At $999 for the full headset, controllers, and base stations package, the Valve Index is an expensive PC-tethered VR system. The headset itself, while capable, doesn’t do much to rise above the competition besides delivering a smoother, 120Hz refresh rate. The controllers, however, wowed us with their individual finger tracking and much more natural, immersive feel than other VR controllers we’ve tested. They’re the stars of the show, and the reason the Valve Index earns our Editors’ Choice award for tethered VR headsets (though if you already have a Vive headset with base stations, you can add the controllers for $279 and save a ton of money).
The standalone Oculus Quest 2, another Editors' Choice pick, is a much more affordable headset that's simpler to use, lacks cables, and doesn't require a PC or console to work. However, the Index lets you enjoy smoother action, much more advanced graphics, and controllers that are a huge leap ahead of what Oculus uses. The Quest is a good entry-level, all-around VR headset. The Valve Index is for VR enthusiasts and dedicated PC gamers.
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Solid, Standard Headset
The Index itself is a fairly cookie-cutter PC-tethered VR headset, with a large, face-mounted display connected to a sturdy adjustable head harness. The entire assembly is black, and looks like a larger and more elaborate version of the Oculus Rift S. The front section is mostly matte black plastic with a glossy black front panel that comes off to reveal a recess with a USB port Valve calls the “frunk.” The frunk currently doesn’t have any official use, nor does Valve have any public plans for the compartment. In theory, it could eventually hold additional sensor modules, but right now it’s effectively useless.
What isn’t useless are the two cameras located below the front plate that provide a unique room view while you’re using SteamVR. The cameras highlight nearby objects with 2D or 3D outlines, letting you know when you’re near anything you can trip even if you’re in the SteamVR Chaperone boundaries. The view also shows your hands, so you can accurately reach out for physical objects while wearing the headset. It’s a much more useful feature than the camera passthrough on the Oculus Rift headsets, because it displays a natural field of view with its 3D tracking rather than the very awkward, limited view you get with a direct camera feed.
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(Photo: Molly Flores)
The headset's underside features a utility button that launches the SteamVR overlay; a sliding switch for adjusting the lenses' pupillary distance (PD); and two pinhole microphones. A knob on the headset's right side, where the strut for the harness connects, lets you adjust the lenses' distance from your face. A pair of speakers designed to function just slightly above the ears sit on rotating arms, slightly further back on the struts.
The headset’s harness consists of two, large, curved plastic bands for the back of the head. They're padded with soft memory foam covered in anti-microbial fabric (the same materials as the facemask part of the display) and a fabric strap that goes over the top of the head. The harness' sides connect to the headset through thin, stiff plastic bands that offer a few springy inches of give when you don the headset. The plastic arcs on the back of the harness have a ratcheting dial for tightening the headset securely over your head, and Velcro fasteners let you adjust the top fabric strap’s length for better fit.
Valve Index: We Review The Half-Life: Alyx VR Headset
If the Index feels loose on your head after making all the possible adjustments, you can use the included foam insert to add an additional layer of thick padding for a more secure fit. After I made some minor adjustments, the headset fit securely and comfortably on my large head, aided largely by the soft fabric and memory foam against my face and the back of my head.
A 16-foot cable runs from the headset, around the left side of the harness, and out the back to connect to a three-foot breakaway cable. The second cable branches off into three connectors: DisplayPort, USB, and Power. The DisplayPort and USB plugs connect to your computer, while the Power port connects to the included power adapter. Yes, the headset requires its own separate power, and its adapter is a wall brick, so make sure you have an open outlet.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Speaking of plugging things into the wall, the two base stations require their own outlets, and are necessary to track the headset’s position in a room. Each base station is a 3-by-2.5-by-2.5-inch black box with a curved front for holding all of its sensors. Each one has a dedicated wall adapter with an approximately 10-foot cable that ends in an awkward brick. The base stations' screw mounts connect to the included, adjustable stands, and they can be set on a flat surface or mounted on a wall (mounting hardware is included).
If you buy the headset without the base stations, you can use the slightly larger HTC Vive and Vive Cosmos Elite base stations instead.
The Main Event: The Controllers
The Valve Index controllers are the most interesting part of the package. At first glance, they look similar to Oculus Touch and HTC Vive controllers. There’s a large, grippable handle; a front trigger; a circular control surface on the top with two face buttons; a system button; an analog stick; a touch-sensitive strip; and a large, plastic arc mounted on the outside for tracking the controller’s orientation and position. An additional, adjustable fabric strap runs between the handle and the plastic arc that curves over your knuckles to keep the controller comfortably in hand even when you let go with all fingers (a wriststrap is also built-in, of course).
(Photo: Molly Flores)
The controllers' truly unique aspect is built into the handles. Sensors individually track each finger, so you can use your hands to their fullest in VR. This is a big leap compared with the Oculus Touch and other controllers that follow index finger and thumb movements, but don’t provide total control over each finger.
