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Wearable Tech

How to build a VR-ready PC

Updated for July 2016, here's everything you need to know about building a PC for virtual reality.

Josh Miller/CNET
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The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are here. But your PC has to be pretty powerful to use these cutting-edge VR headsets. If your PC is lacking performance, don't worry. We're going to show you how to build a VR-ready PC.

Update, July 1 2016: We've added information about the new AMD Radeon RX 480 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 and 1070 graphics cards, which change the VR landscape in a big way. We've also rechecked all our prices.

Getting started

Building a PC is simpler than you might think. You simply:

  1. Pick out the right components
  2. Plug them into the correct slots
  3. Install your operating system

We're not going to rehash that entire process here, because CNET's Dan Graziano wrote a comprehensive three-part guide that covers all the PC-building bases.

But when it comes to building a VR-ready PC, not any old component will do. We've spent hours piecing together parts, quizzing hardware manufacturers and speaking to VR developers to figure out the best parts for you -- both today and into the future.

Then, we sat down to build a VR gaming rig.

(We got a little help from PC component vendor Newegg, which provided the CPU, GPUs, motherboard, memory and liquid cooling system for our computer after we finished our research.)

Don't want to build a VR-ready PC? Here's my colleague Dan Ackerman's guide to buying one instead.

CNET's Future-Proof VR Gaming PC.

Josh Miller/CNET

Here's what you need to play games in VR

As you read through this guide, you'll see up to three options for each major component of a VR-ready PC. If you just want to comfortably play every VR title today, you'll be just fine with the bare minimum.

If you pick what we used, you should be well-equipped for next year's titles and beyond. We wanted CNET's Future-Proof VR Gaming PC to be ready for anything.

Future-proof PCs tend to be pretty large, but if you want a small, cool and quiet computer that'll easily fit your office or home, be sure to look for our mini PC options.

You can also simply skip down to the bottom of this story for our full parts list.

A graphics card

The bare minimum:

For a mini PC:

  • Asus Mini GTX 970 ($355, roughly £270 or AU$475 converted) or AMD Radeon R9 Nano ($500, £450, roughly AU$670)

What we used:

  • Two Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphics cards ($1,000, roughly £750 or AU$1,350)

The graphics card is the heart and soul of any VR-ready gaming PC, and unless you've picked up new hardware recently, yours might not be up to snuff. The right graphics card will keep you from feeling sick, so it's important to go with a powerful one.

Two Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti GPUs. We used two, and it's definitely overkill.

Josh Miller/CNET

To hit smooth, satisfying gameplay on a PC, you'll generally want your games at a frame rate of 60 frames per second. That means your PC is capable of pumping out 60 images every second; dip too far below that, and you'll encounter staggered, choppy visuals.

For virtual reality, 90 frames per second is the holy grail. With high-resolution displays this close to your face, any lag or choppiness in movement is going to be magnified. Worse still, if the action doesn't react in time with your motions, you could end up feeling nauseous. And keep in mind, virtual reality needs to render the action twice -- once for each eye.

When the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive first came out, that meant starting with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290, each of which cost around $320 back then, and the best you could get was a $700 GeForce GTX 980 Ti.

As of June 2016 there's a new sheriff in town: the $200 AMD Radeon RX 480. We put it through a battery of VR tests, and it seems just as capable as the GTX 970 for a good bit less money. (In fact, it's a bit smoother in some games.)

amd-radeon-rx-480.jpg

Yes, that's a $200 graphics card.

AMD


But Nvidia hasn't stood still. The GTX 970 can now be found for as low as $270 -- and more importantly, the new (but hard to find) $380 GTX 1070 and $600 GTX 1080 are mopping the floor with every other graphics card. If you're going to pay more than the bare minimum to get a futureproof VR system, you'll want one of those two new Nvidia cards -- though you may want to wait until they come down in price before you buy one.

It's worth noting that current VR titles don't support more than one GPU at a time, although a dual-GPU system will still work fine with VR, and even a single high-end GPU like a GTX 980 can be overkill for the initial crop of VR games.

