The HTC Vive Review

What's In The HTC Vive Box

The box that the Vive comes packaged in is, in a word, large. It's substantially bigger than the Vive Pre's container. This turned out to be a life-saver. When the kit showed up on my doorstep, its cardboard was in dicey condition. But the inner box had several inches of buffer space protecting the actual hardware from harm.

HTC is all about presentation here, dressing the box up with a bow around it. When you lift the top off, you find a large "Get Started" guide that talks about some of the preparation you'll need to do before configuring the Vive. Under the guide, the HMD is packed in a surprising amount of soft foam. Rest assured that it'd take a deliberate act of sabotage to damage HTC's headset during shipping.

The two controllers and the Lighthouse base stations fit snugly in form-fitting foam, and the headset is in its own foam-lined compartment. Underneath the controllers, there's a compartment with the charge/sync cables and two AC-to-USB chargers. These come in handy if you don't have two available USB ports. Unlike many other products that charge through USB, HTC doesn't assume you have extra phone chargers lying around. The box for the base stations includes power cables for each unit and a 50-foot-long sync cable. HTC also includes a pair of speaker mounts for the base stations and hardware to affix them to the wall.

The HMD and its pre-attached cables sit somewhat loose in the large compartment. You'll need the Link Box to plug the system in to a computer, and that's found inside a small blue container in the upper-right corner of the Vive package, along with its power cord, a USB 3.0 cable and a four-foot HDMI cable. You'll also find instructions for the system in there, bundled earbuds and a second face gasket that helps folks with smaller heads accommodate the Vive. 

You'll also get some content with your Vive. Every unit comes with codes for Owelchemy Labs' Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption from Northway Games and Google's Tilt Brush. Valve also has a set of free mini games called The Lab that provide more than a dozen examples of what you can do with VR. 

The Vive HMD

The Vive is a head-mounted VR display that provides a fully immersive gaming and entertainment experience. You slip it on like a pair of ski goggles, and are transported to a new world of virtual reality. And compared to Oculus' Rift, this system lets you get up out of your seat and explore.

HTC's take on an HMD isn't as elegant as the Rift. Whereas Oculus spent the time, effort and money to engineer a specialty fabric to cover the exterior of the headset, HTC and Valve make the shell out of hard molded plastic. The Vive's shape is also peculiar. I've heard it described as golf ball-like, and in some ways that's fairly accurate. The front is mostly rounded--bulbous, even—and it is pockmarked with indentations. These round "blemishes" house the array of IR sensors used for tracking the headset.

Inside the Vive, you'll find two large Fresnel lenses. Their shape is somewhat odd: rather than being round, there is one flat side on each lens that lines up with the general angle of your nose. This is likely so that the lenses can be placed closer together for people with narrow interpupillary distances (IPD) without sacrificing lens size. Also, the lenses that HTC is using have prominent concentric rings throughout. These correspond to the different stages of focus characteristic of Fresnel lenses. The Rift's optics employ these as well, but they're much less noticeable. This might sound disconcerting, perhaps more so because the rings are visible when you look at the lenses from afar. But they aren't really bothersome with the lenses close to your eyes.

The Vive implements a number of adjustments to make your experience as comfortable as possible. First, there's an IPD dial on the right side of the headset, near the front. When you spin it, the lenses and screens move together to line up with your IPD. The headset allows customization between 60.8mm and 74.6mm. Conveniently, you can twist the dial at any given time, and you'll see an on-screen dialog that lists the current distance in millimeters, right down to the first decimal place. You can adjust the Rift's IPD on the fly too, but you must enter a specific app to see the actual measurement.

In addition to IPD dial, the Vive features a length adjustment that HTC calls the “relief” adjustment. It allows you to change lens depth, more easily accommodating gamers with glasses. Manipulating this relief setting requires turning two dials together (they're found on the head strap swivels; there’s a small gray dial hidden in the design). Simply pull the rings away from the headset to unlock the adjustment, and turn them to alter the screen depth. Once you find the sweet spot, lock them up again to keep them from shifting out of place. Just note that HTC recommends keeping changes to the relief adjustment as small as possible, since moving the lenses back affects your field of view. At best, the Vive has a 110-degree FOV, but that narrows the deeper you set the lens depth.

Without the fabric that Oculus adds to the inside of the Rift, covering the IPD adjustment mechanism, there will always be a gap between the Vive's lenses and casing. This could let dust through over time, and it doesn't appear to be easily cleaned.

Fortunately, HTC does take into account that its customers have heads with different shapes and sizes. The company includes a second face gasket with thicker foam to accommodate smaller heads. To replace the installed gasket, simply peel it off the Vive. It is held in place with a Velcro strip that is easy to swap out in a matter of seconds.

The Vive employs very similar panels as Oculus' Rift. Each eye gets its own 90Hz AMOLED display with a resolution of 1080x1200. Valve and HTC essentially take the same position as Oculus when it comes to a minimum specification for comfortable use. John Carmack, CTO of Oculus, told Gamasutra in 2014 that 90Hz is the sweet spot where roughly 95% of people don’t notice screen flicker in an HMD.

