HTC Vive review: The most immersive VR headset of 2016

The HTC Vive is the most expensive option in the current virtual reality headset line-up, beating the £500 Oculus Rift and £300 PlayStation VR. But why the high price? The HTC Vive offers an unparalleled experience by providing users with the opportunity to not only look around the virtual environment but physically walk around and interact with the environment using bespoke handheld controllers. With the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now on sale, the question has to be asked – is the HTC Vive worth the £689 price tag? We’ve spent some time with the HTC Vive, and here’s what we thought. Read next: The complete guide to virtual reality: VR headsets, VR games, apps and more

Last updated to include updated pricing information following Brexit. 

HTC Vive review: UK pricing and availability

So, how much does the HTC Vive cost – and more importantly – where and when can users buy one? The HTC Vive headset complete with two bespoke controllers and two base stations will set the average consumer back £689 for us in the UK, and $799 for those in the US, making it a pretty pricey headset. Although with that being said, compared to the £499/$599 Oculus Rift that only includes the headset and an Xbox One controller, it’s not so bad. However, there is a catch - it's worth mentioning that the £689 price tag doesn't include the eye-watering £57.60 for postage and packaging, which brings the total up to £746.60. Ouch. 

To sweeten the deal, HTC has confirmed that all pre-orders are to receive not two but three VR 'experiences' to get you started - Google's Tilt Brush, Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives, and Fantastic Contraption, although the deal isn’t going to last forever. The headset has started shipping to those that pre-ordered it back in March, and HTC recently announced that those who order a Vive directly from HTC now will have orders shipped within three working days. That's shipped as in 'leaving the warehouse' not three days to your doorstop, although once shipped it should be with you within a couple of days. To compare, those interested in ordering an Oculus Rift at the time of writing will have to wait until August 2016 before it ships.

If you're unsure whether the HTC Vive is worth the £689 price tag, there are a number of UK retailers offering the opportunity to trial the hardware before parting with your cash. Specifically, anybody can walk into any of the following stores and try out the HTC Vive before pre-ordering from the retailer directly (which should save you the £57.60 delivery fee!):

  • Currys PC World, Leeds (Birstall)
  • Currys PC World, Reading
  • Currys PC World, Tottenham Court Road
  • Overclockers UK, Newcastle-under-Lyme
  • Scan Computers International Ltd, Bolton

Update (01/08/2016): While we thought the HTC Vive was pricey enough with the £689 price tag and £57 P&P, we were wrong. Why? In a new blog post on the Vive website, the firm explains that "due to recent currency valuation changes and the current value of the GBP we are adjusting the price of the Vive in the UK to £759 + P&P." The blog post went live on 29th July, and the changes have come into effect today, 1 August 2016.

We're not so sure about the value of the HTC Vive at this price, especially when you add the P&P price on top of the new price tag, totalling £816.60. It was just about justifiable at £689 and while the HTC is fantastic, we're not sure it's worth this much - especially when you consider that Oculus claims room-scale tracking could be coming to the £499 Rift (with the Oculus Touch controllers) later this year. We imagine the Rift with room-scale tracking will cost a bit more, but it'll be interesting to see whether the company purposely tries to undercut HTC with price to steal some of its prospective customers. 

What it is like to use HTC Vive: podcast discussion

HTC Vive review: Design and build

So, what makes the HTC Vive Pre different to other virtual reality headsets that are due out in 2016? Let’s first discuss the design of the headset. The HTC Vive headset is extremely comfortable to wear and features soft, memory foam-esque material around the edges to avoid any kind of skin irritation when being worn. The material can be easily switched out thanks to the use of Velcro, and the company provides users with two fits – wide and thin – for different shaped faces.

It’s matte black in colour, and while no VR headset will ever look gorgeous, the HTC Vive does a ‘pretty’ good job. The outside is clad with sensors that help the base stations (which we come to below) track your exact location within the virtual space, and comes with a supported head strap that should take some of the weight off the front of your face. The strap is easily adjustable again thanks to the use of Velcro, and users can adjust the distance between the eyes via a little dial on the side of the headset. All this should provide users with something that’s comfortable on the face, and can be used for a long period of time with no complaints (which in our experience, it has).

