Bill Roberson / Digital Trends
It's been a couple of years since the VR renaissance started, and it looks good for VR. HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have now been updated to the Cosmos and Rift S, respectively, while Sony's PlayStation VR is an excellent entry point for console gamers and there are hundreds of VR titles in the Steam Store alone. VR is growing, but some steep entry barriers keep interested enthusiasts from taking the plunge.
The biggest barrier is simple: price. PC games are an expensive hobby, and VR costs an additional $ 300 to $ 700, depending on what you buy. However, there are some easy ways to save: the secret is to build the right PC for your VR system cheaply, and we know how to do it.
We won't go step by step through assembling your system, but read our suggestions below to see what you need to get started with PC-based VR.
Bare bones: headset
First, let's look at the minimum you need for your VR build. We'll try to stay away from certain prices for this guide because hardware prices go up and down so often, but when it comes to headsets, we can be a bit clearer: the latest HTC Vive Cosmos starts at $ 700 Rift S costs 400 U.S. dollar.
As you can see, the prices of the headsets in the latest generation have been very different. In a way, they're similar (both now use internal sensors so you don't have to set up external trackers, for example). If you're working on a budget, the Rift S is of course a better option to save money. However, there is a catch: due to manufacturing and shipping difficulties, Oculus no longer sells the Rift S. This is not a permanent requirement, but if you want one, you need to sign up for Oculus notifications and prepare for them. Otherwise, the Cosmos is still available at this time, but at a higher price.
Bare bones: GPU
Next we need a PC and this is where it gets difficult. Should you choose a prefabricated machine or build one yourself? This question is not easy to answer at the moment. So let's take a look at what hardware you want to look for in any case, no matter which way you go.
The most important part of your VR rig next to your VR headset is the graphics card. This is the component that does most of the heavy lifting when you play games in or outside of VR. In addition to the headset, it will also be the most expensive component. There is a shortage in the graphics card market at the moment, so graphics cards are more expensive than they should be – you should carefully consider which card you want to work with. We compared a handful of high-end, mid-range and entry-level graphics cards to VRMark to help you make the decision.
When we put together a performance guide, we usually try to stick to actual performance in the game, but VR is a special case. VR games are not designed for ultra-fast frame rates, but only need to maintain 90 fps in both head-mounted displays in your VR headset. This is because the refresh rate of the internal displays is usually set to 80 to 90 Hz depending on the model. VR games and experiences will do everything they can to maintain a constant speed of 80 to 90 fps to keep things looking smooth. Peaks that are too high or too low can have an uncomfortable effect on the experience. Usually a simple old nausea. So let's look at the numbers.
Each score here represents the performance of a graphics card in the VR benchmarks. The Orange Room is the simplest benchmark, the Cyan Room the intermediate benchmark and the Blue Room the most demanding. What we're looking for is a graphics card that performs well in the Orange Room and scores a decent score in the Cyan Room. These two benchmarks best represent the entry-level and mid-range graphics that we're aiming for. In a perfect world, we only recommend the graphics card with the best performance. However, this is not a guide to building the most expensive VR rig. Satisfaction is a concern here.
As a reference, a score of 5,000 in the Orange Room is considered a passed grade for most VR experiences. The score is 3,088 for the more sophisticated Cyan Room and only 1,082 for the high-end 5K Blue Room. We are looking for a couple of graphics cards that reach at least 5,000 in the Orange Room and almost pass by in the Cyan Room.
If we look at our results here, it means that we recommend the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060, AMD Radeon RX 570 and RX 580 cards. All three of these graphics cards received top marks in the Orange Room and in the Cyan Room. The GTX 1060 and RX 580 passed all three benchmarks, so they should be our top competitors.
Bare bones: CPU and RAM
Intel Newsroom / Intel Corporation
Your CPU and RAM are also important, but with regard to these two components, you should consider how to avoid bottlenecks. With 32 GB of RAM and a top-class AMD Ryzen Threadripper, this will not affect your performance as much as with a powerful GPU. For your CPU and RAM, you should follow the hardware recommendations for the Oculus Rift pretty closely. This means at least one 7th generation Intel Core i5 processor – such as an i5-7500 – or an Intel Core i3-8100, which roughly corresponds to the processor i5-4590 recommended by Oculus. Plus at least 8 GB of RAM, although increasing it to 16 GB in the future would not be a bad idea.
For the Core i3-8100 processor, you will likely see around $ 120 and maybe $ 70 to $ 100 for the RAM. As already mentioned, pricing for PC components is currently somewhat complicated.
Buy, not build
Bill Roberson / Digital Trends
That's true. Based on the current state of the GPU prices, you may want to buy a system with the desired GPU and update other components later. Listen to us: Most PC manufacturers offer a desktop computer with the hardware we recommend at a cheaper price than you will probably buy yourself – with a little research.
We recommend that you first visit our list of the best gaming desktops to see what some top-line machines look like and what specifications they have. As you'll find, these options start at over $ 1,000 and can handle VR with ease. However, they may be outside your budget.
Then check out our summary of the latest cheap gaming PC deals to see what you can find with cheaper devices. Please note the most important technical data for a simple comparison. Currently, the ABS Rogue SE Radeon RX 580 gaming PC for $ 750 and the Dell G5 Gaming Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti gaming PC for $ 830 are a good option for a budget model.
Concluding remarks: You cannot save on graphics
As mentioned earlier, pricing is the biggest issue you are likely to encounter when assembling a VR-ready PC. Nowhere is this more evident than when you bought your GPU. If you build one yourself, you end up paying more than you should for a decent graphics card – and that's the only component you really can't save on.
Your best choice right now is likely to check the basic system requirements recommended for a headset and then see if you can find them at an affordable price. For example, Vive recommends at least one NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480, which are quite similar to the benchmark recommendations discussed above.
You can check the prices for these models and some newer chips to make a comparison (if the inventory of older GPUs is low, they may even be more expensive than newer models). Either way, you'll likely want to pay at least $ 300 for your graphics card unless you're ready to wait for the market to see prices drop again.
When you add up the total cost, you'll find that around $ 1,000, including a headset, is required to build everything for a VR machine from scratch – without considering components such as monitors and cooling systems. There is currently no way to lower the prices below unless you really find a lot or are looking for used components.