A little bird told us that the Vive's panels are actually the same as what Oculus' Rift uses, but we don't know for sure because detailed parts break-downs aren't yet available (and no, we're not ready to take either headset apart yet).

HTC Vive Box Contents
HardwareVive HMD with integrated camera and mic
Base Stations for tracking (2)
Base Station mounting kits (2)
Link Box (cable breakout box with optional Mini DisplayPort out, Bluetooth wireless connection to base stations & cell phone)
In-ear stereo headphones with 30cm cord
Power3m Base Station power adapters (2)
1.2m Link Box power adapter
Cables5m HMD 3-in-1 cable (HDMI 1.4/USB 2.0/audio, attached)
1m HDMI 1.4 cable (Link Box to PC)
1m USB 2.0 cable (Link Box to PC)
~15m Optional Base Station sync cable
ControlsVive wireless controllers with lanyard (2)
For charging:
Controller power adapters (2)
Controller micro USB cables (2)
MiscellaneousCleaning cloth
Additional interchangeable foam face cushion (narrow)
Link box mounting pad
DownloadableFantastic Contraption game
Job Simulator game
The Lab game
(mini-game collection)
Tilt Brush application

Bulky Yet Comfortable

The Vive headset is both bulkier and heavier than the Rift. Its front measures 7.5 inches across and five inches top to bottom. It also sticks out roughly 3.5 inches beyond the center of your forehead, and with the relief adjusted all the way out, it's roughly five inches. The Vive doesn’t have built-in speakers though, so the faceplate is the headset's widest point.

Further, with the cables disconnected, the Vive weighs 563g compared to the Rift's 470g. This increase is noticeable switching from one HMD to the other, but once the Vive is on your head, it's far less palpable. HTC includes a three-point harness that helps balance the Vive's weight comfortably on your head. In the rear, two side straps and the overhead strap join together in an oval-shaped section. This shape has two purposes: first, it applies pressure low on your skull, similar to the Rift's harness, and second, the large opening lets you wear the headset with a pony tail. You can do that with the Rift too, but your cascading hair will occlude some of the LEDs used for tracking. The Vive doesn’t work that way. It instead houses all of the sensors, rather than IR LEDs.

So, unlike the Rift, you won't find anything embedded in the rear strap. As a result, HTC is able to use fabric for the entire harness system. HTC also engineered the harness to balance the overhanging weight closer to your forehead. The anchor point for the head strap is near the front of the unit, thereby keeping some of the weight off your face. And soft foam on the face gasket helps keep the pressure you feel against your face to a minimum.

There’s nothing really special about the adjustment mechanism that HTC uses for the Vive harness. All three straps are made of a fabric material, and they all feature Velcro adjustments. The two side straps are easy enough to tweak on the fly, but be careful when you adjust the upper strap. The data and video cables run over your head, directly above this strap, making it difficult to access quickly if you need to make an in-game adjustment. If you tug too hard on the cables, we've seen the display cut out briefly.

That's A Big Cable

The Vive communicates with your PC through a USB 3.0 and HDMI video cables, and it's powered through an AC connection to a wall outlet. All three cables are fused together into a wide rubberized tether that's nearly half an inch wide and 16 feet long. This doesn't plug into your PC. Instead, HTC provides a link box, which accepts all three connections. Shorter cables then run from the link box to your PC. The box also lets you plug in a mini-DisplayPort cable in case your graphics card doesn't have a free HDMI output.

The link box cables are only four feet long, but that gives you a little extra distance for the tether, making it easier to reach the ports when you want to put the headset away for a while.

What Else Is Inside?

The Vive doesn’t have its own sound system, and it doesn’t sport integrated headphones. Instead, it employs a pass-through for audio that routes a signal from the HDMI cable to a 3.5mm jack extension. HTC bundles a pair of earbuds that works just fine; there's even a shortened cable so you don't end up battling with excess slack. Alternatively, you can use your own headphones and deal with any extra cable length (a long cord routed over you tends to get in the way more often than the long tether attached to the back of your head).

There is an available USB 3.0 port inside the headset, but it's not especially useful. With the Vive Pre, we received a special extension with a right-angle end that fit perfectly inside the slot. Our retail version doesn't include that cable, and the slot is too shallow for a standard USB cable. Without the extension, it won’t be possible to use a USB headset without an additional tether. That'll also make it difficult to use a Leap Motion controller with the Vive.

There’s A Camera

You'll find a camera on the front of the Vive, facing down at a slight angle. This can be used as a pass-through, letting you see what's around you in the real world. There's only a single lens, so there is no depth perception, but at least you get a glimpse of your surroundings with the headset covering your eyes. The camera also activates a portion of the Chaperone safety system.

Phone Integration

HTC is perhaps best known for its mobile phones. The Vive is its first real attempt at an entertainment device. But the company's experience in other segments gives it some advantages here. For instance, the Vive has provisions for interfacing with your phone. The Link Box has a built-in Bluetooth radio that can receive incoming calls while it's on your head. You can get text messages on-screen as well, so you don't have to pull the Vive on and off to check your phone.

