Valve Index is an impressive VR headset with a ton of wires

I've been playing with the Valve Index for about a week now. The new first-party VR headset from Valve is an impressive bit of kit, but comes with a fair few frustrations as well, especially when compared with the new Oculus Rift S

We'll have a full review of the Index next month—this is just our initial impressions. And I am impressed. Valve's all-in approach to a 'fidelity-first' VR experience shows. The 1440x1600 per-eye resolution and 120Hz refresh rate makes the Index the smoothest, highest-quality headset I've used. Visuals are sharp, screen-door effect is minimal, and the new Index Controllers offer excellent finger-tracking for new ways to interact with VR. 

It's also frustrating in a lot of ways that have become ever more glaring after using the inside-out tracking of the new Oculus Rift S. The Index is a roomscale VR experience, which means it uses two base station sensors that you have to set up around your play area. This is nothing new, of course—the HTC Vive and Vive Pro, as well as the last-gen Oculus Touch controllers, all use base stations to track your headset and controllers in 3D space. What's changed is the competition. The new Rift S uses inside-out tracking—that is, sensors on the headset instead of placed around your room—to track everything. After growing accustomed to that more streamlined experience, setting up sensors around the room for the Index was frustrating. 

Valve Index Base Station

The Base Station sensor doesn't blend in as well alongside Zarya and Diablo with its cord dangling down.

Did I mention all the wires? The Index has one main cable extending from the back of the headset, which then plugs into a DisplayPort and USB port on your PC. There's also a third plug at the end of the cable that needs a power outlet—it's not for the headset itself though, just the (admittedly excellent) headphones. The controllers are wireless, of course, but both tracking base stations also need to be plugged into a wall outlet. It's not a huge hassle once you get everything set up, but compared to the ease of the Rift S, the difference is undeniable.

Setup aside, the Index is an outstanding VR experience. The visuals are definitely a step up from Oculus's offerings, though I haven't been able to compare it side-by-side with the Vive Pro yet. The built-in audio also sounds excellent, with speakers that hover just off of your ears instead of directly on them. This provides outstanding spatial audio and really adds to the sense of presence you get in game.

Another bright spot is the Index controllers, which double as both controllers and hand/finger trackers. The controllers strap to your hands—meaning you can release your grip entirely without worrying about dropping them—and then track your fingers using "87 sensors" per controller.

Valve Index controller

The Index controllers strap to your hand, so you can let go of the grip entirely without them falling to the ground.

The most impressive implementation of this so far is the Aperture Hand Labs tech demo, which has you waving to, high-fiving, and playing rock-paper-scissors with a collection of quirky Portal-style robots. The brief experience has all the charm of other Portal games, but the finger tracking didn't really feel groundbreaking enough to make it essential. (Playing Beat Saber with the Index, for example, didn't feel different from playing it with Oculus Touch controllers.) 

Aperture Hand Labs would make a great full game if fleshed out, and I might feel differently about the finger tracking if more games used it right now. It's the sort of tech that will rely on cool implementations to make it worth pursuing—a tough sell for developers when doing so will mean only some of your audience can play the game. 

That's really the crux of the Index. At $999 the full kit (headset, controllers, base stations) costs more than double the $399 Rift S. Even if you already have base stations, it's still nearly double Oculus's top-end offering. It's a fantastic pile of tech and will definitely be the most luxe VR experience available when it launches later this year, but is that luxury worth more than twice the price of admission? Check back next month for our full review.