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.
Core components, continued
Graphics cards: Two MSI GeForce GTX 980 Gaming 4Gs
No, you’re not reading that wrong. We’re using a pair of Maxwell graphics cards to power this particular VR build, not the latest and greatest from AMD or Nvidia. Hear us out. One of our goals when planning this build was to represent a PC that might be typical of the systems sitting on enthusiasts’ desks today, not bleeding-edge machines with a rare-as-hens’-teeth Pascal chip inside. The GTX 980 Gaming 4G cards that MSI sent along serve that goal admirably, and hey—two is better than one, right?
The fully-enabled GM204 chips under the heatsinks on these GTX 980s are a nice step up from the GeForce GTX 970 that’s the recommended baseline from Oculus and HTC, and having a pair of these cards inside our system might afford us the opportunity to play around with nascent technologies like VR SLI once they become more common. Our VR PC will also run quietly when its graphics cards are running at full tilt, thanks to MSI’s excellent Twin Frozr coolers.
Compared to a reference GTX 980, MSI boosts the GTX 980 Gaming 4G’s clock speeds from 1126MHz base and 1216MHz boost speeds to 1216MHz base and 1317MHz boost clocks in the card’s most aggressive mode. (That’s a 90-MHz base bump and a 101-MHz boost increase, if you’re curious.) We also get 4GB of GDDR5 RAM running at a brisk 7 GT/s.
If we decide these GTX 980s aren’t up to the task of delivering great VR performance down the line, we’ve got a great platform to work with shoud we decide to swap out these Maxwell twins for something more powerful. Once again, however, our goal isn’t to build something on the bleeding edge of today’s hardware. We’re trying to get a VR experience typical of a system built within the past couple of years for our VR experiences. Had we been building this system with parts from the open market, the story might be different, but this is one case where we’re going against the grain a bit to satisfy some whims that we might not have otherwise made sense to indulge.
Power supply: Corsair RM850x
To power our top-end CPU and graphics cards, we’re turning to Corsair’s RM850x PSU. This 80 Plus Gold unit offers all the connectors we’ll want for our pair of graphics cards. Corsair also uses slick all-black cabling with mesh covers that’ll make our extensive wiring job stealthier when it’s all in place.
The RM850x’s fully-modular design means we only have to plug in the cables we need for our build and nothing more. The RM850 won’t contribute a lot of noise or heat to our system, either, thanks to its 80 Plus Gold efficiency rating and a semi-passive design that lets the fan inside shut off at low loads. The PSU experts at JonnyGuru give the RMx series outstanding marks for voltage regulation and ripple suppression, so our system should get nothing less than superb power from this unit.
CPU cooler: Corsair H110i GTX
In our experience, Skylake CPUs are notoriously difficult to cool once the clocks start climbing, and the Core i7-6700K is especially ornery in that regard. To squash any chance of running out of thermal headroom for our CPU, I asked Corsair for the beefiest CPU cooler in their parts catalog, and they offered up the H110i GTX. This 280-mm closed-loop cooler should have no trouble keeping our CPU frosty at stock clocks, and it should also have more than enough overclocking headroom if we decide that the i7-6700K’s stock clocks just aren’t enough.
The “i” in the H110i GTX’s name means this cooler can be hooked up to the motherboard using an open USB 2.0 header. That connection gives builders full control over the H110i’s fan and pump speeds within Windows using Corsair’s Link software. Link also gives us control over the RGB LEDs in the H110i’s pump head. This degree of control might not be necessary for every system builder, but we think it’s nice to have.
While we still recommend spinning disks in most of our System Guide builds, our preferred approach when drawing up parts lists for our personal systems is to do away with mechanical storage entirely. Moving to an all-solid-state storage setup means that we’re cutting out another source of noise and heat in our system, and it also means that anything we’re storing on our VR PC will load much faster than it would from a spinning drive.
To make the best use of all of these NAND cells, we’re storing our OS and main programs on the high-performance Neutron XT SSD from Corsair. This 480GB drive boasts sequential read ratings of up to 560 MB/s and sequential write speeds of up to 540 MB/s, as well as 100K random read IOPS and 90K random write IOPS.
The Force LE 960GB drive isn’t quite as much of a barn-burner, but its 560 MB/s sequential read and 530 MB/s sequential write numbers are pretty close to the Neutron XT’s. Random I/O isn’t quite as fast on this drive, at 85K read and 60K write IOPS, but this bulk storage disk should still be more than fast enough for our purposes.
We enjoyed our time with the enormous Carbide Series 600C when we tested it out a while back, so Corsair’s Carbide Series 400C seemed like a natural choice for our VR build. This case offers plenty of room for our dual graphics cards and 280-mm radiator in a compact ATX footprint. The large side window lets us show off the beefy graphics hardware and slick red-and-black color scheme of our build, and filtered vents at the front and top of the case will keep those fancy parts clean with time, too.
The 400C is designed with modern builds like ours in mind. It’s only got room for two 3.5″ storage devices and three 2.5″ drives, but that’s not a problem now that high-density hard drives and SSDs are becoming the norm. The only drawback to choosing the 400C over the 600C for this build might be the smaller case’s lack of 5.25″ bays. Some graphics cards, like Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming, come with front-panel breakout boxes for USB 3.0 and HDMI outs. If you’re considering a VR-ready graphics card of your own with one of those breakout boxes included, the 600C might be a better choice.
