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Oculus Rift review: Fantastic controllers for VR, but the Rift has a few drawbacks

The Touch controllers rule -- but that doesn't necessarily make the Oculus Rift the best VR system you can buy.

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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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10 min read

Update, July 2017: After two price cuts, the total cost of a complete Oculus Rift with Touch controllers is now $499. Consider that as you read our full review below.

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8.0

Oculus Rift

The Good

The Oculus Touch controllers add impressive finger and hand movement, plus physical buttons for traditional games. The Rift headset is well-designed and compact. A strong collection of software offers many apps to explore.

The Bad

The motion tracking lacks the HTC Vive's full-room scale. It takes a while to adjust to the controls. Total cost of headset plus controllers is expensive -- and that doesn't include the pricey gaming PC you need, too.

The Bottom Line

The Oculus Rift now offers a great combination of controls and apps for next-level VR and some room tracking, but it offers a less expansive experience than the Vive.

Hey -- it's my hands.

I can see them as I look down. I lift my finger. That floating, glowing hand moves its finger. I grip my fingers into a fist. I point.

I pick up a slingshot on the table in front of me. It takes a little practice. Now I'm holding it. I pull the elastic band back. I aim, and shoot paint pellets across the room.

Am I really holding my virtual slingshot? Yes and no. In my hands are controllers that I'm resting my fingers on, with buttons and triggers. I lift my fingers and control those hands. But when I let go completely -- oops, my controller falls to the floor.

Virtual prosthetics take time to understand.

The Oculus Rift arrived way back in March, but all that came with it was a headset and an Xbox controller. It didn't have real VR hand controls, like the HTC Vive or PlayStation VR. You could sit down and play games, but you couldn't move anywhere. There was the promise of exciting things, but the reality was less than we expected.

This is what we thought of the Rift then: potential. Now, it's time for reality.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Oculus Touch is the necessary other part of the equation: wireless controllers that also act as tools for your hands in virtual spaces. They're fantastic. They're now only $99 (which converts to £80 or AU$129). They're required hardware if you already own an Oculus Rift.

But if you don't? You'll need to pay $599 (roughly £487 or AU$780) for the Rift and Touch controllers combined, plus have a VR-ready gaming PC. That's still an expensive bundle, but it's now at least more affordable than it was last year. Oculus is now a complete package, and a compelling journey into VR worlds with lots of games and apps to try.

Oculus' collection of unique games and apps gives it a more polished edge over the Vive, but Vive's more open Steam platform feels like it has an edge on larger-scale VR experiences that Oculus is still trying to catch up to.

An updated review of the Oculus Rift -- including how the Touch controllers change the equation -- follows.

If I were rating the Touch controllers on their own, I'd give them an A. Anyone who already has a Rift should definitely get them. But that doesn't make the Rift a slam dunk for buyers coming into VR from scratch. With an expensive VR headset that has limited room tracking, the Oculus Rift as a whole is still a work in progress.

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Touch combines buttons, motion controls and even finger-tracking.

Sarah Tew/CNET

VR for your hands

What's particularly brilliant about the Touch controllers is that, while they can be used as motion-sensing tools, they also have regular buttons and analog sticks. They're almost like a split-apart gamepad held in two hands.

The HTC Vive and PlayStation VR also have handheld controllers, but theirs look more like wands and lack some standard controller-button functions. With the Touch, you can play a regular game as well as a VR motion-enabled one.

The Touch is also unique because it senses finger position, whether your fingers are pressing the triggers or not, and it even senses when your fingers are resting on particular buttons. Raising a thumb off the controller can make your virtual hand do a thumbs-up. Extending your forefinger will make your virtual hand point.

It's not full analog finger-sensing, but moving your forefinger, thumb and middle finger can create hand gestures that feel like real grasping. The controllers vibrate with feedback, and when you pick something up, it generates a hand feel. After a while, it started to feel like my hands were really somewhere else.

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This could be you.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What do you with these crazy controllers?

The dipping-your-hands-into-VR feel of Touch gives it an edge over the PlayStation's Move VR controllers, or the wand-controllers of the Vive. But they all allow pretty similar things. That being said, the Touch aims to simulate actual hand movements, like grasping objects. Sometimes this works really well, and other times it feels like trying to grab chopsticks with gloves on.

There will be dozens of touch-enabled games on Oculus, and I've played over a dozen that are already available. But the biggest problem with the Oculus Rift and Touch isn't the controllers themselves, it's the limited range of motion tracking, which means more standing in place, instead of moving around. And that's because of the limitations of Oculus' two-sensor motion-tracking system.

The Touch controllers are brilliantly designed, though, and are everything I'd want in a VR controller right now. Plus, they use AA batteries -- one per controller -- which are easily popped in via a magnetic sliding cover. In two weeks or so of mixed use, I haven't had to replace them.

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Those camera sensors need a table or shelf to sit on, and they need to be wired to your PC.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Setup and room tracking: A slight headache

The Oculus Rift Touch controllers need two camera sensors to track movement: one that comes with the controllers, and the other that comes with the Rift headset. Both need to be placed on a flat surface like a computer desk or a shelf and set several feet apart -- not too far, not too close, and angled for maximum coverage of the playing space (3 to 7 feet, roughly). Oculus has some setup guides in its PC software, but it's not as easy as the one-camera setup of PlayStation VR. This requires some finesse.

It also needs two separate USB 3.0 ports on your PC, one for each sensor. (That's in addition to the one the Rift helmet is using, and possibly a fourth one if you have the wireless dongle for the Xbox controller.) The cables are fairly long, but not long enough for a PC to be across the room. Good luck, because it's not easy to get right.

Much like HTC's Vive VR, you then have to draw a boundary around your play area, which shows up like a glowing blue cage in virtual reality. Oculus calls it the "Guardian." Get too close to your play area limits, and the cage reappears to warn you. But that doesn't help with accidental tripping over furniture, cords, pets, kids, sandwiches or roller skates -- so clear your room before playing.

Comparatively, the Vive requires two boxes to be plugged into distant corners of your VR space and aligned just right, followed by a careful drawing of boundary spaces. Except for their respective power cords, the Vive's room sensors are wireless.

Oculus does have a fantastic tutorial app, though. Called First Contact, it's an '80s-styled introduction to how the Touch controls work. A cute little Wall-E-esque robot guided me to pick up cartridges and push them into a computer, materializing magic tools like rockets and laser guns to play with. Trust me, you need to go through this demo before doing anything else. After that, there's another free app called Toy Box that's another tactile area in which to play with your newfound motor controls.

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Many of the Touch games involve a small amount of walking over a several-foot area.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Not a complete holodeck

Standing VR, as I call it, has some great uses -- the shooting or spellcasting games, like The Unspoken and Dead and Buried, feel like you're really facing off against others, albeit glued to the floor. I was able to walk around somewhat, but sooner or later my controllers lost tracking. I felt like I needed to confine myself to a smaller box than Vive.

As a result, the feeling of "I'm in a shark cage" is stronger. My movements seem more limited. Many games recognize this, and require less walking around and more "teleporting" by aiming a controller and zapping somewhere.

In intimate moments, the illusion is seamless. In larger-scale areas, it feels constraining.

A bunch of great new apps

Oculus has a serious advantage when it comes to content, and how it's presented. The well-designed virtual living room of the Rift's interface feels more like stepping into a game console than a PC, and there are dozens of games ready to try. Oculus has a growing number of cross-platform games that already exist on the Vive and are Touch-enabled, like Fantastic Contraption and Job Simulator.

There are 50 apps available now at launch, and I've played about half of them so far. Some are glorified demos, and others are more full-featured games. Many are experiences that have been available on the Vive for months. I didn't try connecting Oculus and Touch to SteamVR, but that could potentially be another option for software down the road. I don't think you'd need to go down that road, though, because the Oculus Store has more than enough to entertain.

And, even, to be creative. While the Rift doesn't have Google's fantastic Tiltbrush app for painting, Oculus has made two art apps that are similarly good. Medium is a sculpting app that emphasizes 3D objects, while Quill (still in beta) explores 3D hand-drawn sketching and painting. Art apps are VR's most practical tools, but not necessarily reasons to hop aboard unless you're dying to create massive installation-sized 3D artworks, or explore the new bleeding edge of digital artistic creation.

