Almost twenty years after The Lawnmower Man and the Nintendo Virtual Boy shattered our dreams, virtual reality (VR) is now taking off in a significant way. (This time, I mean it!) We really really mean it.)
Since 2014, the Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR platforms have been in existence, both of which are simple but amazing. In late 2016, Google released an improved version of Daydream View, enhancing its sophistication and comfort while also providing developers with a more comprehensive environment. It was possible to create a virtual reality experience using only the capabilities of your smartphone when you strapped it into a headset with lenses.
Even though these were excellent early attempts at “affordable VR,” cellphones’ displays just do not have enough pixels to give a crisp image even when held at arm’s length away from the eyeballs. Today’s smartphones aren’t capable of generating complicated 3D worlds with high-resolution textures in a way that passes inspection. A pixelated view of faraway mountains and writing makes it difficult to feel fully involved in a virtual environment when you’re staring at a grainy screen.
Virtual reality (VR) enthusiasts who desire a more “realistic” experience should look into today’s powerful mainstream VR headsets, or head-mounted displays (HMDs), such as the Oculus Rift (and its S variant), the HTC Vive, the HTC Vive Pro, and the Valve Index, as well as the Windows Mixed Reality (WMD) ‘tweener category of HMDs.. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets require a strong PC to generate realistic virtual environments.
Here’s how to figure out what you’ll need to put them to use. However, in case the title didn’t give it away, the graphics card is important. To an enormous extent.
First: A Look at the Headset Specs
The minimal hardware requirements for the Vive and Rift are very comparable because to their similar core specifications.
They both display 1,080 by 1,200 pixels per eye at a 90Hz refresh rate, which is 2,160 by 1,200 pixels in total. Like Samsung’s high-end smartphones and tablets, both feature OLED panels with deep blacks and vibrant colours.
The resolution of the Valve Index, on the other hand, is considerably higher. Displays are powered by two 3.5-inch AMOLED panels with a total resolution of 2,880 by 1,600 pixels. the outcome? Incredibly high pixel density of 615 pixels per inch results in a noticeably crisper image. The headset alone costs $500 ($1,000 for the complete set), so it’s a lot of money. Lastly, there’s the Vive Cosmos family, which has slightly higher-res panels of 1,440-by-1,700 pixels.
Windows Mixed Reality headsets, which mix elements of virtual reality with augmented reality, are available in addition to HTC’s, Valve’s, and Oculus’ offerings (AR). The Samsung HMD Odyssey, which has the same resolution and refresh rate as the Vive Pro, and the Dell Visor, which has dual 1,440-by-1,440-pixel panels and a 90Hz refresh rate, are examples of this group of devices. However, these headsets have lower hardware requirements than the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Valve headsets. Because they’re not solely designed for immersive gaming (not all VR games operate on these headsets), they can also be used for interactive training or other types of specialised work.
What Your VR PC Needs: The Minimums
Just what will you need to put together a gaming PC now, or upgrade your current desktop to ensure it’s ready for virtual reality? In a nutshell: a good deal of graphical heft.
When compared to PC gamers who already play at 1440p (2,560 by 1,440 pixels) or 4K resolution, the Rift and non-Pro Vive headsets aren’t groundbreaking (3,840 by 2,160 pixels). VR headsets require a refresh rate of 90Hz, which implies that your games must operate at or near 90 frames per second (fps), or ideally higher, in order to appear seamless. Don’t minimise the importance of it: In virtual reality, judder and screen tearing can cause dizziness and nausea, so frame-rate smoothness is more important than it is in traditional gaming.
HTC Vive and Vive Pro require an Intel Core i5-4590 or an AMD FX-8350 or greater processor to run at full speed. As a general rule, this means that any of the most modern desktop CPUs like the Intel Core i5-11600K or AMD’s Ryzen 7 chips will suffice. Oculus’ published minimum recommendations for the Rift contain the same Intel CPU suggestions, which makes sense given the similarities of the screens in the original Vive and the Rift. In order to get the most out of any HMD, you’ll need at least 16GB of RAM, but the Vive and Rift only require 4GB and 8GB, respectively. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are also recommended if you don’t want to spend long periods of time in virtual darkness waiting for your game’s levels to load.
It’s the graphics card that’s the most important piece of hardware. A GeForce GTX 1060 from Nvidia (or AMD’s Radeon RX 580, Radeon RX 590, or Radeon RX Vega) is a must-have if you want to utilise an earlier video card with the Index, original Vive, or Rift (including the Rift S). In order to use the Vive, you’ll need a card from the previous generation, such as a GeForce GTX 970/980 or Radeon R9 290/390. The Rift and Rift S require a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti to run. It’s best to start with a GeForce GTX 1660 Ti or a Radeon RX 5600 Series. You can also use any of the GeForce RTX GPUs. (I’ll get to those in a sec.)
