Hands-on review: HTC Vive XR Elite
I first checked out the Vive XR Elite at a Sydney preview event, finding both the device’s wireless standalone VR and wireless PC VR experiences were very impressive. Since then, Sony has released its PlayStation VR2 headset, a device that has been lauded by console gamers but left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed.
Then Apple announced its virtual reality/mixed reality headset, the Apple Vision Pro, to an ecstatic and clearly well-heeled audience at the company’s 2023 Worldwide Developers Conference. The Apple device’s US$3,499 price tag had me recalling the conversation with HTC’s ANZ Vive Product Manager.
When I baulked at the Vive XR Elite’s AUD$2500 price tag, Vive ANZ’s top man, Thomas Deximier, reminded me that VR technology is expensive. He told me that unless you are a company heavily subsidising your VR devices (looking at you, Meta), the cost of the XR Elite is about right.
And Apple just proved that. It proved that to such a level that I got a call from HTC asking if I wanted to take another look at the comparatively more reasonably priced Vive XR Elite. And so here I am, a little late with a review but with a better perspective.
Bulky VR headsets connected to PCs are giving way to compact, standalone head-mounted devices with onboard processors and pass-through cameras for augmented and mixed-reality experiences.
This new batch of HMDs is primarily designed for those who don’t have the expensive PC that was once the price of entry to club VR. Just as mobile phones dominate game user stats rather than dedicated gaming platforms, these next-generation HMDs (powered by the same processors as Android phones) are dictating the direction of consumer VR.
The HTC Vive XR is one of those next-gen headsets. Designed as a standalone VR platform utilising HTC’s Viveport hub/client, it still has a foot in the PC VR camp.
HTC’s new headset isn’t marketed as a VR headset, the “XR” standing for extended reality, an all-encompassing term that covers virtual reality, augmented reality, and whatever other reality the boffins dream up next. Whatever it becomes, at the moment, it still involves strapping a unit to your head and peering through two lenses into a dedicated play space.
The first thing you notice with the Vive XR Elite is that the device looks more like a pair of sunglasses. HTC wants it to look like a pair of sunglasses so much that it has an easily smudged gold mirrored finish at the front. There are even optional foldable arms, like a pair of glasses, which I’ll discuss later. I’ll give you a hint, though: there’s a bit of form over function going on here.
The headset is fairly light. The headset weighs 273g in “glasses mode”. This increases significantly to 625g with the battery pack/rear head-strap configuration. You are not going to feel this extra weight as the battery acts as a counterbalance to the weight of the headset.
The unit seems robust, a lot less fragile than the plastic eggshell of Sony’s PSVR 2. I do have a few concerns regarding the clips holding the exchangeable battery pack/head-strap and the ends for “glasses mode”. But, to be honest, I’d only ever use the thing with the battery pack.
The soft cloth gasket hides a firm bit of plastic that anchors the device to your forehead. It’s like some middle ground between the “halo” style fitting of the PlayStation VR units and the Vive’s traditional face gasket. Whether it’s more comfortable to wear than the Vive Pro 2, I’m not so sure. It’s not designed to be as tight-fitting as the traditional Vive headsets, but I found the lack of padding over my nose a bit uncomfortable. Pulling it off my nose meant tightening the head strap, putting pressure on my forehead. I also found that the gasket sometimes came loose, the tiny (breakable) clip and magnet combo not being quite strong enough to hold it in place.
The glasses-style arms, I can only assume, are for photographs, as only a lunatic with a reinforced nose would want the full weight of the headset perched on their face. This is betrayed by the “optional” top strap that goes over the top of your head for extra support, which looks like a rather cheap-looking afterthought.
The controllers, whilst functionally a vast improvement over the ageing design of the Vive wands, don’t feel like they’d cope with any sort of punishment. They feel cheap and fragile and not likely to withstand the knocks that my old Vive controllers have put up with over the years.
The Vive XR Elite is primarily a standalone VR XR headset that can function independently of a PC. Instead of being tethered to a PC, it uses an onboard Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 processor with 12GB of memory and 128GB of storage.
