How to Buy the Right VR-Ready Laptop
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
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. At the time of launch, both of the major headset makers recommend at least an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or an AMD Radeon RX 480 for smooth VR gaming. Oculus also later added the even less powerful GeForce GTX 1050 Ti and the Radeon RX 470 to a separate list of “minimum” requirements, if you can only afford to just reach the required floor.
Since then, new graphics cards have entered the mix, but neither company has changed the recommended starting point. Oculus and HTC both offer a downloadable tool (the Oculus here and the Vive here) that will run on your system, scan your hardware, and tell you if it’s up to snuff for powering the headset. This is useful, though of course you can’t run it in on a machine you haven’t yet purchased!
As Nvidia’s middle-of-the-road option from the previous generation of GPUs, the GeForce GTX 1060 was a popular graphics chip used in many modern gaming laptops in 2018. Now, there are newer mainstream-positioned Nvidia cards for different lines (for VR, the GTX 1660 Ti and the RTX 2060) that will still be capable of running your headset; they’re more powerful than the GTX 1060. But even if you don’t have or don’t want to buy these newer GPUs, a last-generation GeForce GTX 1060 will do fine.
Outside of VR concerns, the GTX 1060 and GTX 1660 Ti are well suited to gaming near and above 60 frames per second (fps) at 1080p, and the RTX 2060 is even better (and capable of 60fps at 1440p). 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. The GTX 1660 Ti’s added headroom may help quite a bit in that regard, while an RTX 2060 will certainly do the trick. Going even further up the graphics card hierarchy to an RTX 2070 or RTX 2080 will help you run games at much higher frame rates, even at maximum settings, which may make the difference between 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.
The GTX 1660 Ti is meant to be a more budget-friendly option (the desktop card on its own is around $279), and since it’s still fairly new, it will be appearing in an increasing number of midrange gaming laptops. The GTX 1060 was a consistent option in entry-level and midrange laptops last year that ran from about $1,100 to $1,700, depending on their other components, but it is gradually being phased out now. The GTX 1660 Ti will be present in laptops priced in about that same range, while delivering better performance. Gaming-laptop pricing is strongly tied to the included GPU, so be warned that jumping above the GTX 1060 or GTX 1660 Ti will come with a price increase.
Machines packing an RTX GPU are distinctly higher-end. GeForce RTX 2060 laptops will cost somewhere between $1,800 and $2,000 depending on other components, and any RTX card above that primarily will be in laptops that cost more than $2,000. If slipping in at the minimum suggested GPU with a GTX 1050 Ti is something you’d consider, you can still find those machines for less than a grand. But expect these to fade away as 2019 goes on, in favor of laptops built around the non-Ti GTX 1660.
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, the latter of which has no clear laptop equivalent.)
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 Microsoft 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 they 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 platforms.
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, and that 17-inch laptops are not only bigger, but almost always fairly heavy. They are getting better, with some surprisingly light models trickling out, but some can weigh nearly 10 pounds (or 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 in your laptop 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 10 hours. That said, running VR games is very power-demanding, so expect to be tethered to a power cord for anything but the shortest VR jags.
So, Which Model to Pick?
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).
Pros: Sharp design. High-quality, portable build. Better-than-60fps gaming at appealing price via GeForce GTX 1660 Ti GPU. 144Hz display. Long battery life for a gaming laptop. Solid port selection. Per-key backlighting.
Cons: 512GB of storage in tester unit is a little tight for gaming. A bit of lid flex.
Bottom Line: MSI’s GS65 Stealth delivers better-than-60fps gaming performance and a premium, portable build with long battery life. With no real flaws, an appealing price, and power topped only by pricey alternatives, it’s our top midrange gaming laptop.
Pros: Portable, spiffy design. High-end build quality. Hits well over 60fps while gaming with its RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU. 144Hz display benefits from high frame rates. Per-key RGB keyboard backlighting. Good battery life.
Cons: Garish lid logo. Runs hot while gaming. White “Mercury Edition” costs extra.
