Exactly what we've been waiting for.
Ever since the dawn of cutting-edge VR headsets, folks have been clamoring for a way to wirelessly enter virtual worlds without the restriction that cords and tethered headsets impose. While all the major VR headsets still ship with wires to attach them to a PC, HTC is offering an official wireless adapter, developed in conjunction with Intel and DisplayLink, for the HTC Vive and HTC Vive Pro. The reality of wire-free virtual reality is finally here, with a split pricing scheme for the Vive and Vive Pro. $299 nets the wireless adapter for the standard HTC Vive, while the wireless adapter kit for the HTC Vive Pro will set you back $359. Is it worth the cost? Let’s find out.
Unboxing, Specs, and Installation
Inside the box, you’ll find everything you need to get going wirelessly. The wireless adapter itself needs the short 3-wire cable to hook into the Vive headset, as well as a USB cable for power to the included HTC QC 3.0 Powerbank. A very short USB Type-A to USB Type-C is included for charging the Powerbank, but no QC3.0 wall outlet plug for quick charging the brick when the power runs dry. For the PC side of things, a PCI-e 1x Intel WiGig card is included in the box, as well as the wireless sensor that plugs into the WiGig card via a single cable. This wireless sensor has a clip on the end for clipping to a monitor or end of a desk, but will also work well enough for standing against something if wedged properly. The wireless adapter utilizes Intel’s WiGig specification over the 60Ghz band to wirelessly transmit the headset’s video, audio, and data output to and from the PC.
HTC chose DisplayLink’s XR codec for this purpose, which they say provides low latency and high performance in one package, delivering excellent image quality with no noticeable input lag. If you’ve ever had framerate issues in VR, you’ll know how important latency is in regards to VR specifically. Even the slightest frame drop could result in making the user sick, and framerate inconsistency or other similar problems related to not having a consistent visual experience can cause serious problems, ranging from headaches to nausea. The wireless unit is powered by HTC’s own QC 3.0 PowerBank, which also doubles as a charging pack for any smartphone or other USB-powered devices. Additional charging packs can be purchased from Vive.com and will significantly improve the amount of time that one can spend in VR. Theoretically any Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 power bank can be used, but HTC recommends using official HTC ones to ensure proper voltage delivery.
Setup is a bit different from just plugging in the headset itself, as it requires a brand new wireless card to be attached to an empty PCI-e port in your PC. This card, in conjunction with a sensor that comes in the box, enable the wireless communication between the Vive headset and the PC. The wireless sensor connects to the back of the PCI-e card via a coax-style screw-on connector for a snug connection and features a 6ft cable so that it can sit atop the monitor. These are the only wires on the PC side, and there’s no additional power needed for the PCI-e card aside from what’s provided from the motherboard.
The headset setup is slightly more complicated to get going, as you’ll need to remove the existing 3-in-1 cable on the regular Vive, or the single audio/video cable on the Vive Pro. The Wireless adapter sits atop either Vive HMD, and attaches slightly differently depending on whether you have the Vive Pro, the standard HTC Vive with Deluxe Audio Strap, or the original Vive with cloth headstraps. It snaps into place up top, and it snugly held into place via three velcro straps. A smaller 3-in-1 cable connects the audio, USB and power plugs on the original Vive to the Wireless Adapter, and a single cable connects the Vive Pro HMD to the Wireless Adapter. The QC 3.0 battery pack is connected on the back-end via a USB Type-A cable for power.
Hardware and Design
There’s no denying the weirdly unique look of the Wireless Adapter. It’s most certainly modeled as an antenna, as that’s what it is after all, and while it is a fairly sizable unit, adds no noticeable weight to the Vive HMD at all. It’s not a beautiful add-on, but it doesn’t look out of place on an HMD that already is clearly built more for function than beauty. Because it sits atop the headset, there’s no worry about hitting it or damaging it, unless you’re doing flips and regularly landing on your head. This is, of course, possible now that there’s no tether to the PC, but it’s probably not recommended because of the battery pack that also needs to be attached to the wireless adapter.
