Oculus Rift S review: Small improvements make all the difference

Oculus and Lenovo have teamed up for the Rift 1.5
Oculus Rift S
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I’m going to start this review with an anecdote that I think perfectly encapsulates the biggest strength of the Oculus Rift S.

I actually got the Rift S alongside the Valve Index, another high-end, PC-powered system so I could compare and contrast them. I started with setting up the Valve Index, an hour-long hassle that involved updating my PC drivers and meticulously positioning the base stations, which are needed to track the headset and controller, around the room.

Eventually, I gave up.

After an hour of running wires around the room and balancing base stations on shelves, I still couldn’t get the controllers to connect despite the computer telling me they were there.

So I cut my losses and took the Rift S out of the box. To my surprise, there were just three parts: the headset and two wireless controllers. Within 15 minutes I was in the VR world.

Read this: The best VR headsets to buy in 2020

Now, the Valve Index is a fantastic virtual reality system that trumps the Rift S in quality, but I cannot overstate the brilliance of a VR headset that just… works. PC VR has come a long way.

The Oculus Rift S is the latest PC-powered headset from the company and replaces the original Oculus Rift CV1. It was launched alongside Oculus Quest, Facebook’s all-in-one system which doesn’t require a PC at all. Then there’s the Oculus Go, Facebook's other standalone headset that isn't quite as good. Following along? Great.

The Rift S is meant to provide the most “premium” VR experience from Oculus right now. We’ve now been living with the Rift S for quite some time, testing it out with several games and experiences. Here’s our full review.

Oculus Rift S: Design and setup

Oculus Rift S review:

In terms of design, the Rift S isn't too different to the OG model, with overall still quite a bland, utilitarian look. However, it does now add PlayStation VR-esque halo band to the top and a two-level design to the front of the visor. That’s no coincidence as the Rift S was designed by Lenovo, which licenses Sony’s VR patents, and made a similar-looking headset of its own a couple of years ago.

The Rift S is more comfortable to wear than the OG Rift, despite being slightly heavier, with better weight distribution. I've tried it for longer play sessions of around 45 minutes and didn't find it uncomfortable.

But better yet, Oculus has also added inside-out tracking into the headset this time, allowing room-tracking without the need for external sensors.

If you own/owned the original Rift, you’ll remember having to find space for the sensors to track the system so you could walk around inside VR. No longer: There are now five cameras scattered around the headset that lets it see where it is in the room. It also enables the new passthrough mode - more on that later.

Oculus Rift S review:

Inside the Rift, the optics have been given a small bump-up. The resolution is now 1280 x 1440 pixels per eye, slightly better than the previous 1200 x 1080. However, the refresh rate is now 80hz, lower than the original’s 90hz.

How important that slight dip is will depend on your susceptibility to VR sickness. Generally speaking, the higher the refresh rate, the less likely you are to feel nauseous. Personally, I don’t see a lot of difference with the Rift S, and I’m someone who's definitely prone to bouts of VR-induced nausea (I once had to lie down after a short stint on DriveClub on the PlayStation VR, no joke).

Somewhat annoyingly, Oculus has removed the manual IPD (interpupillary distance) slider on the Rift S. For me this hasn’t proven an issue, but I can see why it has irked some people: everyone is different and the distance between our pupils can vary quite a bit. Ever borrowed someone’s binoculars and had to adjust the tubes on the hinge to get them into focus? It’s similar with VR. Thankfully there is a software-level adjuster on the Rift S that does the same job, but it's less convenient.

It may seem surprising that the Rift S specs aren’t higher considering the original Rift is nearing four years old, but price is still a huge barrier to entry with VR, one that Facebook and Oculus have been trying to keep down, and to keep the Rift S at $399 some concessions will undoubtedly be made.

Case in point: Valve Index is a much more spec'd-out and better reflects the progress that has been made in VR - but it also costs $1,000. The other benefit of the Rift S not being more of a leap forward is that the system requirements remain the same as the original Rift; if your current PC can run the Rift okay, it can run the Rift S.

