The Oculus Rift S is intended as a replacement of the original Oculus Rift and is the pinnacle of the Oculus VR line up.

While the Oculus Quest fills the middle ground between the content-focused Oculus Go and the more capable Rift, this new S headset goes a few steps further. An improved spec and enhanced design meet an affordable price point for the latest flagship.

We had some special hands-on time with the new Oculus Rift S VR headset at a recent showing and now we've been living with the Rift S in the home for a couple of weeks to see how it performs in a real-world environment. Here's what we make of it...

Design changes and enhancements

  • Five inside-out tracking sensors
  • Updated Halo headband design
  • Integrated backwards-firing speakers
  • Updated controller design to support inside-out tracking

A better fit

At first glance, the new Oculus Rift S bears remarkable similarities to the original device. Yet there are a number of small changes that make it quite different: both on the headset itself and with the controllers.

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The design of the Oculus Rift S has been heavily influenced by Lenovo. Obvious not only because of the Lenovo logo emblazoned on the side, but also by the design of new "Halo" headstrap - which looks remarkably similar to that on the Lenovo Mirage Solo headset that we've seen before.

Lenovo has also had a hand in a number of other design facets of the new Rift headset. There are several small changes and enhancements to the entire design, but comfort and accessibility are perhaps the most appealing ones. 

The S headset is easier to put on than the original Rift for a start. You can pop it on and tighten it up to a good fit using the wheel at the rear. This better fit also ensures the headset lets less light in when you're playing, meaning you'll see more of the game and less of the real world, thus the experience is more immersive and more enjoyable.

However, we still get hot when gaming while using the Rift S, which is a staple of all VR play it seems. That said, this new design also embraces an integrated speaker setup rather than built-in headphones. This means it's actually slightly cooler to play around with than other VR headsets as your ears are uncovered most of the time.

No more tracking stations

The new-and-improved S also makes use of an 'insight tracking system'. This uses the five sensors present on the headset to provide the inside-out tracking and remove the need for IR (infrared) sensors or tracking base stations. This tracking means the headset can track not only your movement - with six degrees of freedom - but also the movement of the controllers too.

The accompanying Oculus Touch controllers see some slight design changes themselves: the classic loop is now on top and this makes it easier for the headset's sensors to detect and track the controllers as you're moving. 

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We have to say, we're impressed with just how well this insight tracking system works. Our hand and body movements were accurately tracked during our various play sessions and we didn't have any issues with disconnects and bothersome tracking hiccups either.

We put it to the test against a variety of Oculus-compatible games including everything from adventure, to first-person shooter, to boxing it out with Rocky in Creed Rise to Glory. Even with a lack of stationary sensors, the Rift S manages to expertly relay movement information and maintain a fluid and believable in-game experience.

We made sure to test the new headset out with games we'd had plenty of experience playing on other headsets too. Superhot VR and Space Pirate Trainer, for example, have both been available on the HTC Vive and original Rift for a while, so made excellent benchmarking tools. Neither game caused the Rift S any issues either. 

Improved visuals and gaming comfort

  • 2560 x 1440 display resolution via a single fast-switch LCD screen 
  • 80Hz refresh rate with Asynchronous Spacewarp technology for comfort
  • 5-metre cable 
  • Passthrough+ boundary system
  • Six degrees of freedom hand and head tracking with Oculus Insight technology

Higher res, lower refresh

Specs wise, there has been a slight bump in visuals. There's a higher resolution, with the new headset supporting 1280 x 1440 per eye (2560 x 1440 total) compared to 1080 x 1200 pixels per eye in the original Rift.

But there's also a reduced refresh rate. The original Rift had a refresh rate of 90Hz, while the updated Rift S supports 80Hz. This is down to ASW - a system that's designed to improve the comfort of the gameplay experience by smoothing the frame-rate and optimising the experience.  

