Can you VR on a Budget PC?

When I set up my VR system I was on a budget and when you add in the price of the Vive it’s not a cheap setup for something to play games on! But for me, VR is more than just games it’s an experience. It’s something I just had to have. I have worked in tech all my life. I have built some of the fastest gaming PCs in the world over the years, so tech like the HTC Vive is just something I could not miss out on.81nf8bz7yul-_sl1500_

Then I had the dilemma. My budget didn’t allow me to get the fastest GPU on the market. So for me it was a no brainer. I went with an AMD FX-8370 CPU and an AMD Radeon RX-480 GPU. Why not a GeForce GTX-1070? Well for me at the time it was an extra $200 I just couldn’t justify. So I was stuck with my budget VR PC but has that turned out to be a bad thing? Let’s find out!

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Testing Methodology
To test the experiences and games I have on the HTC Vive I wanted to come up with a way to show you and tell you about my experience in VR. Benchmarks in the usual sense can’t demonstrate what the experience is actually like. I chose six different VR games or experiences that exemplify the broad range of VR titles I have been playing around with. I then deliberately picked  a section of the game or experience that I could repeat over and over. In the VR headset there is an option (under Settings > Performance) that allows you to be notified with a pop-up during gameplay when drop frames occur. So I turned that on. First run through: I played through the section. Second run through: I recorded Mirror footage from the desktop as it shows what’s happening in the hud, but please note it will not show dropped frames and is only in the video to give you an idea to what’s going on in the game or experience to match the frame data . Third run through: I recorded the frame timing window using the windows game recorder in Windows 10 (Windows Key + G). I then put the two videos together to show what the system was doing at specific times in the game or experience. So the videos that I have produced to show you what VR is like on this budget PC show two recordings overlayed on top of each other: 1) the game or experience and 2) the frame time data, synchronised with the game footage. This provides me with a true representation of what the performance is like. If you watch the far right of the graph you will see the current frames appearing as they relate to the footage of the game or experience you are viewing.

 

Understanding frame data
It’s one thing to see numbers or graphs, it’s another thing to see the numbers in action. VR is a different ball game when it comes to benchmarks. We are not looking for 150fps as we only have 3 options: 90fps, 45fps x2 (interleaved reprojection), or when your system cannot do that it drops frames. Interleaved reprojection is put in as a safety net for your GPU. When it cannot handle 90fps it will drop back to 45fps and reuse the last frame’s rendered images and reprojects it to make up a fake 90fps. That then means that when you turn your head during a game/experience you still ‘feel’ like it’s running that 90fps, but this has a negative impact on positional movement and animation. Because it is reproducing 2 frames without calculating the positional movement of the headset it can feel like the image is not in the right place, thereby creating glitches or event the feeling of nausea. This has little effect on games and experiences when you are standing still and shooting at something (like the archery game Longbow) but this type of glitch is very noticeable in games like Holopoint where you are required to dodge incoming projectiles.

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HTC Vive now also has asynchronous reprojection if you have an Nvidia GPU but AMD GPUs are not supported in this current version. Asynchronous reprojection is a much-awaited feature, particularly for HTC Vive users. The idea is to maintain smooth motion on head orientation when the framerate drops below 90fps. Valve’s current universally-compatible solution is interleaved reprojection (described above). With asynchronous reprojection, a slight drop in performance will not trigger this halving of framerate, instead picking up the previous frame and displaying it again, shifted to match the updated orientation data. The overall result is a major improvement to smoothness and comfort, as situations where frame rate is fluctuating just below 90fps are very common. So my MSI AMD Radeon RX-480 GPU in my budget PC is currently using interleaved reprojection – asynchronous is still in beta testing.

So taking all that into account I have come up with a VR Video Benchmark. You will get to see what is stressing out the GPU and I get to show you where I had dropped frames and show you the impact it had on my experience.

Ranking System
I have set up a five star ranking system that provides a score on how well each application runs on the Budget PC.

Five stars: The application runs at full settings with no noticeable slow downs or drop frames. Any app with a five star rating will not benefit from a GPU upgrade.
Four stars: The application runs well on the Budget PC system but may not be able to achieve the highest settings, or slight slow downs may be noticeable. The deficit in quality in my opinion doesn’t justify upgrading the GPU.
Three stars: The game plays well on the Budget PC but you would definitely see the benefit of a GPU upgrade.
Two stars: The game may be playable but the sacrifice in quality is very noticeable and might even cause nausea and motion sickness.
One star: The game can’t be played well at all on the Budget PC and will cause nausea and motion sickness.

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