Published: April 5, 2020
When it comes to choosing the best graphics card to play Half-Life: Alyx, or any high-end VR game for that matter, it's pretty simple: buy the best GPU you can afford. VR requirements are more demanding than normal games because it requires your system to achieve a constant 80FPS or 90FPS at all times (depending on the headset and the refresh rate you're running at).
If you're going to be using the best PC VR headset in 2020, the Valve Index, at its higher 120Hz or 144Hz refresh rate, make that REALLY demanding. Though don't forget the Valve Index also supports 80Hz and 90Hz too, so you can still use it on a mid-spec rig. But the great news with Half-Life: Alyx is that despite it being the best looking VR title yet, gamers can rejoice in the fact Valve have done yet another excellent job at optimizing a title to run well on lesser hardware.
That said, you'll still need a fairly good graphics card for a smooth VR experience in the game. Half Life: Alyx relies on adaptive scaling, so if your hardware can't handle the refresh rate of your headset it will automatically halve the refresh rate to say 45Hz if you're using 90Hz. This is called reprojection or motion smoothing, and excessive amounts of this can lead to visual glitches/artefacts and a less than optimal experience at best, and motion sickness at worst (especially if you're prone to that).
So you want to think through your choice of graphics card for the particular headset, visual settings, and refresh rate you'll want to play in, in order to experience a nice and consistent smooth frame rate for this epic VR blockbuster. Ain't nobody got time for frame dips with Combine hot on your tail.
That means if you're say playing with the Oculus Rift S and running its 80Hz refresh rate, you'll want to buy a GPU that can achieve 80FPS for the settings you're using. Knowing which graphics card is powerful enough for different settings and refresh rates can be confusing, and requires researching around and studying performance benchmarks which are few and far between (as VR benchmarking and GPU comparisons are difficult to do).
We've done the painstaking research for you and gathered the data from as many difference sources as possible in order to bring to you this simplified guide, including our top recommendations in the form of the 3 best graphics cards to buy for Half-Life: Alyx in terms of overall bang for your buck.
See Also: Recommended Half-Life: Alyx PC Builds
The minimum requirements for Half-Life: Alyx lists a GTX 1060 6GB graphics card as the minimum. But since the 1060 is a few years old now, if you're choosing a new GPU for the game then you're looking at the modern day equivalent which is the GTX 1660.
However, there's also the GTX 1660 Ti and GTX 1660 Super to consider too, which are slightly faster and more expensive than the base GTX 1660 model, but may represent better value (depending on pricing). A RX 580 8GB (or slightly better RX 590) is also fine, though I'd favor the 1660/Super as it's much newer hardware and performs better (especially the 1660 Super).
Let's not forget there's also the RX 590 too. Yup, it's a cluster of cheap (well, for VR anyway) GPUs so the question remains. What cheap graphics card should you buy for Half-Life: Alyx? Technically, all GPUs I just mentioned will run the game fine (on low settings, remember) the GTX 1660 Super is what I would look to get.
Why the 1660 Super? It's the best performing of all the GPUs mentioned, but not that much more money than any of them. In other words, it's likely the best bang for buck option, and it's faster performance compared to the GTX 1660 or RX 580 means you're giving yourself some breathing room to avoid encountering any issues with stuttering or low frames (that can lead to an unpleasant experience or even motion sickness if you're prone to that).
Getting a GTX 1660 Super means you can safely avoid that problem, so long as you stick to low settings, although with that GPU you can give medium settings a go and you might be just fine (though if you want to definitely game on medium settings or higher than get a better GPU than look at a better build).
If you wanted to get real thrifty, then you could look for a used GTX 1060 6GB, which would technically be the cheapest GPU to play Half-Life: Alyx as this is the exact minimum GPU recommended by Valve and it'll play the game just fine on low settings (assuming your CPU is okay as well, and that you also have at least 12GB of RAM). But if you do, make sure it's the 6GB version of the 1060, as the 3GB models won't cut it as Valve lists a minimum of 6GB VRAM in the official requirements.
Is a RX 570 Good Enough for Half-Life: Alyx?
The RX 570 does come in 8GB models as well as cheaper 4GB ones, but despite the former covering the minimum VRAM requirement of 6GB in the Half-Life: Alyx minimum specs, it's not a good enough card for the game and doesn't meet the minimum requirement of a RX 580. I'm not saying if you had an RX 570 8GB that the game wouldn't run (and run okay on low settings), but chances are good that you'd experience stutters and screen tearing and not be able to experience the game properly. Same thing with a GTX 1650 or GTX 1650 Super; while these GPUs are not far away from a GTX 1060 or RX 580 in performance, I can't recommend them for this game and they don't pass the minimum requirements.
Is a GTX 1650 Good Enough for Half-Life: Alyx?
Ok, now we're pushing it a little. Like the RX 570, it's a similar story with the GTX 1650. While the card is not far off the minimum GPU requirement of a GTX 1060 in terms of performance (1650 is a little slower), and could technically run the game, it's not something we can recommend at all as you'd no doubt experience some sort of stuttering and/or screen tearing. The slightly faster GTX 1650 Super could be okay, but again, I'd stick to a GTX 1660 or 1660 Super as a minimum baseline for a good experience in HLA and to avoid getting motion sickness or stutters in performance.
