My three year old Alienware PC is now ready for VR thanks to AMD.

The Alienware X51 is already a VR-Ready machine in its latest incarnation, so long as you spec it up right at purchase. If you're not familiar, it's a box not a lot bigger than the Xbox One. The compact nature is one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place.

My own machine isn't one of the new, shiny VR-Ready ones. I have an X51 R2, the previous generation model, and one that's coming up for three years old. I didn't buy it new, rather getting a great price for it used. As it came from Dell, this old girl would never be fit for VR.

But thanks mostly to AMD and its new Radeon RX 480 graphics card I've now achieved just that. With a total spend around that of buying an Oculus Rift headset on its own. Big claims have been made about this card, and so far at least, I have no trouble believing them.

Alienware X51 R2

When I first got this PC, the specs were:

  • Intel Core i5-4430 quad-core processor
  • 8GB RAM
  • 1TB HDD
  • NVIDIA GTX 645 1GB graphics
  • Blu-Ray drive

I've since added more RAM, a better wireless card and addressed the out of date graphics card. First, with an NVIDIA GTX 960, the highest officially recommended card by Dell. But even with this, it wasn't going to touch VR territory.

At this point the current specs are as above but with 16GB of RAM and the shiny new RX 480 4GB graphics card. I went for the 4GB version of this option from Sapphire for a couple of important reasons. Firstly, price, with the 4GB card coming in at £188. A steal, frankly. The second is that the X51 R2 needs to use a reference cooler, the blower style, to vent heat out of the rear of the case. One of the biggest hurdles for prospective buyers right now is availability, with 4GB cards almost impossible to get hold of on both sides of the Atlantic.

Because of the compact design, space is at a premium inside and having a non-reference cooler would result in just blowing air around internally without modifying further. The reference RX 480 is also a comfortable fit, since it's about the same size as the reference GTX 960 that had been in there before. But fiddling with the inside of this PC is a breeze, Dell made it very accessible.

A note on power, too, for anyone who might be thinking of doing the same with their X51 R2. You'll want to have the larger, 330W external power supply, available either directly from Dell or usual places such as eBay. The smaller 240W one isn't going to give you enough headroom.

Before and after, GTX 960 vs RX 480 on 3d Mark Fire Strike

In fact, the biggest pain point in this upgrade was removing all of the NVIDIA drivers and associated software and replacing it with AMD. Not exactly hard, but more time consuming than I'd have liked.

And so, to the results. I ran the SteamVR Performance Test, 3D Mark Fire Strike and a couple of games with benchmark modes I have installed before the upgrade and after to see the difference.

On the GTX 960 the VR test was in the middle bar, suggesting I might get some success, but not have a good time. As expected. On Fire Strike I got a score of 5973, Dirt Rally averaged 50FPS on High graphics settings and Bioshock Infinite recorded 116FPS average on Ultra.

SteamVR test

We're now VR ready!

The RX 480 on the other hand was a win in the VR test. Despite not having the minimum recommended CPU, my X51 R2 comfortably hit the "VR Ready" end of the scale. On Fire Strike the score rocketed to 9161, with Dirt Rally and Bioshock Infinite averaging 59.8FPS and 155FPS on the same graphical settings as the GTX 960.

All of this is very encouraging. I haven't plugged in my RX 480 to a test bench running a high-end CPU, super fast DDR4 memory or any of that, just a regular, off the shelf, 3 year old PC. The results so far are encouraging, but there's still a lot more to figure out. Not least how well it will actually fare in VR.

That's (hopefully) the plan now. One of my UK based colleagues, Matt Brown, has a Vive so we're going to try and get together and give the RX 480 a virtual workout. But initial signs point to good, and AMD's promise of premium VR for $2-300 seems to be coming true.

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