No, I don’t like strapping a smartphone to my face to enjoy virtual reality. And I don’t blame you if you don’t want to either.
But if you look at the reported sales numbers for mobile headsets like the Samsung Gear VR over the past year, you might think people prefer them.
Um, I don’t think so.
Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, in my own experience, the most dedicated VR users in the growing community tend to use high-end headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
That’s why it’s frustrating to see so many VR developers and content companies focusing on mobile VR over stationary, high-end VR systems. But I digress …
Not everyone is ready to make the commitment of installing a large gaming PC in their home expressly for VR. But on the other hand, I’ve rarely seen someone in the wild (on a train or in a park, etc.) using a mobile VR headset. I’m looking for these mobile VR users, but I almost never see them.
So I’ve been thinking that there must be a middle ground. A space between the lower cost, lower quality VR delivered via devices like the Gear VR and top-tier VR available on devices like the HTC Vive, which requires a full PC set-up to work.
Perhaps something like a VR-friendly laptop that can move with you from place to place.
Last year, when I shopped for my own VR system, most gaming experts I spoke to advised against getting a laptop, instead suggesting that I get a desktop machine (I did). But I still wondered: Is high-end VR using a powerful laptop viable? With so many people now living a peripatetic lifestyle from city to city around the globe, this is also question others interested in VR have frequently tossed my way.
To find out, I decided to get my hands on a powerful gaming laptop and put it to the test using the most system and graphics resource-intensive VR experiences currently available.
The machine I selected was the Asus ROG G701VI, or as I like to call it, The Beast.
Covered in special ops-style brushed gray aluminum, the laptop uses an Intel Core i7 processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card, 64GB of RAM and 1 terabyte of solid state drive memory. On the outside, the machine sports three USB 3.0 ports, one HDMI port and a 17.3-inch screen. Oh, and it weighs a whopping 7.9 pounds. Like I said, it’s a beast.
Before I get into the results, a few caveats. This is by no means an exhaustive test of all the most powerful gaming laptops on the market. Nor is this a laptop review. This exploration was designed solely to figure out just how viable high-end VR using a laptop could be. The VR system I used was the Oculus Rift.
Real talk: Is laptop VR easy?
In the era of the MacBook Air — a reliable laptop that’s so thin you can toss it into a backpack and forget you even have it with you — lugging around a laptop like the Asus ROG is an act of commitment rather than convenience. This is not a device you want to carry with you on a daily commute.
However, for our purposes — setting up two Oculus sensors and strapping on the Rift headset anywhere — what’s most important is that when you reach your destination you can quickly boot it up and launch VR apps without a hitch. To my surprise (after several gaming experts warned me off using a laptop for VR), the answer is yes.
Aside from its massive 17-inch screen and hefty weight, there’s also the matter of the power adapter. It’s huge. The 330-watt power adapter is listed as a mere 1 pound, but it has about the size and feel of an actual brick you’d pluck from a construction site. Again, this isn’t something you want to carry around regularly.
Does laptop VR match desktop VR, or is this some sort of hack?
The good news is that all that size and weight delivers all the needed horsepower to facilitate smooth and flawless VR. And I didn’t hold back, I purposely hammered the machine with every intensive VR experience I could think of, whether it was graphics-intensive games like The Unspoken and Robo Recall, or shared movie viewing experiences with friends in Bigscreen VR. The Asus laptop handled everything with ease.
Over the course of one month of testing, the only hiccups I experienced occurred when I launched the Oculus desktop app after the laptop had been put to sleep rather than shutdown. In those cases, a quick reboot of the system eliminated any issues.
No matter how long or hard I pushed the machine, there were no heat issues thanks to the device’s well-designed cooling system. Sure, the sound of the laptop’s cooling fans working was fairly loud during intense usage, but I could only hear them when I took off my Oculus headset earphones, so it wasn’t an issue that impacted any experience.
And while you can take this laptop anywhere, don’t expect to be able to go camping in woods, mount Oculus sensors in a pair of trees and suddenly commune with nature while in VR using the device’s battery alone. I generally had to remain plugged into a power source while using the laptop to avoid dropping frames and motion lag.
Better mobile VR, but at what cost?
Because of the laptop’s size, weight and power requirements, the use case for such a set-up is unique, and definitely not for the casual user.
Similarly, at $3,498 (the price of the configuration listed above on Amazon), the Asus ROG G701VI is in the realm of top tier power user laptops generally favored by independent filmmakers and graphic designers. For a loose comparison, a similarly powerful 15-inch Apple Macbook Pro with a 2.9GHz Core i7 processor, 1 terabyte solid state drive and a Radeon Pro 460 graphics card is about $3,499. (Currently, the Rift and Vive aren’t supported for Macs of any kind.)
Due to the cost and the fact the technology is still emerging, VR laptops aren’t likely to become the mainstream vector through which average virtual reality users access the metaverse.
But as more people get a taste of VR, and are in some cases dissuaded by the thought of setting up a massive gaming PC in their home, there is absolutely no reason not to consider this, or a similarly powerful gaming laptop, as a solution for accessing high-end VR.
Now the only barrier — as it often is with bleeding edge tech — is cost. If you have the cash, the virtual sky is the limit.