Oculus Rift vs. HTC Vive: Eight months into the future

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New Atlas has spent the better part of the last year with the Oculus Rift (left) and HTC Vive – this is our latest buying advice(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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Eight months after launch, the most fervent virtual reality enthusiasts have probably already settled on either the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. But maybe you've only tried mobile VR and are considering a splurge for a high-end, PC-based headset? We've been using the Rift and Vive since April, and have a few thoughts on which to buy in this end-of-2016 comparison.

The first thing to know is that both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are outstanding; no other VR today comes close. We beg to differ with those who think Sony's PlayStation VR is worthy of equal consideration: We found its motion-controller-tracking to break the core illusion of virtual reality. If technology obfuscates VR's fundamental mind trick, what's the point?

The two questions we do recommend asking:

  • Do you invest in a PC-based VR setup now or wait another year or two?
  • If you are buying PC-based VR now, do you pick the Rift or Vive?

PC-based virtual reality is very expensive. Either the Rift or Vive, once you include tracking and motion controllers, rings up for around US$800. You'll also need to add a gaming PC, which usually tacks on another $700 or more (in October, Oculus said its partners would soon have $500 Rift-ready PCs, but at the time of publication they aren't yet available).

It isn't clear how long it will take for high-quality VR to fall into more consumer-friendly price ranges. But with an industry full of heavy hitters doing everything in their power to spark consumer interest, it stands to reason the next few years will bring more viable options in the sub-$1,000 (maybe even far below $1,000) range.

If budget is your highest priority, then you're likely better off standing pat. Mobile VR like the Gear VR and Daydream can provide a fix in the meantime.

Assuming you are ready to take the plunge, though, which do you go with? Earlier this year, we unequivocally recommended the HTC Vive. But today we prefer the Oculus Rift. What changed?

Motion controls

Oculus Touch changed, for starters. While we'd been using Facebook's motion controls at press events since mid-2015, their recent consumer launch let us compare them side-by-side with the Vive's controls. This accentuated Touch's superior ergonomics: The smaller controls hug the contours of your hands in ways HTC's accessories don't. This gives you a finer sense of precision in hands-based games and experiences; it's a more elegant way of interacting with virtual objects.

Finger tracking is another advantage for Oculus Touch. Sensors on the controllers' surfaces detect when you lift your real fingers. Your virtual fingers then mirror that movement in real-time.

The Vive controllers (above) are still very good. Their ergonomics aren't bad at all, and when it comes to holding weapons in VR – still the main use of motion controls – they fit the bill perfectly.

Ultimately, though, the best virtual reality is the one that creates the most convincing illusion of being somewhere else. And when it comes to the illusion of having hands, whether bare or holding a pistol, Oculus wins.

Winner: Oculus Rift

Tracking

Both the Rift and Vive have precise tracking that honors VR's core illusion, presenting a stark contrast with Sony's flawed system.

Early this year, the Vive had much better tracking than the Rift due to its 360-degree, room-scale focus. Two mounted base stations (above), which plug into power outlets, allow both headset and controllers to track their positions from anywhere in your space. You're free to move about a large room, with no "right" way to face.

Today the Vive still has superior tracking, but not by as wide a margin.

The Rift launched with one USB-connected camera that tracked in 180°. Adding Oculus Touch improves the Rift's tracking, as it includes a second camera that sits next to the first. Still, it's just better 180° tracking, not full 360° like the Vive; turn your back to the sensors and things get ugly.

Today Oculus offers the option of buying a third optical sensor (above) for $79. It snakes behind you, sitting opposite the first two sensors and enabling 360° tracking on the Rift.

We recently got a third sensor in house, and while its tracking is pitch-perfect for 360° experiences in smaller areas, it doesn't handle larger areas nearly as well as the Vive. For example, our Vive setup is in a 12 x 9 ft. space. The Rift setup in that same area had too many tracking dead zones to work properly. Shrinking the Rift's down to about 8 x 9 ft. worked better, though even then there was one corner where it had problems.

The Vive's 360° tracking has the advantage of requiring zero USB ports to the Rift's three. It also wins on content designed for 360° room-scale: While the Rift's hardware now supports this, the action in most of its current games takes place in one half-pie direction.

Winner: HTC Vive

Room-scale boundaries

This was another big advantage for the Vive in April. In VR, you can't have physical freedom without also having virtual boundaries that let you know when to stop moving. At that time, Oculus hadn't yet announced or demonstrated anything similar for the Rift and Touch.

That changed in the last couple months, as Oculus rolled out its Guardian system, which is essentially the same as Chaperone: get too close to the edge of your playing space, and a gridded wall pops into view, triggering your don't-walk-into-walls instinct.