Bottom Line: The 2019 Razer Blade 15 Advanced Model takes last year’s slick, winning design and adds peppy, muscled-up Nvidia GeForce RTX graphics. It’s our top recommendation in its class.
Pros: Astounding graphics and general computing performance. Desktop-class processor. Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU. Built-in eye tracking. Comfortable keyboard. 144Hz display. Excellent component access for upgrades.
Cons: Heavy, bulky. Requires two power bricks. Expensive. No 4K display option. Very short battery life.
Bottom Line: Packing an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 graphics chip and a desktop-class Intel Core i9, Alienware’s massively rejiggered flagship, the Area-51m, is the best-performing gaming laptop we’ve tested, a monster in every sense a laptop can be.
Pros: On-point performance for the price. Solid construction. 144Hz display. Touchpad and keyboard are superior to other gaming laptops in its class.
Cons: Battery life is brief. Color scheme follows the crowd.
Bottom Line: With its part-metal build and GeForce GTX 1060 graphics, the Acer Predator Helios 300 is a compelling midrange gaming laptop in a premium suit.
Pros: Good value given components and panel. Slim, compact design. Restrained, classy lighting. 144Hz display with Nvidia G-Sync. Top-end gaming performance at 1080p.
Cons: Loud fans under load. Short battery life. Close in performance to at least one RTX 2070 we tested.
Bottom Line: High-end GeForce RTX graphics and an advanced feature set in a trim bod make Acer’s Predator Triton 500 a worthy gaming laptop. Just a few modest issues keep it from RTX-laptop alpha status.
Pros: Attractive, compact build. Strong general and gaming performance matches that of more expensive machines. 144Hz display with Nvidia G-Sync. Plenty of storage, with discrete SSD and hard drive. Customizable per-key backlighting.
Cons: Poor battery life. Design may be too plain for some at this price.
Bottom Line: With short battery life as the only real shortcoming, the 15-inch Lenovo Legion Y740 is a potent gaming laptop that, while not inexpensive, matches the performance and features of pricier machines.
Pros: Thin and light for a 17-incher. Attractive aesthetic. Greater-than-90fps gaming performance. 144Hz screen. Good battery life for class. Ports include USB Type-C with Thunderbolt 3.
Cons: Performance very similar to top non-Max-Q Pascal GPUs. Display only full HD. No G-Sync support. 512GB drive a tad tight for gaming.
Bottom Line: With a spiffy thin design, lots of pep for 1080p gaming, and surprising battery life, MSI’s GS75 Stealth is a solid early entry in the GeForce RTX gaming-laptop stakes.
Pros: Sleek design and quality build across the board. Superior display for a gaming laptop. Much better battery life than competitors. Plenty of ports and storage.
Cons: No guarantee of 60fps gaming at maximum settings with this Max-Q graphics chip. Key backlighting is single-zone.
Bottom Line: The Blade 15 Base Model trims a few frills from Razer’s flagship Blade, but it keeps most of its best aspects. Just make sure you need the slim design; you’re giving up some gaming grunt to gain it.
Pros: Sturdy build, yet thin and light. High-quality keyboard with per-key backlighting. 1TB SSD.
Cons: Underwhelming performance for the price. Hardware can’t make great use of 144Hz display.
Bottom Line: The trim, light Asus ROG Zephyrus M (GU502GV) is a solid-enough gaming laptop all around, but for the price and performance as tested in our RTX 2060 config, it’s not the top value we’ve seen.
Pros: Solidly built. Strong 1080p gaming performance for the price. SSD and large 1TB hard drive. USB Type-C with Thunderbolt 3.
Cons: Competition offers a full-power GTX 1060 for a similar price. Shallow keyboard. Chassis is heavy on the plastic. Merely average display quality.
Bottom Line: Capable of 60fps gaming at or near maximum settings, the Dell G7 15 is an appealing, budget-friendly gaming laptop with plenty of storage, even if the design is basic.