Oculus Rift S
While the Oculus Quest was developed in-house at Oculus, the Rift S was built as a joint project with Lenovo. That’s why, while the headset is simple, black, and curved similarly to the original Rift, it carries some design elements reminiscent of the Lenovo Mirage Solo and Explorer headsets (and has a Lenovo logo on the right side). The front panel features two prominent outward-facing cameras, which work with two more on the lower left and right corners and a fifth facing upward to provide positional tracking and environment recognition without the use of external sensors like the previous generation requires.
Aside from the sensors, the harness is the Rift S’ biggest departure from its predecessor. It’s still a three-point headband with a strap that goes over the top of your head, but its design is otherwise much closer to the Sony PlayStation VR or the Lenovo Mirage Solo. The visor is mounted on a large, curved piece of plastic that rests against your forehead, with side straps that extend around to another padded plastic arch that runs across the back of your head. A wheel on the back arch tightens and loosens the entire assembly, which can be further adjusted with the elastic top strap’s hook and loop fasteners to find a proper fit.
Instead of attached on-ear headphones built into the headset like the Rift has, the Rift S uses speakers that project sound into your ears, similar to the Oculus Go and the Oculus Quest. A 3.5mm jack on the side of the headset lets you use your own headphones.
A 16-foot cable runs from the left side of the headset and along the side of the harness, terminating in DisplayPort and USB connectors. The good news is that these are the only things you need to plug in to start using the Rift S. The bad news is that it’s DisplayPort, not HDMI, so many gaming laptops won’t be able to use the headset without an adapter. A mini-DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort adapter is included with the Rift S, but not an HDMI-to-DisplayPort adapter, and Oculus doesn’t guarantee compatibility if you use one to connect your HDMI-only PC.
As a tethered headset, you need to deal with a cable whenever you use the Rift S. This is a now-standard frustration we’ve seen with the previous Rift, the HTC Vive, the PlayStation VR, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets. You can use cable management solutions to help reduce the annoyance of playing with a cable draped over your shoulder or down your back, but it remains an ever-present aspect to the PC-based VR experience. Oculus doesn’t offer a wireless adapter for the Rift like HTC does for the Vive (which requires a free PCIe card slot, so it can’t work with any laptop), but third-party wireless adapters have been appearing online. We can’t guarantee whether those adapters can wirelessly stream input and output data with low-enough latency, so we can’t recommend them yet.
Unlike the previous Oculus Rift, the Rift S doesn’t need any external sensors thanks to its outward-facing cameras (similar to Windows Mixed Reality headsets, but with more than two cameras for movement tracking). This means you only need one free USB 3.0 port instead of three. It also means you don’t need to worry about setting up two additional wired devices around your play space to track your movement. It’s a convenience the HTC Vive and the PlayStation VR still lack, since the former requires a pair of external sensors and the latter needs the PlayStation Camera to work.
You need a PC to use the Rift S. Oculus recommends at least an Nvidia GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 graphics card, an Intel i5-4590 or AMD Ryzen 5 1500X or higher CPU, and at least 8GB of RAM.
Those were pretty beefy specs two years ago, but if you’ve purchased even a midrange gaming-capable computer since then you’re probably already covered. Just make sure you have Windows 10, a DisplayPort or Mini DisplayPort port, and one USB 3.0 port.
The Rift S comes with the same redesigned Oculus Touch motion controllers as the Oculus Quest. They’re smaller and lighter versions of the previous controllers, with the same motion-sensing features and physical controls. The two devices are mirrored symmetrically, featuring a prominent black grip and a circular ring that extends from the top to enable six degrees of freedom (6DOF) position tracking through the cameras on the headset. The ring placement is the biggest change from the first controllers; they extend up over the physical controls of each device, encircling your thumbs while giving them plenty of room to move.
The top panel of each controller has an analog stick, two face buttons (X and Y on the left, A and B on the right), and a system button (Menu on the left, Oculus/Home on the right). A pair of triggers rest on the underside of each grip, sitting under your index and middle fingers. Each controller uses a single AA battery.
In addition to its outward-facing cameras and internal speaker system, the Rift S also gets a display upgrade over the Rift. Instead of an OLED panel that displays 1,080 by 1,200 resolution for each eye, the Rift S uses an LCD with a 1,280 by 1,440 resolution per eye. Its refresh rate is a bit lower at 80Hz to 90Hz, but that’s still quite comfortable considering we had no problems with the Oculus Quest’s 72Hz refresh rate. The shift from OLED to LCD is curious, especially since the Quest still uses an OLED panel with a higher resolution (1,440 by 1,600 per eye, the same as the HTC Vive Pro), but it’s still a step up from the Rift.
The Rift S’ display looks bright and sharp. While it has a slightly lower resolution than the Oculus Quest, I didn’t find either headset to look grainy or distract me with individual pixels. The LCD panel still offers satisfyingly dark black levels, so games like Beat Saber and Thumper produce strong contrast with vibrant colors that stand out against dark backdrops.
