It's now time for PC VR early adopters to put their marbles into one of two pots: the Vive, with its room-scale focus from day one, or the Oculus Rift, with its impressive lineup of seated launch content. Let's line up their features and specs to help you decide between the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
This won't be your deciding factor, as both headsets give you the same 1080p per-eye resolution.
Years – if not decades – down the road, more advanced VR should have photorealistic visuals, making these two look fuzzy by comparison. But by today's standards, we've been plenty impressed with the fidelity of both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Field of view (diagonal)
We don't know the exact field of view of the Oculus Rift, but Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe told us last June that "it's no less than anything you've seen before." Most people interpret that as meaning about 110 degrees diagonally, which was the FOV of the first Rift development kit (DK1).
Both headsets support a smooth 90 frames per second, which boosts the sense of "presence" (feeling that you're somewhere else) compared to lower frame rates.
This is another spec that will likely go much higher in future generations, for VR that makes reality and virtual reality nearly indistinguishable.
Right now this is the de facto standard in quality VR: you need a low-persistence OLED display. Or, in both of these cases, two OLED panels – one per eye.
Neither manufacturer has listed the dimensions of their headsets, but we know from experience that the somewhat bulbous Vive is easily the bigger of the two.
Ditto for weight: no official specs, but experience tells us the Rift is lighter.
The Rift has a sleeker build, with fabric covering parts of the headset, while the Vive appears to be all plastic. Since this isn't something you'll wear in public, though, we don't recommend basing your decision on design or build materials.
Unlike most flagship smartphones, there aren't any alternative color options for either headset. That may have to wait for another generation or two down the road, when OEMs start trying harder to differentiate and personalize their VR gear.
The Rift has built-in headphones, making for a more unified, put on and play experience. The Vive only includes a pair of earbuds in the box. They'll do a solid enough job, and you can also plug in your own pair of headphones.
We've been impressed with the Oculus Rift's audio experience in our demos, but, if you prefer to use your own, you'll have the option of swapping them out for your own pair.
Both headsets have a built-in mic, for social gameplay or metaverse types of social experiences in VR.
The two headsets let you wear glasses underneath, but the Vive is better in this respect (see next category).
Lens distance (from face) adjustment
The Vive also lets you slide its lenses forwards and backwards, to either give you more space for glasses (farther) or optimize your field of view (closer) if you don't wear glasses. The Rift's lack of forward lens movement can make wearing glasses underneath somewhat uncomfortable compared to the Vive.
Unlike the mobile Samsung Gear VR, neither of the PC-based headsets lets you tweak the focus. If you wear corrective lenses, either glasses or contacts, then you'll need to put those on before entering the matrix.
Interpupillary distance (IPD) adjustment
Both the Vive and Rift let you adjust the lenses' horizontal distance, to find the best position for your unique facial structure.
Only mobile VR is completely wireless; it's going to be a while until we see PC-based VR where you don't have a long cord/tail hanging down from the back of your head. Keep that in mind for the next category.
This is the Vive's killer feature, as HTC and Valve are going all-in on the room-scale element of VR from the get-go. That means first-person simulations that let you walk around in up to a (roughly) 15 x 15 ft. space, putting your fully body into the VR experience.
The Rift will technically be able to support room-scale VR after Oculus Touch launches, by plugging in a second (and maybe third?) positional sensor, but Oculus isn't officially supporting it. The company also isn't likely to emphasize this at all with this first-gen Rift – mostly because of the next category.
If you're doing room-scale, then you need something like the Vive's Chaperone. It's a system that, if you walk close to the edge of your playing space, will pop up a virtual wall to (non-intrusively) let you know it's time to stop moving in that direction. More so than the sensor situation, this is the biggest reason the Rift isn't the one to buy for room-scale.
The step before room-scale is standing VR, where you're also using the motion controllers and can still take a few steps in any direction, but are confined to a smaller general area. This is the category that the Oculus Touch experiences we've seen so far fall into.
Though the Rift's lineup of launch games is much more focused on this, the Vive will also support seated VR experiences where you play with a gamepad in hand. In both cases, the positional sensors will detect leaning and other upper body movement, even when seated.
They also use different approaches to body tracking. The Vive's "Lighthouse" base stations emit lasers that photosensors on the headset and motion controllers track to determine their own positions in space. The Rift's approach is nearly the opposite, using an optical sensor (eventually two) connected to the PC to detect the headset's and controllers' positions in space.
It's possible that optical sensors will be the longer-term destination, as we move into VR where you can see virtual versions of your own hands and fingernails inside virtual worlds. But right now the Vive's solution is more ideal for room-scale. On a technical level you could argue that it will have less room for tracking errors, but either way Lighthouse has the advantage of plugging into wall outlets, rather than PC USB ports like on the Rift.
Another factor is that Oculus is advising Oculus Touch developers to track their games in 180 degrees, with two sensors sitting side-by-side next to your PC. While there is a nice simplicity to that, it's going to mean most Oculus Touch games will encourage you to face in one direction for most of the time. The Vive has 360-degree tracking, giving you excellent accuracy from all directions.
Bundled motion controllers
The two platforms' motion controllers – Oculus Touch (left) and Vive controllers – are very similar, giving you the feeling of having hands inside virtual worlds. Both are very good, and far ahead of PlayStation VR's Wiimote-like PS Move.
The huge advantage for the Vive is that its hands controllers are bundled with the headset from Day One. Oculus Touch doesn't launch until the second half of 2016.
