What to Look for in a VR-Ready Notebook

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Virtual Reality may be all the rage, but what do you actually need in a notebook to have a good experience?

Virtual Reality: the Basics

Virtual reality (VR) offers the most immersive gaming experience with today’s technology. VR involves wearing a headset that has individual displays for each of your eyes. The headset is connected to your computer via an HDMI cable, and at least one USB port for power. In short, you’re tethered to the headset.

The two leading VR headsets sold today are the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. There are major differences between the two that are worth reading up on before you decide which one is right for you. However, that’s beyond the scope of this article. Needless to say, VR doesn’t come cheap; the HTC Vive retails for $799. You’ll need a VR-ready notebook on top of that to get into the game. And, of course, you’ll need to buy the games, too. Let’s see what a VR-ready notebook is all about.

Graphics Card (GPU)

The internal components of the Eurocom Tornado F5

The graphics card is the focal point of a VR-ready PC. The reason VR headsets demand a high-performance PC is because the framerate displayed in the headset’s eye pieces needs to be constant. If it isn’t, you’ll get motion sickness rather quickly. And not only does the video card have to maintain a constant frame rate, but it has to do it for two displays, one for each eye.

Of the two headsets, the Oculus Rift has slightly lower hardware requirements. The minimum and recommended graphics cards are as follows. Note for the sake of this article we’ve limited the cards to only the ones found in notebooks as of this Q3 2017 writing.

 

HTC Vive

Oculus Rift

Minimum Graphics Card

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060

 

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti

AMD Radeon RX 470

Recommended Graphics Card

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060

In our view, it makes little sense to just go for the minimum, at least if you’re looking at the Oculus Rift. (The recommended video cards for the HTC Vive happen to also be the minimum.) Requirements for gaming will undoubtedly get more demanding over time. If you invest in something a bit more powerful, it should last longer. If you do opt for the GTX 1060, we highly recommend you look for the version with 6GB of video memory. The least expensive notebooks with the GTX 1060 tend to have the card with just 3GB of memory, which is below the recommended amount of video memory for many of today’s games. Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider is one example; the “Very High” preset in the game requires 4GB of graphics card memory at the minimum.

In short, our recommendations are:

  • Look for at least one graphics card better than the minimum spec, as it will last longer. The GeForce GTX 1060 is a good starting point.
  • If you do buy the minimum spec, look for a card with at least 4GB of video RAM.

We’ll take a look at some example notebooks later in this article.

Processor (CPU)

Let’s take a look at the minimum and recommended processors for the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.

 

HTC Vive

Oculus Rift

Minimum Processor

Intel Core i5-4590 quad-core

 

Intel Core i3-6100 dual-core

AMD Ryzen 3 1200 quad-core

Recommended Processor

Intel Core i5-4590 quad-core

AMD Ryzen 5 1500X

The underside of the powerful Acer Predator 17X

It’s a slightly different ballgame when shopping for desktops. In the notebook world, VR-ready graphics cards tend to only be paired with relatively powerful processors. As AMD doesn’t yet have its Ryzen processors in the mobile scene (we included them in the table for reference only), you’ll be looking at an Intel Core i5 or i7 quad-core chip. Look for these Intel CPUs in particular:

  • Core i5-7300HQ, i5-7440HQ
  • Core i7-7700HQ, i7-7820HK, i7-7920HQ

Nearly all gaming notebooks you’ll find with a GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card will have the Corei7-7700HQ processor. It’s a very potent combo. The least expensive GTX 1060-based notebooks may include a Core i5 quad-core, which is still perfectly adequate for today’s gaming. You’ll want to avoid any of the 15-watt Intel chips, such as the Core i7-7500U; they don’t have the required level of performance for today’s VR games.

Upgrading memory in a notebook

Memory (RAM)

Even the least expensive gaming PC today will usually have at least 8GB of memory. In this day and age, that’s the minimum we’d recommend for any PC running Windows 10, let alone one for gaming. Many modern games require 8GB of RAM. Given memory isn’t a particularly expensive upgrade, getting double the minimum (16GB) is a wise idea. The last thing you want is to experience a slow-down while gaming due to your system running out of memory. Memory is typically upgradeable later on. See our How to Replace or Upgrade Laptop Memory article for context!

Storage

The twin M.2 Type-2280 SSDs in the Eurocom Tornado F5

The storage setup you get in your notebook should first and foremost reflect your storage needs. Performance won’t mean a whole lot if you can’t store your data. Given the size of modern AAA games, the most economic route is to have a dual-drive setup. Have a solid-state-drive (SSD) for the operating system and key games, and a secondary hard drive for traditional storage. A dual-drive setup like that is generally available in 15.6-inch and larger notebooks. Example setups are as follows:

  • Minimum: 128GB SSD + 1TB hard drive
  • Step up: 256GB or 512GB SSD + 1TB or 2TB hard drive

Storage is usually upgradeable later on. Take a look at our M.2 SSD Upgrade Guide.

Cooling

The cooling exhaust vents on the MSI GT73VR Titan Pro

Just about anything that produces heat is going to be dependent on its ability to cool itself. In the notebook world, gaming notebooks need the most powerful cooling systems available due to the fact that they include the most powerful hardware. And not only that, but the hardware is running at full tilt for extended periods of time.

Notebooks aren’t like desktops; you can’t pick and choose what fans and heatsinks they use. Therefore, you’ll be stuck with what they come with. Given the breadth of gaming notebooks available on the market today, the best advice we can give you is to take a look in our forums. Just about every popular gaming notebook will have an “Owner’s lounge” thread, where users of the notebooks provide feedback on how they’re running. (Feel free to register and ask questions!)

The objective way to judge a cooling system’s performance is based on component temperatures. We’ll usually post these in our gaming notebook reviews. The component temperatures we look for are as follows:

  • Processor: less than 80 degrees C
  • Graphics card: less than 85 degrees C

The heat warning symbol on the Acer Predator 17X

Keep in mind these are ideal temperatures. We routinely test gaming notebooks that run much hotter, with CPU temperatures approaching the triple digits. The Intel Core i7-7700HQ, for example, is technically rated for 100 degrees C. We don’t like to see excessively high temperatures because they result in shorter component lifespans. The cooler a notebook runs, the longer it’s likely to last.

Other Considerations

One tip we’ll leave you with when shopping for a VR-ready notebook is to check the location of the HDMI port on the notebook. Since an HDMI cable will need to be connected from your VR headset, you’ll want the HDMI port to be located as close to the front of the notebook as possible. If it’s located on the back of the notebook, you could be taking up to a foot off your cable’s range. With your headset on, you’ll want as much freedom to move around as possible.

Recommended VR-Ready Notebooks

Let’s take a look at the few of the notebooks we’ve reviewed and recommend for VR purposes.

Eurocom Tornado F5

  • Minimum VR configuration (Core i5-7600K, GTX 1060 6GB, 8GB RAM, 1TB HDD): $1,619
  • Balanced configuration (Core i7-7700K, GTX 1070, 16GB RAM, 250GB SSD + 1TB HDD): about $2,100

This 15.6-inch beast has desktop-class hardware, and is fully upgradeable by the end user. It’s the most powerful notebook of this size on the market. Find it at Eurocom.

Gigabyte P55W

Minimum VR configuration: $1,199 – 1,499

The current v7 model is nearly identical to the v6 model we reviewed. This notebook ran hot in our testing, so you’ve been warned. However, it is fairly affordable for a VR-ready notebook. The base model, which we found online for about $1,199, includes a Core i7-7700HQ processor and GeForce GTX 1060 6GB graphics.

MSI GT73VR Titan Pro

Minimum VR configuration: about $2,249

One of the largest notebooks on the market, the MSI GT73VR has been a favorite of ours since it came out. It combines excellent performance and upgradeability into a well-designed chassis.

Acer Predator 17X

Price: $2,999

Acer’s top-of-the-line extreme gaming notebook is the Predator 17X. Large and heavy, it includes some of the most powerful hardware available, including the GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card. Acer also sells a non-X Predator 17 with a GeForce GTX 1060 or GTX 1070 that shares a similar design, if the Predator 17X is out of budget.

Conclusion

Any notebook-based VR-ready setup you’re likely to buy will be north of $1,500, and nearly $2,000 if you opt for the more expensive HTC Vive headset; that includes the price of the notebook and the headset. (Don’t forget, you have to buy the games, too!) You might have guessed that after taking a look at the notebooks we recommended.

Gaming is one area where it pays to spend a little more and get a leg up over the minimum recommended spec. We have a feeling that the GeForce GTX 1060 will provide an ample amount of 3D horsepower for some time to come, but would encourage you to look into a GeForce GTX 1070 if at all possible. It’s considerably more powerful, and will be a better long-term investment. Something else to keep in mind is that VR is in its infancy. It’s no doubt an exciting time, but new things will always be on the horizon. Keep up with the latest in our dedicated gaming forum.


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