I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
There are plenty of PC-connected VR headsets, and most of them work the same way: a set of full-motion controllers, a bulky head display that has a long thick cord going to your PC. Maybe it has extra room sensors you need to set up. Maybe it doesn't.
The Valve Index is not much different from other PC VR headsets in that regard (see also: Oculus Rift S, HTC Vive, or Microsoft's VR offerings). It's not wireless, it doesn't have eye tracking, and it hasn't reinvented a way to not be a bulky, cabled headset.
But it is probably one of the best PC VR headsets of the moment, and its wild new controllers feel like the future.
And yet I recently had a realization I never thought of the first time I tried the hardware weeks ago: this doesn't feel like a new system. That's because you don't need to buy all of it if you're already someone who owns an HTC Vive.
Now that the Valve Index is available (although current shipping times put new orders into mid-September), here's my guide on how to consider whether to buy it -- or which part of it.
Welcome to the modular VR world of Steam
I mean, of course, Valve Index is a new VR system. Index is a new head-mounted display, there are new controllers, and there's a $1,000 box that includes all of this along with little boxes to mount in your room to track your movements.
But what's cool about the Index is it's all made on the same Steam VR platform that the HTC Vive uses. You could mix and match Vive hardware and Valve Index hardware. This is, in a way, an HTC Vive 2.
HTC isn't making the Valve Index, to be clear. Vive still exists, and Valve Index will exist alongside it. But you can mix and match Vive and Valve Index hardware, both of which use Steam VR. Which means, if you already own a Vive, and you're Valve Index-curious, you may want to just buy the Index's super-cool new controllers instead, spend $279, and consider that your upgrade.
The Valve Index's headset does look great, optically. The LCD resolution is sharp (1,440x1,600, same as the Vive Pro and Oculus Rift S, but lower-res than the HP Reverb), and the extra field of view (about 130 degrees) reduces the VR scuba-goggles feel. A faster 120Hz frame rate makes things feel even smoother-moving and more present (there's an experimental 144Hz mode in Steam VR, but I haven't felt the need). The hovering pull-down speakers on the sides deliver booming, crisp sound. In that sense, it's a head-mounted display that feels really good.
However, the Valve Index lacks a few things. It's not wireless, which means you need a cable tether. The Index's streamlined cable setup skips the clunkier breakout box on the Vive, but it's still a big cable (it needs DisplayPort 1.2 and USB 3.0 on your PC, plus a power outlet to power the headset).
The Index also lacks eye tracking, a technology that should greatly impact control and graphics quality in future VR. Eye tracking isn't really in non-enterprise VR yet (the Vive Pro Eye has eye tracking but only for enterprise use, and it costs a fortune). But still, it's a missing feature.
The Index doesn't do self-contained room tracking, either. The Oculus Rift S and Microsoft's VR headsets like the HP Reverb use cameras in the headset, and that's it. The Valve Index still needs little light-emitting boxes to be installed in the room you're in. It's the same tech, basically, that the original 2016 Vive used. The 2.0 version of these sensor boxes can enable a large room to turn into a holodeck, and the tracking is really good -- but it's extra gear you need to set up.
Finally, like most VR headsets, even though the resolution's good, it's not "retina-level." Meaning, you can still see pixels. I've only ever seen one retina-level VR headset, and it costs $6,000. Someday, it'll arrive to all headsets. Again, just a reminder that the Index isn't the uber-headset.
The controllers are great upgrades, but app support varies
The Valve Index controllers, as I've said, feel like the overdue sequel to the original Vive VR controllers. They're great, they feel comfy and can track all your fingers like magic gloves. They can register force when you squeeze them. They feel like the future of VR input.
They also have some nice extras that the Vive controllers lack, like buttons and analog sticks. That makes them serve as more-capable game controllers, much like the Oculus Touch controllers.
It's great that these controllers can work with all the games and apps that support Vive's controllers, so there's a deep library to tap into. They can be your Vive replacement controllers, easily.
But that being said, only a handful of games take advantage of the Index controllers' unique qualities right now. A list, if you're curious:
Museum of Other Realities
Garden of the Sea
Trover Saves the Universe
Aperture Hand Labs
Shadow Legend VR
Space Pirate Trainer
Fruit Ninja VR
Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
Blade & Sorcery
And, even in that list, some games don't really do much with the extra finger tracking. The brilliant Aperture Hand Lab is a great demo app that shows what experiences could do when designed with these controllers in mind. But how many games and apps will bother to do that?
Not the same wireless freedom as Oculus Quest
This is a totally unfair comparison... but the $399 Oculus Quest, all self-contained and wireless, not needing any PC at all, was a more surprising experience to me than Valve Index. I love the Quest's easy-on, instant-start satisfaction. Admittedly, it's a totally different proposition: it's using a mobile chip and has a limited closed-off curated library of games. It's not as powerful as Valve Index.
Again, sorry for the comparison. But I want VR to become more effortless and wire-free, easy to be immersed in. Valve Index isn't that. You need a PC. You need those sensor boxes in your room. There's a long, thick cable. It is, however, an improved set of hardware that the Steam VR platform needed, and those Index controllers are really great. I just don't know, at this point, whether it's worth your money to dive in.