What makes a VR ready PC?

We are increasingly seeing desktops and notebooks being slapped with a ‘VR ready’ label, but what does that tag actually mean? Jonathan Easton gets the thoughts of retailers, system builders and vendors on the PCs powering high-end virtual reality.

 While there has been no shortage on focus on the technology going into virtual reality headsets – refresh rates, pixel densities, precision of movement and the like – not much of the conversation seems to occur around the setups required to get high-end, power draining VR to run.

One of the big reasons why VR is “still the stuff of science fiction” as Wearable Technology Show COO John Weir puts it, is because, according to Digital Jam’s Tanya Laird, “very few mainstream consumers would have a rig with enough power to really run VR off the bat”.

The big question with a VR ready PC is what it actually is. One would think that it is a PC that meets the requirements set out by the VR equipment makers, but minimum specs are often misleading, says Chillblast sales director Ben Miles. 

“There’s been some confusion recently with some VR headset providers moving the minimum spec requirements substantially lower by employing clever technology like Asynchronous Timewarp and the like,” says Miles. “For a full premium VR experience we still firmly believe that a VR ready system is one that can deliver a premium experience on all titles and on all headsets, which is why we only certify systems with a quad core i5 5th or 6th generation intel CPU OR AMD FX Series 8000 CPU (or better); 8GB DDR3 RAM (or better); a GTX 1060 or RX 470 graphics card (or better); Windows 10 64bit; and 3 x USB 3.0, HDMI.

We are confident that these solutions are capable of delivering a really compelling experience.”

So that’s what a system builder suggests is a minimum spec for a VR Ready system, but what do the headset makers say themselves?

As alluded to by Miles, Oculus somewhat shifted the goalposts of VR requirements in October 2016 with the introduction of what it calls ‘asynchronous spacewarp’ (AWS). AWS is a bit of software that reduces the recommended spec of the Rift from requiring an Nvidia GTX 970 equivalent and an Intel i5-4590, to running on any machine with an Nvidia 960 or greater and an Intel i3-6100 (or AMD FX4350) or greater. What AWS does is essentially a bit of trickery to make a game run at 45 frames per second internally on a PC while providing the smooth 90 frames per seconds to the headset that’s required for VR. AWS has certainly expanded the scope of what PCs can run VR and get more people in the door. “AWS is an awesome technology,” says an enthused Craig Hume of Utopia computers. 

“It’s plain to see that it has allowed many manufacturers to bring down the entry level price of a VR ready PC. For VR to be truly successful we want it to be in the hands of the masses, so anything that can help widen its audience is a good thing.”

Miles similarly states that “when properly employed with the right titles the effects [or AWS] can be impressive.”

Comparing the Rift’s required specs to the HTC Vive – its closest competitor in the high-end VR space – makes for similar reading. The Vive requires basically the same setup as the Rift did before the introduction of AWS, but only needs 4GB of RAM compared with the Rift’s required 8GB.

Taking an example from PC Specialist of its lowest-specced, lowest-priced VR ready PC at £767 we see a system with 8GB of DDR3 RAM, an AMD FX-8300 CPU and an AMD Radeon RX 480. Basically, a system that ticks all the boxes of minimum requrirements. 

When it comes to laptops, Nvidia really opened up the market with the introduction of its GeForce 10-Series graphics cards for notebooks last year. “Every one of these GPUs is VR ready,” said Nvidia’s Mark Avermann at the launch of the range. “This means that millions of notebooks that are going to be sold over the coming year and more will be VR ready. It blows the door open for supporting VR in notebooks.” 

To get a laptop with one of those cards though you’d be paying upwards of £1,000 – the cheapest we could find was a 17-inch MSI laptop which has 8GB of DDR4 RAM, an Intel i7 7700HQ, and an Nvidia GTX 1050 for the grand total of £1,099.00 from Overclockers UK. 

This is all without considering the additional cost of the VR headset. Taking that entry- level desktop and adding on a Vive at £758.99 takes the total price up to a eye-watering £1,525.99. And that’s not even guaranteeing the best experience – just one that meets the minimum requirements. There’s no telling how a system like this will cope with games several years down the line once developers have a greater idea of what they’re doing with VR. Equally, the chances of a cheaper VR ready PC in 2017 meeting the specs of a potential Vive 2 or Rift 2 are unlikely, but this is purely speculation. 

What can be said for certain though is that not all consumers are really too worried about that ultra-high, premium experience says Hume. “PC gaming is built on the idea that you can buy a PC that suits your budget today, and as demands on your applications or games change you can in turn upgrade the system to suit. Rather than saying consumers are happy to buy a PC that, ‘just hits the minimum required spec’, I would say they are happy to compromise on the performance in order to experience VR on their budget.”

And that is part of the joy of PC ownership: you aren’t stuck with what you started with. Users can buy an entry level system and then upgrade parts and components either as they become available or as they can be afforded. “I think PC gaming has been driven partly by frustration with the console model and the limitations in their performance, VR being a good example of this,” says Black Bear’s Richard Alford. “While a gaming PC might cost more up front, the longer term cost of PC gaming is less.”

While this is all very positive, there may be a concern to some about how many people are actually buying PCs specifically for VR in the first place.

“While we don’t track enquiries of all enquiries, we would estimate no more than 5 per cent of people buying a gaming PC enquire directly with Chillblast to buy a PC specifically for VR,” claims Miles. “We are still very much in early adopter territory.”

It would appear then that high-end VR is still a niche, likely not helped by higher prices of VR ready PCs and headsets. It will be interesting to see whether these kinds of VR devices gain traction as higher-specced PCs become cheaper, or if the mobile headsets that have dominated sales remain the primary means by which people get involved with and use VR.

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