The squeak-by cards for the Vive Pro and later Vive Cosmos HMDs are the same as for the basic Vive, although the recommended baseline is greater for these devices. More to come on that later.
Up the Stack: Higher-End GPUs for VR
The “borderline” cards listed above should be adequate for all but the most demanding current flagship VR titles if you’re on a tight budget.
Even if you have one of these cards, you may not be able to play all VR games at their highest settings in the future because these are the recommended cards. It’s also important to allow for some performance overhead when designing or updating a PC expressly for virtual reality, so your system can run VR titles which haven’t yet hit the market, as well as hot AAA games outside of VR, at the resolution of your choice.
You’ll need a graphics card with more horsepower than the entry-level Radeon RX 480/580 or GeForce GTX 1060. If you want the best non-VR gaming experience possible, you can consider using two or more high-end graphics cards. There are certain VR titles that support SLI (Nvidia) or CrossFire (AMD), but the list is tiny, and support for SLI has all but vanished in the last two generations of GeForce card technology. However, you could do it (the GeForce RTX 20 and 30 series). Since multiple-card setups are prone to frame-timing wobbles and other hiccups, a single, strong graphics card is your best chance for seamless VR performance right now.
So, what are the most potent cards? Both Nvidia’s “Pascal” 10-series and the newer “Ampere”-based RTX 20 and 30 Series graphics cards have been overtaken by the company’s GeForce RTX GPUs as of 2021, with the latter taking the lead.
The VR-friendly GeForce RTX range is now led by the flagship GeForce RTX 3080 and extends down to the more budget-friendly GeForce RTX 3060 Ti and RTX 3060 at the present time.. In the current level of VR gaming, any of the GeForce RTX GPUs launched to date are more than adequate.
Both the Radeon RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT, as well as the next generation of RDNA 2 cards from AMD, the RX 6800, are part of AMD’s top 5000 series products. Some gamers may be put off by the AMD Radeon R7 6700 XT’s slightly lower frame rates in some DirectX11-based titles, but it’s still a strong contender for AMD.
Even if you can’t afford the most expensive GPUs, you can locate a solid middle-ground card using the GeForce RTX 3060 or the GeForce RTX 2060 if they’re still available on the market today. In favour of the high-end RTX cards and the GeForce GTX 1660 and GTX 1660 Ti, which are the new baseline for VR among current Nvidia cards, all 10 Series cards higher than the GeForce GTX 1060 are ending their lives.)
In addition, HTC recommends the GTX 1070 for usage with the Vive Pro HMD, so if you’re in the market for a graphics card for that headset, you should start here.
So, Which Card to Buy?
There’s little doubt about it: video card costs and availability are shaky in 2021, as the industry works through supply and production bottlenecks. It’s also worth noting that AMD and Nvidia’s more mainstream mainstream cards (the higher-end GeForce GTX and RX 5700 Series Radeons, rather than RTX cards) can get you into the VR action without spending four figures from an eBay scalper. You don’t absolutely need the most up-to-date graphics card unless you plan to play AAA games outside of your VR headset at 1440p or 4K resolutions.
Before we get to our card recommendations, there is one more thing to consider in light of virtual reality on the latest video cards: All of the above-mentioned cards contain a port on their backplane called “VirtualLink,” which is also found on select RTX 2060 cards (as well as some of the “RTX Super” versions for models that have them). Not to be confused with NVLink, the edge connector now being utilised to connect a few select RTX GeForce GPUs for dual-card SLI.) There are special USB Type-C connectors called “VirtualLink” ports, which provide DisplayPort output and a limited amount of power delivery. The VirtualLink specification describes an operating mode for future VR HMDs that lets data, power, and video to pass through this single-wire connection.
It’s possible, however, that the future never arrives. VirtualLink isn’t supported by any current VR headsets, and we don’t know if it will be in the future, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’ve seen it mentioned. This VirtualLink adaptor for the Index was later scrapped by Valve.) This may be the final nail in the coffin of VirtualLink, as both Nvidia’s newer RTX 30-series and AMD’s RX 6000-series reference cards do not include a VirtualLink connection on the back of the card. New 2021 cards also lack VirtualLink functionality.
You should be aware that the Nvidia GeForce Founders Edition and AMD Radeon RX graphics cards we examined in 2020 are the chip manufactures’ baseline versions of graphics cards. It is possible to get a card with the same core graphics processor from a different manufacturer that performs just as well or better than this one. Also, you can think of them as being in the same class.