THE GOOD The MSI VR One makes for a better overall VR experience than a standard desktop or laptop. It's surprisingly light and has enough power to run standard 2D and VR games at high settings. A custom HTC Vive mini-cable is included.
THE BAD It's expensive for such a specialized item, and you can't upgrade the components later. Battery life in VR is short. Wearing a full PC on your back is always going to be awkward, and you'll probably need some help getting everything on and hooked up properly.
THE BOTTOM LINE The MSI VR One surprisingly succeeds in making VR more immersive, but even so, expensive, awkward virtual reality backpack PCs are ultimately more novelty than practical.
There's just no way to look cool wearing a virtual reality backpack PC. I'm going to get that out of the way right now. Even wearing a VR headset by itself is an inherently uncool look, as perfectly captured by this tumblr blog (which I've been fortunate enough to never appear on, although I've spotted a few CNET colleagues).
While not exactly fashion-forward, the MSI VR One does set out to solve a very legitimate problem with current-gen VR, by moving the big, powerful computer needed to run it from the desktop to your back. The specific problem it solves it that, while VR is an incredibly cool, transformative experience, it requires the user to be tethered to a PC by an umbilical cable, which inevitably gets tangled underfoot and restricts movement.
Some would argue that there are bigger issues with VR, such as the very expensive headsets, the even more expensive computers needed to run them; the lack of mainstream software and games; and even the very complex hardware and software setup process required to get started. But trust me, the unforgiving headset cable is one of the most immersion-breaking things about current-gen VR.
A desktop for your back
Think of the MSI VR One as a battery-powered desktop with shoulder straps. It's not the only product like this -- we've seen prototypes from Dell, HP and others, but it's the first one actually shipping to consumers. It starts at $2,000, and jumps to $2,300 for a higher-end configuration closer to the one we tested, with a better Nvidia 1070 graphics card. Both 256GB and 512GB storage options are available, but note that our slightly older demo unit had only a 128GB solid state hard drive.
MSI's international configurations, prices and availability for gaming PCs vary widely. In the UK, you can buy a 256GB, Nvidia 1060 model for £1,750; the 512GB, Nvidia 1070 model is £2,200. In Australia, we found the latter model for AU$3,699.
Inside the surprisingly light plastic chassis of the VR One is an Intel Core i7 CPU, a close to top-end Nvidia GeForce 1070 graphics card and a pair of detachable batteries. They're not yet available to buy, but MSI plans to sell additional batteries and a battery charging dock, which would allow you to swap in fresh batteries as you play.
The entire slab-like PC case screws into a small plastic backpack frame that attaches to the lucky player with two shoulder straps and a single around-the-waist belt strap. It weighs around 7.3 pounds (3.3 kg), which is lighter than I expected.
If you're familiar with how the HTC Vive works, you'll know it takes its trio of USB/HDMI/power cables, routes them through a powered breakout box, and then into a desktop or laptop PC. MSI instead includes a custom USB/HDMI/power cable -- much shorter than the official one -- which allows you to plug the headset directly into the backpack PC, without using the breakout box or its AC adapter. It's a clever pack-in that also keeps the long Vive cable from dangling while in use.
With a little help from your friends
One of things I always say about trying out virtual reality is that you really need a VR concierge (or maybe a VR caddy) to help out. Someone to get the headset properly attached, to fix any PC-related issues while you're strapped in and can't access your desktop or keyboard and mouse, and most importantly, to keep an eye on the cables connected to the PC and make sure you don't get tangled up.
While the VR One gets rid of the headset-to-PC cable snarl, it's still pretty awkward to suit up without a little help. The custom Vive cable included in the box is very short, deliberately so, and it's hard to hold the headset, slip on the backpack, and then put the headset on and adjust the velcro straps without a helping hand. Even after that, you have to put on headphones and plug them into the rear-facing headphone jack (one of the worst parts of the Vive headset design), and pick up the Vive controllers, assuming they're not already dangling from your wrists on their wrist straps. Taking the whole thing off is equally awkward, as you can imagine.
One you're properly strapped in, navigating games via Steam and launching them is something that can be done from inside the VR environment, although unlike desktop or laptop PC gaming, there's no external display to let others see what's happening in the game. (While the system is sitting on a desk, you can use the secondary mini-DisplayPort jack to output to a monitor, but that needs to be disconnected before donning it like a backpack.)
Here's the really amazing thing about the MSI VR One: It actually works. Once I was suited up, with Steam running, the headset and headphones on, and the Vive controllers in my hands, it was an incredibly freeing experience.
In games like Space Pirate Trainer, I usually move very cautiously, so as to not yank the Vive cable. It took serious concentration to allow myself to move more freely -- I wasn't used to having this kind of free rein in VR. The only thing to be mindful of is the limits of the physical space itself, and as long as you map the boundaries during the initial Vive setup and respect the grid-like indicators you see in-game, you should be fine.
I found the freedom of movement also worked for games where I wanted to explore an environment carefully, such as the sword-swinging RPG Forgotten Realms or the escape-the-room game Abode. And, of course, my all-time VR favorite Rec Room worked great -- paintball fights are even better when you're not tripping over any cables.