Oculus Rift S review: The second generation of PC-based virtual reality comes with caveats Credit: Adam Patrick MurrayIDGIDG
Business Management

Oculus Rift S review: The second generation of PC-based virtual reality comes with caveats

Virtual reality’s second generation is here, and it’s complicated. Today Oculus opens preorders for its new hardware lineup, the untethered Oculus Quest and the “upgraded” PC-based Oculus Rift S. Both retail for $399, and both are due to release May 21. We’ve spent some time with each headset now, and you’ll find our thoughts about the Oculus Quest over here.

And there’s no dancing around it: Quest is the more interesting of the two. The Oculus Rift S is very much an incremental update, arriving to replace the original Oculus Rift VR headset after three years—though replace doesn’t necessarily mean improve upon. It’s not quite that easy, unfortunately.

NOTE: We’ve been experiencing a crash-bug with the Oculus Rift S, but given that it’s three weeks out from release it’s hard to know whether this will persist at launch—or indeed whether it’s a problem with our test computer. We’ve been in contact with Oculus and will update once we know what’s causing the problem and whether it’s easily fixed. The problem has not been factored into the score as it currently stands, but if it proves pervasive or unaddressed we will adjust accordingly.

An angel’s touch

The Oculus Rift S has three key selling points. Problem is, only one of the three is an unequivocal improvement upon the original Rift. The other two “improvements” come with significant caveats, enough that you could argue they’re not improvements at all.

But we’ll get into that later.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

For now, let’s start with the Oculus Rift S’s one unabashed success: Comfort. Despite releasing on the same day, the Quest and Rift S have very different designs. The Quest adheres closely to the original Rift, with semi-rigid plastic straps on the sides and top that meet in a head-cradling triangle at the rear. And it’s comfortable enough, with the original Rift beating out the HTC Vive’s elastic straps when it released in 2016.

The Oculus Rift S opts for a “halo” headband though, following the trend that started with Microsoft’s HoloLens prototype and which is now found on everything from Sony’s PlayStation VR to Microsoft’s Windows MR headsets. The Rift S visor hangs from a thick plastic hoop, which slips onto the head like a hat brim and then is tightened by way of a wheel on the rear of the headset. A fabric strap across the top keeps it from slipping, but the outer ring does most of the work.

And it is so damn comfortable. I can’t emphasize enough. The Oculus Rift S sits incredibly light, with no pressure on the cheeks or forehead. I felt more weight from the cable hanging off the rear than I did from the headset itself, which is amazing. It’s also quick to put on and simple to adjust, even mid-game.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

There’s a bit of heat build-up, so we haven’t reached the point yet where you’d want to wear a VR headset all day. The Oculus Rift S also ditches the original’s ingenious fold-down headphones in favor of speakers built into the headband, which as an apartment dweller I’m less thrilled about. I’ve taken to wearing wireless headphones over the Rift S, and I miss the original Rift’s all-in-one convenience.

But at least in one regard, raw comfort, the Oculus Rift S easily surpasses its predecessor—and Quest too, for that matter. It’s also the aspect Oculus has talked up the least, which brings us to selling points two and three: Optics and tracking. And it’s here that the narrative around the Oculus Rift S gets a bit more complicated.

A flair for lenses

Optics is the simpler of the two, if only because it’s rooted in statistics. It’s the usual “The Numbers Went Up” sort of marketing you’d expect from consumer electronics, with the Oculus Rift S boasting a slightly improved resolution of 2560x1440 (1280x1440 per eye) compared to the original Rift’s 2160x1200 (1080x1200 per eye). It may not sound like much, but the improved resolution is noticeable, especially when dealing with text. You can easily summon a virtual desktop in Oculus Home, and I was able to comfortably browse Twitter and even write articles within VR, without any eye strain.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

New lenses are probably a contributing factor there as well—and in reducing so-called “god rays.” The original Rift was plagued by lens artifacts, streaks of light that appeared whenever a bright light was set against a dark background i.e. white text on black. The Rift S isn’t wholly free of this ugly byproduct, but the streaks are more diffused this time, and thus less noticeable.

The Oculus Rift S isn’t an across-the-board improvement though, and not all the numbers went up. The resolution did indeed improve, but the Rift S’s maximum frame rate actually dropped from 90Hz down to 80Hz. And while Oculus says the Rift S maintains the 110-degree field of view from the original, in practice it feels narrower. I’ve noticed the sides of the display a lot more testing the Oculus Rift S than I did on the original Rift or the HTC Vive Pro.

