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You can finally afford a kickass VR-ready PC graphics card

Review: AMD's Radeon RX480 is the video card for people who don't buy video cards.

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It's tough to justify spending money on a PC graphics card.

I can see why: for some it's never made sense. Why would "PC gamers" pay $400 for a single, soon-to-be-obsolete component of a gaming computer, when that money could buy an entire Xbox or PlayStation?

Even if you've seen how lovely PC games can be with their graphics settings cranked up, or witnessed how amazing virtual reality can be with an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset, the $300-plus spend for a good-enough GPU might have held you back.

But what if I told you that you could get a powerful graphics card for just $200?

It's true: The new AMD Radeon RX 480, a $200 (£180, AU$329) graphics card, has unheard-of bang for the buck.

(If you can find it for that price, anyhow. More on that later.)

The AMD Radeon RX 480.

Sean Hollister/CNET

The RX 480 isn't the most powerful graphics card ever made -- far from it. Truth be told, it's only about as powerful as an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 from late 2014. But for you, a budding PC gamer, it's everything you need.

The GTX 970 is a graphics card that can play any of today's PC games at very high settings -- graphics that today's game consoles can only dream of -- and run any VR title for the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Originally, it cost $330, or roughly £255 or AU$445 converted.

Now, the new AMD RX 480 can do all that for $200.

God rays and gorgeous hair in Tomb Raider (2013).

GIF by Sean Hollister/CNET

I know, because I tested the RX 480 against my very own GTX 970. It passed with flying colors. Even with my computer's five-year-old CPU, motherboard and memory, I could play incredibly demanding games such as The Witcher 3 at very high settings on a 1080p monitor or TV. I was able to absolutely max out the eye candy in less demanding games such as Overwatch, or older titles like BioShock Infinite and 2013's Tomb Raider. Let me tell you, Lara Croft's windswept hair is an absolute treat.

I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time proving that the AMD RX 480 is an exceptionally fast video card for the money, because I imagine you don't read many video card reviews. (And if you do, the fine folks at AnandTech, PC Perspective and Tom's Hardware will back me up.)

Instead, I'd like to tell you just what you should -- and shouldn't -- expect for your $200.

Virtual reality

With the RX 480, AMD basically just cut the price of a VR-capable gaming rig by $130 (£100, AU$175), compared to the $330 Nvidia GTX 970 that the headset companies recommend.

Of course, a $130 savings isn't a big deal if you need to build a whole new VR-ready computer. You could easily spend $300 just on a new CPU, motherboard and memory, not to mention another $600-$800 (£499-£689, AU$649-$1,210) for the headset itself.

But you may not need to buy a new PC at all. What CPU companies don't want you to know: main system processors haven't gotten that much faster over the past five years or so.

amd-radeon-rx-480-cnet-1.jpg

The AMD Radeon RX 480 in my five-year-old gaming PC. Also see: the video at the top of this post.

Sean Hollister/CNET

When I stuck the powerful AMD RX 480 graphics card into my homebuilt gaming PC, one with a five-year-old Intel Core i5-2500K CPU and motherboard, it was good enough for basic VR. I tore up enemy starfighters in Eve: Valkyrie, drove through thunderstorms in Project Cars, and ascended a peak with my bare hands in The Climb -- all with silky smooth framerates at a noticeably high level of graphical detail.

That's because whether we're talking about VR or traditional polygonal games, performance mostly depends on the graphics card.

Still, you can't stick an RX 480 into any old computer and expect it to work with VR. Upgrading a PC for the Oculus Rift in particular isn't as easy as you might think, particularly because your PC needs some high-end USB ports to connect to the Rift and its camera. You'll also need enough space, power and the right slots for this high-end graphics card to work. (Watch the video at the top of this article to learn more.)

While an RX 480 might be good enough for today's VR titles, there are already indications that it might not be powerful enough for tomorrow. When I tried to crank up the resolution in Eve: Valkyrie, The Gallery and Project Cars to higher than the default, my aging i5-2500K system immediately began to stutter. Our do-it-yourself future-proof VR gaming PC did a little bit better with its brand-new Core i7-6700K chip, but while the 480 made our PCs VR-ready, it clearly doesn't offer a lot of headroom.

And with virtual reality, you should know that stutter -- the result of a struggling graphics card -- isn't something you can ignore: you can easily get motion sick when VR isn't working well.

Traditional games

Virtual reality can be pretty tough on a graphics card, but traditional games are easier to handle. You'd be hard-pressed to find a game that doesn't play well on the AMD RX 480, and the most demanding games in my library didn't pose a huge challenge. At 1080p, the typical full HD resolution of today's monitors and HDTVs, every game I own was smooth sailing at high, if not maximum levels of detail.

That means beautiful rays of light poking out through clouds, beautifully rendered water, incredibly detailed characters and surfaces, and the ability to see objects that are far, far away. Plus, a dramatic lack of jagged edges compared to what you might be used to, if you're used to console gaming or an old, weak PC.

Average frame rates at 1080p resolution, max settings with a Core i5-2500K CPU

AMD RX 480 Nvidia GTX 970
The Witcher 3 55 fps 48 fps
GTA V 32 fps 38 fps
BioShock Infinite 107 fps 107 fps
Tomb Raider (2013) 87 fps 84 fps
3DMark Firestrike 9256 points 8743 points

Only Grand Theft Auto V gave me much trouble with the RX 480 compared to my pricier Nvidia GTX 970, and according to AMD that's because of a driver issue. Both cards struggled with Crysis 3, a game that still brings the latest graphics cards to their knees.

What you shouldn't expect from the RX 480: gaming at 4K. The $200 card just doesn't have enough muscle to play the latest games on an ultra-high-def 4K television, or even a 2,560x1,440-resolution monitor at max settings. If that's what you need, you'll probably want to pay more for a GeForce 1080 or 1070. Nothing else comes close.

amd-radeon-rx-480-005.jpg

Nvidia's prices are already dropping now that the AMD Radeon RX 480 is out, and Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 1060 might mount a challenge.

Sean Hollister/CNET

To buy, or not to buy

At this moment in time, the AMD RX 480 has no competition at a base price of $200. It's pulling a level of performance down to a price we've never seen before -- much like how the just-released Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 and 1070 are bringing $1,000 and $600 performance down to (respectively) the $600 and $380 marks.

Unfortunately, the other thing these three graphics cards have in common is intense consumer demand. You can't just go out and buy one of these GPUs even if you wanted to, because the word is out that they're hot stuff. Some are selling for more than the suggested price (we're seeing prices well over $300, £230 or AU$400!), which kind of defeats the purpose of this card. It's worth waiting until the fever goes down.

And if you wait a while longer, you'll have another card to choose from. On July 19, Nvidia and partners will start selling the GeForce GTX 1060, a $250 graphics card (roughly £195 or AU$335) which Nvidia claims is 15 percent faster than the RX 480 on average in the latest game titles for just $50 more.

But if $200 is the magic price that will let you justify an expedition into high-end PC gaming and VR, the RX 480 is the card you've waiting for. You'll find it on sale from a variety of partners in two different configurations (including a pricier 8GB model for $240) in the months to come.