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It seems odd to make this reduction in refresh rate while enhancing the rest of the design. But the company made a point of reminding us that falling hardware costs make the headset now much more accessible to the masses. ASW ensures everyone gets the best possible VR experience, no matter what PC system they're running - and with PC hardware coming down a lot in price the S should be more accessible than the original Rift.

Despite this new refresh rate, however, we did have some unusual and intermittent issues with motion sickness while playing - which is not something we've frequently experienced elsewhere. These issues weren't constant, and it does seem to depend on the individual gamer and the game they're playing as to whether this is an issue or not. 

PC spec requirements

The recommended specs for the new headset are:

  • PC/laptop running Windows 10 or greater
  • Graphics Card: NVIDIA GTX 1060 / AMD Radeon RX 480 or greater
  • CPU: Intel i5-4590 / AMD Ryzen 5 1500X or greater
  • Memory: 8GB of RAM
  • Video Output: DisplayPort 1.2 source, Mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort Adapter (with mDP to DP adapter that is included in box)
  • USB Port: 1x USB 3.0 Port

There's a minor bump in requirements here, but only slight, and these specs are pretty standard in most modern gaming laptops and desktop machines now. 

The keen-eyed will also spot that you now need a DisplayPort (or Mini DisplayPort) connection on your machine and only a single spare USB slot. This is, in our mind, is one of the best changes with the new S headset.

One gripe we had with the original Oculus Rift was the need for three spare USB ports on your machine as well as the HDMI connection. If you're gaming off a laptop or even a desktop, it's often difficult to find enough spare ports for that without unplugging all your other peripherals. Now with built-in tracking sensors, there's not as much need for a multitude of USB connections, which is a massive plus and makes the Rift S far more usable. 

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There is an important note here though: the move to a DisplayPort connection may present a problem if your current gaming machine (or laptop) doesn't have that output (or Mini DisplayPort alternative). Oculus says: "there are no HDMI to DisplayPort adapters that support the bandwidth throughput required for Rift S" - which could be an unfortunate surprise if you're buying the Rift S as an upgrade from the original Rift only to get it home and find you can't plug it in. 

The upside of this move is the convenience of setup. With no tracking base stations to setup, there's far less faff when getting into a good VR gaming session. Using the original Rift we found getting the tracking sensors in the right place could be a hassle. Also if they were put in the perfect position but later knocked or jostled when not in use, the next time you came to play you'd have to tweak and setup all over again. 

The new Rift S is much easier to setup and you can often just pick the headset up and dive right in. If the headset thinks you're in a new space, it's also easy to setup that area as your play space in a matter of seconds - all without taking the headset off. 

Virtual passthrough

The accessibility and usability of the system carries on into other parts of the design too. The Oculus Rift S is designed with a new Passthrough+ system. This is similar to the system that already exists on the HTC Vive and gives you a virtual view of the room via the cameras without having to take the headset off.

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This new system is an absolute joy to use. It not only allows you to see the room you're in without taking the headset off, but also is used during the set up of the playspace.

To get started, you just need to calibrate the forward position, tell the headset where the floor is and then paint out the edges of you play area. This is how the guardian borders of the room are setup and essentially sees you spraying a virtual paint around the outsides of your real-world space. Previously you'd have to do this all in Windows and the Oculus software by moving the headset and controllers around the room while you mapped out the space, now it's all made much simpler. 

This new system also means its a lot easier to setup the Rift S anywhere and, in theory, move it to a new location with ease too. You can also see the room when you need to. it's dead easy to assign a double button press to immediately bring up the virtual passthrough view. This makes it easy to interact with loved ones or just avoid tripping over the cat without taking the headset off. 

Like the original Rift, the S is intended to give you plenty of freedom during play. There's a five-metre cable connection which allows for standing or sitting and play in a relatively large room if you have the space to move around.

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We wish the Rift S had been designed to be wireless, but Oculus says the technology for that is just too expensive at this point and the trade-off versus improved visuals and a smooth experience isn't worth it. Considering the HTC Vive wireless adapter costs over £300 as an extra accessory, that point is clearly illustrated (but we'd still buy one if we were feeling flush).

