Review: Oculus Rift S
I’ve always been a massive fan of virtual reality – especially virtual reality gaming. I’ve loved every limited experience I’ve had gaming in VR. But the problem is that they’ve always just been that. Limited experiences. Simply put, I could never justify the high prices that the HTC Vive, the Valve Index, or even that the original Oculus Rift launched at. At £399, the Oculus Rift S changes all of that. In my opinion, it moves VR one step closer to being a truly mainstream product.
Let’s start at the very beginning of the Oculus Rift S experience. The box it comes in is a small light box which contains three things: An Oculus Rift S virtual reality headset, an Oculus Touch controller for your left hand, and an Oculus Touch controller for your right hand. That’s it. As a point of comparison, inside the box of a much more expensive Valve Index there are 16 things, many of which need setting up. Oculus start as they mean to go on with the Rift S experience. You simply take it from the box, plug it into your computer, and as soon as the five-minute setup process is complete you’re ready to go. There’s no messing about with base stations or power adapters. The Rift S really is just plug and play. Plug and play which is made possible by a seriously impressive tracking system that I never thought could be this good.
The Rift S uses a couple of different methods to track your position and the controllers while you’re using the headset. The main way is by using the five cameras which are built onto the outside of the headset. Two pointing out, two pointing down, and one pointing up. There are also sensors and accelerometers in the headset and the controllers. Together these build a 3D model of your space, which uses recognisable points to keep the tracking accurate and the headset anchored to the correct spot in your room. In addition to this, the controllers themselves emit an infrared light which is picked up by the cameras on the headset. AI is used to guess where the controllers are when they’re obstructed from the headset’s vision. It’s all extremely impressive. And the sum of all these parts is a precise tracking system that completely blew my fairly low expectations away. It does hiccup extremely rarely, but when it does it lasts all of half a second and sorts itself out quickly. This tech is so great I want to see it improved upon and used by more companies.
So the way the headset handles tracking is very impressive and I’m happy to report that the headset itself is as well. First up the resolution. The resolution (coming in at 1280×1440 per eye) is on the low side for a VR headset. The only time I really found this noticeable was when using the Rift S to watch video content. While gaming it was absolutely fine. Despite the low resolution I never noticed individual pixels (screen-door effect), and everything visually looked good. The headset is also really easy to put on and take off, even as a glasses user. You loosen the halo headband to fit over your head, place it on, and then use the dial at the back to tighten.
The eyepiece is surrounded by a really great cushion, so long sessions remain very comfortable. There are also speakers built into the headset which is a nice little addition, but they sound as bad as you’d expect a set of speakers built into a VR headset to sound. I recommend using your own headphones with this one. Thankfully that’s easy enough to do thanks to a 3.5mm headphone jack on the headset. Also the eyepiece can’t be pivoted, so it’s not simple to move the lenses away from your eyes if you need a five-minute break to reply to texts or just to see the real world for a bit. You have to physically remove the entire headset, which is a bit of an annoyance.
There are two areas of the headset, which I really wish were just a little bit better. The first is obvious. The screens are LCD rather than OLED. This means the blacks are much less deep and don’t look anywhere near as good as they could. This isn’t a massive deal though and very easy to ignore. Ignoring the second issue isn’t quite as easy. The screens on the Oculus Rift S are 80Hz. Compared to the 120Hz screen on the Valve Index and even the 90Hz screen on the OG Rift this is an obvious downgrade. And it’s a shame. When playing fast-paced, effect-heavy games like Beat Saber, the on-screen action can visibly and obviously look like it’s stuttering. When in reality it is running at full speed.
The screens at full speed aren’t quite quick enough. This is definitely not a deal-breaker by any means, and in many games which aren’t as fast-paced, I don’t even think about it. But occasionally something will happen on screen that just won’t look smooth thanks to the 80Hz refresh rate, and it will pull me out of the game. Which for something that 95% of the time is so immersive, is a bit disappointing.
Even when factoring in the very minor annoyance with the refresh rate of the screens, the Oculus Rift S is the best virtual reality headset for the vast majority of people. Sure it might not look as high fidelity as some of the competition, and at times the experience could be a little bit smoother, but when the price and ease of use are brought back into the conversation those complaints simply vanish. A Valve Index plus base stations and controllers currently costs £919. An Oculus Rift S plus controllers currently costs £399. Is an Index over twice as good as a Rift S? Absolutely not. If you have cash to burn and the time to set it up you’ll be super happy with the other more expensive VR headsets that are out there. But for just £399 you cannot come close to the experience that the Rift S offers. It trades blows with the big boys which cost twice as much, and in the end, thanks to the super practical pick up and play aspect, it comes out on top.