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Valve Index Review – Is it Still a King in 2020?

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I am about to do a review of a VR headset that has dominated the VR industry for the past year. Valve Index came out in June 2019. Back then, there has been no real competition for it. Oculus released good devices, but they are not in the same price range, hence they can’t be directly compared.

Fortunately, Oculus and HTC aren’t the only sharks in town. HP pushes their Reverbs really hard, and now the second version has come out. Pimax is also not playing with breaks and their specs are off the charts.

But, there is more to reviewing VR headsets than just looking at specs. I love Valve Index, but I will put it under pressure to see if it’s worthy to hold its status as the King of VR.

Let’s start with the basics:

 

Valve Index Setup – A bit Primitive, But Does the Job

It all comes down to how fast can a user set up their VR set for gaming. Oculus Quest takes me 10 minutes max, Rift S stands at 20 minutes. With Valve Index, it took me around 30 minutes. There isn’t really anything difficult, it’s just the sensor mounting and cable management that took the time. Once that was done, it was almost smooth sailing. I had problems with my controllers swimming away from me, but I quickly figured out that the issue was a reflective vase.

This time I reassembled my Valve Index setup to see what has changed since last year. Well, one thing I noticed was that there are lots more troubleshooting guides with detailed explanations in case you run into problems – which I did not run into this time.

Valve index review- setup difficulty

I even tried to bring back my reflective vase to see if my tracking gets worse.

It did not.

I don’t know if Valve did some software magic or my vase refuses to be reflective in 2020, but I am pleasantly pleased I don’t have to pay attention to that as much.

If the last time it took me half an hour, this time I managed to do it in 15 minutes. I do wish Valve had internal tracking cameras instead of external sensors so that I didn’t have to find, excuse my humbleness, genius solutions to mount the sensors in my rented apartment that doesn’t allow drilling holes. But, to a regular user who doesn’t move as much and can find a permanent place for sensors, I guess it doesn’t really matter if the setup takes 15 minutes longer.

Still, for that, I have to give a rating, and it gets 8.1 from me. Although it uses CV1 era technology, I had no problems with controllers losing signal or with firmware updates. Everything, apart from time itself, was smooth as butter.

 

Valve Index Comfort – The *surprised Pikachu Face*

Let’s start with the reminder that my head is shaped my own way, and yours is shaped your own way. What I find comfortable, you may find awkward. It all comes down to how well the VR headset is balanced, the quality of cushions, weight, and how adjustable is the strap/band.

I will split comfort into two categories: Wearing comfort and visual comfort.

Wearing Comfort

VALVE INDEX review - wearing comfort

Valve Index uses straps – another approach that Oculus CV1 used. I usually prefer bands… but with this one, I was extremely surprised.

Valve Index is heavy. It weighs 1.8 pounds (800 grams), and usually, that would be ridiculous for VR headsets, but it kinda works for Index. Yes, there were problems with my picture wobbling in front of me when I move quickly, but the ergonomic design of weight distribution was good enough for me to play for hours without needing to take a pause. My neck seemed to get used to a two-pound mask on top of my head over the months, so it wasn’t really an issue.

Perfect weight distribution was cemented by an excellent strap mechanism, which allowed me to adjust it as much as I wanted until I found my sweet spot for my sweet looking head. I noticed that some guide surfaced that people use for a more detailed fitting guide. One good one is this, should you want to see it yourself. Another one I recommend is this.

There is lots of fiddling, but once you get your comfort down, it’s pretty easy from thereon. No need to mess with straps, unless you give Valve Index to someone else to try. I guess that’s one of the downsides of fiddle-heavy VR headsets.

Nevertheless, I felt pretty good with it, and the comfort didn’t deteriorate over the months. I wish it was lighter so that I could move my head faster in certain VR situations, but I guess if it were lighter, Index wouldn’t be what it is right now.

Visual Comfort

That is extremely important, as the wrong IPD value can render your VR headset useless for you. For example, Rift S’ IPD is extremely limited compared to others, which eliminates 30% of the users.

With Valve Index, the problem is limited.

Valve Index review - visual comfort

I am really glad they went with a mechanical IPD adjuster. Although the limit (58-70mm) isn’t as high as I would like, I didn’t have problems with finding that sweet spot for my eyes. When IPD adjustment is through software, many problems can arise, starting from visual discomfort and VR sickness.

My IPD is fairly in the middle so I can’t really comment on what both lines of the spectrum feel, but as far as I’ve read, people start to have issues with an IPD of around 72 and higher. Most people with 58mm IPD felt fine also, so it’s all down to your tolerance level.

I give it a score of 8.7. It’s quite good, although there is a bit of room to improve for people with a wider distance between the eyes.

