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Decades after the 1992 flick The Lawnmower Man got our hopes up (and the ill-fated Nintendo Virtual Boy dashed them a few years later), virtual reality (VR) is finally part of the day-to-day conversation in PC gaming…and it’s affordable, too.
Early attempts at “cheap VR” had you strap your smartphone into a viewer fitted with lenses, allowing your phone to become both the screen and the graphics-rendering device charged with creating an immersive world. The problem with that approach, though, is that even today’s smartphone graphics chips aren’t quite up to the task of rendering complex 3D worlds with high-resolution textures in a way that passes muster from that close. That’s a job for today’s head-mounted displays (HMDs) and robust desktop video cards.
Those who want their virtual reality to look a little more, well, “real” will be more interested in today’s powerful mainstream VR headsets. The primary current models relevant to PC-connected VR are the Meta Quest 2 (and the Meta Quest Pro), the HTC Vive Pro 2, and the Valve Index VR. (A few other makers offer HMDs, such as HP and its Reverb headsets, but they aren’t primarily for PC VR gaming.) All require a robust-enough desktop PC to create lush environments right in front of your eyes, and this requires a capable graphics card.
You don’t necessarily need a power-monster card to have an enjoyable VR experience, though. These are the best GPUs we’ve tested, and that we recommend, for PC-connected VR gaming in 2023.
The Best Graphics Card Deals This Week*
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Deeper Dive: Our Top Tested Picks
Nvidia GeForce RTX 4090
Most Powerful Graphics Card for VR (and All Else)
The immense GeForce RTX 4090 is an unbelievably powerful tour de force debut of the “Ada Lovelace” architecture. The only question: Do you really need this much power?
- Ferociously powerful for a single-GPU card
- Power consumption is relatively low for this level of raw GPU performance
- Usual exceptional Founders Edition build quality
- Almost impractically enormous
- Raw power appears, at times, to bottleneck a Core i9-12900K CPU
Nvidia GeForce RTX 4070 Ti
Best High-End Nvidia Graphics Card for VR
The Nvidia GeForce RTX 4070 Ti has strong performance, and it could be a great graphics card…but only if the price is right.
- Strong performance
- 12GB GDDR6X VRAM
- Exceptional cooling
- Outpaced by competition
- Priced from “high” to “very high”
- Very large—not for small cases
AMD Radeon RX 7900 XT
Best High-End AMD Graphics Card for VR
The AMD Radeon RX 7900 XT delivers fierce performance for 1440p and 4K play, though its faster RX 7900 XTX sibling, at only $100 more, makes it a harder sell.
- Performance beats all last-generation cards
- Remains cool while in use
- Priced a little too high relative to RX 7900 XTX
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti
Best Midrange Nvidia Graphics Card for VR
If you want the best marriage of price, performance, and features for 4K and 1440p gaming, Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3060 Ti is matched only by its own step-up RTX 3070 sibling. This card owns the $399-MSRP price point and delivers great value.
- Beats the RTX 2080 Super in most benchmarks
- Great price-to-performance ratio
- Stable launch drivers
- Runs cool
- Short PCB, redesigned cooling system make for a compact card
- RTX 3070 gives an extra margin for 4K today and tomorrow
AMD Radeon RX 6600 XT
Best Midrange AMD Graphics Card for VR
If you can find it at MSRP, the Radeon RX 6600 XT will do nicely for high-refresh 1080p gaming, but a GeForce RTX 3060 Ti at or near list price is a better alternative.
- Performance a bit below its price class in most titles
- High MSRP in test sample versus AMD’s reference specs and pricing
- Only a modest overclock applied out of box
- No significant performance gains with manual overclocking
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050
Best Budget Nvidia Graphics Card for VR
The GeForce RTX 3050 is a strong junior entry into Nvidia’s lineup of “Ampere”-powered RTX 30 Series GPUs, and a corker for 1080p play and VR at a near-budget price.
- Compact, twin-fan design
- Full array of video ports in our test sample
- Good price-to-performance ratio for its segment
- Strong results in ray-tracing benchmarks
- High overclock ceiling
- Not as far ahead of AMD’s Radeon RX 6500 XT in some tests as we would have hoped
- Relatively high power consumption for its class
AMD Radeon RX 5700
Best Budget AMD Graphics Card for VR
It’s an older card now, but gaming at 1440p is the strength of the Radeon RX 5700, a solid entry that, alongside its RX 5700 XT kin, made AMD a real player again the field of midrange video cards.
- Excellent price-to-performance ratio.
- Solid results in 1440p gaming.
- Blower cooler vents most heat out your PC case.
- Blower cooling is still pretty loud.
- Overclocking ceiling is low, at this writing.
Buying Guide: The Best Graphics Cards for VR in 2023
To determine what graphics card you need, it’s helpful to first take a look at popular VR headsets and the minimum and recommended cards they suggest. You won’t need much to just play simple video on a VR headset, and even a high-end smartphone can deliver a basic VR experience, as mentioned in our intro. But things get more complicated if you want to power and run games in VR.
First: A Look at the Headset Specs
To create the VR experience, most HMDs utilize two displays—one for each eye lens. This helps to create the immersive illusion that makes VR what it is, but it is also a big part of what forces you to buy powerful PC hardware for VR. The hardware has to drive separate images for each lens, and this effectively doubles the workload.
Valve’s Index VR HMD, for example, has displays in each lens that have a resolution of 1,600 by 1,440, which is roughly equivalent to a 1080p monitor for each eye. Each display also operates at a 120Hz refresh rate. This makes rendering a game for the Index similar to trying to drive two 1080p monitors at 120Hz, which, even today, isn’t so easy when you’re dealing with demanding, graphically impressive game titles.
