Will Virtual Reality Work On Gaming Laptops?

The majority of gamers play on desktops. It’s the most cost-effective, modular way of building a system. As such, advice on specifications from VR manufacturers like Oculus (the Rift) and HTC (the Vive) has focused on desktop hardware. Over the last few years, though, the relative cost of portable gaming components has decreased while their performance increased. Gaming laptops are now a realistic option for people who want to play even the most demanding games.

Virtual reality is different, however. Excitement about VR transcends platforms, but if you run a portable rig, whether it’s up to the task is a much harder question. I went looking for answers.

“Most modern machines are capable of running VR,” Zak Lyons of the human-computer interaction team at Bath University told me. “However not all of them can run it well. If you put a VR headset on and there’s latency when moving your head, you’re going to get ill pretty quickly. So it really comes down to whether a laptop can offer a good enough latency-free performance to avoid cybersickness.”

Narrowing the question only clarifies things a little. Comb VR forum threads and you’ll find a wide range of specifications listed as the minimum for comfortable viewing. You’ll also find people who claim VR won’t work on laptops at all. Mostly, you’ll find people in the middle who’ve jumped through hoops to get it working on their hardware with varying degrees of success. Getting a definitive answer is difficult.

According to Sam Watts, producer of upcoming VR game Radial-G: Racing Revolved, there may be an element of self-deception involved. “Everyone wanted to believe that portable VR was a viable option,” he opined. “So there’s a number who insist their experience of VR on laptops is good enough, leading to many threads discussing hacks and workarounds.”

This was true until the end of last year, when suddenly nothing seemed to work at all. Both Watts and Lyons believe this was a deliberate choice on the part of Oculus. “Too many people reported issues and poor performance, so Oculus just stopped supporting it,” Lyons said. Watts was more forthright. “[Oculus SDK] Runtime 0.8 stops content from launching if you attempt to run on a laptop or PC without a graphics card meeting the baseline requirements,” he told me.

Although it sounds drastic, it’s a decision rooted in commercial reality. “If someone’s first experience of VR performs badly or makes them ill they are likely to dismiss it entirely,” Watts explained. “This was a necessity to ensure only those with the required components can run VR, to avoid poisoning the well with poorly performing hardware.”

So what are the official baseline requirements for a laptop? Nvidia says you will need a GTX 980. Since they use the same numbers for their desktop and mobile chips, just adding an ‘M’, you might think that refers to a 980M. You’d be wrong. Under the system specs there’s a pale disclaimer saying that the 970M and 980M aren’t good enough. What they’re talking about is the 980 ‘notebook’, a distinct card with the same power and model number as a desktop 980 but which fits in a laptop.

Having almost identical model numbers for three different chips, one of which is for desktops, is a nightmare. Yet confusing nomenclature is just the beginning. Even now, you’ll find people claiming that Nvidia is wrong and that VR does work with high-end mobile graphics cards. This bewildering variety of user experience stems from the engineering fudges needed to get top performance on a portable machine.

“The primary purpose of a laptop is portability,” explained Byron Atkinson-Jones, the mind behind sci-fi VR title Caretaker Sacrifice. “As such most of them are marketed around extended battery life and price. That means they have to employ hardware tricks or use cheaper components to make both of those points a reality. Often those tricks and components are incompatible with VR.”

For instance, as motion sickness became more of an obvious issue, developers of VR hardware increased refresh rates to stave it off. “When the Oculus Rift DK2 released, the refresh rate of the screen went from 60Hz to 75Hz,” Watts said. “The final, commercial versions of Oculus and Vive are already pushing higher resolutions and 90Hz refresh rates. Yet many laptop graphics chipsets aren’t capable of operating beyond the native 60Hz of the laptop screens.”

Another example is the speed of USB and HDMI ports. “All HDMI is not equal,” according to Atkinson-Jones. “You need to be sure that the HDMI port can output at high speed which not a lot of laptops can achieve. And if your laptop’s integrated USB can’t handle the requirements of VR then it doesn’t matter if your GPU can. It’s still not going to happen.”

While these issues shouldn’t be a problem for most modern hardware, there are other devils to watch out for. The biggest is Nvidia Optimus, technology which decides whether or not to route an application through the dedicated GPU. In most cases this can be a huge boon to battery life. But it has the potential to wreak havoc if the user has a VR headset connected.

