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Valve Index: First impressions

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Valve takes a swing at its own premium VR headset

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The first time out of the box, the Valve Index is a giant pain in the ass.

The Valve Index is the company’s latest high-end virtual reality headset, a successor to both the Vive and the Vive Pro, although without partner HTC handling the hardware. Index uses updated versions of the external Lighthouse sensors that must be placed on opposite corners of the room and pointed toward each other to deliver a room-scale experience that lets you walk around the virtual world, although that has ceased to be a novel feature now that Oculus also offers room-scale tracking standard with its latest product offerings.

And Valve doesn’t seem to be interested in competing when it comes to simplicity of use; connecting the two external sensors to wall outlets and having to find a place to either rest them or mount them on a wall feels like a major step backward after playing with the Rift S and Oculus Quest, two systems that prize ease of use and low cost over raw technological dominance.

But the Index isn’t for the buyer who cares about saving a few bucks or spending less time during the initial setup phase. This is a virtual reality system for someone who wants the absolute best consumer VR experience that money can buy, and is willing to put in the hours to make sure it runs as well as possible. The new offerings from Oculus pop out of their relatively small boxes and are ready to be set up and played as quickly as possible, while the Index rewards those willing to put in the initial hours with a much higher quality experience ... although that experience also comes at a much higher price.

Our full review of the Index will be released in the coming weeks, and the current software that runs it sometimes feels like it’s not quite ready for prime time. So, for now, consider this a first-impressions look at the system after a few days of use.

A different value proposition

The current shipping date if you pre-order the system today is Sept. 30, 2019 and, if you’re starting from scratch, the full Valve Index package runs $999, although you can also just buy the headset for $499 if you have an existing pair of sensors from a previous Vive system. The updated Knuckles controllers can be purchased for $279 by themselves if you’d just like those.

That’s a large jump from the $399 price point for either Rift S or the Oculus Quest, but Valve is clearly trying hard to justify the price with a wide array of upgrades from previous Vive hardware and specs that handily beat Oculus’ offerings, and each improvement helps to add up to a superior VR experience. The current system requirements for Index can be found on its official Steam page, along with a tool that you can download to see how your system stacks up.

And it can be hard to separate the marketing copy from the reality of using the system, especially since the list of visual updates is so heavy on the jargon. There are now more sub-pixels and lower persistence on the display along with something called “optical canting” on the optics and a higher standard refresh rate of 120Hz — along with an “experimental” 144Hz mode that can currently be toggled on or off — a large jump from the original 90Hz display of the first Vive models.

What this all means in practice is that the image that reaches your eyes is clearer, sharper, and feels more “real” than what I’m used to from the competition. The bigger question is whether customers will be willing to pay so much more for a quality that’s hard to quantify, measure, or even explain, although it was plainly evident when going from the Rift S to the Valve Index.

Perhaps the best I can do with words right now is to say that the virtual environments seen through the Index just feel more solid and “real.” It was easier to suspend my disbelief about being somewhere else, but I’m curious about whether enthusiasts who don’t have access to all the latest equipment in their testing room will notice a huge leap without being able to do direct A/B testing. But I do, I can, and I did.

And the Index offers a hell of a headset, even leaving aside the technical leap from existing Vive systems. The fit and finish of VR headsets in general is moving forward at a pace that’s hard to comprehend, but the Index is by far the most comfortable VR headset I’ve ever used, and Valve seems to have achieved its stated goal of increasing the length of a comfortable session.

You’ll still need to spend some time adjusting the straps and learning how to put the headset on and take it off, but the headset feels amazing once that work is done. The wider field of view also goes a surprisingly long way to make the experience of wearing the headset feel much less claustrophobic; it feels much more like actually seeing an existing place rather than peering at the world through a set of binoculars.

The built-in headphones also offered the sort of detailed sound and sense of 3D space that makes sense from a system this expensive; it’s yet another detail where the Index feels like a deluxe experience. It stomps the Rift S when it comes to allowing you to hear where things are coming from.

Valve

The power of letting go

The update Knuckles controllers may be my favorite thing about the new hardware, although they also come with a few downsides that temper the quality of the experience. Like everything when it comes to VR, each step forward is matched by a step backward in another area, or at least a sideways movement into new challenges that need to be overcome.

The most interesting thing about the controllers isn’t the large number of sensors that are supposed to track each finger — a feature I found finicky and often imprecise in action, although I’ll save my final verdict until the software is done and the hardware has been officially released — but the fact that they strap to your hands directly using a sort of friction design that can be tightened by holding down a button on the bottom of the controller and pulling on a string.

There is no need to actually grip anything, meaning you can pick things up or let them go by simply mimicking that action. It’s a nice improvement from existing VR controllers, and helps make interacting with virtual objects feel at least a little more natural.

It helps that the construction on the controllers feels top-notch, with the ergonomics tuned nearly to perfection.

Valve

This is all well and good, but it can be challenging to fit the controllers on your hands and tighten them up while also wearing them; it almost feels like a two-person job, although things get easier once you have the sizing locked down. That’s not really a help if someone else wants to use them and needs adjust the tension on the straps, though.

So how was the first series of tests?

That’s a hard question to answer, especially since software updates were still coming in during my initial time with the hardware. The Index is clearly still being worked on, so it’s hard to offer any kind of definitive summation about whether it’s worth the high asking price.

But that’s almost beside the point; this is an enthusiast product, with all the baggage that comes with that term. I still don’t feel like I have everything perfectly setup after a few days of play, but it’s also clear that, at its best, the Index offers a VR experience that Oculus currently can’t compete with.

The trick is that Oculus isn’t competing on technology, at least not entirely. The company is focusing on simplicity and a low price. The Index swings so heavily in the opposite direction that it almost feels silly to compare the two platforms; you’re either willing to pay for the best, and to invest the time to make the system sing, or you’re not.