Last Updated: Mar 8, 2018
Whilst still in early stages, the future of virtual reality both with gaming and non-gaming applications holds infinite possibilities and has many of us excited to the core like nothing else.
If you're building a new PC and wanting to be an early adopter of this exciting developing technology and build your computer to be able to handle its high demands now and into the future, this guide will walk you through everything you need to know about building or upgrading a PC now with VR firmly in mind.
Firstly we'll take a quick introductory look at the current two big PC VR platforms of choice in the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, as well as a look at how they stack up against each other.
Then we'll look at the hardware requirements of VR and why it demands a lot from your system, as well as how to optimize your hardware component choices to get the most out of VR now and into the future.
We'll finish up with some sample PC builds that make the most of VR gaming now and into the future for different budgets. Let’s get straight into it.
In this guide to building the best rig for VR you'll learn:
Whether or not virtual reality gaming will become the primary way everyone games within the next 5-10 years is up for debate.
But there's no denying VR is a slowly but surely, ever-approaching tsunami on the gaming and eSport industry and once both game developers and hardware advancements can sync together well enough over the next few years to create A-grade level VR titles...
... It'll only be a short matter of time until VR becomes the leading gaming platform and gaming is changed forever and moves into a new territory of realism and personal and team experiences.
All game genres will inevitably advance to new heights as VR becomes more mainstream, but with good-old First-Person Shooters being my personal fav I've always thought about just how epic it'll be to re-create true CS-quality team experiences in VR.
And it's coming! If you're out of the loop, here's a teaser of how fun CS:GO style VR can already be.
A true CS-like, 100% responsive and controllable experience in VR would be one pretty epic thing. Developers are working on it as we speak, and current CS:GO style VR adaptions like in the above video are already pretty fun and show so much promise.
Then throw eSports in the mix and s**t could get real crazy.
If you're planning to build, upgrade or buy a desktop PC for the VR gaming of today and the future, we've put together this complete guide that covers all the basics of this new technology from a DIY perspective of understanding the requirements, choosing the right headset, choosing optimal parts, and more tips on designing a better VR PC.
Oculus Rift 101
The Oculus Rift is one of the two leading VR headsets right now. Manufactured and developed by Oculus VR, a division of Facebook, it initially grew through crowd-funding on Kickstarter (a site where you can get investors to back your product ideas) after having been founded as an independent company only two months prior.
The crowd-funding raised $2.5 million dollars, and in March 2014 Facebook bought out Oculus for $2 billion. It's also backed by legendary game programmer and co-creator of Doom, John Carmack, among other game developers.
The Oculus Rift went through many different pre-production models and was then released to the public in March 2016. Today it's one of the best VR headsets on the market without question, and one of the two leading headsets for PC gamers, with a heap of games available and some great features.
It comes with a stereoscopic OLED (organic light-emitting diode) which helps to eliminate motion blur, a 1080 x 1200 resolution per eye, a 90 Hz refresh rate, and 110 degrees field of view. Then there's the built-in 3D positional headphones, and rotational and positional tracking.
The Rift works by placing a single infrared sensor, named Constellation, either on your desk or on its included metal stand. This sensor can tilt up and down and picks up light emitted from the headset. It will track you whether you're sitting, standing or within an area defined by the sensor.
The Rift comes with an Xbox One controller but Oculus also has a separate controller system available called Oculus Touch which is sold separately.
Oculus Touch is a pair of handheld motion controllers that you hold in each hand like the HTC Vive's controllers, and they contain a joystick, buttons and triggers, and are tracked in 3D by the Constellation sensor.
The Oculus Touch controllers also detect finger movements and gestures whilst you're holding them which is pretty cool.
HTC Vive 101
The other leading VR headset besides the Oculus Rift is the HTC Vive which was released in April 2016. It was developed by two prominent tech companies, HTC and Valve Corporation, the former being a successful smartphone and tablet manufacturer and the latter being the company behind Steam and popular games like the Half Life series.
Like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive works by rendering two screens, one lens for each eye, both with resolutions of 1080 x 1200, and a 110 degree field of view.
However, unlike the Rift, it has 2 cameras to track your head and extremities instead of the Rift's 1 base station. Although the Rift does come with 2 sensors if you get the Rift's separately-sold Touch controllers as well.
The Vive's 2 base stations can sit on a wall (wall mounts are included) or on a high shelf, and there are a total of 70 infrared sensors tracking your movement. 32 for the headset and 38 for the controller.
