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Building a VR Ready PC or Laptop

A guide to the basics of what you should look for when purchasing or building a “VR Ready” system.

Since every computer system can’t run VR experiences, this means a little research is required before you get started. A common question that comes up is whether to build your own computer or buy one prebuilt. The answer isn’t always straight forward, so we did our best to provide some entry-level education about computer architecture, naming conventions, and know-hows for making your next purchase an informed one.

The best virtual reality systems connect to computers or laptops. An alternative to this is the PSVR which uses a Playstation 4 console, but for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, we will need to connect it to a desktop or laptop.

For questions or comments, be sure to follow me on twitter or send an email to kristian [at] notiontheory [dot] com.

Table of Contents

What makes up a computer?

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At the heart is the central processing unit, or CPU. This is a general purpose “brain” which performs all the instructions given to it.

CPUs communicate with data found in the memory, or RAM.

RAM memory is lost when the computer loses power so data must be saved permanently on a drive, which can be found in a disk, solid state, or hybrid form. Disk drives (HDD) are the best capacity per dollar and use spinning platters. Solid state drives (SSD) have no moving parts and are therefore faster, but more expensive in terms of capacity per dollar. We prefer SSDs when given the choice.

Finally there is the graphical processing unit, or GPU. This is either integrated into the CPU or installed as a separate component. The GPU is more specialized than the CPU (thus better at specific jobs), usually handling more graphical related tasks. The separate GPU components (known as discrete graphics versus integrated graphics if on the CPU chip) also tend to have their own form of memory to communicate with. This is built into the graphics component and you do not need to purchase separate memory for the GPU.

All of these components are brought together on the motherboard and housed in a case (of some sort) with a power supply. For this guide, we won’t worry about motherboard specifics; all you need to know is that there are expensive motherboards with nicer features than budget boards. The important decision when purchasing a motherboard is to make sure it is compatible with your CPU choice (see Motherboards). For the power supply, ensure you have a high enough capacity for your system overall (see PSU).

Component Importance for VR

The list below covers the importance of computer parts in chronological order whether you are planning to build your own computer or buy a pre-built system.

1. Graphical Processing Unit (GPU)

Most of what goes into rendering interactive virtual environments is done via the GPU, so a VR ready PC is usually a “gaming” branded system. Look to budget for the GPU first. Sometimes, a strong graphics card put into an older system will make it VR ready! You can visit the GPU naming section for help in knowing what to buy.

Note: Standalone GPU prices are very high right now due to increase demand from Cryptocurrencies. Refer to the GPU comparison section for more information.

2. Central Processing Unit (CPU)

The CPU is the next most important component, but as long as you meet the minimum requirements suggested by Oculus you should be good to go. Usually $100 spent upgrading a CPU to a higher model is better spent upgrading the GPU to a higher model.

3. Memory (RAM)

While memory is rated at different speeds , as long as it is the correct type (fits in your motherboard of choice if building your own desktop) and at least 8 GB (although we recommend 16 GB+), you will be fine. If buying a prebuilt desktop or laptop, just look at the amount of RAM it comes with.

Faster memory usually does not translate to noticeable real world performance improvements, so when considering where to spend your money, we suggest upgrading the GPU or CPU if you have enough RAM instead of the RAM speed.

Note: memory prices are traditionally the most volatile, and prices are high right now due to increased demand from requirements in industries like AI and Machine Learning.

4. Drive

If you can afford it, we suggest choosing a solid state drive (SSD). This is because programs load from a solid state drive to memory much faster than from a hard disk drive. You will see a noticeable performance improvement on boot up and loading times using a SSD.

If you need a 1TB+ capacity, consider using multiple drives. For example, you can put the operating system and programs on the SSD and store files such as pictures or video on the HDD. Hybrid drives are okay and sometimes unavoidable when buying a laptop due to the space constraints in the chassis.

If pricing is not a concern, you can look into the M2 NVMe solid state drives. M2 is a new connector type with higher bandwidth than the traditional SATA connector, and NVMe solid state drives take advantage of this additional bandwidth.

Note: there are SSDs with M2 support that do NOT take advantage of the additional bandwidth so check the specifications first.

5. Motherboard

If you are buying a prebuilt desktop or laptop, don’t worry about this component. If you’re building your own computer system, earlier we mentioned getting a motherboard that has the correct socket type for the CPU and has the required slots for all of the above components. If you’re an enthusiast that can budget for a more expensive motherboard, you can take advantage of the fancier features available in the software for overclocking and tweaking component numbers.

Pricier motherboards may also include more slots and ports, which can be helpful if you would like to upgrade the system in the future.

Motherboards come in various sizes, such as MATX or ATX. Ensure your case and motherboard sizing are compatible. Ignore this if purchasing a laptop or a prebuilt system, it is out of your control!

Note: ensure that the motherboard you purchase has a socket that matches the CPU you purchase, and that the CPU cooler supports that socket. The socket on the motherboard is where the CPU is inserted and sockets have a letter and number combination, such as “AM4” or “LGA 1151”.
When CPU architectures change significantly the sockets have to change to account for the additional capabilities, and to prevent an incompatible CPU from being inserted. This is similar to encountering different electrical outlets when traveling abroad, except there are no such things as CPU socket converters.

