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Oculus Go review

The new gold standard in portable VR

Oculus Go headset and controller on wooden table Oculus

In order to understand the Oculus Go headset, you need to understand a little bit about the virtual reality industry.

VR is stuck in an iterative space right now where the technology keeps getting slightly better while the price keeps coming down — and if you give me your budget, I can point you toward a good headset you’ll probably like — but it’s still missing that magical combination of hardware and software to make it coalesce in a way we’ve seen with other technology. I love VR. I believe in it, and have used just about every piece of technology related to VR out there, but it says something about the state of the art right now that the Oculus Go barely has an identity at all.

I’m not sure how anyone, from Facebook to Google, is going to fix that, but it needs fixing. And soon.

Where the Go fits in

There is fierce competition when it comes to virtual reality headsets, from the inexpensive if not free Google Cardboard to the ultra-premium Vive Pro. There’s PlayStation VR if you already have a PlayStation 4, and there’s also Daydream and Gear VR if you have the right phones and want something portable but higher-quality than Cardboard. The Oculus Rift and Touch controllers are now only $399 as a bundle.

Oculus Go headset and controller on white background
The hardware is almost aggressively bland.

So every price point is covered, but the $199 Oculus Go headset — $249 if you want 64 GB of storage instead of 32 GB — is something special indeed. It’s a completely portable, stand-alone headset that doesn’t require a console, PC or phone to power the experience. The $199 buy-in is the final cost; everything you need to have a high-quality VR experience is right there in the box.

This is a new product in terms of price versus performance and simplicity, and it’s probably the VR headset I would recommend to my grandparents, should they be interested in one.

You still kind of need your phone

I was excited about the idea of a completely stand-alone system, and was let down when I opened the box and saw that the first step in setup was to download the Oculus app on my phone. You watch a quick safety video, log into or create your Oculus account, pair the controller to the headset and connect the headset to your Wi-Fi.

It’s all easy, and the app is available on both iOS and Android. You can use any smartphone, since you’re not using it to power the headset, but it’s still a bummer that you can’t handle the initial setup with the headset itself. The upside is that it’s nicer to go through the initial menus on an external screen before entering VR.

Once this setup is completed, you can ditch the phone and buy or download games through the headset. (Though you can still access pictures and other data on your phone in VR through certain programs on Oculus Go.) It’s nice to have the option of browsing the store on your phone. I just wish the first step during setup didn’t involve installing an app on another device.

Using the Oculus app also means that any games you’ve purchased for the Gear VR will be ready for you to re-download onto the Oculus Go without any additional purchase. That’s great for VR enthusiasts who may be using this as a second — or perhaps replacement — headset for their Gear VR.

How is this $200?

Oculus is getting good at making VR headsets sleek and comfortable. The straps on the Oculus Go are simple to understand and easy to adjust, and they hold the weight of the unit very well. The inner eye shields feel soft against your face, and I had no comfort issues wearing it with glasses.

The controller is also very comfortable. You get a trigger, a touchpad with a solid click, a back button, and an Oculus button that reorients the controller and your view. Just look forward and hold the Oculus button, and your view and controller will reset — in case there was any drift or you physically moved, and now the cockpit of a plane looks like it’s off to your left.

This brings up one of the headset’s biggest, but least surprising, weaknesses: You can’t move your head in 3D space. You can look around to see everything around, above or below you, but if you lean forward to get a closer look at something, the view will not move with you. Your head is locked in one place, although you can look around from that one position. You learn to keep your head and body still in VR very quickly; moving your head forward in real life without the same movement in VR can make you very sick, very quickly.

There’s no easy way to offer the sort of tracking we’re used to with the Rift, Vive and PlayStation VR without an external sensor or camera, and that option just isn’t available when it comes to portable VR. Again, this isn’t a surprise, but it may be a limitation that first-time buyers won’t quite understand and may be disappointed by. Someone is going to solve that problem at some point, but it’s going to be awhile before portable VR headsets with positional tracking hit the market.

Hulu app on Oculus Go
The Hulu app adds social features to your portable viewing room.

