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 such devices 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.
We've now spent plenty of time with Vive in the home, with various gaming sessions in a variety of different VR games, and we think it's one incredible experience.
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 as we reveal all in our deep-dive review.
HTC Vive review: Headset and hardware
The first thing that struck us when opening the Vive's packaging 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 might put some people 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 into 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, all present 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, at least not without the purchase of additional accessories, 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 such straps 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, or 1080 x 1200 for each eye in direct terms. Although you can see the individual pixels if you look for them - just as you can with any current VR tech - that resolution is crisp enough to distract. Once you get stuck into the games you'll barely notice.
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 per user. Should your face be skinnier than the norm, HTC provides a separate foam surround for the visor.
The good news for spectacle wearers is the Vive does allow enough space for you to comfortably keep your glasses on while playing. The only downside is you'll have to deal with smudges and steam-up issues on two sets of lenses (your glasses and the headsets), which can get a bit taxing in the depths of summer heat. Luckily the face cushions are replaceable and washable or you'd end up with a pongy, sweaty mess.
We've worn the headset for long gaming sessions and its 555g weight (without the cables, which also weigh it down a little at the rear) doesn't feel too heavy. The only nagging issue we've really had with comfort is the tug of the cables. They're long enough to stretch across the play space, but when you're fully immersed in the VR world you forget where you are in the real world and can get caught up in the wires. Either that or you'll find them tugging on the back of your head if you've strayed too far from the machine they're plugged in to.
It's not perfect, though. After a while the headset can start to press on the face, which isn't comfortable. There's a lot of tech packed into that little box and despite the straps, supports and faceplates, it's hard to avoid the inevitable face ache. You can still get a good couple of hours play out of it - but it does get a bit uncomfortable eventually. We wouldn't say that's enough to put us off, though, in part as many VR games aren't designed for multiple hours of use - but even in especially top-notch games where you're fully immersed in gameplay and ducking and dodging your way around a virtual world you'll barely even notice.
HTC Vive review: Controllers
There are two motion controllers included in the Vive's box – one for each hand. The top of each is dimpled in a similar fashion to the headset, so the sensors can track them. There is a trackpad on the back of each, a trigger and large buttons on the handles to offer grip mechanics.
Each controller is lightweight and rechargeable through mini-USB. Generally, we find you can get hours of play out of the controllers before you need to even think about recharging. 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 they 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 is how little lag there is when using them, given that they're wireless. Most of the time – especially in the main SteamVR hub – you see them in front of you in their virtual form, so any movement you make is instantly translated as naturally 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 use an Xbox One controller with a PC wireless adapter, but any PC accessory will do. We struggled with playing games on a keyboard when wearing the Vive for a number of reasons, however, the most obvious being that you can't see the keys, the other that 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 to offer a static experience - giving the six-degree of motion of your head movements and recognising when you are stood or sitting – to prove versatile for various experiences. There are various games that allow for seated or "standing only" play which get around the lack of space issue by allowing you to move using the controls instead - whether beaming between locations using a button press or using a trackpad as you would a control stick on any other controller.
For setting-up Room Scale you need to determine how large your room is by tracing the outside of the playable area (or clicking in the corners in advanced setup). This means when you're inside the game world Vive's in-experience Chaperone mode ensures whenever you are in danger of bumping into a real wall or item of furniture, a virtual wireframe barrier appears in your field of view to tell you to back off. You can adjust the appearance, colour and opacity of this barrier to suit your needs - but it's handy to be able to see where you are and if you're in danger of hitting a physical object.
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 individual 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. 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 these sensors 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 near future.
HTC advises, in this case, a couple of (tall) tripods – because the base stations come with the requisite screw fittings underneath for ease of use. 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. The ability to use tripods also means you can easily move the Vive around and set it up in different rooms or even pack it all up and take it to a friend's house to play there with ease.
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. In a secondary setup we found we had to fiddle around with our sensors a lot thanks to controllers and even the headset being sometimes lost in "dark zones". When this happens it's alarming, even nauseating, as it can cause the virtual experience to jolt, shudder or flip madly before turning off.
If you're worried about being disorientated while in the virtual world, then there's good news. The Vive also offers other tracking abilities to help you keep touch with the real world when you're playing. We were (eventually) glad of this after we got into a bit of an awkward position after accidentally hitting another person in the room square in the face with one of the controllers while in a heated battle with VR zombies.
Firstly, you can set the Vive to show you a virtual representation of the world around you. Here, the Vive uses a front-facing camera to pick up your surrounding environment and inject a matched light hue into the virtual world. This is great to avoid hitting people, but also keeps you aware of your surroundings.
If you're worried that such a thing might break the immersion, then there's also the option to turn on the front facing camera when you press a menu button on one of the controllers. This provides a small view from the side of your virtual controller to show what's going on in the real world without you having to remove the headset. These are all nice touches to keep you, and those around you, safe during play.
HTC Vive review: Link Box
One of the smallest items in the Vive's box, but no less essential, is the Link Box. This is the slim, light connection box that sits between the Vive headset and its appointed 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 means 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 to video output, therefore leaving the one HDMI port connection on the graphics card to hook-up to a monitor (or TV, as in our case). 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 connections. On the side that connects to the headset, there's an audio output too.
HTC Vive review: Headphones and audio input
- 3.5mm headphone input
- Concealed USB input on the headset
- Built in microphone for multiplayer gaming
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.
It's not like the Royole Moon with its excellent integrated noise-cancelling headphones. Although that's a virtual cinema experience, rather than a VR device.
Thus, we recommend that you use third-party over-ear headphones for Vive. Preferably a pair that you can tell their orientation without having to look. Any pair of headphones will do, so long as they use the 99 per cent common 3.5mm headphone jack format.
It's worth noting, too, that if you push on the top of the Vive headset (where the HTC logo sits) you will open up a compartment where the cables connect. In there you'll also find a spare USB port which can be used for a gaming headset. We struggled with this though as it's a narrow fit and the headsets we had available during the review period had chunky housing on their USB connection preventing a good fit.
For multiplayer gaming, the Vive has a built-in mic so you can talk to your friends. As the quality is clear, this essentially means you don't need a separate headset, which is nice if you're struggling to fit one into the socket - or can find one with a long enough cable to stretch as the Vive will when playing in a full Room Scale game!
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, but it must be said that we experienced plenty of installation quibbles that make the whole process drag.
In our first install, one of the Vive's controllers wouldn't pair initially. The sensors took a while to get into the right positions, and without proper mounting were never in an absolutely ideal situation (as we've mentioned above). There were error messages during the Room Scale setup too. And we experienced several software crashes throughout.
Each of the controllers and base stations also needs their firmware updated meaning they had to be plugged into a PC separately and updated. This is not a regular occurrence, but it was an initial niggle - over-the-air updates would be preferable.
This was mostly when setting-up Vive with a PC we built in preparation. It 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.
HTC Vive review: PC requirements
Both the PCs we used in the Vive setup exceeded the recommended specifications, but still suffered some 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
Since those two initial installs, we've setup elsewhere for a third time. Even so, there have still been a few crashes and freezes over the months we've been playing. It's not always clear if these have been down to issues with the Vive, the Steam VR software or the game that's in play, though.
Such issues aren't regular enough to prevent play or hamper enjoyment either. For the most part, we've found the tracking is superb and in-game experience is rarely ruined by anything other than a lack of play space or real life humdrum getting in the way. You know, boring things like having to make dinner or go to bed.
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.
To get the most out of the Vive you'll need a Steam account to run your HTC Vive headset. Creating one will auto-guide you through to setup. This that gives access to more than 2,000 compatible pieces of content. HTC's own store, Viveport, is another alternative way to access content - and a Viveport subscription will give you access to a number of discounts, offers and free games each month.
Some of VR games 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.
Since first getting Vive we've had plenty of time to play a wide variety of games. On the whole, we've remained 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 - links embedded throughout this review - but almost all titles have a 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.
In our first few experiences of gaming using Vive, we found ourselves so immersed in the VR universe that time flew by with inexplicable speed. Removing the headset to come back to the real world also resulted in a weird disconnect from reality where we'd become so used to picking up and touching virtual objects with controllers that doing so with our actual hands in the real world just felt odd. Hello, The Matrix.
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 was considerably more expensive than rivals and the biggest concern was whether anybody would splash such a mighty wedge of cash on a first-generation doohickey (not to mention possible tripods, cables and the unavoidable need for a worthy PC to run everything).
Then the Oculus Rift dropped in price to £499 and Sony's PlayStation VR headset was released for £349. To fight this issue HTC dropped the price of the Vive to £599. Still not cheap, but in our view, the Vive easily 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. Other problems include games not accounting for the play space and virtual objects falling outside of the marked out space, so you find an essential item you need to use is just out of reach underneath a sofa, behind a wall or inside a fridge (yes, we once played in the kitchen).
If you've got the space, are playing seated- or standing-only games, then it's not an issue and the experience is, frankly, fantastic.
HTC Vive review: Optional accessories
There are a few different official and unofficial accessories you can purchase to improve your experience with Vive. One worth checking out is the Deluxe Audio Strap (£100), which acts as a new headstrap to the body of the Vive, replacing the original Velcro strap that comes bundled with the device. Two pretty basic but fairly comfortable and useful headphones then sit in an adjustable position to allow you to easily hear what's going on.
The Vive already has three cables trailing out of it to your gaming machine, so headphones or a headset mean the addition of another cable to get caught up in or have to put up with hanging over your body as you play. The Deluxe Audio Strap is the answer to these woes.
It also makes the experience of fitting the headset each time you want to play a lot easier. There's a dial on top of the Deluxe Audio Strap that tightens and loosens the fit to your personal preference. This is so much easier than having to loosen or tighten the three Velcro straps that come with the headset as standard.
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 wire-frame barriers appear in the virtual world and spoil the action.
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, which already offers 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 definitely appealing...
Alternatives to consider
Vive's main competitor is Oculus. It might not offer Room Space, but with six degrees of movement from a seated or standing position, for many games that simply won't matter. Plus the Oculus asking price is far more appealing...
Read the full review: Oculus Rift review