better VR experience for users.[gallery:4]

During my hands-on demo with the device – sans motion controllers, unfortunately – it was easy to see the appeal of a low-power, low-fuss, low-cost VR headset. However, it was disappointing that it just didn’t feel as polished as the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. Not being able to adjust lens width meant I was left with a fuzzy, out-of-focus image at times, and the lack of forward or backward headset movement also meant the screen never quite felt close enough to my face. There was also glare across my vision caused by light refracting through the lens from the display – not something that you want to be happening. For the record, I tried the Lenovo Explorer both with and without my glasses and the problem still persisted – although I was pleased to find that my glasses actually fitted comfortably within the unit.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to Lenovo Explorer, though: it seems to be the case with all Windows Mixed Reality-powered headsets. They’re just not as well crafted as the dedicated VR devices, but that’s almost the point – they’re designed for an entirely different audience who don’t need high-performance headsets to have fun in VR.[gallery:5]

Aside from the little hardware niggles, many problems around these “MR” devices actually stem from Microsoft’s own Windows Mixed Reality platform. The Lenovo Explorer may well have a 110-degree field of view, but the entire time my peripheral vision was surrounded by a black circle – something that doesn’t happen in Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. The image produced by Windows Mixed Reality also wasn’t up to snuff, clearly not running at the native 1,440 x 1,440 resolution required by Lenovo Explorer. This resulted in quite a fuzzy image with grainy blacks and generally noisy. At times it was worse than the lower-resolution PlayStation VR and never looked as crisp as that of the Rift or Vive.

However, these are problems that can be solved via a simple software update and a bump in processing power. It’s also worth remembering that there are still a couple of months left until Windows Mixed Reality launches properly, so there’s still plenty of time for refinement.[gallery:6]

Lenovo Explorer review: Early verdict

In terms of pure hardware, what Lenovo has managed to build with the Lenovo Explorer is truly impressive. It’s incredibly lightweight and wonderfully comfortable and, at £399 for headset and controllers, it’s an absolute steal.

Sure, there are some design elements that could be improved, such as the need for adjustable focus, but that’s largely a gripe that’s come from using high-end VR devices. For the audience that Lenovo is targeting with the Explorer, it will be a perfect fit. It’s a device that will, in time, be able to run on your average notebook computer with multiple use cases beyond watching 360-degree video and playing VR games.

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