Setup and Guardian
The Rift S uses the same Windows 10-based Oculus software as the Rift to set up your VR experience. This is done through your PC display for the first part of the process, walking you through making a free Oculus account, plugging in the headset, pairing the controllers, and making sure everything fits. Once you’ve done that, the program tells you to put on the headset and go through the rest of the setup process in VR, which primarily involves setting up your Guardian boundaries.
The Guardian system lets you define virtual walls around an open space you so you can safely play in VR; Oculus recommends at least a seven-by-seven-foot square for this. The previous Rift requires holding an Oculus Touch controller in sight of two external sensors and dragging it around where you want to place a virtual wall. The Rift S makes setting up Guardian boundaries much faster and easier.
The headset’s cameras give you a monochrome view of your surroundings, projecting a horizontal pattern to determine where the floor is. Placing a Touch controller on the floor and picking it back up again will set the floor height. After that, you can point the controller toward the floor like a laser pointer and draw your virtual wall. You don’t have to take off the headset or worry about keeping the Touch controller in view of fixed spots in the room; just wave it around and Guardian will be set up in under a minute.
Once Guardian is configured, the headset will track your surroundings with those virtual walls in mind. If you get close to the edges of your play space, a blue grid will appear where the walls are, letting you know you’re approaching them. If you make contact with the walls with the headset or Touch controllers, they will turn red to let you know you’re leaving the play area. If you completely move your head past a virtual wall, the cameras on the headset will turn on and give you a live view of your surroundings in monochrome. The addition of a live view when you’re outside of your play area makes this new implementation of Guardian much more helpful than simply displaying virtual walls.
Oculus Dash and Home
The Oculus software lets you access all of your apps and games in virtual reality through two interfaces: Oculus Dash and Oculus Home. Oculus Dash is a menu system that appears in front of you, starting with a row of buttons that let you bring up floating windows featuring your software library, the Oculus Store, and various other menus. You can access Dash at any time while using the Rift S by holding down the Oculus button on the right Touch controller for a second. Dash is simple and useful, and if you only want to access specific software and media on the headset, you can rely entirely on it.
The only hiccup with Dash compared with the Oculus Quest interface is how the pop-up row of buttons appears. Instead of a floating window with icons, the buttons appear as a 3D control panel in front of you that you can reach out and press with your virtual hand by pointing (holding the lower trigger down without pressing the upper trigger). You can also activate these buttons by pointing at them and pulling the upper trigger. The laser pointer sometimes floats around the corner of a button but doesn’t actually select it, in which case you need to wiggle the controller or physically reach out with a virtual finger to “press” the button, which is slightly annoying.
You can also set up your Oculus Home as a more detailed, customizable virtual space through which you can play, watch, and read. It defaults to a stylishly decorated home overlooking a mountain, similar to Windows Mixed Reality’s Cliff House virtual space. You can load other templates, like a cafe or a theater.
Whichever space you choose, you can decorate your Oculus Home with a variety of virtual objects. This includes 3D models of furniture and art you can scatter around to personalize your virtual space. You can also place useful objects around your space, like screens of various sizes and shapes, from an arcade cabinet to a curved video wall, that displays whatever is on your monitor and provides access to your desktop (which you can also access in Dash). Oculus Home has simulated physics for many objects, so you can set up a basketball hoop or ping-pong paddles and toss balls around your space. You can also place your individual VR apps and games as boxes or game cartridges, arranging them on shelves and tables for easy access.
The game boxes are decorative, but the cartridges let you load the games themselves through a virtual game console; grab hold of the cartridge of the game you want to play and insert it into the slot on the top of the console, then press the button on it. An Oculus Rift will appear in front of you, which you can then grab and bring to your face to load the game. It’s a bizarre, roundabout, and meta way to access VR software, but it’s a fun option.
The Oculus Store has established itself nicely in the last few years and offers hundreds of different VR games and apps. If you can’t find what you want through Oculus, you can also use SteamVR with the Rift S. However, SteamVR’s integration can require some troubleshooting to get working properly, from setting the correct launch parameters to tinkering around various settings. In our tests, the new Touch controllers’ vibration features didn’t work with Beat Saber launched through SteamVR, while they worked fine with the version of the game launched through the Oculus interface. The software is certainly there and available, but you can expect some quirks getting it to work.
I started testing the Rift S with the two games that helped sell me on the Oculus Quest: Beat Saber and Superhot VR. Because the Rift S uses the PC Oculus Store, these versions of the games are much more developed; both versions I tested on the Quest were effectively demos with limited features.
Beat Saber is a rhythm game where you slash at blocks that fly toward you in time of the beat. Like I said in my Quest review, it’s both very simple and immensely satisfying. Slashing in different directions as blocks fly at you becomes a choreographed dance where you feel like you’re really moving in time with the music.
