HTC Vive Cosmos full review

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The Vive Cosmos was first released late 2019, and although the modular design of the headset was exciting, there was a noticeable lack of accessories available. That was until March 2020, when HTC unveiled three variants of the Cosmos: the Cosmos Play, Cosmos and Cosmos Elite, each with interchangeable faceplates that offer wildly different tracking experiences. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in the virtual world in both the Vive Cosmos and Vive Cosmos Elite, and here’s what I think of HTC’s latest VR headset range. 

A largely improved design

The HTC Vive Cosmos is available in three options - Play, Cosmos and Elite - and although some features vary, the core design and display tech are the same across the range. That means you’ll get the same display quality and headset design regardless of whether you pick up the £599/$599, £799/$799 or £899/$899 variant of the Cosmos, so don’t feel like you’re downgrading on the overall VR experience on offer by opting for one of the cheaper versions. 

The Vive Cosmos features a single 3.4in 2880 x 1700 LCD display split at 1440 x 1700 per eye with a 90Hz refresh rate, beating the likes of the Valve Index and Oculus Rift S and offering the best visuals I’ve ever seen from a VR headset. There’s also very little Screen Door Effect (SDE) thanks to a reduction in the gap between each individual pixel in the display - but I’ll talk more about performance later.  

There’s also a physical IPD adjustment knob on the headset itself, offering a one-up compared to the software-powered IPD adjustment of the Rift S, but unlike the original Vive, you won’t find eye relief adjustment here.

That’s a problem because although the Cosmos FOV is quoted as 110 degrees, the same as the original Vive, the inability to move the displays closer or further away from your eyes makes it feel a little narrower than the original, and you can easily see black edges to the picture if you shift your vision left or right.

So, two steps forward and one step back, it seems.

Generally speaking, the Vive Cosmos sports a typical halo design with a top velcro strap to provide extra support and a wheel at the back that tightens and loosens the main headband. It was a design first introduced with the PlayStation VR before making an appearance on most subsequent VR headsets, and with the Halo design providing a more superior, secure fit compared to the ski mask-esque headstraps of the first-gen Vive and Oculus Rift, it’s easy to see why. 

But even the superior Halo design isn’t enough to stop you from noticing the front-heavy nature of the headset over longer periods of play. Even when securely fitted, the HMD feels weighty and can even feel a little unwieldy during some fast-paced moments, and that’s not great for overall comfort.

While the Halo design is becoming the standard in the VR market, the Cosmos HMD is unique in that it can be lifted up, allowing you to interact with the real world without having to take the headset off. It’s ideal if you want to quickly change a setting on your PC, answer the door or just want to wipe your face during a sweaty VR exercise session, and although it’s a relatively minor feature, it shows the attention to detail present here.

You’ll also find two front-facing cameras, regardless of the variant of Cosmos you opt for. These offer the same passthrough functionality available on the first-gen Vive, allowing you to see the real world within the virtual, but I’d argue it’s not quite as necessary this time around with the ability to just flip the HMD up at a moment's notice. But hey, it’s there if people need it! 

Oh, and it’s worth noting that while the Cosmos offers inside-out tracking by default, negating the need for exterior base stations, it still needs a fairly capable PC to work and it’s wired by default too. You’ll need a DisplayPort and a USB 3.0 port on your PC - a change from the HDMI input of the original Vive - along with a plug for the headset’s own power source. 

An odd choice of controller

Offering an inside-out tracking system by default, HTC couldn’t use the original all-black Vive controllers, and instead headed back to the drawing board to create something new for the next-gen controller - with middling results.  

The first thing you’re likely to notice about the Vive Cosmos controllers are the bright LED rings that encircle the buttons of the controllers. This light helps the headset keep track of the position of the controllers while you’re in the virtual world, although it is much more in-your-face than the small, elegant controllers provided with the Oculus Rift S. 

That over-the-top theme extends to the buttons on offer; you’ve got your standard ABXY buttons, along with two concave control sticks with L3 and R3 functionality, two grip buttons and both a bumper and trigger button on each too. It’s a lot to get your head around initially, especially if you’re coming from the original Vive with a completely different layout. The real downside is that many current VR apps - even the likes of Half-Life: Alyx -  don’t take advantage of all the buttons on offer, although that could well change in future. 

