Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive: Which is the Better Headset?

One of the hardest decisions to make when jumping on the virtual reality bandwagon is what headset you should buy. The Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive debate is even worse now than it was when they hit the market in 2016 given the prices have dropped dramatically, the libraries are bigger, and the Rift now includes motion controllers and room-scale support.

The big problem with VR is that it’s a budding market: VR is still a niche industry that’s striving to become the new entertainment delivery platform. We’ve seen virtual reality in science-fiction for decades, and it’s finally here, but not in the mind-blowing form we all envisioned. High-end VR demands lots of cash, it demands a beefy PC, and right now, it’s not meant for the everday Joe.

But if you have the cash and an inching for the virtual realm, the Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive argument can get overwhelming. We dive in to explain how we got here, what’s under their respective hoods, and discover the positives and negatives of each platform.

Not wanting to spend a fortune on VR? Mobile VR is probably a better solution for you. In fact, you can even get a VR headset that works with the iPhone.

The Story

This is actually quite interesting, especially for PC gamers who thrived on Quake and Half-Life in the 1990s. Now under the ZeniMax umbrella, id Software co-founder and lead programmer John Carmack was working on his own VR headset when he started chatting with another collector and tinkerer of VR headsets, Palmer Luckey.

During their first face-to-face meeting, Carmack appeared highly impressed by Luckey’s original prototype and volunteered to tighten the computer vision algorithms that made the VR headset work. Carmack eventually introduced a Rift prototype to the world during E3 2012 running a VR version of Doom 3.

Thanks to the sudden widespread exposure, Luckey decided to drop out of college shortly thereafter to form OculusVR and launch a Kickstarter project to fund further development. Carmack resigned from id Software to serve as Chief Technology Officer for OculusVR by the end of 2013. Facebook bought company in 2014 for $2 billion.

At first, Half-Life and Counter-Strike developer Valve Software backed the Oculus Rift. Both games are based on the GoldSrc engine (aka Gold Source), which is a heavily modified version of John Carmack’s id Tech 2 engine created for the original Quake game. Valve was already working on VR but decided in 2014 that it would share its new tracking technology with OculusVR for the Rift project.

Yet once Facebook acquired OculusVR, Valve Software began communicating with smartphone manufacturer HTC who was already working on a headset of its own. Years later, the HTC Vive hit the market backed by Valve Software‘s SteamVR platform and its Lighthouse technology, following the Oculus Rift’s debut by mere weeks.

HTC Vive

HTC Vive.

The Hardware

Despite the underlying history that connects these two headsets together, what exactly makes them different? For that answer, let’s start with the hardware. When it comes to the hardware of the Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive, they are both are generally the same, providing two screens with 1,080 x 1,200 resolutions running at 90Hz. If you’re not familiar with that latter number, it means these screens can render images/frames 90 times per second. That’s the sweet spot for VR given anything less than that may cause motion sickness.

The HTC Vive relies on a slightly larger set of screens at 3.58 inches versus 3.54 inches on the Oculus Rift. The field of view on the HTC Vive is slightly wider as well measuring around 100 degrees horizontally while the Oculus Rift has a horizontal field of view at 80 degrees. The “official” numbers for both are around 110 degrees.

Here are the hardware specifications:

HTC Vive Oculus Rift
Display type: PenTile OLED PenTile OLED
Display size: 3.58 inches (447 ppi) 3.54 inches (456 ppi)
Resolution per eye: 1,080 x 1,200 1,080 x 1,200
Total resolution: 2,160 x 1,200 2,160 x 1,200
Refresh rate: 90Hz 90Hz
Field of view: 100 degrees horizontal (+/-)
110 degrees vertical (+/-)
80 degrees horizontal (+/-)
90 degrees vertical (+/-)
Weight: 1.03 pounds 1.04 pounds
Motion controllers: 2x Motion Controllers 2x Touch Controllers
Standard controller support: Any PC-based Xbox One
External sensors: 2x Lighthouses 2x Constellation sensors
Tracking area: 15 x 15 feet Two sensors: 5 x 5 feet
Three sensors: 8 x 8 feet
Inputs: 1x HDMI 1.4
1x USB-A 2.0
Bluetooth 4.1
1x HDMI 1.3
1x USB-A 3.1
1x USB-A 2.0
Required link box: Yes No
Audio: 1x Microphone
1x Headphone jack
1x Microphone
Integrated headphones
Distribution: Steam
Oculus Store
Launch date: April 5, 2016 March 28, 2016
Price: $500 $400