The finger tracking works well, but it isn’t perfect. Your index finger curves around the trigger near the controller's top in order to be properly sensed, not around the grip that the rest of your fingers wrap around. It feels a bit unnatural at first, because the grip below the trigger is easily large enough to hold all four of my fingers with room to spare. After getting used to that, the tracking was mostly accurate, and I could reliably move each finger. Each finger's registered, full flexing motion (particularly my middle and ring fingers) was a bit fidgety, though. It wasn’t enough to feel jerky or unnatural, but it made the experience fall slightly short of total and precise motor control in VR.
Getting Ready for VR
Internally, the Valve Index uses LCDs to provide a 1,600-by-1,440 image for each eye. The LCDs have a 120Hz refresh rate, and they're backward compatible to 80Hz and 90Hz (and included an experimental 144Hz mode). For comparison, the Oculus Quest 2 displays 1,920 by 1,832 pixels, and the Vive Cosmos displays 1,700 by 1,440 for each eye (but their refresh rates top out at 90Hz).
(Photo: Molly Flores)
The Valve Index's hardware requirements are relatively light for a tethered VR headset. Valve lists a dual-core CPU (with hyper-threading) and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon RX 480 GPU as the minimum specs; the company recommends a quad-core CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 or better GPU for better performance. Half-Life: Alyx’s (included with the Valve Index) requirements are a bit more specific, and include an Intel Core i5-7500 or Ryzen 5 1600 CPU, an AMD Radeon RX 580 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 GPU with at least 6GB of RAM, and at least 12GB of system memory. For 2021, these aren’t insurmountable gaming PC specs, though obviously you’ll enjoy better performance if your rig has a newer or faster CPU or GPU, and more RAM.
Setting up the Index has multiple steps, but they're all pretty direct, especially once you’ve figured out how to plug everything in and where the base stations should go (and cleared out an area of at least 6.5 by 5 feet for your play area, unless you want to use the much more constricted stationary mode). You plug in the base stations first, then connect the headset to your PC and the power adapter. Open Steam if it isn’t already open, and you’ll be prompted to install SteamVR if it’s not already on your system.
Once SteamVR is up and running, it should automatically detect the headset, base stations, and controllers (after you turn them on by holding the system buttons for a moment). SteamVR then prompts you to set up your play space. First, you set your initial position by standing in the middle of your play area, pointing a controller at your monitor, and pulling the trigger. Then you set the floor height by setting a controller on the floor and pulling the trigger again. Finally, you determine the edge of your play area by holding the trigger down and drawing the tip of the controller along where you want the boundaries to be set. It’s an easy process, though physically moving the controller around the edges of your play area is slightly less convenient than just pointing a VR laser at the floor and drawing those boundaries, like you can with the Oculus Quest 2.
Playing With Valve
I played Aperture Hand Labs (free) and Half-Life: Alyx (included with the Index) on the Valve Index. To start, both VR games look excellent on the headset. While it has a slightly lower resolution than the Oculus Quest 2 and Vive Cosmos, the Index still produces a picture that’s bright, colorful, and sharp. I didn’t notice any significant pixelation or graininess in either game, and I could easily see details both virtually close and far away.
The 120Hz refresh rate is a beneficial aspect that makes looking around and moving smooth and fluid. I switched to smooth directional motion in Half-Life: Alyx, which replaces the default snapping between directions with a quick black flash to more conventional turning with the right analog stick on the controller. Due to the clean movement, I didn’t experience any motion sickness or disorientation. Though, to be fair, I prefer this movement scheme to the snap-around default in most VR games.
The Index controllers are technically impressive, and easily the most advanced we’ve seen in a consumer headset (enterprise-level and development hardware have access to much more precise and expensive motion tracking, but they’re out of reach of most users, and most games can’t take advantage of them). As promised, they detect each individual finger grip, which translates into nearly fully functional VR hands. The inner straps also keep the controllers connected to your hands even when you let go of the handles, which means you can comfortably move your open hands in VR as easily as you can move a fist or gripping claw. Of course, you should still use the wrist straps, because the hand straps aren’t tight enough to keep the controllers from flying off with wild motions.
Aperture Hand Labs demonstrates the controllers' effectiveness by walking you through waving, hand shakes, fist bumps, and manipulating objects. Every interaction felt natural, and the controllers offered gentle vibrations to indicate when I touched a robotic hand or other object. Vibration adds to the immersive, finger-detection effect by letting you know when you’re directly interacting with something in- game. It can’t replace feeling something with your fingertips, but it’s a good start.
(Photo credit: Molly Flores)
Half-Life: Alyx is a much more full game than a stand-and-interact experience like Aperture Hand Labs, so I spent more time with it. It plays well with the Index controllers, offering the same individual finger controls and force feedback. This translates into precise controls for manipulating objects, shooting guns, and solving puzzles with the multitool. Handling the pistol and shotgun in the game feels natural, both with simply firing both weapons and reloading them by using my off-hand to take ammunition out of my backpack, sliding in a magazine or some shells, and pulling the slide to chamber them. The controllers have excellent position tracking, so these two-handed interactions are intuitive. Multitool puzzles also work well with the controllers, offering the same fine position and orientation tracking that let me precisely arrange holographic power lines.
