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Oculus Go review: Portable VR, no strings attached

The first standalone VR system has arrived, no phone required. Here's our first week with one.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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11 min read

The Oculus Go is a funny product. If you've been following virtual reality closely it seems like a step back -- unlike the PC-connected Oculus Rift, it won't let you walk around or grab things. It's simpler. In fact, it's exactly like those VR headsets for phones, the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View.

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8.0

Oculus Go

The Good

A completely self-contained, standalone, no-phone-or-PC-necessary VR system. Comfortable design and feel. Sharp-looking display and effective built-in speakers with spatial audio. Hundreds of apps. Oculus setup app works with iOS and Android phones. Connects for social chats with Go, Gear VR and Oculus Rift owners.

The Bad

Two-hour battery life. It's a sit-down experience (no room tracking). No expandable storage. No kid-safe settings. Lacks multiple account options.

The Bottom Line

Oculus Go is VR for the masses: A self-contained, standalone virtual reality headset that's portable, affordable and delivers a great experience for the price.

Except, this time, you don't need to connect anything else at all, after you've set it up with your phone, at least. All the hardware, screen, processor and everything, are inside the headset. And the functional pistol-grip Oculus controller is included in the box. For the first time, VR is totally self-contained. And the Go, all-in, costs $199, £199 or AU$299.

That's where the Oculus Go is a step forward. Go is, basically, the Amazon Echo of VR. It's not groundbreaking, but it's definitely affordable. There will be more advanced but expensive devices: the twice-as-pricey upcoming Lenovo Mirage Solo with Daydream, another standalone phone-free VR headset, has more sophisticated full-room sensing and motion. The Oculus Go is, comparatively, a sit-down (or stand still) experience. And, if you already have a phone that runs Google Daydream or Samsung Gear VR, you don't need this.

The Oculus Go is also comfortable and well designed. It's the most easy-to-use, most consumer-friendly way to try VR things at home or on the go that I've ever used. If you want an affordable, no-fuss entry into the world of VR, this is it.

I've been using the Oculus Go for a week, while commuting to work, at home, in the office, in the park. Here's what it's like.

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That's it -- nothing else needed.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What's great about Oculus Go

The Oculus Go is the most comfortable VR headset I've worn other than the PlayStation VR, which is far larger and bulkier. The Go goggles press onto your face instead of using a visor-type design, but the foam padding is far better than the Oculus Rift or Gear VR. It's portable, too, and feels like it could tuck without too much trouble into a backpack.

Price, obviously, is a big plus. Most people I told the price to seemed surprised that it didn't cost more. For an all-in package, it beats anything else on the market.

The display and the speakers sound a lot better than you'd expect for a budget VR device, and it can even feel, at times, better than higher-end headsets. The piped-in, headphone-free, built-in speakers deliver pretty good 3D effects -- what Oculus calls "spatial audio" -- and the LCD display looks particularly crisp when reading text or watching videos.

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Sound comes through little holes in the head straps, delivering spatial audio that's great (when you're not in public spaces).

Sarah Tew/CNET

The screen-door effect is less than what is typically encountered on most VR headsets, thanks to Oculus using optimization that makes the most of the Snapdragon 821 processor -- less impressive than that of current top-end phones. Nevertheless, the standalone Oculus Go uses fixed foveated rendering, rendering the area at the center of the display more sharply than the edges, to make many apps look even better, without any side effects. The 5.5-inch, 2,560x1,440-pixel LCD display holds its own, but since it's not OLED, the display isn't as perfectly black as that of the Gear VR.

Most people who wore it -- family, friends or coworkers who were pretty picky about good tech and AV quality -- came away impressed. It outperforms its price, at least in terms of display, comfort and audio quality.

The selection of apps is damned impressive -- it has hundreds, so far. And for setup, it pairs with iPhones or Android phones, making it basically the best iPhone VR headset around right now.

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Every half hour or so, my eyes need a break.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What's not so great about Oculus Go

If you're looking for the next great wave of What Comes Next in VR, this isn't it. The Oculus Go is actually a step-back device, in a sense: it lacks cameras and can't track a whole room, or even part of one. It's stationary, look-around VR vs. dive-in-and-grab-things VR, and the included single remote, while functional, is nowhere near as good as what PC and game console VR controllers offer.

This is really just a Samsung Gear VR without the Samsung phone, and in that sense, it's more of the same thing that's been around since late 2014. This is the best version of that type of headset, but if you're looking for something more, you're out of luck.

The headset doesn't work with Bluetooth headphones. And because it lacks more advanced full-room tracking with onboard cameras (six degrees of freedom, aka 6DOF), which lets you "lean in" to VR, it means the Oculus Go's VR apps feel a lot more static. You'll be sitting down more, watching things. 

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Oculus Go next to other headsets (left to right): PC-required HTC Vive and Oculus Rift; self-contained Oculus Go in the center; and phone-connected Google Daydream View and Samsung Gear VR.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The included 32 gigabytes of storage on the $199 model might be a bit less than you'll need for lots of storage-needy 360 videos, if you're downloading regularly. A 64GB version costs $249, £249 or AU$369. There's no expandable storage. I've loaded dozens of apps and been fine (apps are anywhere from 100MB to several gigs), but storage isn't infinite.

This isn't a kid-friendly device, either. You can only use one user account at a time, and there's no kid-safe mode. Oculus recommends this for kids 13 and up anyhow, and that younger kids shouldn't be using it in the first place. Kids can use it -- and mine both did -- but only with continual supervision. I wouldn't trust them not to suddenly fall over or whack someone with the controller by accident.

You also have to be connected to Facebook for most of the Oculus Go's key connections and communications with friends. It's not necessary -- you can create an account that skips Facebook completely and still use most apps -- but remember, this is a Facebook product.

But still, I like this headset a lot more than I dislike it.

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Charging up via Micro-USB (or you can use the cable to load files from a PC).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unboxing Oculus Go with a friend

The Oculus Go is packaged elegantly and cleanly, like a Google product or an Amazon Echo. It feels like it's made for an everyday person, not a VR power user. It's simple: a headset, a controller. There's even an included AA battery (only the headset is rechargeable). A Micro-USB charge cable is coiled next to a quick-start guide. 

There's also a microfiber cleaning cloth, and a spacer for eyeglass-wearers that can be inserted if needed by removing the headset's foam lining. (I wear glasses and I didn't need to use it.) A piece of paper folded over the headset's eyepieces tells you to download the Oculus app to pair with your phone.

Everything's self-contained with the Oculus Go, but it pairs with your phone to set up, like a smartwatch, an Echo or most smart things. And it works on iOS or Android: I tested the Oculus app with the iPhone X.

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The Oculus app on iPhone: The full app store is available to buy and load whatever you want, and connection settings can be tweaked on the phone and synced to the headset.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A quick pair, a login (Facebook not required), and you're ready to dive in. The phone app browses the Oculus store for easy purchases and installing.

I gave it to my friend, who hasn't used VR in a while. He watched a streaming video, played some games. He was impressed by the display quality. He asked me again, "How much is this?"

This keeps happening. Another coworker who's never tried VR before tests out Go and is immediately wowed by several demos. She says the sound's particularly impressive, and the display is better looking than she thought it would be. She wonders if maybe she'd get this as a gift instead of an Amazon Echo.

Oculus Go is great at home -- for half an hour at a time

The Oculus Go's many games and apps are worthwhile novelties, and some games (Cloudlands mini-golf, Daedalus, Dead and Buried, Bait) are pretty fun. Some video apps deliver some great 360 videos. Others feel rushed.

But I don't feel like I can use it for more than a hour, max. Even at half an hour, my eyes feel like they're begging for fresh air. VR still gives me some eye fatigue, even after all these years. And the lack of full 6DoF movement makes some apps feel too stiff, unmoving, and can create a tiny bit of dizziness. Mostly, the movement in the Oculus Go, and its fast, fluid display, are great. Occasionally, there are hiccups and little jitters, when apps are loading, or downloading, or chatting in apps like AltSpace VR.

Browsing is what I do most, versus creating or interacting.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Social, kind of

I hop into AltSpace VR for a live session with the Actors Theater of NYC, where an actor-avatar delivers a monologue from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, and I chat with some others for a bit. It's weird, and I feel like all I can do is wave my hand in the air.

I play some Settlers of Catan, my favorite board game-turned-VR game, but I don't have enough friends to invite yet. I browse some Facebook 360-degree videos.

I join a party with CNET's Sean Hollister, who also has a headset in San Francisco. We're in Oculus Rooms, a place where you can set up your own little virtual living room with photos from Facebook. We talk as avatars, sitting on my sofa, watching videos from Facebook (the only service that works in Oculus Rooms right now). We look at our photos. Oculus Go can connect to your phone's camera roll, as a viewer of sorts. We try playing checkers at a little game table, choosing one of about five games while watching an old George Carlin video on the TV screen.

Would I do this again with Sean? It's interesting, it's weird, and it works as easily as Skype. But yeah, I don't know.

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NJT commuting selfie. Don't do this.

Scott Stein/CNET

Other Oculus Go notes and observations

It's not great on moving vehicles. How is the Oculus Go as a travel device? I took it on New Jersey Transit with me. I wore it just about nonstop from New Jersey to Penn Station one morning. That's a lot of nonstop VR -- about 40 minutes. And, your VR train options are limited. I realized I couldn't really play videos, since it wants to be on Wi-Fi. Streaming videos are out. So I played some games. I went fishing in VR via the Bait! game, casting my line. It was relaxing. It was fun. I also spent time in the Apollo 11 app, watching JFK give his speech about going to the moon, riding in the Apollo 11 capsule as it blasted off. The problem with VR is that it orients in a particular place, and if there's slight motion or vehicle drift, your VR world drifts too. As my New Jersey Transit train gently curved along its track, I found my fishing game shifting slightly to the left. Or... the right. VR still isn't a great use-while-traveling device for this reason (among others). 

It works with Bluetooth game controllers. I originally thought that wasn't the case, but it supports the Xbox wireless controller and the Steelseries XL: pair it via the phone app, and it'll connect via Bluetooth.

You can load files or videos from PCs or Macs. Sideloading is doable (on Mac, you need Android File Transfer). So, putting videos can be done, or programs, if you enter Developer Mode. But Gear VR-optimized videos may play strangely on the slightly different optics of Oculus Go.

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If you try to do this, be careful: Direct sunlight and VR headsets don't mix.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Be careful of direct sunlight, you might damage the Go. Weird but true: you're not meant to use VR hardware in bright sun, because the sun's rays could strike the high-powered magnifying lenses and damage the headset's display. This happened to me -- 30 minutes in the park on a bright day shooting our review video, and I came back to the office and found a yellow splotch in a part of the display. Oculus doesn't offer any recourse that I can see, other than a warning not to expose the headset. The problem is, this is a device called "Go" that many people might want to take outside. My advice: don't, or be very, very careful -- like, cover it up when you're not wearing it, seriously.

There aren't any cameras. The Go can't track location or how much you lean forward, and neither can Samsung's Gear VR. But, the Gear VR has pass-through cameras that let you peek at what's going on without removing your headset. Not so with Go.

Less worry about dust, since it's self-contained. A thing that annoys me on phone VR is when I pop it into the headset and there's a crumb on the display. Is it on the phone, or the lens, or both? The Go's displays are embedded, so less of a chance of dust.

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There are plenty of apps to try and buy, more than you'll probably have time for.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It doesn't run every Gear VR app, but there's tons of stuff already. Oculus promises "a thousand things to do" at launch, and over 100 Oculus Go-optimized apps. Already, I'm seeing tons of apps on tap, more than enough to keep anyone satisfied for a while. Some apps aren't 100 percent Go optimized, though -- Oculus Arcade wanted me to pair a game controller, which it can't do.

The Oculus Go has movies to purchase, but what's the point? There are movies to buy and watch (2D ones). But these films are in Oculus' content catalog, as opposed to iTunes, Google or Amazon. I might watch a movie from my phone on the Go, but I wouldn't buy a new one.

Xiaomi, which made the Oculus Go, is developing a Chinese version of the headset without Facebook software. My review unit still had "Mi" branding, but it's the same hardware that will be used to make the Mi VR headset that will be sold in China with Xiaomi software.

Downloading apps while using the Go equals lots of stutter. On my early review unit, trying to download apps made the system slow down. It created huge stuttering hiccups while in VR. So, a word of warning: Maybe download a file at a time, and definitely don't play apps while downloads are happening.

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Lenovo Mirage Solo with Daydream, another stand-alone VR headset that has spatial-tracking cameras.

James Martin/CNET

Heads-up: VR is evolving fast

Be forewarned, VR is a fast-moving target. What you buy today may be outdated sooner rather than later. While 2016's VR hardware -- the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for PCs, PlayStation VR for the PS4, and Google Daydream View and Samsung Gear VR for Android phones -- are still around, future possibilities are coming

More headsets will have built-in headset cameras to allow full-room wandering and accurate tracking. The Oculus Go lacks it, but Google and Lenovo's stand-alone Mirage Solo with Daydream has it -- albeit at twice the price.

Oculus is working on a future standalone VR headset with 6DoF room tracking, too, and I've used it. Project Santa Cruz feels great, and will also be mobile like Oculus Go, but it'll inevitably cost more -- and it won't be here this year.

And then after that, expect VR headsets with higher resolution displays, better controllers and even eye tracking for better graphics and more precision controls. The good news for you, potential Oculus Go buyer, is that none of those future devices are likely to come anywhere near $199.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Plunge into mobile VR at an affordable price

What's amazing to me is that the Oculus Go delivers an experience that is good enough that, for most people, a larger VR device won't be necessary. It's a superior little headset for watching 360 videos, sampling quick immersive demos and experiencing what VR has to offer. It delivers smooth graphics and sharp-looking, fun experiences.

But, who needs this, exactly? No one. And therein lies the problem: VR, after all these years, is still a novelty in search of an everyday use case. As one friend said as I showed him 360 videos in CNN, a magic wand-dueling game called Wands and a few other apps, "This is a want, not a need."

And, of course, this is a Facebook product, arriving in a year when Facebook is facing some pretty big trust issues. I don't know how Facebook plans to use its VR devices and data down the road, but the Oculus Go doesn't require a Facebook account to use. And as a product, it's a pretty compelling blend of price for performance.

Still, if you're looking for the best, basic, all-in-one way to try some VR for the first time, Oculus Go is currently it. I'll reserve saying "it's the best of all options" until I've tried reviewed the Lenovo Mirage Solo and HTC Vive Focus stand-alone mobile VR headsets, which are also arriving this year. However, I doubt anything will be as good at the same price.

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8.0

Oculus Go

Score Breakdown

Immersion 8Interaction 7Comfort 9Ecosystem 8Setup 9