What is the HTC Vive Pro?
We’re now more than two years on from the launch of the first consumer-focused VR headsets, and it feels like the white-hot excitement that surrounded the technology has cooled considerably.
Oculus started with one of the most exciting early crowdfunding campaigns back in 2012, grew to become Facebook’s second-biggest acquisition in 2014, and pretty soon everyone from Sony to Samsung was competing for their part of the virtual reality pie.
Of these new entrants, HTC was the most promising. Its first-generation VR headset, the HTC Vive, had the backing of Valve and its mighty Steam marketplace, and arrived on the market complete with motion controllers and room-scale tracking, which the Oculus Rift lacked at the time.
But over time the reality of, well, virtual reality started to kick in. The enormous cost of these headsets – both in terms of the money needed to purchase them and a PC powerful enough to power them, not to mention the space required to use them – just wasn’t matched by the experience available.
To their credit, neither Oculus nor HTC have given up, but both have opted to go in completely different directions with their solution. Oculus recently launched the Oculus Go, a budget headset that dispenses with the expensive PC and room-scale tracking to offer a much more accessible experience.
HTC, with its Vive Pro, is offering a no-holds-barred premium VR experience that’s the culmination of all the advances in technology we’ve seen over the two years since the release of its predecessor.
What advances, I hear you ask? Allow me to explain.
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HTC Vive Pro Review – Design, specs and sound
The resolution of the screen has seen a substantial upgrade over the original Vive’s, but it’s the upgraded physical design of the headset itself that most struck me about the Vive Pro.
When it comes to heavy head-mounted displays, straps are important. The original HTC Vive was equipped with a pretty basic elastic strap that focused more on trying to keep the headset in position than on comfort.
The single biggest problem this created was with the weight distribution. The Vive weighed heavily on the front of the face, pulling your head forward and creating neck pain over even medium-length periods of use.
In contrast, the Vive Pro has a much more substantial strap, which ensures more even distribution of weight across your head; it doesn’t cause ache nearly as quickly. The increased weight of the device overall, however, does mean that your neck will definitely feel sore eventually – but it won’t happen nearly as quickly.
This beefier strap also has a pair of on-ear headphones built in, which makes the headset yet more convenient to wear. Although I found the earcups didn’t quite come down far enough to sit entirely over my ears, it remains a significant improvement over having to put on headphones while your eyes are covered with a hunk of plastic. We also liked the inclusion of volume controls on the rear of the left earcup.
It all adds up to make this piece of hardware feel far more polished than the first-generation model. Endlessly fiddling with a headset’s straps to try to stop light from bleeding into it via the nose cut-out felt like using a piece of developer hardware. In contrast, the Vive Pro feels like something approaching a finished product.
The cushions are a little sweatier than whatever magic material Oculus managed to find for the Oculus Go, and the field of view could still do with being a little wider. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the Vive Pro’s hardware design is a massive step forward.
That’s before we even begin to discuss the screen, which bumps up the resolution from 2160 x 1200 to a significant 2880 x 1600. This results in an increase in the sharpness of the image, and decreases the ‘screen-door effect’, where the black space between each of the pixels is visible.
We’ll get on to discussing the full implications of this resolution increase in a moment, but first…
HTC Vive Pro Review – Setup
To HTC’s credit, setting up the Vive Pro is certainly simpler than the Vive, but the realities of room-scale are still likely to make the process a bit of a mission for most people.
For those who haven’t used a VR headset before, room-scale is the term used to describe the way the headset will track you as you move around an entire room. But in order for that to work, you need to be in a space where you don’t have to worry about bumping into a coffee table or sofa.
Depending on the size of your living space, it could be a challenge to clear the minimum of 2m x 1.5m you need – and some games such as LA Noire: The VR Case Files will require more than that.
Once you’ve cleared a space, you’ll need to set up the two base stations that track the location of the headset and the two motion controllers. Note that both the base stations and motion controllers remain unchanged from the first Vive, but upgraded versions are in the works. Neither of these are included as standard with the Vive Pro.
This adds further complexity, since you’ll need to ensure these are as high up as possible (HTC recommends 2m as ideal). Unless you’re able to screw these into your wall, you’ll either have to find tripods on which to mount them, or place them on top of your furniture and hope for the best.