 

Valve Index Display – The Bread and Butter of This Tech

For Valve Index to be a true king of VR entertainment, they must have had to nail the screen side of things. The display is what users see and have the biggest har… opinion on.

However, there are some hungry sharks swimming around. They have beefed up their specs so much that Index should definitely reconsider how fast the technology progresses.

But, even though there are better specced VR headsets in the horizon, Valve does not have to worry much. Here is why:

Valve Index resolution might just be enough for now

The resolution of the Valve Index isn’t small. The clarity is quite decent. I have played with Valve Index for months, and I am still amazed at how well it is designed.

Yes, there are VR headsets out there that have higher VR display clarity now. HP Reverb is one of them. Pimax is around the corner with an 8KX version. However, we have to take into account what kind of hardware people use at home.

By doing some number crunching, I’ve found that 37% of all Steam users still use GTX 1xxx models. RTX 2060+ are far in the minority. RTX 3xxx is seemingly around the corner, but we don’t know how the virus affected the release date.

Currently, I would not give it the highest rating due to there being better VR headsets in terms of clarity, but I am not going to shame it as it truly manages to be premium of what VR gamers can get.

For example, here is the resolution difference between the current popular VR headsets:

Rift S and Valve Index clarity difference isn’t that big. HP Reverb is a beast and has the clearest picture, evident from the screenshot below:

As far as I’ve been using these VR headsets, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Even though Valve Index loses to Reverb in this duel, it has been far from bad from my experience. The screen door effect (distance between pixels) could have been improved, but as the whole package, it’s not that big of a deal. More on that below though.

The text is clear enough to read most texts that are in VR. I managed to read every sentence on computer displays but struggled a bit with reading words on dimly lit books.

To wrap it up for resolution, I give it an 8.9/10 rating.

 

The curse of current VR Headsets: Colors

Due to technological discoveries back in 2016, VR headsets went back to LCD over OLED, just to get a higher screen clarity.

If you have read my previous review, you know I am a sucker for colors. I am the type of person to prefer color depth over higher resolution, and that’s mainly because I consume content that benefits from the darkness (I am talking about horror games and movies). Yes, clarity helps in certain situations where movies benefit from a clear image. However, I still prefer colors.

You might be different, but if you are anything like me, the color situation is going to irk you also.

Valve Index review - colors while watching movies

So how is it with Valve Index? I am not really happy, unfortunately. I wish I could say it’s a big improvement over Rift S, but the fact is, we are currently in an “era of washed-out colors for VR headsets”, and the only ones that don’t have that problem are mostly in the non-gaming category (ie. Oculus Quest, Oculus Go).

I do have to mention though, that this is my own personal preference due to the type of content I consume. I presume, most will not be into VR horror games as much as I am. If you are also not, then you might be fine to a certain extent.

See, these underlying dark color issues mostly pop out when the whole scene is dark and dimly lit. When I play Elite: Dangerous, for example, black color awfulness doesn’t really strike my eyes, despite this game being considered “dark”. Do you know why it’s so?

It’s all about the contrast. Elite: Dangerous has a very bright HUD that basically doesn’t give your eyes time to adjust for blacks. If you truly want to see the difference, you’ll have to play dimly lit games (like horror games that I so much enjoy). There, you don’t have any options but to see that Valve struggles to produce true darkness.

However, it’s all about the content. If you are a regular user who plays games like Beat Saber, Half-Life, racing games, and so on, it may not matter to you as much. Maybe the colors will feel a bit washed out, but the overall experience will be manageable.

The score for colors will be 7.6. Comparing the Rift S and Valve Index, I felt that Index did have better colors, but the improvements are limited due to them choosing liquid crystals for displays instead of light-emitting diodes.

This is how every VR headset should have tackled refresh rate

What a wonderful design by Valve. I feel like if there is anything that Oculus, Pimax, HP, or HTC should take note of, it’s this one.

Valve Index is the only VR headset that allows such a high refresh rate with so many options. It doesn’t matter that one has to sell its kidney to have a computer that can push to 144Hz. It’s the potential that matters most.

Valve Index review - refresh rate options screen

Valve Index offers 80Hz, 90Hz, 120Hz, and 144Hz refresh rates. You can switch refresh rates freely through SteamVR if you notice your PC struggling. Over the months, I’ve noticed that I got better experience lowering the framerate to 90Hz and 144Hz. My rig is decent, but it’s not powerful enough to hit the frame cap. If the frame cap is not hit, there is stuttering. To avoid stuttering, it’s better to have lower frames, but full refresh rates.

