Oculus Rift S Review – Upgrade, Or Downgrade?

A side view of the Oculus Rift S VR Headset

The Oculus Rift S is not the next big Rift that we’ve all been waiting for, and Oculus themselves have been careful not to advertise it as one. No, the Oculus Rift S is…uh. Honestly, the problem is I don’t think anyone is sure what the S actually is. It isn’t an upgrade nor arguably even a refinement as many of the improvements have come at the expense of other features. So, let’s review the Oculus Rift S and try to figure who this VR headset is really for.

I’ll preface the review by saying I upgraded from the original Rift to the Oculus Rift S, so I’m familiar with the Oculus Rift and am writing this review from the perspective of someone who made the sacrifice.

Oculus Rift S Packaging, Comfort & Build

But before we delve deep into the headset itself let’s stop and quickly chat about the packaging. I know, I know, does the box it comes in make a difference? Not really, but in some ways the packaging for the Oculus Rift S is indicative of the system as a whole. Unboxing the original Oculus was a pleasure: a massive chunky box, clips holding the headset in place and lovely foam padding. By comparison the Oculus Rift S box feels cheaper with less padding or feeling of luxury. It isn’t a huge problem, but this is a prime example of how the Rift S can sometimes feel like a step down from the headset it’s replacing.

This new iteration of the Oculus Rift has been designed in partnership with Lenovo, as indicated by the Lenovo logo on the side. The fabric straps of the original Oculus Rift have been tossed into the design bin and instead it looks like the PS VR has been copied almost entirely. There’s now a halo band that encircles your head with a strap at the top and a large, easy to use dial at the rear which tightens the whole headset. At the front there’s another familiar PS VR feature; the whole front piece moves in and out which is very handy if you wear glasses.

All in all I found the Oculus Rift S to be much more comfortable than its predecessor. The weight feels like its more evenly spread around your skull now, and so longer sessions are a doddle. Due to the new cameras the front of the headset is heavier than ever, but the halo manages to balance everything out nicely.

The cushioning is less impressive. Both front and back have very basic foam padding that doesn’t seem to be moisture resistant, so during intense games they tend to become a slightly soggy mess. The cushions running around the halo band have all been glued into place, so you can’t remove them which makes cleaning more awkward and also means you can’t just replace them. At least the entire front faceplate can be taken off so swapping it out with a superior after market cushion that offers better comfort and cleaning is possible. But for a £400 product the cheap foam padding that you get is disappointing.

Speaking of cheap, the whole unit lacks the polish and refinement that you hope to see in such an expensive product. The original Oculus Rift has a lovely fabric finish and a relatively sleek design, whereas the Oculus Rift S is made of a hard plastic and looks kind of cheap. Of course, when its strapped to your face what it looks like is everyone else’s problem.

Even the cable has gotten a redesign. It’s now 1m longer than the original Rift bringing the total length to 5m, and it’s a much thicker gauge. The whole thing still connects via USB but the HDMI connection has been thrown out of a window and in its place is a DisplayPort connector. Inside the box you get a DisplayPort-to-mini-Displayport adapter which lets it connect to some laptops.

Another big change is that the physical IPD (interpupillary distance) of the Original Oculus has vanished into the ether. What we get now is digital IPD but it has a smaller spectrum of adjustment, so if you happen to have quite a wide or narrow IPD then the Oculus Rift S isn’t for you. This change is sadly a direct result of the change from dual screens to a single screen system, but it’s still a potentially big problem for some users.

A close up image of the Oculus Rift S touch controllers.

The controllers have gotten a redesign, too. The sensor ring has been shifted to the top now, for example, and the slightly awkward mini-touchpad has vanished entirely. They’re comfy to use and while I still wish there was a proper place to rest my thumb I’m quite happy with them. They’re still powered by single AA batteries which are covered using magnetic covers, though the magnets seem a bit weaker this time round.

Inside-Out Tracing Is The Future?

Probably the biggest change with the new Rift S is that external sensors are gone. This has some obvious benefits: firstly, with no sensors needed you no longer have to worry about losing 2-3 of your USB ports. You also don’t need to route cables around your room, or awkwardly move your PC to find a good spot. Personally, this new freedom to position myself in the room was fantastic as previously the only places I could put the sensors meant I didn’t have as much space as possible and the wire was constantly getting in the way.

The new inside-out tracking system means there are now cameras embedded in the headset itself which track your controllers. You have instant access to room-scale VR with this, the only limitation being the cable tethering you to the PC. On paper, it’s a huge change. If you have a room free then now you can utilize the entire space without needing to buy extra sensors or route cables. That’s an exciting prospect, the only thing missing from the equation being a wireless headset.

A rear view of the Oculus Rift S headset showing the strap, padding and lenses.

