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Valve Index VR Review: Next-Gen VR Has Arrived

By Christopher Coke on June 28, 2019 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Valve Index VR Review: Next-Gen VR Has Arrived

One of the most exciting hardware launches of the year is finally here: The Valve Index will begin shipping in mere days, and we’ve been lucky enough to spend the last two weeks testing it out for ourselves. While the competition seems content to keep things as they are and focus on mobile solutions, Valve has been hard at work creating the enthusiast VR headset we’ve been waiting for. Did they succeed? Join us as we find out.

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Specifications

  • Pricing:
    • Full Kit: $999
    • HMD & Controller Kit: $749
    • HMD: $499
    • Index Controllers (Pair): $279
    • Base Station 2.0: $149
  • Headset:
    • Resolution: 1400x1600 (per eye)
    • Refresh Rate: 120Hz with experimental 144Hz mode
    • Panel: Custom Full RGB LCD with 50% more subpixels
    • Optics: Custom dual-element lens, ~20 degree larger field-of-view than HTC Vive (approximately 110 degrees)
    • Hardware adjustable IPD, lens distance adjustments
    • Near-field audio speaker drivers
  • Index Controller:
    • Five-finger tracking
    • 87 sensors per controller: optical, motion, capacitive, and force sensing
    • Adjustable strap, open-hand design
    • Allows for gripping, picking objects up, throwing, pinching, and other hand/finger gestures
    • 1100mAh battery, 7 hour battery life
    • Backwards compatible with original Vive titles
  • Base Stations 2.0
    • Laser room tracking sweeps the room 100 times a second
    • Improved tracking range
    • Increased place space four times larger than original Lighthouse base stations
    • Possible to add additional Base Station 2.0 units to create a place-space up to 10 square meters
  • System Requirements
    • Minimum:
      • OS: Windows 10
      • Processor: Dual Core with Hyper-Threading
      • Memory: 8 GB RAM
      • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970, AMD RX480
      • Network: Broadband Internet connection
      • Additional Notes: Available DisplayPort (Version 1.2) and USB (2.0+) Port Required
    • Recommended:
      • Processor: Quad Core +
      • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 or better
      • Additional Notes: Available USB (3.0+) Port Required for Headset Pass-Through Camera & USB Port Support

The Improved State of VR

It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since the HTC Vive first released. I was late to the game, reviewing my own kit in July 2017 but over those two years, I’ve become a believer. VR is incredible tech, completing changing the face of video gaming. It’s also expensive and, back in 2017, the tech was early. The Vive was impressive but the amount of content was light and it was hard to explain to my fellow gamers why they should invest so much money into a market that was so clearly in development.

A lot can change in two years. Valve has parted ways with HTC and gotten to work developing their own VR system which we now have in hand. And though they haven’t said this themselves, it’s clear that this is designed to raise the bar on what we know VR to be. At the same time, the VR market has been maturing and steam is now filled with content that ranges from full-fledged story-based games, to competitive shooters, to the short awe-inspiring experiences only virtual reality is capable of delivering. Computer hardware has also advanced so while you still need a good computer, you no longer need a cutting edge computer to run a VR headset of your own.  In short, it’s not 2016 and VR is in a much better place.

That said, as I write this review, I’ll be doing so with direct comparisons to the HTC Vive; it’s what I’ve spent the last two years playing on, after all, so I encourage you to go back and read that review if you’re not already familiar with the tech.

For this review, Valve sent over the full VR kit so I could try each new piece. If you already have a Vive, though, the headset is compatible with your existing hardware. The controllers are too, so if you can’t afford the full package right now, you can buy and experience next-gen VR piece by piece, which is a great move.

The Headset

Let’s start with the headset itself. Valve has made major improvements in every meaningful area they could improve. The biggest is the improved screens and optical elements. Each eye now has its own custom LCD screen, each running at 1400x1600 resolution. Compared to the 1080x1200 resolution of the original Vive, the Index offers an improved pixel density of nearly half a million more pixels per eye with 50% more sub-pixels. The result is far less screen door effect and an image that is crisp enough to actually let you read text on a web page. If you’ve ever tried to do that on the Vive, you already know what an improvement that is.

The headset also features an improved 120Hz refresh rate. This might seem puzzling at first. If you followed the development of VR through the various development kits in years past, you probably heard about 90Hz being the magic number to avoid nausea. Increasing the refresh rate has a different effect, though: a greater sense of presence in the world. The headset also features an experimental 144Hz mode, which is even better, though obviously requires a more powerful system to make the most of.

