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ZDNET's product of the year: Meta Quest 3 is the quiet shocker of 2023

Against all odds, the Meta Quest 3 headset delivered a quality upgrade and a set of experiences beyond gaming that could bring a lot more people into VR.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Reviewed by Kerry Wan
Meta Quest 3 with controllers on energy yellow background

Meta Quest 3

Kerry Wan/ZDNET

Set against a backdrop of the failed launch of Meta Quest Pro, its parent company scaling back its metaverse plans, and the long shadow cast by Apple's entrance into mixed reality headsets with the Vision Pro announcement this summer, the Meta Quest 3 looked like a product that was destined to be one of 2023's most notorious duds.  

In fact, when Meta rushed out a teaser to the Quest 3 just ahead of the Apple Vision Pro announcement in June, it largely backfired and created little more than scoffs and chuckles. By that point, it was already clear that the Vision Pro was going to trounce the Quest 3 in a pure spec-by-spec comparison.  

But then, a funny thing happened when the Quest 3 launched in October.  

It turned out to be a product that made VR more approachable and more appealing -- with a higher-quality 4K display, smaller and more nimble controllers with haptic feedback, a more comfortable and less-front-heavy design, and a greatly improved mixed reality experience so you can still see the real world around you while you're using the headset.

It didn't hurt that the Quest 3's $500 price tag is $3,000 less than Apple Vision Pro, which has created a new wave of curiosity around virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. Even for those interested in the Vision Pro, buying a Quest 3 -- or even picking up a Quest 2 for under $300 -- to get a look at today's immersive digital experiences has a lot of appeal. 

Ironically for Apple, that wave of interest that the Vision Pro kickstarted may have helped power Quest headsets to outsell AirPods during Black Friday and Cyber Monday. That's no small feat, considering that headphones usually sell about 550 million pairs annually, while VR headsets only sell about 10 million.

View at Amazon

I witnessed this rising interest firsthand at a local Best Buy on a Saturday in November when I saw a double line of people -- mostly teenagers with their parents -- waiting to try the Quest 3. Situated at an end-cap display where two Best Buy employees were wiping down headsets and helping kids strap them on, the employees explained VR to parents while the kids waved the Quest 3 controllers in the air as they ran through various demos. It was the first time I've ever seen regular people outside the tech industry this excited about VR. 

But perhaps the most intriguing part of the Quest 3 is its future. Even with all its quality upgrades and refinements, most of the apps, games, and other experiences are all still largely optimized for the Quest 2 since it has the largest user base and may even still be outselling the Quest 3 because of its aggressive pricing under $300 that makes it so accessible. Today, the Quest 2 is still about 80% as good as the Quest 3 when using the most popular apps and games. That's because a lot of the content isn't fully taking advantage of the Quest 3's new advanced displays and controllers -- and it's especially not exploring its full potential for mixed reality experiences.  

This is another area where the Quest 3 may get an assist from Apple Vision Pro, which is heavily focused on mixed reality and therefore getting a lot more developers interested in MR experiences. We have to expect that a healthy chunk of those developers will also want to bring their MR apps and games to a larger audience on Quest 3.  

Meta Quest 3 blue with dreams notebook

Quest 3 with the Elemental Blue Facial Interface & Head Strap

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

But even in its current state, the Quest 3 is a usability and quality upgrade that makes the whole experience more enjoyable and an easier onramp for people who are new to VR. And the amount of compelling content in VR has reached a stage where virtually anyone can find something that will appeal to their interests. To demonstrate, let's highlight four non-gaming experiences that are highly compelling. 

  • Campfire is an enterprise platform with the sensibilities and design of a consumer app. It allows people to collaborate on 3D models in real time and across any distance as long as you can get a decent internet connection. Campfire includes the ability to share prototypes, explode out the models, zoom in and look at components, leave notes, and collaborate in real time with audio. This has the potential to speed up product development, reduce travel time, and decrease the number of physical prototypes being sent around the world by product teams. 
  • Supernatural makes workouts a lot more fun than a stationary bike, treadmill, or other equipment by using a combination of hit songs, scenic locations around the world, inspiring trainers, and workouts featuring boxing and flow (swinging a pair of bats) that are low-impact, high-cardio, and just a ton of fun to do. I highly recommend trying this one for yourself -- I now use it nearly every day
  • Puzzling Places is one of the most surprising, peaceful, and enjoyable experiences I've ever tried in VR. I can see why it's one of the highest-rated VR apps of all time. At its core, Puzzling Places is a 3D jigsaw puzzle experience where you can pick from a number of different types of places and historic locations as well as the number of puzzle pieces you'd like to splice it into (from 25 to 1,000) and then you walk around in 3D space putting the pieces together. It is oddly satisfying and meditative. And it can also be super fun to engage in the multiplayer mode and build a puzzle together with another Quest user. 
  • PianoVision is such a powerful experience that Meta chose to make it the main event of some of its most widespread TV ads for the Quest 3. PianoVision gamifies learning to play piano with a mixed reality experience where you see notes streaming toward the piano keys and you tap the correct keys in rhythm. You can do this via a virtual keyboard, you can connect an electronic keyboard via a MIDI USB connection (the preferred option), or you can pair with a traditional acoustic piano. This app launched around the same time as the Quest 3 itself, and it has the potential to reinforce the research that when people train in VR they train faster, are more confident to apply their skills, and are more likely to retain the information.  

Any of these four experiences can be so useful and so immersive that you could use them regularly and they would make it worth getting a Quest 3 -- even if you only used that app. That's how compelling they are, and that's how far the immersive digital experiences on the Quest have come in just the last few years.

Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention at least one game, since the Quest is still best known for gaming. In this case, we'll highlight the Quest 3's featured launch title: Asgard's Wrath 2. ZDNET reviews editor Kerry Wan has been putting it through its paces and Kerry reported, "Asgard's Wrath 2 may be the most robust, adventure-packed, and immersive experience offered with the Quest 3. I've just hit the 15-hour mark of total playtime and it feels like I've barely scratched the surface, having shuffled between only two of the four main characters, each of whom has a unique storyline, skill tree, and playstyle. Asgard's Wrath 2 pushes the Quest 3 when it comes to visual fidelity and graphical performance, requiring the system to render open worlds while tracking full-body movements when swinging a sword or pulling back an arrow. Naturally, it is also this title, of all the ones I've tested, that makes me yearn for a larger, more efficient battery with the Quest 3. For the best experience, I'd highly recommend pairing the headset with an Elite Strap with Battery or keeping it tethered." 

Meta Quest 3 and Elite Strap with Battery

For extended use of Quest 3, you'll want to invest in the Elite Strap with Battery (or third-party competitors) to double battery life.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET
View at Meta

Kerry also wrote ZDNET's full review of the Quest 3 when it launched in October. He called it the mainstream headset he's been waiting for and extolled the new displays and controllers, but he lamented the 2-hour battery life and the dearth of mixed reality experiences. He rated the Quest 3 as 3.5 out of 5. That rating was focused mostly on buying advice. The Quest 3 can be a challenging product to recommend in the short term, since the Quest 2 can do nearly everything the Quest 3 can do and you get one for half the price when it goes on sale.

But while the Quest 3 was not our highest-rated product of the year, it was one of the most important products. It's one of the products that will have the biggest impact on tech in the long term, and it's one of the products with the brightest future. 

Sure, the metaverse is still a dud for now. Clearly, not many people want to hang out in virtual spaces. However, it does appear that lots of people are interested in immersive digital experiences. Again, that's evidenced by Quest outselling AirPods on Amazon during Black Friday. It's also supported by the fact that the Meta Quest app shot to the top of the Apple App Store rankings on December 26. It looks like a lot of people got gifted a Quest for the holidays.

We're confident Quest 3 has laid the groundwork to bring a lot more people into the next generation of apps. The Apple Vision Pro will only heighten that interest and it's likely to be in short supply and have a limited audience because of its $3,500 price tag. For those who can't get a Vision Pro but want a taste of the next stage of the immersive internet, the Quest 3 is ready to take a lot more people on that journey.  