One of the nice things about picking out high-quality parts is that it lessens the chances of unpleasant surprises during the building process. Even so, I did run into a few unexpected potholes over the course of building our VR PC.
For one, the 3.5″ hard-drive cage that hides beneath the plastic beauty shroud sits quite close to the front of our lengthy 850W PSU in its default position, leaving little room to route or even insert cables into our modular PSU. Since we weren’t relying on any spinning disks for this build, I simply removed the cage. Folks trying to cram exceptionally lengthy power supplies and big liquid coolers into the 400C will probably have to sacrifice 3.5″ storage space to make them work. The forward mounting position for the hard drive cage doesn’t leave any room for the 280-mm radiator stack with our particular build.
The handsome aluminum shroud over the port cluster on our MSI motherboard is attached in an unexpected way, as well. MSI ran two bolts through the standard ATX mounting holes at the upper left corner and midde left side of the board, a move that certainly makes the shroud feel secure but results in instant clearance issues with any case that has pre-installed motherboard standoffs—like our 400C. Corsair doesn’t include a standoff installation tool, either, so I had to go digging in my parts pile before I could remove the offending standoffs.
The paper cuts from our MSI motherboard didn’t end there, either. I certainly appreciate the fact that MSI has started including its own take on Asus’ Q-Connector with its higher-end motherboards, but the screenprinted pinout on that pin block reversed the power LED and power switch pin positions relative to their actual location in the motherboard’s front-panel pin block. I ended up having to double-check that pinout in our motherboard’s manual, so plugging in the front-panel connectors actually ended up being harder than it shoud have. Whoops.
The next challenge for this system was to install our Corsair CPU cooler. Anybody who’s ever installed a liquid-cooling stack on a vertical mount with an intake fan setup knows that it can be a frustrating experience. I was preparing for a careful balancing act until it occurred to me that I could use Scotch tape to temporarily secure the fan hubs to the crossbars that span the front of the 400C’s frame. With that extra bit of adhesive support in place, I had no problem securing the H110i GTX to the front radiator mounts of the 400C.
The Carbide 400C offers ample aids for clean cable routing, but the cable pass-through on the bottom shroud of this case is composed of two separate holes in two pieces of overlapping plastic. Any cable that you want to run through this hole first needs to be run through the hole on the first shroud, then threaded through the hole on the forward shroud before one is able to install both pieces—and that installation procedure has to happen all at once. While that might sound simple in theory, it was actually rather difficult to keep two PCIe power cables, the H110i’s USB header cable, the front-panel connector, and the HD audio connector in position while I was reinstalling those shrouds. I much prefer the approach of Cooler Master’s MasterCase series in this regard.
Our MSI GTX 980s were the last components to go inside the case, and I didn’t have any issues getting those cards into position. One SLI bridge and four PCIe power connectors later, our build was complete. Our Carbide Series 400C case might be a little on the tight side for this system, but there’s no denying that we ended up with a clean build that looks great.
All together now
Despite some minor headaches during the build process, I’m quite pleased with the finished aesthetics of this particular VR build. The red-and-black accents of the MSI motherboard we picked, the subtle LEDs of the Corsair cooler and twin MSI graphics cards we chose, and the expansive side window of the Corsair case we used make this one of the best-looking PCs I’ve ever built. This system isn’t any good if it can’t deliver a good VR experience, though.
While we’re saving VR performance with this system for a series of future articles, we do have one benchmark to share now. The SteamVR Performance Test is probably the quickest and dirtiest way to get a bearing of a PC’s VR-readiness, and it also offers convenient support for multi-GPU setups, as well. Thanks to that nascent SLI support, we can get a feel for how the system behaves with VR in both its single- and multi-GPU modes.
Run the SteamVR performance test with multi-GPU support off, and a single GTX 980 delivers a solid, if not spectacular, performance. The SteamVR test delivers an index and a visual quality graph, and while the GTX 980’s 8.8 index score is fairly impressive, the SteamVR test clearly had to step visual quality up and down to achieve that number. We’ve run this same test with a GeForce GTX 980 Ti, among other cards, and that GM200-powered card easily turns in a flat 11 on this result.
With the “-multigpu” flag enabled, though, the SteamVR test does enjoy some performance scaling on our system, turning in a 10.9 index score and remaining at the highest visual quality level throughout the test. That’s the kind of performance we’re interested in seeing if VR engine developers start incorporating SLI and CrossFire support into their applications.
Now that we have a baseline for our system’s performance in synthetic tests, it’s possible that even a pair of GTX 980s isn’t powerful enough for the kind of buttery-smooth, high-fidelity VR experience we want. Graphics cards can easily be switched out, though, and we’ve got all sorts of different configurations we can test with this base system. GTX 980 Tis in SLI? Sure. A single GTX 1070 or GTX 1080? Totally doable. A single GTX 970 or Radeon RX 480 might also be worth trying, although the VR experience those cards offer might not be the best given our experiences with the GTX 980 so far.
No matter which road we eventually take with our graphics setup in this VR PC, we’ve got a great foundation to work with. Look for this system in future VR articles as we explore the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Our thanks once again to the fine folks at MSI and Corsair for helping us make this build happen—it’s a stunner.