The lenses have also been improved. There’s less halo-effect, which is nice, but you no longer have to look directly at something to avoid it becoming blurry, which is better. This was a personal frustration of mine; having not researched the Vive enough, finding out that you had to physically turn your head to get a clear image was frustrating and disappointing. Valve hasn’t completely solved the issue here but they’ve widened the scope of what’s in focus to where looking around with your eyes is actually possible.

Combined with the improved LCDs, this makes browsing the web in VR actually possible. It makes taking in movies and streams where you might need to read more enjoyable. It improves the entire experience in a tremendous way because it pushes us closer to VR behaving like you would expect it to with fewer middle-ground sacrifices just because you’re in VR.

With the Index, Valve has also managed to leverage lens distance to increase your field of view. On top of having a hardware IPD (inter-pupillary distance, the space between your eyes) adjustment, there’s also a knob to move the lens elements closer or farther away from your eyes. By moving them in as close as your comfortably can, you can increase your FOV up to 20 degrees. There’s no hard measurement of how many degrees of view when you can self-adjust, but Valve puts it right around 110% which pushes it right to the edge of your peripheral vision.

On the sides, Valve has also shifted away from headphones and into near-field speakers. This was a move I wasn’t sure about but has proved to be quite good. Near-field speakers are interesting tech. They sound perfectly loud when you’re sitting right next to them (or wearing the headset, in this case) but the sound level drops off to near nothingness almost immediately as you increase distance. The resulting effect with the Index is as if you were listening to headphones too loudly. People in the room will hear what you’re listening to but probably won’t be able to make out what it is.

Meanwhile, what you’re hearing is as good as it comes in a VR headset. It’s clear, detailed, and extremely positional. What’s more, because they’re speakers positioned off of your actual ear, your soundscape is vastly expanded, giving you a more realistic sense of space with that positioning. It’s not quite Waves Nx (Valve really needs to license that tech), but it’s exceptionally good and makes playing games, watching movies, and just about anything you’d like to do in VR a lot of fun.

Index Controllers and Base Stations 2.0

The other half of the package, and frankly one of the best innovations VR has ever seen, are the new Index controllers. They’re a complete redesign of those that came with the Vive and such an improvement that I’d recommend current Vive owners pick a pair up even if you avoid the full package. They’re backwards compatible, so they’ll work with every existing Vive game, but add an entirely new element to games that support it: finger-tracking.

In the past, VR was limited to single-button grip. Pull the trigger and make a fist, let go and drop what you’re holding. For gameplay purposes, this was functional, but imagine what’s possible when you add individual touch points. Instead of fisting a wine glass, you can pinch its stem. When you want to climb a wall, you can dig in with each finger. Toss a sword hand to hand in the coliseum. It’s a gameplay enhancement that makes a profound change in how natural it feels to be in VR. When you’re playing volleyball, you don’t punch the ball every time. You feather it, tap it, slap it with the heel of your hand. With the new Index controllers, you can forget about the fact that you’re holding a controller and just use your hands like you would in real life -- and thanks to the adjustable strap, it won’t fall or go flying with a vigorous blow from your mace (not that I’ve done that or anything).

Now, the important thing to know here is that games need to add support for this feature and not all will (though the list has grown substantially in the last two weeks alone). As somewhat of a workaround, Valve has made it so you can squeeze the controller instead of pulling the trigger when you’re playing a game that hasn’t added support yet. But, it’s when games do add support for it where things really go to the next level.

What gets me is just how smartly designed they are. Everywhere outside of game, like in your VR home, you see your fingers move as you flex them on the controller. It naturally trains you to expect your hands to be actual hands and not stand-ins. In the center of the controller, you’ll also see a touchpad that intelligently shifts purpose depending on what you’re doing. In a game, it will track your thumb grip (in fact, the force of every finger is tracked, so be sure to use a strong grip when you shake hands in-game). In menus, it will switch to a scroll wheel. Other times it acts like a trackpad.

The Valve Index controllers are such a core part of this package, everyone should get them, perhaps even before the headset if you can only buy one at a time.

The other part of the package is the new Base Station 2.0 units. They look similar and are easily forgotten about once they’re in place but they’re the unsung heroes of the package. With the Vive, I would sometimes step between my lighthouses and block their sight of each other, sending me the game literally spinning around my head. The new BS2s haven’t lost me once. If you have a larger space, they’ll also track rooms up to four-times the size of the original and are able to support multiples for truly massive play spaces.

