How to Build a VR Gaming PC – Part 1 – Components

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Here we go again! ETR is back with another kickass PC build, and this time, we’re not holding back.

We’re going balls to the wall to serve our new VR gaming overlords.We have no size constraints, we have no real power constraints, and we have everything at our disposal. This build will go above and beyond the hardware recommendations of the Oculus Rift and will probably surpass the (still unreleased) requirements of the HTC Vive. Due to their hardware similarities, many believe the Vive will require roughly the same specifications as the Rift. This post will be updated once official HTC Vive specifications are released. UPDATE: Were good! Check the official specs here.

  1. How to Build a VR Gaming PC – Part 1 – Components
  2. How to Build a VR Gaming PC – Part 2 – Assembly

We have no size constraints, we have no real power constraints, and we have everything at our disposal. This build will go above and beyond the hardware recommendations of the Oculus Rift and will probably surpass the (still unreleased) requirements of the HTC Vive. Due to their hardware similarities, many believe the Vive will require roughly the same specifications as the Rift. This post will be updated once official HTC Vive specifications are released.

We’re not going the cheap route on this build, but we’re not going fucking crazy either. If you were to assemble this PC from the ground up, brand new, with no reusable or second-hand parts from prior builds, you can expect to pay anywhere from $1,300-1,400 or more (not including monitor, keyboard, or mouse). Also not including the price of the Rift or the Vive. Not trying to scare you, but you’re easily looking at $2,000+ for everything you need for a working i5/i7 Skylake VR PC. It’s a huge chunk of change, but it’s not like we’re not going way over spec here.

Consider the alternatives to building your own machine. You could order a pre-built Oculus Rift VR PC for a minimum of $1600, with jack shit included (peripherals, monitor, etc), and inflated part costs. Or you could build the PC yourself. You’ll learn something, have fun, and you’ll have a less expensive, more powerful PC as a result. Built with drastically superior components. Don’t buy a pre-built PC, just don’t. If you can put together a Lego set, you can build a PC. You’ll thank me later.

If you just cannot afford the latest and greatest, you could subtract a few hundred bucks from the total build cost if you go with a cheaper motherboard/CPU combo, or use previous gen components like Haswell or Ivy Bridge. Just make sure you don’t go too far back in time.

But as a general rule of thumb, if your budget allows it, use the best available. Any way you slice it, the cost of entry to VR is not going to be cheap, at least not right now.

We’re not building a tri-SLI GTX 980Ti 4k high-end gaming PC. Nor are we building the most affordable VR gaming PC possible. But we are going slightly above recommended spec to ensure a kick ass VR experience, for at least the next couple of years. The only component of this build that might need an upgrade to keep up with the advances in VR is probably the GPU, but everything else shouldn’t be a concern for several years.

Getting Started

This is not a “from scratch” build (all new components), this is an upgrade for me, and might be for you as well. But I will explain it as if we’re doing this from the ground up. Personally, I will be upgrading my CPU, memory (RAM), motherboard, and CPU cooler, everything else is good to go. See below for my before and after spec comparison.

OCULUS RECOMMENDED PC SPEC

Graphics CardNVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD R9 290 equivalent or greater
CPUIntel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
Memory8GB+ RAM
Video OutputCompatible HDMI 1.3 video output
USB Ports3x USB 3.0 ports plus 1x USB 2.0 port
OSWindows 7 SP1 64 bit or newer

CURRENT PC SPEC

CaseCorsair 300R ATX Mid Tower
Power SupplyCORSAIR AX850 850W 80 PLUS GOLD Modular Power Supply
MotherboardASRock P67 EXTREME4 GEN3 LGA 1155 (Discontinued)
CoolingStock Intel CPU Cooler
Processor (CPU)Intel Core i5-3570 3.4GHz (3.8GHz Turbo) (Discontinued)
Graphics CardMSI GTX 970 100 Million Edition 4GB
Storage DriveCrucial Crucial BX200 2.5" 240GB SSD 4 TB HDD Storage
RAM 16GB (4 x 4GB) CORSAIR Vengeance DDR3 RAM 1600 MHz
Optical DriveDVD
OSWindows 10

UPGRADED VR PC SPEC

CaseCorsair 300R ATX Mid Tower
Power SupplyCORSAIR AX850 850W 80 PLUS GOLD Modular Power Supply
*NEW* MotherboardMSI Gaming Z170A-G45 LGA 1151
*NEW* CoolingCRYORIG H7
*NEW* Processor (CPU)Intel Core i7-6700 (non-K) 3.4GHz (4.0GHz Turbo)
Graphics CardMSI GTX 970 100 Million Edition 4GB
Storage DriveCrucial Crucial BX200 2.5" 240GB SSD 4 TB HDD Storage
*NEW* RAM 16GB (2x8GB) G.SKILL Ripjaws V DDR4 2400MHz
Optical DriveDVD
OSWindows 10

As you can see, the PC listed as “CURRENT PC SPEC” is still an adequate gaming PC, in fact, it is already damn close to matching Oculus’s recommended specifications. The Intel Core i5 3570 CPU is the only component that is “technically” below the recommended specification. I would probably venture a guess and say that the 3570 (K or non-K) is probably going to be sufficient for a good VR experience.

If you are rocking a Core i5 or i7 Ivy Bridge (3XXX) and above, I’m assuming you’re probably going to be in good shape. But once you start getting down into the Sandy Bridge (2XXX) processors and below, the waters get a little murky. Individual core performance might not be enough to keep up with VR requirements.

Component Selection Explanation 

Here’s why I did what I did, and why I didn’t do what I didn’t.

Case Corsair 300R ATX Mid Tower

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 Image: corsair.com

The 300R is hardly new and innovative. It’s a well-built PC case that allows for plenty of expansion. It can accept virtually any size graphics card with a ton of room to spare. Its design is simple and minimalistic, just the way I like it. In general, I’m perfectly content with the 300R and don’t feel the need to upgrade at this time.

Power Supply CORSAIR AX850 850W 80 PLUS GOLD Modular Power Supply

Corsair no longer makes the AX850, they have since replaced the AX850 with the RM850 and RM850X. But spec wise, they are virtually the same PSU. So I have no reason to upgrade.

Like I have said many, many times in the past. Don’t skimp on your fucking power supply! Please don’t go out and get a no-name PSU from Joe Blow Tech, or steal that old 250W PSU from your mom’s old Compaq shitbox. These are some pretty high-end components were dealing with here and they deserve a bit of love. It pays to go with a reliable name brand. Trust me.

If you know you’re never going to CrossFire or SLI your graphics card, you can get away with a less powerful PSU. But if you are of the mindset that someday you might pick up another graphics card, especially the high-end GPU’s we will be discussing in this build (GTX 970 and above), you should get a PSU that can accommodate dual high-end GPU’s. You will need the extra headroom. 850W is just about the minimum should you one day want to SLI or CrossFire your graphics cards. But feel free to go higher, it won’t hurt anything.

One more word of advice. If at all possible. Try and go modular (all connectors separate from the PSU module). It makes cable management SO much fucking easier, and you only use what you need. The above modular PSU will contain all of the connectors that you could possibly need.

CPU Intel Core i7-6700

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Aside from gaming, I also use this PC for work. Work that consists of a bunch of Photoshop, Illustrator, various 3D programs, and numerous other experiments I work on in my spare time. So I sprung for the i7 6700. It’s sheer performance power and hyper threading, are ideal for the kind of work I do. If you are mostly using this PC for gaming and VR stuff, I am sure you will be more than happy with any of the latest Skylake Core i5 (6400, 6500, or 6600K) CPU’s. They are all LGA 1151 socket CPU’s so either CPU will work with our build. But in general, each processor exceeds VR system requirements, and will serve you well.

What about the 6700K?

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The 6700K is the far more popular chip among enthusiasts, and at the time of this writing, there seems to be a bit of a supply and demand problem. Supply of i7 6700K CPU’s is quite low and has been for some time now. So what happens when low supply meets high demand? That’s right, prices go up! In my case, the i7 6700K was over $100 more expensive than it’s non-k brethren.

