Heading into the final weeks of what we'll look back on as the pre-VR era, a surprising number of desktop computers are landing here at the CNET Labs. Maybe it's really not all that surprising, as the two big mainstream virtual reality headsets expected this spring both require the kind of computing muscle only a desktop can provide.
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive both need desktop processors and, more importantly, desktop graphics cards, to run, according to their published system requirements. That's led to a series of Oculus-ready PCs, officially promoted by that Facebook-owned company (including the recently reviewed Dell XPS 8900), as well as a steady stream of PCs calling themselves more generally "VR-ready."
We first spotted this new small desktop design from Origin PC at CES 2016, where it was presented as a compact, arguably portable, gaming rig that could work with the Oculus Rift and other VR gear. The company says this system is specifically targeted at VR enthusiasts and VR developers (and that developers can contact the company for special pricing).
The very powerful base configuration, at $1,799 in the US (that works out to £1,635 and AU$2,418, although shipping these US-made systems overseas may be cost-prohibitive), is what we've tested here. Nearly every aspect of the system, including the graphics, memory and storage, are configurable or upgradable. The base model includes an overclocked Intel Core i7 processor (at 4.7GHz), 8GB of RAM, a storage combo of 250GB SSD and a 1TB HDD, plus an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 graphics card.
You might spend a bit less on that component set elsewhere, but this version includes not only the overclocked CPU, but also a water-cooling setup -- which is key with hot components packed into in a small case like this -- and lifetime 24-7 US-based support, including lifetime free labor for repairs and upgrades.
Origin PC Chronos
|Price as reviewed
|OC 4.7GHz Intel Core i7-6700K
|8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz
|4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970
|250GB SSD + 1TB 7,200rpm HDD
|802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit)
Many gaming PCs from boutique PC builders are essentially off-the-shelf components in an off-the-shelf chassis, perhaps with a custom paint job and some hand tuning and performance tweaking. The Chronos VR is an original Origin PC case design, made of steel and measuring a compact 11.75 inches high by 4 inches wide by 13.75 inches deep. It's big enough to fit in a full-size high-end graphics card (such as an Nvidia 970 or 980), but can just about squeeze into a large backpack for occasional travel.
By far, my favorite feature of this compact design is the included set of magnetic rubber feet. Yes, it's odd to get so enthusiastic about rubber feet when you have a massively powerful gaming PC in front of you, but it's a great little attention-to-detail addition that has real practical advantages.
The four rubber feet are round, with a thin magnetic circle pressed into the center of each one. The default configuration is to place the system upright, with the backlit window cutout on the left panel (through which you can see the side-mounted video card), and the feet on the bottom.
But, with just a little force the feet pop off, and you can flip the entire system so that the right side panel becomes the bottom. Place the four magnetic feet on that panel and you now have a low, wide chassis that looks like a game console or piece of stereo equipment. One small fan vent would be facing down in this configuration, but the rubber feet give it some separation from the floor, and bigger vents are along the other, exposed, panels (speaking of which, the system is generally quiet, but the fans can occasionally spin up loudly). If you're a stickler for aesthetics, the Origin PC logo on the front panel actually rotates so it can always appear upright.
The high cost of virtual reality
When you add the cash outlay for a $599 Oculus Rift or $799 HTC Vive to the cost of a compatible desktop PC, the result may be a serious case of VR sticker shock. Oculus, in particular, is trying to minimize that by pointing consumers toward a series of PCs that cost as little as $999 (with a baked-in discount from buying an Oculus bundle).
The Dell XPS 8900 we reviewed recently is one of the lower-end VR computers, and certainly much less expensive than the Chronos -- but in the case of that Dell you're very consciously buying on the low end of a recommended specs list (including the Core i5 CPU), and potentially setting yourself up for an experience that won't feel very premium in the near future, especially when the second and third generation of VR games come out and demand more power to run cleanly at 90 frames per second, per eye.
Stepping up here to this $1,799 configuration gives you not only a much faster Core i7-6700K desktop processor, but an overclocked one as well. In our application performance tests the difference is clear, and this was the fastest of any of the first generation of VR-ready PCs we're currently testing.
The Nvidia GeForce 970 desktop graphics card used here is not the most powerful around, but it's still a big step up from the 970M and 980M mobile cards found in most gaming laptops. Those mobile systems can cost more than this but generally won't run VR hardware (with the exception of a handful of laptops with desktop parts crammed inside, including Origin PC's own Eon17-SLX). The desktop 970 card here still delivered excellent overall gaming and 3D performance, and the GPU is an easily upgradable part should Nvidia finally release a new generation of cards, or you can simply order the system with a GeForce 980 card for a few hundred dollars more.
While this system isn't part of the official Oculus Ready PC program, it can run the VR testing apps from Valve and Oculus, which are both designed to give you a compatibility thumbs-up on any desktop PC. As expected, both tests concluded that this system was ready for VR, and we hope to test it with actual Vive and Oculus hardware in the coming weeks.
Of the handful of VR-ready computers we've tested to date, the Origin PC Chronos wins on several fronts. It's got the most practical design, packing very high-end (even overclocked) components into a custom chassis small enough to fit into a backpack. It scored the highest thus far in application performance, and did very well on game benchmarks as well.
Even at $1,799, it's reasonably priced as configured, considering it includes exactly the kind of personalized 24-7 service and support that makes you feel confident spending that much on a new computer. That's especially important, as I don't have high expectations from calling the general tech support line of a PC mega-brand and asking VR questions in the middle of the night.
|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