We've been waiting for the consumer version of HTC Vive – the company's virtual reality (VR) system – to land in our living rooms for some time. It's hard to describe the heightened feeling of excitement that accompanies the launch of a brand new technology, finally, onto the mass market. Let's put it this way: since opening the box we've been acting like kids at a wedding running around with our coats over our heads.
We've dabbled in VR many times before, even as far back as the beginning of the 90s with W Industries' Virtuality system. More recent years have given us mobile-based devices, such as Samsung's Gear VR and Google Cardboard, but they are essentially tasters of VR's potential by comparison. HTC Vive is much higher up the food-chain, joining Oculus Rift in the real-deal flagship runnings, but with the added and unique possibility of tracking full body motion through a real-world space.
Having now spent a full week with Vive – from setup (and all of its foibles), through to mammoth (and occasionally stomach-churning) gaming sessions – it's been like starting afresh compared to our earlier demo sessions, while getting used to the system in a home context.
Vive is seemingly the most capable and exciting of the current VR headsets and systems, given its feature set. And surely, as a SteamVR offering with the backing of Valve, it's got the weight behind it to be top dog already? Well, yes and no. Read on to reveal all in our deep-dive review.
HTC Vive review: Headset and hardware
The first thing that struck us opening the box is just how much kit is included. Vive has the most hardware that has to be physically installed before use compared to its rivals, so that can put some off instantly. Gadget freaks, though, will gleefully stroke each of the main items.
The headset is naturally the most interesting and enticing object in the box. After all, it's the device you will be strapping to your face each time you want to wander in virtual lands.
It is curvier than rivals and, perhaps, stranger to look at as an onlooker. That's because it has camera and sensor pockmarks spattered about its face like an acne-ridden teenager, there to inform the separate base station sensors the location of the headset and where it is looking at any given moment in time.
Also as important (but equally unattractive) are the trio of thick cables protruding from the top of the headset. The same triple-A performance without wires just isn't possible right now, so they are a necessary evil, but can be intimidating to virtual reality newcomers.
Regardless of the leads though, the HTC Vive headset and visor is comfortable to wear and easy to put on. You'll need to ensure the straps are pulled as tightly as possible, for a firm fit, as that will provide the cleanest and sharpest visuals, but they are simple to adjust on either side of the headset.
As is often the case, the Vive's beauty is on the inside rather than out. There are two displays within, comprising an overall resolution of 2160 x 1200 (that's 1080 x 1200 for each eye). And while you can see the individual pixels if you look for them, just as you can with any current VR tech, that's crisp enough for them not to distract.
There is also an adjustment knob on the side of the headset, which moves the lenses closer or further apart to best suit the positions of your eyes and therefore enhance images. And should your face be skinnier than the norm, HTC provides a separate foam surround for the visor.
We're not glasses wearers generally, but have heard from friends who have tried it while wearing spectacles and they've had no problems whatsoever.
We've also worn the headset for as long as 45-minutes in a session and its 555g weight (without the cables, which also weigh it down a little at the rear) doesn't feel too heavy.
HTC Vive review: Controllers
When we first went hands-on with an early version of the Vive, we used two motion "wands" – as they were then called by HTC. They did some similar things to the versions now included with the consumer model, but had strange hexagonal tops and a thumbstick. In fact, you can still make out their shape in the setup wizard, with the demonstration stickman wielding similar-looking controllers.
The final versions are actually far better than the ones we originally used. They offer more precise control, extra buttons, and are essentially capable of the same functionality as the Oculus Touch controllers demoed at the same time as the previous HTC wands.
There are two motion controllers included in the box – one for each hand. The top of each is dimpled in similar fashion to the headset, so the sensors can track them. There is a trackpad on the back of each, a trigger and, seemingly new, large buttons on the handles to offer grip mechanics.
They are lightweight and rechargeable through mini-USB. Even though we've played for many hours over the last week, we've only had to charge the controllers once. You can even see a battery indicator on the virtual version of each controller when in the virtual world, so you will always know how much juice you have left.
Most VR games currently available on Steam will make use of the controllers in some way and, at times, their use is magical. The touchpad on the rear is sensitive and intuitive, while the squeeze buttons have other uses outside of gaming, such as pulling up the virtual keyboard in desktop mode.
What's most impressive though is how little lag there is when using them in VR, especially as they are wireless. Most of the time – especially in the main SteamVR hub – you see them in front of you in their virtual form, any movement you make is instantly translated so it is as natural as moving and seeing your own hands in front of you.
As well as the included controllers, some games require a keyboard or standard game controller. We used an Xbox One controller with a PC wireless adapter for the latter, but any PC accessory would do. We struggled with playing games on a keyboard when wearing the Vive for a number of reasons – most obviously that you can't see the keys and it's only of use when in a seated or static position.
HTC Vive review: A walk-around virtual world
The biggest selling point for Vive is its unique take on physical space. Using what HTC calls Room Scale it can map a room and give you the option to physically move around that space, which is mirrored in your virtual environment. It is often compared with the fictional Star Trek Holodeck, because the option to physically move around in a virtual, hyperreal space adds a tangible element that aids immersion further.
