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This ultraportable VR headset gave me a taste of Vision Pro at a fraction of the cost

MacBook pairing and hands-free controls on the HTC Vive XR Elite made working from a new home a lot easier.
Written by Kerry Wan, Senior Reviews Editor
HTC Vive XR Elite
June Wan/ZDNET

I recently moved into a new house and decided to leave most of my old furniture behind. To make the new space feel like a true refresh, I ordered a new standing desk, new office chair, new everything. But this review has less to do with the furniture that's arriving and more to do with the VR headset that's been serving as my interim work desk and entertainment room, the HTC Vive XR Elite.

Review: Apple Vision Pro: Fascinating, flawed, and needs to fix 5 things

Truth be told, HTC has been kind enough to let me test the Vive XR Elite since July, so I've been in deep mind; strategizing the right angle to offer some useful and different context for potential buyers. Another review of how Beat Saber and Tilt Brush ran on the Snapdragon XR2 platform felt redundant.

So here I am, typing this testimonial after using the Vive XR Elite as my metaverse portal over the past two months, with a particular focus on how it helped me get work done while my house was still being furnished. 

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I'll start with the fit and finish because if there's anything that makes or breaks a VR headset, it's comfort. With the Vive XR Elite, HTC tackles comfortability in three ways: 

  1. The battery cradle, when attached, doubles as a counterweight to all the sensory goodness on the face side. 
  2. An overhead strap takes off some of the pressure that's pressed in from the front and back of your head.
  3. When you're just lounging in bed or on a sofa, detaching the battery cradle allows the Vive XR Elite to be worn like a pair of glasses.

From having shuffled between all three combinations, I've found the headset the most comfortable when the battery cradle is attached and fastened in, and the top strap is pressed down just firmly enough to keep the headset from slipping below my eyes. 

Also: Immersed's new Visor XR headset solves the Vision Pro's biggest pain points

A couple of reviewer friends who have also tested the Vive XR Elite suggested I stray from using it in glasses mode, and I understand why. When all the pressure is coming from the front side, the imbalance can be a rather disorientating experience if your VR use cases involve any bodily movement. 

Even for my activities, which mainly revolved around the Immersed app for casting my MacBook screens, turning my head from side to side would make the headset wiggle here and there. So my advice, like many others, is to use the glasses mode only when you're stationary or when you're carrying the Vive XR Elite from place to place.

HTC Vive XR Elite
June Wan/ZDNET

That's my cue to mention that the Vive XR Elite can not be worn on top of glasses unless you buy the optional $25 MR gasket. The soft, cushiony fixture that's included with the headset is simply too tight to fit over medium to large-sized glasses, so this is very much a no additional eyewear affair, which isn't the case with competing headsets like the Meta Quest 2 and Quest Pro.

Also: First look: Here's what Apple's Vision Pro prescription lenses look like

I wear corrective lenses, so this limitation was a big miss for me. But that's where the built-in prescriptions and IPD (inter-pupillary distance) adjustment come into play. The prescriptions range from 0 to -6, which is not the most accommodating, considering I had to max out at a -6 for the clearest viewing experience, but it was good enough for me to distinguish text in the virtual world. I know many others with vision much worse, and HTC's system likely won't cut it.

Onto the fun part: using the Vive XR Elite as my workstation. You may have seen demos of it before, a person putting on a VR headset and working on a spread of digital monitors. That was basically me, thanks to the HTC headset and the aforementioned Immersed app. Unlike Virtual Desktop, another popular computer-to-VR service, Immersed is free to use and has some advantages, such as support for up to five monitors (both for PC and Mac).

Also: These $400 XR glasses gave my MacBook a 120-inch screen to work with

The syncing process with my 16-inch MacBook Pro was not the most efficient, as I had to constantly peek in and out of the headset to memorize the long pairing code as I typed it into my laptop, and a companion app was required for everything to work. But once I got my MacBook casting in the headset app, I started typing and browsing like I always did. Only there were no physical monitors and desks in front of me.

HTC Vive XR Elite

Please excuse my attempt at depicting what the Immersed is like on the Vive XR Elite.

June Wan/ZDNET

Since my workflow revolves mainly around text input, being able to discern numbers, letters, and symbols is crucial. Visually, the Vive XR Elite's dual 1920 x 1920 displays at 90Hz make for a very smooth, easy-on-the-eyes experience. Even with multiple windows open, the corners of my vision didn't appear blurry or have a vignette effect. 

Also: Samsung's answer to Apple Vision Pro is on track to be announced soon

You won't feel the jitteriness that's more prevalent on headsets with 60Hz refresh rates, too, so the motion of looking around from window to window felt more like how it is in real life. I probably avoided a headache or two because of that.

On Immersed, I was able to adjust the sharpness of the screencast as well as drag it closer or further away from me. This was all done via hand and finger tracking, as the actual Vive XR Elite controllers were too large to constantly pick up after typing on the laptop keyboard. 

HTC Vive XR Elite
June Wan/ZDNET

That's to say that hand tracking worked surprisingly well, with the headset reliably detecting my inputs as I pinched my index and thumb fingers or dragged up and down. Since my use cases were less gaming-intensive, I was fine with ditching the physical controllers completely and just navigating the software via finger gestures.

Also: I tested the world's first Dolby Vision-supported long-throw projector, and it's game-changing

HTC says the Vive XR Elite gets about two hours of battery life per charge. I averaged about an hour and a half before the status indicator turned red. Tethering the headset with a USB-C cable is doable, and it was what I mostly did as I worked on my virtual desktop.

ZDNET's buying advice

Mobility is the true selling factor of the HTC Vive XR Elite; the freedom to pocket the headset in a small, tumbler-sized carrying case and bring it everywhere you go is what separates it from the competition.

If you landed on this review -- and read up to this point -- chances are high that you're cross-shopping between the $1,099 Vive XR Elite and Meta's $999 Quest Pro. For both performance and app variety, Meta is still the favorite. For portability and a VR experience that's less aggressive with collecting your personal data, go with the HTC.

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