VR is still a new technology, one that’s far from being a “most people” purchase, but it can be an arresting way to step into new virtual worlds. A standalone headset is the best choice for casual gamers. But if you already own a gaming PC and want a richer, more immersive VR experience with better graphics and more games, the Oculus Rift S VR Headset is the one to get.
Oculus Rift S VR Headset
You can spend thousands of dollars chasing the best specs in a VR headset, but we think comfort and ease of use are more important elements for most people. With that in mind, the clear winner is the Oculus Rift S VR Headset. Its weight is distributed around your head, so you can comfortably wear it for several hours. The controllers are intuitive and easy to hold. It can track you as you move around a room. And it doesn’t take much time to set up. Additionally, the Rift S has a wide selection of compatible content because you can download games, movies, and other experiences from both the Oculus and SteamVR libraries.
How we picked
While looking for desktop VR Headset systems to test, we took stock of current customer trends and read comparison guides from PCMag, Wired, and CNET. We also interviewed experts on what to look for in a VR headset.
We considered only headsets that were built for home use, had the ability to track hand and body movement and had controllers—without those features, you lose most of the magic of VR. We think the best headsets also have the following features:
- Room-scale tracking: Whether the sensors are built into the headset or meant to be mounted on a wall, the headset you buy should come with the ability to track you across an area the size of an average living room.
- Variety of content: Games and applications should be available across a variety of genres. There should also be proof that developers are continuing to develop for the headset.
- Comfort: The headset should sit snugly on a variety of face shapes without being painful. It shouldn’t feel too heavy or get too hot.
- Industry-leading specs: The screen resolution, sensors, weight, and size should be in line with those of other top VR headsets. Good display specs in particular assist in creating a better VR adventure because they help you forget that you are seeing at a screen instead of something real.
- Good controllers: The controllers should be comfortable to hold, and they shouldn’t have overly complicated button layouts.
- Built-in sound: Although audiophiles who already own high-end headphones will appreciate a headphone jack, most people don’t already own headphones that are nice enough for VR (and good sound really does make VR more immersive). Headsets with high-quality built-in headphones or speakers eliminate an extra accessory to buy and still leave you the option of swapping in your own pair if you care to.
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How we tested
In an initial round of testing in 2016, I set up and tested the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR Headset in my living room, and then I had four VR beginners (with gaming experience levels ranging from zero to expert) use each system too. While an additional round of testing in 2018, I examined the Vive Pro against the Rift. A round of experiments in 2019 pitted the Rift against the Rift S. In 2020, I examined the Vive Cosmos Elite against the Rift S.
For expert conclusions, I discussed Road to VR co-founder Ben Lang and Svrf CEO and co-founder Sophia Dominguez. I asked each of the experts and beginners to judge each system’s content, immersion, headset comfort, and hand controllers. I also asked who they thought should get each system.
Then I considered these same criteria while spending at least three hours in each VR system myself. Comfort is important, especially for first-timers. VR should maximize immersion—the sense that you’re in a virtual world. Discomfort is one of the quickest ways to break that sense. I saw where each headset combined weight on my head, and how my level of comfort varied over the course of a long VR session.
I also carefully judged each system’s hand controllers, because inherent controls make games feel much more real. Controller designs vary slightly, with different buttons and a different feel in your hand.
For my testing, I plugged all three headsets into my home computer, a CyberPowerPC system that met the minimum requirements for the headsets.
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The best virtual reality headset: Oculus Rift S
Oculus Rift S
The Oculus Rift S VR Headset offers a high-end VR experience without much fuss, striking a compromise between a more casual headset like the PlayStation VR and spec-heavy options like the Valve Index. It’s a headset that can appeal to gaming veterans and newcomers alike—with a wide range of games and other applications.
The Rift S has the first physical setup of the major PC VR systems, with just one cord that joins the headset to the computer. Sensors embedded in the Rift S headset track your location in the room and your hand movements, so there are no external sensors to set up. Oculus’s website also has tutorials that walk you through the setup process.
