HTC Vive vs. Oculus Rift: Our first month with the future

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We compare the two best VR headsets: HTC Vive (left) and Oculus Rift(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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If you want a high-end VR headset, there are only two options right now. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are slightly different takes on virtual reality and the future of gaming. We've been using both for over the last month – let's compare the two and break down some key differences.

Spoiler: The Vive is better

We aren't going to waste your time building up artificial suspense just so you'll read to the end: we think the Vive is the better headset, pushing the leading edge of VR farther forward with its 360-degree room-scale tracking and Chaperone safety net.

Right now you strap on the Vive and walk around a large space, in this feels so flippin' real first-person experiences with motion controllers tracking your hand movement. Put on the Rift, and you sit down in a chair with a gamepad in your hands, playing what amounts to classic video games, that just happen to a) be in 3D and b) surround you in all directions.

Today's Oculus Rift games are more like futuristic extensions of video games as we know them. Vive games are more like something completely new that you've never experienced before. Classic gaming VR-ified vs. virtual reality in the most literal sense.

The Rift will get more Vive-like later this year, when its Oculus Touch hand-tracking controllers (above, right) launch. But since the Rift will still lack something akin to the Vive's Chaperone system – which pops up virtual boundaries to keep you from leaving the safety of your playing place – and since it will usually track in 180 degrees, rather than 360 degrees (expect lots of forward-facing Oculus Touch games), it probably still won't be quite on par with the Vive.

If a 180-degree standing game is playing one of those basketball shooting machines at your local Chuck E. Cheese, then a 360-degree room-scale game is playing a half-court pickup game.

So the Vive is our clear recommendation. Read on, though, for a few other things that could help you figure out whether or not you agree.

Game on

After CES, we picked the Rift as the best VR headset – mostly because we'd already seen an eye-popping array of games for it, often carrying a bright sheen of polish and attention to detail, while the Vive games we'd seen at the time had been shorter and fewer in number – just the same handful of quick demos repeated at multiple events.

Valve and its developers caught up quickly, though, as its launch lineup ended up being right on par with the Rift's.

If you add up all of the Rift games we've seen so far – that includes games you can buy now, ones coming in the next few months and Oculus Touch games launching later in the year – it beats the same Year One collection of games we've seen so far for the Vive. But the Vive's last-second comeback before launch taught us not to let announced but unreleased games weigh too heavily in our recommendations. Valve may just prefer playing it closer to the chest, waiting to announce games when they're about ready to roll, while Oculus more freely showcases its unreleased goods to the press, sometimes a year or more before launch.

Right now one platform's available content isn't clearly deeper or higher-quality than the other – other than to say the Rift has the better collection of seated/gamepad games and the Vive has the better (nay, only) collection of room-scale/first-person games. But we give the overall advantage to the Vive's games, just because of the nature of the beast: in our book, one great first-person/room-scale game on the Vive is worth three or four sit down with gamepad titles on the Rift.

When all else is equal, go with the more immersive experience. That's what VR is all about.

Glasses

If you wear glasses, the Rift is hard to recommend. There's no forwards/backwards adjustment for the lenses, and the headset is also pretty compact, so your specs will cramp up a bit against your face. The nose pads of the glasses I wear dig into my upper nose; it's mildly painful, no matter how many adjustments I make. It's to the point where I usually don't want to use the Rift unless I'm wearing contact lenses.

The Vive (above) is much better with specs on, as you can slide the lenses forward to make more room for your glasses. Your field of view does go down slightly when you do that, but we find that pushing it forward just a notch or two (rather than all the way) is plenty of room to make glasses comfortable inside the Vive – with no perceptible harm to your FOV.

Lens fog and tight straps

Apparently the proper way to wear the Rift is very loosely, because if you tighten its straps so that there's little or no light leaking in from the bottom, its lenses are going to fog up like Snoop Dogg's tour bus. And the scuba mask chemical agents that solved that problem for us on the Gear VR (oddly) don't do anything for the Rift's lens fog.

We haven't experienced any lens fog with the Vive, no matter how tightly we pull the straps. There is an opening near your nose on the Vive, which lets in a little light – this is likely why it doesn't fog up. But the amount of light and real-world visibility coming in from the bottom of the Rift is a little higher.