The Touch controllers tracked my movements accurately in testing, and I had no problem keeping up with higher difficulty levels and faster songs. My colleague, an avid Beat Saber fan who’s been playing on the HTC Vive, said the controls felt slightly laggy. This wasn’t my experience, and I found them to be quite responsive. However, because the Touch controllers are tracked with a moving cluster of cameras on the headset instead of two external sensors that triangulate their positions like the HTC Vive and its controllers, a slight latency is possible; I just didn’t feel it.
Beat Saber is still an early-access game, but its PCf version is much more feature-complete than the Quest version. It has more songs, more gameplay modifiers, and a single-player campaign that progresses through the songs with increasing difficulty. More importantly, as a PC game, it’s much easier to modify, and that means the ability to add your own music to the game. Modding games isn’t always recommended by developers, but the ability to do so opens up Beat Saber a great deal.
Superhot VR is a first-person shooter where time only moves when you do. Unless you’re aiming or dodging or otherwise fiddling around, enemies stay frozen and bullets float in the air. Between this mechanic and the ability to virtually grab guns, aim, and otherwise fight with both hands, Superhot VR makes you feel like John Wick. It’s satisfying and feels just as good on the Rift S as it does on the Rift, the HTC Vive, and the Quest. The version we tested on the Quest is a demo, while the PC version for the Rift S is the full release, but both platforms will ultimately have the full versions of the game.
The motion tracking in Superhot VR worked very well, keeping me oriented and within the boundaries of my play area while I ducked gunfire and disarmed faceless red enemies. I punched a (real) wall a few times, but this was my fault; I should have given the virtual wall at least a foot of space from the real one.
I tried another first-person shooter on the Rift S, Zero Caliber. This is more of a conventional military shooter in the style of Call of Duty, where you play a member of the armed forces and fight terrorists. Tactical maneuvering and accurate gun handling are emphasized much more in this game than in Superhot VR, forcing you to assemble, load, and sight your rifle, and stay behind cover when under fire.
Zero Caliber uses the Touch controllers well, but its focus on realism combined with dated graphics make it feel stale against Superhot and more creative uses of VR. While properly holding a rifle to aim and align your sights feels satisfying in its own right, last-gen visuals and an old-hat concept keep it from standing out or offering as much staying power as a conventional first-person shooter you control with a gamepad or a keyboard and mouse.
I also tried Thumper, another rhythm game that’s vaguely cosmic horror themed. You control a scarab-like machine running down an endless track in an empty voice, pressing buttons to break through barriers and moving the analog stick to navigate turns. Instead of upbeat dance music, Thumper uses dark, grinding, almost industrial sounds to signal when to act. Combined with unidentifiable, undulating creatures, it’s very creepy. It’s an entertaining game, but since it’s played from a third-person perspective and doesn’t use motion controls, it doesn’t have much reason to be in virtual reality in the first place (which is why non-VR versions have been released on several platforms, like the Nintendo Switch).
I then played Rush, a flying game where you use a wingsuit to glide down mountains in a race against other gliders. I was underwhelmed, mostly due to the awkward controls. You dive and steer by holding your arms to your sides and twisting in different directions, which made me feel more self-conscious than my frantic arm-swinging in Beat Saber. This sort of steering by tilting and swinging felt unresponsive, and combined with 3D graphics that don’t offer much of a sense of depth or speed, the game feels rather hollow. Really immersive vertical experiences that capture the feeling of flying or falling are harder to execute in VR than activities that involve you on your feet or in a driver’s seat or cockpit.
A Viable VR Upgrade
The Oculus Rift S is a worthwhile follow-up to the original Oculus Rift. It does all of the same things as the previous headset, but with a higher resolution and a 6DOF motion tracking system that doesn’t require external sensors or three USB 3.0 ports. At $400, it’s an excellent way to enjoy the full software library and processing power of PC-based VR. Just make sure you have a DisplayPort to plug it into; the switch from HDMI can leave some gaming laptops out in the cold.
It’s hard to get past the wires of the Rift S, though. While it doesn’t have cables running from your computer to external sensors, the tether to the headset is still there and it still feels cumbersome. The Oculus Quest has proven that wire-free 6DOF VR with satisfying performance is possible, and it costs the same amount as the Rift S. The Quest’s Android-based Oculus store has a much smaller library than any PC-based VR platform, but it already has some excellent games and apps on it. We think cutting the cables is the next big step VR needs to take, which is why the Oculus Quest earns our Editors’ Choice. The Rift S is still an excellent headset, but it’s only an iterative update to the Rift while the Quest is a massive step forward from both the Rift and the Oculus Go.
Oculus Rift S
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Oculus Rift S improves on the previous Rift headset with a sharper screen and a camera array that doesn’t require external sensors.
Oculus Rift S Specs
|Resolution||1,440 by 1,280 (per eye)|
|Refresh Rate||80 Hz|