Virtual Reality (VR) is an ever-growing industry on the pinnacle of PC hardware, but what do you actually need to be ready for VR? This guide walks you through all you need to know on the PC side of things, including headset options and required hardware power. We also discuss PSVR and standalone, mobile-chipset-based VR headsets as alternative options to a more traditional VR setup.
Getting the Hardware for Virtual Reality
First and foremost, you’ll want to verify whether your current PC hardware meets the requirements of the headset you’re looking for. Your graphics card is more likely to be the bottleneck than the CPU, so we’re discussing that requirement first.
If you’re looking for entry-level VR (say around a 2160 x 1200 resolution on the headset and 90 Hz), you’ll want a graphics card no less powerful than the AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB or Nvidia GTX 1060 6GB.
In order to get a rough idea of how powerful your graphics card is compared to entry-level VR-ready graphics cards, click here to search for its 3DMark results. The RX 580 scores a 4292 in 3DMark Time Spy, whereas a modern budget graphics card like the GTX 1660 Super scores a solid 6089, making it more than enough for VR’s minimum specs.
As you increase headset resolution and refresh rate, a more powerful GPU becomes more and more necessary. The entry point for the higher-end of VR starts around the Nvidia RTX 3060 and the upcoming AMD RX 6700 XT.
CPU requirements for VR are relatively lax compared to GPU requirements, fortunately – as long as you’re pushing a reasonably modern quad-core-or-more CPU from AMD or Intel, you should be fine. You can consider any Ryzen 5 or Intel Core i5 released after 2017.
You may want to opt for a Ryzen 7 or Intel Core i7 if you’re pursuing 120 Hz or more in VR, though, since all those extra frames need CPU power, too.
RAM-wise, your exact requirements will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Generally, we’d recommend 8GB as a baseline for a modern VR machine, as this is the recommended spec for the Valve Index.
Does all this PC hardware stuff sound scary to you when you may not be looking for the most cutting-edge experience? Take a look at our sections on standalone headsets and console VR for a few nice alternative choices.
Recommended Virtual Reality Headsets
1. Entry-Level: Oculus Quest 2
Even if you have no interest in using its standalone headset features, the Oculus Quest 2 (check out our review here) is a great VR headset for any PC setup. The built-in 6DOF (Degree of Freedom) motion tracking is shockingly accurate compared to last-gen solutions, and the price is about as cheap as it gets for a VR headset.
While the resolution is limited to 1832 x 1920 (somewhat low for a virtual reality headset), the Quest 2 makes up for this with out-of-box support for a 90Hz refresh rate, with a whopping 120Hz possible with a software update.
120Hz in a VR headset at this price is an astoundingly good deal, but many VR games running off the headset alone may not be able to push that refresh rate. Using the Quest 2 with a PC can help you make the most of that refresh rate, though.
This is an amazing option, whether you plan on using it with a PC or not. And for under $300, I can’t recommend the Quest 2 enough.
Note that you will need to make or connect a Facebook account to use this device. It’s the monkey’s paw catch for getting a headset this good for this cheap.
2. Mid-Range: HTC Vive Cosmos
The HTC Vive Cosmos builds on the last-generation HTC Vive using very similar Lighthouse sensors and motion controllers but with a greatly-upgraded display at a whopping 2880 x 1700 resolution. Its raw resolution is better than the higher-end Valve Index, but it doesn’t offer the same support for high refresh rates. Overall, most consumers and reviewers tend to prefer the Valve Index, but if you can’t afford that, this is a great middle ground.
3. High-End: Valve Index
Last but certainly not least is the Valve Index, which is currently offering the best experience in the PC VR marketplace. The motion controllers are fairly well built and track the movement of individual fingers, and the upgraded Lighthouse 2.0 sensors offer even better motion tracking than before. The resolution of the Valve Index headset is an impressive 2880 x 1600, and this is further compounded by a high-quality IPS panel capable of running at up to 144 Hz for near true-to-life motion in VR.
If you can afford it, the Valve Index is easily the best VR headset on the market.
Alternative: Using a Standalone VR Headset
This has become quite a compelling option, especially if you’re eyeing something like the Oculus Quest 2. Standalone VR headsets do have great downsides compared to a full PC setup, namely worse motion tracking and much worse graphical fidelity due to running off of mobile chipsets.
However, standalone VR headsets also greatly cut down on the amount of money you would otherwise need to spend to get into PC/console VR, and on something like the Quest 2, you can still run many of the most popular VR games, like Beat Saber.
Additionally, a genuine downside of PC VR headsets compared to standalone headsets is that you’ll need to actually set aside space to install and use the Lighthouse sensors as intended. For room-scale VR experiences, it’s recommended you have a minimum of 2 x 1.5 meters of free space. that may not be viable for your living situation, especially since you need all of that to be wired to your PC, too.
The PSVR Experience
While discussing modern virtual reality, I couldn’t not mention the PlayStation VR Headset.
The PSVR headset doesn’t quite stack up to our other headsets in terms of motion tracking, resolution or even refresh rate. What it does have that those headsets and ecosystems generally do not is the backing of a big software provider to push for the development of AAA experiences on the platform. Despite weaker hardware and much less motion tracking, PSVR goes a surprisingly long way to bridge the gap, thanks to the higher budgets of its games.
There is an elephant in the room that can’t be ignored here, though: PSVR2 will release at some point. When it does, it’ll be optimized for the PlayStation 5 and its hardware, providing experiences that the current generation of PSVR can’t. However, the same logic applies to pretty much all hardware on the market: if you want a PSVR experience today, you may as well just go with PSVR, especially if you can get it for a good price.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What makes VR different from AR or “XR”?
These are both closely related terms but aren’t necessarily the same as VR.
AR, or Augmented Reality, refers to applications that build on a real-world camera feed to simulate items in the same physical space. While every headset in this article sans PSVR could theoretically support AR due to the included cameras, AR is largely limited to mobile apps these days. (Oculus is beginning to look into it for the Quest 2, though!)
XR, or Xtended Reality, is an umbrella term used to describe all VR, AR, and even MR (Mixed Reality) technologies.
VR is focused solely on experiences inside the headset and simulated world rather than interfacing with the space around you as with AR or MR.
2. Do the Xbox One or Xbox Series consoles support VR?
No, and unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a plan for adding it, either.
3. What is “roomscale” VR?
A roomscale VR experience is where you can actually walk around a limited space and interact with it; it requires a very good set of trackers and motion controllers to work its best. This is where PC-based VR excels if you can make clear space for tracking stations and your playing area.
Standalone headsets did not previously support this, but the Oculus Quest line’s support for 6DOF tracking has made it possible without external tracking. This is based on cameras and is fundamentally less accurate than having external sensors, at least at the time of writing.
The current VR space is dominated by standalone headsets and advanced motion tracking technologies. Projects like Google Cardboard have long since been discontinued, but with titles like Half-Life: Alyx and the release of the Quest 2, it’s never been a better time to be a fan of virtual reality. But if you’re still a little confused, check out this glossary of gaming terms and their meanings.
Image Credit: ESA/Corvaja & Samantha Cristoforetti on Friday