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Rift S review: PC-driven VR gets much simpler

Oculus is focusing on ease of use, and the approach is paying off

Oculus is on fire with its latest hardware offerings, and the Rift S may be the company’s most impressive VR headset yet.

Although, it’s hard to call this a traditional review, due to the fact that the Rift S is the default Oculus Rift system from here on out. The older models have been discontinued, so anyone buying a new headset from this week forward will get the Rift S instead of the existing consumer model. That’s a smart play that should help limit customer confusion, but the real question is: If you already have VR headset, should you upgrade into the Rift S?

The short is yes, I think upgrading is a wise decision for most players. The longer answer can be read below.

What Oculus has improved

The biggest change in the Rift S is the loss of the external sensors; I only need to connect the headset to my PC through a single DisplayPort and USB 3.0 connection, touch the controller to the floor, and trace my play area to get everything calibrated. The original Rift used two desk- or wall-mounted sensors for a sitting or standing experience, or three sensors for a true 360 degree, room-scale environment.

Putting that all together, including the nearly mandatory use of USB extension cables and hubs, was always one of the worst aspects of the original system, and it only got worse when someone bumped into one of the sensors, which could send your virtual world spinning a gut-churning manner.

But those weaknesses are all gone thanks to the inside-out tracking, which uses sensors mounted on the headset to track your environment, and the two included Touch controllers. This new approach makes the headset much easier to set up, tracking is just as strong as the original, and moving the system from room to room or even from PC to PC is a snap. Everything about getting into VR is made simpler now that I don’t have to fuss around with sensor placement or cable management outside of the single tether. This shift is nearly enough to justify the new hardware on its own.

It may not even be a shift that feels all that important at first, but the more I use the Rift S and the more I take it other places to show to friends and family, the more the lack of sensors feels like sweet, sweet relief.

The headset’s aesthetics are clean and simple, but might be a little too plain
These are the sensors behind the inside-out tracking technology
The open-ear speakers are well-hidden

The rest of the design upgrades and adjustments are a bit more subtle. The headset is easier to put on and take off due to the large, PlayStation VR-like knob on the back of the strap, and the built-in headphones of the previous system have been replaced with an open-ear design that lets you play without blocking out ambient sounds. A jack allows you to use your own headphones if you’d like, but I’ve found that nearly everyone prefers the standard arrangement so they can hear, and speak with, those around them as they play. It helps keep you from feeling completely isolated.

The original headset offered a dual-screen design that gave the player an effective resolution of 1080 by 1200 per eye, and the Rift S uses a single display that runs at 2560 by 1440 total so, while it’s hard to give a true apples-to-apples comparison, the new display looks noticeably crisper.

The drop to a 80 hertz refresh rate from the original’s 90 hertz was, to me at least, unnoticeable. It’s a detail I never would have suspected without going over every detail on the fact sheets of both headsets. The change in approach to the display does mean that there’s no longer a physical control for adjusting inter-pupillary distance and that adjustment is now handled by the software, but again I didn’t notice any drop in quality due to this shift.

The downside is that all of these things feel like iterative steps when compared to the original Oculus Rift, even if the new tracking solution is a really large iterative step. But there’s nothing here to make the Rift S feel like a truly next-generation product compared to existing VR headsets on the market, and the tether feels even more restrictive now that I’ve grown accustomed to the self-contained — and rather amazing — Oculus Quest.

And the external design is so bland and unremarkable — especially in contrast to the impressive technology that drives the Rift S — that it feels like a missed opportunity. There’s nothing wrong with how it looks or feels, but there’s nothing about it that jumps out and suggests you’re using cutting edge technology, either. The PSVR remains the gold standard when it comes to eye-catching, if slightly retro-futuristic, design.

Having read that back to myself, however, I realize just how spoiled I’ve become when it comes to affordable virtual reality technology. The optics on the Rift S lead to fewer “god rays,” the shining, tracer-like patterns of light that can slide across the lenses during moments of high contrast, and the updated display makes text easier to read and colors seem much more vibrant. The ability to peer at your real world surroundings using the pass-through camera is also welcome, and I strongly suggest using the option in settings that makes this possible at any point by pumping the Oculus button on either controller twice in rapid succession.

Combine those improvements with the significantly reduced complexity in setup and use and you have a headset that’s a very easy sell at $399, even though current Rift hardware will likely be sold for much less on the secondary market once the Rift S is released. It’s worth paying more for a platform that performs this much better, and removes so many annoyances when it comes to actually playing games in VR.

I’m looking forward to spending time with the Valve Index at some point in the future, but if the Oculus Quest and now the Rift S have taught me anything, it’s that achieving the highest levels of visual fidelity is much less important than removing barriers to play and increasing ease of use. And there’s no friction in moving from a previous version of the Rift to the Rift S; all your existing games and software will continue to work on the new hardware.

The Rift S offers a sharper and more immediately impressive image than the Quest due to the added power of an external gaming PC, but I prefer the freedom and flexibility offered by the Quest if I want to play a quick game for fun or to fit a surprisingly effective workout into a busy day. Oculus is aggressively moving toward making setup and play both quicker and easier than the competition, and the results speak for themselves.