Splurging on a high-priced VR headset is just the beginning. The computer hardware needed to run Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can cost several times as much.
Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
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Jumping into the new and exciting world of virtual reality has more dangers than just suffering from motion sickness or bumping your knee on the coffee table while wearing a giant set of goggles. Sticker shock is a very real side effect of the devices leading this first generation of virtual experiences.
Imagine this nightmare scenario: After paying $599 for an Oculus Rift or $799 for an HTC Vive (already a serious investment), you connect it to a computer -- maybe one that you purchased last year or even last month. (The Vive runs £689 in the UK and around AU$1,340 including shipping to Australia. The Vice will cost you £499 in the UK and AU$835.47 in Australia.) But that new Rift or Vive takes one look at your computer and laughs. Why? They're just not compatible. And if you've got a Mac, forget it.
The first thing to remember about VR is that the new headsets require a desktop computer. That's right, I said desktop. With a small handful of expensive exceptions, even a brand-new gaming laptop doesn't have graphics hardware powerful enough to run a VR headset.
The minimum computer requirements to use both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are an Intel Core i5-4590 or better processor, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970/AMD R9 290 graphics card or better. The former requirement is mainstream enough, but the latter is where things can get expensive.
How much are we talking? Well, the least you can expect to pay for a premade VR-ready desktop PC is about $999, but that gets you only the bare minimum specs you need. So think of that $999 as the starting line, not the finish.
"Anytime anybody says minimum," says Kelt Reeves, president of gaming PC builder Falcon Northwest, "just be aware of what you're getting." This may mean a system that can probably play all the Oculus and Vive games and apps today but may not be ready for the more ambitious games of tomorrow.
"Usually these PCs are the center of someone's universe," says Reeves. "To give you an example, we start at about $2,000 and go on up from there. That's the ballpark that we play in."
Kevin Wasielewski, co-founder and CEO of Origin PC, another high-end gaming computer company, is more pointed. "You don't want to buy a high-end headset and then get something cheap to power it," he says. "It's like: 'Let me buy this super-nice Porsche, but let me get the slowest possible engine.' I look nice in my Porsche, but I'm driving 20 miles an hour."
Tuned for VR
Of course, those in the business of selling really expensive gaming PCs are naturally going to insist you need a really expensive gaming PC. But even more mainstream PC makers acknowledge that going with the absolute minimum required specs for VR undersells what you'll need to fully enjoy the VR experience.
Think of it like this: VR headsets are essentially a pair of tiny computer monitors strapped to your face, and each of those screens needs to display 90 frames of animation per second in order to look and feel right. (By comparison, a television program is only 30 frames per second.)
Mike Nash, vice president of customer experience and portfolio strategy at HP, agrees that the $999 VR computer won't fly. "If you don't get the performance right, you can actually get kind of nauseous because you're getting an experience that is not fluid," he says. "The whole thing about virtual reality is, your eyes and the device are playing a trick on your brain. If you don't execute that trick pretty flawlessly, it can make you a little bit motion-sick."
Naturally, Nash thinks the solution is a computer designed especially for the needs of virtual reality, such as HP's Phoenix (since renamed as the HP Omen desktop), a $1,199-and-up gaming desktop built and tuned with the HTC Vive headset in mind. "You want to spend minimal time tinkering and maximum time enjoying virtual reality," he says. "By having a device that is pretested, pretuned, preconfigured for virtual reality, the theory is the customer spends less time tinkering, and all their time experiencing."
Is pretuning a computer to have all the right drivers and settings already baked in for a specific virtual reality headset more important than splurging on the most powerful processor and graphics card you can afford? Nash says it's a balancing act. "I once knew this personal trainer who would ask this trick question: What's more important, flexibility, cardio capacity or strength? The answer is, they're all important. What's more important, having the right drivers, having the right chassis, having the right parts? The answer is they're all important because they all deliver the experience."
Bundles of joy
Don't despair that virtual reality is forever out of reach of real reality budgets. Oculus links to officially endorsed $999 desktops from Asus and Dell on its website and even gives Rift purchasers a discount on bundled hardware, with an average of $200 off a Rift-plus-computer combo.
Zvi Greenstein, general manager of GeForce and VR at Nvidia, gives a qualified endorsement of the lower-end computers that hit the minimum required specs. He says that Nvidia's GeForce GTX 970 graphics card (about $325 on its own, or available in computers priced from $999 to $1,299) "will support a great VR experience. It will ensure 90 frames per second consistently, with low latency. That's the card that we recommend for the minimum basic VR experience."
But Greenstein also admits the extra power in the more-expensive step-up GeForce 980 and higher cards ($500 or more on their own and typically found in $1,500-and-up PCs) can make a big difference. That's because VR headsets put their visuals mere centimeters from your eyes. He says the ability of better, more-expensive cards to crank in-game detail levels -- from textures to shadows to reflections -- to their highest settings is "even more important in VR, simply because the resolution in VR is relatively low. In-game settings will make a bigger difference in terms of the end user experience." [Editors' note: Since this story was originally published in CNET Magazine, Nvidia has announced newer, faster GeForce 1080 cards.]
One thing is clear. Virtual reality will cost a lot, even on top of the expensive headsets. But that doesn't mean there's not still a huge buzz around these new immersive experiences. "We're on the cusp of something so exciting, something so incredible. I mean, there's never been any leap like this in gaming," says Origin PC's Wasielewski. "It's impossible to describe it to somebody who hasn't done it. You can't understand it until you do it."
This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.