“The problem is that even if the dedicated card generates an image, the integrated card is what outputs that image to a monitor,” Lyons told me. “With VR, that monitor is your headset. Unfortunately integrated cards just aren’t powerful enough to output images to a VR headset without latency. There are workarounds to make VR work on a laptop with Optimus, but since the HDMI port is connected to the integrated card there is no way to bypass it. ”

So, does that mean laptops with high-end mobile graphics cards that don’t have Optimus are capable of running a VR headset? Maddeningly, the answer is “maybe”. Some sources I spoke to reported success with this setup, providing that the CPU and other components in the system were up to the job. Watts, however, had doubts as to whether they’d be up to running games with the final commercial version.

He took me through some calculations to explain the issue. Currently, gaming benchmarks presume a game will be running at 60 frames per second on a single, 1080p display. Oculus, however, has two displays, one for each eye. And their native resolution is 2160×1200 pixels. To achieve the same level of smoothness and avoid motion sickness, the Rift demands at least three times the graphical grunt of a laptop screen. More if there’s any significant physics or post-processing effects in the game.

Stacking multiple GPUs is no answer either. “SLI isn’t really supported in VR,” Watts admitted. “When you’re dealing with 9ms per frame at 90Hz, it leaves very little wiggle room. At that rate, if frames aren’t perfectly in-sync across both eyes then the experience will cause discomfort.” Also, it seems that whether SLI works with a given VR application is partly at the whim of the developer, so support is inconsistent.

Nvidia’s answer to all of this is the desktop grade ‘notebook’ 980 that it recommends. Indeed the existence of this chip feels like a direct response to a demand for portable machines capable of running VR. But that card, which Watts described as “mental”, comes with problems of its own. It is, in most respects, a direct equivalent to the desktop version. While that includes desirable things like overclocking potential and no Optimus, it also includes colossal amounts of heat and power drain.

Asus have a startling answer to this in the form of the ROG GX700, which comes with a bulbous water cooling dock. While they claim this provides quieter operations and big performance gains, it’s not strictly necessary. MSI, Clevo and other manufacturers offer a range of air-cooled laptops sporting the 980. Most are not yet available in the UK but some of the Clevo models are available via resellers such as mySN. They offer the MySN U716 and U726 models with an option for the 980, and claim they are VR ready.

I wrote this article on one of those machines, with FurMark thrashing the GPU in the background. The stress test results appear to confirm that the hardware is up to the job. My knees confirm that they can, just about, still justifiably claim to be laptops. They’re bigger and heavier than existing 17″ gaming laptops. Extended use also sees them getting uncomfortably hot, and the battery will barely provide an hour of gaming without a boost. But while you wouldn’t want one on your thighs for hours without asbestos trousers, they’re still a lot easier to carry around than any desktop PC.

Even if your budget or your trousers aren’t up to such monstrous hardware, there’s still hope for laptop users. “There are lower spec VR headsets such as Razer’s OSVR,” Watts suggested. “It’s only 1080p, offering 60Hz and 120Hz operation, similar to the Sony PSVR. So it’s more suitable for a wider range of hardware, but doesn’t offer the best of current VR technologies available.” Whatever you’re packing, it seems that the reality of VR on a laptop needn’t be virtual for much longer.

Want more? Find out whether your desktop PC is ready for virtual reality, or come to EGX Rezzed 2016 to try to the HTC Vive for yourself.

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  1. Xzi says:

    VR can work on phones, after all, of course it can work on laptops. It’s just not likely to be of the same fidelity as desktop VR unless you’re willing to drop $3000+ on a laptop comparable to a $1000 desktop.

    • Sakkura says:

      The problem is with software. If most of the games/apps are designed for the official minimum spec, you would be in trouble trying to run it on weaker hardware.

      But less demanding software would be fine. Like if the Gunjack port has a graphics setting that’s identical to the Gear VR version, then obviously it won’t require a beast of a gaming PC.

      So many questions about VR really come down to software support. This is just one more to add to the pile.

