Whichever way you look at it, buying a VR headset is an expensive choice. You have to have a PC beefy enough to handle the VR needs before you even plug a headset in, but when you finally reach that point you’ll find yourself faced with a pair of excellent choices.
You can buy an Oculus Rift, the headset that kickstarted global awareness and interest in consuming 360-degree content with its massively successful campaign on Kickstarter. Or you can go with the Valve developed HTC Vive, the company behind current PC gaming.
Choosing between these two incredibly capable headsets is no easy task, and has a lot to do with knowing how you intend to use your VR headset before you buy it. That’s not always easy, so we’ve broken the answer down into simpler choices.
Oculus Rift can be unboxed and be ready to go within 20 minutes. It takes up 3 USB ports and 1 HDMI port on your computer, and once everything is connected and the software is installed, you’re away.
The Xbox Controller included in the kit starts working immediately, and there’s no significant set up time. This setupcould even be portable, that is of course if you have a monster laptop capable of powering the headset.
HTC Vive setup differs slightly. There’s a pair of small black boxes that need to be installed diagonally from each other on separate sides of the space you’re going to play in, each requiring their own power outlet. The headset connects to a sync box that requires 1 USB port, 1 HDMI port, and a third power outlet.
Once everything is connected, you’ll be faced with a calibration setup that involves tracing the play area by walking around with the controller out in front of you. The comprehensive instructions make it very simple, but setup can take longer than on the Rift.
However, the reason Vive’s setup process is more complicated is due to how you use the unit when you play. The experience is full body motion, which means you’re standing and walking around in your play space.
When you lift your hands up, the controllers in each hand can be seen in the game you’re playing. You can turn to any direction, walking and swinging your arms around to enjoy the game you’re playing. The calibration you did when you walked around during setup is to give a boundary to the system, and when you get close to those boundaries you’ll see it in your headset so you know not to run into a wall or knock something over!
Oculus differs from the Vive in this area, as the headset is designed to be used either sitting down or standing stationary. Oculus does have plans to release controllers that operate similar to the Vive controllers later this year, such that you can lift your arms and feel more immersed in the game, but the headset isn’t really designed to give you the full body motion experience.
Due to the shorter cable running from the headset to the PC and the single sensor for detecting your motion the Rift is built more for polished, immersive PC gaming and not a full-body gaming experience. That said, this means Rift can be a more compact, portable, and easier to share with friends offering.
As you’re spending this much money on a VR experience, you’re going to want to use it a lot. And if that’s just you using it on your own or you passing the headset around at a party, comfort is going to important. You need to be able to easily put the headset on, and you need to know you’re going to be able to wear the headset for long periods of time without any discomfort.
Oculus built Rift to be super simple to put on. For most people, you almost put the headset on like you would a baseball cap. The rigid back section lines up with the back of you head, and you pull the bulky display section down until you reach your nose.
The headset is on elastic rails, so it stretches to fit over your face and then hugs your head once you let go. If you don’t wear prescription glasses, this is perfect. If however, you do wear glasses, you’ll need to put the headset on eyes first and this can be considerably less comfortable. This is because the eye sockets on this headset don’t leave a alot of room for glasses.
To put on the Vive headset involves holding the bulky display part up to your face, pulling the strap down onto the back of your head, and then tightening the large elastic straps until everything is comfortable. For the side straps this is no big deal, but the top strap is more tricky.
The strap rests under the three-in-one data cable that runs from the top of the headset to the computer, which means it’s heavy and rubbery and 100% in your way. You have to lift the cable up, adjust the headset, and pull the cable back into place. Vive is a little more ‘glasses friendly’ thanks to its wider eye socket opening, but the overall setup is a little tedious.
Audio is obviously an important part of VR, and comfort has a big part of this as well. Oculus has bulit-in headphones, and they cover your ears with ease. If you want to replace the headphones with something that offers better quality sound, there are some hoops to jump through.
Vive, on the other hand, offers a headphone jack on the headset so you can connect whichever headphones you desire. This is handy when you realize the bundled earbuds aren’t great and can fall out easily, but this means you will have to find headphones that will comfortably rest on your ears on top of the VR headset straps.
So what about comfort after wearing for long periods? Well, surprisingly it’s pretty even. When correctly fitted to your head, Vive and Rift can each be worn for several hours without pressure discomfort. Some people have reported eye fatigue after several hours, and any Vive player who is playing a game and doesn’t feel some tiredness after a while is probably doing it wrong, but there’s no noticable ‘stop I cant take it any more!’ feeling from either headset.
In a social setting they differ slightly, this due entirely to the material used in the padding between the headset and your face. The HTC has facial padding which is more absorbent, and so can quickly become gross with sweat. You do get an extra face pad in the box so you can swap it out easily when one needs to be cleaned, but the Oculus does not.
Did you know you can actually play most Oculus Rift games on your HTC Vive right now? Off the shelf, Oculus Rift costs you ££££. For that, you get a headset, a camera sensor, an Xbox controller and a mini remote.
It’s everything you need to get started, and as of now the Oculus Store has over 100 games and apps for you to experience. Most of these games are designed to be played while sitting down and looking around, making it so this new world fills your vision while you play with a controller in your hand. The selection of available games and apps ensure there’s something for everyone, and developer support for Oculus is very strong right now. So strong, in fact, that several larger game publishers have games planned for next year that will release first on the Oculus Rift.
An HTC Vive will set you back £££. With this you get the headset, lighthouses (the 2 sensor boxes), two hand controllers, and everything needed to connect to the headset to your computer. This is everything you need to have room-scale VR, which means you can have a totally dedicated VR room where you walk around and enjoy every game, or you set up in your living room and pull your gear out when you want to play.
Currently Steam VR has 100s of games available and that includes a massive Early Access section where developers are looking for player feedback to make their games better before pushing out a full retail release. If you are willing to mess around with some third-party software, you can actually play most Oculus Rift games on your HTC Vive right now. You still need an Xbox One controller to play the games, and you have to buy the games through the Oculus Store, but it works well.
So Which one to choose?
Welllll…. if you’re looking for the best possible VR experience you can buy today, the HTC Vive is where it’s at. Together, HTC and Valve have created a wholly unique experience, and developers of every skill level have flocked to the platform. The games are vibrant and creative in ways you don’t see much in traditional gaming platforms right now. These are unique, emotional experiences that are fun on Oculus Rift, but truly shine on HTC Vive.
One more thing…
One big caveat to this whole comparison is Oculus Touch, these are the controllers that will add Vive-like hand control for Rift users. Now Oculus has yet to set a price tag for these controllers, and even when you can buy them you’ll only find a fraction of Rift games support the gesture-control parts of these controllers.
Also there is nothing to suggest these controllers will offer full, room-scale functionality. For some this difference is trivial, but currently there’s not enough information to know be sure. Once these controllers are available and more games are supported, it will be clear just how close to the HTC Vive experience Rift is able to pull off.