How will the Valve Index Compare to Rift and Vive?
Valve may have made a name for themselves as one of the more innovative software companies around, but as Half Life Episode 3 remains a forgotten promise, the company has been making a name for themselves elsewhere. Their Steam platform is now the gold standard for digital game distribution, but Valve clearly has ambitions in the gaming hardware space. Their Steam Machine – an attempt to fuse together computer and console gaming – saw a muted reception, but it’s their attempt at making VR headsets that could put them on the map for gaming hardware. Here’s everything you need to know about the Valve Index.
One of the biggest barriers for VR headsets to break into the gaming market is to find a build that fits comfortably. It’s something that manufacturers have struggled with, but Valve may have cracked the code. The gear is pretty standard at this point: a bulky headset partnered with a pair of controllers that fit into your hands. But the devil is in the details. The magnetic face gasket is interchangeable, and the fabric is both comfortable and anti-microbial to prevent the spread of disease if you have multiple people in your household. The two headbands are adjustable by knob to give you a personalized fit, and you can even control the interpupillary distance to reduce strain on your eyes during longer sessions.
It’s hard if not impossible to find a VR headset that doesn’t at least look a little goofy, but Valve has had the good sense to lean into that aesthetic. Sure, the Index may look like something from a Philip K. Dick novel given a modern spin, but it works here. The headset itself is almost intimidating, emulating the look of a tactical visor, and the shiny matte black finish lends it an unparalleled style. That finish extends to the Valve Index controllers as well.
Those controllers deserve some elaboration all their own. As the first wearable (rather than handheld) controllers available widely on the consumer market, they offer a stronger sense of grip, and they reduce the risk of accidentally flinging one across the room. The practical effect is like strapping brass knuckles to your wrists. The straps for each are easily adjustable and the buttons and analog stick are readily accessible from a compact frame centered against the user’s palm. It’s a smart design that works well in practice.
Customization and Compatibility
The Index isn’t Valve’s first foray into virtual reality, and that history benefits both the Index and the consumer. SteamVR – the platform on which the Index runs – was first introduced to run the HTC Vive, and that means that they’ve had years to perfect their technology. It also means that there’s a high level of compatibility here. The Index headset can work with existing HTC Vive wands and base stations, so it’s easy to upgrade from your existing virtual reality setup. Valve has also released their own bases if you want the top shelf components for this ecosystem. The play area here is expandable, with up to four Index Bases capable of being combined into a modular space.
Valve has remained mum on software made in house, only making mysterious statements about an upcoming proprietary game on the horizon, but the fact that it’s based on the SteamVR tech means that there’s already years of established games on the market. Even more exciting is Valve’s promise for making the Index customizable. A front expansion slot is built in, and the camera come with sample code for content creators who want to get their hands dirty. With the Index so new, it will probably be a bit of time before we see anything truly revolutionary, but the open source commitment here is promising.
Display and Optics
The lenses packed into the Index headset consist of two 1440×1600 panels. That resolution is par for the HTC Vive but a modest improvement on the Oculus Rift S. But the higher level of subpixels pulls the Index ahead of the pack by all accounts. Colors are brighter and visuals are crisper across the board.
Even more promising, Valve is boasting a smooth refresh rate of 120Hz, a significant improvement on both the 80Hz max of the Oculus Rift S and the 90Hz max of the HTC Vive. A 144Hz refresh rate mode is also available, but it’s still being tested. Further adding to the sense of immersion is the Index’s phenomenal field of vision: an unparalleled 130 degrees.
Valve’s audio solution for the Index is rather revolutionary. Like the Vive Pro, the Index utilizes headphones attached to the headset proper, but it makes use of smaller speakers that sit a decent distant from the ears. The result is a headset that’s easy to take on and off without sacrificing the integrity of the listening experience. The results are powerful and immersive.
There can be few doubts that the Valve Index offers the most cutting edge virtual reality experience on the market, but that comes at a cost – and that cost is literal. Outfitting yourself with all Index gear is a comparatively expensive endeavor. The headset alone clocks in at $499, but you can get the headset with a pair of controllers for $749. Add another $250 for a base, and the fact that the play area can be expanded with multiple bases could have you spending quite a bit of time and money.
That said, what Valve is offering is a premium experience. This is the best VR headset on the market, and that’s unlikely to change soon. With its solid framework based on the SteamVR ecosystem, incredible specs, and smart design, it’s unlikely to have a real challenger anytime soon. Add in the mod-friendly approach to hardware design, and you have a virtual reality headset that’s future proofed. And the compatibility with HTC Vive means that upgrading to the newest edition can be a piecemeal affair.
There’s nothing quite like the Valve Index. They’ve taken years of acquired knowledge from earlier VR headsets and proceeded with an incredible attention to detail. The Index improves on the existing VR options in practically every conceivable way, and many of the changes they’ve made will likely become the standard for other manufacturers moving forward.
If earlier VR headsets were proof of concept, the Index is that concept polished to a diamond. Customers who have been waiting for the moment when virtual reality finally hits its stride as a consumer product should pay attention. It’s here, and it’s called the Valve Index.