At this point I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s perfectly possible to use the Vive Pro without utilising room-scale by putting it in ‘standing only’ mode, but I’d argue that it would be much more cost-efficient to buy a cheaper VR headset such as the Oculus Go or Google Daydream View. You’re paying the price premium for the Vive because of room-scale, and it’s much harder to justify without it.
Once you’ve set up your play space, hooking up everything to your computer is relatively simple. The small control box that plugs into your PC now has just a single cable connecting to the headset, and the Vive’s setup software does a good job of walking you through the entire process.
So, yes – setup was a pain with the original Vive, and it’s a bit of a pain here. Maybe one day we’ll reach a point where VR headsets are able to track their own position from inside the headset itself.; the technology isn’t there just yet, however.
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HTC Vive Pro Review – Apps and gaming
One of the biggest advantages the Vive had over the Rift was its native integration with Steam, and the platform’s VR capabilities have gone from strength to strength since the original headset’s release.
That doesn’t just mean that there are now hundreds of virtual reality titles on the platform, but the whole interface has also improved to make it much less of a struggle to move between them.
SteamVR Home is a decent interface from which to select games, and it also doubles as a social space if you want to hang out with friends. Capabilities such as being able to look at your desktop from within a headset reduce the number of times you’ll have to take off the wearable just to read a couple of slack notifications (it’s here that the increase in resolution really helps).
But interface aside, what really matters here are the games, and the new headset makes them just as enjoyable to play as ever.
The strange thing is, it will be a while before you actually notice the increase in resolution. Sure, the bits of text that appear here and there are that bit sharper, but developers have spent two years learning to design games that work on low-resolution headsets, and no-one in their right mind is going to make a game that only functions on the Pro.
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As a result, games such as Beat Saber and Space Pirate Trainer, with their bright chunky graphics and spacious UIs, aren’t the best way to show off the increased resolution of the headset.
Instead, its resolution brings more subtle benefits. You can make out details from further afield in Arizona Sunshine for instance, or read the writing in your notepad in LA Noire without having to hold it right up to your face.
It’s small details like being able to read the on-screen background text at the start of Superhot VR that remind you of the increased resolution of the screen.
Make no mistake, the screen-door effect is still present, and we also experienced a fair amount of aliased edges during our time with the Vive Pro, but it’s much better than anything else on the market.
Over time, if the proportion of Vive Pros to Vives increases in the market, I imagine developers will start to make more intentional use of the increased resolution. For now, though, it sits firmly in the ‘nice to have’ territory rather than being outright essential.
While the resolution improvement is welcome, in my opinion it’s the comfort of the headset that’s really stuck in my mind. I was able to happily throw myself around like an idiot while playing Beat Saber, and not feel the hardware moving on my face – or become distracted by light bleeding in from the outside world while scaring myself silly in Arizona Sunshine.
The headstrap also features a neat little design that keeps the cable away from the back of your neck, which further helps you immerse yourself in your virtual world.
The HTC Vive Pro remains a heavy piece of hardware, so you’ll absolutely start feeling it eventually. We played for around an hour before the inevitable neck ache crept in – but, of course, individual mileage will vary massively.
Overall, yes, the headset feels very iterative, but it’s adding to what was already one of the best VR headsets around. Its arrival doesn’t mean that we’ve reached a point where VR makes sense for absolutely everyone, but nor is it a useless development that just repackages what we’ve used before.
Why buy the HTC Vive Pro?
In the end, it all comes down to that price. VR was already an expensive proposition, and between the increase in computing power and the £799 price point, the Vive Pro isn’t looking to become anyone’s budget option.
Nor does it solve the biggest issues with VR. There’s still no single game that warrants the purchase of a headset, and the space requirements will still be a challenge for many. It fixes the smaller issues around the periphery, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
The Vive Pro is the VR headset for someone who’s already bought into the idea of virtual reality. Maybe you already have an HTC Vive and you’ve become tired of its uncomfortable fit, or maybe you just want to benefit from a higher-resolution screen. The HTC Vive Pro is the perfect choice here.
But if you haven’t had the space for VR in the past, or if you’re worried that your PC won’t be powerful enough, than the Vive Pro isn’t the headset for you – and nor is it trying to be.
The best VR headset around just took a significant step forward. If you were a fan of the Vive then you’ll appreciate the improvements made with the Vive Pro, but if VR isn’t for you then the Pro isn’t the headset that will change your mind.