That's why the Meta Quest 3 is ZDNET's 2023 product of the year. 

Honorable mentions

Beyond the Quest 3, a number of other products impressed us in 2023. Kerry Wan and I wanted to highlight five more products as particularly noteworthy for moving technology forward this year. 

OnePlus Open (Kerry Wan) -- It's not a far cry to call the OnePlus Open the best foldable phone this year, even with Google, Motorola, and Samsung competing for the innovation crown. It's almost as if OnePlus waited to identify the pain points of its competitors -- like weight in the hand, display creases, and slow charging -- before launching a more polished, feature-rich, and cheaper option. Besides nailing the aspect ratio of the outer and inner displays so the Open feels just like a phone or tablet when you want it to, its "Open Canvas" multitasking feature makes using several apps at once intuitive, productive, and, dare I say, inviting. 

OnePlus Open folded open on energy yellow background

OnePlus Open

Kerry Wan/ZDNET

MacBook Pro with M3 Max (Jason Hiner) -- Apple silicon continued moving from strength to strength with the launch of the new M3 chip. While we expected it to be even faster and add more graphics capabilities to chase Nvidia, we didn't expect the new MacBook Pro with M3 Max to essentially match the performance of Apple's fastest desktop M2 machines. But that's what it did in my tests. For professionals, developers, and creatives, the timing of this machine couldn't be better because it's especially useful to put that power to work on the latest AI workloads, including running LLMs directly from the laptop. The M3 is a desktop-class laptop for an AI-powered age, as I wrote in my full review

MacBook Pro (M3 Max) in Space Black

MacBook Pro (M3 Max) in Space Black

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Meta Smart Glasses (Kerry Wan) -- I didn't expect Meta's second attempt at smart glasses to be as polished and multifaceted as they are, but months after testing my review unit, I've purchased my own pair with prescriptions so I can wear them full-time. The new Meta Ray-Ban Smart Glasses can capture pictures and videos in fantastic detail, giving you reliable POV content to share with friends and family, post on social media, and, if you're like me, convert into hands-on coverage when interacting with product demos. The real kicker is the recent multimodal AI feature, which leverages the 12MP camera to capture and interpret visual data -- translating menus, ideating recipes based on what's in a fridge, and comparing two products at the grocery store; the accessibility implications are endless. 

Eero Max 7 (Jason Hiner) -- While the Eero Max 7 isn't necessarily a product I'd recommend a lot of people run out and buy -- since it starts at $600 -- it raises the bar on Wi-Fi and gives us a look at the future. For those reasons, I consider it one of the best and most important products of the year. It's one of the world's first Wi-Fi 7 routers, which -- without getting into a lot of technical jargon -- means it's better optimized for video streaming, is ready to handle high-bandwidth VR apps, and can make your fast internet connection even snappier and better optimized. It brings those capabilities into Eero's mesh system, which has an easy-to-use app and is already very good at optimizing your home for the best internet performance. In my tests, the Eero Max 7 allowed a lot more devices to take advantage of the full gigabit internet at my house, which highly impressed me. I'd still recommend most people get the Eero Pro 6E for now, but the Eero Max 7 is a performance monster and I'm glad to see Eero stepping up its game to offer a product with this kind of performance. Look for my full review in early 2024. 

Google Chromebook Plus (Kerry Wan) -- Here's a sleeper pick: Google's new standard of Chromebooks is a big win for low-to-mid-range laptop buyers, including consumers in education and the enterprise. To qualify for the Google Chromebook Plus label, a laptop must have at least an Intel Core i3 (12th Gen) or AMD Ryzen 3 5000 series, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, a 1080p webcam, and a Full HD IPS display. With prices ranging from $300 to $600, and the flexibility of the ChromeOS platform that allows manufacturers to invest more in hardware and industrial design, this new wave of Google laptops is more favorable than ever to dominate one of the most competitive markets in tech. 

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