VR: Finally hitting the mainstream.
Ever since the birth of video games, ‘Virtual Reality’ has been touted as the next big thing. Those of us unlucky enough to remember the early 90’s can recall clumsy ring shaped arenas, hooked up to banks of Amiga 2000’s, roughly bullying a handful of polygons at about 5 frames per second. This, we were told, was the future. The huge costs of such set ups meant that they were never ready for the mainstream much less home use. Since then there have been numerous false starts for VR because the hardware and graphics rendering power simply wasn’t available.
However, 2016 and 2017 saw a huge uptick in investment in VR hardware and software. This was inspired largely by the announcement and four year development of the Oculus Rift – a consumer VR headset promising a high quality experience at an affordable price. That investment, totalling nearly a Billion dollars in 2016, has yielded a number of viable consumer VR devices. The industry interest in VR is also huge meaning that development of VR systems is a lucrative growth industry. Full scale sims have been the preserve of military and commercial training up until now, but a compact and affordable VR headsets means that you can practice complex procedures like surgery or mechanical maintenance in VR, or manipulate and move through 3D components or architectural environments to experience them first hand. The utility of these applications underpins the viability of VR as a consumer device.
The headset is of course half the story. VR is demanding of graphics hardware: Each scene must be rendered twice, in real time. Critically, if the lag between head movement and the corresponding scene being rendered and delivered becomes noticeable you have a very disorienting disconnect and this can induce nausea. Frame rate and frame time consistency are therefore paramount in generating a believable immersive VR world. The coincidence of developed, consumer ready VR headgear and mid to high range GPU’s with the rendering power to feed them has led to a resurgence of interest in VR for gaming
Validating this, one of gaming’s heavyweights threw their hat firmly into the ring: Valve are releasing ALYX – the continuation of the Half Life Cannon, in VR only. That may be the killer app but the list of VR capable games is growing rapidly. There are VR exclusives such as Alyx and Superhot and Beat Sabre. Simulations lend themselves well to VR, with Project Cars 2, X-plane 11, and a host of other Racing games offering a native VR experience. For a more outer world experience, Elite Dangerous offers one of the most complete and immersive VR space sims out there. Eve: Valkyrie and No Mans Sky also offer compelling space-based VR experiences. For more mainstream games Doom has a VR mode whilst Skyrim offers the Elder Scrolls universe in full VR format and Fallout 4 is also reimagined in VR.
So, with the resurgence of VR onto the scene, a host of compelling games and applications both current and scheduled, it’s time to take a look at the hardware you’ll need for a great VR gaming experience. In this article, I’ll discuss the two current viable consumer headsets for PC use, the Oculus Rift S and Valve Index, and recommend powerful but cost-effective GPUs to make the most of them.
Best Oculus Rift S Setup
The Oculus Rift S –Affordable and immersive
The Oculus Rift S is available at a palatable $399/£399 price point, making for one of the more entry-level VR headsets on the market. Using a USB 3.0 and Display port connectors and doing away with external tracking stations means that this headset is less troublesome to set up then the more expensive alternatives. The Screen is 2560x1440p but only at 80hz and this resolution offers a narrower field of view as it’s split between the two eyes. The lower display specification means that a 1440p capable gaming PC is happy running the Rift S.
At the price, it’s one of the few ways to find out if VR is for you without serious financial investment so it gets the PremiumBuilds pick for affordable VR headset.
Best Graphics Card for Oculus Rift S – Asus RTX 2060 Super Strix Advanced
System recommendations for games are often optimistic when it comes to VR, no doubt hoping to lower the barrier to entry. For a smooth and rewarding VR experience you do need GPU power to spare, and so our recommendation at the entry-level is the RTX 2060 Super. This GPUs ability exceeds the mid-range connotations of the ‘60’ series – it’s on a par with a GTX 1080 in most metrics for rendering power and includes 8Gb GDDR6 VRAM, but is built on a 12nm architecture making it an efficient performer. For VR use a USB C port is highly advisable (if your motherboard doesn’t have one) and so the Asus RTX 2060 Super 8 GB Strix Gaming Advanced gets our pick as an out of the box VR ready solution. It’s a long 3 fan and 2.5 slot card with excellent cooling, and. sports onboard RGB and fan header connectors to give great control over those components. At $449 it’s a $49 premium over the cheapest RTX 2060 Supers, but the additional quality of life features are worth the extra in a VR build.
Runner up – Gigabyte RX 5700 Gaming OC
If the RTX 2060 Super is priced too high, or you prefer AMD’s offerings, the Radeon RX 5700 provides a robust alternative. It forgoes some of the advanced technologies of the RTX series GPU’s for high performance where it matters: Rendering. The Gigabyte RX 5700 Gaming OC offers a compelling alternative, it has a 3 fan design and 3 DisplayPort outputs. It does, however, lack USB-C on the rear panel so ensure you don’t require this.
Best Valve Index Setup
The Valve Index – the High end champion at $999
The Valve Index is a relatively new product and is feature-rich but with a price tag to match. You’ll be spending close to four figures to experience the best in-home VR currently available. It uses external tracking base stations to ensure excellent headset tracking, ‘knuckle’ controllers that can register motion of individual fingers, and a very high-quality display with a wide field of view. 1440×1600 per eye resolution provides crisp accurate visuals but does increase the burden on the GPU – but if you’re spending $1000 on a VR headset then you should also be making funds available for a top tier GPU to ensure the best possible experience.
Ultimately this decision will be decided by one factor: Cost. IF you want an entry point to VR then the Oculus Rift S is clearly the best option. If you want a full-featured cutting edge VR system to complement a powerful gaming PC, and the price doesn’t phase you, then the Valve Index is the system for you.
Best Graphics Card for Valve Index – EVGA 2080 Super XC Ultra
With a total resolution of 2880×1600 @ 120hz, the Valve Index requires a similar pixel fill rate as a 4k monitor at 60hz – that is to say you’ll need a top tier GPU to get the most from it. The RTX 2080 Super is the current best balance of performance without spending another $300 on an entry-level RTX 2080 Ti. Capable of a smooth 100+ FPS in demanding titles, this GPU prevents stutter and lag.
The EVGA XC Ultra is a factory overclocked edition, with a thick 3 slot cooler. The retail price of $730/£700 is just a handful of cash more than entry-level models, but the enhanced cooling solution (note this takes 3 slots so isn’t suitable for most ITX builds). It has 2 HDMI, 2 DisplayPort and a USB C connector on the backplate providing a wealth of connectivity options. EVGA has a solid customer service reputation which is always reassuring when you’re spending top dollar on parts.
We consider the RTX 2080 Super to be the best overall graphics card for the Valve index – with only the RTX 2080 Ti besting its performance. You can read about our choices for that high-end GPU here.
VR is finally hitting the mainstream with affordable and rewarding hardware options. Whilst still hard to recommend as an addition to an entry-level PC, any $1000 mid-range gaming PC can be readily upgraded to accommodate a $350 headset that will allow you to explore what VR has to offer.
We hope that you’ll get huge enjoyment, and unique gaming experience, from your VR equipped premium build using the information in this article to help your buying decisions for VR in 2020!