Oculus Go: The Best Mobile VR That Doesn’t Even Need a Phone
Experienced VR gamers will be disappointed by the software selection and lack of positional tracking, but for watching videos the Oculus Go is astounding. With a higher resolution than PC VR headsets, and sheer convenience of being able to wear the device anywhere, we're very close to calling this a must-buy.
The Oculus Go is a standalone VR headset with better optics than its PC VR brethren. Lacking positional tracking and with only a single basic controller, it’s certainly not perfect. But it does have one astounding feature: the price. At just $200 for the 32GB model, is this the first “mobile” class VR headset actually worth buying? Read on to find out, and to celebrate the launch, we’re giving one away at the end of this review!
Oculus Go Specifications
- CPU / RAM: Snapdragon 821 + 3 GB RAM
- Per-eye resolution: 1280 x 1440 pixels
- Optics: custom fresnel lenses
- Launch price: $199 for 32GB, $249 for 64GB
- Tracking: 3DOF (rotation only, not positional tracking)
- Controller: 1 wireless remote, with 3DOF plus accelerometer tracking
- Audio: Built-in audio output and 3.5mm stereo jack
- Connectivity: Bluetooth / Wi-Fi / micro-USB
- Battery Life: 2.5 hours
- Weight: 468 grams
- No charger included
From face-on, you’ll find the audio jack and micro-USB port on the right, with power/standby and volume rocker on the top.
The base model ships with 32GB, which isn’t a huge amount of storage space, but you can manage files easily using the USB connection to a PC, or add additional storage using a micro-USB drive (yes, those are a thing). There is no MicroSD card slot, however. The micro-USB port is also used for charging, though no charger is supplied. I actually commend Oculus for not adding to global e-waste on unnecessary accessories, given the sheer abundance of USB chargers we likely all have.
The Go features a stretchy fabric strap that can be easily pulled over the back of your head. It’s less effective than the rigid head strap provided on the Rift, but does the job.
For Chinese readers and anyone else wondering why there’s a Xiaomi logo on the side: the Oculus Go is manufactured by Xiaomi, but Xiaomi is also making their own “Mi VR Standalone” branded version of the Oculus Go exclusively for the Chinese market. It’ll support the Oculus SDK for developers to bring over Oculus Store content if they want, but won’t directly feature access to the Oculus Store.
So It’s Basically a GearVR, Minus the Phone?
The problem with standalone mobile VR is that it generally requires a pricey mobile phone to be slotted into an awful plastic case. The result is frustrating at best. The best of the bunch has always been the Oculus / Samsung GearVR, which pairs a nice set of optics with a high resolution mobile device like the Samsung Galaxy series. But that’s $99 for the GearVR case, plus at least $500 for a mobile device to put it.
The Oculus Go is essentially an all-in-one GearVR, then. By building it as a standalone device, Oculus is able to handle heat dissipation more efficiently, which contributes to better performance, longer battery life, and less danger of things exploding on your face .
So why is the Oculus Go so cheap? Perhaps the aim is to lock you into their platform and control the entire ecosystem. That’s always been the Apple way, and now it’s the FacebOculus way. The Oculus Store is not officially open to other headsets, either for desktop or mobile. A third-party hack called ReVive can be used to play Oculus games on the Vive, and there was a time when Oculus went out of their way to break it, before quickly retreating after public condemnation. The mobile store is even more of a walled garden. Only Oculus devices have access to that.
This isn’t necessarily a bad approach: it allows for a high degree of quality control. You only need to look at the vast numbers of shovelware VR apps on the Android store to see what can happen otherwise.
Setup: Requires a Phone?!
In a strange move for a device that features Wi-Fi, you’ll actually need a phone in order to set it up. Since it’s marketed as a standalone, all-in-one headset, this is a little disconcerting, and it’s never entirely explained why this requirement is there.
The Oculus Go connects via Bluetooth to your phone, and appears to be mostly be a storefront, allowing you to purchase games and apps which then automatically download to your device. You can also enable camera roll access to view photos and videos through the Go.
The optical quality of VR displays is difficult to quantify, so the best I can do is to compare to an Oculus Rift.
Field of view (FOV) feels about the same, but the lenses have been engineered to provide a slightly larger sweet spot. I noticed less “god rays” (blurry white streaks from high contrast content) than the Rift, but they’re still present. To my eyes, there was very little screen door effect, if not none at all.
The precise metrics of the screen and lenses don’t matter though, frankly. Once you’re immersed in content, the minutiae of any optical differences between headsets tend to fade away. The higher resolution is certainly appreciated for movie watching and general clarity, however.
For those who wear glasses, the Oculus Go includes a spacer. Large frames won’t fit at all, similar to the Rift. Smaller frames will fit without the spacer, but you might want to use it anyway so as not to scratch the lenses. Custom lens inserts are also included, allowing you to purchase prescription lenses separately at a later date.
Remember: if you’re long-sighted, you shouldn’t actually need to wear your glasses in VR due to the far focal distance. Only short-sighted folks like myself need to keep those on in VR, at least on the current crop of headsets.
The Oculus Go includes a single basic 3DOF motion controller, featuring a limited array of buttons and a touchpad. It’s nowhere near as ergonomic as the Touch controllers for Rift, and really lacks the ability to represent your hand(s) virtually. It’s functional for navigating menus, though, and to some extent casual gaming. But the lack of accurately represented virtual hands is a tough sell for anyone accustomed to having them.
The position of a pronounced back button just beneath the trackpad was also quite irritating, as I found it was all too easy to accidentally press in games like UltraWings where touching the bottom of the trackpad is need to decrease the throttle.
