Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
One year ago today, Facebook released the Oculus Quest, its first headset to deliver a credible standalone VR experience — true head tracking, good motion controllers, and so on. It also marked a split in the Oculus ecosystem: the Quest had its own store, curated with games that had been tailored specifically for the headset’s low-powered mobile hardware.
At the time, that made it somewhat of a limited product. “As an Oculus Rift owner, I’m deeply tempted by the Quest,” Adi Robertson wrote in our review. “I’d love having a self-contained headset with all of the Rift’s core features and none of its wires. I just wish I didn’t have to pick between a design I love and the games I want to play.”
A year into the Quest’s life cycle, that’s no longer a compromise you have to make. Some of its limitations remain, of course, but Facebook has done a remarkable job of expanding the $399 Quest’s capabilities. Upon release, the Oculus lineup was simple to explain: buy a Rift S if you want to play PC VR games, buy a Quest if you want standalone convenience. Now, though, the Quest does almost everything the Rift S does — and more. The only problem is that it’s near-impossible to find one.
The Oculus Quest is still, first and foremost, a standalone VR system that works more or less like a game console. It boots up quickly, and other than pairing it with a smartphone app upon initial setup, everything you do with the headset happens within the VR interface. The original UI was organized in a confusing way, but a recent update has made the Quest much easier to navigate. The Quest is far easier to set up than any other VR system, and it’s a lot more convenient to use than anything involving wires.
As a standalone system, the Quest’s biggest limitation at launch was its store, which carried only a fraction of the titles available for the Oculus Rift on PC. Part of that was and is to do with the Quest’s low power. Its Snapdragon 835 smartphone processor was a couple of generations out of date even when the headset launched, so ambitious Rift titles like Lone Echo would always have been a stretch. The library was further restricted by Oculus adopting a stricter curation policy for the Quest store, which made it more difficult for indie developers to get their games published.
That’s still the case today, but the Quest store is in a much better state than it was a year ago. Major VR titles like Tetris Effect and Arizona Sunshine have since come to the store, while recent hits like Pistol Whip and The Room VR have launched day-and-date on the Quest with cross-buy support for the Rift included. Just as a quick point of reference, 11 out of 13 games in our holiday recommendations are now available in the Quest store, and the two that aren’t are a PlayStation VR demo and an optional Nintendo Labo mode.
As you’d expect, there are major compromises involved in bringing some of the more advanced PC VR titles to the Quest, given that it’s essentially running the same hardware as a Galaxy S8 from 2017. Some games, like Epic’s Robo Recall, look particularly rough. But others make the transition seamlessly. VR games need to be run at high frame rates, so many of the most popular titles use fairly simple graphics even on PC, which means the likes of Beat Saber, Space Pirate Trainer, and Superhot look great on the Quest’s sharp, punchy OLED screens.
The graphical trade-offs are real, but they don’t matter as much as they used to. Late last year, a new feature called Oculus Link let you use the Quest as a PC VR headset over USB 3.0 cables. This month, Oculus expanded the feature to support USB 2.0 cables, too, including the USB-C charging cable that comes with the Quest. If you already had a Quest, you basically got a PC VR headset for free. If you didn’t, your options are now headsets that only work with PCs or one that works with PCs and is also a great standalone platform in its own right.
As a PC headset, the Quest isn’t quite as smooth to use as a Rift. Once you plug the USB-C cable in, you need to confirm that you want to switch to Oculus Link mode from within the Quest headset, which is an extra put-on-take-off step if you were planning on launching your game from the Oculus Windows app. Steam VR can also complicate matters further, though no more so than with other Oculus headsets in my experience.
Generally, Oculus Link works great, at least with the no-brand $9 3-meter USB 3.0 cable I ordered off Amazon to use it with. The video feed is compressed to fit into USB bandwidth, but it’s only very slightly noticeable in dark scenes — of which something like Half-Life: Alyx has more than a few — and it’s generally imperceptible otherwise. As someone who owned an original Rift and Vive, I don’t see it as much of a downgrade considering how much more convenient the setup is.