Here's what PCGamer said about using a GTX 1650 with HLA:
"At the risk of vomiting on my own bedroom floor, I tried running Alyx on a GTX 1650. The takeaway? Yes, you can do it—but you probably shouldn't. Even on the lowest settings, I experienced massive amounts of tearing and dropped frames."
If you want to ensure you run Half-Life: Alyx super smoothly on high settings, you will need an NVidia RTX 2070 Super as found out by RockPaperShotgun and others. An AMD RX 5700 XT should be fine too, but the 2070 Super is the stronger GPU (you'd expect that at its higher price tag) and what I'd recommend if you want to all but guarantee a strong and steady 80FPS-90FPS (depending on your headset) on high settings.
In fact, the 2070 Super could do ultra settings, assuming you're sticking to 90Hz or less (ie not the 120Hz/144Hz modes of the Valve Index), but in an ideal world you'll want to buy a better GPU for that if you want to be absolutely sure to avoid any stuttering or screen tearing.
As for medium settings, the optimal GPU would be the RTX 2060, as found out by BabelTechReviews in their Half-Life: Alyx GPU benchmark:
"It is possible to play with a RTX 2060 Super on Medium and get a higher visual image quality than on High because of the extra performance headroom that allows for a higher level of super resolution to be applied by the game’s algorithm."
NVidia vs AMD GPUs for Half-Life: Alyx
Many people will undoubtedly wonder whether buying a NVidia or AMD GPU will provide better performance for Half-Life: Alyx. Specifically, whether the 5700 series (RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT) is worth getting instead of the RTX 2060, RTX 2060 Super, or even the RTX 2070 Super. This may change in a future update to this guide if further data surfaces online, but as of right now there doesn't seem to be a clear winner between NVidia and AMD GPUs in terms of performance.
However, due to the recent AMD driver issues that have somewhat plagued AMD's 5700 series over recent months, if I had to choose between NVidia and AMD when buying a GPU for any new game, I'd favor NVidia just a little if you care about absolutely minimizing the chances of encountering issues. Hence why we've placed NVidia cards at the top of our recommendations in this guide (at least for now).
Plus, NVidia does have the slight edge when it comes to VR performance overall (based on previous titles, not Half-Life: Alyx, as it's too early to tell) as mentioned in our general VR PC build guide. That's not to say that you're immune to issues with a NVidia card, but overall the chance is likely a little less when compared to the 5700 and 5700 XT.
That's also not to say that AMD cards aren't just fine for this game (though there are some reporting slight issues; could just be a very small fraction of AMD owners though). Please remember, this, and anything else on this site, is purely my subjective opinion (whilst trying to be as objective as possible).
BabelTechReviews stated this in their Half-Life: Alyx performance review:
"In the case of Half Life: Alyx, the usually comparable GeForce cards give a better experience than the Radeons. We hope it is a driver issue that AMD will address quickly."
"We notice that the equivalent GeForce cards are somewhat less prone to microstutter than the Radeons."
Technically speaking, the NVidia Titan RTX is the single most powerful GPU on the market right now in 2020, but the marginal gaming performance improvement over the RTX 2080 Ti doesn't justify its cost for most. I mean, if money really is no object, and you simply want the absolute best GPU for Half-Life: Alyx possible to squeeze out every single extra frame possible without a care in the world for price vs performance, sure, get a Titan.
As more Half-Life: Alyx performance comparisons and benchmarks come out as times goes on, it might even prove to be a fruitful choice for Index owners pushing the headset to its impressive limits (144Hz on max settings). But for now, for most people wanting the full Half-Life: Alyx experience, in my opinion (and many others) the RTX 2080 Ti is enough and the much more practical option. It's more than enough for 120Hz, and will fair well in 144Hz too assuming your CPU is up to this demanding task, though 144FPS+ on ultra settings may still be a struggle for even such a powerful GPU as the 2080 Ti.
For example, one Redditor had this to say about their HLA experience using such a setup:
"I have a 2080ti and 9900k both overclocked and with SS 100% (and 144hz) i still get some reprojection in alyx when i have the settings on high or ultra."
Goes to show that you really would need a Titan RTX if serious about 144Hz high/ultra performance as explained in our Half-Life: Alyx PC build guide.
I'm Julz, creator of BGC. In my teens I learned game programming as a hobby in my spare time, which led to a keen interest in the hardware side of things as well. I then started this site to share what I was learning about DIY at the time, and through years of trial and error and slow reiterations in the quality and depth of content, over time the site has evolved from a very rudimentary little blog with only a handful of pages into a relatively in-depth resource for PC builders and gamers that has helped many gamers and power users take the plunge to build their first PC with confidence to reap the benefits of doing so.
My fav games of all time are the immortal OOT, Perfect Dark, MGS1, MGS2, GE007, DKC2, and HL1, but since trying VR for the first time a few years ago I've been completely fascinated by it and the limitless possibilities it presents. Once you experience the greatest virtual reality experiences available today like Half Life Alyx and Saints and Sinners just to name two, if you're like me you'll feel pretty freakin' excited about the future of gaming and entertainment as a whole.
PS: After a long hiatus from hobbyist game dev, I recently made a return and am excited to say I'll soon be announcing my first official game release - an immersive story-driven VR Sci-Fi Adventure powered by Unreal Engine. When the time is right I'll be announcing the first sneak peak trailer on my Twitter if interested.