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Which VR headsets can you actually buy at the launch of Half-Life: Alyx?

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All of these headsets are compatible with the game

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Image: Valve

It’s 2020, and the selection of VR headsets has never been more varied — or more sold out. If you haven’t been keeping up with the onslaught of news, most virtual reality headsets that will be compatible with the game from the likes of Oculus, Valve, HTC, and Samsung have been in extremely high demand but with low supply.

Why the demand? Half-Life: Alyx, of course. It’s the VR-exclusive game from Valve that could be the immersive medium’s first killer app, and it’s coming out March 23rd.

Why the low supply? The coronavirus, of course. Since the new Half-Life game was announced in November 2019, people have been scooping up headsets in anticipation for the game. And on top of already limited stock, the novel coronavirus has drastically impacted production of VR headsets since the start of 2020.

To tell you which headset you should buy to play Half-Life: Alyx is a tease; in most cases, you can’t just go out and buy the one you want. You could browse the second-hand market for a used headset, but I don’t recommend that. You’ll likely pay way more than the retail price for a headset. And it’s not the smartest idea to buy a used VR headset during a time when there’s a non-zero risk of contracting or spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.

If you strike out on getting a headset to play Half-Life: Alyx on launch day, don’t fret too much. Hopefully, the stock situation will improve soon. And with the post below, you’ll be up to date on all of the latest headsets that are compatible with the game, so you can make a purchase whenever the one you want becomes available.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Valve Index

Includes Half-Life: Alyx for free with purchase

Valve released the Index in 2019. It’s a high-powered, tethered VR headset that relies on Lighthouses to position itself in your playing space, even if you’re sitting down to play. This headset is compatible with older Lighthouse base stations made for the original HTC Vive, so you can save some money if you already own them or can find them for cheap. Valve’s own second-generation base stations have better range, and at $149 per unit, they currently don’t cost much more than the new price for first-generation base stations.

The headset has two 1440 x 1600 LCD displays with up to 120Hz refresh rate (with an experimental 144Hz refresh rate feature) for smoother and more responsive feedback to your physical actions. In The Verge’s review of the Index, Adi Robertson says that the screen quality “easily outstrips the Rift or Vive,” though it’s on par in terms of resolution with the Vive Pro and Oculus Quest.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

One of the Index’s most appealing features is its optional controllers, which also work with HTC Vive headsets since they’re SteamVR-based. Adi tested them out before the headset released and compared them to the Oculus Touch controllers that shipped with the first commercial version of the Oculus Rift.

Valve’s product page for the Index states that Half-Life: Alyx was developed using Index hardware. That’s not to say you won’t have a good time with other headsets, but everything from the visual fidelity of the displays to the intuitive Index controllers will probably be the best fit for the experience.

What’s the price range?

The Valve Index alone is $499. The Valve Index controllers are $279. They come in a set for $749, but if you want all that plus two base stations, that’s going to cost you $999.

Buying almost any component of the Index headset will get you a free copy of Half-Life: Alyx.

What can you actually buy?

Valve’s Index has been sold out for most of 2020, though it recently made a limited supply available. That sold through, and there is currently an eight-week wait for your headset to ship, though that time frame could shift around in a good or bad way given the fluid nature of everything being affected by the coronavirus. If you want your headset as soon as possible, order now.

HTC Vive Pro

The Vive Pro is the kit that’s most similar to the Valve Index offering. It’s a tethered headset that offers 1440 x 1600 pixels per eye at a 90Hz refresh rate. Similarly, it relies on base stations to triage the headset’s location while you move around in your play space. The Vive Pro is fully compatible with SteamVR, and again, like the Index, its most expensive kit comes with controllers and SteamVR 2.0 base stations that allow for more range.

Despite their similarities, the Vive Pro ships with controllers that are comparatively limited when you put them up against the Index controllers. However, since the Vive Pro utilizes the same base stations as the Index, Valve’s controllers should work perfectly with this headset if you feel compelled to upgrade for $279.

What’s the price range?

The Vive Pro recently saw some price cuts across the board. The headset alone is $599 (was $799). The Vive Pro Starter Kit, which includes two SteamVR 1.0 base stations and two Vive controllers is $899 (was $1,099). The Vive Pro Full Kit, which includes the SteamVR 2.0 base stations and two controllers, costs $1,199.

What can you actually buy?

As I mentioned earlier, you should be able to find the Vive Pro through several retailers. However, HTC’s site is out of stock at the moment.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

HTC Vive Cosmos and Cosmos Elite

HTC’s Vive Cosmos lineup includes a few headsets, and they aren’t as different as they might seem. The $699 Cosmos uses several cameras built into the headset to track your movement and the controller position instead of relying on base stations, which can be tough to set up. On the other hand, the $899 Cosmo Elite is essentially the same headset as the Cosmos, but with a different faceplate that allows it to work with SteamVR 1.0 base stations (two of those come included with the Elite).

