The Vive Pro head-mounted display is currently the best consumer-level virtual reality headset money can buy, but it may not be the simplest to explain. It’s also hard to create an apples-to-apples pricing comparison with the original Vive bundle, much less other headsets on the market.
I’ve had the chance to test the updated hardware for the past few days, and my findings are about what you’d expect. Yes, this is an impressive upgrade in both visual quality and comfort. Yes, it’s much more expensive than the first-generation consumer Vive.
And there are more upgrades on the way.
What has been improved
HTC has adjusted, improved or rethought just about everything from the original headset. The result is countless small improvements that all add up to a much better user experience. The headset is now more comfortable and easier to use, whether you’re putting it on yourself or helping someone else get set up.
The front of the headset now swivels to make it easier to place the hardware over your eyes and then bring the strap down over your head. The HMD also includes built-in headphones with raised volume controls on one side and a raised mute button on the other, so you can adjust your audio by touch, without having to dive into the menus. The headphones themselves sound great and are easy to adjust so they fit your ears perfectly, and it’s simple to flip them up a bit if you want to hear things around you clearly.
The plastic that makes up the sides and rear of the strap is soft enough to have some bend to it while being firm enough to hold fast to your head, once you’ve tightened everything with the ratchet on the back and the straps on the top.
The whole thing feels like it takes some design cues from the PlayStation VR headset, complete with the front display that you can slide in and out using the button on the bottom of the hardware in case you need to make room for your glasses. The cable that runs from the headset to the breakout box is now smaller, and locked in place on both the left side of your head and the rear of the hardware. The cord itself now connects to the breakout box with a single plug, instead of three, which is a minor but nice improvement. The updated foam around the eyes is also more comfortable while shielding more ambient light from view.
Everything just works on this version of the Vive hardware, and it feels much better once everything is locked into place. It’s also easier to get things adjusted correctly to your own head after someone else has been playing, which is even more important for reasons I’ll discuss in a bit.
The new breakout box connects to your PC through a DisplayPort cable now; no HDMI option is offered. That isn’t much of an issue — you have bigger problems on your hands if you’re trying to power an ultra-high-end VR headset with a rig whose GPU doesn’t feature that connection.
Everything about the hardware feels deluxe and intuitive; this is more or less Vive 2.0, even if HTC doesn’t want to call it that. The $99 audio strap that was released for the original headset was already an improvement from the initial design, but the Vive Pro is just as big of a jump up from that addition.
The Vive Pro has taken the comfort throne away from PlayStation VR, which is a remarkable achievement given how far behind the original hardware felt in comparison to Sony’s affordable headset. HTC has massaged away everything that felt annoying or uncomfortable about the original hardware, leaving an HMD that’s an absolute joy to use.
This is all almost enough to overshadow the real update to the headset: the higher resolution.
Making it feel real
The original Vive offered a resolution of 1080 by 1200 pixels per eye, or 2160 by 1200 pixels in total. The Vive Pro offers a resolution of 1440 by 1600 pixels per eye, or 2880 by 1600 pixels in total. The field of view hasn’t changed; it remains at 110 degrees.
To help power all those extra pixels, HTC has bumped up the hardware specifications accordingly. The minimum system requirements include an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or equivalent GPU, while the company recommends a GTX 1070. For the purposes of this initial test, I used a system with an older card, a GTX 970 — the minimum specification for the original Vive. How do things feel even when you don’t have the hardware to push the graphical options to the max?
The answer is, pretty damned good. The extra resolution makes everything look smoother and less like you’re gazing at a screen, which is a good shortcut to making everything look more “real” when you’re inside virtual reality. Even cartoonish graphics appear to be more solid due to the increased resolution, and text is now much easier to read.
That may seem like a small thing — and VR developers have been designing around the resolutions of less capable headsets for years now — but it means that the industrial design of things like cars and medical equipment created or tested in VR will look more like their possible real-life counterparts. The Vive Pro is aimed at corporations and location-based arcades more so than mainstream consumers, and legible text will be a big help in trying to corner those markets.
There will be two groups of people reacting to the Vive Pro: those who have never tried VR before, and will think this is how VR should always look — or has always looked — and those who have tried previous generations of headsets, and will appreciate the jump in clarity.
The only downside to that improved clarity is the deceptively limited size of the “sweet spot” in the middle of your field of view. It’s important to adjust the headset to make sure everything looks crisp right in the middle of your view — even a small shift due to loose straps will cause things to blur. The smeared nature of images that aren’t in your direct line of sight is even more apparent.
It’s not a huge deal, since your eyes and brain are used to things you look at directly having the most detail and clarity, but it’s a subtle reminder that you are in fact looking at the world through a screen. An improved field of view would also go a long way toward making the hardware disappear altogether.
So do you need to buy this?
If you want the best VR experience possible and money is no object, the Vive Pro is an easy choice. But that situation describes just about none of us, and the $799 price for just the Vive Pro headset is evidence that HTC understands this fact. Meanwhile, the $499 standard version of the Vive comes with the headset, two trackers and two controllers. HTC assumes that Vive Pro buyers are upgrading from an existing Vive, or don’t care about buying the rest of the equipment separately.
HTC is also offering a bundle of the two tracking stations and two controllers for $299 starting on April 5, a reduction of $200 from the original price. That’s good news for everyone, and brings the total cost of the Vive Pro platform to just under $1,100.
But that’s only part of the possible upgrade path. The updated tracking stations, which allow for much larger VR spaces, will be available closer to the end of the year, and don’t yet have a price. The Vive Pro is compatible with all the original tracking stations and accessories, but the next version of the trackers won’t be compatible with the original Vive, muddying the buying decision even further.
In the future, HTC will sell an accessory that allows for wireless play. No pricing for that product is available, either. We also know that HTC is working on an update to the Vive’s controllers.
In other words, if you want the Vive Pro with all the latest hardware, you’re going to want to start saving now. There’s also no software we were pointed toward that takes advantage of the second front-mounted camera on the face of the Vive Pro. That addition to the hardware has yet to pay off directly, although it’s likely that applications that take advantage of the update are on the way.
The Vive Pro is a product for companies and enthusiasts who want the best possible VR experience and don’t mind paying for it, although it’s not so large of a leap that the original Vive headset is obsolete.
VR companies continue to iterate on their hardware at a rapid pace, making it tricky to know when to jump in. For now, at least, the Vive Pro is the best, if not the most affordable, option on the market.