Oculus Rift S review:

That barrier isn’t just about price. As I said at the top of this piece, setting up the Rift S is a breeze. The headset requires both USB 3 and DisplayPort connectors, while the controllers just need a pair of AA batteries each (included in the box).

From there, it’s a case of just downloading the Oculus desktop app and walking through the setup process. This involves teaching it where the ground is (it asks you to reach down with a controller and touch the floor) and setting your play space by walking around and drawing a perimeter line. That’s quite important; you don’t want to walk into any walls or punch a floor lamp when in VR, something we certainly have never done nor would we ever do, that’s for sure. Moving on.

The passthrough cameras allow you to see what’s around you during this procedure. Oculus uses what it calls Passthrough+, which shows you a monochrome view of your surroundings but at a frame rate that won’t make you want to hurl.

It's really helpful, and gets around the problem of the Rift S not having a flip-up visor like some other headsets do. If you step outside of your Guardian boundaries (the perimeter you set up), the Passthrough+ vision will also kick to avoid you punching a wall.

Oculus Rift S: The controllers

Oculus Rift S review:

The Rift S comes with Oculus' new and improved Touch controllers – the same pair you get with the Oculus Quest. These controllers different from the OG Rift's in that they now have a ring around the top, rather than behind the hand, to better help the headset track them.

They also have capacitive sensors on the buttons and thumbsticks so you can now point your index finger and thumbs individually while in VR. Sadly, you don't get tracking for all of your digits... yet.

One reason the Rift S has its cameras positioned differently to the Quest – and one extra – is that it gives it a bit more range when following the controllers. In our experience the range is really good, and we've not had any drop-outs or problems with losing our hands, although admittedly we tend to opt for the less vigorous VR games.

Speaking of which..

Oculus Rift S: Apps and games

Oculus Rift S review: Small improvements make all the difference

So you’re all set up and ready to roll. Now what? If this is your first foray into VR then you’re in for a treat because the Oculus store is brimming with games and experiences that are actually worth your time.

Oculus has made it much easier to switch between apps, games and settings from within the headset. Once set up, any time you want to jump into VR, you only need to put on the headset to wake it out of sleep mode - or at least that's the idea. We've had more than a few occasions where the headset either doesn't respond, or it freezes and requires unplugging and restarting before it works again. Even Oculus' more polished VR experience has its problems.

When it does work, putting on the headset will wake it up and drop you into your VR home area, where you’ll see a dashboard version of the desktop app.

Here, you’ll be able to load games and even browse the Oculus store, all designed so that you can do most tasks without taking the headset off.

As for the games, there's a lot more variety on the store these days so I'd recommend browsing to see what speaks to your personal tastes. Some support room tracking and some are stationary experiences. For those that do support room tracking, you'll need to make sure you have enough space to play them in, which may mean rearranging some furniture. But thanks to the inside-out tracking here, it's much less of a faff than using room scale with the Valve Index.

If you do want some personal recommendations, we really love Superhot VR, Robo Recall, Echo VR, and Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives. Also, if you're new to VR, try out Oculus First Contact. It's a short, free experience, but it's a great way to ground yourself in VR and get used to the Oculus Touch controllers.

Finally, we'd recommend checking out the Vader Immortal saga, a Star Wars series that has been releasing in installments on the Oculus store, and is heaps of fun.


Oculus Rift S
By Oculus
The Oculus Rift S isn't an exciting upgrade on the original Rift, but it's certainly a good one. If you still want a premium VR experience on PC, the Rift S is more affordable than the Valve Index and Vive Pro without making too many concessions. It's also a more polished experience, making it less daunting for VR newbies. However, if you don't need the absolute best, the untethered Oculus Quest is a better choice.

Hit
  • Super easy to use
  • Crisp visuals
  • Doesn't need tracking stations
Miss
  • Oculus Quest is better value
  • Sometimes glitches out
  • Needs a PC to work

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