The wireless controller has the same limitation. It offers three degrees of movement, which means it’s locked to being in one place in VR. The software currently places it about where it expects your right or left hand to be, and then you use it somewhat like a laser pointer, but you can’t move it physically within the VR space. The motion-sensing technology does mean it works very well to aim guns or work like a flight stick, but you’re not going to be able to mimic bringing the gun up to your eye to use the sights or naturally move an object around in VR.

The design and basic functionality is, again, much like the controller for Daydream and Gear VR, which means developers will be able to bring their existing games over to the Go with little problem. The Go is going to launch with a wide range of experiences and games, and using the more or less default control scheme for mobile VR helped make that possible. No boats are being rocked here.

The system features a 5.5-inch 2560x1440 screen, which is actually a higher resolution than the 2160x200 OLED screen in the retail Oculus Rift. The field of view seems to be a bit smaller, however, although it’s not a huge difference. The higher resolution and use of a technique called fixed foveated rendering — which decreases the detail seen around the edges of the screen to save processing power — means that the screen looks remarkably crisp and clear. Developers can run the screen at either 60 Hz or 72 Hz, with the higher refresh rate requiring more power but delivering enhanced brightness and colors.

That’s a lot of technical details that mean the screen on the Oculus Go looks very good, and is a noticeable improvement from the Oculus Rift itself.

You can expect the level of graphical detail to match games on the Gear VR, since the Go basically crams the guts of a modern smartphone into the hardware. Any increase in processing power you get from creating an all-in-one device that doesn’t use a phone seems to be gulped up by the extra resolution and higher refresh rate.

The built-in rechargeable battery will last somewhere from 90 minutes to two and a half hours, depending on what apps you’re using. The press materials discouraged us from using the headset while it was charging, and getting a full charge takes around three hours.

The Oculus Go also includes built-in speakers that sound OK, but you’ll want to use headphones to get the most out of the experience and avoid annoying those around you who can’t see what you’re looking at. The built-in microphone is a boon for social and multiplayer experiences, many of which will be available for the system immediately. This is Facebook we’re talking about; getting people together is a priority for this sort of hardware.

OK, but is it fun?

If you understand the limitations going in and want to take a step into VR anyway, the Oculus Go is probably the best portable system with which to do it. It’s a comfortable system that’s easy to use and understand, and the software catalog — though often stuffed with clunkers — is nice and deep.

The social programs allow you to play games or hang out with others, and the interface for buying games, taking screenshots or even livestreaming through Facebook works well and without much fuss. The screen looks better than headsets that are twice the price, and you don’t need to worry about having a specific phone or whether your PC is up to the challenge. The Go removes the worries and check boxes and just works, at least once you have it set up through the phone app.

But the comparison to other portable VR products brings up a weird aspect of the Oculus Go: It’s ... Google Daydream? All VR headsets are going to share at least some design language, but Oculus Go is the same coloring, basic size and shape of its competition at Google. It’s uncanny, to the point where my children and I keep getting the headsets mixed up when we play with VR around the house. There’s absolutely nothing distinctive or fun about the design of Go, and it feels like it’s chasing after Google more than it’s trying to find its own identity.

Ben Kuchera/Polygon and Ben Kuchera/Polygon

And that lack of flair or identity is definitely part of the reason why Go is such a bland step forward for VR. It’s frustrating that the Go does so many things that its competition can’t match, only to give up its own identity in order to look like an existing product.

Having a portable headset that’s this good without sacrificing the battery life of your phone is already impressive, but the $199 price point makes it feel immediately accessible to a wide audience. This is a gadget that won’t break the bank, and might provide the most bang for your buck in the retail VR space so far ... but it’s still not the thing that’s going to break through to a huge mainstream audience. This is a VR product that takes a few small steps forward compared to other headsets out there; a leap forward is still in the future. It’s an oddly timid release, and the amount of crud in the app store is disappointing.

It remains to be seen if there’s a market for this sort of thing at all, but if people want a portable, untethered VR headset, the Oculus Go is currently the best one on the market. For whatever that is worth.

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