If you've tried the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive virtual reality headsets, you know that their high-end VR is in another class above mobile VR experiences like the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard. Problem: the headsets are expensive ($599 for Oculus, $799 for the Vive and its controllers) and the powerful PCs you need to run them even more so, since they're typically well north of $1,000.
But there's a path to good VR that's not as hard on your wallet: You can build your own VR-ready PC, and it'll cost you a lot less than ready-made ones like the model being bundled with the Rift.
Certainly, building a PC isn't for everyone, but these days it's a lot easier than you might think, and if you're looking for the most inexpensive path to VR, it's definitely the way to go. We went ahead and build our own VR-ready PC using the components below, and we encourage you to do the same if you're interested. If you run into trouble on the nitty-gritty details, there are plenty of videos and PC-builder sites out there that can help.
We wanted to see how just how cheap we could go when building a VR-ready computer without sacrificing quality. Of course, a $700 computer won't quite match the speed and clarity of a $2,000 computer, but for VR gaming on a budget, it'll have to do.
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have pretty much the same hardware requirements, so we used Rift’s recommended specifications for our baseline. The Vive only needs half as much RAM as the Rift, but if you plan on doing any modern gaming you’ll want to stick to Rift’s recommendations:
Processor: Intel Core i5 4590 or AMD FX 4300
Video card: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290
Operating system: Windows 7 (64-bit) or later
To see what your computer is already equipped with, search “System” with Cortana or the Start menu search bar. This will bring up a list of your system's hardware, and once you figure out what you need to upgrade, or if you just want to build a system from scratch, the rest is pretty easy.
For our VR-ready build, we looked at processors with four or more cores (Intel over 3.3GHz, AMD over 3.9GHz), 8GB of RAM, and video cards with 4GB of memory or more and a core clock close to or over 1GHz. We also used a small solid-state drive for storage.
Here is what we used in our DIY virtual reality computer:
Processor: AMD FX 8350 4.0GHz eight-core
RAM: G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 8GB DDR3-1600
Video card: AMD Radeon R9 390 Sapphire Nitro
Storage: Kingston 120GB solid-state drive
Motherboard: MSI 970 Gaming
Power supply: Corsair CX600M 600W
This build cost us $767, though that doesn't include a Windows 10 license, which costs about $80 (or $119 direct from Microsoft). The total cost here at PC Part Picker is about $815 (though part costs fluctuate) and that does include a copy of Windows 10 64-bit and a standard ATX-size case. If you already have a copy of Windows the price PC Part Picker price would be around $735.
If you're starting completely from scratch, keep in mind that you'll also need a monitor, keyboard and mouse, which will bump up the total computer cost to about $950 depending on the quality of your peripherals. (Of course, don't forget the cost of the headsets themselves.)
Right off the bat, if you avoid Intel processors and Nvidia video cards, you’re going to be saving a nice chunk of money. While AMD’s processor architectures aren’t as tight as Intel’s, they are a whole lot cheaper and still pretty comparable with Intel’s recent Core i5s and i7s. Dollar for dollar, you’ll also save a lot by going for AMD video cards over Nvidia unless you want to go super high-end, but be prepared to pay.
Out of Oculus' VR-approved desktop computers, Dell's XPS 8900 is the most affordable and least impressive at $1,200 (with the Oculus included). It has 8GB of RAM, a Core i5 processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 video card and a 1TB hard drive. While it's equal in RAM to our custom build, its processor and video card fall short.
Let’s jump up to the Asus G20 desktop, which will cost you $1,950, $1,450 without the Rift. The big upgrades in this model are double the RAM at 16GB and a 512GB solid-state drive instead of a 1TB hard drive. While the solid state has less space, it runs a lot faster than your standard hard drive. This build has more RAM and a quite a bit more storage than our custom build, but still falls behind performance-wise with a baseline processor and video card.
A more upgraded Asus G20 bundle costs $2,200, which will net you a Core i7 processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 video card and 1TB hard drive space on top of a 256GB solid state drive. That's a step up from the custom build, but with Nvidia's new 1000-series video cardscoming out soon, you could build an identical computer for a lot less money.
The “highest end” bundle is with the Alienware Area 51, which admittedly isn’t much better than the upgraded Asus G20. The Area 51 drops down to a 128GB solid-state drive, but it includes 2TB of hard-drive space for an overall storage boost, an upgraded six-core i7 processor and liquid cooling. For these upgrades, you’ll be looking at a $3,150 bundle. It's super beefy but super expensive, and you could build something identical to that for less than $1,500.
If, after reading this, you don't think building a PC is for you, I'd go with the upgraded Asus G20, which will get you the best and longest-lasting performance for your dollar.