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

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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