The Oculus Rift S also abandons AMOLED for LCD, probably for pricing reasons. The downside is that the screen is never truly black, but instead caps out at a dark gray. It’s not really noticeable unless you’re doing A/B testing with other headsets, including Quest (which still features AMOLED), but there is a loss of fidelity there.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

That said, the improvements made to the Oculus Rift S optics are probably more important than the caveats. You’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference between 80Hz and 90Hz moment-to-moment, which renders that dip pretty meaningless. I feel similarly about the LCD screen, as I said. On paper it’s worse, but in actuality it’s imperceptible.

The field of view change, or a perceived field of view change, is the only concern that gives me pause. The Oculus Rift S does feel tighter to me, more like looking through binoculars—perhaps because the improved padding keeps the lenses further from my eyes? I’m not sure. Regardless, the increased resolution and diminished lens artifacts are a fine compromise for minor field of view changes in my opinion.

Our Oculus Rift S review continues on the next page.

Swallow my doubt, turn it inside-out

Tracking is bound to be the most controversial choice Oculus made with the Rift S. Like Quest, the Rift S ditches Oculus’s old base station cameras—technology that dates to the Oculus Rift DK2—in favor of inside-out tracking.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

In other words, the cameras are built into the headset. There are five of them: Two on the front, two on the bottom-corners aimed down and outward, and one on the top. Both the headset and the controllers rely on these cameras for tracking, using a mix of RGB and infrared to read the environment you’re in and locate where the headset’s pointed.

It’s easy to set up. That’s the main benefit. The original Oculus Rift retrofitted its position-tracking cameras to eventually work in a room-scale environment, but they weren’t designed to do that originally. They were meant for usage at a desk, seated, and Oculus only reacted when the HTC Vive forced the room-scale question. The Rift’s base station cameras didn’t track a very large area. You needed three to ideally cover the same space as the Vive’s trackers, and even then the Rift often encountered issues.

Worse, the base stations fed directly into the PC. The Vive’s Lighthouse boxes are “dumb,” blasting lasers into the environment but not doing any calculations themselves. All you needed was an outlet, because the Vive was the component doing the tracking. The original Rift’s cameras were the trackers though, and each needed its own USB plugin. This led to all sorts of problems, with Oculus having to put out guides on how to plug in three cameras along with the Rift headset itself without overloading your USB bus.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

The Oculus Rift S has one DisplayPort and one USB connection. Plug those in, and you’re done. That’s all the physical setup. No base stations, no additional cables.

Put on the headset and you’ll then see a black-and-white camera feed of your environment, known as Passthrough. Since the Oculus Rift S has two front-facing cameras, this feed is even rendered in stereoscopic 3D, an improvement over the flat image fed through Quest. Setting up Guardian is then as simple as setting the floor height (if it’s not automatically detected) and “painting” the appropriate boundaries into the environment. Again, compare that to the Rift (and the Vive) where you had to physically walk around the room to set up Guardian. The Rift S is comically simple by comparison, done in seconds.

And as far as the headset tracking goes, it’s flawless—or near flawless, at least. There is a somewhat annoying side effect, which is that you need enough ambient light for the Rift S to function. I’d grown used to using the Vive in the dark, since inside the headset it doesn’t matter if the lights are on or not. Oculus will grumble at you if it can’t see though. It’s not a big deal, but it’s worth noting.

Aside from that minor quibble, it’s perfect. Better than the original Rift in fact, which would often stutter or otherwise react poorly if it went out of view of the base stations even momentarily. I’ve had no such issues with the Oculus Rift S, and it’s never incorrectly changed the floor height or lost my position such that the Guardian boundaries drifted into nearby objects—important because I did have those exact issues with Windows MR headsets and their defective inside-out tracking.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

Controller tracking is far more problematic though, especially when compared to the Vive, which I’d consider the gold standard. Base stations are cumbersome, but allow controllers to be tracked independent from anything else. This is true of both the Vive and (with the caveat that it rarely worked as seamlessly) the original Rift as well. With base stations, you can put your controller in a box across the room and as long as the base station can see it, you’ll be able to see it in VR as well. A better real-world example: If you put your hands behind your back, they don’t magically disappear.