That said, popular development platforms such as Unreal Engine 4 will incorporate Nvidia's tech to link two graphics cards together, and there's also no guarantee that game developers will stick to the system specs that Oculus and Valve recommend. We found we could already turn up the graphical settings in a few games (Eve: Valkyrie, Project Cars and The Gallery) to higher levels than a $200 AMD Radeon RX 480 can handle.

Intel's high-end Core i7 Skylake processor requires newer motherboards and memory.

Josh Miller/CNET

Processor

The bare minimum:

  • Intel Core i5-4590 ($190, roughly £145 or AU$255 converted)

For a mini PC:

  • Intel Core i5-4690K ($235, roughly £180 or AU$315)

What we used:

  • Intel Core i7-6700K ($350, roughly £265 or AU$470)

The CPU or central processing unit is your gaming rig's brain, and while the graphics card will be doing most of the heavy lifting in virtual reality, you'll still need a CPU that's up to the task. Recommendations for both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive start at Intel's Core i5-4590, a solid mid-range part that's a little long in the tooth, but still plenty capable.

But capable isn't good enough for our future-proofed rig, so we're heading right to the top of Intel's stack with the Core i7-6700K. This processor throws a few wrenches in the works. It's using a new socket type, which means we'll need a new motherboard to support it. It also supports DDR4 RAM. No self-respecting future-proofed PC should be without the latest in speedy memory, but that'll inflate the price of our build further still.

The Gigabyte Z170X Gaming 7 motherboard.

Josh Miller/CNET

We've also picked an unlocked processor. That's what the "K" at the end of the processor's name means. An unlocked processor means we can overclock (manually speeding up the card's internal processor beyond that intended by the manufacturer) if we want even more power. You might actually be able to get away with an even less powerful CPU if your graphics card is up to snuff, but if your goal is future-proofing, you'll want to aim higher.

For a mini PC build, you'll notice we still recommend an older i5-4690K chip. There are two reasons for that. First, we weren't able to find a small motherboard for Intel's newer Skylake processors with enough user reviews for us to trust it. Second, we figured if you're going to build a mini PC, you'll probably pick liquid cooling to keep it quiet, and if you're going with liquid cooling you might as well take advantage of the ability to easily overclock that CPU, too. If you're ever a few frames short of the 90 fps you need to feel comfortable in VR, it could come in handy.

Why no AMD CPUs? VR experts told us that right now, they're not up to snuff when it comes to something called single-threaded performance, which is how fast the processor can work on any single tiny task put in front of it.

James Martin/CNET

Memory (RAM)

RAM is fairly cheap, and more RAM generally means your PC can do more things at once before it bogs down. You'll want a bare minimum of 8GB of DDR3 ($40, £30, roughly AU$55). VR game developers tell us that more than 8GB is probably overkill for now.

Our future-proofed rig is going a different route: we used a single 16GB stick of DDR4 RAM ($90, £70, roughly AU$120). DDR4 RAM is fairly new, and pricier than DDR3, but it's required for newer processors. 16GB will give us plenty of oomph for now, and we can easily double it to 32GB as prices come down.

For a mini PC, you might as well go for 16GB of DDR3 ($60, £60, roughly AU$80) since it's likely to go up in price as DDR4 takes over, and it may be harder to reach inside a tiny mini PC case to swap out memory sticks when the time comes to upgrade.

Power supply

Power supplies are the unsung heroes of most PC builds, and getting a great one will save you a lot of headaches down the road. Power supplies are available in a wide range of wattages: you're going to have to pick the one that will provide ample power for the components you've settled on. We recommend using PCPartPicker to keep track of the components you pick and estimate how much power you'll use, but if you need a specific pick we'd suggest Corsair's 500-watt CX550M power supply ($60, roughly £40 or AU$75 converted) as the bare minimum.