But there are some big tradeoffs when it comes to the tracking. The five cameras positioned around the front of the headset provide pretty good coverage, but when you bring your hands up in front of your face the tracking can go a little crazy. Likewise, raising your hands above your head or reaching for something behind your back can cause the tracking to struggle. There’s also issues when you place one controller in front of the other, like when using a two-handed gun in a game. These problems are being worked on through software updates but it’s fair to say that while convenient inside-out tracking isn’t as accurate as external sensors.

With that said, outside of those problems the tracking feels just as accurate as the original Rift.

Another benefit of the new cameras is that you can use pass through, which means you can swap to a grey-scale view of your real-world surroundings at the press of a button. It’s not a very detailed image, but it lets you check where your dog is, grab your drink, make sure you haven’t accidentally wandered close to something breakable and just provide one more excuse to never leave VR.

A New Screen, A Sharper Image

And finally, lets talk about the screen. Firstly the 90Hz refresh rate that Oculus adamantly declared to be the “sweet spot” for VR gaming has been abandoned in favour of a slightly lower 80Hz. It’s strange to see the company retreating from their previous stance, but after using the headset I have to admit that I didn’t notice the difference. That surprised me because I’ve always been quite sensitive when it comes to seeing the difference between lower and higher refresh rates on a normal PC screen. While it may not have had any effect on me, however, the drop in refresh unarguably risks VR sickness in other folk who might just find the 10Hz decrease to be too much.

As for the screen itself the original OLED is out and in its place is an LCD running at 2560 x 1440, which is a slight step up in terms of raw resolution from the previous 2160 x 1200. Without the OLED screen the contrast and color isn’t as good, but trade-off is a sharper image and a substantial decrease in God Rays, something which I always had a lot of problems with when using the original Oculus Rift. Overall the new screen, the resolution, the reduction in the God Rays and whatever other magic is being worked in the background were a huge improvement in terms of eye fatigue, at least for me personally. With the old Rift I would find myself awkwardly trying to focus on things in the distance or accidentally focusing on the screen door effect. With the Oculus Rift S this was much less of an issue and that meant I was a lot more comfortable overall. The resolution bump was probably most notable in racing titles like Project Cars 2 because distant corners, cars and markers were much easier to spot.

There’s also a larger sweet spot on the Oculus Rift S, meaning it’s easier find that point where everything is in focus. This in turn means there’s a little less hassle when ramming the Oculus Rift S onto your head.

As for setup it was a breeze. Once connected you’ll need to lay some boundary lines and for that the Oculus Rift S swaps over to the pass through cameras so that you can quickly draw your plays pace using one of the controllers. Easy.

Terrible Audio

So far the story of the Oculus Rift S has been one of tradeoffs: better resolution but lower refresh rate; easy access to room-scale VR but some big tracking problems. But now we arrive at a pure loss with no tangible benefit. The Oculus Rift came equipped with basic but effective earphones that sat on your ears. For the Oculus Rift S these have been removed and in their place is a new ambient audio system, with sound now being pumped out of the headband itself via a few small holes. This means the audio is being put out above your ears, and the result is frankly pathetic. In-game action, music and movies all sound tinny, lacking any sort of depth or bass. It also means anyone in the room with you is subjected to whatever gross, horrific thing you’re doing. Ahem.

The only benefits I can think of behind ripping out the earphones is that you can hear the real world and thus may potentially evade sneaky ninja attacks, and that not having something sitting on your ears feels better than having something on them. Neither of these things are worth the loss, though. Even by sliced up by one of them sneaky ninjas would be worth risking for some decent audio.

There is at least a standard 3.5mm output so that you can plug in your own audio solution. Finding anything to fit over the chunky headband can be a challenge, though. Personally, I’m using the PS VR Mantis which I previously had hooked up to my PS VR unit. These have a clamp which fits nicely over the headband, and by using a cable tie the wires can be kept out of the way. It’s a shame they only come in white and thus ruin the aesthetic a bit, but that’s worth it for half-decent sound.

Who The Hell Is The Oculus Rift S For?

The Oculus Rift S is a strange beast indeed. Oculus themselves were careful not to market this as a true sequel and that was smart, but it doesn’t seem to be a refinement of the existing hardware, either, which makes its existence…pointless? I’m just not sure who this is meant to be for. Certainly it isn’t for owners of the original Oculus Rift as the various trade-offs don’t make it worth upgrading to the Oculus Rift S. For VR newcomers the Oculus Rift S has replaced the original headset entirely on store shelves, but I can’t say they’re getting a better product overall.

But let’s toss all of that to the side for a minute and just talk about the Oculus Rift S on its own. While the Valve Index is Ferrari of VR headsets with a colossal price tag and the PS VR is more like the slightly dented second-hand Ford Feista the Oculus Rift S is the mid-range family car. A little expensive but still affordable. While the Oculus Rift S does have some obvious drawbacks it’s still a fantastic VR experience and the best way to get into virtual reality. Yes, PS VR is cheaper and the Valve Index is better, but the Rift S strikes the best balance in my eyes provided you’ve got a machine capable of handling it.

3.5 out of 5

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