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Lifewire / Emily Ramirez
Super wide field= of view
Crisp 1440 x 1600 pixel LCD screens
120Hz to 144Hz refresh rate
Mod-friendly hardware design
Cheaper than the Vive Pro
Controllers have an 8-hour battery life
Screen has white glare on high-contrast images
If you’re looking for the best VR experience possible, then you should buy the Valve Index. Its 120Hz refresh rate and dense, clear screen bring experiences to life without leaving you nauseous.
Welcome to the next generation of VR. It took a full four years, but Valve has finally delivered us the Index, a $999 VR kit with a 120Hz refresh rate, touch-sensitive controllers, and a “frunk” for VR developers. It is the first consumer headset to offer such high refresh rates, allowing newer VR users to escape VR sickness. By contrast, the new Rift S has an 80Hz refresh rate, which is lower than the retired Rift’s 90Hz refresh rate (VR experts recommend no less than 90Hz to reduce motion sickness). Besides its refresh rate, the Index Dual 1440 x 1600 LCD display rivals the Vive Pro’s resolution, and it looks a lot clearer thanks to a reduced screen door effect.
The Index’s other major feature is its controllers: they’re pressure-sensitive thanks to conduction sensors that can detect which fingers you’re holding down. Not a lot of developers have played with the possibilities these controllers bring, but the few games that do support it offer a totally unique VR experience. It adds yet another piece to the greater picture of immersion that the Index kit achieves so readily.
The Valve Index VR kit comes with a plethora of pieces: the head-mounted display, two symmetric Index controllers (colloquially known as the “knuckles”), two base stations, and a myriad of cables.
The Index controllers are a huge upgrade over the HTC Vive controllers. The Vive controllers are notoriously clunky to carry, with a wand-like design that is prone to flying out of too-loose hands. The Index controllers address grip issues with a unique hand strap that wraps around your knuckles to allow you to let go of the controllers at any time.
On the back of the controllers, fingers lay on a touch-sensitive pad that detects which fingers are held down. This allows you to make many hand gestures you can do in real life, such as pointing with specific fingers or grabbing to grab objects. We really enjoyed messing with the new functionality in games like Superhot and in VR socializing apps, where hand gestures play a key role in playing and exploring VR.
On the top of the Index controller are an A button, a B button, a menu/home button, a joystick, and a pressure-sensitive scrolling pad. The overall controller is made of a hard gray plastic that is a little rough to grip and slippery when sweaty, but the controllers’ curves keep your hands in place. Quite a few users are also not fond of the joysticks’ stiffness and lack of clickiness, but we personally didn’t mind it. The Index controllers are natural and intuitive to use, with a lot of awesome possibilities in supported games.
On the back of the controllers, fingers lay on a touch-sensitive pad that detects which fingers are held down. This allows you to make many hand gestures you can do in real life, such as pointing with specific fingers or grabbing to grab objects.
What of the Index HMD itself? It has two 1400 x 1600 pixel LCD displays with full RGB subpixellation, sliders for both interpupillary and lens distance adjustments, directional speakers, a slinky adjustable head strap, and a frunk. The frunk is comprised of a compartment on the headset’s front that can house a peripheral of choice, a USB-A port, and a magnetic plate to cover the compartment. While it is currently more of an accessibility choice for creative VR hardware developers, such as Magic Leap, to toy around with, it is also a really nice nod to Valve’s tasteful history of supporting game modders. The Index is too new to have given users time to mod any notable frunk concoctions, but we are looking forward to seeing what Valve’s loyal and creative fanbase develops.
Everything else on the headset is more conventional, although a welcome upgrade. The head mount mechanism resembles that of the Vive Pro, which is itself based on the Vive’s Deluxe Audio Strap. It’s a long plastic strap that wraps around the head and can be tightened with a rear dial. What’s really cool is that there’s also a spring built into the strap, so you can adjust the strap to your ideal tightness and then just pull the headset into place afterward. No more readjusting every time you want to enter VR!
In the main body, the Index HMD houses two LCD lenses that can be adjusted on two axes. On one axis, the lenses can be slid closer together or further apart from each other so the distance matches that of your interpupillary distance. On the other axis, the lenses can be brought closer to your face to increase your field of view. What’s awesome about both these adjustments is that they’re controlled by physical buttons—the new Rift S does not have physical IPD adjustments, as Oculus believes their software can keep over 60 percent of VR users comfortable. While the Rift S supports an optimal IPD range of 61.5-65.5mm, the Valve Index supports a range of 58-70mm, which covers over 90 percent of people in the United States. Further, their adjustments for lens distance from eyes lets users have a much better field of view than with the HTC Vive, with a FOV advantage of twenty degrees or more.