Experiencing VR with the Valve Index

Getting up and running with the Index is almost identical to the Vive with one key exception, there are fewer wires that need connecting. Gone is the breakaway box and massive tangle of cords. You’re still tethered, but now only a single cord comes from the back of the headset. In the last foot or so, it breaks out into power, USB, and video connections. Once you’re plugged in, you run the SteamVR’s set-up app to calibrate your floor position and play space and you’re up and running. First time set-up took me about 20 minutes with base station mounting and updating the firmware on each piece of hardware (which was fast and automatic). After that, it’s as simple as loading up SteamVR and letting the Base Stations detect your headset and controllers. Fast and simple.

I was immediately struck by how much better the picture is. The screen door effect has been reduced to almost nothing. Loading into my VR Home for the first time, everything seemed more realistic. I went to the porch and took in the scenery, listened to the birds that seemed realistically far away. They say the resolution on the Index is the same as the Vive Pro. I can’t speak to that, but compared to the original Vive, the new resolution, refresh rate, and optics are immediate and dramatic improvements.


Setting a sword on an anvil for repair

The first game I loaded up was Shadow Legend VR, which is a fantasy sword and sorcery game. It’s also the kind of title that makes you believe in AAA virtual reality games. Before long, I was fighting a ghoul in a cathedral, dodging underneath his sword and trying to hit him hard enough to sever a limb. On a whim, I reached down and grabbed the torch from my waist and slipped it past his shield. He erupted in flame. While light streamed in through the stained-glass windows, I severed one arm and then another before sending him to his rest and launching into the game proper.


Climbing a wall in Climbey

Later, I tried a neat game called Climbey. You could guess the concept by the name. Using the grip controls on the Index Controllers, your goal is to climb up and across levels, sometimes launching yourself between platforms. The grip controls made this game feel so natural, but it was really the visuals that sold it. The art design is very simple and cartoon like but the sense of depth and motion made launching myself across gaps thrilling.

Next up was Arizona Sunshine, the best zombie shooter virtual reality has to offer. Room scale VR is a game changer and this game really shows it. At times, you get swarmed from all directions and I found myself quickly side stepping and ducking out of the way of snapping zombie jaws. I was glad for the chaperone system that reminded me where my boundaries were. I’m not a big fan of scary VR games but Arizona Sunshine reminded me of the House of the Dead games I used to play in the arcade but so, so much better.

Next up was Gorn, which is a fun-as-heck coliseum battler. It’s over the top violent and but also silly which makes it an absolute blast to play. Just… make sure you have enough room. I had a 3x6 foot play space and even though the chaperone system is great for keeping your feet in the right area, there’s nothing stopping you from reaching outside and bashing an enemy that also happens to be in the exact same spot as your desk. Ouch.

Another highlight of my time was Google Earth. Imagine for a second that you’re Superman flying high above the Earth. You’re fast enough to fly anywhere in seconds and get a true-to-life scale once you’re on ground level. The improved visuals and refresh rate of the Valve Index made Google Earth one of the most awe-inspiring experiences I’ve ever had in VR. It’s virtual tourism at its finest and puts the entire world at your fingertips.

Throughout all of this, the headset stayed comfortable. Valve has done a great job with balancing the weight so my nose didn’t get sore like it sometimes did with the Vive. The added refresh rate also seemed to let me play longer before I needed a break to rest my eyes. Overall comfort is a significant upgrade.

Final Thoughts

The Valve Index is the best VR system on the market today. The headset itself is a major improvement on the HTC Vive in every way. Combined with the controllers, it takes consumer VR to places it’s never been. In the last two years, the market and technology have evolved to not only give consumers a huge array of content to explore but also a better experience without needing a cutting edge PC.

But, to get all of this and be on the cutting edge of what VR has to offer, you’ll pay extra for the privilege.  The full kit retails for $999 and has everything you need to get started. If you already own a Vive, Valve offers other options to help you get started a little more cheaply. I do think that price needs to come down to make it more accessible to the masses but, as an experienced VR lover, it’s clear to me that this isn’t intended for the VR newcomer. It’s for those of us who are already sold and are willing to invest to take our hobbies to the next level. If you are a newcomer, whoa boy, are you in for a treat. This is, as of this writing, as good as it gets and it’s worth it -- if you can afford it.

Pros

  • Vastly reduced screen door effect
  • Much crisper image - you can read text and browse the web now!
  • Higher refresh rate makes you feel more “in the game” and reduces eye strain
  • Great positional audio with a wide soundscape
  • The Index Controllers are absolute game changers for virtual reality
  • Huge play spaces are now supported

Cons

  • High start-up cost
  • Index controller support is still very limited

The kit described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for the purpose of review.

Christopher Coke / Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight