The arrival of VR headsets from HTC and Oculus might be one of the main reasons that seasoned and fresh PC DIYers alike are dusting off their system-building chops these days. Those headsets require powerful hardware for a good VR experience, and PCs from even two or three years ago might not have the grunt to provide the necessary pixel-pushing power. As we prepare to dive deep into those headsets ourselves, it only made sense for us to put together a hot new PC of our own to drive them.
Though the Rift and Vive might still carry a whiff of the exotic, the hardware one needs to power them isn't that unusual. Oculus and HTC both recommend a system with a Core i5-4590 CPU, a GeForce GTX 970-class graphics card or better, and 8GB of RAM or more on board. If you've built one of our Sweet Spot systems from our System Guides dating all the way back to December 2014, you already have a system capable of powering one of those headsets. For our VR test platform, though, we're using some considerably spicier components to build a high-performance PC that should provide an experience above and beyond the Oculus baseline.
To make the fun happen, we enlisted some help from the fine folks at MSI and Corsair, who gave us (mostly) free run of their parts catalogs to put this system together. With great power comes great responsibility, however, and we didn't want to go so far overboard that our system wouldn't resemble a typical enthusiast PC from our recent System Guides. As usually happens in our build logs, we've gone tastefully overboard in spots while trying to keep our feet on the ground for the most part. Our thanks to Corsair and MSI for helping us make this build happen.
CPU: Intel Core i7-6700K
Oculus' minimum specifications for a VR PC call for a Core i5-4590 or better CPU, but MSI provided a Z170 motherboard for this build. It only made sense, then, to tap Intel's Core i7-6700K, the blue team's most powerful mainstream desktop CPU, for our VR box.
This chip is a staple of the high-end builds in our System Guides. It offers four Skylake cores and eight threads running at 4GHz base and 4.2GHz Turbo speeds. No matter what VR experiences we throw at it, this chip should be up to the task. At $349.99 on Newegg right now, the Core i7-6700K is also reasonably priced for what may be the best all-round CPU for most builders these days.
Motherboard: MSI Z170 Gaming M7
VR headsets demand lots of open USB 3.0 ports for connectivity, and MSI's Z170 Gaming M7 motherboard supplies plenty of those ports in its rear cluster for our needs. This board has three USB 2.0 ports, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, and USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C connectors with a 10Gbps top speed. This board also offers four USB 3.0 ports from internal headers.
Though peripheral I/O was our primary concern when selecting a mobo for this build, the Gaming M7 has plenty of other goodies that aren't VR-specific. This board includes a premium Realtek ALC1150 audio codec with plenty of EMI shielding in its audio path, Killer E2400 Gigabit Ethernet, and a physical "overclocking knob" that boosts certain system components when it's cranked up. We're not sure we'll be using that feature much when this mobo is housed in a case, but if you prefer your tweaking to be tactile, MSI says that knob goes to 11. Folks who run this board on an open bench also get a set of dedicated power and reset buttons, as well as a set of voltage monitoring points for extreme overclocking attempts.
Another subtle-but-nice feature of the Gaming M7 is its reinforced PCIe slots, which use a metal shroud that's soldered to the underlying PCB to prevent the slots from shearing away when a PC with a Gaming M7 board inside is moved with graphics cards in place. That extra peace of mind is important in a VR build that's going to be moved around a lot—especially once you see what graphics cards are going into this beastly system.
Memory: Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-3200 (with Airflow kit)
To give our CPU ample RAM to play with, I picked out Corsair's Vengeance LPX 32GB DDR4-3200 kit. Corsair built its reputation on delivering high-quality RAM, and this Vengeance kit carries on that tradition. The red heat spreaders on this kit look great with our MSI motherboard, and they're low-profile enough that they shouldn't cause clearance issues with large tower-style heatsinks.
Corsair sent me the "Airflow" version of this RAM. That kit includes a clip-on fan that's meant to enhance system stability when the memory underneath is overclocked. Given how fast this memory runs out of the box, however, and given my prejudice against tiny fans, I'll be leaving the Airflow cooler in the box unless I encounter some kind of instability that can be traced back to the memory in this system.
We did mount the Airflow cooler to our system while it was still in its formative state on our test bench, and it's worth taking into account the sheer size of this thing if you're intending to go all-out on RAM cooling. The Airflow intrudes on the CPU socket in its default centered position, so cooling a quad-DIMM setup like ours with this module may be best left to liquid-cooled builds. The "legs" on the Airflow can slide left and right for extra clearance if you do insist on pairing it with a giant air cooler, though.