As well as receiving the headset, HTC also provides users with two handheld controllers. The controllers are nothing like the Xbox One controller provided with the Oculus Rift, but instead are designed to be versatile and used in a number of different ways in the virtual world. The controllers’ feature triggers, a touch-enabled circular panel and a couple of physical buttons with the built-in sensors allowing the controllers to be tracked in the virtual space almost perfectly. This allows users to reach out and directly interact with objects in the virtual world, which is a fascinating experience and one that is incredibly hard to describe.

The only real downside to the design of the HTC Vive is that it’s wired and not wireless. When we went hands-on with a pre-release HTC Vive, we actually tripped over the wire and damaged the cable connecting the headset to the PC – not an ideal situation, especially for consumers. HTC have combatted this issue with the consumer HTC Vive by featuring a camera on the headset that can be toggled on and off, allowing users to observe the physical world on top of the virtual world. This means if you feel the cable wrapping around your leg, simply look down and you can untangle yourself without having to take the headset off. That’s just one example of course, but the idea is simple. Simple, but effective.

However, the inclusion of such a heavy duty cable is still disappointing. You can always feel the cable running down your back and in fast paced games or games that require you to constantly turn, it’s easy to get tangled. We accept that the technology isn’t quite there yet and it’s both too expensive and too difficult to create a lightweight wireless headset, but we feel that until it does, room scale VR won’t be as immersive as it can be. You can be shooting robots or working in a 2050 office simulation and either way if you feel that cable wrap around your leg, it’ll ruin the magic of the experience – in our case anyway.

Read next: Best VR headsets to buy in the UK 2016

HTC Vive review: Features and spec

The HTC Vive features a beautifully high-resolution display (2160x1200) which when split across two eyes equates to two gorgeous 1080x1200 displays. The HTC Vive provides one of the best virtual viewing experiences out of all the headsets we’ve gone eyes-on with so far (although we’re yet to see the consumer version of the Oculus Rift), with no real lens distortion or pixelation issues. The 90Hz refresh rate provides users with a beautifully smooth video feed, which helps to make the overall experience more immersive.

The VR headset itself features more than 70 sensors, which help the headset to track your head movement to 1/10 of a degree. This means that even the smallest head tilts are picked up by the headset and replicated in the virtual world with no lag whatsoever.

However, it’s not just the headset that tracks your movement. As briefly mentioned above, the HTC Vive also comes with two base stations that’ll track your physical location in a 15x15ft space (it can be smaller for those with less space, don’t worry!) enabling users to physically walk around the virtual environment and interact in a way that isn’t possible with the likes of the Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR. The tracking is instant, and really makes the experience what it is – especially when playing fast paced shooting games where you’re constantly moving around, ducking and running.

It gets the adrenaline going and helps to trick your senses into believing it’s a real experience. For example, we played a futuristic shooting game called Space Pirate Trainer where you battle increasingly difficult waves of flying robots. Instead of being stationary, we found ourselves ducking and diving and running from side to side avoiding bullets and returning fire. It was a surreal experience, and we completely forgot that we were playing a game – we jumped quite quickly to the side at one point during the experience (to avoid a barrage of bullets of course), and almost crashed into a physical wall. It’s almost too immersive, and a slight shock when you do come back to the real world.

Let’s say, for example, you’re in your virtual world shooting zombies and having a generally great time, and you get a text/call/notification. Usually, you’d have to take the headset off (thus ruining the immersive experience) and check your phone, but the HTC Vive features Bluetooth connectivity and can connect to your smartphone. This means that any calls/notifications can be displayed in the virtual world, meaning you don’t need to take the headset off to look at your phone – you can even reply to text messages using pre-defined replies. HTC thought a lot about the user experience and how people will interact with VR, and this is just one of many features that make the HTC Vive system incredibly user-friendly.

Read next: Best gaming PCs for virtual reality

HTC Vive review: Setup

HTC Vive packaging

Before we go any further, it’s worth discussing the setup of the HTC Vive – an area that many gamers may excitedly overlook. When you first receive the HTC Vive system you’re prompted to download the setup software from the Vive website and follow the on-screen instructions. The setup explains all the different components of the system – from the headset to the base stations and controllers – and guides you through setting them up, one by one. As well as that, it installs Vive software on your PC and also adds the SteamVR software to Steam (if it’s already installed – if not, Steam will be installed first).

