How to build a cheap VR-ready PC
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
It’s been a couple years since the VR renaissance kicked off in earnest, and things are looking up for VR. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are both close to releasing their next-gen hardware, Sony’s PlayStation VR offers an excellent entry point for console-gamers, and there are hundreds of VR titles on the Steam store alone. VR is growing, and it’s not going anywhere, it’s certainly proved to be more than just a fad. But there are still some steep barriers to entry keeping interested enthusiasts from taking the plunge.
The biggest barrier is a simple one: Price. PC gaming is an expensive hobby, and as the $800-for-just-the-headset Vive Pro illustrates, VR gaming is even more expensive. But it doesn’t have to be. Headsets are cheaper than ever, not counting the Vive Pro, and you don’t need a monster PC just to enjoy a little VR. Once you get past the sticker shock of picking up a headset, the rest of the hardware you’ll need for a basic VR rig is relatively inexpensive, with one major exception.
We won’t go through the step-by-step process of actually piecing your system together, but check out our suggestions below to see what you need to get started in PC-based VR.
First off, let’s look at the bare minimum you’re going to need for your VR build. We’re going to try and stay away from specific pricing for this guide, since hardware prices go up and down so frequently, but luckily VR headset prices are pretty static. The HTC Vive starts at $500, and the Oculus Rift starts at $400 — and both include touch controllers.
We’ve reviewed both headsets, and even though the HTC Vive offers a better room-scale VR experience, the Oculus Rift’s touch controllers and overall less-expensive package make it the obvious choice for our build here. Both headsets also have the same minimum spec requirements, so the following suggestions should apply regardless of which you go for.
Next we’re going to need a PC, and here’s where things get tricky. Should you go for a pre-built machine or build one yourself? That’s not an easy question to answer, especially right now, so let’s just look at what hardware you’re definitely going want to look for no matter which path you take.
The most important part of your VR rig, next to your VR headset, is going to be the graphics card. This is the component that does most of the heavy lifting when you’re playing games in or out of VR. It’s also going to be the most expensive component other than the headset. Right now, the graphics card market is experiencing a shortage, so graphics cards are more expensive than they should be — you should carefully weigh which one you want to go with. We benchmarked a handful of high-end, mid-range, and entry-level graphics cards with VRMark to help you decide.
Usually when we put together a performance guide we try to stick with actual in-game performance, but VR is a special case. VR games aren’t designed with ultra-fast framerates in mind, they just need to maintain 90 FPS in both of the head-mounted displays inside your VR headset. That’s because the refresh-rate of their internal displays is typically locked to 90 Hz. VR games and experiences will do whatever they can to maintain a constant 90 FPS to keep things looking smooth. Spiking too high or too low an affect the experience in unpleasant ways. Usually some plain old nausea. So let’s look at the numbers.
Each score here represents a graphics card’s performance in the VR benchmarks. The Orange Room is the easiest benchmark, the Cyan Room is the intermediate benchmark, and the Blue Room is the most demanding. What we’re looking for is a graphics card that performed well in the Orange Room, and got a decent score in the Cyan Room. Those two benchmarks best represent the entry level and mid-range graphics we’re going for. In a perfect world, we’d just recommend the graphics card that performed the best, but this isn’t a “how to build the most expensive VR rig possible” guide. Frugality is a concern here.
For reference, a score of 5,000 in the Orange Room is considered a passing grade for most VR experiences, for the more demanding Cyan Room a passing score is 3,088, and for the high-end 5K Blue Room a passing score is just 1,082. We’re looking for a couple graphics cards that achieve at least 5,000 in the Orange Room, and come close to passing in the Cyan Room.
Looking at our results here, that means the cards we’d recommend are the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060, AMD Radeon RX 570, and RX 580. All three of these graphics cards achieved passing grades in the Orange Room, and Cyan Room. The GTX 1060 and RX 580 passed all three benchmarks so they should be our top contenders.
Now, let’s talk price. A quick Google search returns some wildly different prices for these two graphics cards, and you’re probably going to see some fluctuation day-to-day, and based on your location. For instance, at the time of writing, we’re seeing prices in the $350 to $390 range for the GTX 1060, and $400 to $460 for the RX 580 — all at NewEgg. Doing the same search in just a few days might return wildly different results. Like we mentioned, the GPU market is suffering a shortage right now so prices are a bit complicated.
Your CPU and RAM are also important, but with regard to both of these components you should look at how to prevent bottlenecks. Having a 32GB of RAM and a top-of-the-line AMD Ryzen Threadripper isn’t going to have as big an impact on your performance as having a capable GPU will. For your CPU and RAM you’re going to want to cleave pretty close to the hardware recommendations for the Oculus Rift. That means, at least a 7th-generation Intel Core i5 processor — something like an i5-7500 — or an Intel Core i3-8100, which is roughly equivalent to Oculus’ recommended processor, the i5-4590. Plus, at least 8GB of RAM, though bumping that up to 16GB in the future wouldn’t be a bad idea.
For the Core i3-8100 processor you’re probably looking at about $112, and maybe $70 to $100 for the RAM. But, as we mentioned, PC component pricing is a bit complicated at the moment. That’s why we need to make a rather large caveat before we go further.
Buy, don’t build
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
That’s right. Due to the current state of GPU prices, you may want to consider buying a system with the GPU you want and upgrading other components later. Hear us out. Most PC manufacturers out there all offer a desktop computer with the hardware we’d recommend at a better price than you’re likely to get buying the components yourself — at least right now. Dell and Asus, in particular, have affordable systems that meet our criteria.
Manufacturers can benefit from wholesale prices, so what they paid for the right GPU — an RX 580 or GTX 1060 — is likely less than what you’d pay at a retailer like NewEgg. The Asus G11CD for instance, starts at $1,000 and features a GTX 1060, a 7th-generation Intel i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 1TB of hard drive space. It’s a bit expensive, but it’s the whole package. For a clean $1,400 you have your VR rig, your headset, and you’re good to go. If that’s still a little too expensive, there are other options, let’s take a look at them.
The Dell Inspiron 5680 gaming desktop is an appealing alternative. Starting at $750, you get a GTX 1060, an 8th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 1TB of hard drive space. Looking at the recommended specs for most VR games, you might notice something amiss with this option though: Recommended specs include an Intel Core i5-4590 or equivalent. That’s just the thing, the 8th-generation i3-8100 is equivalent to the i5-4590 in every way that matters, meaning it’s a killer choice for VR.
Looking at current GTX 1060 prices, getting this exact build below $850 is difficult without seriously skimping on important components — like the power supply, case, or RAM. But if you’re good at keeping an eye on sales, and you really want to build a VR rig yourself, both of these desktops serve as excellent templates to build off of. Don’t go lower than a GTX 1060, or an RX 580, pick up at least 8GB of RAM, and try to get your hands on one of Intel’s latest Core i3 processors. That should serve as a good foundation for your entry-level VR PC.
An inconvenient truth
As we mentioned, pricing is the biggest problem you’re likely to encounter putting together a VR-ready PC right now. Putting one together on your own, you’re going to end up paying more than you should for a decent graphics card — and that’s the one component you really can’t skimp on. Your best choice right now is probably going with one of these desktop options or waiting out the market — maybe prices will go down once Nvidia finally releases their cryptocurrency-centric cards, but we won’t know for sure until that actually happens.
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