Oculus Quest 2 review: better, cheaper VR

by 24USATVSept. 16, 2020, 8 p.m. 17
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As someone who writes about virtual reality and has been stuck at home just like many people during the 2020 pandemic, I’ve gotten asked one question over and over: if virtual reality is so great and actual reality is so dangerous, why isn’t everybody turning to VR? This isn’t a totally fair framing, since VR usage has spiked by some measures. But it did expose a simple problem: I really couldn’t recommend a headset that was friendly enough for most people to buy.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks with Oculus’ new Quest 2 headset, though, and that’s very close to changing. The Quest 2 is a self-contained headset that’s shipping on October 13th, and it’s an update to Oculus’ 2019 Quest. Oculus has kept that standalone Quest design with the same feature set, while improving its screen, reducing its weight, and — with one noteworthy caveat — making it more comfortable. It’s also dropped the starting price from $399 to $299, making the Quest 2 one of the lowest-priced headsets on the market.

The Quest 2 is everything I liked about the original Quest at launch but with the benefit of a stronger ecosystem that’s developed over the past year. Even with current-generation VR’s inherent awkwardness, it feels like a final product rather than an early-adopter experiment. Oculus — a company owned by social giant Facebook — has done some of its best work so far. It’s also provoked some of the biggest questions yet about VR’s future.

At a passing glance, the Quest 2 looks like a dramatically new headset. Facebook-owned Oculus has become known for its all-black flagship devices, but the Quest 2 has a pure white body and a black foam face mask, giving it a two-toned appearance. The new color scheme isn’t necessarily an improvement, but it makes sense: Facebook has consolidated its VR product line into a single device, and it’s making that device visually distinct.

The Quest 2 looks otherwise very similar to the Quest. It’s a little smaller than its predecessor, but both headsets have the same rounded plastic front, each corner studded with an outward-facing tracking camera. The Quest had textured fabric sides, while the all-plastic Quest 2 body feels a little more sterile, although that’s offset by soft fabric head straps that replace the Quest’s stiff rubber ones. The Quest 2’s controllers are white, but they’re otherwise nearly identical to previous generations of Oculus Touch devices.

You won’t get big new features from the Quest 2, but it includes some significant iterative upgrades. The headset features 6GB of memory instead of 4GB. Its base model has 64GB of storage, just like the Quest; for $399, you can get a greatly expanded 256GB. The Quest 2 uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 chipset instead of a Snapdragon 835, hypothetically letting it run better-looking games (although the Quest 2’s current library is heavily optimized for the original headset, and neither device approaches a PC’s power) while taking advantage of XR2-specific optimization for things like tracking cameras and VR screen resolution. The headset remains chunky, but at 503 grams compared to the Quest’s 571, it’s only a little heavier than the relatively lightweight original Oculus Rift. Battery life is similar to the Quest, clocking between two and 2.5 hours for a gaming session.

The Quest 2’s screen resolution has leapfrogged most other VR headsets, offering 1832 x 1920 pixels per eye compared to the original’s 1440 x 1600; Oculus also promises to upgrade the suboptimal 72Hz refresh rate to 90Hz after launch. Resolution isn’t the only factor that matters — the Valve Index has the old Rift’s resolution, but its larger field of view and higher refresh rate make the screen expansive and crisp. Even with the update, the Quest 2 screen isn’t transformationally different from the Quest’s. But text is notably less grainy, and in turn, the whole experience feels more polished.

The original Oculus Quest was miserably front-heavy, and even the slimmer Quest 2 can weigh on your forehead. Its soft cloth strap almost feels like a step down, with less support and a slightly clumsier tightening mechanism. Oculus is also offering an alternate strap option, though: a padded plastic ring that rests more easily around your head and tightens with a convenient wheel at the back.

This isn’t as foolproof as some tethered headsets like the PlayStation VR. I’ll end up having one perfectly acceptable hours-long session and then another where I fidget constantly with the angle to make myself comfortable. But it’s a definite step up — my husband, who could only stand the Quest for a few minutes, got through a solid chunk of Beat Saber’s campaign mode in the Quest 2. It’s also simpler than trying to mod your Quest with a third-party accessory, since you just pop a plastic socket at each side to switch straps.

Seriously consider the alternate strap

Oculus sadly hasn’t changed my least favorite Quest feature: its use of small, directed speakers instead of headphones or earbuds. The problem isn’t the sound quality; the Quest 2 has reasonable audio, although I find it a little thin. It’s that the sound is audible to anybody in the same room, and none of my headphones work well with the headset. Wired ones need their long cords pinned behind the straps, and Oculus apparently isn’t planning wireless earbud support anytime soon — Quest 2 team lead Prabhu Parthasarathy says latency is too big an issue. Instead, Logitech is selling custom-length wired earbuds and over-ear headphones for $50 and $100, respectively.

