My introduction to the Index, Valve’s first-ever top-to-bottom PC virtual reality system, was a whirlwind of numbers and demos. Valve’s three-hour hands-on event in April came with a considerable blast of specs, claims, and pre-release software, but while those ranged from puzzling to impressive, none of them stayed with me like one off-hand comment from the day.
During an informal Valve Q&A after my tests, I talked about how impressed I’d already been by the Oculus Quest’s “good enough” performance as a wireless, standalone VR headset. How would the pricier, wired, more demanding Valve Index fit into that kind of marketplace, I asked?
“I don’t use VR for 30 minutes a day,” one Valve engineer said in response. “I use VR a day. What’s good enough for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, is dramatically different than one hour, two hours.”
This engineer was on to something that couldn’t be sold in a whirlwind press event: the Index difference in the home. I’ve been testing that angle for nearly a week thanks to an early Index shipment that Valve is letting press discuss in a “preview” capacity—meaning, this is a fully fledged review ahead of the system’s June 28 launch ($999 for the full Index system, $499 for just the headset without its required “lighthouse” tracking boxes or any controllers). A lot could change in a month.
Instead, this piece revolves around that Valve engineer’s implied suggestion: strap into a Valve Index for hours at a time, make it part of my workday, and see the resulting difference. These tests (which include typing the majority of this preview with an Index as my “monitor”) have been telling. Valve Index isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it is absolutely the first VR system I can use for long periods of time without feeling “VR swimminess.” Until someone else shows up with a system that exceeds Index’s weaknesses capitalizes on its best improvements, I do not see myself switching back to another PC VR headset.
Playing the field… of view
|Valve Index||HTC Vive Pro|
|Display||2880×1600 (1440×1600 per eye) “fast-switching” LCD panels||2880×1600 (1440×1600 per eye) AMOLED panel|
|Refresh rate||80Hz, 90Hz, 120Hz, or 144Hz||90Hz|
|Field of view||130 degrees with integrated FOV “eye relief” knob||110 degrees|
|Audio||Near-field off-ear speakers with 3D directional audio support; built-in microphone||Integrated adjustable earcups with 3D directional audio support; built-in microphone|
|PC connection||Custom single-piece cable (USB 3.0 Type-A, DisplayPort)||Custom single-piece cable (USB 3.0 Type-A, DisplayPort) with PC junction box|
|Optional Bundled Accessories||Two wireless motion-tracked controllers with rechargeable batteries, two SteamVR 2.0 room-scale tracking stations||Two wireless motion-tracked controllers with rechargeable 960mAh batteries, two SteamVR 1.0 room-scale tracking stations|
|Modularity||Front trunk (“frunk”) expansion port with USB 3.0 connector; front-facing stereo cameras||Front-facing stereo cameras|
|Price||$499 ($999 with two tracking stations, two controllers)||$799 ($1,099 with two tracking stations, two controllers)|
As a recap: the complete Valve Index package includes a headset, a pair of controllers, and a pair of “lighthouse” tracking boxes. These are all compatible with other existing SteamVR devices—meaning, you can mix and match the headsets, controllers, and tracking boxes from the HTC Vive, HTC Vive Pro, and Valve Index (and thus buy less Index hardware if you want to reuse elements that you already own). In very good news, I was able to plug and unplug elements from all three of those systems on the same PC, boot back into SteamVR’s software, and enjoy full compatibility, even in the Index’s very early preview period.
I’ll start with the headset, which I’ll call the “Index” from here on out for simplicity’s sake. You’ve seen headsets like this before, with a ski-goggle strap, hovering speakers, and a pair of high-resolution panels translated by a pair of curved Fresnel lenses to simulate a virtual reality sensation. Connect it to a “gaming”-grade PC, strap it over your head, then either stand up in a room with cleared floors or sit in a comfortable chair. Use either a pair of hand-tracked controllers or standard hardware like keyboard, mouse, and gamepad to play with software while you’re transported to another world.
The Index difference begins with a noticeably boosted field of view (FOV) compared to the competition. VR users in general can expect to have their peripheral vision blacked out to some extent, thanks to inherent limitations from a pair of lenses. The Index is no exception, but Valve promises “20 degrees more” FOV than any existing consumer-grade VR headset on the market—no matter what size of face or pair of glasses you bring into the headset.
If you strap into an Oculus or HTC headset, you can expect a “maximum” FOV of roughly 110 degrees, but that number shrinks if you have bulky glasses or an awkward face fit into the headset. Index, on the other hand, has placed its pair of LCD screens on a mechanical array that does two clever things: it applies a 5-degree “canting” angle to the screens, and it includes an additional FOV-specific slider to let users bring those lenses as close to their cheeks or glasses as is physically comfortable.
Index’s FOV difference is absolutely noticeable for average, no-glasses users. As I noticed at the Index reveal event, the best showcase for this difference comes from widescreen-ratio videos, and I’ve since watched quite a few of those in my Index. I have gotten into the habit of booting into SteamVR’s app (which I prefer over SteamVR’s built-in desktop-mirror option), loading full 4K-resolution videos, and positioning them to simulate the feeling of sitting in a “perfect” movie theater seat—not too close, not too far. I can do this with the Valve Index and expect to sit roughly two “rows” closer to the video image than I can with the HTC Vive Pro.
Add my large, Seattle-hipster glasses to the mix, and that difference jumps a whole ‘nother two rows. Index accommodates glasses in a more comfortable manner than any other consumer-grade VR headset, period.