Assuming, that is, you have a room large enough to handle it. The minimum area of 2 x 1.5 metres (6.5 x 5ft) is a bit restrictive in use – we'd say it needs more than that to work at its best.
Vive can also be used like other headsets – which offer a static experience, giving some motion and recognising when you are stood or sitting – to prove versatile for various experiences.
But back to setting-up Room Scale. You determine how large your room is through tracing the outside of the playable area (or clicking in the corners in advanced setup) and the Vive's in-experience Chaperone mode ensues that whenever you are in danger of bumping into a real wall or item of furniture on the outside of your chosen zone, a virtual wireframe barrier appears in your field of view to tell you to back off.
This is all determined through mapping of your actual location by the included base station sensors – two black cubes that track the headset and controllers in real-time and send the location data back to the main PC. Consider that while these sensors sync and work wirelessly, each of them requires power, so you'll need outlets near their positions.
They need to be installed in opposite corners so their 120-degree field of view overlaps to see the front, sides and rear of any trackable device and it is highly advised that you wall-mount them as high as possible, as they need to be well above head height and pointing downward to "see" the environment with the best possible vantage.
One of the issues we faced with them came from the fact it was not possible or practical for us to use the included wall-mount brackets. We only live in a rented accommodation and there's guarantee that we won't be moving in the next few months. In addition, our review model was eventually to be passed on to somebody else, so we had to come up with a less permanent solution.
HTC advises, in this case, a couple of (tall) tripods – because the base stations come with the requisite screw fittings on underneath for ease of use. And naturally, these tripods don't come in the box. Our one available tripod was just tall enough to cope, while we used the top of the living room door to mount the other sensor, as it swings inwards.
The base stations lightly vibrate too, so if you do have to repeat our methods in some way, ensure you tape them down firmly.
If you are using the supplied mounts, before you actually screw them into the wall do make sure that your chosen positions work in all circumstances. We found we had to fiddle with our sensors a lot thanks to controllers and even the headset being lost in "dark zones" at times. The latter is especially alarming, even nauseating, as it can cause the virtual experience to jolt, shudder or flip madly before turning off.
HTC Vive review: Link Box
One of the smallest items in the package, but no less essential, is the Link Box. This is the slim, light connection box that sits between the Vive headset and PC. It also receives the wireless signals from the controllers and base stations. And it's easy to setup.
However, the box doesn't have a HDMI passthrough option so you can't feed a monitor and the headset at the same time. Instead, if you are using a desktop PC and a graphics card with only one HDMI, you will need to find another solution.
For us, that meant a mini-DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort cable (which isn't included in the box) to use the box's available mini-DisplayPort socket to connect PC video output, therefore leaving the one HDMI port connection on the graphics card to hook-up a monitor or TV. Alternatively, you can connect your external display through DVI or DisplayPort, leaving the HDMI port free.
The other ports on the Link Box are for power and USB 3.0 connection. On the side that connects to the headset, there's an audio output too.
HTC Vive review: Headphones
Unlike the Oculus Rift, headphones are not built into the HTC Vive and must be added separately. It does come with a small pair of in-ears in the box, with a shortened lead that connects to the audio cable input at the back of the headset. However, we found them to be only okay in performance and a real pain to pop into our ears each time.
That's mainly because you naturally put the headset on first and then insert the earbuds – only you can't see which is left or right when the Vive is over your face. You have to lift the headset off again to look for the little "L" and "R" indicators. Each bud is not distinct enough to know which is which by touch alone.
Instead, we recommend that, like us, you use third-party over-ear headphones (preferably a pair that you can tell their orientation without having to look). We most often used the Plantronics RIG 500E eSports cans which worked very well indeed.
These particular headphones can also be setup to receive virtual 7.1 surround audio when plugged into the PC separately through a USB port. Or you can use a normal set of headphones plugged into the headset's audio connector if you're not bothered by virtual surround.
HTC Vive review: Installation quibbles
Setting up Vive is not quick nor easy, no matter how gently the installation wizard guides you through it.
We've touched on it elsewhere in this review, and extensively in our separate guide and initial thoughts, but it must be said that we experienced plenty of installation quibbles that make the whole process drag. We suspect early adopters will be au fait with tech teething troubles, but it took us the best part of a day to get the headset working as we wanted.
In our install one of the controllers wouldn't pair initially. The sensors took a while to get into the right positions, and without proper mounting were never absolutely ideal (as we've mentioned above). There were error messages during the Room Scale setup too. And we experienced several software crashes throughout.
This was mostly when setting-up Vive with a PC we built in preparation (of VR in general, as Oculus is up next). Our PC has 16GB of RAM, a 4GHz Intel Core i7-4790K processor and Nvidia GTX Titan X graphics card – so more than enough spec to cope, but not everything would work seamlessly without more exploration and effort.
We actually had an easier time when setting-up Vive with an Asus ROG G752VY gaming notebook, so ended up using that predominantly instead. It still had a few issues, but the process was a bit smoother and we then had the added bonus of being able to place it near our Room Space play area.