This battery pack is both a positive and a negative point, as, on the positive side, it brings the weight of the 10,000mAh battery off the HMD and places it in an area few people will even notice: the waist. Clipping this battery pack onto a belt or waistband is a brilliant idea, as it’s well out of the way of where arms can bump or get caught on it and is situated in a place where weight is distributed well. Because of this, there’s no noticeable added weight to the HMD at all. On the negative side, it’s rather easy for the battery pack to fall off the waist if not secured properly by a belt. Jeans or cotton pants will grip the clip better than Yoga pants-like material, and loose-fitting clothing will find the adapter sliding off during very active games if you find yourself laying on the floor or jumping around too much.
The battery pack itself is no different from a typical QuickCharge 3.0 battery pack, featuring a USB Type-C port for charging and a single USB Type-A port for powering the Vive Wireless Adapter. Likewise, the wireless adapter features a USB Type-A port on the back for power and a single port next to this for plugging in the Vive Pro’s input cable. Along the front are the three ports for the standard Vive, which include HDMI, USB, and a power port. Underneath is a clip for snapping onto the headset, as well as three velcro straps for securing it onto the top of the headset.
Visual/Audio Quality, Latency
It goes without saying that visual and audio quality is paramount to a quality VR experience. Without these two things, there would be no need for VR in the first place. HTC partnered with Intel and DisplayLink to create a truly solid wireless experience, one that holds up no matter how much movement is involved and has no discernable negative effect on visual, audio or input quality. Any one of these things would be impressive enough, but to nail all three without batting an eye exceeds expectations wildly. There is a catch though: you absolutely must meet minimum hardware requirements to get these results. That means having at least an Intel Core i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 CPU, as well as an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480.
Before this, minimum requirements for VR were a bit lower on both the CPU and GPU end, but the extra overhead of wireless computation increases the need for extra horsepower from both sides of the computation spectrum. To test this theory out, we used a machine powered by an Intel Core i5 3570K and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970, something that meets the minimum requirements for most VR games, and while it worked just fine in games that are more visually simple, like Beat Saber or Superhot VR, any game that was more visually intense certainly faltered in image quality. Part of the additional overhead is due to a utility that must be installed and launched to manage the wireless connection.
Image quality degradation manifests itself most often in what appears like a resolution drop, complete with blocky, pixellated squares that make the image more difficult to see. Oftentimes when this happened, these pixellated blocks only appeared during head movement, so as long as the HMD was held still, the image quality loss isn’t obvious. On a more powerful system, this didn’t happen at all outside of an errant loading screen where the computer was churning away, loading data for a second or two. Players might also worry about increased latency, which can be extremely detrimental in VR, and do more than just mess up timing and control accuracy in games; it can be extremely disorientating, ultimately causing headaches, nausea, and plenty of other unwanted effects.
Suffice it to say, despite this being a wireless solution that needs to pull ultra high-quality video and audio at a high framerate, along with the video from the front camera, all of the input handling and motion tracking, there’s no perceivable input latency whatsoever. There’s no doubting that this ability stems from the gigabit wireless solution that’s used in the Vive Wireless Adapter, as it is carried via an ultra-high bandwidth signal that’s free from interference at 60Ghz. It’s this lack of any noticeable latency that might be the single most impressive part of the Vive wireless adapter experience, as it enables true wireless freedom without any real trade-off of any kind.
Battery Life, Comfort, and Multi-Player
The wireless adapter itself carries no battery at all, rather it’s powered entirely by a QuickCharge 3.0 battery pack. HTC ships the wireless adapter with an HTC-made 10,000mAh QC 3.0 battery pack, along with a USB Type-A to USB Type-C cable for charging. There’s no included charging brick, meaning you’ll have to use an existing one to charge the battery pack, or just plug it into your computer. Either way, even with QC 3.0’s 18W charging, this battery pack is going to take several hours to charge, as 10,000mAh is roughly 3 times the size of the average smartphone battery, and those typically take around 2 hours for a full charge via QC3.0 specs.