I am actually 90% certain that the next generation of VR headsets will follow suit. Giving people options to have a better experience if their rig is better is fair and just. You won’t have an awful encounter if you play with 90Hz only – in fact, due to the lenses Valve Index uses, I felt like the movement in VR was smoother than Samsung Odyssey+ or Vive Pro, despite the same frame rate. Maybe I was just imagining things, but if that’s what I imagine, I don’t want my imaginations to end.

The Field of View – Not too Shabby

My rule of thumb is if you want to know what the field of view for Valve Index feels like, do this:

  1. Make circular binoculars with your fingers.
  2. Put them close to your eyes.
  3. Open them slightly (around 20-30%)

That’s how it’s perceived to me. I have played with Rift S and Valve Index enough to say that the difference isn’t felt that much, but over time it feels rather difficult to go back to inferior Rift S.

I do enjoy a bigger field of view. I feel like that, along with refresh rate, are the main contributors to whether I feel motion sickness or not. On top of less nausea, I can appreciate the scenery more – everything just seems more open.

There are also competitive advantages to higher FOV. We rely on peripheral vision quite a lot, even when playing on regular 2D screens. For example, I play mainly Hanzo on Overwatch, and to get headshots, I rely on my side vision. I don’t follow my eyes to where I want my cursor to be. With Pavlov VR, it’s the same.

FOV is a competitive advantage to some degree, so that means, in a current state of competitive VR, we are at an era of pay-to-win. The more money you pay for VR, the higher your online score will be.

The FOV rating for Valve Index is 8.4.

If only they nailed this one…

As I played with Valve Index, I noticed that I started to get bothered with certain display artifacts.

At first, when I got my Valve Index last year, I noticed that I had some shimmering on my screen. It’s hard to explain, but you can imagine an old movie where there are those white sparks all over the screen. I managed to fix that by swapping the DisplayPort cable to a better one.

However, that wasn’t the only issue.

The most apparent that all Valve Index users notice when putting their Index headset on their face, is glare. It’s that annoying light spill that looks like you just woke up and your contact lenses are dirty. Light on contrast just looks smeared.

Don’t confuse it with god rays though (glare that comes directly from high contrast 3D models). God rays aren’t a big issue with Valve Index. It’s definitely better than with original Vive or Rift CV1, but I didn’t notice improvements over $500 cheaper Rift S. It was the same.

What isn’t the same is peripheral glare. That is quite annoying with Valve Index. I constantly feel like I have to wash my contact lenses whenever I am in high contrast game scenes. I tried to find some solutions and even lived within VR subreddits to find a solution (not that I don’t do it usually anyway), but all I found was dust and despair.

People haven’t found a solution to it, and no software update is going to eliminate that because the issue originates from physical lenses themselves. All one can do is that developers of VR games keep that in mind and stay away from scenes that highlight such display artifacts.

I am happy that the Screen Door Effect is quite minimal. For some reason, when I don’t move my head, I can almost practically imagine no pixel gap, but as soon as I move my head, there are slight dark lines. It isn’t prominent in all games, but if you search for it, you may see it. You may also not because there has been little talk about it on forums.

Nevertheless, I am actually quite happy with how the screen looks if we exclude the glare. If only the fixed the glare, man…

The higher field of view coupled with bigger clarity makes all the difference, and it’s amazing to look at? Is it worth spending premium money for Valve Index just for that? Not really, but luckily Index didn’t put all their eggs in one basket. It excels in many things, and one of them is this:

 

Valve Index Controllers – I Them, But…

It has its own share of problems. Some of these problems were from the start, some I noticed a few months in, and some were actually fixed.

Let’s start with how they feel.

Valve index review- controllers and how they feel

In my experience, Index controllers felt really good. They didn’t feel cheap, and the weirdest thing was to get used to letting controllers go from your hands. It has straps that ‘glue’ them to your palm so you can freely use your fingers in VR through finger tracking technology.

I remember that was the weirdest trip ever. In VR, there are many things to get used to, and my tiny brain was using all the brain cores to focus on gameplay, which made it difficult to relax my hands. An interesting thing was when my girlfriend was playing with Index controllers, she really didn’t like the strap since she had a difficult time with the pressure. I had no such problems, which made me wonder if that has anything to do with her claustrophobia.

In terms of buttons, I luckily didn’t really notice any problems. I am aware of general feedback surrounding the finger tracking issues, positioning of the buttons, and the quality of buttons, but the position and the quality haven’t affected me as much. They weren’t malfunctioning for me, even after using Valve Index controllers vigorously for over 12 months. There were some issues with “knuckles” (or how they were called then) incorrectly keeping track of my finger positioning, but I noticed that it has improved a lot. I see lots of old forums complaining about that, and while the issue is far from gone, it’s also far from what it was.

