tl;dr: Here are some part lists for full builds. One for full AMD (usually the cheapest, but still very good), one for Intel/Nvidia (a little more expensive, but Nvidia architecture is better for VR).
For a CPU upgrade find the best upgrade that suits your motherboard. For a GPU upgrade get a GTX 1060 6GB or stronger and plug that shit in.
For the VR set I recommend the Samsung Odyssey+ for budget king (on sale), an Acer, HP, or Lenovo headset if you gotta go cheaper. The Rift S is also an excellent buy but maybe wait for a sale. Expect black friday/cyber monday sales.
How to get VR-Ready for as cheap as possible
So Half-Life: Alyx has been announced and you need a VR headset. You may need a PC upgrade to run VR. You’ve come to the right place. I’ve been playing VR for over a year now on a few different rigs and a few different headsets, so I have a little experience with what works, what doesn’t, and what is just a little finicky. But I think everyone’s first VR experiences should be a smooth one. So here are my recommendations.
One quick note: All of the prices you’ll see below are in USD. It’s possible some sales that I’ve seen won’t apply everywhere.
Full VR Setup
There’s a widespread misconception that VR is expensive. If you don’t already have a PC that is capable of VR or just one small upgrade away, then yes, the price for a VR-ready rig and an HMD can hit upwards of $1000. However, I’ve seen people claim that VR itself is a $700-$1000 investment, and I’ve heard others who believe it can be $2000 for a full setup.
You can get full VR with a headset and tracked controllers for as low as $200, sometimes lower.
The Windows Mixed Reality range is actually very good, especially for entry level VR. The original HMDs from Acer, Lenovo, and HP are comfortable, relatively lightweight, have great displays for the price, and require little setup. The HP one is currently the cheapest but I’m expecting there to be sales on black friday or cyber monday. The inside-out tracking has come a long way since its release, and is actually on par in many respects with the inside-out tracking of the Rift S. But there’s a better WMR headset that regularly goes on sale for $250-$350, and it’ll likely go on sale for black friday. The Samsung Odyssey+. It has the highest resolution display for the price, a higher field of view, more ergonomic controllers, and, in my experience, smoother tracking than the cheaper WMR headsets.
If you have a little bit more money or are willing to wait for sale, the Oculus Rift S would be a very good buy, especially if it goes on sale for cheaper or around the same price as the Samsung Odyssey+. But do your research. There are some key differences between the two headsets that could change your mind between the two, such as refresh rate, an IPD slider, display type (AMOLED vs LED), and other differences that I won’t get in to in this post.
If you want my opinion, I’m biased against Oculus and Facebook. I still recognize that the Rift S is a very good headset. But I love the display on the Samsung Odyssey+. Its AMOLED display has extremely vibrant colors and dark blacks, the tracking is solid, and it’s comfortable. It’s great for the price, especially on sale. I think it’s the best budget headset.
Edit 2: right now the Samsung Odyssey+ is on sale at BHPhotoVideo for only $229. If you can pick this up, then get it, it’s an absolute steal.
Edit 3: You can also consider the Oculus Quest for PCVR now that we can use a USB-C cable to tether the HMD to a PC. If you’re interested in the Quest’s wireless VR and think that you would play Quest games more than SteamVR games, then you may want the Quest. But be aware that when using it to play SteamVR games you are getting a visual downgrade because the game will be streaming to the headset, which means the visuals will be compressed. I’ve heard the latency isn’t noticeable.
VR-Ready PC – Full Builds
If you’re looking to build a whole new PC, read here. If you already have a decent PC and just need an upgrade, look at the next section.
I’ve made two builds that are both minimum spec to be VR ready for as cheap as possible. They’re also strong enough to run demanding games for at least the next 5 years, and have paths for further upgrades. One is an AMD build, the other is an Intel/Nvidia build.