This pack is rated to last around 2.5 hours per charge when powering the Vive exclusively, but in our testing, it lasted closer to 4 hours on a single charge. Unfortunately, there’s no warning at all when the power gets low, the headset will just shut off completely, leaving users wondering what happened. The battery is not hot-swappable either, which means unplugging it will immediately shut the headset off. This is certainly disappointing, given that it’s connected to the battery via USB cable, but thankfully another battery pack can have players up and running quickly, as the bootup time for the headset is in a matter of seconds, and will reconnect to SteamVR as soon as the wireless utility picks up its presence in the room. Any QC 3.0 battery pack should work, but may not fit properly in the included clip-on pack, which attaches to players at the waist. HTC recommends the official battery pack for unstated reasons, but it’s likely the headset is sensitive to the correct amount of voltage, and HTC ensures consistency in its battery packs for this exclusive purpose.
This clip-on pack design is mostly good for the purpose, as the clip is deep and will hold on tight to the belt portion of pants. This works best when actually attached to a belt, as it has something to really hold onto. It generally doesn’t work well for yoga pants or similar materials, and actually fell off of my wife at one point while playing Beat Saber because of this. I also had it fall off me while playing Superhot VR when diving to the ground to avoid a bullet, as my shorts were loose and didn’t have a belt, so the weight of the battery pulled the clip right off. There’s definitely an advantage to this belt-clip design in that it pulls the weight off the headset and places it right in the center of balance instead.
As stated before, the wireless adapter itself weighs very little and adds no noticeable weight to the headset at all. Much of this lack of weight difference is likely down to the sheer weight of the 3-in-1 cable, which is long longer pulling down from the headset, and helps reduce neck stress. Moving the battery pack down to the waist helps in many ways too, as it removes weight from the head that might throw someone off balance during heavy action sequences, as well as increasing comfort by not adding to the already hefty weight of the HMD. The downside is that there’s still an annoying cable dangling from the wireless adapter, down the player’s back, in the same spot where that old cable tethered players to their computers. The big difference is in the size and weight, and this USB cable is small enough to not get caught up on hands and controllers, as well as weighing almost nothing at all, making it far less annoying than the original cable.
Something wholly unique to the Wireless Adapter is the ability to use up to three HTC Vive HMDs on the same PC. This certainly sounds like a monumental task, given the horsepower it takes just to run one HMD with premium-class VR quality, and you will indeed need a very special setup to gain such an experience. Each HTC Vive will need its own Wireless Adapter, as well as its own dedicated GPU. HTC has shown this running in a VMWare environment where each HMD has its own dedicated GPU and Windows 10 VM, which, suffice it to say, is definitely a power-user's option only. Either way, this is a pretty substantial feature for those that have the time and dedicated to make such a setup, as it can enable some really interesting local multi-player gaming options.
True wireless freedom
Works with either Vive HMD
No image quality reduction versus being wired
No noticeable added input latency
Battery pack design makes for an easy swap-out
Headset doesn't feel any heavier
More expensive for Vive Pro owners
Battery is not hot-swappable
Image quality could be affected by slower CPUs
HTC launched the Vive as the only VR HMD with roomscale support and proper motion controllers over two years ago, and while their competitors have caught up over that time, they’ve introduced a killer accessory that once again puts them ahead in the realm of movement. As it works for either Vive HMD, the wireless accessory is a true must-have accessory for all Vive owners that want to get rid of that cable and finally become fully immersed in VR without being reminded their feet are getting tangled around a cable. The idea of adding up to 3 headsets on a single setup also revolutionizes the idea that VR is a solo-man’s game, and opens up the gates for brand new multiplayer experiences that aren’t available anywhere else. Is it worth the money? Absolutely. Completely. Entirely. This is exactly what we’ve waited for.