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

Ditching the base stations, for better and worse

oculus rift s 7
Adam Patrick Murray/IDG
At a Glance

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.

At a Glance
  • The Oculus Rift S builds upon its predecessor in certain key aspects, but most "improvements" feel like a lateral move. Worse, it's hard to see who exactly it's intended for when released alongside the untethered Oculus Quest.

    Pros

    • Better resolution than the original Rift
    • No need for base stations and the accompanying cord clutter
    • Most comfortable VR headset on the market

    Cons

    • Display ditches AMOLED for LCD
    • Inside-out tracking means less accuracy for controllers in particular
    • Still wired to the PC
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