This feature was not enabled during our evaluation period, but HTC plans to have the feature working by the time you read this.

Hands In VR

Despite their conceptual similarities, the Vive is a very different beast than Oculus' Rift. For now, the Rift limits you to mostly seated experiences that use a game pad for input. The Vive can technically be used like this as well, but its default control method for most games is one or both of the included tracked controllers. These are wand-like devices that can be used for a surprising number of natural-feeling interactions. They offer six degrees of freedom (6DoF) and feature several buttons that can be implemented in different ways. A trackpad on the face of the controller is in easy reach of your thumb. And you'll find the menu button directly above the track pad, along with a slightly larger system button below it. This lower button is used to access the SteamVR interface while you're in-game; it's also how you turn the controllers on and off

There are two grip buttons, one on each side. Both are mapped to the same control, so you never have to worry about which one to press. Just squeeze. The back side of the controller features a textured finish and a trigger switch that is pressure-sensitive. In our experience, this is the most frequently used input button for Vive games. It is often used as a trigger for a gun, or simply to grab items in the virtual world. The Vive controllers include force feedback motors that rumble to add a subtle haptic effect.

Each controller has an LED light, found on the top side. The light is blue when the controller is on but not being tracked, and it's green when the tracking is working properly. The status light glows orange as the internal batteries charge.

There's a doughnut-shaped structure on the top of each controller, which houses sensors that detect infrared light and is used to determine position/orientation relative to the two base stations.

Early incarnations of the Vive controllers communicated directly with the PC through a receiver, but HTC changed the design for the Vive Pre and final retail version. Now the controllers interface wirelessly with the headset itself, and all of the tracking information is sent to the PC through the HMD's USB connection.

The Vive controllers are much larger than Oculus' Touch prototype, but I won't say they're bulky. From tip to tip, the controllers are a little over eight inches long, and the sensor array is four inches at its widest. The controllers were designed to fit comfortably in your hands, and they are evenly balanced. Each controller weighs 203g. For comparison, a PS4 controller weights 217g and the Xbox One controller that Oculus bundles with the Rift is 263g.

The Base Stations

Tracked controllers are exciting, and they allow for incredible experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, but they aren't unique to the Vive. The Rift will have its Touch controllers out later this year, and even Sony is implementing Move controllers with its upcoming PSVR system. Tracked controllers go hand in hand with VR (pun intended), and every platform will support them eventually.

What really sets the Vive apart from the other HMDs is its ability to facilitate moving around with one-to-one tracking. HTC is selling the depth of immersion, such that you'll be able to walk up to something for a better view or dodge bullets by stepping out of the way. HTC and Valve call this concept of moving around "room-scale VR," and the key to it is occlusion-free tracking with IR sensors.

The base stations for the HTC Vive sit in opposing corners of a room, facing each other at a slight angle towards the ground. One base station emits an array of horizontal infrared light and the opposing one emits a vertical array in the other direction. The sensors on the headset and the two Vive controllers detect these grids of light and send the information to the computer, which is used to triangulate your position in 3D space.

Behind the window on the base station, there's a channel indicator LED and status light that shows if the stations see each other. When the lights are green, they can. If one of the lights is blue, the two stations can't see each other (there is an optional sync cable you can use if that happens).

The base stations feature two tripod/speaker mount threads, one on the rear and the other on the bottom, enabling multiple placement options. The back side is where you’ll find the AC power port, a jack for the optional sync cable, a channel select button and a USB port used for firmware updates. 

Other than communicating with each other, the Vive base stations don't transmit or record any data. They are simply plugged into power. The headset does all the heavy lifting.

HTC Vive Specs
Display Type & SizeDual low-persistence AMOLED (Diamond PenTile subpixel matrix)*
Display SizeTBA
Resolution1200 x 1080 (per eye)
Refresh Rate90Hz
Field of View110-degrees
Lens TypeFresnel
Lens AdjustmentIPD, lens-to-eye distance (“eye-relief” adjustment)
SensorsAccelerometer, gyroscope
Tracking Technology6 DOF Laser-based positioning using "Lighthouse" Base Stations
Integrated CameraYes
AudioMicrophone, jack for external headphones
WirelessBluetooth 4.1 (in Link Box) for Base Stations and cell phone
HMD PortsHDMI 1.4, USB 3.0 x 2
HMD Cable Length5 m (plus 1 m from Link Box to PC)
Materials UsedPlastic, glass, foam rubber
Dimensions~190mm x ~127mm x ~89 – 127mm (W x H x L, length excludes headband, min eye-relief to max eye-relief)
Weight563g (excluding cable)

Vive Controller Specs
InputAnalog trigger, touchpad/d-pad, menu button, system button
Haptic FeedbackEmbedded vibration motors
BatteryInternal Lithium Polymer (LiPo) battery pack (mAh unknown)
Battery Life5+ hours
DimensionsHandle: ~180mm x ~52mm x ~32mm, Sensor Array: ~118mm x ~100mm x 42mm, Overall Length: ~220mm