Nvidia is tempting HTC Vive and Oculus Rift owners by updating its entire line of graphics cards in the last couple of months – from much better VR horsepower in the entry-level to absurd overkill (at least for today's software) on the extreme high end. A few days ago we took a hands-on look at the beastly GTX 1080, but if you own a virtual reality headset and want the best balance between pricing and performance, the GTX 1070 is the current-gen sweet spot GPU.
Note that we're reviewing the GTX 1070 strictly from a VR experience standpoint, using the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. This particular article isn't focused on specs, benchmarks, cooling or non-VR gaming.
Switching from the $699 GTX 1080 Founders Edition to this $449 GTX 1070 Founders Edition (EVGA variant), most of the games in our VR library looked, more or less, exactly the same. And, compared to the entry-level VR gaming card we were using before that (GTX 970), both provide the same slight presence boost compared to that last-gen GPU. That's good news if you're trying to save money – especially when you consider that, once we get past this milk early adopters for as long as possible "Founders Edition" period, the 1070's price will drop down to $379 from its current $449.
There were only two games in our VR collection where we noticed any drop in quality from the 1080, and it's no surprise that they were (probably) the two most demanding made-for-VR games today: Nvidia's own VR Funhouse and Star Wars' Trials on Tatooine.
Nvidia VR Funhouse is a collection of mini-games for the Vive that requires a ridiculously high-end setup: Officially it's a technical showcase, but it's also a way for Nvidia to convince VR gamers that they need to spend absurd amounts of cash on GPUs. Here we had to drop down from "Medium" settings in the 1080 to "Low" in the 1070 ("High" requires two 1080s together, or perhaps the new Pascal-based Titan X). In this game, though, the experiential difference between the 1080 and 1070 felt basically identical to me: Slightly better shadows and lighting weren't particularly noticeable and didn't improve my sense of presence.
Plus, despite the technical achievements of the game, this one is nothing more than a short and simple series of carnival games (throwing baseballs at bottles, filling clowns' mouths with green goop and the like). It's fun in short bursts, but gets old before long and is far from a buy a better card just to play it type of game.
In the ultra-short Trials on Tatooine, we had to go from "High" settings for the 1080 to "Medium" for the 1070 (the game suggested "High" for the 1070, but there was some slight judder). Here too, though, my experience and sense of immersion were more or less identical between the two cards, despite the lower settings.
Keep in mind those are two unusually demanding VR titles for this mid-2016 environment, at least to get the best presentation. In games like The Lab, Edge of Nowhere and Vanishing Realms, I got the same presence nudge from the 1070 as I did from the 1080 (compared to the minimum 970 we on before). I'm not even sure if there were any visual differences between the two, as all of those games were developed before these cards were announced.
If you were only concerned with the VR games available right now, there would be no reason – from a virtual reality experience standpoint – to even consider splurging for the 1080 vs. the 1070. It just doesn't do much, if anything, to change the most important games.
But what about for future-proofing?
Even then, we think you'll do just fine with the 1070, if you care at all about saving money. There will always be benchmark games and demos like VR Funhouse and Trials on Tatooine that try to push the envelope (and help Nvidia and its partners sell cards), but ultimately most developers and publishers want to make as much money as possible – and that means optimizing their games for more than just the latest $600+ cards. From that sheer business logic standpoint, we think it's a safe bet that the biggest and best VR games will continue to run very well on this 1070 during this entire GPU generation, with eye-popping visuals and (more or less) identical senses of immersion as the 1080.
With that said, you could see Funhouse and Tatooine as previews of where a wider spectrum of PC VR games will start to fall in the next year or two. Depending on how quickly developers push those envelopes, the 1080 might give you a bit more of an experiential advantage over the 1070 a year from now than it does today (which is, again, next to none).
If you have money to spare and want your VR gaming future to be as airtight as it can be for under $1,000, then the $599 GTX 1080 (currently $699 in this Founders Edition period) is a ferocious beast that won't let you down in the near future. But if you're more interested in finding that sweet spot between pricing and performance, our broader recommendation for most VR headset owners is the $379 (currently $449 for this Founders Edition) 1070.