I was lucky enough to snag the i7 6700 for just a few bucks over it’s MSRP of $312 (according to Intel). The 6700K is often priced $60-70 more than it’s suggested retail price of $350. So it all comes down to this. I really didn’t want to wait for the price to go down (impatient), it almost certainly will, but it might take a few months. The performance gain is not worth $100, not to me at least. But, if you’re reading this a couple of months down the road and the 6700K is at or near its $350 retail price, then yes, I would probably pony up the extra $30-40 for the 6700K.

So I guess I won’t be overclocking this go around (crying_carlton.gif). It’s just too bad you can’t overclock a non-K Intel processor. Right? Not so fast my friend!

Say what!? You can overclock a non-K Intel CPU? 

UPDATE: Intel has decided for us that overclocking a non-K CPU is bad for us and bad for their business, AKA bullshit! We will see how this pans out, but I wouldn’t bank on overclocking via the base clock to continue much longer. But until intel pushes their microcode update, it might still be possible. Link to PC Gamer article.

You heard right. In the past, the biggest selling point for Intel’s “K” CPU’s has been their unlocked multipliers. This allowed for easy and effective overclocking. But Skylake is a bit different than previous generations.

Per overclocking.guide.

Non-K CPUs have to be overclocked using the BCLK (Base Clock). Before Skylake, CPU’s such as Haswell or Devils Canyon could only be overclocked by about 3-5% using the BCLK because the BCLK was still tied to the DMI and the PCIe. However, for Skylake CPUs, BCLK and PCIe have a dedicated reference clock which always stays at 100 MHz – no matter how you change the BCLK. In other words: You can push the BCLK without worrying about other components.

There are a few drawbacks to this type of overclocking. See below

  • The missing power-management will not allow you to read out any core temperature. No matter which tool you use, it will always just read 100°C.
  • No C-States. CPUs will always run full speed and full voltage.
  • No Turbo-Mode.
  • No iGPU.
  • Intel AVX is screwed. Some benchmarks like Intel XTU use AVX and you will have about 4-5 times lower score. As far as I know no game is using AVX so it’s no problem to use this for gaming rigs. Not suitable for professional usage tho.
  • Avoid high memory clocks. Everything around 2600 MHz will be fine

So in general, the 6700 can be significantly overclocked, but there are a few quibbles you will have to deal with. Initially, I do not plan to overclock, not right now anyway. In a year or so, maybe. That being said, I went ahead and purchased an aftermarket CPU cooler. More on that in a minute.

Motherboard  MSI Gaming Z170A-G45

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The motherboard is usually the hardest part to pick on most PC builds. Motherboards have so much shit going on, it’s hard to keep track and compare features of each board. But it is well worth some good old fashioned research time to get it right.

Make it easy on yourself, just go step-by-step. Start by limiting your selection.

First things first, select your socket type. Almost all Intel Skylake Core i5 and i7 CPU’s support socket type LGA 1151.

Second, narrow down your search by selecting which LGA 1151 chipset and board size you want to go with. I am going with a Z170 ATX motherboard because

  1. I can comfortably fit a full-size ATX motherboard inside my case
  2. Z170 packs the most features that are important to me

From here it’s mostly about personal preference and budget.  My budget was under $200, so this eliminated most of the really high-end enthusiast boards, but I was still left with quite a robust selection to choose from. The $150-200 range is chock full of high-quality, feature-packed motherboards.

Almost all Z170 boards will support DDR4 SDRAM. There are a few that support DDR3, but these boards tend to be less feature packed than some comparable DDR4 boards. If want to try and save some money by reusing your old DDR3 RAM be my guest, but you may have to sacrifice a few features found on higher-end motherboards. There aren’t many LGA 1151 boards that support DDR3 out there, so your selection will be limited.

Per the Oculus Rift requirements make sure your motherboard supports at least 3 USB3 ports and, at least, one USB 2 port. Most newer mobo’s should easily support this spec. If you are lacking the proper USB requirements you can easily expand almost any motherboard by adding on a PCIe USB3 expansion card. Such as this one from Inateck (I have one, it works great).

