Review: The HTC Vive Pro is a powerful but pricey upgrade

The HTC Vive has been on the market for two years. It launched in 2016 along with the Oculus Rift, marking the beginning of the modern age of consumer virtual reality. And though PlayStation VR has emerged as the best selling headset among the big three, the Vive is regarded by many enthusiasts as offering the best overall VR experience. 

HTC's approach to these young days of VR has been explicitly guided by a desire to avoid fragmentation of the market and to avoid punishing early adopters. Last year's release of the Deluxe Audio Strap addressed some of the biggest shortcomings of the original Vive headset, improving the fit and comfort and providing integrated audio, working with the existing product for a modest additional investment. The Vive Tracker peripherals came next, and provided versatile support for an enormous variety of controllers.

Now we have the Vive Pro, a "generation 1.5" approach to the VR headset. It's a significant step forward in a number of areas, offering improved resolution and clarity while also feeling lighter than the standard Vive. Critically, it works with existing Vive hardware and software, remaining compatible with Vive 1.0 sensors and controllers (though HTC has promised improved version of the peripherals coming down the line).

The Vive Pro is an impressive piece of hardware, but it comes with an increased cost: $800 for the headset alone if you already have controllers and sensors, and $1099 for a full package (though you'll still need a capable gaming PC to run it). I spent a few weeks with a Vive Pro review sample provided by HTC; here's what you need to know to decide if the new VR headset is the right choice for you.

Better fit and improved comfort

The Deluxe Audio Strap is essentially a must-buy for any Vive owner because of the dramatic degree to which it improves the comfort and fit of the original headset. The Vive Pro takes the best features of the strap and refines them further, making the headset much easier to put on and to adjust to a proper fit.

Tightening the dial on the back insures the headset will stay snug and high on the face, which is important for comfort to prevent a loss of visual focus. Even without tightening the dial very much, the generous rear padding, wide overhead strap, and finely tuned balance of the Pro cause it to sit perfectly on your head, without sagging forward (a chronic problem with the original Vive before the Deluxe Audio Strap came along).

The Pro's superior weight balance marks it as an improvement even over the best-case scenario for a Vive with the Deluxe Audio Strap installed and properly adjusted. A quick check on our in-house scale found the Pro clocking in at 1.12 lbs, exactly the same as what we got for a standard Vive with the Deluxe Audio Strap installed, but the Pro feels significantly lighter on your head. More of the headset's weight is distributed towards the back and sides, rather than the front, and the presence of solid side pieces, rather than gaps and elastic straps, makes an enormous difference. 

Room-scale, active VR has always been one of the Vive's biggest selling points, so it was frustrating that the original headset was so prone to slipping, sagging, and getting out of place when combined with vigorous physical movement or rapid head motions. Alleviating the problem often meant tightening the Velcro straps to an extreme degree or dealing with a constant need to readjust the fit, neither of which are ideal for a comfortable and immersive experience. The Vive Pro almost totally eliminates this problem. Whether running in Sprint Vector or spinning around in Doom VFR, the Pro stays in place, and your VR experience is much better because of it.

Improved visuals

The Vive Pro features significantly improved resolution over the standard Vive. The dual screens inside the headset are now AMOLED, rather than OLED, and sport a resolution of 2800 x 1600, up from 2160 x 1200 in the original model. The Pro features more pixels and higher pixel density, and the visual result is impressive.

One of the easiest areas in which to notice the improved visuals is in virtual text, which is much easier to read in the Pro than it ever was in the standard Vive. It's even possible to read text at a distance, off-center in the display, when it would never have been anything other than a blur in the original headset. Small details seen at a virtual distance are better with the Pro across the board, and help provide a significant step towards the true dream of VR, which has always been to allow wearers to forget they are in an artificial world at all. The crisper and clearer one's surroundings are, the more immersive a digital environment becomes.

Though officially there have been no dramatic improvements to the lenses in the Vive Pro, and some testers have reported the same sort of visible circles and halo effects around light sources that were present with the original Vive, I have found myself noticing these distortions much less during my time with the Pro. This may be a case of the improved resolution and clarity overall making it easier for my eyes and mind to ignore and look past shortcomings. Along with the reduction in the immersion-breaking "screendoor effect" brought about by the increased number of pixels, the Vive Pro offers a clearer, sharper, more real-feeling virtual reality, with fewer visual obstacles in your way than ever before.

A new color and additional features

One of the differences about the Vive Pro that's most immediately apparent is also one of the least consequential: it's a different color than the original Vive. The Pro is a deep blue, with a slightly purple tint, compared to the black and grey of the first edition.

The color change has been unsurprisingly polarizing for Vive fans. Some like the distinct look of the new headset, which now stands out more from the Oculus and the waves of mid-tier VR headsets, which are frequently some shade of black. Others are bothered by the change, especially since the headset no longer exactly matches the color of the Vive controllers, base stations, or other accessories.

HTC has explained the change both as a way for the Pro to be more distinct from the standard model and to bring the headset more into line with the blue tints used in Vive's logo and marketing. In person, the new shade does look cool and distinct, while still being subtle enough not to clash with any black or grey electronics.

The Vive Pro also packs in a few more upgrades worth discussing. The built-in headphones are solid, providing both good audio and acting as a key element in the superior balance of the Pro. The headphones are technically removable, so those die-hards who want to use their own separate headphones will be able to do it. In practice, however, removing the headphones isn't an easy task (peeling back the foam padding and using a screwdriver is required), and they're more than adequate on their own, so taking them off is likely only going to make sense for the most stubborn audiophile.

Finally, the Pro sports two front-facing cameras in place of the original Vive's single one. Along with support for a forthcoming "Lighthouse 2.0" improved tracking system, this is one of the features that could hypothetically make a big difference someday, but for which there isn't much use at the moment.

Is it worth the high price?

If you owned both the Vive Pro and the original Vive, you would never feel an urge to use the first draft. This isn't a case where "retro charm" would win out: the Pro is just a superior product with better tech, and it's better at doing everything the Vive does. If you want the best possible home VR experience, you have the PC hardware required to run a VR headset at high resolution, and you have plenty of money to spend, the Pro is the headset you should own.

But most people are a bit more cost-conscious than our hypothetical VR-loving lottery winner. And for those people, especially for those who don't already own the original Vive and so will need more than just the $800 headset to get up and running, the case for the Pro isn't quite as clear. The price for the original Vive package is now down to just $499, after all, and the Deluxe Audio Strap is only $99. Assuming you already have the PC you need and you don't have controllers and sensors, you're looking at either $600 or $1100 for the total package, to enjoy the same suite of games and experiences.

No, the original Vive won't feel quite as comfortable or fit quite as well as the Pro, but it's pretty close with the Deluxe Audio Strap. The improved resolution is where the clear, big difference can be found. If we say the Pro is $100 more comfortable and better-fitting than the original Vive with the audio strap, are the superior visuals worth an additional $400 to you? That's what you need to decide if you want to know whether the Pro is the right headset to buy today.

The Deluxe Audio Strap, when it released, qualified as a must-buy upgrade for Vive owners. The Pro, at its current price, and despite its impressive technology, isn't such a clear recommendation. But going forward, as PC hardware continues to improve, HTC releases Lighthouse 2.0 tracking, and more games and experiences hit the market that can really take advantage of what the Pro can do, HTC's top-of-the-line model will only grow more appealing.

Sooner or later we'll see a true next generation of PC VR headsets, of course, but for the time being the Vive Pro offers the best consumer VR experience money can buy.