Is your PC ready for VR? This test says mine's not good enough

Can your PC handle it?

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
3 min read
Josh Miller/CNET

So close, yet so far. That's how my home-built gaming PC scored on Valve's new SteamVR benchmark. The test, which you can download on Steam today, is one of the first, best ways to tell whether your PC is ready to help an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset transport you to another world.

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So close, yet so far. My score: 5.8

You might think testing your PC isn't a big deal. Perhaps your PC already plays games perfectly well. But VR can tax a PC far more than traditional PC games -- and there are greater consequences for failure. If a regular PC game runs a little slowly, that's OK. If a VR game runs too slowly, you can actually get sick. (I speak from experience.)

In fact, Valve's test explicitly says some VR games won't run at all if your computer doesn't have enough muscle. Apparently, your safety is a priority.

And that's the exact conundrum I'm finding myself in today. My own home-built gaming PC is no slouch. It's got a 3.3GHz Core i5-2500K processor, a GeForce GTX 970 graphics card and 16GB of memory, which is a long-winded way of saying I spent more on it than most people. Ever since I upgraded the graphics card a few months back, I have no trouble playing any PC game.

But Valve's SteamVR benchmark -- which tested my computer with a real section of a real Portal VR experience -- says it's quite possible I'm going to miss out on some of what VR has to offer.

VR-Ready system recommendations

Oculus RiftHTC Vive
CPU Intel i5-4590 or equivalentIntel i5-4590, AMD FX-8350 or equivalent
Graphics Nvidia GTX 970, AMD R9 290Nvidia GTX 970, AMD R9 290
Memory 8GB+4GB+
Video output HDMI 1.3HDMI 1.4 or DisplayPort 1.2
USB ports 3x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.01x USB 2.0
Operating system Windows 7 SP1 or newerWindows 7 SP1 or newer

To be fair, my five-year-old Intel CPU doesn't quite match the recommended spec of either the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, which each ask for a newer, fourth-generation Intel Core i5-4590 or equivalent. But my CPU isn't the issue. Valve's benchmark even shows that my CPU isn't holding me back.

Instead, Valve's test recommends I upgrade my graphics card, even though I have the exact Nvidia GTX 970 card that both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive recommend. In other words, I'm scraping against the bottom of the the recommended specs for these VR rigs. The benchmark isn't wrong -- again, it's running a real VR game -- but the sum of the parts in my system may not be enough to run the games the way the developers intended. If I want to stay safe, a better video card would probably be the most effective upgrade.

I did try a few things to see if I could coax my system to produce a better score. I tried updating my graphics drivers. I even tried overclocking my CPU to 4.2GHz. The results were identical.

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Overclocking my CPU didn't help.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

So, like my colleague Nate Ralph, I'm probably looking down the barrel of a $300+ upgrade to make my perfectly good gaming PC into a VR-ready one. And that's counting the $600-$800 cost of the headset itself.

VR is pretty amazing stuff, and I'm seriously considering spending the extra cash. Some people are willing to buy or build an entirely new PC just for VR. (My colleague came around eventually, too.) But it's a tough pill to swallow when I thought my PC was already ready for action.

Full disclosure: My wife works for Facebook, owner of Oculus VR.

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My Fire Strike benchmark score is over 9,000 -- roughly equivalent to the Oculus recommended spec. I'm hoping it's enough.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET