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HTC Vive Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Outstanding motion tracking
  • Intuitive user experience
  • Good selection of VR content
  • Intelligent controller design
  • Good battery life (controllers)

The Bad

  • Front heavy
  • Prohibitively expensive
  • Lengthy setup
  • Awkward cable management
  • FOV could be wider
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Consumer virtual reality is finally here and if you want the best experience right now, you’re going to want to pick up the HTC Vive.

What’s in the box?

The Oculus Rift may be the VR headset on everybody’s lips, but the Vive is here first and takes a slightly different approach to its leading rival.

HTC Vive retail box
There’s a lot to the Vive system and as such it comes in a huge box

The box it comes in is big and it’s chock-full of stuff needed to get up and running: the headset and its assorted cables, two motion controllers, two base stations, a link box and its assorted cables and power for everything.

Read next: Best VR Headset – Which VR headset should I buy?

Setup

The biggest blessing and curse of the Vive is that unlike the Oculus Rift, you can actually walk around a few feet in virtual reality, within what’s called the play space. It has to be at least 1.5 meters by 2 meters, but we found that even that was too small for some games.

HTC Vive room setup HTC Vive - base station

First-time setup is not an elegant process. You’ve got to find an area big enough, clear everything out of it, make sure you’re near enough to your computer to plug everything in and be able to place the two base stations high enough using either furniture, tripods, or by screwing them into your walls, whilst also hoping that they’re near enough to plug points or you’ve got plenty of extension cables to hand.

Charging the Vive’s controllers is convenient enough thanks to their integrated micro USB ports, whilst the headset itself is tethered to a link box that in turn pulls in its own power and connects to your computer.

HTC Vive link box
The link box connects the Vive headset to your PC

The whole process takes around 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how much adjusting and cable routing you have to do. We’d go so far as to say planning your VR sessions in advance wouldn’t be a bad move as you’d otherwise have to disassemble and rebuild the play space every time you wanted to use your Vive.

Design and comfort

Ahead of retail, the Vive went through two notable iterations: the original developer version and the Vive Pre. The final headset, however, doesn’t look all that different, with the same bulbous insect-eye like appearance, covered in tracking points and a centrally positioned camera (used to see the real world outside of VR when needed, via a feature called Chaperone).

HTC Vive - side on modelled by Chris Barraclough
Modelled by the one and only Chris Barraclough

It boasts plenty of room for head and eye adjustment, but it’s the most front-heavy of the bunch, compared to the likes of the Rift and PlayStation VR. What’s more, the foam surround has a tendency to soak up sweat during particularly lengthy play sessions and it doesn’t quite form a perfect seal, letting in a tiny bit of light near the bridge of your nose.

Unlike the Rift the Vive doesn’t pack integrated headphones either (although a pair of in-ears comes in the box), instead leaving you with a stereo jack to plug any cans of your choosing into. The main cables from the headset are channelled over the central strap and down to the tether, which you will inevitably step on and get tangled up in from time to time.

HTC Vive controller top down HTC Vive - camera HTC Vive - controller profile

The controllers are a big part of what help the Vive experience stand out. We’d have liked them a tad smaller, but they’d light enough to wield without issue and integrate several physical controls in easy reach of your fingers and thumbs. The menu and system buttons sit above and below a circular trackpad, which itself doubles as a button, whilst underneath you’ll find a trigger and on either side of the handle, grip buttons, which you can activate by simply squeezing.

Software and games

During the Vive’s setup process you’ll install two key pieces of software: the Vive PC client itself and Steam VR, which detects all of the system’s key hardware.

HTC Vive - PC client HTC Vive - Steam VR

There are already a wealth of titles with Vive support on Steam and not just games – you’ll find experiential, educational and artistic offerings too. Virtual reality has attracted a lot of attention from the developer community and whilst titles from big brands like Valve and Cartoon Network are certainly worth checking out, there are a number of creative experiences from smaller names too.

Waving your hands around in the air like a crazy person

The common theme across all of them is the amount of time you’ll likely spend within those individual experiences. VR titles behave more like mobile apps, usually offering smaller, self-contained activities as opposed to longer more drawn out narrative-driven content (Valve’s The Lab is a good example of this).

That’s not to say you’ll wear the Vive for fifteen minutes at a time, in fact quite the opposite; virtual reality has the uncanny of eating up time at a rate of knots – if an experience is particularly immersive, you might spend hours, exploring, playing, making or creating without even realising it. Meanwhile, an outside has the pleasure of watching you waving your hands around in the air like a crazy person. (Fact: It’s impossible to look cool whilst wearing a VR headset).

Performance

If you’ve never experienced virtual reality before, the Vive is easily one of the best ways to take your first trip. The laser-based tracking system means that both your head and hand movements shadow their real-world counterparts almost exactly. Tracking issues do crop up now and again, but they are very rare and usually easy to rectify.

HTC Vive and controllers - top down

The Fresnel lens system does a good job of offering clear detail at the centre point, however, distortion is a noticeable closer to the edges of your field of view (FOV) as is the screen door effect (the resolution is low enough that you can make out individual pixels), which we weren’t surprised by considering this is technically generation one virtual reality hardware.

Latency is another talking point, a rock-solid 90Hz going to each eye ensures that the visuals sync up with your movements correctly, upping the feel of immersion, whilst reducing the risk of lag and more importantly, motion sickness.

The quality of your experience with the Vive also hinges upon the graphical performance of your machine. We tested ours using Asus’ ROG G20CB gaming PC; running Windows 10 with an Intel Core i7-6700 at its heart, 16GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970, the lowest recommended graphics card for consumer VR.

We had zero complaints with the visual fidelity of gameplay and other VR applications, but those looking to build a rig of their own might want to consider the more powerful and power efficient GTX 980 Ti, which following the announcement of Nvidia’s new flagship GTX 1080 Ti, will undoubtedly start to drop in price.

Asus ROG G20 with HTC Vive
Our Vive was powered by a £1500 Asus ROG G20, but you could build an equivalent system for under £1000

Every piece of Vive hardware, from the headset to the laser-tracking base stations runs on mains power, with the one exception being the motion controllers, which HTC intelligently didn’t decide to anchor to the headset or your computer, for greater immersion in-game and greater freedom of movement in reality. In our tests, each controller would last for around five hours of use before needing a recharge (via the aforementioned microUSB ports). To power each controller back up took around an hour, but longevity will hinge directly on usage.

Verdict

HTC has managed to sneak the Vive in ahead of the VR poster child that is the Oculus Rift and doing so means it sets the bar for the gold standard in consumer virtual reality.

Unsurprisingly, there’s definite room for improvement, with physical constraints like the headset’s weight distribution, controller battery life and the practicality of a wired, tethered experience, versus a wireless one to consider. Adding higher-resolution displays and even better motion tracking with lower-latency wouldn’t go amiss either, but for all these criticisms, there are so many positives.

HTC Vive mesh hero image

The HTC Vive is the most immersive virtual reality experience money can buy right now and the fact that it launches with motion controllers (the Oculus Rift’s Touch controllers don’t arrive until later this year), show the true power and intuitiveness that comes with VR. If you’re yet to jump in, this is unquestionably the diving board to spring from.

Whilst you could call the Vive the first true VR system for the masses, there is one significant barrier for the majority of users and gamers out there to overcome – price. First generation technology like this is notoriously expensive and the Vive is no exception. For the HTC Vive hardware, plus the cost of shipping in the UK works out to a whopping £746.60, which added to the cost of the Asus gaming PC we tested it with (£1499) and the price of a launch title, like Stress Level Zero’s Hover Junkers (£26.99) runs up a total of £2272.59. If you have that kind of money to hand and are already seriously considering the Vive, then we wouldn’t want to stop you from picking one up, but if you’re on the fence, we don’t have to, your wallet will.

Specification

Screen typeOLED
Screen resolution2160x1200
Refresh rate90Hz
Field of view110 degrees
OSSteam VR
Tracking area2m x 1.5m/6.5ft x 5ft (minimum)
Integrated audioYes
Integrated microphoneYes
Controller(s)HTC Vive motion controllers (x2), any PC compatible gamepad
SensorsAccelerometer, gyroscope, laser positioning system
ConnectivityUSB 2.0, USB 3.0, HDMI
Bonus featuresChaperone (virtual boundary detection), haptic feedback, front-facing camera

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