HTC Vive vs. Windows Mixed Reality: Which should you buy?

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

Daniel Rubino wearing an Odyssey

Daniel Rubino wearing an Odyssey (Image credit: Windows Central)

While using these headsets is actually surprisingly similar after set up, 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. They're also noticeably more accurate than WMR controllers, especially when held closer to the body.

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 is 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. Windows Mixed Reality controllers frequently lose tracking when close to the body (especially under the chin or over your shoulder) and have a habit of visually drifting occasionally. In my testing, these controllers need to be re-calibrated once a week to maintain the most accurate setup. That doesn't need to be done with Vive controllers, because of the external tracking sensors.

Gaming and everything else

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 has its own store for VR games, and it's the same store you use for everything else in Windows. The Windows Store has a couple of fun VR games, but very few exclusives worth getting excited over. For a vast majority of WMR owners, if you want fun games you need to access Steam just like HTC Vive owners. WMR headset owners have access to just about every SteamVR game Vive owners have access to, but unless the game has been optimized for WMR controllers the experience can frequently be a little clumsy.

It would be very cool to see Microsoft drop a few killer first-party WMR exclusives in the Windows Store, but the best available right now in that arena is a Halo-themed shooting gallery app you're likely to tire of in an hour.

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 $300-450 when you add in the motion controllers. An HTC Vive starts at $500 (opens in new tab), 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.

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Updated July 09, 2018: This article has been updated with long-term experiences with both headsets.

Russell Holly

Russell is a tech nerd who chases the best of everything, from phones to game consoles to laptops and everything glowing or beeping. He's the Managing Editor of gaming content for Mobile Nations and can be found contributing to all of the Mobile Nations sites. Reach out on Twitter!

  • I've had both as well. The reality is that these system require space in your home. They are both excellent, but unless you have a room to dedicate to VR, the Microsoft solution is simply more practical. Take the authors comments to heart: The Vive requires you to plug a control box into your PC via USB and HDMI. That control box requires an electrical connection. In addition, each control box requires it's own electrical connection, and if they can't reliably see each other, you will have to run a cable from one control box to another. Those boxes will have to be mounted high enough in your room to be visible to each other while you are playing as well. The Microsoft solution requires just a USB and HDMI connection. That's it. Plug it in, and you are ready to go with a simple room calibration. I agree that the controllers on the Vive end up being slightly more accurate, but it's certainly not worth the amount of hassle involved. Vive controllers do tend to drift if your emitter boxes aren't in line of sight from the headset as well. Anyway, good article, but I would strongly suggest considering the MS solution unless you have a room you are going to dedicate to this.
  • Additionally, keep in mind that HTC are unlikely to still be around this time next year.
  • I concur, I think the pro's of the MS WMR solution outweigh the cons of the RIFT/Vive solutions (after trying them both out for awhile) given also the average $200-$300 price of a Lenovo Explorer. Yeah, RIFT/VIVE controllers and sweet spots may be better, but WMR got my vote in all the other categories. Glad I took the plunge (and that I have near the 64mm IPD for Lenovo) either way into the beginnings of VR, excited for WMR/RIFT/VIVE/PIMAX futures.
  • I would buy the Rift over the Vive at this point. Haven't used a MR headset yet though so I don't know about that.
  • Yes, strange to compare to the HTC Vive and not the Oculus Rift as they are equivalent, and the Rift should ne at 450$. Plus the rift is the most used by people (recent Steam stats)
  • Judging by the resolution and the prices you quoted you did not include the Samsung Odyssey in your comparisons which is by far the best WMR headset and worth the extra money. I've never heard of anyone needing to recalibrate their controllers with WMR and I've haven't seen a single post on the WMR subreddit of anyone doing that. You may not have an optimum Bluetooth setup for your controllers. I've been using mine for 7 months without recalibrating and tracking works great except when I knowingly move them out of range. Overall I have very little trouble with lost tracking, if you move them out of view and back in quickly the accelerometers do an excellent job of maintaining tracking. I would not recommend a non-Odyssey WMR headset to anyone at any price unless their IPD was near the 64mm set IPD--the software adjusted IPD is only a half measure.
  • I actually can't stand the Odyssey. It's not very comfortable to me, and I don't like the fact that I'm stuck with the headphones that are built in. If I want higher quality, too bad. Also if the headphones break, I need a new headset. The picture, while better, isn't THAT much better than the others, and after long term use you can feel it. For this very reason I gravitated toward the lenovo, it equals the same viewing angle as the samsung, it's lighter, I can use my own headphones with it, AND it's cheaper. I'm waiting for a chance to try the Asus but until now the lenovo has out performed most of the line for value
  • You don't need a new headset if the headphones break on the Odyssey. The Odyssey headphones extend long enough for the vast majority of people but they don't for about 5% of us including me so I cut mine off and I use Wireless RF Sennheiser's that are awesome. I can wear my Odyssey hours on end with no problem but I know some found they had to add a 1/4" of padding to front headband to make it comfortable. But I disagree its visuals are not much better. It has higher resolution, mechanical IPD adjustment, OLED panels for better more vibrant colours and the best black levels in the industry. It has larger, properly shaped lenes that give it a much larger sweet spot (I don't notice the sweet spot in my Odyssey--to me it is 90% of its FOV). It also has more ergonomically shaped controllers.
  • It's nice that wireless headphones are a solution l, but if I simply want higher quality WIRED ones like a set of HyperX cloud IIs, that isn't an option. Also the resolution isn't that much higher, 1600p as opposed to 1440p,on most others, I've tested all but the ASUS at a Microsoft Store where I used to work, it isn't THAT much better. It's noticeable, but is it enough to make me people pay the extra money, at least from. where I was, no. Also the built in headphones breaking was a reason why we had many of the Odyssey returned. I would say wear the other headsets and go back to the Samsung, the weight makes a difference. The IPD adjustment is a great point, but, I've never felt I needed to adjust that like I did with the rift
  • Neither !
    Oculus Rift <3