Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar for quality

But the best comes at a price
Valve Index
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Valve has a long and storied history with virtual reality, but the company didn’t actually release a VR system of its own until 2019. That’s when the Valve Index was born.

Until this point, the company had instead helped companies like Oculus (before it was acquired) and HTC to build their systems. But clearly that was no longer enough. It needed to be in the game.

Read this: The best VR headsets

Before we get into the weeds of it, we’ll tell you this: the Valve Index is the most premium virtual reality system you can buy right now. It also costs $1,000 and, as of writing this, you’ll have to join a waiting list to get one.

That may have something to do with the fact Valve finally announced a new Half-Life game (not quite Half-Life 3, but we’ll take it) that will be compatible with the Index system.

We’ve been playing with Index, comparing it to modern systems like the Oculus Rift S, and trying to work out Here’s the verdict.


Valve Index: Design and setup

Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar

In our Oculus Rift S review, we began by lamenting what a hassle it was to get the Valve index set up and how much easier the Rift S was by comparison.

Where Facebook and Oculus have made great strides in making their systems more accessible to the casual user, the Valve Index still feels very oriented towards the VR hobbyist.

Open the box and you’ll see why: there’s a lot to unpack here – literally. The Rift S comes with a headset, two controllers and some batteries.

The Valve Index comes with a headset, two controllers, two base stations for room tracking, wires for said base stations, mounts, another wire to run power to the headset, and charging cables for the controllers.

If you’re looking for something that’s easy to plug and play, the Valve Index is not for you; this is premium VR with all the bells and whistles.

The headset itself looks, well, like a VR headset. It weighs a little over 800g, which is a lot by today's headset standards, but the weight is balanced enough to keep it comfortable for longer play sessions, and the padded headstrap helps.

Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar

The Index has a resolution of 1440 x 1600 per eye and a refresh rate of 120 Hz. That’s sharper than the Rift S, but we have to say the difference isn’t hugely noticeable.

It does mean there’s little screen-door problem here, while the refresh rate is high enough to keep the VR nausea at bay.

Spending $1000 for the Index instead of $399 for the Rift S also bags you a manual IPD adjustor on the headset – something that has been moved to the software level on the Rift S, irritatingly.

You have integrated audio on the Valve Index too, but where the Rift S hides this away in the headset, the Index’s earphones are prominently displayed with something Valve calls "nearfield off-ear speakers," and they sound better. But if you want to pair your own headphones, you have that option.

In terms of system requirements, you can run the Index off an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD RX480 at minimum, however Valve recommends an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 or better.

Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar

Setting up the Valve index is a bit of a hassle. If you’re already using a Vive system in your home, the good news is that the Index works with the “Lighthouse” base stations you have (they were, after all, designed by Valve), so all you’ll need to do is plug in the new headset and get it acquainted with SteamVR.

The only major plus of the new beacons is that they increase the play space, but we wouldn’t say they're an essential upgrade if you're running the older versions.

If this is your first time with VR, or you haven’t used base stations before, then we’re sorry to say you’ve a bit more work to do.

The base stations are what allow the headset and controllers to know their location in the room; it’s what gives the VR system presence and lets you walk around in the virtual world.

But this means finding space for your beacons, which must be placed in opposite corners of your play area and require power to work – which means running more cables through your play space.

There are two beacons in the box, but you can buy more separately, stretching the play area out to 10 x 10 meters if you have four base stations.

The base stations come with screwable mounts which can help angle them when they’re up high, but you don’t have to use them.

Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar

Oculus, on the other hand, now places sensors on the headset that track outwards, thus eliminating the need for external sensors to be placed around the room. It’s far more convenient.

External base stations do have the benefit of more reliably keeping track of everything, but honestly the Rift S’s inside-out tracking is so good, the difference has been hardly noticeable in our experience.

Sadly though, setup frustrations don’t end at the base stations. We spend almost an hour trying to get all the parts talking to each other, a process that involved: updating Steam; updating the base stations; a good 20 minutes of head scratching and then we got SteamVR to register the controllers (hint: right click the controller icons during room-scale setup to pair them - a detail that isn’t made obvious).

But then those controllers come alive. Oh boy, those controllers…

Valve Index: The controllers

Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar

The Index controllers really are something special, and are where the Valve Index trumps all other VR systems. Bearing in mind we’d gone straight from using the Rift Touch controllers, which allow for movement of the index finger and thumb, to the Index's 'knuckle controllers,' which give you full movement of all your digits in VR.

The first time you do it, it’s quite something. It’s not quite as freeing as full hand tracking, as you’re essentially still gripping into two joysticks, but the effect is hugely impressive. The first time you try them out it’s… well it's really cool.

Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar
Oculus Rift S Touch controller (left) next to the Valve Index controller (right)

The controllers do look quite bizarre, like something you’d find on Batman’s utility belt. Each has a joystick, two buttons, a rear trigger, and a trackpad (good for scrolling through items and weapons).

Once you’re set up with SteamVR you’ll be prompted to try Valve’s free Aperture Hand Lab demo, and I suggest you do if only for the moment you get to play rock-paper-scissors with a robot.

Valve Index: SteamVR, games, and in use

Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar for quality

The Index runs off Steam's VR software platform – SteamVR – which Vive owners have been using for years. It's fickle and prone to glitching out, or telling you some part of your setup is suddenly disconnected. We really, really wish it were better.

Oculus' software is much more polished and reliable, but if you're already using a Vive system then SteamVR is home, like it or not. Generally speaking, a lot of PC gamers use Steam anyway and SteamVR isn't all that different – just less predictable in our experience.

Plus, games bought on SteamVR can also be used with Oculus headsets, but anything bought on the Oculus store is locked to Oculus systems only, so there's an element of future-proofing here.

The SteamVR library is pretty strong right now, and there are only a few genuinely worthwhile Oculus exclusives that you're missing out on. Again, Aperture Hand Lab comes highly recommend for giving a sense of the potential in finger tracking in virtual reality, while the rhythm-pounding Beat Saber is extremely fun and well worth your time.

Valve Index review: Virtual reality has a new high bar for quality

Where there are differences is with the controller support, as many games aren't compatible with the full range of finger motion that the knuckle controllers support. The good news is that games that don't translate fine to Valve's more advanced controllers, but when Half Life: Alyx rolls around in March it will be interesting to see how much better it works with Valve's system.

That said, Valve hasn't pushed the boat out entirely on the technology in the Index, despite the prohibitive cost of entry. There's no eye tracking here, for example, something that's starting to seep into other systems. The Index instead feels like the best of this generation, with perhaps a few hint of what next-gen VR has in store.


Valve Index
By Valve
The Valve Index sets a new high bar for VR quality, but this is purely for the hobbyists and most intrepid virtual explorers. While Facebook is moving the needle with affordability and accessibility, Valve is pushing VR forward by upping the fidelity. However, we still think it costs far too much.

Hit
  • The best VR controllers around
  • High-fidelity visuals
  • Room-scale tracking is superb
Miss
  • Setup is a hassle
  • Extremely expensive
  • Needs base stations

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