2023 Chevy Corvette Z06 Apple MacBook Pro 2021 review Facebook Papers: The biggest takeaways Tesla cracks $1 trillion market cap Eternals review

Oculus Quest a year later: Still the best VR headset, but not the perfect one

Facebook's incredible VR magic goggles are a means to connect, and also to escape. It's great at games, but it needs to be more.

23-oculus-quest

A year ago. And still me.

Sarah Tew/CNET

VR experiences, for me, usually follow a certain pattern. Sometimes I feel like a futuristic pilot, or a wizard about to cast a teleportation spell. I grab the headset, slip it on, slide the controllers on my wrists. I check my space, cast a long arc to draw my magic circle. The world disappears. I'm in. 

Going from my reality to virtual reality is astonishingly quick with the Oculus Quest. This is what makes it my VR headset of choice, every time. When I reviewed the Quest a year ago, it received an Editors' Choice. It was also one of CNET's most innovative products of the year. 

I don't regret either of those labels in 2020, in a world that's totally different from the one in which I originally reviewed the Quest. The headset is still by my side all the time. It's what I can dip into Altspace VR with for a live interview, or explore a theater piece in process with actors somewhere else, or take a briefing in VR. Watch videos from Tribeca. Get some light fitness gaming in. Tether to a PC to check out an app. Look around a magic world or two and just escape for a bit. It's a scuba mask for enhancing my holodeck. It's the best overall immersive tool of the moment.

But even in the time since I published this story a few weeks ago, I've been thinking on VR's relationship to the real world. Sometimes VR can connect people who are apart and create social bubbles. But it's also a world that's distanced: from phones, from other social apps, often from reality. Right now, that relationship can feel extremely complicated. VR needs to be a better tool for the world we're in.

What has made the Quest great, and continue to be great, is its simplicity: It's all in one. It doesn't need other gear. I can put it on exactly when I want to dive in. Other VR headsets still lean on cables and consoles and PCs, plus drivers and update hassles. 

It's been over a year since I took the Oculus Quest with me on a vacation back in 2019, a lifestyle that now feels like a thousand years ago. I was thinking about portability then -- reviewing the headset a month before release and set to go on a family trip, I was curious how well it could pack down. It felt like a large set of headphones in its hard travel case. An imposition, but doable. I didn't use it all the time on vacation, because after all, why not enjoy the sea, the sand, my family? But it was fun to try, and the smell of suntan lotion stayed in its foam liner for months.

oculus-quest-aruba

In Aruba, a long time ago. When I went on vacations.

Scott Stein/CNET

I associated my vacation with VR, after that. I'd dip back into games like Beat Saber and think of being in Aruba, as if I'd be there again when I removed the headset. Like a magic set of goggles that really could teleport me.

Virtual reality has been promised for years like a carrot on a stick as a wonderful doorway to our future connections, our travels to parallel worlds. VR is now good enough and effortless enough that it's totally, seriously great. But what's done with VR to improve how we connect and work... well, that's not resolved yet.

What it can do so well: Play games, present ideas

The Oculus Quest was great when I first used it, and it's still great now. While Facebook may have an Oculus Quest follow-up set for later this year (or the year after), and a lot more VR headsets from a variety of competitors may be arriving with new features and maybe lower prices, the Quest remains amazing today. It's also the new model for where VR, and even AR, need to be going next.

If you think of the Quest as a Nintendo Switch-like game console for VR, it won't disappoint. Enough VR hits from the last four years are on the Quest to offer the best of what's around, optimized for an older smartphone-level processor that somehow manages to make it look good. There are compromises in visuals, but the hand tracking, controllers, the display -- all ahead of the game.

I said we're all on the holodeck, VR headset or not. The Quest is, clearly, where VR and AR are going. The paint-your-reality play boundary system that the Quest uses, where I can step in and out of the VR world and my rendered-in-black-and-white video passthrough of my real home, is still magical. The Quest's controls are versatile, and I never get tired of them.

Oculus has evolved the Quest in the last year, adding hand tracking, and a way to connect to a PC and become a full tethered PC VR headset if needed. It's gotten better, as a product, than most products do in a year's time. Facebook's commitment to the hardware and software is exactly what's made it so good.

It's also been a place where I've gotten active, in more than a handful of fitness games. In a lot of ways, fitness in VR feels like an expansion of the types of fitness games I used to play on the Wii or Xbox Kinect, but in a space that surrounds me.

Should I tell you some of my favorite games and experiences? There are many. Just a few:

64-oculus-quest

It's great... but it's also still bulky.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What the Quest isn't (yet): A connected social tool

The Oculus Quest is a lot of things, many of them fantastic. But it isn't essential for most people, it isn't photo-real and it isn't hooked into the rest of your life. Not exactly. My phone and its apps, most of my work, everything I do -- VR is an escape from all that. It's bubbled out. That sometimes makes it an enjoyable place to hide, even if it's part of Facebook's not-at-all-hidden informational tangle. But it's a device most people don't have, and sometimes its escapist elements can feel out of alignment with a changing world.

But VR won't be bubbled off from the rest of our app ecosystems for long. Eventually, all those apps need to work with VR, too. Like headphones for audio, VR should be for our workspaces. Phones need proper plug-in support, and so do Android and iOS. I should be able to join a Zoom, check Slack, multitask, pop in and out. That sounds awful and inevitable and also helpful at the same time, and essential if I don't want to feel blindfolded every time I put on a VR headset.

Oculus' curated collection of Quest apps are often standout, and most of gaming's best VR experiences have been ported over surprisingly well. But this isn't the device that can be for everyone. It's still a clunky process to get into VR, at times. I sometimes smash my hands against a wall or hit my head on a desk I didn't see. The battery runs out too fast. Sometimes the hardware crashes or I run out of storage space. The resolution isn't crisp enough to replace a nice monitor, or be my main movie theater. And because it's so individual, I can't share it with my family. It's not something we all can do at once. And the controls, in VR, are not kid-friendly. Not like an iPad, at least. It's a thing I do, apart from everyone else.

There's also, always, the big question mark that is Facebook. The Quest is mostly locked into Facebook's platforms, and isn't open like a phone, or a computer. That's not the way forward for technologies like VR and AR, no matter how good the Quest is now.

facebook-oculus-vr-headset-0528

A hand-tracking demo at Facebook's headquarters last fall: one of the newest unfolding features.

James Martin/CNET

It's a strong start

And yet it's something I'm so interested in using, browsing apps for, discovering what else is coming. The Quest is in many ways still a prototype for the next wave of tech. But it's the first device that really shows what that untethered, instant, immersive future could be capable of.

The Quest is often good enough to overcome my dislike for a lot of Facebook's social media platform. It's good enough to make me want to know what comes next. It's good enough to keep being the thing I keep charged and ready for another day. And another. 

I love the Quest. And in a world where I'm still stuck at home and not able to get out to the rest of the world easily anymore, I need things like it more than I did before. But every day, I make a decision: try VR, or connect to the rest of the world? That split feeling is harder to resolve than ever.

Update, June 11: Adds thoughts on the split between reality and VR, and a video of the best Quest games.