Valve doesn’t make anything anymore, right? At least that’s the meme. The company just sits back and cashes those sweet Steam store checks. Except Valve absolutely still makes things. Sure, it’s easy to overlook its recent games like Artifact and Dota Underlords if you aren’t into card battlers or auto chess. But Valve has also spent years researching and developing virtual reality into a product. Now, it’s ready to sell its own hardware.
After working with partner HTC on the Vive, Valve is launching the high-end VR head-mounted display Valve Index all on its own. This is a top-of-the-line HMD with an impressive list of specs that put it ahead of competitors like the Oculus Rift S.
But as is standard for high-end VR, the technology comes with a lot of caveats. The full kit with headset, controllers, and base stations is $1,000. Or you can get it for $750 if you’re upgrading from a full HTC Vive kit. You also still need the powerful PC, a tethered cable, and the external tracking stations. This is the direct inverse of Oculus’s all-in-one Quest.
So does the Index overcome those hurdles? Is it good enough to justify the price and inconvenience. I think so. In all the ways that the Quest feels like the future of VR from a form factor standpoint, the Index is the future of VR in every other way.
What you’ll like
A stunning display
In trying to sell a $1,000 headset, Valve knows that it has to have the best display technology without exception. And it accomplished that goal. The Index uses two 1,440-by-1,600 LCD panels that it designed specifically for VR.
With these displays, the Index has the exact same resolution as HTC’s Vive Pro. But HTC uses OLED screens, which are excellent for contrast and recreating realistic blacks. But the drawback is that the pixels on an OLED are more pronounced. This creates a noticeable screen door effect where you can see the black lines between the pixels. Index’s LCD pixels minimize the screen door to the point where I almost never notice it. I have to specifically look for it, and even then, I only see it when looking certain objects like distant foliage.
The LCD screens also enables Valve to offer a higher refresh rate of 120Hz and even 144Hz in an experimental mode. That is significantly faster than the industry standard of 90Hz. And this creates a noticeably smoother image when you look around a world. I’m not surprised by how much of a difference it made, though. We’ll hit a point of diminishing returns eventually with refresh rate, but the jump from 90 frames per second to 120 fps is almost as big as 60 to 90.
Valve also did the work on the optical system of the Index to ensure a wider field-of-view. Valve claims that it’s about 20 degrees more than the Vive. And what’s most important is that the FOV increase doesn’t come with any real visual distortions or anomalies.
It’s just the best that VR has ever looked in a consumer headset.
The VR audio
But Valve didn’t focus on what you see at the expense of what you hear. The Index includes a pair of excellent ear speakers that are so much better than anything I’ve used in other headsets up to this point.
Unlike headphones, the ear speakers hover over your ears without touching them. They instead blast sound toward your head while also letting in all of the ambient noise of the real world around you. That real-world room noise is important for keeping you grounded and making you comfortable. If someone walks up to you, you’re going to hear them.
But then the speakers also sound amazing on top of that. They are loud and crisp but also capable of producing deep booming bass when you need it. And since they are hovering away from your head, they are excellent at creating natural sounding audio for room-sized spaces.
Index controllers are an improvement
You can get Index with Valve’s new controllers, and they are a big improvement over the Vive and, in many ways, the Oculus Touch. Like the Touch, the Index controllers are all about finger articulation. It has sensors for 10 digits, which means you can stick out your pinky or easily give people the bird.
The index controllers also easily strap to your hands. This means you don’t have to have to actively hold them. You can let go of the device, and the strap keeps it firmly in place. Picking up and letting go of objects now works like it does in the real world. After years in VR where you are pulling a trigger or grip to mimic the act of picking up objects, this is a profound leap forward.
The Valve Index is very comfortable. It has all of the modern straps and adjustment knows that you would expect in a post-PlayStation VR world. And I was able to use those options to dial in the comfort so that I could wear the Index for more than an hour without fatigue or pain.
If the headset is digging into your face or skull, that’s a sign that you’re wearing it wrong. And adjusting the settings while you have it on is really simple. As someone who is impatient, I really appreciate that.
What you won’t like
Limited support for Index controllers
The Index and its controllers are great, but they are also frustrating in a lot of games. A lengthy list of developers and games have added native support for the Index controllers. And that’s great. But you’re going to run into some popular games that don’t have support — at least not yet.
I tried to play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR Edition with the Index controllers despite its lack of native support. Like with standard games, Steam gave me a number of different re-map options, but nothing fully worked. In one setup, I could move but not interact with anything. In another, I could interact but not move.
This is, hopefully, a temporary problem. Either devs will add better support, or the community will find better ways to re-map each game. But I definitely found myself looking for my old Vive controllers in some games.
Yeah, $1,000 is a lot of money. Pricing is always such a hard thing to talk about in a review because everyone is different. But at this point in the life of VR, I’m confident in saying that the Index is out of most people’s price range.
The biggest issue is that the Quest has totally rejiggered the value proposition of VR. A Quest with 128GB of storage is $500. Again, that’s the all-in price. You don’t need a beefy PC. You don’t even need a dedicated room because you don’t need to set up stationary trackers.
And the Index is significantly better than the Quest. They are doing different things. Once is a mobile device and the other is a peripheral for powerhouse gaming rigs. But, for most people, the Quest is beyond that important “good enough” threshold.
That doesn’t mean an audience for Index doesn’t exist. It does. But they are just going to have to pay a premium.
The Valve Index is the best head-mounted display that a consumer can buy off the shelf. But it’s probably not the best for you. You need an even more powerful PC to take advantage of the improved resolution and refresh rate. That means you’re still tethered to a computer and to external tracking stations. And let’s not ignore the price.
While the Index is better than any other headset, it’s not $400-to-$600 better than them.
But, be honest, you already knew whether or not you would spend $1,000 on a VR headset before you read this review.
For those of you who want the best and can afford it, however, the Index is the only choice. If you don’t care about price-to-performance ratios, then don’t hesitate. Go get one. The Index is the best VR experience you can have at home.
The Valve Index is available now for $1,000 in its full configuration. Valve Software provided GamesBeat with a sample unit of the $1,000 version for the purpose of this review.