Last Updated: Nov 20, 2018
Building or upgrading a new gaming PC for virtual reality? Learn what you need to know to assemble the best virtual reality PC build for your money for the PC VR of today and the future by strategically choosing the best hardware components that will either handle a solid VR experience on a budget, or to build a high-end VR system for the wonderful world of VR gaming in its finest graphical, smooth, exciting glory.
Whilst still in early stages, the future of virtual reality both within gaming and non-gaming applications holds infinite possibilities and is a truly exciting thing, especially after you try a few good concept games and wonder about the endless and ground-breaking future possibilities the currently-sleeping-giant-of-a-technology that is VR holds for gaming.
Imagine not only your favorite games in a full, tactile, free-to-move, wireless VR experience... and then throwing eSports in the mix. Now that we've seen the first frontier of what VR is capable of. If you've tried a few of the good VR experiences available today, you'll know what I mean. The first time I tried the Star Wars concept game Trails on Tatooine on the Oculus Rift I knew there's no real logical reason to say that we're NOT gonna get a similar level of crazy in the future to what was portrayed in the recent Scifi movie, Ready Player One. Only a matter of time, right?
eSports, with its ongoing growth indicating what a giant it may be one day on a global scale, is already taking over some traditional sports in terms of viewership, popularity, fans, prize-money, etc. Competitive gaming will only rise from here and when VR is fused into the mix things could get real crazy, real fast.
If you're building a new PC and want to be an early adopter of this developing technology and build your computer to be able to handle its high demands now and into the future, this comprehensive VR buying guide for beginners will bring you up to scratch with the latest in PC VR tech for 2018 if you've perhaps been sleeping under a rock for the past few years and missed the noteworthy, exciting leaps in VR that's occurred over the past few years with the introduction of the first wave of true VR headsets (Oculus Rift and HTC Vive) which for the first time in history show the true potential of the infinite world of possibilities of this tech.
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 including 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.
The other leading VR headset besides the Oculus Rift is the HTC Vive which was released in April 2016, with an all-new and improved "Pro" edition with better quality resolution released fairly recently (April 2018). The Vive 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 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.
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 and its premium Pro edition is currently the most impressive overall IMO.
Now that we've covered the main players in the current PC VR headset world, let's dive into the hardware requirements of those VR headsets, including a look into why they're so technically demanding for anyone who is curious. The official recommended PC system requirements for the Oculus Rift as listed on their website are as follows:
Oculus do indeed list slightly lower "minimum" system requirements for PC, which includes a GTX 1050 Ti as the bare minimum graphics card, but you should aim to cover the 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:
I've highlighted the differences in requirements for the HTC Vive Pro, which is more demanding due to its increased resolution over the standard HTC Vive edition. Keep in mind the above are just the bare minimum system requirements for building a virtual reality PC, so you'll want to always aim higher than this for the ideal experience now and into the future. But a GTX 1060 will get you in the game (or GTX 1070 for the Vive Pro), meaning that you can build a PC for around $600 and still be able to get your foot into the VR door. At least for now.
The HTC Vive is more demanding than both the HTV Vive standard and the Oculus Rift, but between the standard models the Oculus Rift is the slightly more forgiving of the two headsets, despite having fractionally higher recommended system requirements (but to be fair only the recommended RAM is higher than the Rift's requirements). Why? On less powerful gaming PCs, your system can resort to Asynchronous Spacewarp (known as ASW) for a smoother experience if you're using the Oculus Rift.
What's ASW? 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. In other words, on a lower-tier computer that can't produce 90FPS, the feature will kick in and force your system to render at 45FPS and use synthetic frames to reach a total of 90FPS. Essentially, it's like getting a fake 90FPS, and you shouldn't notice the difference in-game although some people do report artefacts/glitches.
This will increase the comfort of the experience, but lessen its quality overall, but the point of it is to allow less powerful gaming PCs to still play VR nicely. At this point in time the HTC Vive doesn't have ASW support, so in general you need slightly better hardware for great performance with the Vive. Or to be more specific, lower-tiered systems will fare better with the Oculus Rift.
Nov 2018 Update: HTC Vive apparently have a similar "Motion Smoothing" feature being released.
Another thing worth mentioning is even though Oculus and HTC list their recommended hardware requirements, they don't have control over specific VR game hardware requirements and developer's optimization of those titles, which can vary a lot. Developers could suggest entirely different recommended specs for their specific 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 (and well above if you want to future-proof a new VR PC build).
As VR becomes more and more popular each year, many gamers wonder whether or not their PC can handle it or not, and in most cases the answer is probably a straight-up no unless you're already sporting a fairly beasty setup with a very solid GPU and good CPU as running VR content at a high enough frame-rate for smooth enjoyment of the experience is taxing on your system, and not too dissimilar to what large standard gaming resolutions such as 4K require. Why does VR tax your system so much? There are four main technical reasons:
1. VR Dual Lenses & Eye Buffer
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. Plus, 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.
2. VR 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.
3. VR Stereo Rendering
Not only do VR headsets render dual screens for each eye, but they also 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.
The minimum GPU for an entry-level 2018 VR PC build is the GTX 1060 or RX 580
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 GeForce GTX 1060 (3 or 6GB model) or AMD's equivalent Radeon RX 480 (therefore, the RX 580 4/8GB which is the latest AMD model in that tier).
Anything less powerful than these cards, such as the ever-popular budget GPU, the GTX 1050 Ti, won't be enough for the full experience now and into the future. However, keep in mind the Oculus Rift's minimum specs mentions the GTX 1050 Ti, so you'll have no problem playing Oculus Rift with a 1050 Ti, but it's far from ideal and now what we'd recommend.
Moving on up from the minimum and you have the next tier of GPUs in the GTX 1070, GTX 1070 Ti, GTX 1080, and the new RTX 2070 which is more powerful than all three of those GTX cards. Any of these cards is going to provide good VR performance, and if you're building a new PC for VR you may as well get the RTX 2070 unless you find the other GTX cards for a good deal.
Then moving on from there into the powerhouse GPUs and you have the older GTX 1080 Ti, and the new RTX 2080 and RTX 2080 Ti. Any of these top-tier video cards will provide the very best VR experience possible right now, and it's safe to say they'll last you a fair while to safely play any of the latest VR titles flawlessly.
Look for this logo on any graphics card you're thinking of buying for your VR gaming PC build
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 2600 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 i5-9600K or i7-9700K, or Ryzen 7 2700 or 2700X if you prefer AMD (either Intel or AMD will serve your VR PC build well).
There are some extra considerations when choosing a good 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).
In terms of RAM, 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.
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.
This is an example of the minimum cheap 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 paired with a Ryzen 5/Core i5 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 decent, 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 GTX 1070 or higher card which supports SLI like the upcoming builds below, you may as well prepare for SLI just in case.
Closest Full PC Build Examples:
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.
Closest Full PC Build Examples:
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 type of PC build is for you.
Closest Full PC Build Examples:
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 and teamplay
could will be?).
It's going to require a fairly beasty gaming rig to run 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 just good enough for playable performance 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. Oh, and if you're not psyched enough now, check out this awesomeness which is a glimpse into the future of VR First Person Shooters:
- Oculus Rift Minimum and Recommended System Requirements
- HTC Vive Recommended System Requirements
- HTC Vive Pro Minimum System Requirements
- HTC Vive gets Oculus Rift ASW-like motion smoothing
- Asynchronous Spacewarp: Oculus Developer's Blog
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