The Index is about as complicated to set up as the HTC Vive, and while it may not be as simple as the Oculus Rift S’s plug and play peripherals, the Index provides best-in-class performance. The Index base stations are smaller and lighter than the Vive’s base stations, and they have two mounting surfaces to allow them to be mounted on a wall, a shelf, or a stand. They do not have to be in each other’s line of sight to work properly, and they’re also backward-compatible with the Vive’s base station mounts—in fact, the entire Index line of products interfaces with Vive technology, letting Vive owners upgrade their VR kits in pieces.
The included Index base stations are smaller, lighter, and more mount-ready than the Vive’s base stations.
If you already own a Vive or Vive Pro, setup for the Index is incredibly simple. You can ditch your Link Box, since the Index headset runs a monocable that splits into a Displayport, a USB port, and a power adapter. All you need to do is plug them into your PC and wall outlet. For the base stations, setup is much like the Vive stations: you mount them above your eye level on opposite corners of your play space, and you connect them to your PC with a USB cable.
Once you launch Steam VR and turn on your controllers, your PC will auto-detect your headset and you can start playing. This is a refreshing upgrade from the driver installations needed for the Vive and Vive Pro. On the other hand, setting up the Index is still harder than setting up the Oculus Rift S, which uses inside-out tracking and thus doesn’t need any base stations—setup is just plugging the headset into the PC.
The Valve Index is easily the most comfortable and premium headset we’ve used. It feels a lot like the Vive Pro, but it has squishier padding and better weight distribution. The Index headset is still a little front-heavy, but we had no issues wearing it for hours at a time. Thanks to the various lens adjustment sliders, we had no problem getting our lenses in focus. The front padding pops off in case you need more space for your glasses. There is little to no outside light leakage, and the headset stays in place during long gaming sessions. The Index controllers are similarly comfortable, molding to your hands and making it easy to forget you’re even using them.
The Valve Index is easily the most comfortable and premium headset we’ve used.
However, the Index does have one major problem: heat. During intense play sessions, we found the headset interior would fog up and obscure our lenses, forcing us to take breaks. Similarly, the controllers’ crude plastic would hold onto sweat and make them slippery. Beat Saber felt like a test in our sauna resistance.
The Valve Index easily has the best lenses in any headset by the big three (Valve, HTC, Oculus). It has the same resolution as the Vive Pro: two 1440 x 1600p lenses, but the Index uses LCD panels with full RGB subpixellation. In comparison to the Vive Pro’s OLED pentile displays, the Index’s lenses are sharp and have much less of a screen door effect. Text is extremely easy to read with the Index headset, and colors are bright. Unfortunately, the Index had to give up rich blacks for this clarity. The LCD panels have slightly worse contrast and worse light bleed compared to their older OLED cousins. Overall, however, these are minor drawbacks if it means the minimal screen door effect we get with the Index display.
The phenomenal refresh rates, wide FOV, and gorgeously clear display make it hard to abandon our Index in favor of any other headset on the market.
One of the Index’s major selling points is its improved field of view. Valve is careful not to quote a number, since the lenses’ distance from your eyes will affect your field of view, but it is definitely greater than either the Vive Pro or the Rift S. It is easily the widest field in consumer headsets right now, and the lenses have no distortion due to the better peripheral vision. It pairs really well with the Index’s other major feature—its refresh rate.
For the first time, mainstream VR has a 120Hz display. In comparison, the Rift S downgraded to 80Hz from the Rift’s 90Hz, and the Vive Pro has a 90Hz refresh rate. 120Hz feels much crisper and makes gaming feel more lifelike. If 120Hz is not enough, you can overclock the headset to 144Hz. The phenomenal refresh rates, wide FOV, and gorgeously clear display make it hard to abandon our Index in favor of any other headset on the market.
The Index has nailed VR. It has no trouble pushing incredible refresh rates, and its controllers are wonderfully accurate. On a machine with an Intel Core i7-8700k CPU and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080, we never dipped below 90Hz refresh, and we were usually hovering around 100Hz to 110Hz. Surely, we would have seen even better performance from an RTX 2080 Super, for instance, and we’re confident you can get at least 90Hz with a GTX 1070 or better.
