Virtual reality (VR) is slated to be the big new tech in 2016: you’ll actually be able to buy an Oculus Rift and play VR games at home. But while you may be prepared for the high price of the headset, you might not realise you need a mightily powerful PC to use one.
(For those wanting to try VR on a budget, see our guide on making your own smartphone VR headset with Google Cardboard.)
Best PCs for VR – recommended specifications
Until very recently, even PC builders didn’t know exactly what the minimum requirements were for VR gaming. But now that Nvidia has announced its ‘VR Ready’ program, buyers will be able to look out for the label to be reassured that the laptop, graphics card or PC they’re buying will be able to cope with the demands of VR gaming.
Most people don’t realise that VR games require seven times the graphics power of normal 3D games. This is because the graphics card has to deliver two different high-resolution images to both eyes at 90 per second.
If your PC struggles to play games at 1920×1080 – the minimum is considered 30 frames per second – then it’s not going to cope with running an Oculus Rift which has two 1680×1512 screens, especially if you want 90fps.
The HTC Vive’s specs aren’t confirmed, but it’s said to have 1080×1200 pixels for each eye.
So what hardware do you need?
If you’re talking about a PC, it will need to have the following specifications (or better) to drive an Oculus Rift and produce a ‘great experience’:
- Nvidia GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 graphics card
- HDMI 1.3 output
- 2x USB 3.0
- Intel Core i5-4590 (or equivalent)
- 8GB of RAM
- Windows 7 SP1 or later
These are not minimum requirements, but recommended specs. You may be able to get away with a less powerful CPU, for example, but it’s inadvisable to do so as developers are also working with these specifications to ensure games run well. And if you’re going to spend a lot on a VR headset, you really need to have a computer that’s powerful enough to run it.
(See also our comparison: GTX 970 vs Radeon R9 290X)
If you’re buying a laptop, then Nvidia says you’ll need a GTX 980 or better. Again, note that this is not a GTX 980M, but a full-fat 980. Few laptops have this desktop-class GPU yet, and you’re unlikely to find one for less than £2000.
Also, bear in mind that most laptops’ HDMI outputs are connected to the on-board Intel graphics and not the discrete Nvidia or AMD GPU. So if you are buying a laptop for VR use, make sure it has a compatible HDMI 1.3 output that’s actually coming from the separate graphics chip.
How much does a VR PC cost?
If you’re buying a new PC, it’s going to set you back around £1500 and that’s without a monitor. However, that’s with top-end components. You can get a PC (also without a monitor) that meets the recommended Nvidia / Oculus requirements for around £800. But when you start adding SSDs, extra hard drives, better sound cards and other components you’re likely to want, expect to pay £1000.
But if you’re upgrading your current PC, you may only need a new graphics card if your other components are those on the recommended list, or are already higher in spec.
A GTX 970 will set you back around £270, but it’s much harder to find the older Radeon 290 which is now superseded by the 390, which costs around the same.
If you want to go for something more future-proof, a GTX 980 costs around £410 while the even more powerful 980 Ti costs at least £500, rising to around £650 for overclocked versions.
AMD’s Radeon R9 380X is roughly as powerful as a GTX 980, but you can find these a little cheaper at around £350.
RAM is currently cheap, so 8GB can cost as little as £30, which means it’s sensible to go for 16GB if you can. That’s DDR3 pricing of course. DDR4 is a bit more expensive, at around £45 for 8GB.
The CPU isn’t cheap: an i5-4590 will set you back £160, but you’ll need a motherboard and cooler if your current components won’t accept an LGA1150 processor.
The bottom line is that a VR-ready PC or laptop isn’t cheap, but a PC is certainly the best option: it’s cheaper and upgradeable. Laptops, or more precisely laptop graphics, aren’t upgradeable, so unless you specifically need a portable VR gaming setup, buy a PC.