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.
Dell XPS 8900 Special Edition
|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).
But is it really ready for VR?
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.