This new Vive headset seems like an amalgam of HTC’s Focus 3 and Flow, with the functionality of the built-in processor of the Focus 3 and the comfort of the phone-powered Flow. Like both of these headsets, the Vive XR Elite has its own user interface, rather than relying on SteamVR like the OG Vive/Vive Pro/Pro 2. You can just put on the headset, switch it on, and jump straight into VR.
One of the big stumbling blocks with VR is the user experience when setting up and onboarding. With the Vive XR Elite, the initial setup was painless. Using the Vive Manager app on my phone, the setup only took a few minutes, and after a couple of firmware updates, I was in the XR Elite’s VR environment.
HTC’s choice of optics is a massive plus for me. The XR Elite dumps the awful Fresnel lenses of previous Vive headsets, with their inherent God-rays and rainbow artefacts, in favour of pancake lenses. You can also dial in your eyesight prescription for a crystal-clear image without the need to wear glasses.
The image is crisp and clear, the best I’ve ever seen with a VR headset. The 1920x1920 pixels per eye resolution is less than that of my Vive Pro 2, but not that I’d notice. There are no grainy mura artefacts or noticeable screen door effects. I could see pixels, but only if I looked very closely. The specs boast a field-of-view of up to 110 degrees, but the smaller lenses do make it look a bit restricted.
The colour passthrough camera is good but could be a lot better. It is certainly a massive improvement over any other Vive camera. You can even read the screen on your phone.
The boundary system, which incorporates the headset’s passthrough camera, is genius. You set up your playing area, but if you step out of the boundary area, you move through the VR environment’s “wall” and into the real world using the passthrough camera. It is weird but very cool and adds to the accessibility of the headset in that you can simply “step out” of the VR environment at any time.
The tracking is very good. The “inside-out” tracking uses a camera to place the headset in the 3D environment and locate the controller. But it is (and always will be) second to the Vive/Valve Lighthouse tracking system. It is great, however, not to have to mess around mounting external sensors.
The XR Elite also features actual hand tracking, accurately placing your hands in the VR environment and matching all your finger movements. It’s really good, allowing you to ditch the controllers for more casual experiences.
Playing Unplugged: Air Guitar using my actual fingers to strum and play chords was amazing, as was revisiting the AR shooting game Yuki I played in the preview at HTC’s offices. Conducting an orchestra in Maestro was an experience made for hand tracking.
I had a lot of fun with Open Brush. With the headset’s passthrough camera, I was able to decorate my kitchen with flames and smoke rising from the oven, sketch outlines along the benchtops, and paint a weird 3D sculpture in the middle of the room. The augmented reality wow factor meant I kind of forgave the otherwise below-par performance of the camera.
The device is heavily skewed towards casual standalone VR/AR experience and self-contained commercial/business applications rather than high-end PC VR gaming. I had limited success with the mooted wireless PC VR connection, but with a USB cable connection to my PC, the Vive XR Elite worked perfectly as a PC VR device.
I tested the headset’s PC VR capabilities with the Windows Store version of Microsoft Flight Simulator in VR, and everything went fairly well, with just the occasional stutter. I then checked out Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice VR, which performed without a hitch, as did Kayak VR: Mirage. It was also wonderful to play these PC VR games with 20/20 vision without having to wear my glasses.
I’d say, for most, that wireless VR with an XR Elite is, practically speaking, reserved for the selection of titles available on the HTC Viveport app. For PC VR, I’d have preferred a dedicated method of wireless connection between a PC, similar to the pretty much flawless Vive wireless adapter, and the headset rather than having users mess about with their Wi-Fi network.
The HTC Vive XR Elite really is a next-generation VR headset. The lighter form factor, fast approaching that of a pair of sunglasses, is a vast improvement over the plastic behemoths we have been strapping to our faces for almost a decade. At two grand, it is a bit steep, but it is a robust, premium-quality standalone wireless VR/XR device.