      • Xzi says:

        I think you’ll have basically three levels of software support as you do for non-VR stuff. PC (high-end), console (mid), mobile (low-end). The goal is to have a lot of porting between the three, but obviously there’s likely to be more sharing between PC and console VR, while the mobile market will mostly only port vertically. Once the console and mobile VR markets are established, mid-range hardware like laptops will probably have access to all that content. Eventually current recommended-spec hardware will become cheaper and smaller, and laptops will be built to the equivalent of that spec.

      • Caiman says:

        It just seems incredibly obvious to me, that a laptop will work just fine with VR as long as the demands on the hardware are within its capability to meet the minimum display. Just about every game out there has a video options menu to meet the standards of your system, why not for VR? I’d play Elite: Dangerous in wireframe graphics if it meant its VR mode would run on my laptop! It strikes me that Oculus is simply setting a minimum bar for entry into its VR playground.

        • Xzi says:

          The Vive has the exact same recommended specs. It’s not because they want to gate a lot of people out, it’s that VR rendering is very intensive compared to normal gaming and thus requires a much more powerful system even just to run with graphical fidelity which would be considered “acceptable” for modern gaming. As optimizations are made to the way the GPU and CPU handle this rendering, hardware requirements will go down while the high-end hardware will just keep getting more powerful.

        • hooby says:

          Well, if – as described in the article above – the laptop is physically incapable of doing more than 60fps – and comes with inevitable built in lag because the graphics have to pass through the integrated card – then even having wire-frame graphics will not give you comfortable low-latency 90fps.
          Nothing that the software does could overcome the 60fps limitation and the pass-through-integrated-card latency.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      Optimus is an example where laptops have additional challenges that don’t exist on smartphones, but there’s also a larger software stack on Windows. You have to think in terms of latency. Oculus also has a standard level of experience they’re trying to maintain to not poison an already shaky market. So it’s not just a matter of turning down the settings in a game.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    This is neat. Thanks for reviewing, Matt.

    Of even more particular concern to I what I imagine is a large portion of gamers, be they casual or not, is how the various VR headsets will accommodate and remain comfortable for those of us who wear prescription/corrective glasses. I recall reading that Oculus was planning on having a removable mold around the display to allow glasses, but I don’t remember reading if the reviewer themselves wore glasses or thought the design was (or looked) comfortable.

    If there’s any coverage on VR that I’d like to see coming from GDC, it’s regarding ease of use by wearers of corrective lenses.

    • Xzi says:

      Rift has removable/changeable face cushioning. Vive has both IPD and eye relief adjustments, meaning you can move the lenses left and right, further away from your eyes as well as closer. It has a wide face cushioning already and was built with glasses in mind. Valve are the ones who designed it, after all, and you might notice something on front of both GabeN’s and Freeman’s faces. xD

      • SingularityParadigm says:

        Rift has hardware IPD adjustment. That is one of the primary reasons that both the Rift and the Vive were designed around dual screens, so that they could be realigned to the pupils of the individual user.

  3. rcolin says:

    Presumably something like the Razer Blade Stealth + Core will work just fine and dandy though, right?

  4. snv says:

    Will Gaming Really Work On Gaming Laptops?

    • kincajou says:

      Eh, i’ve had a “gaming” laptop for five years now… Yeah i can’t run high end games but i’ve still had plenty to fill my taste from all the lower spec games out there.

      It’s really exciting to live in a time where hardware limitations (and hence financial limitations) aren’t such a setback that one must forego gaming. All this whilst high end experiences are still catered for and push the envelope continuously.

      It’s cool to have such an inclusive hobby :)

      • froz says:

        You don’t need “gaming laptop” to play lower spec games. There are a lot of games that work on pretty much anything.

        I thought “gaming laptops” were actually supposed to be able to handle for the newest AAA titles. Personally I really don’t get why people buy such laptops. You pay more to get less. I would rather spend that money on better GPU or faster replacement to the next generation.

        • Iain_1986 says:

          Some of us like mobility and portability.

          Its not all black and white. Its not just a case of “paying more for less”, because if it was, people wouldn’t buy them.

        • andycheese says:

          I use a laptop as my main system for purely practical reasons. Although I’d sooner have gotten a the better bang for buck ratio that comes with a desktop, I live in a small house where space is at an absolute premium.