When you put cameras on the headset itself, this is no longer true. The Oculus Rift S admittedly tracks a much larger area than the Windows MR headsets—larger than Quest too, for that matter. Quest’s cameras are all front-facing to an extent, and none aim explicitly upwards or out to the sides. The Oculus Rift S has surprisingly thorough coverage of both these edge-cases, making it slightly harder to trick.

But the dead zones are there, and they’re noticeable. I still spend quite a bit of time in Google Earth VR, and thus noticed a glaring blind spot under the chin, where you hold a controller to display Street View images. The Oculus Rift S hated that area unless I held a controller slightly away from my chin, in view of the front-facing cameras.

Behind the back and over the shoulders (like a triceps stretch) are also a problem, as expected, but at my hips proved surprisingly hit-or-miss as well. In Lone Echo, I noticed that if I put my hands at my sides and then rotated my head, the character skeleton would react unpredictably every single time. Usually, the character’s shoulders would stay squared forward while my head went more and more off-axis, until I lifted a hand in view of the cameras and everything snapped back into place.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

“Okay Hayden,” I hear you say, “the same problems crop up with Oculus Quest and you gave it a pass there. I’m reading your review and you said blind spots are edge cases, ‘worth ditching the base stations and giving you the freedom to relocate to a new room on-the-fly.’ Why’s the Rift S held to a different standard?”

First, let me say how much I appreciate that you read both reviews today, hypothetical reader. I know they’re long.

But second, it’s a matter of expectations. The Oculus Rift S does track Touch controllers as well or better than Quest, and it is fantastic to ditch the cumbersome base stations. Writing about the Oculus Rift S in March, I said it was “good enough,” the same phrase I’ve used to describe the Quest—meaning good enough that most people wouldn’t even notice the moments it breaks.

That might still be true, but now that I’ve had the Oculus Rift S for a longer period I’m not as enamored. Ditching base stations, and the compromises that ensue, makes more sense for Quest. You’re completely untethered, and it’s simple to pick up and move to another room, set up Guardian, and keep playing. In theory you could do the same with Oculus Rift S hooked up to a laptop, but I imagine most VR enthusiasts are playing hooked up to a desktop PC. And even with a laptop, Oculus recommends (for obvious reasons) using the Rift S with the laptop’s charging cable plugged in—meaning you’re now unplugging a laptop, moving it to a new room, plugging it in, adjusting the Rift S’s cable, and then setting up Guardian.

Oculus Rift S IDG / Hayden Dingman

Point being, if you’re hardcore enough about VR that you prefer to hook up to an expensive gaming PC (and deal with the accompanying cable) rather than opt for the less powerful (but self-contained and wireless) Oculus Quest, you’re also more likely to care about flawed controller tracking—and less likely to care about mounting base stations to your wall to ensure peak performance.

That doesn’t mean the original Rift was better, because it wasn’t. The HTC Vive, though? I’d still prefer that and some wall-mounted Lighthouses, seeing as it’s fire-and-forget simple to set up and delivers flawless tracking every time, no real edge cases to speak of. If I’m opting for an enthusiast-grade experience, I want an enthusiast-grade experience. No caveats.

Bottom line

When HTC released the Vive Pro last year, it was an across-the-board upgrade—better resolution and lenses, built-in headphones and a more comfortable strap, a thinner cable. Of course, it also cost $1,200 and nobody on earth was going to buy it, but HTC promised a high-end headset for a niche crowd of ultra-enthusiasts and it delivered.

I’m just not certain who the Oculus Rift S is intended for. It’s certainly a competent headset, more approachable and easier to set up than its predecessor, not to mention more cost-effective than the Vive Pro. It’s hard to term it an upgrade though when so many aspects are lateral moves at best. It falls into an odd middle ground, with the Quest the obvious entry-level choice and the Vive or Vive Pro the more likely candidate for enthusiast adoption. Oculus can phase out the original Rift, replace it with the Rift S, but it hasn’t instantaneously rendered the old model obsolete. Hell, I bet a certain crowd will actively prefer the original, and I’d be hard-pressed to recommend existing owners rush out and buy new Oculus Rift S hardware.

Quest could change the VR landscape. The Oculus Rift S simply exists, testament to the fact Oculus still “believes in” PC-based VR even if this release feels like a stopgap at best. Here’s hoping the next PC-based Rift headset—if there is one—feels as transformative as Quest.

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