Why Go Mobile for VR?
One of the most difficult aspects of successfully bringing VR into your home is the powerful hardware required to run the headsets and software. Beefy desktops are a common option for powering your VR headset and PC games, but not everyone has the space or the desire for a large PC tower. Being able to move your VR machine from room to room easily—or take it on the go, if you need to show off VR demos—is also appealing.
This is where a VR-ready laptop can come in. The average consumer laptop is not suited to the demands of VR. Some high-end gaming laptops are, but you’ll need to know what you’re looking for to make sure your headset is compatible. Here’s what you’ll need to get virtual.
It’s All About the Graphics Chip These Days
The Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive—the two major VR headsets—mandate a number of hardware requirements, but the biggest barrier to entry is the video card. When scoping out VR-ready models, you’ll want to look at the ranks of gaming laptops and their dedicated graphics chips. Few other kinds of laptops, barring mobile workstations, will have the graphics muscle for VR. Both of the major headset makers recommend at least an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or an AMD Radeon RX 480 for smooth VR gaming.
As Nvidia’s middle-of-the-road option, the GeForce GTX 1060 is a popular graphics chip used in many modern gaming laptops. Oculus later added the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti and the Radeon RX 470 to a separate list of “minimum” requirements. You may not get the same performance out of them as a GTX 1060 or RX 480, but they can help you meet the floor for less money.
Outside of VR concerns, the GTX 1060 is well suited to gaming at 60 frames per second (fps) at 1080p. However, while 60fps is the target for non-VR gaming, it’s a bit different with a headset, which is designed to display at 90fps per eye for maximum effect and smooth graphics. Also, to prevent motion sickness, the recommended sustained frame rate is 90fps, too. Frame rates waffling below that mark can be nauseating for some users. So while frame-rate goals don’t translate exactly from standard gaming, you’ll want to pay strict attention to the headset makers’ minimum specs.
With that in mind, even with a GTX 1060 you could see some dropped frames at maximum settings. This problem is particularly noticeable and irritating in VR where the display is right on your face, potentially causing nausea, as opposed to on a screen a couple of feet away. Going further up the graphics card hierarchy to a GTX 1070 or GTX 1080 will help you run games smoothly at higher settings, which may make the difference in whether or not it makes you sick, if you’re prone to that. These top-end cards will allow you to hit ideal frame rates more consistently, but you’ll have to weigh that against the added price.
So, How Much Will All That Cost?
Gaming laptops scale quite a bit depending on the graphics card, storage, display, and other considerations. You can spend anywhere from $900 to $4,000 on a VR-capable notebook, so there’s something for nearly every budget. Laptop price is strongly tied to the included graphics card, so be warned that jumping above a GTX 1060 will likely come with a several-hundred-dollar price increase. The GTX 1060 is a consistent option in entry-level and midrange laptops that run from about $1,200 to $1,700, depending on their other components. Machines packing a GTX 1070 or 1080 are distinctly higher-end systems, and usually cost more than $2,000. If slipping in at the minimum suggestion with a 1050 Ti is something you’d consider, you can find those machines for less than a grand.
Processor and Memory Concerns
Outside of the graphics card, core-component hardware requirements for VR are somewhat easier to hit. As far as the CPU goes, even at Oculus’ recommended level, all you need is at least an Intel Core i5-4590 (an old chip generation by now) or an AMD Ryzen 5 1500X or better. Now, these are desktop CPUs, but older ones, so at this point, you would be hard-put to find a current-generation gaming laptop that doesn’t run on an equivalent or better CPU. (HTC’s Vive recommendations vary a little, suggesting the same Intel CPU but an FX-8350 or better on the AMD side.)
Oculus and HTC vary again on memory. The former says 8GB or more, while the latter says 4GB is sufficient for its hardware. This should be the easiest requirement to meet, as essentially every late-model gaming laptop comes with at least 8GB, and plenty offer 16GB. The bottom line: You won’t have to go out of your way for enough RAM, nor a sufficient processor, if you’re sticking to current gaming laptops.
The Right Ports Are Crucial
An aspect that you’ll have to be a little more careful about, though, is the selection of ports on the laptop. Having enough outlets to plug in all of your headset’s connectors is the main concern here, and knowing which port type you’ll need requires checking the fine print. The Rift needs an HDMI 1.3 port and three USB ports (ideally two USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 port). The Vive can use either HDMI 1.4 or DisplayPort 1.2, and it needs only one USB port.
Depending on which headset you’re buying for, carefully note whether you’ll have the necessary mix of included ports on any laptop you’re considering. If you have ports left over beyond what’s required, you can chalk that up to a win, since it will allow you to keep other peripherals plugged in alongside the headset without swapping cables.
What About Windows Mixed Reality?
While the above requirements apply to the leading VR headsets from Oculus and HTC, another group of options out there has a different set of demands: Windows Mixed Reality headsets.
Microsoft worked with partner manufacturers to launch a series of these less expensive headsets for PCs, among them the HP VR1000-100 and Acer AH101-D8EY. They’re built off the Hololens platform, but they don’t really offer much in the way of augmented reality, and the Windows ecosystem is still pretty barren compared with the Steam and Oculus offerings. They can run other software, but do so less effectively than the two leading headsets, both in terms of hardware and performance. They are an alternative if you want to save some money, or have specific use cases for the Windows platform, but without significant additions and improvements, we’d definitely recommend the Rift or Vive.
Screen Size and Style
After meeting the hardware requirements, the other factors come down to your preferences and needs. You will find 15- and 17-inch laptops compatible with VR, but of course you’ll be wearing the headset while playing, not looking at the screen. The panel size you choose should be largely dependent on how you’re using the laptop when you’re not wearing the VR headset. Our laptop buying guide will walk you through the pros and cons of different screen sizes.
The same goes for design and aesthetics. Some of these laptops are more portable than others, which may or may not matter to you. If you’ll often take your laptop on the go, lean toward one of the slimmer 15-inch options. (Again, check that it has the ports you need; the more compact the machine, the tendency will be toward fewer ports.) If it will mostly stay put on your desk, a larger 17-inch choice is probably for you—just note that these tend to be the more powerful, pricier models. 17-inch laptops are not only bigger, but without exception they are also heavy. They can weigh nearly 10 pounds (sometimes more), so keep that in mind if you plan to lug your laptop around much. All laptops have their own visual styles as well, which is fully subjective, but you don’t want to be stuck with something you hate looking at.
Other Key Components: Storage and Battery
Other features to consider are those that apply to every laptop, notably screen resolution and storage. Display resolution drastically affects gaming performance, but most of the time a gaming-laptop manufacturer will choose a sensible screen with a native resolution appropriate to match the graphics chip inside. That means you shouldn’t end up with a graphics processor that is ill-equipped for gaming at the laptop’s native screen resolution, for times when you’re playing games without a VR headset.
VR applications like games take up a lot of local storage space, so you’ll want to pick a system that can hold many installations at once. Alternatively, if the system you have your eye on has less storage than others, you can keep your most-used games installed and rotate others out. Generally, a 1TB hard drive for most of your games and a fast, lower-capacity solid-state drive (usually 256GB or 512GB) for the operating system and a few key applications will be the ideal arrangement, and big gaming laptops tend to be the models that can pack in a dual-drive arrangement like that. Some may have only an SSD, which, while fast, will tend to come in a smaller capacity than a traditional hard drive.
Battery life generally factors in less for gaming laptops: Gaming from the battery rather than the AC adapter usually diminishes performance, and forcing full power while gaming drains a battery fast. That’s true for running VR, as well, but on the off-chance you can’t plug your system in while playing, seek out the models with better batteries than others. It’s not uncommon for a gaming laptop to last for only about 3 or 4 hours of everyday use off the charger, but there are a few with much better batteries that last from 7 to 11 hours. That said, running VR games is very power-demanding, so expect to be tethered to a power cord for long VR jags.
The systems below represent the best VR-ready laptops we’ve reviewed. Also check out our roundups of the best overall gaming laptops (VR abilities aside), and if you’d prefer to go the pure-desktop route, our picks for the best gaming desktops (most of which can easily handle VR duties).