Building a VR Ready PC
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.
THE ONLY CARD WE THINK THAT CAN HANDLE THE NEXT GENERATION OF VR GAMES WITH EASE