If you are looking to CrossFire or SLI, make sure your board supports either or both.

Other important factors vary greatly per board, so it’s up to you to decide how much importance to place on board design, LAN, audio, USB, SATA, expansion ports, and other motherboard manufacturer specific features.

Graphics Card MSI GTX 970 100 Million Edition 4GB

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The Oculus Rift recommends a minimum of a GTX 970 or AMD R9 290 equivalent or higher. I just so happen to have a new(ish) GTX 970, so we can consider that box checked. The GTX 970 is probably one of, if not the, best price/performance graphics cards available right now. I can attest to its performance, for 1080P gaming, it’s as close to perfect, without being overkill, as you can get.

If you’re going to put a lot of cash down on any particular PC component, the graphics card is where your money will be best spent. Just make sure you have a nice balance between CPU and GPU performance. You don’t want to bottleneck a high-end GPU with a shitty processor.

We already did a full installation tutorial of this exact card in our HTPC series, but we will be going over it once again once we reach that point in our VR gaming PC build.

CPU Cooler CRYORIG H7

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If you’re going with a Skylake Core i5, or i7 6700, and you’re not going to OC, this section is completely optional. The CPU cooler that comes bundled with the processor is engineered to work with each processor at stock clocks. They wouldn’t supply you with an inadequate cooler for their own product. It’s not a great cooler by any stretch, but it’s not going to hurt your CPU either.

If you plan on overclocking sometime in the future, or you are purchasing the i7 6700K, an aftermarket CPU cooler is a requirement. The 6700K DOES NOT ship with a CPU cooler in the box. You will need to find your own.

You can go either passive (fanless), passive air cooled, or a liquid cooling solution. It all depends on your situation, budget, and what kind of overclocking you plan on doing. The farther you push your CPU, the better your cooling solution needs to be. You can spend as much as a couple of hundred dollars on a really good liquid cooling solution. Or you can spend as little as $20-30 on a decent air cooler. The choice is up to you. Almost any aftermarket cooler will handily outperform the stock Intel cooler.

MEMORY (RAM) 16GB G.SKILL Ripjaws V DDR4

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We briefly touched on memory in the motherboard section, but if you’re going Skylake, you’re probably going DDR4. This basically means that all of your DDR3 RAM is completely worthless in regards to this particular build. DDR3 is still very much in demand, so you should have no problem selling it. DDR3 had a fantastic run, but unfortunately, all good things come to an end. DDR4 is the future, so you might as well embrace it.

In the past, I have always recommended at least 8GB of RAM minimum for virtually any PC build. But if you use your PC for anything other than gaming, you will probably benefit from having some extra headroom. 16GB DDR4 RAM kits are probably the most common variety you will see. If you can get a quality, name brand, RAM kit from Corsair, G.Skill, Crucial, Kingston, etc. for under $80 (my kit was under $70), you’re probably doing okay.

Oculus recommends, at least, 8GB, but I think it’s time we consider 16GB to be the new sweet spot. Unless you are a serious multitasker, you probably won’t need more. 16GB is going to be more than enough for the next few years.

When it comes to gaming, the speed of your RAM is not going to have much of an impact on performance. The only real discernable difference will probably only be found in minimum frame rate. But even then results are a bit inconclusive. The performance difference is usually a measly ± 1-2 % if there is any difference at all. If you plan on overclocking, faster RAM might be in your benefit, but for everyone else, it’s not going to matter that much.

In summary, when strictly focused on gaming, the amount (8GB minimum) and speed of your memory have very little effect on overall performance. Just pick an average DDR4-2400 16GB kit from a quality manufacturer and you are good to go. If you are looking for better gaming performance, don’t waste a bunch of money on an expensive RAM kit, you are much better off putting the price savings into a better graphics card.

Boot Drive/Storage Crucial BX200 2.5″ 240GB SSD

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Man, I love being a turtle! No new PC build or upgrade is complete without an SSD as your primary boot drive. There is no excuse, not when you can pick up a 120GB SSD for under $40. You won’t be installing many games on a 120GB, but it can probably handle the average user’s software requirements. I find that a 240-500GB SSD is probably the sweet spot for my particular needs. A 240GB SSD is more than enough room to hold the entire Adobe CC suite, various 3D programs, and the entire Microsoft Office suite. With plenty of room to spare.