The Oculus Touch launches with more than four dozen titles on December 6. Oculus also has many other games that work with just an Xbox controller and the Rift headset. Touch games remain a subset.

One really nice plus about getting the expensive Oculus Touch controllers is that they currently come with free apps. Those who preordered the Touch get a few more bonus titles, but if you missed that you'll still get some great software:

  • Medium is an impressively deep 3D sculpting app that feels like the modeling-clay version of Google's Tiltbrush. It's like spray-painting your creations in the air.
  • Dead and Buried is a multiplayer Western shooter that feels like a Disney attraction crossed with "Westworld" and an arcade shooting gallery. I found myself in a match with some San Francisco GameSpot staff one day, and the experience was pretty awesome.
  • Quill (beta) is like Google's Tiltbrush: It's more of a painting app compared with Medium. It also allows some impressive levels of landscape design.

Some other standouts included:

Robo Recall doesn't arrive until next year, but I played an early-access demo. It's a high-action game involving shooting and dismantling rogue robots. Great graphics, impressive world, but a lot of the game involves zapping to places and grappling with the Touch controls... and the Touch's limited two-camera room tracking made it hard to play.

Superhot, already a hit PC game, is one of the most exciting, unusual VR games I've ever tried. Time stops when I stop; things move when I move. Each bizarre micro-level emerges fast and without warning.

The Unspoken, free for Touch pre-orders, is a spell-casting online battle game that's like a magic-themed variant on Dead and Buried (see above).

You need a PC, but the minimum specs are slightly more attainable now

Face it: You'll still need a pretty good Windows PC to play Oculus VR games. But the minimum specs are a little lower than they were back in March thanks to new optimizations. Still, at the least, a PC needs:

  • an Nvidia GTX 960 or AMD Radeon RX 470 graphics card
  • an Intel i3-6100/AMD FX4350 or greater
  • 8GB of RAM
  • HDMI 1.3 video output
  • and three USB ports, at least one of which needs to be USB 3.0.

Even so, Oculus recommends you aim higher for the best experience. It's still not affordable: At the barest minimum, based on Oculus' claims on a $499 (£390, AU$670) PC that can now run Oculus apps, a full Rift setup and PC will cost you $1,300.

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PlayStation Move, Touch and HTC Vive controllers, compared.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Do you get this, Vive or PlayStation VR?

Now that the Rift has really arrived, controllers and all, things have changed. VR is everywhere. PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, headsets for your phones. Do you pick one, or any at all? Oculus, in this landscape, is sitting at the high end with the Rift and Touch. The Touch is the ultimate VR set of controllers.

But, they deserve even better full-room sensing that just isn't here yet.

  • PlayStation VR is affordable and only requires a PS4, and it has some great games and can track some motion across a few feet of space, but it runs lower-resolution graphics and its Move motion controls have tracking issues in some rooms.
  • HTC Vive needs a gaming PC, but it connects to Steam for its games and apps and is able to track movement over an entire room, creating a holodeck-like feeling that's still unmatched.
  • Oculus Rift and Touch need a similar gaming PC to the Vive and costs about as much. Its controllers are better, but its room tracking, while better than the PSVR, isn't as wide-range as Vive. The Oculus Store offers a good handful of well-made, exclusive apps.

What I really want is VR that's affordable as PSVR, with the room-tracking of the Vive and Oculus Touch controllers.

It turns out, hands are a huge part of what makes VR great, and Oculus Touch succeeds in making the Rift a whole new experience. Even with Touch, Rift isn't the ultimate VR setup. It's one of the best. But VR is about compromises. Oculus chose fine hand movements over fuller-room tracking -- for now. VR is baby steps into an immersive future. Cables and headsets are still too low in resolution. VR is like being somewhere else, but with slightly impaired vision and motor controls. The Touch is just beginning to explore how our fingers could function in VR.

But most importantly, Oculus used to be the one singular name in VR. Now it isn't. The competition is growing, and the Rift headset is a high-quality player in a fast, ever-moving game. Which makes the decision to buy one really hard.

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8.0

Oculus Rift

Score Breakdown

Immersion 8Interaction 9Comfort 8Ecosystem 7Setup 6