We prefer the Rift's approach, though, because it lets you create walls that have irregularities jutting in and out. Since the Vive's Chaperone only allows for a rectangle with perfectly-straight lines, Oculus' approach better accommodates imperfect playing spaces.

Winner: Oculus Rift (by a hair)

Audio

The Rift wins on audio, both through ease-of-use and quality. Out of the box, the headset has a pair of headphones attached to the headband: Put on the Rift and audio is already good to go.

With the Vive, you plug in either included earbuds or your own pair of headphones. This is clunkier, as the earphone wires can get tangled with the headset wires and, in the case of the earbuds, you'll have to fumble around to figure out which belongs in each ear. It sounds nitpicky, but tedious tasks like this, when repeated every time you play, can add up to a major annoyance.

Oculus also gives Rift owners the option of getting a significant audio upgrade for only $50. The Oculus Earphones (above) are earbuds that replace the stock headphones, giving you much better-defined audio with clearer separation, a wider soundstage and solid noise isolation. It doesn't dramatically change the VR experience, but great audio is an underestimated factor in feeling like you're somewhere else.

Winner: Oculus Rift

Visuals

In terms of display, we don't notice any significant difference one way or the other. Both headsets have OLED screens that use the same resolution, and roughly the same field of view.

A bigger differentiator in the quality of visuals is your PC's graphics card, with Nvidia's relatively-affordable GTX 1070 and 1080 offering notable upgrades over the minimum-spec GPUs available when the Rift and Vive launched in April.

Winner: Tie

Headset ergonomics

The Rift headset is smaller and lighter, with integrated audio, without sacrificing anything visually. The Vive, while not uncomfortable, is a bulbous contraption.

Winner: Oculus Rift

Room for glasses

The Vive lets you slide its lenses forwards and backwards, to either make space for specs or optimize the field of view. The Rift doesn't do this, and can be uncomfortable with certain glasses.

Winner: HTC Vive

Gamepad content

While Steam sells some gamepad-based games for the Vive, that was never the system's specialty. The Rift launched as a gamepad-only system and the Oculus Store includes some terrific classic-gaming experiences with a AAA feel, like Edge of Nowhere (above), Damaged Core, Chronos and Lucky's Tale.

Winner: Oculus Rift

Standing content

"Standing VR" constitutes primarily-180° experiences where you're upright and can move around, but don't require a large, room-sized space. This is what Oculus Touch was aimed towards until recently, so it's the category most Touch launch games fall into.

While it doesn't quite soar to the heights of room-scale, there's great fun to be had with this semi-mobile form of VR: Superhot (above), Dead & Buried, VR Sports Challenge and the upcoming Robo Recall are all great examples of 180° games for Rift + Touch.

Winner: Oculus Rift

Room-scale content

The Rift only recently added the option of room-scale, so Oculus Store developers haven't had time to tailor their games for 360°, free-roaming experiences. The Vive, meanwhile, was focused on room-scale since its inception – its games reflect that.

Vive room-scale highlights include Arizona Sunshine (above), Job Simulator, Vanishing Realms, Star Wars' Trials on Tatooine, Final Approach, The Gallery and Raw Data.

Winner: HTC Vive

Overall content

Since the Facebook acquisition, Oculus has been investing big bucks in VR content development, and it shows. The Rift is home to the most polished collection of games and experiences in VR. And it isn't by a small margin.

While the Vive's launch lineup was solid enough, we've been disappointed in the lack of progress since. There have been a couple of gems, but the vast majority of SteamVR releases have a rough-cut, indie, small-team feel.

We love indie games. But when you're sinking $1,500+ in a high-end system, we expect better than "rough draft" and "Early Access." While room-scale's immersion can mask the Vive's software shortcomings to some degree, we still think the system needs more AAA-style content to justify its considerable price.

Winner: Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift vs. HTC Vive: Overall

If you want 360° room-scale VR, the Oculus Rift doesn't have the content or large-scale tracking accuracy of the HTC Vive. While we wish the Vive had more big-budget developer support, it's still hard to turn away from the mesmerizing level of immersion you get from its free-roaming, room-sized virtual worlds where there is no "right" direction to face.

If highly-immersive room-scale VR is your priority – we wouldn't blame you if it is – then the Vive is still your best bet.

Ultimately, though, "Go where the content is" isn't a bad rule of thumb in the world of consumer tech, and this mandate heavily favors the Rift. When you add the superior Touch controls, integrated audio and some wise pivots to offer serviceable-enough alternatives to the Vive's biggest strengths, we're comfortable saying Rift + Touch is the better choice for the majority of shoppers.

Top recommendation: Oculus Rift

If your mind isn't quite made up, you can check out our spec-by-spec comparison of the top VR headsets, along with our individual reviews of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

This article was updated on December 19 and 26 to reflect further testing of the Oculus Rift's three-sensor, room-scale setup.

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