Speaking of the controller, the Vive comes with 2 wireless wand-like controllers each with several buttons, a trigger and a large concave clickable disc that works like a trackpad. They also have vibrations and use rechargeable batteries. The 38 built-in sensors track the controllers movements in the virtual space near-perfectly.
Another unique feature of the Vive is their partnership with Steam to offer native support for a lot of Valve's older games, as well as having an open source API (Application Programming Interface) which means developers can create games for the Vive for free.
Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive: Which to Choose?
Assuming you can only afford one or the other, the big question is should you buy the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive? Both have their own strengths and weaknesses, and both make for excellent, enjoyable forays into this exciting new technology.
Both are wired experiences, and both require powerful PCs as you'll see in just a bit when we get into the hardware section of this guide.
As for the games and experiences, both offer solid and unique experiences, however it must be said that with a little work you can get most of the Rift's games working on the Vive.
In an ideal world you're better off trying both for yourself to make your own mind up. But overall, if you're after the premium, most immersive and most accurate full-room VR experience and willing to pay a little extra, the HTC Vive is currently the most impressive overall.
We're not going to get into a full on analytical debate of the two here, as this guide is focused on the PC and hardware side of getting ready for VR, so we'll leave it with you. Now it's time to get into the hardware requirements of these VR headsets, including a look at just why VR requires such a powerful rig.
Now that we've covered the main headsets, how they work, and how to choose the best one for you, let's dive into the hardware requirements of VR headsets including exactly why they're so technically demanding.
As VR becomes more and more popular each year, many gamer's wonder whether or not their PC can handle it or not, and in most cases the answer is probably a straight no. Unless you're already sporting a beasty setup, it's like you'll need to upgrade or build a new system entirely if you want to play VR well.
Running VR content at a high enough frame-rate for enjoyment of the experience demands quite a capable PC, not too dissimilar to what large screen resolutions such as 4K require.
Why does VR tax your system so much? There are four technical reasons:
1 - Dual Lenses
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets both have two displays (one for each eye) with each display rendering a resolution of 1080 x 1200 pixels. That makes for a total of 2160 x 2400 pixels. The lenses are directly in front of your eyes hence the need to render a lot of pixels per inch to look good.
2 - Eye Buffer
The actual resolution for each display for each eye is actually higher than 1080 x 1200 (1512 x 1680 for each eye) because VR renders graphics with a buffer to correct for lens distortion.
3 - Refresh Rate
VR renders at a maximum of 90 frames per second (or 90 Hz), which is a fair bit more than the maximum 60 frames per second (60 Hz) of most standard gaming displays.
But here's the thing: whilst the refresh rate is the “maximum” frames per second your eyes can see, with standard gaming displays you always aim to get to that holy grail of 60 if you can, but if it lowers a bit below 60 it hardly ruins the experience much (assuming you don't go too consistently low such as 30-40 and under).
But with VR, not only is 90 frames per second the maximum frames you can see, it's the recommended MINIMUM as stated by VR developers from Rift and Vive.
They say that to retain an immersive VR experience, you shouldn't slip under 90 frames per second as the drop in frame-rate is much more noticeable and uncomfortable with VR because of the fact the lens display is right in your face.
Simply put, with VR the importance of a consistently high frame-rate has never been more important.
4 - Stereo Rendering
Just to scare off budget-conscious builders even more (sorry guys, not our fault!), VR headsets render 2 different scenes per frame to account for parallax and depth cues. This process is called stereo rendering and requires more GPU and CPU processing power than standard rendering.
In fact, it can approximately double the graphical processing power required to render a VR scene of the same resolution as on a standard PC monitor. Even if that all sounds confusing, just know that virtual reality experiences are no walk in the park for your gaming system to produce.
But if you're up to the challenge (or should we ask your wallet) then let's dive into the official minimum and recommended hardware requirements for the Rift and Vive. After that we'll get into how to choose the best components for VR.
Official VR Requirements
The official “recommended” hardware specs for the Oculus Rift as listed on their website are as follows:
Oculus Rift Recommended Specs
The official recommended specs for the HTC Vive are almost identical, with the only slightly notable difference being 4GB of RAM instead of the Rift's recommended 8GB:
HTC Vive Recommended Specs
It's worth nothing that the HTC Vive only mentions the above “recommended” specs, and does not mention any “minimum” specs, and so these recommended specs are the minimum.
However, the Oculus Rift does actually list “minimum” specs as well as the above “recommended” specs.
But if you do opt for the lowest possible “minimum” specs for the Oculus Rift, which lists the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti / AMD Radeon RX 470 and the Intel i3-6100 / AMD Ryzen 3 1200 as the bare minimum, your PC will likely have to resort to Asynchronous Spacewarp for a smooth experience.
Spacewarp who? Asynchronous Spacewarp is a feature that renders the games at half the minimum frames per second of 90 FPS, and then makes it feel to the user as if it's actually running at the smooth 90 FPS. This will increase the comfort of the experience, but lessen its quality overall.
So if you want the full Oculus Rift experience, you should definitely aim for the “recommended” specs at the very least, and forget about the official list of “minimum” specs.
Another thing worth mentioning is even though Oculus and HTC list their recommended hardware requirements, they don't have control over the hardware requirements and developer's optimization of specific titles.
Developers could suggest entirely different recommended specs for their specific VR creations, so if you want to be sure your PC can handle any title that comes out in the near future you'd be wise to invest in hardware above the official recommended specs.
Choosing a Graphics Card for VR
When building a gaming computer, your graphics card is always going to be the most crucial component when it comes to how well it performs, and with VR this is no exception.
In fact, your choice of GPU is even more important when it comes to virtual reality rendering as we explained in the previous module.
To recap, VR developers recommend you aim for a system that can consistently produce 90 frames per second to keep up with the 90 Hz refresh rate of VR lenses, and this is no mean feat for the majority of graphics cards out there.
For both the Rift and the Vive the recommended minimum GPUs for the full VR experience are the Nvidia GeForece GTX 1060 or AMD's equivalent Radeon RX 480. So it goes without saying that anything less powerful than these cards, such as the popular GTX 1050 Ti which is a tier under the GTX 1060, is not enough for the full experience.
However, keep in mind the Oculus Rift's minimum specs (not to be confused with recommended specs) mentions the GTX 1050 Ti as the minimum card so you'll have no problem playing Oculus Rift with a 1050 Ti (or nearest AMD equivalent such as a RX 470).
You just might encounter a little frame rate drops here or there so it may not be a flawless experience with every game.
As for the HTC Vive, as we mentioned before there are no “minimum” specs and only recommended specs, so if you're going for the Vive then I'd highly suggest sticking to those recommended specs as the minimum.
And whilst the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 (either the 3GB or 6GB versions) and the AMD Radeon RX 480 are both the Rift and the Vive official recommended cards, of course if you can afford it then it's ideal to get something even better like the RX 580, the GTX 1070, or something even more powerful like the mighty GTX 1080.
Beyond that, you have the 1080 Ti, which would further guarantee a long-life of excellent VR gaming for your system, however you can get away with lesser cards for flawless VR so spending a huge amount on a GPU such as 800 or more is not necessary.
But getting a true powerhouse card does give you additional headroom for consistently achieving the desired 90 frames per second and above for any VR game on the market. As for multiple graphics card setups; we’ll cover that in the section below on motherboards for anyone interested to know.
Choosing the Best CPU for VR
Just like when building any standard gaming computer, the CPU is second only to the graphics card in terms of importance when it comes to VR. That's not to say the other components aren't important, but the CPU and GPU will directly affect overall performance the most.
For VR a good CPU is of even more importance than normal because CPU bottlenecks are more likely to occur than with standard gaming.
Meaning, if your CPU isn't that great, when running demanding virtual reality applications your CPU could be limiting your performance and experience even if you have a very nice graphics card.
Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive list an Intel Core i5-4590, equivalent, or better processor (or AMD equivalent/better) in their recommended specs, so you’ll obviously want to cover that at the very least.
If you go the AMD route, consider the Ryzen 5 1500X your baseline, and for Intel fans, you’ll want to set the baseline at the most-recent i5-4590 equivalent in the i5-8400.
If you want to go beyond the recommended specs to build a faster, longer-lasting system to leave nothing to chance when it comes to VR performance now and over the near future, you’ll want to up the ante and go for something like the popular Core i7-8700K or AMD Ryzen 7 1700.
Both are around similar prices with similar performance and would be solid choices for excellent VR (and non-VR gaming) experiences when coupled with a nice GPU as well of course.
Choosing a Motherboard for VR
There are some extra considerations when choosing your motherboard for a VR-smart rig. Overall, like for any gaming build you want to aim for a good quality, reliable, well-reviewed (ideally from trusted sources) motherboard that will stand the test of time.
Moving beyond the obvious, you may want to consider other factors when choosing a motherboard for a VR rig that won’t let you down and that will accommodate certain future upgrades as VR technology develops further.
The next thing to think about are your motherboard ports. The HTC Vive only requires one USB 2.0 port (3.0 is fine) and a HDMI or DisplayPort, but the Oculus Rift needs more free ports with 3 x USB 3.0 ports, 1 x USB 2.0 port and 1 x HDMI port needed.
Make sure your motherboard plenty of USB ports to cover not only your VR headset and tracking cameras but your other peripherals such as your keyboard, mouse, and other accessories, although this shouldn't be an issue if you're building a decent rig with a modern motherboard as most boards have a fair amount of USB ports. Worth checking, though, and especially if you're building a machine on more of a tighter budget.
On top of that, in an ideal world you'll want your motherboard to have a Thunderbolt 3 port. It's not entirely necessary, but if you're dropping a decent amount on a good motherboard than you might as well pick one with this to plan ahead for the possibilities.
Thunderbolt 3 ports are super-speedy and may very well become what VR headset connections switch to in coming generations to be able to transfer more data more quickly through the single cables, and cut down on all the multiple cords that the VR of today requires (therefore increasing immersion).
The HTC Vive needs at least 15Gbps bandwidth, which is a lot of data to transfer from the headset to your machine. USB-C (USB 3.1, the latest USB standard) only supports up to 10Gbps, while Thunderbolt 3 supports up to 40Gbps, meaning that Thunderbolt is a prime target for VR’s heavy data transfer requirements.
So if you want to be as prepared as possible when building a PC, including a Thunderbolt-supported motherboard makes sense. However, you’ll be limited to an Intel motherboard (and therefore CPU) only, as Thunderbolt is an Intel-developed technology.
The first thing you may want to consider when choosing a good motherboard that's going to last the VR distance is to look for dual graphics card support which for beginners is called SLI for Nvidia cards or CrossFire for AMD cards).
While multiple graphics card setups are not always recommended these days due to various issues such as games not really taking advantage of it, in the near future VR could very well become a good reason to have dual GPUs.
Nobody really knows for sure how useful and well-supported multi-card setups will become, however if you’re building a high-end system you may as well include SLI/CrossFire potential just in case by picking a suitable motherboard, having enough room in your case, and enough wattage in your power supply unless you know you won’t need it (or if you know you’d just rather get a better, single GPU later on if you want to upgrade).
Also keep in mind that for SLI or CrossFire to work, you not only need a compatible motherboard but a compatible graphics card such as the GTX 1070 or GTX 1080. The popular GTX 1060, which isn’t ideal for VR but does provide a playable experience, doesn’t have official SLI support.
I wouldn’t recommend getting dual GPUs from the get-go though, as support for their rendering in VR games is still in development and non-VR games rarely take advantage of it (plus it brings other potential issues).
Choosing RAM for VR
The Oculus Rift states 8GB as the recommended amount of RAM, while the HTC Vive lists 8GB.
You can get away with 4GB if you're cutting corners to build the minimum viable build for VR, but since RAM isn't all that expensive and the boost from 4 to 8GB is very handy not only for VR and gaming but when running other applications, you should aim for 8GB.
More than 8 right now is just luxury, and you can always add more later anyway, but if you want to future-proof from the get-go then by all means opt for 16GB.
Other VR Component Considerations
That’s practically all you need to know about choosing parts for VR except that you'll want to invest in a high quality, reliable power supply and a high-quality case with ample cooling.
But that advice applies when building any type of gaming PC. Overall, the Graphics Card, CPU, RAM and motherboard are the key components to look out for when building for VR.
If you're a little lost with choosing components for VR, one helpful comparison to keep in mind is 4K vs VR. Running a gaming PC at a respectable frame-rate in 4K resolution is a difficult task that only high-end rigs can accomplish.
Achieving flawless VR performance is on the same kind of level, if a little easier to reach right now as the VR games of today are actually not fully flexing their muscles in terms of graphical quality.
So considering 4K benchmarks for your prospective parts-list can be a decent gauge as to how they'll stack up in VR, but as mentioned remember to give your parts a nice head-start as VR is more forgiving than 4K.
Let's get into the specific sample builds for different budgets to help you plan the ultimate vr rig for your budget. Note that the following builds are general guidelines and you should tweak them for your particular budget and requirements.
