With a few tricks and some upgrade, we’ll transform your current machine into a VR system that will rock your gaming experience for the next months ! Fountain of Knowledge, we’re all ears (or eyes, you see what I mean).
Virtual reality is the next big thing, and it’s no overnight success – it’s been a long time coming. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are leading the way to bring VR to PC, and those projects have been subjected to intense rumour, speculation and development since they first began to emerge in 2012.
Don’t think of these headsets like the VR that made it big in the 90s, though. Those old devices churned out wonky graphics and embarrassing experiences – whereas today’s headsets enable stunning gameplay and intense experiences.
Today’s top-tier headsets are a world apart from older VR experiences. That means it’s a whole new way to play games – but it also means you need good hardware. That’s where PNY comes in.
Oculus intends to ship its Rift headsets in July 2016, and dozens of games already have Rift support – and the firm is already funding many more games specifically designed for the headset. The Oculus SDK is fully integrated with popular game engines, and its hardware is consistently impressive: each eye is served by a 1,080 x 1,200 screen with a 90Hz refresh rate, its headphones churn out 3D audio, and it’s got rotation and position tracking – so the Rift can also be used when standing or walking.
It’s an impressive bit of kit, but the Rift also requires solid hardware to work smoothly. The Oculus needs a GeForce GTX 970 or a more powerful GPU, and a Core i5-4590 or equivalent processor. It also needs eight gigabytes of memory.The HTC Vive is a collaboration between phone firm HTC and Valve, the developer behind Steam. The device uses two wireless controllers in conjunction with the headset, which gives users the ability to walk around and interact with objects and environments. It’s available to buy right now, for around 950 € – although that amount may change.
The Vive uses screens with the same resolution and refresh rate as the Oculus Rift, and it has more than 70 sensors inside. The Vive’s recommend system requirements are the same as the Rift – a GTX 970 and Core i5-4590.
The Rift and Vive both have two displays with decent resolutions, so that means any PC needs to power both of those screens – and the headsets also pump out extra pixels to compensate for distortion through lenses. That’s not all, either, as the different perspectives required for each screen means GPUs have to render two marginally different images.
It’s no surprise that their minimum requirements are relatively high – Nvidia even reckons that VR headsets can be almost twice as demanding as regular PC output. In order to get VR running smoothly, you’ll need hardware that can output almost as much as 4K, and Oculus recommends that gamers should aim for 90fps – the maximum framerate of both the Rift and the Vive.
The GTX 970 can play some high-end games at 4K, but to get near that 90fps 4K benchmark you’ll have to turn down the graphics quality levels. In GTA V at 4K and with High settings selected the GTX 970 averaged 53fps, and in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor at Very High the GTX 970 averaged 36fps.
The GTX 970 will play VR, then, but only with middling graphics. To get a smoother and better-looking VR experience – and one that will last longer, as more demanding games emerge – it’s worth investigating the GTX 980 and GTX 980 Ti.
Those cards are more capable when it comes to churning out high framerates. The GTX 980 was eleven frames faster than the GTX 970 in GTA V, and it played Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor at 43fps. It also handled CS:GO’s toughest 4K settings with an average of 115fps – a stunning result.
The GTX 980 Ti is undoubtedly the best single-card option for getting VR headsets running smoothly. With GTA V
running at 4K and with its High settings enabled the GTX 980 Ti averaged 83fps, which is barely below that 90fps barrier – so on a VR headset that game will run smoothly and look fantastic. It wasn’t far behind in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, either, with a 59fps average.
In short, then, all of these cards can play VR smoothly, but they’ll all require quality compromises, too. If you’ve got a GTX 970 then expect to turn graphics down significantly, but cards like the GTX 980 Ti will handle the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive without dropping so far down the settings menus.
Three of PNY’s single-GPU cards will play games on VR headsets, then, but it’s clear that the best VR experience will come from even more graphical power. That means one thing: multi-GPU.