        • Premium User Badge

          Philopoemen says:

          Portability – because of work I may travel all over the state and interstate, and be unsure how long I’ll be away sometimes. I’ve got an Alienware 17 laptop, and while it has an older 4GB ATI card now, it’s quite happily running The Division on Ultra at 1080, XCOM2 at highest settings etc. You’ll never get 4K, but on a 17″ screen, whats the point.

          ‘but it’s not exactly light, and your legs catch on fire if you rest it only your lap, but other than that it’s quite reliable.

    • Iain_1986 says:


    • baltasaronmeth says:

      It does to a degree. The mainstream games work for the most part. On my GTX 970m (via Optimus), I had no trouble playing MGS5 with most settings on Extreme and only a few adjustments to achieve a stable 60 fps. The laptop came with a voucher for Far Cry 4, which is funny, because I cannot play the game on mid above 45 fps. I bought this machine for work, and after a year with this thing, I’d never consider buying a laptop for serious gaming anymore.

      Optimus can cause all kinds of problems, especially if a game does not have certain DirectX features implemented properly. Half of the Capcom catalog craps out with the same bug (fixable with an uncomfortable workaround), Titan Souls got confused with the HDMI audio passthrough and DirectX software relying on EnumDevices too much instead of trusting the driver, will get confused and fail to find the discrete graphics card (the Dolphin emulator for example, but it can be fixed with a simple setting).

      You have to be prepared to spend 2000 bucks to have a 1000 bucks device plus the freedom to carry it around. This is the only reason to buy a gaming laptop. I spent most of 2015 on business trips, it would have been either spending that kind of money, restrict myself to dull games on the phone and handheld or play the same old games on a cheap laptop. I also wouldn’t want to give up casually going to a friend’s house and have a small LAN weekend, without carrying a desktop around.

    • Premium User Badge

      Godwhacker says:

      I bought a Clevo p150em four years ago and it’s been grand. I didn’t have space for a desk at the time (fucking London) and I was moving around a lot. Recently I upgraded the RAM to 16gb and upgraded to the 980m mentioned above- it runs everything like a dream, up to and including The Witcher 3.

      I’m not too bothered about the lack of VR, as gaming is antisocial enough as it is. With a laptop I can still sit next to my girlfriend on the sofa, but if I started putting on a helmet to do it I’d likely find myself single again.

      • Skrallex says:

        How did you upgrade the GPU in the laptop? Does it have a proper card rather than a GPU soldered to the mainboard? If so, that’s neat

  5. Premium User Badge

    Alpha1Dash1 says:

    It will be interesting to see if the cost of non “VR-ready” ultrabooks drop significantly (the very much preferred option!) or if a whole new pricing point will be established.

  6. 0positivo says:

    As someone who’s had to switch from a desktop to a decent enough laptop (having to move from country to country just isn’t conductive to having a big box around), all of this makes me both hopeful and sad

    Honestly, after having worked for 3 months with VR, I really can’t wait to get my hands on the finished product. But between the cost of getting a powerful enough laptop, and the headset itself… I guess I’ll stick to Gear VR for a few years

  7. froz says:

    I don’t understand this part:

    “When you’re dealing with 9ms per frame at 90Hz”

    9 ms per frame = 111 Hz (or FPS)

    90 Hz = each frame is taking around 11 ms. So where is the 9 ms number coming from?

    • TechnicalBen says:

      I’d assume somewhere else in the pipeline and it’s a typo missing the full requirements and response time?

    • tomek says:

      11ms is the magic number and you need way more powerfull hardware for gen1 than people think it seems. This article is in german but it has lots of graphs with benchmarks, for Elite on ultra you need a 980ti at least: link to computerbase.de

  8. Stevepunk says:

    Zero Latency VR in Melbourne, Australia works on portable PCs.
    Not laptops, but Alienware’s Alpha Steam machine plus a battery pack. They remain charged for over an hour and support 60fps per eye on the Rift.

    Story here:
    link to virtualrealityreporter.com

    • PseudoKnight says:

      Hilarious name, given that zero latency is impossible and they’re running at a sub-par 60hz which adds like 5ms of latency. Neat project otherwise.

    • perilisk says:

      Something like that setup seems like an ideal solution for VR, especially as the hardware improves. Battery life only needs to keep pace with the batteries for the HMD and controllers, putting CPU weight on the back seems more manageable that putting it on the neck, and it also means you don’t have to worry about cables anymore either, at least with Vive. Your lighthouse units don’t need to plug into anything but the power sockets, the rest can be worn.

