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Oculus Rift vs. HTC Vive: Which VR headset should you buy?

Sure, you can play around with VR on your phone, or wait for the PlayStation VR to hit later this year. But for the best stuff, the jaw-dropping, bleeding-edge VR stuff, you’ll need one of the big rigs. You’ll need a good PC, with some serious graphics and a major-league VR headset to match: an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive.

But which? Welcome to VR Decision 2016.

Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets are now available to buy, as long as you’re willing to wait or stand in line. Both run on Windows PCs. Both look amazing. But each of them are different…in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

One obvious difference: price. You’ll pay $599, £499 or AU$649 for Oculus…or $799 (£689) for Vive. But don’t be fooled into thinking that price is everything.

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Immersion

Put on the headset, and you’re in another world. Any direction you look, you’ll see and hear things that don’t actually exist. But which headset is better at suspending your disbelief? That’s what our Immersion rating reflects.

Believe it it or not, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are pretty similar when it comes to the visuals and audio fidelity. Sure, the HTC Vive makes you plug in and wear a pair of headphones — the Oculus Rift has comfy ones built right in — but generally virtual worlds look and sound the same regardless of which you pick.

Eyes and ears: that’s two of your senses fooled. But if you buy an Oculus Rift, you can only put your head in VR. The HTC Vive goes further by giving you hands, too, and its fancier sensors let you walk around in virtual worlds. (More on that in a sec.) With Oculus, the immersion breaks down as soon as you try to reach out and grab things or take a few steps. That’s why the Vive wins out.

Winner: HTC Vive

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Interaction

You can look around in VR, but how do you interact? Both Rift and Vive allow for some positional tracking, which means you can lean forward and look at something more closely, or duck your head to dodge a VR cream pie. But Rift requires a regular old game controller to play games, for now: an Xbox One controller that comes packed in. Its fancier motion controllers, called Oculus Touch, won’t arrive until later this year.

HTC Vive, on the other hand, offers a lot more out of the box. It has motion controllers — two of them — that vibrate and let you feel like you’re grabbing things when you pull the triggers. The wands can become paintbrushes, or guns, or disembodied hands. You can also wander your room (up to 16 feet diagonally) and every step you take will translate into a step in VR. Those, combined, make Vive feel more like a holodeck than a seated virtual experience. The upcoming Oculus Touch controllers might be just as good, but they’re not available yet.

Winner: HTC Vive

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Comfort

Here’s a news flash: VR headsets aren’t very comfortable in general. They press into your face, the lenses can fog up, and they feel like scuba masks. But that being said, the Oculus headset has a big leg up on comfort over Vive.

The Rift’s design is more compact, simplified, and has a slimmer, simpler cable to plug into your PC. Its headphones are built in, with flip-down flaps (you can also connect your own). Its fit is less extreme and gentler on glasses — yes, you can wear your glasses inside a VR headset. It’s also got better ventilation.

Meanwhile, the Vive headset is heavier, bulkier and its wires are thick, descending down the user’s back. The long cord is thicker and easier to tangle. It tends to wrap around our feet when we walk around in VR, and it’s a more noticeable tug on the back of our heads. The Vive controllers are great, but the headset and its wires make it feel like more of a hassle — even if the experience it delivers is amazing enough to occasionally forget the discomfort.

Winner: Oculus Rift

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Josh Miller/CNET

Setup

Sure, you need to buy or build a pricey gaming PC to use either the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. You’ve got to plug in cables, download gigabytes of games, and carefully adjust the headset straps and lenses to make sure they’re perfectly adjusted. Even though each headset comes with software to guide you step by step, neither is particularly consumer-friendly.

But the HTC Vive is way harder. Not only does it come with enough cables to saddle a goat (three power adapters, two USB chargers, plus video, USB and sync cables), you’ve got to mount a pair of spinning laser base stations in the corners of your room, make sure they’re properly calibrated, then clear your furniture so there’s enough room to walk around.

Every time you want to put on the headset, you’ll have to launch the Steam software, flip it into VR mode, turn on your controllers, turn on your base stations, and make sure the headset still fits properly.

Compare to the Oculus Rift, where you only need to worry about two cables total, and you don’t need to readjust the headset or launch any software to begin. The spring-loaded Oculus straps stay just the way you left them, and the Oculus homescreen should spring to life whenever you put the Rift on your head.

Winner: Oculus Rift

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Ecosystem

Oculus wants to build the next great computing platform, and it threw cash money at developers to help make that happen. There are a host of Oculus-exclusive games you won’t find on HTC Vive, because Oculus spent millions (and provided developer support) to help create them.

In fact, many Oculus titles feel more like real games than the ones you’ll find on Vive, which are often short enough and simple enough to seem like tech demos.

But if we had to bet on which of these platforms will prosper by this time next year, I’d have to give the edge to Vive. The Vive runs on top of Valve’s Steam game platform, already the dominant online marketplace for regular PC gamers. It’s got built-in instant messaging, voice chat and the ability to easily join your friends in a game — all things that Oculus lacks. It’s also easier to install games with Steam, and Steam keeps them updated automatically.

And again, it’s a huge boon for Vive to have those motion controllers right out of the gate. Game developers are excited about the possibility of letting players reach out and grab things in VR. They don’t have to wait for Oculus to cough up a set of prototype Touch controllers to begin development, because every Vive comes with them. They don’t have to worry about whether Oculus owners will actually buy a pair of add-on controllers if they develop for Vive first.

Also, a new $100 million HTC Vive investment fund probably won’t hurt.

Winner: HTC Vive

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Who won?

For now, it’s pretty clear that the HTC Vive is the better VR experience. Even if it costs $200 more, takes way longer to set up, and isn’t as comfortable to wear, it’s easy to forget all that once you’re walking around a room and throwing pots and pans in virtual reality.

But — and this is a big but — there’s no telling if the Vive will still hold the lead after Oculus introduces the Touch motion controllers this fall. We’ve used early versions, and they seem just as good as the Vive’s wands. Maybe even a bit better. (Unlike Vive, they can track your thumbs and index fingers so you can make hand gestures.) Touch will come with a second Oculus camera, too, which should let you walk around a bit more.

Honestly, unless you love being on the bleeding edge of awesome tech, we wouldn’t buy either Rift or Vive right now. There’s not a whole heck of a lot to play or do in VR quite yet, and it’s clear that all of this technology will get better quickly.

We’re all winners, because VR is amazing. The HTC Vive wins — for now — for those who don’t want to wait.

Disclosure: The wife of co-author Sean Hollister works at Facebook, owner of Oculus VR.

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