tl;dr: They’re both great and deliver a compelling experience far ahead of everyone else. Graphics are strong on both devices, the Rift has better sound and ergonomics, the Vive has better tracking and controllers. In the end, the Vive is slightly more exciting because tracking your body’s motion is the key to VR, but you can’t go wrong with either device.
Visuals: The graphics are very similar between the two devices and really impressive, definitely good enough to feel immersed and present. Resolution and field of view seem virtually identical on both, the Vive is a little brighter and the Rift a little sharper. Both have a pretty tight “sweet spot” (they have to be in just the right spot in front of your eyes or things get blurry in a hurry).
Sound: The Rift really shines here. The ergonomics and quality of the Rift headphones are great while they’re an afterthought on the Vive. The externalization and positioning of the 3D audio is quite good on the Rift and just basic on the Vive.
Comfort: This area is pretty close, with an advantage to the Rift. I’d say both devices are workable. They’re about the same weight, just light enough to be OK to wear for a while, but still pretty clunky and they get a little too warm. The Rift feels more balanced, less front-heavy. The fit and finish is high on both and the materials are OK, though for my taste all that plastic is too noticeable for something that’s strapped to my head. The large cables connecting the headsets to the PC are tolerable because the whole thing is such a cool experience, but clearly something that would be great to improve or remove altogether because they cause occasional brushing up or tripping which ruins the virtual experience.
Tracking: The Vive shines here. Once the two motion trackers are set up, they work pretty seamlessly. Your head and hand motions are tracked smoothly and accurately from all directions so you can turn and move around freely. It rarely glitches and after a while you stop thinking about it and it just works. The Rift tracking is also strong but suffers in comparison to the Vive because it only tracks from one direction, so you can’t move as freely and end up more aware of the limited range inside which the VR experience will work.
Controllers: This is another area where the Vive shines. It comes with two tracked hand controllers that make VR fun to interact with. You can “see your hands” in the virtual worlds and grab things, push buttons, aim guns, etc. These trackers are a good first step towards interaction in VR and make it easier to leave keyboards, mice, and touchscreens behind. The Rift will catch up when they have hand trackers later this year, but for now it ships with a little remote and an XBox controller. Neither is tracked (they don’t show up in the virtual world) so they’re just a stop gap solution.
Software: The Vive out-of-the-box experience (The Lab) is great, the Rift one (Dream Deck) is pretty good too. I’ve had the Vive longer, so I’ve tried more content on it. I’ve found several amazing titles on both systems and feel like there’s going to be lots of great content coming for years. Downloading and installing giant desktop apps is a pain and feels like something out of the past. Hopefully WebVR will take off and we’ll get more content that’s “web like” – easy to surf in connected, quick-to-load chunks.
Conclusion: Get a Vive or a Rift now and be amazed at how much fun VR is. I like the Vive a little better because of the better tracking, but the Rift is pretty much just as good, and both are far better than anything else I’ve tried. Future devices will improve – bigger fields of view, lighter and more portable designs, higher resolution graphics, great 3D sound, solutions for eye tracking and accommodation – but for now, both of these devices are good enough to deliver a great VR experience to millions of people. This is the beginning of something big.