Both of these Cosmos headsets have impressive specs, like displays that provide 1440 x 1700 pixels for each eye and a 90Hz refresh rate. Reviewer Adi Robertson says that the field of view is about 110 degrees, which basically matches what you’ll find in most headsets. The “screen door” effect that makes the VR content look as if you’re staring at it through a screen door has been greatly reduced in the Cosmos series compared to the original Vive.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The Vive Cosmos Elite utilizes HTC’s original Vive controllers tracked with base stations. Those can be finicky to set up, but they usually provide reliable tracking. HTC includes its new controllers with the $699 Cosmos, seen above. They’re well designed, but HTC’s solution for tracking the controllers wasn’t reliable during Adi’s review process.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Cosmos headset sometimes lost tracking when I reached for something on the floor, so the world snapped out of place. Most inside-out systems can’t “see” controllers if they’re held too close to your face, and the Cosmos is no exception. The Cosmos took unusually long to recover, though. My virtual hands could stay stuck for several seconds, which was a huge problem in fast-paced games.

This doesn’t bode well for a fast-paced game like Half-Life: Alyx that relies heavily on controllers, but it’s possible that HTC’s updates to the headset have made it much better since we reviewed the Cosmos.

What’s the price range?

The HTC Cosmos kit costs $699 and includes everything you need to take full advantage of the hardware.

The Cosmos Elite, HTC’s high-end model in the lineup, costs $899 and includes two SteamVR 1.0 base stations and two controllers. It includes a copy of Half-Life: Alyx for free with purchase.

What can you actually buy?

The Cosmos kit is currently available on HTC’s site, as well as on Amazon. Same story goes for the Cosmos Elite: it’s on HTC and Amazon right now.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Oculus Quest

The Oculus Quest is an untethered headset that utilizes inside-out tracking to eliminate the need for any extra base stations or accessories. The headset has all of the hardware and software necessary to let you play VR games and use apps without being connected to a PC.

Like the Index and Vive Pro, it has 1440 x 1600 displays for each eye, though the refresh rate tops out at 72Hz. That’s pretty good considering that the Quest costs $399 and comes with a set of Oculus Touch controllers.

However, the reason that the Quest is on this list is because it works with Half-Life: Alyx. To play it, along with all of the games in the Oculus Rift catalog not normally accessible by the Quest, you’ll need to tether it to your PC with an approved USB-C cable. Oculus makes its own roughly 16-foot link cable, though it’s pricey and currently sold out everywhere. As an alternative, Oculus suggests a long (10 feet or more) Anker Powerline USB-C to USB 3.0 cable.

What’s the price range?

Oculus sells two versions of the Quest, one with 64GB of onboard storage for $399 and another with 128GB of onboard storage for $499.

What can you actually buy?

Currently, it’s sold out everywhere, even at Oculus’ storefront. It reappeared on Oculus’ online store last week for a brief time, but it’s unfortunately out of stock again.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Oculus Rift S

The Rift S is the successor to the original Rift, though Adi Robertson, who reviewed it for The Verge, suggests that you shouldn’t expect much in terms of new features and improvements over the original. It’s still a headset that requires you to tether it to your PC, and the optics aren’t really an improvement. And if you’re deciding between this and the Oculus Quest that released alongside it and also starts at $399, the Rift S has some advantages, though a few more disadvantages.

The Rift S will cost you a little less than the Quest if you only want to play Half-Life: Alyx because you won’t need to pay for a USB-C cable to tether it to your PC. That’s a perk, I suppose. Also, the Rift S, unlike the original Rift, doesn’t require two external cameras for tracking — a significant improvement over the original.

The trade-offs compared to the Quest and other flagship headsets are rather substantive. Compared to the Valve Index, Oculus Quest, and Vive Pro, its screens are lower resolution at 1280 x 1440 pixels per eye. That’s actually a slight improvement over the original Rift, but disappointingly, Oculus dropped the refresh rate from 90Hz in the original Rift to 80Hz in the Rift S. That’s slightly higher than the Quest’s capabilities, but it’s not what we were hoping for. Still, for $399, it’s not a bad deal.

What’s the price range?

The Oculus Rift S costs $399.

What can you actually buy?

Like the Quest, the Rift S is currently sold out everywhere, including at the Oculus store.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

All of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets

You stand to save a lot of money if you buy a Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) headset, but your experience playing Half-Life: Alyx, and other VR games and apps in general, might not be as enjoyable.

Several manufacturers make WMR headsets, and it’s a fragmented market within the greater market of VR headsets. The screens, designs, controllers, and prices vary wildly, though only one of them is promoted by Microsoft anymore. It’s Samsung’s HMD Odyssey Plus, which retails for as low as $279.

The Odyssey Plus plugs in to your PC via USB and HDMI, and it features cameras that track movement and the controllers. The headset displays at 1440 x 1600 resolution per eye, and unlike the Rift S, it features a mechanism that lets you adjust the distance between your eyes and the lenses.

Samsung no longer sells this model through its site, though Microsoft at least has a landing page set up for it. It hasn’t been in stock since shortly after Half-Life: Alyx was announced to support WMR headsets, and it’s not clear when it will come back in stock.

What’s the price range?

The Samsung HMD Odyssey Plus originally retailed for $499, but has sold for as low as $279.

What can you actually buy?

It’s currently sold out at Microsoft, but Amazon has some new units for a reasonable $299.

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