Safety nets

Not only does the Vive have its 360-degree tracking system that's tailored towards free-roaming movement, but it also has the Chaperone feature that pops up those virtual walls to keeps you in bounds. Once you use room-scale VR with visible boundaries, you quickly realize that free-roaming VR without it would be at best clumsy, and at worst unsafe. And don't worry, the Chaperone bounds only pop up when you're getting close to the edge (and you can also adjust how subtle or obvious they are).

By giving you that safety net, you're freer to get lost in the Vive's amazing virtual worlds.

The Vive also has a front-facing camera that lets you quickly jump back into the real world when you need to. A double-tap of a button on either controller will (within 3-4 seconds) give you a view of your environment – great to have a quick chat with a family member, take a sip of your drink or make sure Fido didn't wander into your playing space.

Simplicity

One of the best things about the consumer Oculus Rift is its simplicity. Its headphones are built-in, and right now there's only the one external sensor to plug into your PC, so it's as close as you can get to a plug-and-play PC-based VR experience. It literally takes seconds to set up (installing software is another matter, but you get the idea).

The Vive isn't nearly as complicated to set up, though, as we'd originally expected. There's a 15 minute (or so) mounting process the first time to set up the base stations, and you'll need to keep a nice-sized floor space clear or, if not, at least clear it out every time before you play. But we think the little effort it requires is well worth the new depths of immersion that it gives you.

Bang for your buck

The Vive is US$200 more expensive, at $799 to the Rift's $599. But we still think the Vive is the better value. Not only do you get the room-scale thing that the first-gen Rift is never going to truly support (without Chaperone boundaries, true room-scale can't safely exist), but remember that the Vive's motion controllers are included in the box. The Rift's Oculus Touch controls don't launch until the second half of this year – and we don't know how much they will cost.

Even if Touch rings up for $100 (a pretty low estimate), that already puts the Rift's total package within $100 of the Vive. In our book, the additions of 360-degree tracking, Chaperone and the front-facing camera are easily worth that.

Looking ahead

If you look past this first-gen pair of VR headsets, Oculus is going to continue to be a major player in VR – perhaps the biggest player – for years to come. It got passed up in this first go-round, but we've spent enough time around the company, listening to the brilliant minds working there who are looking far beyond today's gear, to know that these cats are here to stay. Expect Oculus to come out guns blazing with the Oculus Rift 2, whenever that arrives, filling the current model's holes and then some. And of course you can bet Valve and HTC are also planning for way beyond today's gear.

But looking only at these two first-gen consumer products you can buy today, the Vive has the higher ceiling.

Oculus' biggest advantage is its exclusive games – the company has made that a huge part of its brand, similar to how console-makers strike deals with developers to sweeten their platforms' pots. While we prefer the Vive on the whole, we would miss the Rift if we had to give up exclusives like Defense Grid 2, AirMech: Command, Chronos and Lucky's Tale. For those who can afford it, it's a pretty sweet setup to have both the Rift and Vive in house. Sometimes it is nice to just sit down with a great gamepad-based title and have a less physical experience (the Vive supports gamepad VR just like the Rift does, but the Rift has more good gamepad games).

Today's spectrum of virtual reality ranges from seated to room-scale. In between is standing VR, which is like room-scale but with a more confined range of movement. The Vive covers the entire spectrum, while the Rift's ceiling, even after Touch launches, ends at standing.

Technically there are some room-scale-ish experiences you'll be able to have with the Rift; its excellent optical sensors are perfectly capable of tracking wider-scale movement. But, again, without something like Chaperone, you'll be smacking into stuff if you try to move too far – so don't expect to see Oculus encouraging that kind of content. The fact that the company is telling developers to track their standing games in 180 degrees, with two sensors sitting side by side, as opposed to sitting in opposite corners of the space, only reaffirms that. There will be a right direction to face in most (if not all) Oculus Touch games.

We'll keep an open mind as we move forward. After all, we were pretty sold on the Rift a couple months before the headsets' consumer launches – but ended up being surprised by the Vive's clear superiority once we got them in-house. Who knows, maybe we'll be surprised again after Oculus Touch launches and more games roll out. But for now, if you have to pick one, go with the deeper, more immersive – just more magical – experience. Viva la Vive.

For more, you can hit up our individual reviews of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, as well as our best Vive games and best Rift games roundups.

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