The Quest 2 is ridiculously cheap by VR headset standards, even with its handful of upgrades. But it’s a little frustrating that Oculus isn’t including the improved strap and earbuds by default, since new headset owners won’t necessarily realize how much better their experience could be. And unlike the charger and cheap headphones that ship with smartphones, people definitely won’t have these accessories floating around their home already.

Early Quest 2 leaks prompted fears that Oculus might be ditching focus adjustment — the option to move a headset’s lenses to match different interpupillary distances, improving the experience for a wider range of users. Oculus hasn’t done this, but it’s made the adjustment process more annoying. Instead of moving a smooth slider on the headset’s underside, you have to remove it and snap the lenses to one of three distance settings, then put it back on to see the improvement. Oculus says this option will help newcomers understand what the adjustments do, but the benefit isn’t clear. And while a single user will probably just set this option and forget it, it’s a bigger issue if you’re swapping the headset between family members or across an organization.

The controllers, on the other hand, feel as good as ever. Oculus hasn’t changed the interface it established with its first-generation Touch: you’ll still get a pair of plastic remotes with a grip button and a trigger, two face buttons, and an analog stick on each one. The Quest 2’s designers reintroduced a thumb rest that was removed from the second-generation Touch, though, fixing my only complaint with the external design.

Internally, each controller still uses one AA battery, not the built-in rechargeables you’ll find in some VR controllers. Parthasarathy says this is because there’s no way of charging them that’s not awkward, although Oculus will probably transition at some point. The Quest could chew through batteries with a week or two of solid use, but Oculus promises the Quest 2 controllers have been optimized to last four times as long. While I haven’t been using it long enough to confirm that, mine indicated that they were at 90 percent power after a week of heavy use.

Oculus introduced hand tracking after the original Quest’s release, and the feature is available at launch on the Quest 2. It’s a great extra option for the home screen, letting you tweak settings or install games without bothering with the controllers. It’s also slowly being rolled out to third-party apps, including the workplace social tool Spatial — a good, low-pressure test case where you don’t need perfectly reliable fast-twitch motion.

Like the Quest’s, the Quest 2’s hand recognition is accurate, and Oculus credibly promises that it will improve over time. But gestures like pinching or turning your palm can be either accidentally triggered or fail to register, and when you’re using your hand to move a cursor, it doesn’t always point where you’d expect. So for now, it’s more of a perk than a full additional interface.

The Quest 2’s hardware, at least with the alternate strap, improves the Quest in almost every way. And its ecosystem has come a long way. The standalone Quest catalog started with around 50 titles, and Oculus promises over 200 around the Quest 2’s launch.

Standout game Beat Saber is being continuously expanded with new song downloads, most recently from Linkin Park, although its catalog remains small compared to non-VR rhythm games like Rock Band. It’s also getting a multiplayer mode and a BTS song pack this holiday. Upcoming games include Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge, created by Lucasfilm effects studio ILMxLAB; a VR installment of Sniper Elite; a Jurassic Park puzzle game called Jurassic World Aftermath; a shooter set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe; and a VR adaptation of Myst.

These games weren’t available for review, but the existing Quest catalog already includes some relatively recent gems. The Vader Immortal trilogy pairs an enjoyable story with a satisfying lightsaber training mode. The Room VR: A Dark Matter brings a more hands-on approach to the Room series’ remarkably compelling puzzles. Stealth game Phantom: Covert Ops pushes the limits of the Quest’s power and screen with a large, dark, and low-contrast world, but its clever conceit — you’re infiltrating secret bases and assassinating enemies from a kayak — easily makes up for it.

Of those current-generation titles, only Phantom is exclusive to Oculus headsets. Facebook looks to have a sizable exclusive lineup at launch, but it’s also promoting the Quest 2’s cross-platform potential. That includes upcoming battle royale game Population: One, which will be released in the fall of 2020 and features cross-play across HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, and Oculus headsets. Some of the Quest 2’s showcase apps aren’t even VR-only — like Spatial, which also supports smartphones and a desktop web app.

The Quest got a huge boost last year with Link, a feature that lets it play PC VR games with a USB-C connection. Link removed the Quest’s central sacrifice: the loss of access to particularly graphics-intensive Oculus games, third-party storefronts like SteamVR, and experiences that didn’t make it onto the Quest’s highly curated platform. In more concrete terms: it lets the Quest run Half-Life: Alyx, one of the best VR games to date.

Link has been in beta since last year, but it’s becoming an official feature around the Quest 2’s launch. While I expressed some frustration with the system this spring, it worked great with the Quest 2, in part because the official Link cable is an improvement over a much cheaper USB-C option like the Anker Powerline. (It unfortunately adds another $79 to the cost of a Quest 2.) The Link cable is significantly longer than average at five meters, and its plug is angled to sit neatly against the headset. A non-angled Anker cable would easily jiggle loose on the original Quest, although the Quest 2 also moves its USB-C port farther back on the headset, which could improve the overall experience for both. Add in the Quest 2’s improved screen, and I didn’t find myself missing the Oculus Rift. My biggest hurdle was simply getting used to a tethered headset again.