Blueprint for a “Minimum” VR Build
This is an example of the minimum build we can recommend if you want a decent quality VR experience now and into the near future.
Of course, if you get a better CPU and GPU now you’re leaving a lot less to chance in terms of VR performance, but this build should get you by if you want to keep costs at an absolute minimum for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
You could get away with a lower GPU and CPU and be able to play the VR experiences of today without too many slowdowns/lag/quality issues, but there’s far less guarantees in doing so and so I can’t personally recommend anything less than the 1060 and Ryzen 5 included below.
Keep in mind this build, compared to typical gaming PCs, is no slouch whatsoever, and is capable of flawless 1080p gaming on max settings in pretty much every current game out there. 1440p performance will be solid, too.
The motherboard doesn’t support SLI, however the 1060 has no official support for SLI anyway so it doesn’t matter. If you were to upgrade later down the track, you would need to switch cards altogether. This isn’t a big loss as a more powerful, single GPU is almost always a better idea than dual GPUs.
However, in the future VR may start to utilize SLI a lot more than the games of today do. We’ll have to wait and see, but if you’re getting a 1070 or higher card which supports SLI like the upcoming builds below, you may as well prepare for SLI though.
Blueprint for a “Decent” VR Build
While the previous build example shows how to cover the recommended specs for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift to build a rig that’s “good enough” for the VR of today (and perhaps over the short-term future depending on how VR develops), there’s no guarantee it’ll provide a quality VR experience in every game.
Occasional performance and quality issues have been reported in some VR titles with a GTX 1060 as included in the previous build, but it shouldn’t detract from the experience too much.
However, if you want to almost-guarantee a great VR experience now and into the near future, it’s highly recommended to move on up to the 1070 as included in this build if you can.
The 1070 packs serious punch and is the sweet spot right now when it comes to VR gaming, and coupled with the latest i5 processor and you have a great base.
This build also includes a good quality, reliable and popular Asus motherboard you can grow with that has SLI potential should VR eventually start scaling GPUs well, and has a Thunderbolt 3.0 port too.
As explained in module 2, super-fast Thunderbolt ports could become the future of VR connections so it’s wise to plan ahead for this if you want to be as prepared as possible.
So if you don’t want to compromise too much, and want to almost guarantee a very nice VR experience now and into the next couple of years or so, here is our “decent” VR build.
Blueprint for a “Great” VR Build
If you want to leave no stone unturned and invest in a system that has a high likelihood (remember nothing is guaranteed with VR as we don’t know what its demands will be in the near future) to absolutely dominate any VR game now and over the next few years; this build is for you.
It’s obviously just an example, but something of this calibre will make you pretty safe in the VR world for a decent amount of time. Plus, it’s super-upgradeable with room for more GPUs in SLI, RAM, storage devices, etc. It’s also got a Thunderbolt port as this connection may become important to VR devices in the near future.
We’ve included a 1080 graphics card, but also consider the 1080 Ti instead if you have a little extra to invest in this build for even better, longer-lasting performance.
Both are great high-end cards capable of dominating VR, though. As for the CPU, we’ve stepped up from an i5 to the seriously capable i7-8700K which is a chip sure to last you years at the top of the gaming food chain.
The sample motherboard listed is the same as the previous build as it’s a great value one, however note that this board support 2-way SLI; if you’re a serious enthusiast and plan on possibly having more than 2 graphics cards in your rig one day (if VR ever takes advantage of multi-GPU scaling as some experts predict) then you should get a board with 4-way Sli.
The case, power supply, and storage for this build comes down to personal preference; we haven’t included specific recommendations for them as they don’t affect VR performance or compatibility at all. We’ve gone for 16GB of RAM which is all you need for the foreseeable; you can always add more later.
The Future of VR Gaming
If you're not pumped for the endless possibilities of VR gaming in the near future, chances are you will be once some epic VR games start being released and people start to realize that it's the real deal and not some fad that's going away.
How people generally view VR today is kind of like how the internet was viewed when it first came about. But, mark my words, eventually VR gaming is going to get so so good (can you imagine how epic proper VR eSports will be?).
It's going to require a beast of a computer to run really well, so it's up to you whether you want to invest heavily now on a killer rig to dominate VR now, or perhaps build a less powerful computer that's good enough for decent VR now yet carefully-designed so that you’re easily able to upgrade down the track once VR picks up steam and its requirements perhaps increase.
Whatever you do; good luck and enjoy, and let’s keep our fingers crossed that some epic new VR titles are released in 2018 and 2019.