At launch, the HTC Vive shipped with the headset, two “wand” motion controllers, a “link box,” and two Lighthouses for $800. That price has since dropped to $500, but HTC’s headset was the first of the two products to support room-scale motion tracking. Facebook-owned OculusVR didn’t introduce motion controllers until the end of 2016, which included an additional required sensor.

With the HTC Vive kit, the Link Box resides between your PC and the Vive headset. It serves as a “pass through” for the video, audio, and USB-based input while also supplying power to the headset. That said, the Vive connects to this box using a 16-foot combo cable consisting of power, HDMI and USB connectors. This box then connects to your PC’s HDMI and USB-A ports. The two Lighthouses and two motion controllers don’t have physical connections to the PC or Vive headset, but rather send data via Bluetooth to the Link Box.

The two Lighthouses include stationary infrared LEDs and two infrared lasers – one rotating horizontally and one vertically – that are detected by photosensors mounted on the Vive headset and two controllers. With all three components combined, this system is capable of knowing where the headset and controllers reside within real space, and in what direction.

Oculus Rift in action

Oculus Rift in action.

Meanwhile, the Oculus Rift relies on “Constellation” sensors. The two that ship in the current kit include stands for placing them on any flat surface, but these stands can be removed to mount the sensors anywhere in the play area. Typically, one serves to track the headset while the other tracks the motion controllers, but you’ll need three or more for room-scale experiences.

Like the Lighthouses used with the Vive, the Rift’s Constellation sensors emit infrared light picked up by the photosensors mounted on the headset and controllers. But unlike the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift doesn’t require a Link Box. Instead, the cable connects directly to the HDMI and USB-A 3.1 ports on your PC. There’s no external power supply as seen with the Vive’s Link Box, as the headset relies solely on the PC’s USB port.

Here are the minimum system requirements as of September 2018:

HTC Vive Oculus Rift
Processor: Intel Core i5-4590
AMD FX 8350
Intel Core i3-6100
AMD FX 4350
AMD Ryzen 3 1200
Graphics: GeForce GTX 1060
Radeon RX 480
GeForce GTX 1050Ti
GeForce GTX 960
Radeon RX 470
Radeon R9 290
Memory: 4GB 8GB
Output: HDMI 1.4
DisplayPort 1.2
HDMI 1.3
Input: 1x USB-A 2.0 1x USB-A 3.1
2x USB-A 2.0
Operating system: Windows 7 SP1
Windows 8.1
Windows 10
Windows 10

One thing you might have noticed, we haven’t really focused on the HTC Vive Pro in this article. That’s because if you’re a first time VR buyer, it’s probably not the best choice. In fact, we’d say the HTC Vive Pro is really more for an extremely hardcore VR minority. 

 The Play Area

The big drawback to VR is that you can’t see the real world. Blind as a bat, you could easily knock a hole in your HDTV, smack someone in the face, trip over furniture or walk directly into a wall. Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have a system in place that prevents this type of self-inflicted damage.

On the Oculus Rift, this system is called Guardian. It’s established during the setup process, requiring you to grab a Touch controller, press the Trigger Button, and draw a line along the outer edges of your play space. If you’re only using two sensors, that’s a 5 x 5-foot area; 8 x 8-foot if you’re using three sensors. These boundaries are then saved and used during each experience. That said, this system throws up a blue-green grid when you get too close to a boundary.

HTC Vive’s Chaperone setup process.