It’s also over-the-top in the power department, with each controller requiring two AA batteries - double that required by the Rift S and frankly most other VR controllers on the market right now. The good news is that the controllers seem to be well optimised - I haven’t had to change the batteries since first setting up the system a few weeks ago - but it’s still inconvenient compared to the rechargeable nature of the original Vive controllers. 

Essentially, the Vive Cosmos controllers are over-the-top in basically every area, and while it does technically mean they’re among the most capable available, it also means they’re much heavier and bulkier than most of the competition. 

The Cosmos experience

The experience you get from the Vive Cosmos largely depends on the faceplate that you’re using; the entry-level Cosmos Play offers four cameras, the standard Cosmos offers six cameras and the high-end Cosmos Elite ditches inside-out tracking for the more reliable SteamVR tracking.

While it may seem annoying having three different versions of the headset, the beauty of the Cosmos is that it’s modular in design, allowing you to buy a cheaper package initially and buy the faceplate and not an entirely new headset if/when you decide to upgrade. It also means HTC can continue to add new functionality via different faceplates in future - it already has an AR Passthrough faceplate dubbed Cosmos XR in the works. 

To start, let’s talk about what you’ll get from the standard Vive Cosmos experience. As noted above, you’ll get the same 3.4in display regardless of the variant you pick up, providing an incredibly crisp and sharp VR experience better than most of the competition.

Text is easy to read and the virtual worlds I visited looked noticeably more detailed than other headsets, improving the immersive experience on offer - bar the narrow field-of-view. The combination of improved resolution and a reduction in the space between the individual pixels means SDE is barely noticeable, although it is there if you really look for it. 

It’s in the tracking department that you’ll notice a real difference in performance. The Vive Cosmos utilises six exterior cameras to track its position and that of the Cosmos controllers, offering a much simpler setup process than earlier headsets that require physical base stations for tracking, but as you’d probably imagine, the tracking isn’t flawless.

While the tracking is perfectly fine when the controllers are directly in front of the headset, issues arise when they leave the camera's field of view. It’s clear that HTC has employed some kind of tech to estimate the position of the controller once it leaves the field of view, but it’s inaccurate much of the time, and the annoying rubber banding effect when your controller snaps back into place once tracking has resumed can be jarring in fast-paced titles like Half-Life: Alyx and Fallout 4 VR. 

That being said, it does do a great job at tracking in less intense VR titles like Beat Saber, Space Pirate Trainer and Audica that require your hands to be in front of you at all times. Even if the controllers drift from the headset’s field of view, they don’t really require true 1:1 tracking for you to have an enjoyable time.

It’s also more than enough for the majority of interactive VR experiences, so if you’re more of a casual gamer that’d use the VR headset for exercise and entertainment than a hardcore gamer looking to sink 40 hours into a full-length action-packed VR title, the standard Cosmos should suffice. 

The Cosmos Elite experience

It’s safe to say that the Cosmos Elite provides an entirely different tracking experience, from setup to performance.

Like the first-gen HTC Vive, the Cosmos Elite utilises SteamVR tracking via wall-mountable base stations that track the headset and controllers with true 1:1 accuracy. The upgraded tracking provides true room-scale 360-degree tracking, allowing you to reach behind your back and not having to worry about the loss of tracking. It’s a game-changer for overall gameplay, making intricate movements easier and improving overall accuracy in shooters - be gone, slight wobble! 

It’s especially noticeable in fast-paced VR titles, with no loss of tracking at any point - no matter how frantic the movement got. The 1:1 tracking adds to the immersive nature of virtual reality, perfectly simulating the movement of your hands as you move. 

But while the Cosmos Elite tracking performance is amongst the best you’ll find right now, it’s nowhere near as easy to set up as the standard inside-out tracking Cosmos. You see, the base stations have to be mounted to walls in your environment - a rather permanent option - or placed high up in the room on tripods. Either way, it’s a lot more effort than simply putting the headset on and tracing your play area, and it also means you can only use the Elite in a single area unless you take the stations off the walls and reattach them in another room.

