Build­ing a VR Ready PC

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To­day’s VR kits aren’t ex­actly cheap, with a min­i­mum cost of around $1100 for Aus­tralians, but there’s an­other, hid­den cost – the PC re­quired to run it.

You see, VR needs to run games at ex­tremely high re­fresh rates/frame rates of 90fps, all on a screen that is 2160 x 1200. In case you didn’t know, that’s damn de­mand­ing. De­vel­op­ers of the first range of VR games have over­come this is­sue in two ways: firstly, HTC and Ocu­lus have put in place rel­a­tively de­mand­ing hard­ware min­i­mum specs, which we’ll look at in a minute. Se­condly, the first round of VR games all have ex­tremely min­i­mal­is­tic graph­ics styles. We’re talk­ing low res­o­lu­tion tex­tures (if tex­tures are used at all – some games just use flat colours), low de­tail en­vi­ron­ments, and over­all low poly­gon counts. There are games on the orig­i­nal PlayS­ta­tion that out­shine the cur­rent crop of VR ti­tles.

There are a few VR games that are sim­ply con­verted 2D games, but to run them in VR with the min­i­mum specs re­quires drop­ping the graph­ics op­tions dra­mat­i­cally. If you want to run them the way the devs in­tended, you’re gonna need se­ri­ous grunt.

This is go­ing to be­come even more of a prob­lem as we see VR games ma­ture. Right now the vast ma­jor­ity are quite sim­plis­tic, short demos with sim­ple graph­ics that on the rely on tech­nol­ogy's nov­elty to re­main in­ter­est­ing. But as VR de­vel­ops, we’re go­ing to start to see much more am­bi­tious games with more de­tailed, life­like char­ac­ters and en­vi­ron­ments.

We’ve al­ready seen this in early pre­views of the next gen­er­a­tion of VR games. For ex­am­ple, The Un­spo­ken from in­Fa­mous de­vel­oper In­som­niac Games fea­tures a level of de­tail far in ex­cess of to­day’s VR games, yet is ap­par­ently due later this year. No won­der it was run­ning on a PC with a GeForce GTX 1080. This is­sue of in­creas­ing hard­ware de­mands will be­come ex­ac­er­bated when the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of VR head­sets drop, prob­a­bly some­time in 2017, be­cause they’ll sport 4K screens. So to re­ally fu­ture­proof your PC for VR, you’re go­ing to need some­thing that can run 4K at 90Hz – OUCH.

With that in mind, let’s look at what will do for now, and what will be VR proof for the next cou­ple of years. Get your credit card ready – you're gonna need it.


Cur­rently both the HTC Vive and Ocu­lus Rift Con­sumer Ver­sion 1 have ex­tremely sim­i­lar hard­ware re­quire­ments in nearly ever re­gard. This be­gins with the CPU, with both com­pa­nies rec­om­mend­ing an In­tel i5-4590 ($289) or AMD FX 8350 ($248) or bet­ter as the base line CPU. How­ever, we’d go a step up to the In­tel Core i5 6600 ($315), which has a 3.9GHz Turbo Speed com­pared to the 3.5GHz Turbo speed of the 4590. Hav­ing said that, VR is much more re­liant upon the GPU than the CPU, but spend­ing an ex­tra $20 is easy to jus­tify.


This de­pends on whether you’re go­ing Ocu­lus or HTC. HTC only re­quires a sin­gle USB 2.0 port or bet­ter, while Ocu­lus is much more de­mand­ing. To run the Rift you’re go­ing to need a min­i­mum of 3x USB 3.0 ports plus 1x USB 2.0 port. Youch. For many peo­ple this is go­ing to re­quire a moth­er­board up­grade, or at the very least a new PCIe card that adds ex­tra USB ports, which can be picked up for around $20.


It’s here that the only ma­jor dif­fer­ence in the specs be­tween the Vive and Rift ex­ist. The Vive needs just 4GB of mem­ory, while the Rift dou­bles this to 8GB. How­ever, RAM is so cheap th­ese days that we’d again sug­gest go­ing above the base­line and get­ting 16GB. It won’t just help for VR, it’ll also make your PC bet­ter at mul­ti­task­ing.


It’s here that things get… icky. Once again the rec­om­mended specs for the Vive and Rift are ba­si­cally iden­ti­cal, with the min­i­mum spec be­ing an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or Radeon R9 290 ($240) or bet­ter. AMD is tack­ling this mar­ket with it’s new “af­ford­able” Radeon RX 480 ($369) but at this price in Aus­tralia, it’s worse value than Nvidia’s com­pet­ing GeForce GTX 1060 ($320), which is ap­prox­i­mately 10-15% faster in most ap­pli­ca­tions.

AMD claims there will be 200 mil­lion VR head­sets in con­sumer’s hands by 2020, which we think is op­ti­mistic to say the least, and they want the RX 480 to power most of th­ese. We’ve tested the 480 with most of to­day’s VR games, and it does a fine job… to a point. Fire up a de­mand­ing game like Project Cars or Elite: Dan­ger­ous, then crank the de­tail set­tings up, and per­for­mance dives well be­low the 90Hz re­quired for a com­fort­able view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Even the GeForce GTX 1060 doesn’t have the horse­power re­quired to run more de­tailed games in VR mode.

We’re go­ing to go out on a limb here and sug­gest Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 1070. Yes, it’s crazily ex­pen­sive with the cheapest one be­ing $639, but it’s the only card we think that can han­dle the next gen­er­a­tion of VR games with ease. A huge plus Nvidia has over AMD with VR is its Si­mul­ta­ne­ous Multi-Pro­jec­tion (SMP) tech­nol­ogy, some­thing that AMD lacks. In­stead of hav­ing to ren­der the scene twice, once for each eye, it sim­ply puts two in-game cam­eras into the scene. This can im­prove VR per­for­mance by be­tween 50% and 100% in best case sce­nar­ios, mak­ing Nvidia the card to have for se­ri­ous VR ex­pe­ri­ences.


As you can see, to­day’s min­i­mum specs re­ally are that – a bare min­i­mum. They’re fine for the tech demos mas­querad­ing as games found in the SteamVR and Ocu­lus Stores, but once we start sto see real, AAA, de­tailed VR games, run­ning on higher res­o­lu­tion head­set, the per­for­mance bar is go­ing to go through the roof. You can buy cheaply enough now to run the ba­sic games of to­day, but we sug­gest spend­ing that $500 ex­tra to en­sure your VR ma­chine is good for at least an­other cou­ple of years.


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