Oculus Rift S first look: It's not Rift 2, but it makes VR look and feel better

Oculus and Lenovo have teamed up for the Rift 1.5

It’s been three years since we first strapped the Oculus Rift to our faces; three years since the new virtual reality race began in earnest. Since then we’ve seen all sorts of VR systems – on PC, consoles and mobile – but the OG Rift has, until now, remained untouched.

So meet the Oculus Rift S. That S may stand for many things – Oculus won’t say explicitly – but it's meant to convey that this is a polished and improved version of the existing headset, not the "Rift 2". For example, all games that will play on the Rift S will also still play on the original Rift.

Read this: The best VR headsets to buy in 2019

It works on the same ecosystem, but boasts a higher resolution display, improved optics and easier setup. It also costs $399, $50 more than the Rift currently goes for, and will arrive sometime this spring.

And if you're wondering why Lenovo's name is slapped on the side of the headset, it's because the company helped Oculus build it.

Oculus Rift S: Setup and new design

First look: Oculus Rift S is a more polished VR headset, but it's not Rift 2

Let’s start with that easier setup, because to me that's the biggest and best new feature. Oculus has done away with the external sensors on the Rift S; all room tracking is now built into the headset itself, which means you can simply take the headset out of the box, mark out your play space in the room and get playing. No need to rearrange the furniture. No need to whip out the Black & Decker.

For anyone who already has a Rift this will immediately raise questions about the setup procedure. The Rift S now comes with two cameras on the front that can let you view the world around you when the visor is on.

If you’ve used passthrough cameras on other VR headsets you may notice that they're not always great, so Oculus has developed something it calls Passthrough+, which keeps the camera feed at the proper frame rate and field of view so you don't redecorate the living room with vomit. “It’s actually stereo-correct passthrough,” said Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell in a roundtable discussion with Wareable. “So what this means is that you get a much more comfortable passthrough experience.”

When you put on Rift S you’re going to be dropped right into PassThrough+, but sadly Oculus wasn't showing it off during our preview demo. The company promises me it will be ready for launch time.

First look: Oculus Rift S is a more polished VR headset, but it's not Rift 2

I was, however, able to see the new optics in action – and they're a noticeable upgrade. It’s easy to forget how far VR tech has progressed since the original Oculus Rift arrived, so when I say the Rift S optics are comparable to Oculus’ more affordable, portable Go headset, it might sound like you’re being shortchanged. You’re not. The Rift S uses a single panel with a resolution of 1,280 x 1,440 per eye with a refresh rate of 80Hz, but that’s a marked improvement on the OG Rift’s 1,080 x 1,200 (per eye) spec.

Working with Lenovo, Oculus has also tweaked the design of the headset to make it more comfortable. Weight is distributed a bit more evenly, and there's a wheel on the back which you turn to adjust the tightness. There are integrated speakers in the headset, but chances are you'll still want to plug in your favourite pair of headphones.

I tried out Vacation Simulator and Insomniac Games' Stormland on the Rift S, the latter of which involved a lot of high-speed motion, and I'm pleased to say it was mostly comfortable. There were a few moments of high acceleration during Stormland which did make me a little queasy, but I also know that I'm in the more sensitive percentile of VR users.

Oculus Rift S: Controllers and differences to Quest

First look: Oculus Rift S is a more polished VR headset, but it's not Rift 2

I should also touch on the controllers. Once again the Rift S comes with Oculus' Touch Controller, which I still think is the best out there. However, you're getting the new version of Touch which has been adjusted slightly to make it easier to track by the headset cameras. These new and improved controllers also comes with the Oculus Quest, the company's upcoming standalone headset.

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Ah yes, Quest. This is where things may get a little confusing, so bear with me. Oculus announced Quest last year, and the headset is also set for a spring arrival at the same $399 price as the Rift S.

Like the Go, the Quest will work without a PC, but the S still needs to be tethered to a machine. But for the first-time buyer looking to dip their toe in the VR waters, the trade-offs might not be obvious, particularly at the same price.

First look: Oculus Rift S is a more polished VR headset, but it's not Rift 2

I put this question to Jason Rubin because I think Oculus is going to need to be clear on its messaging “A lot of people will walk into a Best Buy or go onto an Amazon and try to figure this out for themselves," Rubin agreed. "Here’s how I would explain it: Do you already own a PC? And does the PC meet our recommended spec? Which these days actually is not that crazy a spec because it’s been three years since Rift launched – a lot of laptops have that spec – if the answer is yes, you’re probably going to do really well with the Rift S.

"There’s no reason to not go for the Rift S. Don’t have it? Do you want to buy a PC? Probably not, or you’d have one. Quest is going to give you most of the same games albeit without the graphic fidelity Rift has.”

To maintain some amount of even ground between the Quest and S, Oculus is offering cross-play between the headsets as well as the option of cross-buy. The latter would mean you could theoretically buy a game on the Quest and then, one day, if you decide to buy the Rift S instead, be able to access it on that headset and take advantage of the advanced features. But it will be up to developers as to whether they offer this or not; as Rubin explained, there may be some instances where porting between headsets is costly or the experience between the two systems will be too different.

Initial verdict

Some VR die-hards may be disappointed that this isn't the Rift 2, but the Rift S folds nicely into Facebook's and Oculus' mission to make VR more accessible – while ensuring that there's a more elite-tier system on offer for the PC users who are hungry for the cutting edge in VR. For everyone else, the Oculus Quest may be the way to go.

Oculus certainly needs the Rift S to keep apace with rivals like HTC who are blazing ahead in the spec race, but more importantly it needs to make VR as appealing and easy to use as possible. The Rift S is a step in the right direction.

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