The more space you can set aside for VR play, the better: Many games require only a step or two in any direction, but others ask you to walk around a small space. I used a rug in my living room to mark the edges of my play area. The Rift S’s built-in sensors mean you can walk as far as the attached cord will let you (or you can buy an Oculus-recommended USB extension cord). Vive developers often make games with the assumption that players have an entire room dedicated to VR, but Rift games are usually built for living-room gamers.
The Oculus Touch controllers are easily our favorite among VR controllers. They seem intimidating because you have to place your middle and pointer fingers on separate trigger buttons, while your thumbs rest next to three extra buttons and a thumbpad. But the controllers are well balanced and intuitive, once you get the hang of it: Squeeze your middle finger to pick up something or squeeze your pointer finger to shoot. The Verge’s Adi Robertson points out another cool feature: “a set of capacitive sensors that detect how you’re holding them.” Robertson continues, “If your forefinger isn’t on the trigger, for example, Touch intuits that you’re pointing it outward. It can tell exactly where on the top panel you’ve held your thumb, and if it’s raised, place your virtual hand in a thumbs-up position. The options vary a little by practice, but they build a totally new set of very natural gestures.”
By contrast, the Vive Cosmos Elite and Pro controllers look more like sticks with triggers on the back, and they include trackpads for scrolling and clicking. The Cosmos’s latest controllers are closer in design to the Touch controllers, but we haven’t tested them yet.
The Rift S has a halo-style headset that does a great job of distributing weight across the head, though in our tests it wasn’t as easy to get a comfortable fit with proper eye placement as it was with the older Rift’s Velcro strap system. The Rift S still feels lighter than any of the Vive headsets, which is increasingly important the more time you spend in VR.
The Rift S uses built-in speakers to direct sound at your ears. You can plug in your own headphones, but we didn’t bother; the sound leaking from the speakers should only be loud enough to annoy someone standing in your play area.
Beyond the hardware, we also like the Rift S because there’s plenty to do. Compared with other desktop headsets, it offers the most ways to watch movies, play shooter games, and work your way through puzzle scenarios. You can easily launch Steam VR games on the Rift, expanding the library even further. I won’t say there’s something for everyone, but if there is something for you, it’s most likely to be on Oculus’s platform. I spent the most time playing I Expect You To Die (an escape-room-style puzzle series), Superhot VR (a stylish action game that boils down to dodging bullets and smashing people), and Beat Saber (an addictive game that challenges you to slice through blocks to the beat), which we recommend everyone buy as their first game. There’s also the highly anticipated Half-Life: Alyx.
The Rift S also has the most seamless interface we’ve found since it lets you launch games from your computer screen or from inside the headset on a home screen that’s designed to look like a modern living room.
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Flaws but not dealbreakers
All of the current high-end VR Headset systems have some flaws in common: They’re expensive, they’re awkward to use, they require a permanent tether to an expensive computer (though there are wireless adapters available for some), and by design, they cut you off from the outside world while you’re using them. That’s unavoidable no matter which system you get right now.
The Oculus Rift S’s main drawback is that it lags behind other PC headsets in its specs. The Vive Cosmos, for example, has a higher-resolution screen and runs at 90 Hz instead of the Rift S’s 80 Hz (think of this measurement as the headsets’ frames per second), though we didn’t notice a difference while comparing them. However, higher refresh rates are generally believed to decrease the likelihood that people might experience motion sickness while using a VR headset. The Cosmos Elite and Valve Index also highlight more precise tracking; the Rift S loses track of hands more often, for example. But we think that, based on price and ease of use, the Rift S is still the best option for all but the most dedicated of VR fans. None of the other headsets provide a big enough leap forward in technology to make them an easy pick over the Oculus Rift S.
We also miss the original Rift’s built-in headphones—the design shift to using speakers feels like a step back, as the audio doesn’t sound as clear. You can plug in your own headphones for better audio; we have some suggestions in our guide to the best headphones.