The Oculus Quest 2 retains current-generation VR’s baseline flaws: it’s grainy, bulky, and socially maladroit compared to a modern phone or laptop. VR is also best in some specific genres right now. You can find a variety of rhythm games, shooters, simulated sports like virtual boxing, and virtual worlds in which to socialize. By contrast, 360-degree video is a more sparsely populated field, despite the work of studios like Felix & Paul.

But if you’re interested in the current generation of VR games, the Quest 2 offers the best overall balance of hardware, features, and price. (Even with the upgraded strap, Link cable, and earbuds, this standalone product costs less than many PC-tethered headsets.) Its closest direct competition are business-focused headsets like the HTC Vive Focus Plus and Pico Neo 2, unless a company like Sony or Apple announces a standalone headset.

And VR developers have produced some solid anchor titles, including Beat Saber, Half-Life: Alyx, The Room VR, zombie shooter Arizona Sunshine, and social spaces like Bigscreen VR. Motion sickness can still be a problem in VR, but as developers have learned better design tricks and headset tracking has improved, it’s become easier to find experiences that don’t trigger it.

If you’ve already got a Quest, the Quest 2 isn’t a must-upgrade moment — all currently announced Quest 2 games will work with the Quest, and Facebook isn’t letting developers ship Quest 2-exclusive content at this time. But the hardware has distinct benefits. And if you’ve got an older PC-tethered headset, like an original Rift or Vive, the Quest is a big step up.

So why wouldn’t you get one? Basically, Facebook.

The Quest is the first Oculus headset to require a Facebook account, not just a standalone Oculus account. If you’re new to the platform, you’ll sign up with Facebook. If you’ve got an Oculus account, you’ll be prompted to merge your accounts.

This isn’t the sea change it might sound like. Facebook already owned all the information it collected through Oculus, including some data that’s predictable (your app usage history) and some that’s less obvious (how you draw the boundaries on your play space.) Moderators could cross-reference names and IP addresses to find a given Facebook user’s Oculus account. You can keep a separate friends list on the two platforms, and your profile still shows a VR avatar that you create. There’s no in-headset advertising or VR News Feed, although companies can target Facebook News Feed ads based on the games you play.

I merged my existing Facebook and Oculus accounts to review this headset, and my Oculus experience was exactly the same. I don’t regularly check Facebook, but based on a recent scroll through the News Feed, it’s currently trying to sell me on distance learning and Nextdoor — not the latest VR shooter.

Even so, tightening the formal links between Oculus and Facebook raises new concerns. Lots of people get accidentally suspended from Facebook, and if that happens, it’s not clear how it affects Oculus devices. The company’s new terms of use suggest you can lose access to content if you do something like make a Facebook account with a fake name, but Oculus says the details are still being worked out. Parthasarathy says Facebook is trying to strike a balance in moderation, so a brief suspension won’t nuke your Oculus library. But Facebook moderation happens on such a huge scale that individual users can get stuck in the system, and the prospect of losing access to your purchased games and hardware is a scary one.

And Facebook having the technical capacity for something is different from doing it by default. Moderators could already ban Oculus accounts for egregious Facebook violations, but that required an extra step. Facebook could theoretically link VR activity to social media accounts before, but going forward, it’s automatically adding a whole new set of data points to an already vast catalog of your behavior.

VR is an incredibly intimate and potentially invasive medium. As Road to VR outlined last month, for instance, Facebook’s invite-only Horizon social space includes the option to have a moderator invisibly surveil your conversations with another person for potential rule-breaking. This is an extension of standard gaming moderation practices — Sony and Microsoft, for instance, let you report abusive private messages. But Facebook operates at a much greater scale and has a clearer interest in analyzing and monetizing your behavior.

Also, many people may not bother with a Link cable or a gaming PC. That gives a big advantage to a subset of Oculus-approved games, which are selected not just for quality, but for perceived commercial viability. Facebook has discussed opening a less restrictive store for a wider range of apps, but it declined to offer more detail at this time, suggesting that developers build for PC if they want to experiment. That artificially limits the audience for many games that could run just fine on a mobile headset. Some social VR developers are already complaining about Facebook suppressing competition, and the Quest 2 only increases its power to set the terms of engagement — and potentially the kinds of games that headset users see.

These might seem like abstract concerns compared to the Quest 2’s concrete benefits. But the Quest 2 is the first headset I can reasonably recommend for a wide audience. Facebook’s VR head start is growing, and the coming year could set industry expectations for privacy, developer autonomy, and basic consumer-friendliness. This may not be VR’s mass-market moment, but it’s the moment to start seriously thinking about how that world might work.

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