It's been a while since a standard tower desktop PC has darkened my computer testing bench. After all, laptops and hybrids are where all the action is at these days, and when I do review a desktop, it's usually a small-form-factor system, such as the Mac Mini, Alienware Alpha or Intel Compute Stick.
But there are now several very traditional-looking desktops lined up in the CNET Labs. Is it because of a sudden surge in interest in computers that look like they dropped in from 2005? No, it's because the first wave of virtual reality hardware -- the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive -- will only work on computers with desktop-level components. That means anyone interested in VR right now needs to invest in a desktop PC, or one of a very small handful of oversize laptops with desktop parts crammed inside.
Aside from the sticker shock of a $599 Oculus Rift or a $799 HTC Vive, the required PC system specs for these two VR headsets are going to be a major hit in the wallet for anyone who does not have a recently updated gaming desktop. Besides a reasonably current Intel Core i5 or Core i7 CPU, Oculus and Vive require a desktop graphics card -- at least an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD R9 290 (and no, for a variety of technical reasons, laptop graphics cards, no matter how powerful, won't currently work).
Fortunately, Oculus has already promised compatible gaming PCs for as little as $999. While VR-ready desktops with high-end Core i7 CPUs and Nvidia 980 or 980ti cards can cost $2,000 or more, the poster child for affordable VR computing is the Dell XPS 8900 Special Edition, a system specifically promoted by both Oculus and Dell as being VR-ready for less.
On its own, this specific configuration is $1,199 in the US, although periodic promotions have dropped it to $999. (The Oculus-compatible XPS 8900 is not currently being sold in the UK or Australia, but that works out to roughly £716 or AU$1,390.) Further, when ordered as part of an Oculus Rift headset bundle, the price drops by $200, and even if you've already ordered your Oculus Rift, you can log into your account and get a promo code for $200 off this configuration, or similar discounts on other VR-ready desktops from Asus or Dell's Alienware brand.
While the XPS 8900 can be configured with a wide range of components, including faster processors, more powerful graphics and solid state or hybrid storage, this model includes a current-gen Intel Core i5-6400 CPU (about as mainstream as you can get), 8GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive and the Nvidia 970 graphics card, all inside a plastic and metal chassis. Non-Special Edition versions go as low as $699 in the US, but those won't work with VR headsets.
|Price as reviewed||$1,199|
|PC CPU||2.7GHz Intel Core i5-6400|
|PC Memory||8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz|
|Graphics||4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970|
|Storage||1TB 7,200rpm HDD|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit)|
On the upside, it's a decent set of specs for the price, and fine for everyday computing and mainstream PC gaming. The system interior, accessible through a removable side panel, has some room for expansion, including three hard drive bays (just one is used here), four RAM slots (two are filled with 4GB RAM modules), and two extra PCIe slots. Note, however, that the power supply is a 460W one, but that's enough for a Core i7 and GeForce 980 card.
The case feels gigantic, even if Dell calls this a mini-tower (full-size towers are rare these days outside of specialized gaming and design rigs). The black-and-chrome look is generically inoffensive, but the glossy, black plastic front panel and matte-black side panels feel a little mismatched. As we've seen with most modern mainstream desktops, USB and memory card slots are easily accessible on the front panel, while a small indented panel on the top, good for holding USB keys and spare change, offers access to a couple more USB ports and audio jacks. While optical media is relatively rare these days, the system comes with one DVD drive and an extra front panel door for a second drive -- a throwback to the days when people needed not one, but two optical drives in their desktops (and let's be honest, that was usually for copying music CDs).
Assuming one doesn't have a compatible desktop PC already, buying into one of the new VR ecosystems isn't going to be cheap. Starting with a $599 Oculus Rift or $799 HTC Vive, a VR-ready computer can cost thousands. It's cheaper to build or upgrade your own not-too-old machine, of course, but having a $999 (after the bundle discount) computer that's ready to roll on day one is tempting.
Of course, there's a quantitative difference between buying a $999 desktop and a $2,000 or more desktop. The Nvidia 970 graphics cards here is a great component and a good value, but the top-of-the-line 980 and 980ti cards are significantly more powerful. The entire 900-series from Nvidia is also getting a little old, having been launched back in late 2014. I wouldn't be surprised if newer cards hit the market a little later this year.
The Intel Core i5 processor is also not exactly what gamers are looking for -- it's fine for even heavy everyday multitasking, but the i5/970 combo here (along with the modest 8GB of RAM) -- all added up to a system that felt fast much of the time, but was prone to moments of sluggishness. And, that's just in everyday use and traditional PC gaming, not virtual reality, where two separate screens inside the headset each need to display 90 frames of perfectly synced animation per second.
Oculus claims this configuration is good enough for the Rift, and until we have final Rift hardware to test with, we'll have to give the company the benefit of the doubt. But make no mistake: this is the low end of the recommended specs list for VR.
In our standard benchmarks, the XPS 8900 fell behind a couple of more-premium VR-ready desktops, as expected. Most of the VR-tagged desktops we've seen go with a faster Core i7 as their processor. But, in current PC games, the i5/970 combo is often just what's called for. Fallout 4 played very smoothly at full FD 1,920x1,080 resolution at ultra detail levels. For 4K gaming, which is still not very common, you'll want to consider investing in more forward-looking hardware.
Game benchmarks were respectable, even impressive considering the price and specs. It's especially important to note that that configuration outpaced even a premium gaming laptop such as the Asus ROG G752, which we tested with a Core i7 CPU and mobile Nvidia 970M GPU.
In the VR test apps provided by Valve and Oculus, the XPS 8900 passed both. The Valve VR test gave the system a cautiously optimistic 6.5 (out of a possible 11), and the Oculus test, which only checks system components against a list of acceptable choices, delivered a green check mark, as expected from a desktop specifically configured to pass this particular test.
Oculus promised a VR-ready desktop gaming PC for $999 -- with a bundle discount -- and through this Dell system (and a similar Asus model), that promise has been delivered on. The XPS 8900 Special Edition is also a reasonably priced everyday desktop that's well-suited for mainstream gaming on a budget.
In the final month or so before the first wave of virtual reality hardware arrives, this desktop checks off the required checkboxes to call itself VR-ready. Just beware of the inherent risks of buying for the low end of the system requirement spectrum.
|Dell XPS 8900 Special Edition||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-6400; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970; 1TB 7,200rpm HDD|
|Asus ROG G752VT||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M; 128GB SSD + 1TB 7,200rpm HDD|
|Lenovo Ideacentre Y900||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 980; 256GB SSD+2TB 7,200rpm HDD|
|Origin PC Chronos||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); OC 4.7GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970; 250GB SSD+1TB 7,200rpm HDD|
|Origin PC Eon17-SLX||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4.5GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 980; 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD|