Oculus Rift S Review – A Good Choice for VR Newcomers, a Difficult Choice for VR Vets

After an impressive three-year tour of duty for Oculus’ first PC VR headset, the Rift, along comes the Rift S. Oculus bills the headset not as a sequel, but a remaster. With a focus on ease of use, Rift S aims to make VR more accessible and playable than ever, but that’s come at the cost of some of the original’s biggest selling points, making the headset a good choice for newcomers but a tough sell for existing Rift owners.

As usual, we’ll start up top with a high level review summary, which will be followed up with an in-depth review. Our in-depth review is presently in progress and will be added to this article soon.

Oculus Rift S Review Summary

Photo by Road to VR

With the original Rift now discontinued, Oculus is fully replacing the headset with the Rift S. While the headsets are pretty similar at a high level (including being fully compatible with the same library of content)—there’s a few key differences, some good, some bad—that are revealed upon a closer inspection. First, let’s talk about the major differences.

For one, the Rift S effectively has an all-new design. The halo-style headband is a very different approach to fit and ergonomics than the original. The on-ear headphones have been removed in favor of speakers hidden in the headband near your ears.

Then there’s the change in tracking. While the original Rift required external cameras to track the movement of the headset and controllers, the Rift S uses ‘inside-out’ tracking which uses cameras on the headset itself to understand its movement and the position of the controllers in 3D space.

Photo by Road to VR

And finally, there’s the change from the original Rift’s pair of OLED displays to a single LCD display which offers higher resolution, but also necessitates the removal of the original’s IPD adjustment. Along with that new display comes new lenses too.

The Rift S is a capable headset, and it’s paired with the very strong Oculus content library. The benefits of inside-out tracking are hard to ignore; easier initial setup with no need for sensors sitting on your desk, less prep time before playing, and pass-through capabilities which make it yet easier to dive into VR.

The inside-out tracking isn’t as good as the outside-in approach of the original—not quite achieving the sub-mm jitter that makes the Rift’s tracking feel super tight—but it’s easily ‘good enough’, including being robust enough to confidently tackle Beat Saber’s hardest difficulty.

The shift from the original Rift’s head-mount approach (which was generally well liked, even three years after its debut) may turn out to be the most controversial change to the Rift S because of its implications for ergonomics. As with some other VR headsets with halo style headbands, the user has to make a choice between ideal comfort and ideal clarity—at least when it comes to my face, you can’t have both.

Photo by Road to VR

This is somewhat unsurprising considering that Oculus appears to have let Lenovo lead the design of the headset in a significant way; Lenovo is the company that made the Mirage Solo, one of worst fitting headsets I’ve ever worn. That said, the Rift S’s ergonomics are nowhere near as bad as the Mirage Solo, but they do feel like a step backward from the original Rift.

The main major problem seems to be the ability to get your eyes into the sweet spot of the lenses while achieving the most comfortable fit. Everyone’s head is shaped differently, but at least when I strap the Rift S on for comfort, I end up with my eyes too far away from the lenses, which puts me outside the sweet spot (increases blur around the periphery) and gives me a less than ideal field of view. If I strap the Rift S on for clarity, I have to really cram the visor against my face, and it’s clear that I’m sacrificing comfort to achieve that level of clarity.

Photo by Road to VR

Now, I have a lot of experience in fitting headsets on my head and I know what to look for visually to dial everything in so that it looks and feels good. With the Rift S, achieving the ideal visuals is not very intuitive, and I have a feeling that many new (and even somewhat experienced) users will put the headset on in a way that’s comfortable (but not quite clear) and then complain that visuals aren’t that great. To be fair, this is a challenge that every VR headset faces, but it just seems easier than most to go wrong with the Rift S, and that’s not even accounting for the lack of physical IPD adjustment, which means that those on the outer edges of the IPD range are destined to for sub-par clarity no matter how they adjust the headset.

That said, if you get a fit that feels comfortable and looks good, the Rift S is a mostly easier to use version of its predecessor. The upgraded resolution (from 1,080 × 1,200 to 1,280 × 1,440) offers a sharper view and a nice reduction in the screen door effect (thanks to moving from OLED to LCD). The newer lenses bring a moderate reduction in internal reflections (god rays), and the sweet spot is said to be larger (though as we discussed, this is very dependent on fit). With solid inside-out tracking, you’re also getting ‘room-scale’ capabilities (large area tracking with full 360 coverage) out of the box, which is how it should be.

Along with the above, the convenience of inside-out tracking and pass-through are an important step forward that reduces the friction between wanting to jump into VR and actually doing it—which is why Rift S can be a great choice for newcomers.

Photo by Road to VR

For those who have been using a Rift for three years though (and are already ok with the friction they have gotten used to), the downsides that come with the Rift S’s upsides don’t feel like three years of progress.

Beyond issues with fit, the hidden speakers in the headband are a significant step backwards in audio quality, and also results in positional audio being less clear directionally. Even if not comparing the Rift S speakers to the original Rift’s pretty darn good headphones, the Rift S audio quality still leaves me wanting, and even Oculus Quest’s hidden speakers seem to do a better job thanks to offering up a bit more bass.

Yes, there’s a 3.5mm jack, and yes you could plug in your own high quality headphones. But not only are many headphones unlikely to fit well over the headband, it’s well established that almost nobody wants to deal with a separate pair of headphones when it comes to VR headsets except the most adamant audiophiles.

Photo by Road to VR

Luckily there’s a ray of hope and redemption for the Rift S’s ergonomic and audio issues. The headset has a little slider on the visor which allows it to be completely separated from the headband, and the headband itself appears to be where the speakers are located. So, Oculus could conceivably offer something like a Deluxe Audio Strap (as HTC did with the original Vive) which make the Rift S significantly more attractive to existing Rift owners who might not otherwise feel its downsides counteract its upsides. Whether or not Oculus would consider this is unclear, so only time will tell.

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The Rift S is a good choice for newcomers who weren’t ready to jump into VR for reasons of complexity and friction. Even though there’s some ergonomic issues which are likely to impact clarity, the Rift S is still going to give users the easiest and (potentially) best looking way so far to enjoy Oculus’ strong library of VR content.

That said, the Rift S isn’t going to do much to delight veteran Rifters looking for their next step in immersion. But then again, Oculus has made it pretty clear that the goal of Rift S is to bring new users into VR—not to appease enthusiasts and early adopters.

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Our expanded Oculus Rift S in-depth review is in progress and will be added to this article soon.

Disclosure: Facebook provided Road to VR with an Oculus Rift S headset.

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