For a better gaming experience, Microsoft Xbox Controller or the Steel series are also supported, but only newer Bluetooth versions. The Xbox controller supplied in the original (Touch-less) Rift package is not compatible, since it requires an additional dongle for communications.
3DOF Means You Can’t Move Around
I’ve already heard some confusion among fellow writers here, who were under the impression the Oculus Go would let you move around the room, just like you can with the Rift. So it’s likely many of you are thinking that too. Sadly, this isn’t the case. You should remain seated or lying down to use the Oculus Go: there no positional tracking. The headset only knows the rotation of your head. So you can look around, but not lean forward, side-to-side, or duck down.
Higher end PC-based headsets have a number of sensors to track their physical location. HTC Vive has Lighthouses in the corner of the room that scan laser beams, which are then picked up by the headset and controllers. The Oculus Rift uses external cameras to watch the infrared LEDs. PlayStation VR uses a standard webcam to watch some colored LEDs. Windows Mixed Reality headsets have a novel approach with cameras on the front of the headset which observe the surroundings and controller locations. Oculus Go has none of that.
Is this such a terrible thing? Perhaps, if you’ve already experienced the superior PC headsets. But not if you’re new to VR entirely. Let’s not forget that the original Oculus Rift Developer Kit 1 had no positional tracking either. We were still blown away by the experiences we had on that.
There are in fact some mobile untethered headsets that do offer positional tracking, but they’re substandard in many other ways. Ultimately, it’s the entire experience that matters, no one particular aspect of it. As a package, the Oculus Go delivers.
If being able to move around and play room scale experiences on a standalone device is important to you, wait for Santa Cruz sometime next year, and expect a significantly higher price point.
Everyone Can Hear You
The Oculus Go includes built-in audio, but not headphones. Confused? It’s more like a mobile phone with stereo speakers, and a plastic cavity to direct that sound toward your ears. It’s sufficient to sit at home and lie in bed, but you wouldn’t want to turn up the volume too much in public. Everyone around you will hear the audio too.
In terms of audio quality: it’s ok, but obviously lacks bass. It feels like a good compromise between full on headphones and the sort of audio you’d expect from a mobile phone. For general use, it’s fine, but I wouldn’t want to watch a full length movie with these. I’d recommend pairing it with the Flexound HUMU vibrating pillow for the best in-bed movie watching experience.
Of course, you can also pair your own wireless speakers or headphones, or wired through the audio jack.
The Oculus Go Software Library
Unlike the Oculus Rift, which also has access to the vast array of SteamVR games and those on the Oculus Store, the Oculus Go only gets Oculus Store content – and even that’s a different library entirely to that available on desktop.
It’s the same library of content available to the GearVR, and the truth is that most of the gaming apps are a bit… rubbish. Minecraft is the notable GearVR title that’s not compatible with the Oculus Go at launch, though I’d expect this to be updated shortly.
My favourite game so far? Smash Hit ($2.99): a surreal on-rails shooter where you throw balls to smash crystals and glass obstacles. Early levels feel almost meditative, while later stages see the environment fight back.
I also really enjoyed Coaster Combat (Free), another on-rails shooter from Oculus Studios that has you collecting gems as you travel along various roller coasters. The snow level is particularly intense, and roller coasters in general are always a fun VR demo experience. There’s only 5 tracks, but this makes for a great short demo.
For a more complete list of the best Oculus mobile games, check out this r/Oculus wiki page.
Some highlights of non-gaming apps:
- AltSpaceVR, a social chat app, though it’s really more than the sum of its parts. The app enables users from around the world to get together, chat, or play games like Cards Against Humanity or Dungeons and Dragons, in a shared space.
- BigScreen, a screen sharing social app. While Go users aren’t able to broadcast anything, they are able to join public and private rooms of others broadcasting from desktop version. The main use is to watch movies together, or watch others gaming.
- Virtual Desktop is similar, but promises a rather unique feature: the ability to remotely access your PC desktop over the local network or internet.
Virtual Cinemas, and The Killer App: Plex
Video apps are abundant: you’ll find official clients for Netflix and Hulu; Oculus Videos for playing Facebook 360 experiences; Skybox VR for playing back local VR video files that you’ve transferred over USB; Amaze, featuring curated 4K 360 videos; and more.
The one notable exception is YouTube. You can access YouTube through the built-in browser, but it’s sluggish, far from ideal, and you’ll likely just want to avoid it altogether.
Why Buy the Oculus Go?
If you’re thinking the Oculus Go will be the perfect entry point to VR gaming, it’s not. Not even remotely. This is mobile VR first and foremost, and nothing about that is comparable to desktop VR. The Oculus Rift remains the cheapest entry point to “proper” VR gaming, and requires tethering to a reasonably specced PC to get the most out of the experiences on offer.
Given the lack of positional tracking and decent motion controllers, the Oculus Go is really only suited to 360 videos and virtual cinema experiences. Don’t get me wrong though: it’s really rather good at those. In fact, with a resolution that’s higher than PC counterparts and no need to stay tethered, it’s much better for VR movie watching than any other headset at the moment. And it’s only $200.
You can actually have a half-decent gaming experience too if you pair an Xbox controller, but again, it’s an issue of perspective. For those experienced with PC VR gaming, you’ll miss the room scale experience. For those who have never experienced VR before, you’ll be blown away.
Did I mention it’s only $200? The Oculus Go is a steal: cheap enough to be an impulse buy. It’s not the best overall VR headset by any means; nor is it supposed to be. It’s not even comparable to a PC gaming setup with the Rift or Vive. But it’s a fantastic entry point that’s going to get semi-decent VR to an awful lot of people. Oculus isn’t trying to innovate hardware with the Go: they’re bringing people into the VR fold. That’s an awesome thing.