The HTC Vive’s version is called Chaperone. The setup process is essentially the same although your play area is a larger 15 x 15 feet. Chaperone also throws up a blue grid when you get too close to a boundary. The difference here is that the HTC Vive includes a camera mounted on the front, allowing you to briefly see the real world in a light-blue tint before crashing into the HDTV or couch.

What’s important to note here is that, by default, both VR headsets are tethered to your PC. Both include a single “combo” cord that’s long enough for you to enjoy room-scale motion tracking, but can get tied up around your legs like a tree-hugging snake. This can get annoying during highly-active sessions.

But HTC has your back. The company just introduced the Vive Wireless Adapter for $300, a device that mounts on the headset’s top head strap. Looking like an angry Pikachu with slumped “ears,” you can jump around in real-world space without any wires. But the catch is that your playtime will only last around 2.5 hours due to the wireless adapter’s built-in battery. You’ll also need an empty PCI Express slot inside your PC to mount the adapter’s WiGig-based receiver.

Ultimately when it comes to the Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive, the Vive has better play area support. Though for those with limited space, it’s an argument that probably won’t matter much.

The Controllers

When it comes to the Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive, the controllers functionn similiarly but look quite different.

The controllers for the HTC Vive are wand-like with a single giant ring on the end. Despite their weird form factor, these Wands fit comfortably in your hand although, by appearance, they visually look heavier in the ring area. But that’s not the case, as they’re perfectly balanced and anchored to your wrists via the included straps.

Each Wand sports a circular touch pad that also serves as a button. You’ll also find a “grip” button resting under your left or right thumb on each side of the wand, a trigger button for your pointing finger, a Menu button above the touchpad and a system button below the trackpad.

Vive controllers.

Look closely at the rings and you’ll see tiny, circular divots. They are actually infrared sensing cavities sporting infrared filters: 24 total for each Wand, in fact. They receive the infrared light and beams emitted from the Lighthouses, which are transmitted into tracking data.

Meanwhile, the Touch controllers for the Oculus Rift have a different ergonomic design. They sport misshapen rings packing sensors as well, but the sculpted grip isn’t quite as long, providing enough handle space to fit nice and snug within your enclosed hand.

Oculus Rift and two touch controllers.

Joining these grips and rings together are small circular “pads” sporting an analog thumbstick, two A/B buttons, the Oculus Home button, and a small circular touchpad. Underneath this area, you’ll find a trigger button for your pointing finger and a side trigger for your middle finger.

Of the two controllers, the Oculus Touch is the better design. These controllers aren’t bulky extensions of your hand as seen with the Vive Wands, fitting perfectly into your grip like a pair of not-quite-so-steel knuckles. The buttons aren’t spaced far apart like those on the Vive Wands either, and the Touch controllers even provide the A/B buttons typically found on gamepads.

But HTC’s Vive Wands provide improved motion-tracking performance thanks to Valve’s Lighthouse technology – even when you’re using only one Lighthouse. They’re bulky, sure, but as previously stated, they’re not heavy despite their  overall appearance. HTC’s Wands have larger touchpads too.

That said, there’s no clear winner in this VR controller race. Both are first-generation models with good and bad points that could stand for some refinement.

Fallout VR is just one example of a AAA VR title.. even though its not exactly perfect.

The Software

While there are several hardware differences between the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, the big division originally resided within their respective software platforms. Catering the PC gamers – who were the target audience anyway – the HTC Vive supported Valve software’s Steam platform at launch. Vive owners could also purchase software through HTC’s stand-alone Viveport platform, both of which are currently accessible from within the Vive headset.

But unlike the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift launched with a “closed” marketplace called the Oculus Home Store. Owners could also unofficially “side-load” VR-based Steam games by removing the headset and launching them on the Windows desktop. Oculus added native support for off-platform games in 2017, meaning owners could see and launch their Steam games from within the Rift headset.

