HTC’s Vive Flow is by far the lightest VR headset on the market, but should anyone actually buy it?
While many hoped for a direct Quest 2 competitor, HTC describes Flow as mostly passive “immersive glasses” for media viewing, casual games, and “on the go wellness”. But is it worth the $499 price? And who exactly is it for? Read on to find out.
To start, you can only use Flow with a very specific list of Android phones. HTC told us it’s “looking into” iPhone and Laptop support, but there’s no concrete timeline for either.
Flow is a wired device with a female USB Type-C connector, but the cable is used for power rather than data (other than to sideload content). HTC says you can use almost any USB port to power it, including laptops, phones, and those offered by trains, planes, and hotel rooms. I found any port I tried worked.
The limited phone compatibility comes from using Miracast to wirelessly stream your phone to a virtual screen in VR. To support other phones, HTC would need to use a cable which, without a new adapter, would force you to use your phone as the power source.
Comfort, Visuals, Audio, Tracking
At just 189 grams, Flow is the lightest headset you can buy in the west. You can still feel weight against your nasal bridge but it’s significantly reduced compared to headsets like Quest 2.
What’s less comfortable than other headsets is the rigid arms. While they remove the need for a top strap, they put uncomfortable pressure on the side of larger heads. I did find this got better with each passing day though, presumably as the arms stretched over time.
The fabric gasket which blocks the peripheral light from your real room attaches magnetically. It can be detached and replaced with a nose insert. This actually feels more comfortable, and is even preferable for situations where immersion doesn’t matter. Bright lights in the room can reflect in the lenses though.
The requirement to be tethered to a power source restricts your movement and keeps Flow a purely seated device. You can use a power pack to stand, but the cable still feels like an impediment.
Flow doesn’t accommodate glasses, because it has per-lens diopter adjustment instead. You simply twist the ridge of each lens. I don’t wear glasses, but had family who do try this and they said it worked, providing a clear image.
While the 1600×1600 LCD displays are technically lower resolution than Quest 2, the slightly narrower field of view means the visual quality is actually very similar. What isn’t similar though is the stability. Like with Varjo Aero, I noticed geometric distortion when rotating my head that makes the virtual world not feel solid.
The quality of the built-in audio is surprisingly good given the small size of the speakers, but the sound of the cooling fan is often distracting. Thankfully Bluetooth audio is fully supported for private listening and I didn’t experience connection issues with it.
Unlike Oculus Go (Facebook’s 2018 take on the VR media viewer concept) Flow has positional tracking, enabled by two greyscale cameras. But whereas the inside-out tracking on Quest 2 and Windows headsets like HP Reverb G2 feel solid and consistent, Flow’s tracking feels swimmy and sometimes even seems to bounce. Worse, looking directly up at the ceiling often causes a “positional tracking lost” error.
Double tapping the button on the headset toggles camera passthrough, but as with Quest 2 the view is black & white with low resolution. Flow comfortably rests on the top of your head though, a much better way to quickly see reality.
Phone As Controller
There’s no other way to say it, Flow’s input scheme is clunky.
When wearing the headset your phone, if unlocked, acts as a rotational laser pointer via Bluetooth. The touchscreen is split into four sections, System Menu, Select, “Trigger”, and App Menu. You can also perform swipe gestures.
I get why HTC chose the phone approach. Flow is meant to suit a travelling-light lifestyle and a controller would be one more thing to carry and keep charged. But since you can’t actually see either your phone or fingers inside VR, and the phone isn’t positionally tracked, and you can’t feel out virtual buttons, I sometimes found myself pressing the wrong thing.
Worse, some apps (including some of HTC’s own!) place panels and controls at steep angles, requiring you to either awkwardly bend your wrist or recenter the controller. Ugh.
HTC says controller-free hand tracking will arrive at some point in the future. Some people dislike current hand tracking tech as it doesn’t provide haptic feedback and lacks thumbsticks, but given Flow’s mostly-passive content focus I think it would be ideal. In fact, given how clunky the phone controller experience is, I’m puzzled why HTC didn’t wait for hand tracking before launching this product.
Software, Content, Performance
Flow runs a modified version of Android. The spartan system menu has four sections: Store, Library, Phone (streaming), and Settings.
Streaming your phone screen via Miracast is Flow’s headline feature. It connects quickly without issue and both the quality and latency feel great for apps like Netflix and YouTube. This is Flow at its best. It’s your phone, but on a much much larger (virtual) screen.
Using native VR apps from the store, however, is a far less impressive experience. Most of these apps feel like what we saw in the Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR era, with only a handful of true gems.
Flow uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR1 chip, which is significantly less powerful than the XR2 found in Quest 2 and Vive Focus 3. I mentioned in my hands-on preview that none of the apps I tried seemed to maintain 75 frames per second. Unfortunately that’s still the case in almost all the apps on the Viveport Flow store.
The combination of low framerate, swimmy tracking, and lens distortion means Flow just isn’t great for immersive experiences. The exception here is 360 videos – if you’re a fan of this content format Flow is a comfortable way to view.
What’s sorely missing is a Virtual Desktop like app to view your PC screen in VR. Better yet, HTC could support laptops in place of your phone, automatically booting into a virtual desktop when plugged in for both data and power. Right now there is no PC integration at all.
Who Is Flow For?
So I’ve described the experience of using Flow, but the question remains: who exactly is this product for?
There are a few small niches I can see it appealing to: people who live in shared accommodation with no space for their own TV, and people who frequently travel by plane or train to stay in hotel rooms. For these people, Flow would be a portable personal cinema. At $499 few could truly justify Flow, but if future similar products can reach much lower prices this could become a real sub-market of VR.
For everyone else, Flow feels like a concept without a purpose. If you have regular access to a TV and don’t travel often I really can’t find a reason you’d want one. At least not yet.