HTC Vive review: PC requirements
Both the PCs we used in the Vive setup exceeded the recommended specifications, but still suffered glitches during installation.
When actually running the games or experiences, though, they both did so very capably. The Asus laptop wasn't so great at running Elite Dangerous at higher resolutions and detail, but all of the native SteamVR games arguably played better than they did on our desktop.
HTC's recommended spec isn't the minimum you could have to run the Vive, but you have to consider that the experiences themselves might not look or run their best unless you have a PC at hand with the following or better:
- GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970, AMD Radeon R9 290 equivalent or better
- CPU: Intel i5-4590, AMD FX 8350 equivalent or better
- RAM: 4GB or more
- Video Output: HDMI 1.4, DisplayPort 1.2 or newer
- USB Port: 1x USB 2.0 or better port
- Operating System: Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1 or later, Windows 10
HTC Vive review: Games & content
Any issues we had with the physical process and practicality of setting-up a Room Space were soon forgotten once we'd started one of the many native games or experiences available on Steam.
You will need a Steam account to run your HTC Vive headset, the creation of which the setup software will guide you through if you don't have one already. Then that gives access to more than 150 compatible pieces of content.
Some of them are free, others pricey, and most are existing games converted to work with VR. A lot of them are compatible with Oculus Rift too, but many make extra use of the Room Scale technology, so are enhanced when playing using Vive.
We had access to around 35 or so SteamVR games and had a fair crack at playing through as many as possible in the week we had with the device. On the whole we were very impressed indeed. Well, that's an understatement: mind-blown is more like it.
We've listed and written about some of our favourites separately, but almost all of the titles have the "wow" factor. Valve's own free demo, The Lab, for example, is a collection of mini-games and tech demos that amaze in equal measure.
The Gallery – Episode 1: Call of the Starseed is another that offers jaw-dropping visuals and a sense of immersion that few could be cynical about.
Indeed, we were so transfixed and gripped by the adventure game that when we ripped ourselves back into the real world after a long session of play, our actual surroundings felt fake and forced in comparison. That was after just 15 minutes of play time. Heaven knows what we'd have felt like after 30 minutes or longer.
Music rhythm game Audioshield is another that we got lost in. In it you battle away neon balls using virtual shields in time to dance beats, which sounds simple, but is mesmerising.
Outside of the games made specifically for the HTC Vive and SteamVR, we were very keen on seeing how Elite Dangerous worked with the headset. We had previously played it using an Oculus devkit 2 and we're extremely impressed then. With Vive it is as impressive an experience – more so thanks to the better motion and display technology on offer. However, as we were sitting down at the edge of our Room Space play area rather than at a desktop PC, it didn't feel the same.
You can use the HTC Vive in a seated position but still need to be within visible range of the base station sensors, so are limited to where you can sit. That might not be practical for standard games that require different input devices.
Indeed, Elite is best played using a keyboard or flight controls, sometimes both, so you would rather sit at your PC, which might not be as feasible as you'd hope with Vive.
HTC Vive review: Current challenges
In the build-up to release, much of the attention was focused on Vive's pricing structure. At £689, not including shipping, it is considerably more expensive than rivals and the biggest concern is whether anybody would splash such a mighty wodge of cash on a first-generation doohickey (not to mention possible tripods, cables and the unavoidable need for a worthy PC to run everything).
In comparison, the Oculus Rift is £500, while Sony's PlayStation VR headset will be £349 when it is released in October. They seem more affordable, for sure, the latter in particular given it will run with a PS4 and Camera for a snip of Vive's total cost. But from our experiences and the quality of the kit you receive, Vive justifies its price point. It is, after all, the most technologically advanced VR device out there.
All considered, price is not the major concern. Instead, we wonder whether the headset's most attractive feature is also its Achilles heel: while Room Space and the in-experience Chaperone system is magnificent when it works well, setting it up the first time is a laborious process that is neither simple nor intuitive. It also requires a large, open area to work in the first place. How many flats in Britain afford such space?
If you don't have a room or area dedicated to VR and the HTC Vive, you might find yourself in the position of having to move furniture, pets or your child's Barbie Malibu Mansion and recalibrate your room setup each and every time you want to play with the headset. That's the position we found ourselves in and we soon grew tired of the pantomime we went through each time we wanted to play.
We've played a lot with VR over the years but nothing compares to Vive at its best. When Room Space is working and working well, it is a stunning experience without compare.
The issue is that in an average London flat it is very hard to experience it at its best. Even when shifting furniture around to have enough room for the Vive's killer feature to work, you are restricted in how much you can move before wireframe barriers appear in the virtual world and spoil the effect.
You can turn the borders off but at the risk of injury. And setting Vive into standing or sitting mode alone makes it a pricey option in comparison to the other devices, such as Oculus Rift, that already offer that style of play.
HTC Vive needs to be set free from constraints to make best use of its raison d'être. And that limits its audience somewhat. For us it means we either opt for a cheaper, less capable VR headset or move house. Although we have to admit that after some of the games we've played using Vive, the latter option is appealing.