Josh Miller/CNET

Our future-proofed rig takes things quite a bit further: We used a massive 1,200 watt power supply from SeaSonic that gets stellar reviews. This amount of power will be overkill for most people, but it gives us the opportunity to use three giant graphics cards if future VR games wind up using them, and it provides an incredibly stable source of power if we decide to do any overclocking in the future.

Besides, power supplies tend to outlive every other PC component. A good power supply is an investment.

Josh Miller/CNET

And the rest

I've left out a number of key components here, but they're not exactly specific to virtual reality. You'll want a motherboard that will support your processor and your upgrade goals -- our Gigabyte GA-Z170X Gaming 7 has room for three graphics cards, supports DDR4 RAM and has a Thunderbolt 3 port for external graphics if you ever need them.

You'll need enough hard drive space to store your games and operating system. A $50 magnetic hard drive will be fine as a bare minimum, but we stick to speedy solid state drives (SSDs) on all of our PC builds. You'll get much more storage space out of a traditional hard drive, but an SSD will make your entire system feel faster. We used a speedy 500GB SSD, paired with a reliable 2TB 7,200 rpm standard hard drive for storage. That's more than enough space for now.

Pick a case that works for you. Maybe it makes allowances for airflow, or quiet performance, or one that just looks cool. Our Corsair 760T has loads of space to work inside, and a full actual window to look through -- what's the point of getting sweet hardware if you can't look at it from time to time? Here are some popular cheaper options.

We just used monitors, mice and keyboards that were lying around because they're no good to us in VR. And of course, you'll also need an operating system -- we're rolling with Windows 10.

Building a PC isn't hard, but it isn't a cakewalk, either. (There are some easy ways to trip up.) Here's wishing you the best of luck in your PC building adventure!

Want to see all these parts in a more digestible, browsable format? Take a look at our basic, mini and future-proof builds at PCPartPicker. Please note we've included US pricing and approximate conversions for Australia and the UK.

VR PC Buying Guide

Part Basic Estimated Price Mini Estimated Price Future-proofed Estimated Price
CPU Core i5-4590 $190 (AU$255, £145) Core i5 4690K $235 (AU$315, £180) Core i7 6700K $350 (AU$470, £265)
GPU AMD Radeon RX 480 $200 (AU$270, £150) Asus Mini GTX 970 $355 (AU$475, £270) 2x GTX 980 Ti $1,000 (AU$1,350, £750)
RAM 8GB DDR3 $40 (AU$55, £30) 16GB DDR3 $60 (AU$80, £45) G.Skill Ripjaws V Series, DDR4 3200, 16GB (1x 16GB) $90 (AU$120, £70)
CPU cooler Stock n/a Corsair H60 $60 (AU$80, £40) Corsair H90 $90 (AU$120, £70)
PSU 550W Corsair CX550M $55 (AU$75, £40) Silverstone ST45SF-G $90 (AU$120, £65) SeaSonic Platinum-1200 $220 (AU$295, £165)
Motherboard ASRock H97 Pro4 $80 (AU$110, £60) Gigabyte GA-Z97N-WiFi $130 (AU$175, £100) Gigabyte G1 Gaming GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 $200 (AU$270, £150)
Storage 1 Samsung 850 EVO 250GB $90 (AU$120, £70) Samsung 850 EVO 250GB $90 (AU$120, £65) Samsung 850 EVO 500GB $150 (AU$200, £115)
Storage 2 None n/a WD Black 2TB, 7200RPM $120 (AU$160, £90) WD Black 2TB, 7200RPM $120 (AU$160, £90)
Case NZXT S340 (White) $60 (AU$80, £45) Silverstone Fortress FT03-MINI $130 (AU$175, £100) Corsair 760T (White) $165 (AU$220, £125)
OS Windows 10 Home $95 (AU$130, £70) Windows 10 Home $95 (AU$130, £70) Windows 10 Home $95 (AU$130, £70)
Total (before tax and shipping) $810 (AU$1,085, £610) $1,365 (AU$1830, £1030) $2,480 (AU$3,325, £1,865)

With contribution from Eric Franklin.