Tested and judged: The best graphics cards for VR gaming

Virtual reality demands potent firepower. We benchmarked nearly a dozen high-end GPUs to find the best graphics cards for VR gaming.

After years of teases, tweaks, and trailers, virtual reality is finally here, with the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive headsets landing in the hands of gamers and real-world Holodeck fans. But the birth of PC VR will no doubt spawn a legion of video card upgrades as well. After all, exploring immersive virtual worlds demands some seriously heavy-duty graphics firepower to hit the requisite 90 frames per second that prevents you from blowing chunks all over your real-life computer.

Oculus recommends a GeForce GTX 970 or Radeon R9 290, at the very least, for VR gaming, but you’ll want something even beefier than that if you plan to turn up the graphical bells and whistles or future-proof your rig. PCWorld’s massive graphics card roundup already shows you how every GPU from $100 to $1,000 compares to each other, complete with buying recommendations, but it focuses on traditional gameplay. That’s a handy starting point, but we wanted to run some VR-specific benchmarks to see how AMD and Nvidia’s top cards stack up.

Meet the SteamVR performance test

Unfortunately, most of the really heavy-duty VR benchmarks—like Futuremark’s VRMark and Crytek/Basemark’s VRScore—aren’t available yet, and traditional game benchmarking tools don’t really apply to VR software, as PC Perspective superbly explained earlier this week.

steamvr perf test

A scene from the SteamVR Performance Test.

But on the bright side, there’s already one VR benchmarking tool in the wild: Valve’s aptly named (and free!) SteamVR Performance Test, which renders a scene from the Aperture Science Robot Repair VR demo using Valve’s Source engine, then spits out results for the number of frames tested, the number of CPU-bound frames, the number of frames that fell below 90fps, and an overall average fidelity rating. It also provides a graph showing overall performance during the demo.

The average score isn’t a simple rating. While most gameplay benchmarks render the same scene at the same fidelity over and over again, the SteamVR Performance test uses adaptive fidelity to change the detail settings on the fly in order to try and keep frame rates over the crucial 90fps barrier. The final score takes your average fidelity rating and average frame rate into account, though Valve hasn’t revealed specifically how it is calculated.

Because of that, the results aren’t as neat and tidy as simply reporting frame rates and times with traditional games, but the SteamVR Performance Test still provides helpful insight into how various graphics cards perform in this basic VR scene. After the benchmark runs, it lets you know if your system is “Ready,” “Capable,” or “Not Ready,” along with helpful text explaining why it was scored the way it was.

htc vive vr headset Adam Patrick Murray

The HTC Vive headset is powered by SteamVR.

We tested 10 different AMD Radeon and Nvidia GeForce graphics cards—all the current models that meet or exceed the Oculus minimum recommended specification, as well as the Nvidia/AMD offering right below the minimum spec—on PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card testbed system. The eight-core Intel Core i7-5960X and 16GB of Corsair Vengeance DDR4 RAM inside the system far exceed Oculus’ minimum recommended specs, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue, especially since we’re testing graphics performance specifically.

Interestingly, I slapped a few of these cards in my personal gaming PC for comparison, as its four-core Core i5-3570K more closely toes the recommended line, and it actually resulted in slightly higher scores than our monstrous GPU testbed system, to the tune of 0.1 to 0.2 higher overall ratings. That seems to suggest that thread performance is more important to this particular benchmark than additional cores, as the Core i7-5960X is clocked at 3GHz, and the stock clock for the 4-year-old Core i5-3570K is 3.4GHz.

VR graphics cards benchmarked

But enough chit-chat! Here are the graphics cards we tested, and how they stacked up in the SteamVR Performance Test’s average overall score, from high-end GPUs to just below the minimum recommended Oculus spec of a Radeon R9 290 or GeForce GTX 970.

steamvr averages

SteamVR average-fidelity performance results for VR-ready graphics cards.

We also took screenshots of the result pages so you can see the full details for each graphics card’s performance. The downward dips in the graphs for each card represents the SteamVR Performance Test having to lower the visual quality in order to maintain the sacred 90fps mark—actually roughly 100fps, FRAPS data indicates. (We aren’t showing FRAPS data as the image quality scaling makes straight frames per second data misleading; I just watched it as a sort of sanity check while running Valve’s test.)

