Virtual reality games and technology have made significant strides since the initial launch of commercial VR systems in 2016. Software developers and hardware engineers continue to push the boundaries of what is possible within the medium. With hardware specs for VR headsets on the rise and higher quality games in development, having the right PC for VR is more important than ever.
The VR ecosystem has diversified to include headsets tailored for various use cases. Innovations in the world of VR include all-in-one headsets, inside-out headsets, and high-end headsets that offer next-generation experiences.
- Standalone systems, such as the Oculus Go* and Oculus Quest*, do not require a PC to use. They rely on mobile hardware and are an evolution of old mobile VR headsets — think Google Cardboard* — that required a smartphone.
- Inside-out headsets — Oculus Rift S*, Vive Cosmos*, and Windows* Mixed Reality* headsets like the Samsung Odyssey+* — have VR positional tracking sensors built in, bypassing the need for external base stations. They typically have around a 90 Hz refresh rate and moderately high resolution screens and require a computer to function.
- High-end headsets
- Headsets that make generational improvements over the first crop of virtual reality systems are starting to emerge. Current generation headset specs have surpassed those of a first generation Oculus Rift CV1*, which had a 1080 x 1200 per eye resolution at 90 Hz. The Valve Index* headset has a 120-144 Hz refresh rate and an expanded resolution of 1440 x 1600 per eye for better-looking games with lower latency (or lag) between the game’s reaction to your inputs and movements. Vive Pro* has an AMOLED screen for richer colors and contrasts. HP Reverb*, an inside-out headset, has a 2160 x 2160 per eye resolution for improved visual sharpness at 90 Hz. Pimax* headsets make similar advancements in resolution and refresh rate.
As the specs for headsets increase, so do the hardware requirements. A high-end headset will require a similarly high-end PC to power it.
Bigger Games and Steeper Hardware Requirements
Just as the hardware is evolving, VR games are becoming more ambitious.
With all-in-one headsets, the types of games that can be played are limited by the device’s built-in hardware. Options range from small, casual games (Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs*) to moderately demanding games (Superhot VR*, Beat Saber*), depending on the headset’s individual capabilities.
Because inside-out headsets rely on hardware inside your PC, they allow you to play more ambitious games. Titles like Insomniac Games' Stormland* and Lo-Fi*, the spiritual successor to the VR launch title Technolust* — tentatively scheduled for release in 2020 — have larger game worlds with open-world gameplay, while Ready at Dawn’s Lone Echo 2*, also slated for a 2020 release, features larger, more complex environments than the original.
Higher system requirements naturally come along with these more advanced games. Half-Life: Alyx* comes with higher minimum system requirements than VR games from just a few years prior.
- CPU: 7th Gen Intel® Core™ i5-7500 processor
- RAM: 12GB
- GPU: GTX 1060 / RX 580
Compare that to The Lab*, Valve’s previous VR game, released in 2016.
- CPU: 4th Gen Intel® Core™ i5-4590 processor
- RAM: 4GB
- GPU: GTX 970 / R9 290
Other VR games aren’t far behind, with requirements rising for storage, memory, and processing. Installing the fantasy VR game Asgard’s Wrath* requires 121 GB of free storage space due to the game’s texture detail. Meanwhile, DiRT Rally 2.0* takes up 91.63 GB of storage space. And while players could once get by with 4-8GB of RAM and a mid-level CPU for many titles, games on the horizon demand more. The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners*, for instance, recommends 16GB RAM and an Intel® Core™ i7-8700K processor.
One reason for the uptick is the increased visual fidelity of the latest games. Expect this trend to continue as more AAA developers enter into the VR space. The requirements of big-budget games tend to outpace those of indie games, which presently comprise the majority of VR releases. Better hardware is often necessary to support these graphical advances and drive consistent frame rates.
What’s more, running the latest games on a high-end headset requires an even more capable PC. So how do you know what to choose?
Selecting the Right PC for VR
When choosing a PC, start by considering which headset provides the experience you want, whether that’s a mainstream, inside-out headset or a premium, high-end headset. Then select the components to match. The processor, graphics card, hard drive, and memory work in unison to create a balanced VR system.
It’s important that a VR system contains sufficiently powerful components. The system should offer enough performance to produce a frame rate that exceeds the headset’s refresh rate. For today’s inside-out headsets, that’s around 80 or 90 Hz, depending on the model, while high-end headsets can output refresh rates of up to 144 Hz. (Learn more about refresh rates here.)
The frame rate your system is able to generate should meet or exceed that number. Anything less can result in an unstable frame rate that negatively impacts the experience and may cause nausea and dizziness. Check the benchmarks for the types of games you plan on playing to see if the components are up to the task. (Learn more about how to read CPU benchmarks here.)
At the very least, a PC for VR will need to meet the minimum requirements set by the headset’s manufacturer. Keep in mind, minimum requirements are exactly that: a minimum. Ideally, you want a system that exceeds the minimum requirements. Going with a minimum spec PC could prevent you from being able to play games with higher requirements in the future, as the VR space moves quickly.
With that in mind, here are the best options for top-level VR systems in 2020.
Power and Portability: An Inside-Out Headset with a Gaming Laptop PC
In 2016, when the initial wave of VR systems landed, a high-end portable VR system was unavailable to most consumers. Inside-out headsets — along with more powerful laptop components — have changed that.
VR setups traditionally relied on external sensors, including cameras and lighthouse base stations, to keep track of a player’s movement. However, these sensors have their limitations. Namely, they require installation and careful positioning. They are not convenient to carry around — they aren’t meant to be portable.
Inside-out headsets, on the other hand, are plug and play. The headset contains built-in sensors and cameras that chart the player’s position in space without the need for external equipment. This offers a legitimate portable VR solution when paired with a laptop.
While entry-level headsets have limited motion-tracking capabilities, an inside-out headset offers six degrees of freedom (6DOF). A 6DOF headset can calculate movement in every direction: up and down, left and right, forward and back.
The setup is ideal for travel, for the convenience of being able to move your system into the living room for asynchronous and local multiplayer VR party games, and for sharing the VR experience with others.
Max Immersion: A High-End Headset with a High-Powered Desktop
High-end, PC-powered VR technology levels up the room-scale VR experience. Higher quality screens provide smoother animation and less latency, but other features also increase the level of immersion. Advancements have been made to ergonomics, controllers, peripherals, sensors, and lighthouses, and improve just about every aspect of the experience.
Valve Index*’s controllers — also compatible with HTC Vive* headsets — upgrade the user interface, making use of 87 sensors to track the positions of players’ hands and fingers. This allows for natural interactions with objects in VR — for instance, physically gesturing to throw a disc or pick up a ration, instead of pressing a button.
Vive Trackers* — small, lightweight motion-tracking devices — can be strapped to your body, or combined with a peripheral, such as a blaster or tennis racket, for precision movement. By strapping several of them to your body, you can gain full body tracking, so that in-game avatars align with your exact movements.
With improved base station technology, play spaces are now more customizable. Base stations that support SteamVR* Version 2.0 Tracking allow play areas to be drastically expanded in size and provide a wider field-of-view for greater tracking accuracy.
Other optimizations that can be made to your play space include wall-mounted lighthouses, ceiling-mounted cable management, and carpets that help indicate the boundaries. These are useful tweaks for those who have a room to dedicate to VR and want to spend as little time as possible setting up the space before hopping into the game.
Improved VR Gaming on Desktops or Laptops
VR gaming will continue to improve as new technologies like eye-tracking and curved screens for more natural viewing angles come to fruition. In the meantime, the present VR ecosystem has plenty to offer. Whether you want to play the latest VR games portably on a laptop or on a desktop PC for VR in a dedicated VR room, VR has never been more accessible. However you choose to explore VR, make sure your hardware can support the experience.
Intel system recommendation:
- RAM: 16GB DDR4-2666
- SSD: 1TB or above
- GPU: capable of 90 fps
- CPU: Latest Intel® Core™ i7 gaming processor
- RAM: 16GB DDR4-2666
- SSD: 1TB or above
- GPU: capable of 144 fps
- CPU: Latest Intel® Core™ i9 gaming processor