Bring your own headset

One weird design choice, in our mind, is the changes to audio setup. Oculus has opted to give the Oculus Rift S the same built-in rear-firing speakers as the Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. This means no more built-in headphones, which has its ups and downs.

Sure, the speakers deliver decent sound and offer some spatial sound capabilities, but they aren't especially loud and the room you're in needs to be fairly quiet as a result. If you're in a room with people talking, a TV blaring or other background noise then you might find it problematic or at least discover it dampens the immersion. 

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The alternative is a bring-your-own-headset offering. That does, of course, mean adding more wires to the mix and it takes away from the comfort in that way - but it will offer a more private and immersive VR experience.

However, Oculus has chosen to only include a 3.5mm jack for audio output. We asked Sean Liu, Director of Product Management at Oculus, about it and he told us that the company had decided that the current norm was 3.5mm, despite some discussion about whether to make it USB-C. This is fairly limiting in our mind - especially when the majority of gaming headsets are USB and more and more headphones are making the move to USB-C or wireless.

Oculus says that Bluetooth isn't an option either as the lag between sound and visuals would break the quality of the experience. We have, however, successfully tested the headset using a 2.4Ghz wireless gaming headset (the SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless) and found it was easy to set that headset to both the default for microphone and headphone audio. 

A focus on content and accessibility

The Rift S runs with all the current-gen Rift games and Oculus says the company will continue to support the original Rift and make content available for it. Anything developed for Rift will work with both systems.

Content is an interesting highlight here as Oculus is making games cross-play compatible. Users with a Rift S will be able to play multiplayer games against and with Oculus Quest players. Oculus also promises that you won't be able to tell who is using what device as the experience is just that seamless/high-quality.

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It's also the company's intention to make it so games purchased for either headset will work on the other. For the most part, if a game works on Rift S then it will also work on Oculus Quest. But also, if you own games on Quest then decide to upgrade to a fully-fledged Rift S then you can take your game library with you.

Current Oculus Rift owners, can, of course, play any games they already own on the new headset too. 

The amount of games available has increased a lot since the original headset released with more and more being released all the time. There's certainly no doubt about the quality and volume of games available on the system. You can buy and run games from both Steam (using Steam VR) and the Oculus Store

Verdict

On the face of it, the Oculus Rift S has only had some minor design changes and visual enhancements. Perhaps these might not be enough to convince most Oculus Rift owners to make the switch, but for people who have been holding out for a newer, more accessible headset with fewer USB connections necessary and no separate tracking stations, the S is a great solution.

We're not sure such changes are big enough to call it the Oculus Rift 2 - maybe when there's true wireless connectivity built-in in the future, eh? - but the S is certainly a lot more user-friendly, comfortable and appealing than the original. Built-in tracking also means you can basically play with it anywhere you can find space with far less setup hassle.

Through a variety of play sessions we've been consistently impressed with how the Rift S performs. The visuals are appealing, the new audio setup works well (although a personal headset is better) and the tracking is incredibly accurate. This new VR device has had a number of brilliant minor enhancements which make the whole experience a lot more appealing. 

We also like that Oculus is keeping its flagship VR headset at an affordable price point. While the HTC Vive Pro is perhaps the very best headset money can buy, it's also incredibly expensive. The Oculus Rift S is much more affordable and far easier for anyone to use, which will be key to its success.

Also consider

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Oculus Quest

The Oculus Quest is certainly an interesting alternative to the Oculus Rift S. It's roughly the same price, yet wireless and doesn't require a gaming PC in order to run. It's not quite as powerful or as visually impressive, but it is surprisingly capable. There's a lot to be said for tether-free VR and if you don't have the cash for a gaming PC then this is a brilliant option. 

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HTC Vive Pro

It might be a lot more expensive, but the HTC Vive Pro is a serious bit of VR kit. It boasts impressive specs, brilliant design features and a snazzy feature. It's also possible to upgrade the Vive Pro to make it wireless, which makes it utterly awesome.