Not a Perfect Package
While revolutionary, the Index controllers still have a few minor frustrations to consider. First, while the finger detection is immersive, it isn’t completely 1:1 and mostly focuses on your grip. Delicate finger flexes—especially your middle, ring, and pinky fingers—aren’t tracked nearly as well as your index finger and thumb. You probably couldn't type quickly on a VR keyboard using these controllers. This is a minor complaint, because following your fingers that precisely isn’t necessary in most games, and gestures (full-hand grips, and pistol grips with the ability to pull triggers) are handled perfectly. Of course, this highlights how the individual finger-tracking is mostly useful for immersion when looking at your hands, and doesn’t serve much of a function when you’re playing in VR.
The controllers' natural-feeling grip still takes a bit to get used to, because of the more conventional physical controls. While the handles are large enough to accommodate even my big hands, you need to rest your index fingers over the triggers, higher up on the controllers. I found myself repeatedly gripping the handles with all of my fingers when trying to get a grip, and it took some time to get acclimated to returning my index fingers to the triggers instead. The controllers' face buttons are also slightly awkward; I could naturally rest my thumbs on the analog sticks or touchpads, but the two physical buttons always felt a little bit far and off-angle for me to easily press.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Despite these quibbles, the Index controllers are the most natural-feeling VR controllers I’ve tested. They make gripping and other fine interactions in VR much more precise and intuitive, even if they aren’t quite the same as perfectly using your own hands yet. It’s an impressive effect that reaches past the grip trigger of the Oculus Touch controllers for a new level of immersion.
Two other Valve Index aspects lead to more frustrations to consider, one of which is fundamental to all tethered VR headsets. The cable that runs from the headset to your computer is long, flexible, and generally rests comfortably on the floor without curling upwards to make it easy to trip over. It’s still a physical cable that runs from the headset to your PC, though, and that means you need to mind where it is as you play, especially in games where you turn around a lot. Every tethered VR headset has this problem, because the wired connection lets it run VR software with much more advanced graphics than a standalone VR headset can with its mobile processor. It’s a necessary evil for this type of VR system, but you need to keep it in mind while playing.
The other problem is the headset’s use of base stations to track position and movement. With the base stations properly placed, your head movements will be consistently and smoothly reproduced in VR. The base stations track controller position, too, and depending on their location they can temporarily lose tracking if you turned around and your body blocks the line of sight between the controllers and the base stations. The layout of my test space required me to place the base stations at wide angles in front of me, to the left and right. This resulted in the controllers freezing for a few moments when I was turned away from the base stations. Ideally, you can put the base stations at opposite corners of a room, in which case you should be fully covered. This isn’t necessarily possible for everyone, though.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Revolutionary VR Control
Despite a handful of frustrations, the Valve Index is the most impressive VR system we’ve seen to date thanks to its revolutionary controllers. Their individual finger-tracking tech—and the ability to use them with your hands open, as well as gripping the handles—produces a much more immersive VR experience than we’ve seen and felt with other controllers. They simply feel amazing to use, even if there’s little point in extending only your pinky in most VR games.
Whether this experience is worth $1,000 depends on your budget, your commitment to VR, and whether you have a PC capable of running it. The full package is expensive for a VR headset, even a tethered one (the Vive Cosmos is only $700). The headset-and-controllers bundle is much more reasonably priced at $750, but the system requires the base stations to function. If you already have an HTC Vive, Vive Pro 2, or Vive Cosmos Elite, you can put their base stations to work, and simply add the controllers for $280. They work separately with the HTC headsets and base stations, so you don’t need to buy the full kit for the full experience (though the standard Vive has a resolution of only 1,200 by 1,080 per eye at 90Hz, so you might want to get an Index headset, too).
If you want to simply dabble in VR and don’t want to invest that much money into it, the Oculus Quest 2 remains our favorite headset for its accessibility and ease of use. It’s a standalone headset without any cables to trip over, and offers a comprehensive VR experience with a strong ecosystem for just $300. The Valve Index is our new favorite tethered VR system, though, and the choice to go with if money (and cables) are no issue, for the best possible control and graphics. As a result, the Valve Index is our Editors’ Choice pick for PC-tethered VR headsets.
Why You Should Game on a PC
Valve Index VR Kit
(Opens in a new window)See It$1,474.99 at Amazon(Opens in a new window)
Immersive, finger-tracking controllers
High, 120Hz refresh rate delivers smooth motion
Lots of VR software available on PC via SteamVR
Occasionally frustrating tethered design
The Bottom Line
The Valve Index is the most impressive consumer VR headset we've seen yet, entirely due to its revolutionary, finger-tracking controllers.
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