Building or upgrading a PC that you want to use with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or other virtual reality headset, but not sure which video card to buy? We're here to help.
The Right Amount of Power for VR
Decades after the 1992 flick The Lawnmower Man got our hopes up (and the ill-fated Nintendo Virtual Boy dashed them a few years later, while making some users dizzy and nauseated), virtual reality (VR) is finally happening in a big way. (Really, this time.)
The simplistic (though still impressive) Google Cardboard platform and Samsung's Gear VR have both been available since 2014. And Google's updated Daydream View landed in late 2016, upping the sophistication and comfort factor, while delivering a more robust platform for developers. These modest VR setups have you strap your smartphone into a viewer fitted with lenses, allowing your phone to become both the screen and the graphics-rendering device charged with creating an immersive world.
But while Gear VR and Google Cardboard are impressive devices for what they are, the screens on most smartphones just don't pack enough pixels to deliver a sharp image a few inches from your face. And today's smartphone graphics chips aren't really up to the task of rendering complex 3D worlds with high-resolution textures. It's tough to feel truly immersed in a virtual world when you're staring at a grainy screen, blocky text, and distant mountains that look pixelated.
Those who want their virtual reality to look a little more, well, real, will be more interested in more powerful headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, orHTC Vive Pro. These require a fairly powerful PC to create lush environments right in front of your eyes.
The Vive and Rift have surprisingly similar core specs.
Both have an effective resolution of 2,160 by 1,200 (1,080 by 1,200 pixels per eye) and a refresh rate of 90Hz. And both use OLED screens for rich blacks and vivid colors, just like Samsung's high-end phones and tablets.
The Vive Pro, meanwhile, has an even higher resolution. Dual 3.5-inch 1,440-by-1,600 AMOLED screens drive the its display system, for an effective resolution of 2,880 by 1,200. But it sports the same 90Hz refresh rate and 110-degree viewing angle of the original Vive's screens. The result is a significantly sharper picture with a remarkably high density of 615 pixels per inch.
Finally, there are a handful of so-called "mixed reality" headsets, which still let you see the real world while you're wearing them. This category of devices includes the Samsung HMD Odyssey, which has the same resolution and refresh rate as the Vive Pro, and the Dell Visor, with dual 1,440-by-1,440 screens and a 90Hz refresh rate.
What Your VR PC Needs
If you're putting together a gaming PCnow to use with one of these headsets, or updating your existing system to make sure it's ready for VR, just what will you need? The short answer: quite a bit of graphics muscle.
The resolutions of these headsets aren't exactly ground-breaking, especially for those already gaming at the much higher resolution of 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels). But the 90Hz refresh rate that VR headsets demand means your games will have to be running at or close to 90 frames per second (fps), or higher, to look as smooth as they should. And don't underestimate that: Smoothness matters a lot more in VR than it does in traditional gaming, because juddering and screen tearing while you're moving your head around in a virtual world may cause dizziness and nausea.
Hardware requirements for the Vive include an Intel Core i5-4590 or an AMD FX-8350 or better processor. In general, that means any recent-model Core i5 or Core i7 desktop CPU, such as the Intel Core i7-7700K, or AMD's Ryzen 7 CPUsshould be more than sufficient. Given the similarity of the screens in the Vive and the Rift, it's no surprise that Oculus' published minimum recommendations for the Rift include the same Intel CPU suggestions. You'll also want 16GB or more of RAM, and at least a GeForce GTX 1060 from Nvidia—the GTX 1050 and 1050 Ti won't cut it—or an AMD Radeon RX 480 or newer Vega card. And if you don't want to be regularly standing in virtual darkness waiting for your game's levels to load, we'd strongly recommend opting for a solid-state drive (SSD) in any VR-ready system, as well.
Opt for Extra GPU Grunt
As with any gaming-focused PC build, it's the graphics card that's the most important component. And if you're strapped for cash, the abovementioned cards should deliver playable performance for the first flagship VR titles.
But given that these cards are recommended minimum specs, it's likely that a system built around one of them won't run all games at the highest detail settings. And if you're building a system specifically for VR, you may want the games to look as good as possible while making sure there's some performance overhead so that your system can play VR titles that haven't hit the market yet.
For that, you'll want a more powerful graphics card. Traditionally, those looking for the best possible gaming performance have often opted for a multi-card setup with two or more high-end GPUs. You could do that for VR. But the roster of virtual reality titles that properly support SLI (Nvidia) or CrossFire (AMD) multi-card configurations is very small. This, combined with the frame timing and other issues that can crop up in general with multi-card setups, makes a single powerful graphics card your best bet for smooth VR at the moment.
Currently, high-end consumer cards are the top-end GeForce GTX 1080 Ti and now second-tier GeForce GTX 1080 from Nvidia, along with the AMD Radeon RX Vega 64. If these top-enders are out of your price range, but you're still looking for something that's a step above the VR GPU baseline, a good middle-ground card is the GeForce GTX 1070.
Or you could get the most popular VR headset we haven't mentioned yet. Sony's PlayStation VR has lower resolution than the Rift, Vive, and mixed reality sets, but a smooth 120Hz refresh rate. Unfortunately, it only works with the PlayStation 4 console, not with PCs.
If you're working with a smaller case and looking to save some space, check out our roundup of the best graphics cards for compact PCs. And complete your custom build with one of the top M.2 solid-state drives and one of these best CPUs for gaming.