This workload only increases with other HMDs, like the Meta Quest 2, Meta Quest Pro, and HTC Vive Pro 2, all of which have even higher-resolution displays. Older HMDs are less demanding, but those come at the cost of lesser image quality.
What Your VR PC Needs: The Minimum Specs
No matter which of these headsets you buy, you’re going to need a relatively powerful gaming PC. If your PC isn’t fast enough, you’ll end up having to reduce image quality, which will make for a less immersive experience. At the bottom end of the requirements, you could also end up with an inconsistent refresh rate, which can be quite disorienting and ruin your VR fun.
Intel’s Core i5-13600K processor
(Credit: Michael Justin Allen Sexton)
For the most part, the hardware you’ll want for VR gaming won’t differ much from what you’d want for any modern gaming PC. A wide range of processors will work well for this task; AMD’s Ryzen 7 5700X, AMD’s Ryzen 7 7700X, and Intel’s Core i5-13600K are some of the best current-gen options, though a CPU a generation or two older would be just fine.
Indeed VR will work on CPU tech much older than even that. The minimum CPU/GPU requirements for the four major headsets are as follows. Note that the two Meta headsets are designed primarily as standalone devices, but can be hooked up to PCs for connected use with PC-centric VR games via the Quest Link accessory cable.
Meta Quest 2 or Quest Pro (via Meta Quest Link cable)
HTC Vive Pro 2
Intel Core i5-4590, AMD Ryzen 1500 equivalent, or better
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 or greater (GeForce RTX 20 series or Radeon 5000 series, or later, to operate in Full Resolution mode)
Valve Index VR
Dual-core processor with Hyper-Threading (quad-core recommended)
Nvidia GeForce GTX 970, AMD Radeon RX 480, or better (GTX 1070 or better recommended)
The HMD makers generally cite a minimum of 8GB of main system memory, but it would also be best if you picked up 16GB of RAM, as well as an NVMe M.2 SSD to help with loading games faster.
AMD’s Ryzen 7 5700X processor
(Credit: Michael Justin Allen Sexton)
The graphics card requires a bit more consideration for a VR gaming PC. With a regular gaming desktop, playing ordinary games, turning down the resolution or even the refresh rate is always an option without incurring any serious negative consequences. This means you can game on any PC with just about any graphics card. Having a less-powerful graphics card in that situation only limits your game selection and how detailed and crisp your games will look.
In VR, things are a bit different. As we mentioned earlier, inconsistent frame rates can ruin your VR experience. Don’t downplay the necessity of that: Frame-rate smoothness matters a lot more in VR than it does in traditional gaming, because judder and screen tearing while you’re moving your head around in a virtual world can cause dizziness and nausea, and be a game-ender.
Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 4090 GPU
(Credit: Michael Justin Allen Sexton)
Both AMD and Nvidia have powerful graphics cards that are more than capable of driving a high-end VR experience. As you can see from the minimum specs above, a GeForce GTX card will do for VR basics; following from that, any of Nvidia’s more powerful GeForce RTX GPUs are up to the challenge of gaming in VR.
When you’re shopping for a VR card, that means while you need to avoid very low end or older cards, you necessarily don’t have to spend to the sky. The older, “Turing”-based GeForce RTX 20 Series cards can still be found as more budget-friendly options, and the newer “Ampere”-based GeForce RTX 30 cards will more than suffice. With that in mind, the newest high-end cards, in the “Ada Lovelace”-based GeForce RTX 40 Series, will certainly do an even better job with higher-end HMDs, but they are overkill unless you can use the extra power for 4K or 1440p gaming outside of VR.
AMD’s Radeon RX 7900 XT GPU
(Credit: Michael Justin Allen Sexton)
Many of AMD’s midrange and high-end cards from the last few generations are also up to the task. The older Radeon RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT are some of the better budget options here, as their prices have dropped, though you could also benefit from the newer RDNA 2-based cards like the Radeon RX 6800 and RX 6800 XT. AMD’s newest graphics cards, based on the RDNA 3 architecture, are (like the GeForce RTX 40 Series) if anything overkill for many VR HMDs. But if you want to be ready for the newest VR games of 2023, and game at very high resolution outside of VR, they are the best option.
How High End a Graphics Card Should I Get for VR?
To avoid issues with poor performance, you really need to shoot for a powerful graphics card that’s up to the task of running modern AAA VR titles. Though it’s hard to argue that any graphics card is too fast for VR, opting for a card like an AMD Radeon RX 6600 XT or an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti, at a minimum, is a good idea for high-end HMDs, even though their minimum GPU specs are much lower.
If you’ve got more to spend, then there’s no harm in going straight for some of the best cards on the market, like AMD’s Radeon RX 7900 XT or Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 4080. (The RTX 4090 is awesomely fast, but awesomely expensive, too.) Both are extremely powerful, but that’s the point. These will drive games in VR with ease and can run games in 4K when you don’t feel like playing in VR.
If these high-enders are out of your price range, but you’re still looking for something that’s a step above the VR GPU baseline, the best middle-ground card is one based on the GeForce RTX 3060, or even the GeForce RTX 2060, if you can still find one on the market.
You can always try to scrape by with lower-end cards, but this could leave you unable to run newer games at fast enough refresh rates for you to enjoy the experience. Depending on what games you intend to play, you certainly can do this. But if you’re new to VR, which you likely are if you are here, it’s best to aim for something like one of the cards we just mentioned to drive a high-quality experience and get the most out of your HMD, and your monitor, for when you’re not in VR. (After all, no one can stay in there all the time.)