Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080: This ferocious graphics card pulled us even further into VR

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We review the new GeForce GTX 1080, the current VR lover's dream card(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift were upgraded recently. Like an S-series iPhone, the Vive 2.0 and 2nd-generation Rift may look like their predecessors, but a lot has changed on the inside – with an amped-up sense of presence in your virtual worlds, courtesy of games that look closer to photorealistic. Okay, so technically we're still talking about the exact same headsets that launched almost four months ago, but by swapping out our entry-level Nvidia GTX 970 for the bleeding-edge graphical monster known as the GTX 1080, our PC-based VR experience took a next-gen-like step forward nonetheless. Read on as we put our VR gaming library to the test with the new GTX 1080.

Note that we're reviewing the GTX 1080 based strictly on how it improves our perceived VR experience – this particular article isn't focused on benchmarks, non-VR gaming, cooling or anything else.

The 2nd-gen Vive and Rift metaphor has us wondering: When will Valve/HTC (or perhaps Valve partnering with another hardware company) and Oculus feel the need to upgrade their current models? Because things like display resolution and field of view, body tracking, controllers and ergonomics are about the only ways the headsets themselves can move forward anytime soon. If you want your VR worlds to get not just prettier to look at, but also more lifelike, believable and more conducive to suspending your disbelief, then swapping out your current graphics card for Nvidia's new high-end, Pascal-based GPU will help.

Up to this point we'd been testing VR hardware and games on a PC that uses the GTX 970, a US$330 card (at least before recent discounts) that stands as the minimum required for both the Vive and Rift. We had considered using its higher-end sibling, the GTX 980, in our launch window VR PC, but opted for the 970 because we wanted to be able to communicate to readers what the experience was like on the most affordable VR-ready PC. If we're going to, in one breath, say that the minimum bar of entry for a VR PC is around $950 (it's less now, but that was roughly the cost a few months ago), then our impressions and recommendations should line up with that machine, not one that costs hundreds more.

But with the Founders' Edition of the new GTX 1080 now available, we wanted to see just how big of a difference a massive graphics card upgrade – for "just" $370 more than we paid for the old card – would make in our library of VR games. Especially with the launch of the new Star Wars' Trials on Tatooine, a short game that needs a ridiculously high-end machine to truly flex its lightsaber-swinging muscle, this sounded like the right time to take the plunge on the 1080.

The first thing to note is that, fortunately, you won't have to fiddle much (if at all) with graphics settings. Since most VR games are made to adjust visual fidelity on their own, giving you only the best presentation that can support the required frame rate, you'll get the 1080's upgrades without changing a single setting. And the ones that have manual settings tend to make it clear (it's typically located right in the main menu, and also accessible in the GeForce Experience app).

On traditional PC games, upgrading your GPU gives you more eye candy: You can expect better lighting, shadows, reflections and draw distances, along with subtler gradations of color in your flat-screened games. The same holds true for VR games, but those improved visuals have the added effect of making it just a bit easier to get lost in virtual worlds. The part of you that knows it's a PC game projected inside a headset gets just a little bit smaller. The childlike part of you that lets go of all logic and reason and lets the tide of imagination pull you into these fantastic worlds grows just a little bigger.

Simpler graphics are one of several obstacles to the mind's complete immersion into virtual reality (field of view, visible pixels, degree of mobility and quality of body- and hand-tracking are others). Upgrading your card lowers that one barrier just a tad.

There's also a practical aspect in play, as faraway objects look more defined with the 1080 upgrade. Aiming arrows at invaders in the archery mini-game in The Lab and lining up your firearm sights in Hover Junkers or The Nest get just a little bit easier.

On the other hand, it's not that the games feel radically different. The entry-level cards still get the job done very well (entry-level for VR, that is; it still takes a nearly high-end card to power either headset), delivering an almost-as-high sense of immersion/presence as this vicious GTX 1080 beast.

Maybe the best way to describe the upgrade is that our new VR machine brings our home experience closer to the experience of our best VR event demos. It was hard to put my finger on why I was more critical at home of some of these games that had consistently blown me away at event demos: Part of it was probably the thrill of experiencing something new, exciting and unreleased fading a bit once it becomes more available and commonplace. But I think an even bigger factor is that most of our event hands-ons were running on ultra-powerful machines. When showcasing their goods for the press, of course most companies and developers are going to want to give you the highest-end VR experience possible. One notable example: With the graphical boost, I now enjoy Lucky's Tale – a game I was smitten with at events but easily bored with at home – more than I have since playing it at Oculus' GDC tour de force.

If you're in our boat and are rocking a GTX 970 (or equivalent) in your VR PC, is it worth the upgrade? Or if you're putting together your first VR-ready PC, should you splurge for the higher-end card?

That's a tough call, and one that's going to depend (of course) on your circumstances. The experiential difference between the entry-level 970 and high-end 1080 isn't exactly night and day. It's more like a collection of very subtle visual improvements that combine to inch our subconscious sense of presence forward. For someone like me, whose job is to eye the furthermost frontiers of VR, communicating that to readers and surmising where it's all heading next, that's exciting and probably worth the money. But for you? You might be nearly as happy with a cheaper option.

If you're operating on a budget – especially considering the headset alone is going to set you back a cool $599 or $799 – you'll do just fine with an entry-level VR card (which should mean waiting for the $249 GTX 1060 that launches later this month). Jumping all the way up to the 1080 is a luxury that, if you can afford it, just gives you that slightly higher sense of immersion.

Remember there are also options lying in the spaces between. The GTX 1070 is still significantly more powerful than our entry-level card (and should be fairly future-proofed), but rings up for $450 vs. the high-end 1080's $700. If you're a little flexible on pricing but would prefer not to break the bank, that may end up being your sweet spot.

As we just mentioned, future-proofing is another item to consider when making your decision. It won't likely be long before we see more and more VR games that recommend – if not require – something equivalent to one of the new high-end cards. A year from now, it's practically a given that the best games will need one of these ferocious beasts. Even one of the Vive's launch games, underwater eye candy showcase theBlu, won't run properly on anything lower than the 980. And while the new Trials on Tatooine does technically support the minimum-spec cards, the recommended spec for the "true" experience is a Titan X, the previous ruler of the high-end GPU roost before the new GTX 1070 and 1080 arrived. For the most cutting-edge visual content, we're already seeing the 970 and 980 getting slowly weeded out.

The Nvidia GTX 1080 is a VR powerhouse: If money is no object, this is the very best card you can buy for the Vive or Rift. When you consider by how wide a margin it dwarfs the previous high-end 980, and the fact that it even bests the $1,000+ Titan X, we think $700 is a reasonable price (and you can expect lower-cost options from third-party OEMs before long). The 1070 will hit a nice balance point for $250 less, but with the 1080 you can rest easy, knowing that your machine will not just support, but own, slay, take prisoner any VR games that developers release anytime soon. Expect the most fully-realized virtual environments in any VR available to the public.

Product page: Nvidia

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