I have about 4TB worth of traditional HDD storage for game installations, video, music, movies, and overflow should my SSD ever become full. But you can always install programs to another drive ya know.

Optical Drive DVD

Probably one of the cheapest components of your build, the optical is no longer a necessity. The exception being hardware driver CD/DVD’s, it’s a pain in the ass without an optical drive, but you can almost always download the drivers from the manufacturer’s website. For most of us, it’s there just in case at this point.

I have an HTPC I can utilize for watching Bluray movies, so personally, I have no need to upgrade drives at this time. For many of you, this PC could obviously double as a Plex server or something like that, so a Bluray drive could be useful for ripping movies, but the rig we’re building is not exactly a low power/always on kind of PC. I’ll leave that to my HTPC, but I won’t judge you.

Operating System Windows 10

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Oculus requires at 64bit install of Windows 7 SP1 or newer. So if you have been putting off your free upgrade to Windows 10, you’re probably in luck. I say “probably” because I can’t confirm if you can transfer your Windows 7/8 license to a new PC, and still keep your upgrade offer. Please, correct me if I am wrong.

For the rest of us, those of us who have already redeemed their free Windows 7/8 to 10 offer, we’re all probably fucked. You’re probably not going to be able to transfer that free copy of Windows 10 to your new PC. You can probably transfer your old Windows 7 or 8 license, and reinstall, but if you want Win 10 for free again, forget about it. Your Windows 10 upgrade is tied down to your system hardware. Change the hardware, you lose Windows 10. You will need to pony up anywhere between $90-200 for a new Windows 10 license, depending on the version you choose.

I upgraded all of my computers at home to Windows 10, and I want them to all be on the same version of Windows, so I had to give in. Plus, I didn’t feel like going backward. Going back to 7 just to go back to 10 at a later date. That just didn’t make sense to me. Sure, you can probably find some cheap copies of Windows 7/8 floating around, and you could probably upgrade them for free to Windows 10, but be careful. Your Windows 10 license is still tied to that PC’s hardware.

There are three different types of Windows 10 license you can purchase

Microsoft Windows 10 Home 64 Bit System Builder OEM (Not recommended)

This is the cheapest version of Windows 10 you can buy, by about $20. But it’s also the least versatile. Purchasing this OEM/system builder version means you can only install Windows on one machine, and one machine only. For the life of Windows 10. So, if you ever want to upgrade your motherboard, for any reason, you might be up Shits Creek.

I can’t verify that it would be impossible to transfer the license, maybe if it was the same motherboard, but I’m not going to risk possibly having to pay for another copy of Windows the next time I upgrade my PC. But if $20 is worth the risk to you, be my guest.

Microsoft Windows 10 Home: Download or Flash Drive (Recommended)

This is the full retail version of Windows 10 that most people are looking for. The license is transferable and reusable. One machine at a time. If you build or upgrade often, this or the Pro version below is the version to get. If you have a 4GB or larger flash drive, save $10 and go for the download. It’s actually quite easy to make your own. Just make sure you purchase a license before you install.

Microsoft Windows 10 Pro: Download or Flash Drive (Recommended)

This is the full retail version of Windows 10 Pro. You need to decide for yourself whether Pro or Home is right for you. For most people, Windows 10 Home will suffice. This license is also transferable and reusable. One machine at a time.

Everything Else

Not listed here are components such as a monitor, mouse, keyboard, sound card, speakers, wifi/Bluetooth dongles, networking cables, HDMI cables, accessories, etc. Though many of these are not “optional” and are required for use, they are not part of the core components of a PC build. These components have little to no impact on compatibility or performance and vary greatly by the users needs and component type. The rest is up to you.

Conclusion

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So we now have everything we need to assemble our VR gaming PC. It ain’t cheap, but it’s gonna make VR our bitch. I’ll see you in part 2 where we will begin the assembly process.