AMD has been killing it with their CPUs lately. This build has a Ryzen 5 2600 on it, and it’s extremely cheap now that the 3000 series has been out for a few months. This is the same CPU I personally use to run VR. The MSI B450 Tomahawk is compatible with the 3000 series CPUs as well (with a bios update), so if you ever wanted to upgrade the CPU without switching out the whole motherboard, you can. The GPU is an RX 580, which is a great graphics card on a budget and, in terms of performance, is equivalent to the GTX 1060 6GB. There is an exception, however, which I’ll talk about on the Intel/Nvidia build. Also, both builds have the same case, RAM and power supply. If you want to save more money you could swap out the case for something cheaper, such as something lacking a glass side panel, just make sure it has two case fans. You could also get a cheaper power supply, just make sure it’s at least 500 watt and is 80 Plus Bronze certified or better. I picked a 550w power supply to allow some headroom. If you intend to upgrade, get a PSU with a higher wattage. The place you should NOT try and save money is the RAM. AMD CPUs are dependent on higher RAM speeds. Slower RAM will effectively slow down your CPU. 3200MHz is about as low as you should go. Get 3000MHz RAM if you must save a little more cash, but don’t go any lower. I also wouldn’t go lower than 16 GB of RAM. Half Life: Alyx specifically recommends a minimum of 12GB
Intel/Nvidia – https://pcpartpicker.com/list/nZQvf9
Picking Intel and Nvidia over AMD comes at a small price premium. But for those who are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with AMD products and want to take the “safe” pick, this is the build to go for. That price premium will also give you slightly more performance in some games, both VR and flatscreen. The i5-9400F is a good CPU and trades blows with the Ryzen 5 2600 in performance tests. It can’t be overclocked, but unless you decide to add an aftermarket CPU cooler you shouldn’t try to overclock anyway. The automatic boost clock will be enough. The GPU is a GTX 1660, which is faster than the 1060 6GB for roughly the same price depending on the model. If you want some more performance go for the more expensive 1660 Ti, but the 1660 should be enough. If your main purpose is to maximize VR performance, I would go for this build. Although the RX 580 in the AMD build is a great card, the GTX 1000, 1600 and 2000 series’ will always beat AMD’s recent GPUs in VR performance due to Nvidia’s graphics architectures. The 1000 series uses their Pascal architecture, and the 1660 and 2000 series’ use their Turing architecture. Both were designed with VR in mind. You only lose that boost in VR performance if you step down to something like a GTX 980 or 980 Ti. Though you can often find them for cheap secondhand, they will lose a lot performance in VR compared to their cheaper successors.
I will admit, I do have an AMD bias. Even then, if I were building my first PC and I were parting it out with VR in mind, I would do a mix of both builds: a Ryzen 5 2600 paired with a GTX 1660 or 1660 Ti to crank out that extra VR performance whilst still saving money picking the AMD CPU over the Intel one.
VR-Ready PC – Upgrades
If you already have a pretty capable gaming machine and just need some upgrades to achieve that “VR-Ready” status, here’s what I recommend you do. First, find out what all is inside your computer and plug it all into PCPartPicker. This will let you sort CPUs by what is compatible with your motherboard as well as view a prediction of how much wattage your PC uses or will use with more powerful hardware. You don’t want to buy new parts only to realize your computer crashes because your total power draw exceeds what your power supply can provide.
Do some research. Find out what the weakest link in your system is and upgrade that first. You don’t want to get that shiny new graphics card just to have it bottlenecked by your processor, or vice versa. Also don’t neglect RAM. You want fast RAM, and you want at least 12GB, though I’d definitely recommend you push it to 16 if you can. Here’s what all I recommend:
GPU – GTX 1660, 1660 Ti, or RX 580. RX 580 will be the best if you’re on a tighter budget, but the 1660 and 1660 Ti are much more performant in VR due to the Turing GPU architecture that has optimizations for VR. The 1060 6GB, which is the min spec for VR, is also good, but the 1660 is faster and can usually be found around the same price. You could also find people on r/hardwareswap selling their used GPUs for much lower than retail price.
CPU – This is entirely based on what CPUs are compatible with the motherboard you’re using. If you really want a newer CPU and are willing to replace the motherboard, I’d look at one of the builds in the above section and just cut out everything except the CPU and motherboard. If you’re looking to upgrade just the CPU, then you have a few options. If you’re running an older generation Intel CPU like Haswell, Broadwell, or Skylake, you should be able to find secondhand CPUs for very cheap. r/hardwareswap is a great place to find other redditors selling their old CPUs. For example, an i7-4790k still often retails for upwards of $500 new. It’s a great processor and was the top of the line i7 in 2014. I bought one two years ago off of hardwareswap for only $200. That $300 difference could be saved, or invested into a stronger GPU. If you’re running an older generation AMD CPU like the FX series… get a new motherboard and CPU. Please.
RAM – 12GB minimum required for Half Life: Alyx. 12 is a weird number. Get 16GB. If your motherboard only supports DDR3 memory, make sure the speed is 2400MHz. If you can get DDR4, get at least 3000MHz RAM.
Power Supply – Make sure it’s at least 80 Plus Bronze certified and has enough wattage to power your rig, preferably with some headroom.
Let me know if there’s anything else I should mention. I hope as many people as possible can use this to be ready for HL:A when it releases!