In the interests of minimizing on-page space, we’ve compiled each family of cards into large, singular images; click on the images below to enlarge them and browse through the results. We used a mix of reference and custom cards, but this provides a good ballpark look at each GPU’s capabilities.

First up: Nvidia’s GeForce cards. From left to right, you’ll see results for the Titan X, GTX 980 Ti, GTX 980, GTX 970, and the GTX 960 (which falls below Oculus’ minimum spec).

nvidia steamvr performance results

Next, the AMD Radeon lineup. From left to right: Radeon Fury X, Radeon Fury, Radeon Nano, Radeon 390X, Radeon 390, and the below-min-spec Radeon 380X.

amd steamvr performance results

Breakdown and buying recommendations

A few things jump out immediately when looking at the data. In terms of sheer firepower, the GeForce GTX 980 Ti and Titan X can’t be beat, coming in with far higher scores than the Radeon Fury X. Both Nvidia cards essentially max out on Very High image quality throughout the entire benchmark, while the Fury X shows many more dips down into High image quality. All three deliver top-notch VR results, however.

geforce gtx 980 ti stylized 4

Nvidia's 980 Ti GPU outperforms AMD's Radeon Fury X in this test.

Stepping down a notch, the GTX 980 also shines, outpunching the Fiji-powered Radeon Nano. Can we just stop for a second and appreciate that a mini-ITX card like the Nano is capable of pumping out a high-quality VR experience, though? That seems like it shouldn’t be possible, yet it is. AMD’s air-cooled Fury—or at least the overclocked, hyper-cooled Asus Strix version we tested—provided a slightly better overall experience than the reference GTX 980, however. With Fury cards recently dropping in price down to around the $500 mark, that means the AMD and Nvidia cards in that price range are essentially locked in a dead heat, though overclocked GTX 980 cards will likely exhibit higher performance.

radeon nano hero

AMD’s pint-sized Radeon Nano is no slouch with VR.

With an overall SteamVR Performance Test score of 7.9, the overclocked MSI R9 390X Gaming 8GB we tested falls just short of the Nano and a half-point shy of the GTX 980, but hold your horses before you call that an outright Nvidia victory. While the GTX 980 indeed delivers a better raw VR experience, street prices for GTX 980 cards start at $460 and only climb north from there at the time of publication. Radeon R9 390X models, though, can be found as cheaply as $385 on Newegg—a pretty compelling price for a card capable of driving an experience that stayed at High or Very High image quality throughout the benchmark.

It’s a toss-up in the next-lowest pricing tier—the cheapest Oculus-recommended graphics card families. Both the Sapphire Nitro 390 and the EVGA GTX 970 FTW deliver roughly similar results, and both can be found at prices starting at around $300 on Newegg. Take your pick!

Sapphire R9 Nitro Fury Brad Chacos

This is actually a Sapphire Nitro Fury, but the Nitro R9 390 sports a similar cooling arrangement.

For kicks, we also tested an EVGA GTX 960 SSC and Sapphire Radeon R9 380X, the cards that fall just below Oculus’ hardware recommendations. While the SteamVR performance test rated both as "Capable"—the Radeon much more so than the GeForce card—image quality often dipped into Medium for both, and the GTX 960 spent most of the benchmark there. Indeed, a note in the benchmark results outright says, “We recommend upgrading your graphics card,” and we have to agree. Valve’s Source engine isn’t particularly demanding, and future VR titles will only demand more horsepower. These cards might run simple VR games and videos, but would likely struggle with more demanding games like EVE Valkyrie. Stick to the $300 and up graphics cards for VR, and know that the more you can spend on graphics firepower, the better your experience will be.

Again, be sure to check out PCWorld’s massive graphics card comparison for a deeper look at how these GPUs and others stack up in traditional games, and the unique features each offers beyond sheer performance. You won’t want to be immersed all the time, after all.

A powerful graphics card is the cornerstone of a butt-kicking virtual reality experience—but hardware is only part of the equation with VR performance. Both AMD and Nvidia are utilizing powerful software tricks to supercharge the VR experience. Tune in Monday for our deep-dive into asynchronous Time Warp, multi-resolution shading, and more.

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Brad Chacos

PC World (US online)
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