Currently, the Valve Index’s greatest performance hiccup isn’t its hardware—it’s the software around it. Some games have taken care to work with the Index controllers, and they play phenomenally. However, a lot of games have not worked with the Index’s finger sensors to make the controllers feel as responsive and intuitive as they could feel. Sometimes, the controllers seem to be pointing at the wrong angle because the game treats them like a Rift Touch or Vive controller instead of an Index controller. Otherwise, tracking is as good as with the HTC Vive lineup, and better than the Rift lineup.
Currently, the Valve Index’s greatest performance hiccup isn’t its hardware—it’s the software around it.
Valve bucked convention with its decision to give the Index bi-directional speakers instead of just headphones or fixed speakers. The speakers can rotate on two axes and move vertically, allowing you to position them so they lay a few inches from the middle of your ear and point right at your ear canal. They’re not isolated, so you can hear your environment, but those around you can’t hear much of what’s going on in your headset.
Once your speakers are properly adjusted, they sound phenomenal. The sound is all-encompassing, feeling like it’s coming from all around you. It’s nicely detailed, letting you pick up on the nuances of your environment, and should just overall be perfect for most VR users. If you feel that you want a more hi-fi experience than the Index provides, however, you can plug in your own audio device into the headset’s front 3.5mm audio jack.
Once your speakers are properly adjusted, they sound phenomenal. The sound is all-encompassing, feeling like it’s coming from all around you.
There are a lot of fun VR games and experiences out there, and VR devs are doing some truly innovative work. However, many VR-exclusive games share a fatal flaw; a lack of polish and scale due to a lack of funding. Most of VR’s biggest, most impactful titles are not exclusives (Skyrim, No Man’s Sky, Elite: Dangerous, Superhot), making it difficult to justify getting a VR headset for games you could already be playing on your PC or console.
However, this is changing thanks to funding from Oculus Studios. Asgard’s Wrath is one of the first AAA VR-only titles, and it is breathtaking. For Christmas, we will also be seeing Stormland from Insomniac Games, the studio behind Spiderman (PlayStation 4). Unfortunately, traditional AAA publishers are more hesitant to pump money into VR-exclusive titles, so we expect the best VR games to be available for non-VR, too. This is great for those without VR headsets, but it means that we will see a slower development of novel, game-changing VR conventions.
If you find yourself yearning over the Oculus store’s great titles, don’t worry; there’s software to help you play Oculus games through SteamVR. ReVive is a free, open-source software that ports your Oculus games into SteamVR, so you don’t need a Rift S or Quest to play Asgard’s Wrath.
The Valve Index is, unfortunately, a luxury product, costing $999 for the full kit. Excluding the Vive Pro, it is currently the most expensive VR kit. If you love VR and can afford it, we think the Index justifies its steep price tag, as it’s a well-made product with no notable performance issues. It does provide a significant upgrade over the Vive, the Rift, and the Rift S. However, if you’re looking to upgrade your Vive and want to save a bit of money, we did not find a practical difference between the Vive and Index base stations, so you could just upgrade the headset and controllers for $499 and $279 respectively.
Today, most VR enthusiasts are asking themselves this question: should I buy the Valve Index or the Rift S? If you’re new to VR, you should seriously consider the Rift S over the Index, since it’s only $400, has a dead-simple setup process, and works really well as-is. For $600, you will be giving up manual IPD adjustment, the Index’s screen, and the Index’s refresh rate. The Rift S has a 1440 × 1280 LCD display with an 80Hz refresh rate, which can be a problem for those prone to motion sickness or headaches. However, most people should be fine, and once you grow VR legs, you’ll be having as much fun as Index owners.
The Vive Pro is another excellent headset, but for $1300, you will get worse controllers and a lower refresh rate than the Index. There is little reason to buy a Vive Pro over an Index. Similarly, there are better options over the original Vive or Rift.
As for the Oculus Quest, it’s a difficult comparison to make to the Index. The Quest is awesome in that it’s a totally wireless headset that doesn’t require a PC. However, that also limits the kinds of games you can play, as you can’t run something like Skyrim VR or No Man’s Sky on the Quest’s onboard GPU. However, Oculus is going to roll out an update that will bring support for PCVR, but that requires you to tether yourself to a cable so you lose the wireless aspect of this. Ultimately, you should be asking yourself if you prefer a bigger games library or total untethered freedom if you’re deciding between a Quest and an Index.
The Index is VR’s best (and most costly) asset.
The future of VR is here with the Valve Index. VR enthusiasts finally have a responsive, crisp, powerful VR kit that can bring you your wildest VR dreams. If you already love VR, then rest assured that the Index is fairly priced for $999, but we understand if VR’s software library isn’t robust enough to get you excited about spending a small fortune on a luxury item.
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