Two years ago HTC Vive beat Oculus Rift to market with a more complete package, helping inspire developers who were able to create groundbreaking virtual worlds in which people could use their hands to interact and feet to move around larger spaces. Now, just days after we saw Oculus Rift widen its lead over Vive in Steam usage, we see the release of the Vive Pro HMD with its marquee feature being a major bump in resolution.The headset is an $800 upgrade for people who already own a Vive. For people getting Vive for the first time, starting April 5 the upgraded Pro headset packaged with the original controllers and tracking equipment will be priced around $1,100.
HTC says the headset has the same minimum specification as the original Vive, but based on hands-on time with Vive Pro, buyers likely want a higher end graphics card to get the most out of the headset.While we were able to run Vive Pro using a GTX 1060, there was enough aliasing in the resulting image to negate the additional resolution. The experience was much better on a GTX 1080. We also found it impractical to run the headset from a 1080-equipped gaming laptop with HDMI out. The Vive Pro eschews an HDMI connection in favor of Displayport, and the Thunderbolt 3 Dock/laptop combination we tried had compatibility issues with the headset (it worked, but with a frequent variety of glitches and failures).
Facebook’s Oculus Rift costs just under $480 for a similar room-scale setup (i.e. with a third sensor), great hand controllers and good integrated audio. Plus, Rift still has a major advantage in high end content availability, drawing from both the Oculus Store and Steam.Where does Vive Pro sit in the market relative to that? Here’s a breakdown taking a look at the visuals, audio and fitting of the Vive Pro.
Vive Pro seems to have the same lenses as the original Vive. They have concentric rings becoming less visible toward the center of each lens. At the outside these circles are more visible and the lens distorts the virtual scene so that, if you point your eyes directly at the edge of a lens instead of its center, what you see there can be blurry and distorted. The Rift uses a modified kind of lens that hides these circles, but both kinds catch light in such a way that distracting “god rays” spread across your view in different ways. In Vive Pro, these are most visible from the outward moving in toward where the circles disappear.
When combined with the increased resolution, the overall impression I took away from Vive Pro’s visuals is one of much-increased clarity when pointing your eyes straight ahead as compared with Rift and Vive — with a dramatically reduced screen-door effect. But without new lenses, the increased resolution is less meaningful near the edges of the lenses where god rays and circles distort your view of the virtual world. When talking about content it is difficult to make broad statements since there is such a wide variety of art styles to VR apps and many devs haven’t optimized their software for the higher resolution and have little or no incentive to exploit the higher resolution available on the Vive Pro (especially while balancing the need to maintain a good experience on Vive and Rift). Generally speaking, the resolution upgrade delivers increased clarity in the overall scene and this clarity is most noticeable as objects move into the distance, like arrows flying in The Lab or rockets leaving smoke trails in Space Pirate Trainer. It is simply wonderful to suddenly see objects and details you never could before.
Apps that were able to run with high antialiasing settings or supersampling multiples, such as The Lab, showed much more significant gains than those that strained the GPU’s resources at the higher resolution and exhibited more aliasing as a result. Text was much clearer and more legible in the Steam VR Dashboard and when viewing a 2560×1440 desktop in Virtual Desktop. The panels used in Vive Pro are the same resolution as Samsung Odyssey, and both headsets provide a level of sharpness that’s just not present on Vive or Rift. I didn’t, however, have an Odyssey on hand for side-by-side comparisons. I believe the difference in visuals between these two headsets might be most affected by how well you can get the headset fitted. I’ll have more on fitting later in this review, but it is worth noting that the Odyssey and Vive Pro both have similar panels, lenses, headphones, headband, as well as two front-facing cameras. And Vive Pro costs more than twice as much.
Vive Pro features on-ear headphones that fit right only once you’ve done a good job adjusting the top strap and tightening the dial on the back. In side-by-side tests switching from Rift to Vive Pro it was obvious that, while it could get very loud, the Pro’s audio lacked bass compared to the Rift’s built-in headphones. When asked, HTC said this is a known issue on “some titles” and they are working with “both developers and our engineering team to address.” But even just setting up the Vive Pro as a USB audio device (disabling Steam VR) and listening to a song on YouTube, then doing the same thing with a Rift gave the impression that the Rift’s audio, which has been standard since 2016, is much better than Vive Pro’s in 2018.There is a hidden USB-C plug, though, and the earphones are removable. So you should be able to use a USB-C-to-3.5 mm adapter to add your own wired solution (we haven’t had the chance to test this yet). Or just use wireless headphones (although that can introduce latency which may interfere with spatialized audio).
How well a VR headset fits can have a huge effect on both the quality of the sound someone hears and visuals they see. In Samsung’s Odyssey, the fitting can be hard to get right and that can have a major negative effect on the visuals. In Vive Pro, the tightening dial, cord management and weight distribution are all dramatic improvements over the original — allowing for crisp visuals when fitted right. It’s challenging, though, to get the on-ear headphones to sit low enough so that they cover your ears optimally (the trick is to adjust the tightness dial first, then the top strap). They also sit lightly on your ear, and sound isolation and clarity improves noticeably when they are pressed artificially closer with your hands, so we wish they held themselves a bit tighter against the ear.
Whether worn as intended and resting next to your ear, or held artificially close to compare pure sound quality, the Rift was the clear winner. When properly adjusted the HMD sits solidly on the head and is quite comfortable. We were impressed that eyeglasses fit easily into the Vive Pro mask that fit very poorly in the Rift and original Vive. It is still heavy enough that it gets enough momentum going to slide out of the sweet spot during dramatic head movements in experiences that encourage rapid movement like Box VR. The headband is hinged at the front in such a way that it is easy to put the Vive Pro on by holding the HMD up to your eyes and pulling the band down over your head like a hat. However, the location of the hinge makes it impossible to flip up the headset to check on the real world, and difficult to pull it away from your face for a quick peek. You’re meant to rely on the built-in front-facing cameras for that.
When Vive originally launched it included a camera (absent from Rift) and the promise of phone integration so you wouldn’t be disconnected from the real world and completely unavailable while in VR. Two years later, these features languish. Most Vive owners don’t know there’s a phone app they could theoretically download to connect their device while in VR, and I have yet to see anything significant done with that onboard camera. Now there are two of those onboard cameras and it is still unclear what they might be used for (though HTC claims they can be used for primitive hand-tracking and more).
What’s frustrating, though, is that even after two years Vive Pro doesn’t do anything to make VR more accessible. It’s not easier to use, nor is it easier to set up. And SteamVR itself is just as unpredictable as ever. One moment you can quickly hook up two Vive Trackers and enjoy full body immersion in Island 359 without any troubles, and the next the headset might be refusing to connect. We set the Vive Pro up on three different PC configurations and each time encountered lots of troubleshooting. HTC is pitching the headset as geared toward the most demanding enthusiasts, businesses and prosumers, but it is hard to recommend such a big expenditure unless you truly have the budget and need for it. The visuals and fit are certainly a big improvement over the original Vive, but at over double the cost for a complete kit, along with the necessity of a top-end graphics card and CPU to take advantage of the increased resolution, this is a purchase to consider carefully.
For those with deep pockets and big rooms, Vive Pro is a tempting combination of reliable tracking, crisp visuals and lots of freedom to move however you want in VR. But this means Vive Pro is for a niche within a niche — doing little to lure in new VR buyers while double dipping existing owners for an upgrade. What can an architect or car designer discern about their yet-to-be-made creation from a Vive Pro that they couldn’t from an original Vive or a Rift? The case is shaky for what money a Vive Pro could save, or generate, that these two couldn’t. There is the location-based VR market to consider, and Vive Pro seems like a great fit for a certain kind of VR arcade. Vives are used at arcades like those run by IMAX or Neurogaming, and the better headband and visuals on Vive Pro could be a great addition for those kinds of locations. But HTC’s launch for Vive Pro lacks any details about a “professional use” license so business owners and developers can use the headset at venues like arcades, malls or conferences. While the original Vive is now $500 for the complete package, a “Business Edition” you can use at arcades with a longer cord and dedicated phone support costs $1,200. HTC said details would be forthcoming later this month regarding Vive Pro “professional use” licenses.
Priced for a niche within a niche, Vive Pro is suited only for those with a dedicated space for VR and no budget constraints.