      Design a case that allows the whole deal to be easily bundled up together for transport/storage, possibly even charged from a single outlet at the same time, and you have a winner. Now you can fulfill your lifelong dream of being a gargoyle.

  9. spacein_vader says:

    tl;dr = Hahahaha, no.

  10. wavelover says:

    For anyone interested. I have the new msi gt80s sli with 980 cards(no M). I purchased it because i travel for my job. I am gone 90% of the year, and i do not want to lug a desktop everywhere i am traveling to. I did tons of research on this laptop. and it was stated from Nvidia, numerous tech sites, that this laptop would be VR compatible. I actually can not believe what i payed for it. i have never payed so much for a computer before, and it makes me sick for buying it,
    but i wanted to use VR. I received the laptop before oculus put out there compatability test. When i ran the test it said it was not compatible due to the graphics card. I contacted MSI, Nvidia and oculus customer support( I still pre ordered the rift thinking i could always cancel if i needed to.). all the sources i contacted said it would work. i had to wait about 2 months before oculus contacted me back. customer support didn’t even seem to know about the new 980 desktop card for laptops, even so oculus tweeted the new card would work and be VR laptop ready. I never really got a definitive answer from customer support, but they said it should work( not real encouraging especially when i spent so much on this laptop). Fast forward to vive compatibility tool. This time i passed all the requirements and even received a 8.6 and in the green(i think 11 or 12 is the highest, but not sure could be higher). Not the best but not bad either. I am still on the fence about oculus. i am still of the opinion that if the vive test said yes, theoretically the rift will work. i might just get the vive. to be honest this article still seemed a little to vague to be reassuring. maybe i am being a little obtuse but i still do not have the definitive answer i was looking for.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Philopoemen says:

    Whats the ATI side of things looking like? As a Gaming Laptop-er, I’ve found that the mobile ATI cards tend to be much more forgiving than their nVidia counterparts.

    • SingularityParadigm says:

      AMD has not attached the ATI name to their GPUs since 2010.

  12. Mattd says:

    Does anyone remember 3D films? That amazing thing that was going to change cinema forever and launched with huge marketing & media blitz, but made everyone feel sick and cost a lot more to go see than normal and is now basically abandoned?

    Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Enjoy wasting your money.

  13. popej says:

    My shiny new PC is more than enough for it in all respects but one – I still have a single 970 gpu.

    Don’t think I’ll risk it until I get a new GPU, prolly the 1080 or whatever comes next.

  14. bramble says:

    I’ve been a laptop gamer for 5 years, and while I’ve obviously decided that the benefits outweigh the costs, as they were, it is disappointing that I won’t be jumping on the VR train right away. I hope the clear demand for laptop VR spurs the development of better, faster, cooler components so that when I’m ready to upgrade in a few years this won’t be an issue.

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  16. MrUnimport says:

    >“If someone’s first experience of VR performs badly or makes them ill they are likely to dismiss it entirely,” Watts explained. “This was a necessity to ensure only those with the required components can run VR, to avoid poisoning the well with poorly performing hardware.”

    How insulting. If I want to plunk down hundreds of dollars and look at floating wireframes on an HMD at 60 FPS, that should be my choice.

  17. Eukatheude says:

    So, does this “notebook GTX980” come on a MXM slot?

    • wavelover says:

      I am not sure but the MSI site for my laptop(gt80s sli) stated that the video card could be upgraded in the future. i think you have to send it to msi for that to happen. I am thinking if MSI stated it they must have some knowledge of future cards since the new 980 for laptops is the last of the 900 series. hopefully it will be compatible on whatever the next laptop gpu comes next.

  18. Wisq says:

    The majority of gamers play on desktops

    [citation needed]

    I imagine it depends heavily on how exclusionary you make your definition of “gamer”. I see more and more people going laptop-only, and only playing the games that actually work on their laptop of choice.

    Obviously, that means they’re not playing a lot of those big-budget big-hardware “AAA” releases … but then, honestly, I haven’t been playing many of those recently, either. Just too many good indie titles for much better prices.

  19. OmNomNom says:

    It’ll work great for 30 seconds until the laptop overheats and throttles.