This category emphasizes the Rift's early focus on seated experiences, as it has a wireless Xbox One controller (pictured, left) in the box. The Vive bundle doesn't include a gamepad.
Note that we pictured the Steelseries Stratus XL (above, right) as merely one high quality gamepad option for the Vive. Any PC-friendly controller will do for either platform.
To go along with its room-scale focus, the Vive has a forward-facing camera. A double-tap of a button on its controller will pop up a live view of your environment, to keep you from stepping on poor Rover's tail while roaming around, blasting away at bad guys.
Perhaps this could also allow the Vive to eventually incorporate AR elements, integrating real-world visuals into virtual worlds. Even if it does, though, it's probably going to be at least another generation or two before that kind of thing looks really good in VR.
Minimum graphics card
Your PC's minimum GPU requirements are the same for both headsets. While these are high-end cards, they're still (fortunately) far from the most expensive, running a bit over US$300 either way.
Of course you can also opt for a better card for even higher fidelity visuals, but in this case "minimum" should still mean a high-quality, uncompromised VR experience.
These are similar as well, though Oculus seems to be a bit stingier when it comes to AMD chips (apparently it requires higher single-thread performance that even AMD's top-end processor can't meet). If you're buying the Vive and think there's any chance you'll want to try the Rift later on, you'll want to play it safe and go with an Intel chip, like the listed Core i5-4590 or the (slightly cheaper, but also approved) i5-6400.
HTC says you'll be able to get by with 4 GB of RAM for the Vive, while Oculus is recommending double that. If you're building your PC from scratch for the Vive, we say pay the (relatively minor) difference in price and go with at least 8 GB for future-proofing.
The Rift will eventually require four USB ports, compared to just one for the Vive. Again, that's because the Rift's optical sensors plug directly into the PC, while the Vive's base stations just need power outlets.
A few things, though, to keep in mind. Oculus is including a second positional sensor in this requirement, for when Oculus Touch launches later this year. Until that time, the Rift will only need three USB ports (two 3.0 and one 2.0 or higher).
Also HTC isn't including a port for a gamepad in its listing (Oculus is), so if you want to hook one up for seated Vive experiences, then you can add a second USB 2.0 or higher to its side of the column.
If you're short on ports for the Rift, you can either install a PCI Express expansion card, or (simpler and cheaper) just plug a powered USB splitter accessory into an existing USB 3.0 port.
You'll also need an open video output port on your PC for either headset. HTC gives you the option of using HDMI or DisplayPort, while the Rift is HDMI only. Either way, any compatible graphics card should have the necessary HDMI port. Rift buyers will just need to use a different port for their monitor.
We haven't demoed it yet, but HTC threw in a last-minute Vive feature that syncs your smartphone (via Bluetooth) to let you answer calls and reply to messages while in VR. Now there's no reason to ever come out!
Both headsets require a PC running Windows (Windows 7 SP1 or any version newer than that, including Windows 10). They then veer off from there, filtering through each platform's storefront: SteamVR for the Vive, and Oculus Home for the Rift.
Valve is emphasizing, though, that its platform is open, not requiring you to install Vive software through Steam. Oculus says you can play content from outside of Oculus Home on the Rift as well, but its storefront is where you'll find the numerous exclusives locked into its platform. So while both are technically open, Oculus is offering obvious perks to stay within its storefront's walls.
We think the Rift has a sizable advantage in quality games. We've simply played more Rift games – and many of them look amazing. With that said, Valve's SteamVR games for the Vive have advantages of their own, featuring highlights like the post-apocalyptic, moving platform shooter Hover Junkers, the hilarious workplace sandbox Job Simulator and the Portal-like stealth game Budget Cuts.
The Rift includes two games in the box: delightful platformer Lucky's Tale and space MMO Eve: Valkyrie (both seated/gamepad). The HTC Vive includes two games as well: the aforementioned Job Simulator and building game Fantastic Contraption (both room-scale). We think the Rift's bundle is probably the more appealing, but both should do a good job showcasing each respective headset's early strengths.
The other difference is that HTC is saying its games are only bundled for a limited time. It sounds like the Rift bundle is permanent.
Kicking it old-school, like 80s and 90s era Mac and Windows showdowns, each platform has a paint app. Oculus Medium for the Rift, which will come at some point after Oculus Touch launches, and Google's Tilt Brush for the Vive (which is also bundled with the headset for a limited time).
Painting or sculpting in a virtual space, where you can draw, resize, mold and walk around all directions, is quite the trippy experience.
You can order both headsets today, with the first Rift shipments heading out in late March (though the company mostly missed its mark, with all but a few of the early pre-orders set to ship early April). Vive shipments start soon after, on April 5.
The only catch is that, since Rift orders have already been open for close to two months, current orders have an expected July ship date. If you want a Rift before then and haven't pre-ordered, you'll have to hope to snag one in retail outlets or hit up places like eBay. Current Vive pre-orders (at least in the US) have an estimated May ship date.
The Vive costs an extra $200, but remember that its motion controllers are included in the box. We don't yet know how much Oculus Touch will eventually add to the total cost of a complete Rift experience.
This looks like a tricky call for VR early adopters – both headsets have blown our minds on multiple occasions – but so far we're leaning towards the Vive as our higher overall recommendation. The Rift's launch game lineup looks better, but it won't let you safely walk around a room the way the Vive will. Room-scale VR is mesmerizing, it's the most bleeding edge segment of today's VR, and only the Vive safely and officially supports it.
We updated this article on 3/28/16 to reflect our most recent impressions of the two headsets.