If you want the best VR experience, where should your money go?

Microsoft's first efforts in gaming VR has finally taken shape in the form of Windows Mixed Reality headsets, and lots of them. But is newer always better, especially when HTC and Steam have been working side by side to make the existing Vive headset the undisputed champion of full-room VR experiences over the last year?

Take it from someone who has spent a lot of time in both, this isn't an easy question to answer. Here's everything you need to know when choosing between these two headsets.

Speeds and Feeds

While using these headsets is actually surprisingly similar after setup, there's a lot you need to know about what is going on behind the lenses. Here's the quick list:

  • Windows Mixed Reality headsets have a noticeably higher resolution display (1440x1440x2) than the HTC Vive display (1080x1200x2)
  • Windows Mixed Reality headsets let you lift the display up to see the real world, which really should be an industry standard.
  • The minimum system requirements for HTC Vive games and Windows Mixed Reality Ultra games are basically identical.
  • HTC has a huge list of very useful accessories, including the Deluxe Audio Strap with integrated headphones and the Vive Tracker.
  • Both headsets use motion controllers, but the Vive wands are way more comfortable to use for long gaming sessions.

Having said all of that, the one massive way Windows Mixed Reality stands out is in setup and tracking. The HTC Vive has two hefty Infrared "lighthouses" which must be set up on opposite sides of a room and calibrated before use. This takes a few minutes even when you know what you're doing, and each of these "lighthouses" have a separate power supply and connects to a sync box before connecting to your PC. It's a lot of cables and set up and, infrequently, frustration.

Windows Mixed Reality headset are very much the opposite experience. You plug in the HDMI cable, plug in the USB cable, perform the 30-second calibration and room set up, and you're ready to game. Microsoft's use of Inside-Out tracking removes the need for big sensors or boxes, and that's great for people who just want to get in and game. The only significant caveat here is with accuracy. While we are still using Developer Kits for our testing, Windows Mixed Reality headsets do occasionally need to be recalibrated so the software can "remember" the space. The Vive, on the other hand, can remain set up for months and never need recalibration.

Hashtag Eventually

The main event for any VR headset right now is games. The platform with the best or the most games wins, right? Well, VR is a little weird and complicated on that front right now, especially when it comes to Windows Mixed Reality.

Vive is the first headset mostly powered by SteamVR, which is a pseudo-open platform where almost any VR headset can loosely participate. Nearly every game you will find in the SteamVR Store has been made and optimized for the Vive, because that's what most SteamVR players own. The only real alternative for Vive owners is the HTC-made Viveport store, which has a fraction of the games you can find on SteamVR but includes a subscription model that gives you a whole lot of VR games for "free" every month to play.

Windows Mixed Reality headsets are going to launch with only access to the Microsoft store for VR games, which means there isn't going to be a huge selection at launch. What will be available will be very good, since Microsoft has been recruiting VR heavyweights to support the platform, but the list of games is still going to be comparably slim. In the not-too-distant future, Windows Mixed Reality headsets will also support SteamVR and be able to play and game in that store which supports these new headsets. Over time, Windows Mixed Reality headsets will have basically the same catalog as a Vive. How long that wait will be is anyone's guess, but it will eventually happen.

It's also important to point out Microsoft is planning Mixed Reality exclusives, and it's starting out with a uniquely VR take on the Halo franchise. The open nature of SteamVR means the Vive doesn't really have exclusives unless they are released to Viveport, which doesn't happen very often.

Which should you buy?

Both of these headsets are excellent, and the category of games you will eventually have access to with SteamVR makes Windows Mixed Reality headsets even more compelling, but really this is going to come down to price for a lot of people.

The average Windows Mixed Reality headset is technically more capable than a Vive, requires less time to set up, and is available for $450 when you add in the motion controllers. An HTC Vive starts at $600, and can become considerably more expensive as you accessorize.

Here's how each of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets compare to one another

That having been said, the Vive accessories are a huge part of the ecosystem that Microsoft is nowhere near building. Wireless Vive adapters make it so there's no more cable to trip you up, though you absolutely pay for the privilege. With a Vive Tracker you will soon be able to bring physical objects into VR and introduce incredible immersion into your experience. The unreleased "knuckles" controllers Valve has been working on let you play games without needing to actually hold a controller. It's clear Valve and HTC are deeply focused on an immersive future experience, while Microsoft is just starting to line up at the starting line.

Putting it differently, buy an HTC Vive if you know you want to see your VR experience evolve quickly and you're eager to experiment. Buy a Windows Mixed Reality headset if you want to save a little cash and get a great VR experience you can enjoy without a lot of extra steps.