If you’re looking for a VR headset that you can take around the home - and even friends houses - the Elite probably isn’t the option for you. Whether the extra effort in setup is worth the improved performance is largely down to personal opinion, but with such a high level of tracking accuracy on offer, I’d argue that it’s probably worth it. 

My main gripe with the Cosmos Elite is the inclusion of the original HTC Vive controllers. While the 1:1 tracking on offer from the Vive wands is welcome, I think HTC should’ve introduced a new SteamVR-enabled controller with elements of design from the Cosmos controllers. While not perfect, the Cosmos controllers use the far more accurate analogue sticks for input compared to touch input of the original Vive wands, making exploring open-world games like Fallout 4 a little frustrating at times. 

If you’re making the jump from the first-gen Vive then you won’t have any complaints here, as the controllers are literally identical, but you might feel like it’s a step in the wrong direction if you’re coming from an Oculus headset. You could always splash out for SteamVR-enabled Valve Index knuckle controllers for an improved experience, but at £899 for the Cosmos Elite kit and £259/$279 for the knuckle controllers, it’ll be a costly aftermarket upgrade. 

Modular design comes at a premium

The Vive Cosmos technically starts at £599/$599 with the Cosmos Play, but considering that’s yet to be released, we’ll focus more on the Cosmos and Cosmos Elite, both of which are available to buy worldwide right now.

The £699/$699 price tag of Vive Cosmos is almost double that of the £399/$399 Oculus Rift S, making it a hard sell - especially when the two offer identical inside-out tracking. However, the improved resolution on offer from the Cosmos does translate to noticeably clearer experiences in VR, so it’s not as clear-cut as some may assume. 

There’s also the modular nature of the Cosmos: sure, it costs more, but you’ll then pay way less to get future upgrades. That’s not something offered by any of the competition, meaning you’ll have to fork out for an entirely new headset when features are announced if you opt for Oculus’ option. It’s available to buy from HTC, along with the likes of Amazon both in the UK and US

The Cosmos Elite is £200/$200 more at £899/$899, putting it in line with the high-end £919/$999 Valve Index, and while the tracking is great I do think the first-gen Vive wands do reduce the overall value of the kit - especially when you compare them to the more advanced Index knuckle controllers. Still, if you want the high resolution of the Cosmos and a true 1:1 tracking experience, it’s the only option you’ve currently got. 

If the Cosmos Elite is the headset for you, it’s available from HTC and eBuyer right now.

It essentially boils down to whether you think you’ll be a casual user that dips in every now and again or someone that’ll live and breathe VR and will want to invest in all the optional upgrades that come along in future. If it’s the former, you might be better off with the £399 Oculus Rift S, but if you want something that you can continue to enhance over time, it might be worth investing in the Cosmos or Cosmos Elite.  

For more VR inspiration, take a look at our selection of the best VR headsets

Verdict

The Vive Cosmos, no matter what option you go for, isn’t what I’d consider entry-level PC VR - especially when you can buy the Oculus Rift S for £399/$399, almost half the price of the Cosmos, with a similar six-camera tracking system on offer. But, with a much higher resolution than the competition, the Vive Cosmos undoubtedly provides one of the most detailed virtual experiences available right now. 

It’s the modular nature that makes the Cosmos range unique, and why it costs a little more too. Rather than having to buy an entirely new headset when HTC reveals new tech, Cosmos owners can simply buy a new faceplate and attach it to their existing headset, offering huge savings down the line. It just depends on whether you’re interested in having the latest VR tech, or if you’re happy with a standard VR experience. 

The Cosmos itself, with six-camera tracking, offers a decent VR experience for low- to mid-intensity VR games, but the camera tracking isn't perfect and the loss of tracking in fast-paced VR titles like Half-Life: Alyx can be frustrating at times.

But that’s where the Cosmos Elite comes in: for £200/$200 more, you can grab a Cosmos with true 1:1 tracking, but at the cost of long setup times and having to use the first-gen Vive wands. Again, it depends on the kind of experience you’ll be wanting in VR, but if you want the best performance possible, the Elite is definitely the way to go.

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