The biggest hurdle with Valve Index controllers

The biggest problem that WILL be fixed, but is an issue nonetheless, is content. Content is king. Without that, there really is no point adding all the latest finicky technology and advancements to controllers, or headsets really if the content doesn’t use it. I feel like Valve mismanaged the launch of Index in a way of curbing the true potential of what it can do simply by not really communicating or financing the development of games that can use said technology.

So basically, there are not enough games that use finger tracking.

It’s really a shame that users only got a handful of experiences where finger tracking was properly implemented. Imagine if all the games have the same system that Stress Level 0 managed to do:

The video came out 15 months ago, and while the development for the true potential of Index controllers is starting to shine from various different games that were released recently, there are tons of older games that simply just aren’t updated for Valve Index. I’ve tried to play some of my go-to games with Index, but the button re-mapping becomes really cumbersome.

However…

All that said, I am not giving up on them. I love them, how they feel, and what potential they bring for future VR gaming.

Like it or not, this is how we will interact in VR for a long period of time until we figure out a way to be entirely controller-less, just like in real life. But for now, Valve controllers are the closest thing to that. Yes, they have their own shortcomings, but I am sure that Valve will address them with future generations. I mean, there is no other way than up!

 

Valve Index Sound – Take Notes, Oculus!

Yes, the price range difference is huge, but so is the sound quality between Rift s and Index. This is one of those clear examples where one can see why it costs so much.

Wearing additional headphones for better sound is not really optimal, yet Rift S users still struggle with it. It’s something that VR makers should have made and tested from the get-go, but they failed to do so.Valve Index Review - Sound

But not Valve.

Kudos to them. When I first heard the sound quality, I was actually surprised that something can be so clear and bass-full without being squeezed over my ears. The headphones that Valve Index designed hover over your ears and provide a clear, rich-sounding VR experience that makes me sad that not everyone can have a go at it.

Maybe in time.

 

Games With Valve Index – Too Big it Blew Up

With how much Valve Index managed to pump itself, it seems that content creators haven’t managed to implement it to their games – I am talking about the controllers and what potential they have. That means many old classics for VR are a bit badly mapped in terms of buttons.

But in the overall experience, I’d say Valve Index is more than good to have the jaw-dropping experience while being competitive for online gaming. The fact that you can switch your refresh rate to desired frequency is super useful, and only give you options depending on how powerful your computer is.

That is something other VR headsets do not offer yet, so you’ll be at an advantage. The color situation is a bit annoying, but if they chose LCD over OLED due to better sharpness, I cannot really mind it too much. The darker games where there are a lot of night scenes, you scary games in general, will feel a bit artificial, but all the other games should be beautiful enough to not notice such things.

As with other VR headset, the ReVive program lets you play Oculus exclusives as well, so you won’t really lack games to play. It’s the configuration for Valve Index that may take the time.

 

Conclusion

I truly love Valve Index. Maybe it’s my love for the underdog, just like I had for Oculus back in the day, maybe it’s the unconditional love for Gaben, but I can’t deny the fact that Valve Index feels like it has a great community around it, which makes it easier for the hardware to have a closer place to heart (just know that it doesn’t affect my review score either way). The way it is built shows that they don’t try to be cautious with how they release something, but they go all the way in with innovative ideas.

That indeed results in saltier price, but at the same time gives us, gamers, a glimpse into a future where we are using all of our limbs, fingers, senses…

The resolution is sharp, the refresh rate is competitive, the field of view reduced VR sickness, the controllers showed the future, and the comfort surprised us all.

If you have the kind of money to buy this VR headset, I do full-heartedly support the decision. The biggest problems come from some display artifacts, colors, and premature controller philosophy, but it isn’t really a big hurdle if we compare it to what competition offers.

Every single VR headset has its own minuses, it’s just inescapable. But Valve Index managed to win my heart over by adding details that no other headsets have. 

If you are on the fence and you can afford it, I’d recommend this one. Valve Index is a great representation of what VR can be.

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Valve Index Summary
This is the score:
Setup Ease
8.1
Wearing Comfort
9.6
Visual Comfort
8.7
Resolution
8.9
Color Depth
7.4
Refresh Rate
9.4
Field of View
8.4
Display Artifacts
7.4
Controller tracking
9.7
Controller Ergonomics
8.9
Audio Quality
9.9
Games
8.9
Reader Rating3 Votes
9.6
Pros.
Superb audio.
Variable refresh rate.
Surprisingly comfortable.
Innovative controllers.
Cons.
LCD colors.
Aggressive glare artifact.
8.8
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