The first (and only real issue) we had during setup was where to place the base stations, an issue that we think many gamers will have during setup. You’re provided with two mounting kits that allow you to attach the base stations to walls, but it’s not something that we wanted to do. Attaching a base station to the wall is a very permanent solution, and doesn’t give gamers the option to easily move the setup if/when needed.

Thankfully the base stations can also be screwed into tripods and light stands, which is what we opted for because we could easily adjust the position, angle and height of the base stations, and is what we recommend for prospective buyers. It also means that if a reflective object (like a TV, mirror, etc) affects the base station tracking – something that users wouldn’t notice until later in the setup – the base stations can be easily moved to a different position.

You also have to set up your play area, be it a large space (or ‘Room scale’ as HTC refers to it) or a standing space for those with limited space. While we thought it’d be a fairly long-winded process, we were surprised at just how easy it was to measure and set up your play space. Once you’ve decided whether you want standing or room scale VR, you have to first show the base stations where the ground is by placing both controllers on the floor.

Once you’ve calibrated the floor, you then have to trace the play area with one of the controllers by holding the rear-facing trigger key. It’s as simple as walking around the edges of the play area to map it out, and the vibration of the controller provides tracking feedback. An Advanced Mode provides users with the option of simply mapping out the four corners of the play area, though both methods yield the same result. Once you’ve mapped out the area, it’ll be analysed by the software and you’ll be shown your active play area on-screen.

You’ll then be prompted to put the headset on where a Portal-esque robot will take you through the basics of using the HTC Vive including how to access the Steam menu and how to use various aspects of the controllers. Once you’ve gone through the fairly simple tutorial, you’re ready to start downloading and playing games in room-scale virtual reality.

HTC Vive review: SteamVR and Virtual Reality content

Content is a vital part of the survival of any new technology, and the same rule applies to the HTC Vive. Steam is the go-to place for HTC Vive compatible content mainly due to the fact that Valve, the company that owns Steam partnered with HTC to create the Vive initially. Considering that the HTC Vive has (at the time of writing) only been readily available for around a month, there is already a decent collection of VR-ready games and experiences available on Steam for prices starting at only £0.79.

There are many amazing arcade-esque games available on Steam (some of which we go into more detail below) that will keep gamers entertained for days, but we’re not so sure about weeks. Many of the HTC Vive games we’ve played so far have been wave-based and while that provides a game that is initially a lot of fun to play, we imagine that over the course of days and weeks we’ll get bored of shooting the same waves of robots over and over again.

Steam Store VR content

Essentially, we’re yet to see an AAA blockbuster HTC Vive game that is a must-have for VR gamers. As mentioned above, the Vive has only been available for a month and we imagine that there will be many HTC Vive related game announcements throughout 2016, but as it stands right now, the variety isn’t there. There isn’t even a HTC Vive-enabled VR horror game at the time of writing, arguably one of the most entertaining (and scary) uses for VR. Don’t get us wrong – the content available at the moment looks glorious and excites us for the future of VR gaming, but it’s not quite there yet.

It’s also worth mentioning that not all VR-compatible games will work with the HTC Vive as developers have to include specific support for the headset, base stations, and controllers. This means that in the same way that Sony and Microsoft have PlayStation and Xbox exclusive releases, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive may have games and experiences unique to one platform. While it’s early days and the variety across the platforms is broadly similar, we imagine that the battle to get exclusives will only increase over time. Besides, games designed for VR headsets like the Xbox One controller enabled Oculus Rift won’t necessarily translate well to the likes of the room-scale HTC Vive.

Read next: The most anticipated games of 2016

HTC Vive review: The experience

The virtual reality experience provided by the HTC Vive is hands down the best we’ve ever experienced, providing a level of immersion not matched by the likes of the Oculus Rift. The ability to not only look around a virtual environment but walk around, bend down and interact with objects on the floor essentially tricks the senses and while you may feel self-conscious when you first put the headset on, you’ll forget where you are within seconds and be transported to the virtual world around you.