In an interesting move, HTC brought its Viveport VR Store to the Oculus Rift, giving Rift owners access to everything through HTC’s platform. Rift owners also now have access to the Viveport Subscription, which serves up 500 VR titles for a monthly fee. This subscription service includes Seeking Dawn, Fruit Ninja, Knockout League,Pixel Ripped 1989 and more.

One wedge HTC will never use to sell Vive headsets is exclusive content. Joel Breton, VP of global VR content for Vive, said earlier this year that the company doesn’t want to “use content as a weapon” and “punish” customers who purchased a competing VR headset. Facebook’s OculusVR, however, is somewhat of a different story.

Job Simulator is an example of VR gaming done exceptionally well, and one we highly recommend.

From the start, Facebook and OculusVR have had no problem serving up Rift-based exclusives. These include Dead and Buried, Dragon Front,Edge of Nowhere, Lucky’s Tale, Robo Recalland many others. But that stance changed earlier this year as OculusVR’s Matt Conte told developers during the Reboot Develop conference that the company wants VR to thrive, and that OculusVR no longer wants exclusivity.

But whether you choose the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, you’re not going to see high-resolution, crystal-clear experiences. In both cases, you’ll experience the “screen-door effect” due to their wide field of view. This essentially means the lenses magnify the two screens to the point where you’ll see the hardware lines that separate each pixel. As the technology improves, the screen-door effect will subside in future models.

You’ll also discover that many games rely on a point-and-click form of movement. For example, you’ll choose a spot within the virtual realm, press a button, and then instantly transport to that spot. Game controllers may be supported as well in some cases, including Microsoft’s Xbox One controller, but you’ll mostly see the point-and-click method. Why? To reduce motion sickness, especially for when you’re standing.

As a starting point, here are our favorite HTC Vive games as of August 2018. Our pick for the best Oculus Rift games for August 2018 can be found here.

Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive – so which is the better headset?

That’s a good question. This writer purchased the HTC Vive simply due to its native Steam compatibility. According to Valve Software’s Steam Hardware & Software Survey for August 2018, 47.11 percent of the Steam gamers using a VR headset own the Oculus Rift followed by the HTC Vive at 42.58 percent. That shouldn’t be surprising given the Oculus Rift is $100 cheaper and now has access to three platforms – Oculus Home Store, Steam and Viveport – while the HTC Vive only has access to Steam and Viveport.

Play space-wise, the HTC Vive is a better choice with its 15 x 15-foot coverage right out of the box. Meanwhile, the Oculus Rift ships with two sensors covering 5 x 5 feet, and for many that may suffice. Additional sensors cost $60 each, and while the Rift began supporting three sensors at the beginning of 2017, Oculus VR advises owners to stay within that three-sensor limit. The HTC Vive manages its larger play space using only two Lighthouses.

But one of the big drawbacks to the HTC Vive is its audio and cable management. Unlike the Oculus Rift and its integrated headphones, the HTC Vive ships with a cheap pair of earplugs that plug into a 3.5mm audio jack, but you can use any headset you want. It also includes an all-fabric head strap that wraps around your noggin.

Rather than wait to refresh the strap and audio design for the second-generation model, HTC introduced the $100 Vive Deluxe Audio Strap. It provides integrated on-ear headphones, improved cable and weight management, and a hard-side form factor, ditching the fabric. An adjustment dial allows you to customize the headset for most skull sizes.

That said, both require an additional expense to squeeze the full VR experience from these two headsets. The HTC Vive has an advantage in offering wireless connectivity, but the Oculus Rift currently has the upper hand software-wise. The HTC Vive is powered by Steam whereas the Oculus Rift is backed by Facebook.

Ultimately, you’ll see a lot of declarations saying one is better than the other. Both have their weaknesses and strengths. What you need to decide is how much are you willing to pay in the long run, if you’ll need the added expense of upgrading your PC, and whether you’re happy simply buying from Steam or would like access to the exclusive content served up on the Oculus Home Store.

So that’s it for our Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive comparison. Which do you prefer? Decisions decisions.

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