There are huge performance gains to be had by adding a second graphics card to a machine, and it’s feasible in many different scenarios – if you have a machine with one card then it’s easy enough to fit another, and it’s worth investigating multi-GPU if you’re building a new rig.
Adding a second GTX 970 has a dramatic impact in benchmarks. With two cards locked and loaded our rig rattled through GTA V’s 4K High benchmark at 95fps – and even managed 62fps with the game’s Ultra settings loaded. It played Shadow of Mordor’s Ultra 4K settings at 59fps, and CS:GO at 145fps – a good sign, considering that CS: GO’s Source engine has built-in support for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Beefier multi-GPU rigs bring even more power to the table. A pair of GTX 980s blitzed through GTA V’s Ultra settings at an average of 71fps, and it played that game’s 4K High benchmark at a remarkable 101fps.
As ever, the ultimate solution for VR is the GTX 980 Ti – and two of them provide remarkable power. With two GTX 980 Ti cards in our test rig the machine ran GTA V’s Ultra 4K test at 84fps, and then blitzed through Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor at 93fps.
Both of those results are near the fabled 90fps level, which means that a machine with two GTX 980 Ti cards will play any current game smoothly on a VR headset. You’re in luck if you deploy two GTX 980 and GTX 970 cards, too, as those chips will also handle current games at stunning levels of detail.
The first port of call, of course, should be those minimum specifications: make sure your machine has at least a Core i5-4590 processor and the correct amount of memory – 8GB for an Oculus Rift, and 4GB for the HTC Vive.
Once that’s done, there are several ways to keep your PC running at its best – important when VR headsets make sure demands of hardware.
Our first port of call is the storage – and, specifically, to make sure that a machine is using an SSD rather than a hard disk. It’s a no-brainer, because SSDs use super-fast memory chips rather than sluggish spinning disks, which means that games will boot and load levels with far more speed.
Don’t believe us? Look at the evidence. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor took over 24s to boot using a hard disk, but just over 15s with PNY’s CS2211 240GB SSD. GTA V’s hard disk level loading time of 47.6s improved to just over 30s when we used an SSD, and its game boot time improved by around 25% with an SSD deployed.
That’s not the only component change you can make to give your PC a VR-ready boost. Most people will simply slap in some affordable memory and be done with it, but it’s worth taking a bit more care. Take PNY’s Anarchy DDR4 memory, which is a 16GB kit clocked to 2,800MHz. It’s easily above the minimum specification for VR headsets, and its high speed means it performs significantly better than slower kits.
In Bioshock Infinite our PNY-powered machine returned an average score of 155fps, which was two frames faster than a machine with 2,400MHz memory. And in Cinebench R15’s OpenGL test the PNY-powered system scored 131fps – while the lesser system languished with 123fps.
Once your PC is locked and loaded and your headset is connected, it’s worth running some benchmarks to make sure everything is running smoothly.
There are already some VR-specific testing tools out there for this exact purpose: Valve has produced its SteamVR Performance Test, which runs benchmarks at a variety of graphics levels and delivers its verdict on whether your system is ready for VR. Futuremark has released VRMark, which delivers framerates across a variety of headsets – so it’s ideal for both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It’s also possible to use Futuremark’s 3Dmark test, too; while it’s not specifically designed for VR, Oculus Rift CEO Palmer Luckey says that a score of beyond 9,000 is a good indicator of solid VR performance.
It’s not too tricky to get started, either: a PC with a reasonable processor and a GTX 970 graphics card is ready to go, and adding more GPU power will only make games run with smoother framerates and better detail.
Virtual reality is coming, and the PC will lead the charge alongside products like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive – and it’s clear that PNY power will ensure that any system is ready for this gaming revolution.
Mike Jennings, aka Fountain of Knowledge
Mike Jennings is a freelance technology journalist who has covered components, PCs, laptops and hardware for almost a decade – and he’s been a PC gamer for twenty years.