While we admittedly haven’t used the consumer version of the Oculus Rift, we’ve used the older developer kits on multiple occasions and know roughly the kind of experience the headset provides. With that being said, we feel that using a standard Xbox One controller to interact with a VR world is counter-intuitive, and the bespoke controllers provided with the HTC Vive combined with room scale tracking enables a much more natural way to interact with the virtual world.

With that being said, it’s important to explain that there are different types of games available for the HTC Vive depending on the size of your play area; Room scale, standing, and controller based. Room scale is the best way to play in our opinion, but it requires a lot of space – something that not everybody will have in their homes. However, if you do manage to set up a Room scale play area you’ll be able to walk around the virtual space and make the most of what the HTC Vive room-scale tracking has to offer.

Next up is standing only – the option for gamers with small bedrooms. While you can still reach out and interact with the environment with your HTC Vive controllers, duck to avoid bullets, etc, you can’t really physically walk around (due to the lack of space). We felt more conscious of the limited space around us in this mode and didn’t want to reach out as far in fear of hitting something near us in real life. It’s also worth noting that some games on Steam require a room scale play area and that these games won’t work in standing only mode.

The third type of game is controller based, and while you can look around in your virtual world, you can’t do much else without an Xbox One controller. This includes moving, interacting with the environment and all the other fun things you can physically do with a room-scale VR game. As mentioned above, the generic controller approach doesn’t translate well to VR in our opinion, and it’d be interesting to see how developers code in support for the Vive controllers over time.

Essentially, you need a decent amount of room to really get the most out of the HTC Vive.

But what’s it like to play? We spent some time playing the top-rated HTC Vive games/experiences/whatever you want to call them, and here’s what we found:

Space Pirate Trainer

Space Pirate Trainer on the HTC Vive

Space Pirate Trainer has to be our favourite wave-based shooter available for the HTC Vive at the moment, and will take something special to knock it off the top spot. The idea of the game is fairly simple – armed with a combination of guns and shields, you have to take down increasingly difficult waves of flying robotic enemies.

We put the headset on and found ourselves on a huge open platform with a spaceship parked behind us – a pretty cool backdrop for a futuristic shooter. The graphics are impressive in Space Pirate Trainer and although it’s not quite life like, once the action starts you won’t even notice. Looking down at our hands, we noticed that our controllers had been transformed into guns complete with five firing modes for different play styles. We had a shield too, but we had to physically reach behind our back (where we imagine it’d be stored) to grab it and activate it, and we had to perform the same action to put it back. Though it’s a relatively small detail, it’s the little ways that developers make you interact with the game that makes you believe that it’s ‘real’.

Once the game started, we completely forgot that we were in a room in an office in London – in our mind, we were on a different planet shooting floating robots, and it was amazing. The aiming took a little bit of getting used to but seeing the robots explode as we unleashed a barrage of bullets was exciting, and the fact that the robots can attack from all angles (including above you!) kept us on our toes and moving around the virtual space. When the aliens returned fire time slowed down, allowing us to perform moves (in our mind) similar to Neo in that famous scene in The Matrix. It’s exhilarating, exciting and the increasing difficulty means you’ll keep coming back for another try.

Tiltbrush

Tiltbrush is a Google creation and offers something slightly different to the typical VR experience, but is exciting and fun nonetheless. There aren’t any enemies to battle or puzzles to solve in Tiltbrush – the only thing to do is draw. However, it’s not just drawing on a piece of paper, it’s drawing in a three-dimensional space, allowing us to look around or even walk through our creations. The Vive controllers are transformed into a futuristic paintbrush and pallet, and we could browse the different menus, brushes and colours by swiping the touch-sensitive panel of the controller.

Drawing in 3D is an amazingly cool experience only improved by the selection of amazing brushes on offer, from Neon (or ‘Light’ as it’s called in-app) to Hypercolour and even fire. Many of the brushes on offer are animated which meant that once our drawing was complete, it looked ‘alive’ with pulsing electricity and mini fireworks firing into the virtual sky above us (or whatever else you can draw!). Even for those that can’t draw, it’s an amazingly fun experience and that reinvents something we all love deep down and brings back some of the joy of drawing and colouring.

The Blu

The Blu: Reef Migration

The Blu is without a doubt one of the most breath-taking and frankly beautiful VR experiences we’ve come across using the HTC Vive, and is one that we imagine won’t be beaten for quite some time. There are three different experiences within The Blu; Whale encounter, Reef Migration and Luminous Abyss.

In terms of sheer beauty, the Reef Migration experience is the best – we found ourselves at what looked like the Great Barrier Reef in clear water with the sun shining high above us. A variety of tropical fish swam past us and when we reached out with the controller to touch them, they swam away – as any fish would. The fish were soon replaced by a bloom of Jellyfish (yes, that’s the right term to use!) that looked both detailed and vibrant, along with two or three frankly huge jellyfish that swam above our heads. While the detail was incredible, what’s more incredible is the sheer sense of scale that the game achieves – we felt anxious as the jellyfish, which was easily 10 times our size, swam above our heads even though we knew that it wasn’t real. It’s an incredible experience and is one that is very hard to put into words.

We won’t spoil the other two experiences, but Whale Encounter transports you to a shipwreck on the edge of an underwater cliff and Luminous Abyss places you at the bottom of the ocean in the dark armed only with a torch for light. Both are equally as enjoyable as Reef Migration, but for different reasons. The Blu is in our opinion the greatest VR experience available right now, and we’d recommend trying it if you get the chance.

HTC Vive: Specs

  • High resolution 2160x1200 display
  • 90Hz
  • More than 70 sensors, tracks movement to 1/10 degree
  • Bluetooth connectivity for notifications
  • Front-facing camera
  • Base stations, allowing you to walk around in VR
  • Controllers that allow you to interact with environments
  • High resolution 2160x1200 display
  • 90Hz
  • More than 70 sensors, tracks movement to 1/10 degree
  • Bluetooth connectivity for notifications
  • Front-facing camera
  • Base stations, allowing you to walk around in VR
  • Controllers that allow you to interact with environments

OUR VERDICT

The HTC Vive is an amazingly capable virtual reality headset that provides an experience unrivalled by its competitors with room-scale tracking and bespoke handheld controllers. Tracking is instant and when combined with a high-resolution 90Hz display provides a smooth experience that’s easy on the eye and looks ‘real’. The content may be a little scarce at the moment, but we imagine there will be a wide variety of apps and games available for the HTC Vive by the end of 2016. Now, while the HTC Vive is no doubt an amazing virtual reality headset, we couldn’t quite decide on a verdict. With that being said, we’ve decided to split it into three different verdicts for different kinds of people:

For PC gamers: If you’ve already got a fairly capable PC, an interest in gaming and the money to afford the HTC Vive, we’d recommend investing. It’s exciting, new and provides something unmatched by the likes of standard gaming and watching TV. Being able to walk around and directly interact the virtual environment around you is amazing, and beats the experience provided by many of its competitors. It’s worth having a little think about where you’d play before purchasing though, as the Vive is best used in large, clutter-free spaces.

For casual users: If you’re a casual VR user or gamer, it’s a little more difficult. Yes, the experience is amazing but you need to consider whether you’ll be using it often enough to justify the £689 price tag and the (possible) required computer hardware upgrades. If time isn’t an issue, we’d recommend waiting until the PlayStation VR launches in October and looking at that a little more closely – the £300 headset and ~£200 console are all you need to get started, which is cheaper than the HTC Vive system itself.

For first-time users: If you’re a person that has never used VR before and doesn’t already have a decent PC, you may want to hold fire – at least until you’ve tried it. While VR is exciting, it’s not for everybody so we’d recommend going to one of the stores listed at the top of the article to try it out for yourself before you buy. It’s such a personal experience that no amount of reading will give you a fully accurate idea of what it’s like to use. It’s also worth keeping the price in mind - £689 may not seem too expensive to high-end PC gamers as they already have a powerful enough PC to run VR games, but those that don’t should consider that they’ll either have to upgrade their current PC or buy a brand new VR-capable PC. Either way, it’s something that’ll cost a fair bit of money and is worth debating beforehand.

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