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Facebook's standalone Oculus Go is a solid headset for VR newbies

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

The headset

For $199, the Oculus Go is a surprisingly well-designed piece of hardware that merges light gray plastics, breathable fabrics that contour to your face and spandex and mesh straps to hold it in place around head. Best of all, it weighs just over 1 lb, so wearing it for long bouts of time isn’t an issue as long as you adjust the headset straps  — a process that took me at least 20 minutes of loosening, tightening and re-loosening to find the perfect fit.

Go sports a 5.5-inch LCD screen with 1080p visual quality and new optical lenses that enable the same wide field of view offered by previous Oculus headsets, but with reduced glare. There’s also a controller, powered by a AA battery, with a small circular trackpad to swipe in different directions, a trigger button, a Back Button and Home button. Meanwhile, sound is pumped out through two small speakers on the left and right side of the headset.

Under the hood: a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 mobile chip which first debuted in 2016. It’s hardly cutting-edge in the graphics department (more on that later), but given the headset’s price and cord-free nature, we weren’t expecting anywhere near PlayStation 4-level eye candy here, and you shouldn’t either. That said, if the Nintendo Switch has proven anything, it’s that the absolute latest computing and graphics chips aren’t necessary to offer up some compelling entertainment. Translation: it’s the software that can make or break a hardware device.

The software

With over 1,000 apps and games at launch, Go already has a large selection for users to choose from — some new, others not-so-much. Many of them are casual “snack”-type experiences people can grok in a few minutes. A space shooter called “Anshar Wars 2” is probably one of the better examples of VR on Go. Best played while standing, users steer their ship by pivoting their head, while controlling and shooting enemies with the controller. It takes a little getting used to — particularly steering your ship by moving your head — but it’s a fully-immersive 360-degree experience that shows a little ingenuity on the developer’s part.

“Face Your Fears,” a series of horror gaming vignettes, also proved compelling. Each short episode capitalizes on a particular scenario gone horribly awry, like a plane flight or a romantic date. They’re short, mostly lean-back affairs, but oddly memorable.  

Less enthralling were games like “Coaster Combat,” which has players shooting items while riding a roller coaster through virtual environments that wouldn’t look out of place on a PlayStation 2. (Indeed, what were supposed to be boulders on one level looked like simple blocks of virtual geometry covered in muddy brown textures.) I also noticed some weird graphical issues where some of the mountains in the background shimmered. Ultimately, the game was fun for the first 10 minutes, but forgettable.

Another potentially good use case for Go? Streaming movies and TV series through Go’s Netflix and Hulu apps. Watching the first two episodes of Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” vaguely felt like watching TV on an 80-inch flat screen. Eventually, I realized I actually wouldn’t mind having something like Go, well on-the-go, in my hotel when I travel. It sure beats streaming movies or TV on my 13-inch MacBook Pro.  

That battery life

Go may be cord-free, but only for short bouts of time. According to Oculus, users can expect to get between 1.5-2 hours of gaming and 2-2.5 hours of watching video in-between charges, and in my own testing — a mix of gaming and streaming video — I hit just under 2 hours before my headset prompted me to charge it back up.

To be fair, recharging Go took significantly less than the advertised 3 hours Oculus says it takes to juice back up to 100%. But throughout my time using the headset, I found myself frequently wishing I could eek out at least another hour or two. If VR is all about creating a deeply immersive experience, I found Go’s short, problematic battery life often pulled me out of it.

A headset for newbies

Some will knock Go for its drawbacks. Its graphics can be blocky and dated-looking depending on the game, and battery life is definitely on the shorter side. But it does just enough right to be a compelling entry-level VR headset, and at an appealing price point, to boot.

VR veterans will probably look the other way, but they’re obviously not the target demographic with the entry-level Go. And once Go users get seasoned enough so they crave deeper VR experiences? Well, there’s the $399 Rift to upgrade to. Which, let’s face it, was Facebook (FB) and Oculus’s goal with Go all along.

3.5 out of 5

That price point
Solid, lightweight design
Some compelling VR content

Adjusting the headset to fit just right takes a while
Short battery life
Needs more compelling VR content

JP Mangalindan is the Chief Tech Correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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