6. Power Supply Unit (PSU)

The stronger the graphics card, the more power it requires (usually); additional drives and fans also consume more power. The power supply has a capacity rating, so when purchasing be sure you have enough capacity to optimally power your system. If you’re unsure of how much capacity you will need, you can use a power supply calculator to estimate.

Power supplies are also rated on efficiency of conversion, from the type of electricity drawn from the wall to the type of electricity provided to the components. A higher efficiency on your power supply can save you money over a period of time. The order of power supply efficiency is as follows: Titanium > Platinum > Gold > Silver > Bronze > 80+. You can learn more about the 80 plus certification program for energy efficiency here.

The power supply does not directly affect VR performance, unless you purchase one that is not high enough capacity to provide the GPU with the power it needs to perform optimally. Ignore this if you’re purchasing a prebuilt desktop or laptop, it is out of your control!

7. Operating System (OS)

This is not hardware related, but it is worth pointing out since an operating system is required to actually do anything with all the equipment you have bought. We recommend Windows 10 64-bit as it supports the most VR experiences. Avoid the 32-bit version when possible as it limits memory usage to 4 GB. OSX and Linux have quite a ways to go in terms of VR (most developers of VR experiences only test on Windows as the other two platforms have much smaller gaming communities).

8. Miscellaneous

In buying a pre-built system or building your own, there may be other components added such as cooling solutions (fans, liquid cooling), aesthetic lights, network cards, case enclosures, and so on.

Usually computer cases will come with a few fans, and CPUs come with CPU fans. If reviews say the stock CPU isn’t great, you can opt for a third party CPU fan but ensure that the third party CPU fan supports connecting to the CPU socket type on the motherboard. Ignore this if buying a prebuilt desktop or laptop, it is out of your control!

Laptop vs Desktop

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In the past, desktops have significantly outperformed laptops. However, NVIDIA’s latest generation of GPUs have made laptops powerful enough to run VR experiences. If you are on a budget and you want the best experience possible, a desktop system is still the way to go. However, if you are interested in portability, laptops are a much more viable option nowadays. Also note that it is easier to replace components in a desktop system, allowing for future upgrades and ‘future proofing’.

When looking for a laptop, we recommend purchasing a system with at least a NVIDIA 1060 or AMD 480 graphics card.

Note: there are 3GB and 6GB variants of graphic cards, with the 6GB being faster in addition to having more graphics memory. See our explanation of current generation naming conventions below.

Laptops are also coming out with external graphics, meaning that the graphics card is housed in an enclosure connected to the laptop. This is something to keep an eye on, as it allows you to match the capabilities of a desktop system without the size and weight of a traditional desktop computer. The technology is expensive though, and only available to high end systems at the moment.

GPU Naming Conventions — How do cards compare?

There are two companies in particular selling graphic cards capable of running VR experiences: NVIDIA and AMD. While these two companies design and manufacture some of the hardware, there are additional partner companies which manufacture customized versions from the NVIDIA and AMD graphics card reference schematics. These include companies such as MSI, Gigabyte, Asus, EVGA, and XFX.

The most accurate way to compare two given cards is to use various benchmark charts which include the two specific models you are considering.

The outlined naming conventions below used by NVIDIA and AMD are only helpful when comparing NVIDIA to NVIDIA and AMD to AMD. Please refer to the benchmark charts to compare NVIDIA to AMD.

Note: new graphics cards come out all the time and both companies change naming conventions on a whim, probably for marketing purposes. The below is current as of February 2018. There are also current cards not listed below that are their ‘enterprise’ models, such as the Quadro or FirePro. These are much more expensive with features not needed for the average VR consumer. If you know what these cards are and need to buy these versions, you probably don’t need to be reading this guide!

NVIDIA Graphic Cards

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The most recent two generations of NVIDIA follow a numbering format in their GeForce (consumer) line such as 1070 and 970. The 9 and 10 represent the graphics card generation, 10 being the latest and 9 being the previous. The last two digits represent their level within the graphics card generation; a 1080 is more powerful than a 1070, which is more powerful than a 1060, and so on. However, a 980 may be weaker than a 1060 even though the 80 is greater than the 60 just because of performance gains from the newer generation architecture.

Generally sub-50 is considered an entry level card. 50–60 is mid range, and 70+ is high range. We recommend at least a mid range graphics card in the last two generations (970+, 1060+).

Ti at the end means it is a better version of that card, so a 1070 Ti is better than a 1070. M stands for mobile which is a much weaker version of the card, so a 970m is worse than a 970 (the 10 series does not have M versions but uses the ‘desktop’ chip in laptops, hurray!).

The TITAN is NVIDIA’s highest end consumer card. Unfortunately it is TITAN regardless of generation and generation is denoted by the letters following the Titan name, which is convoluted. The latest is the Titan V, followed by Titan Xp, Titan X, and Titan X (yes…you read that right). For the Titan X, one is based on Pascal architecture and one is based on the Maxwell architecture. The enthusiast community called the Pascal graphics card the Titan XP (unofficial name), not to be confused with the then released Titan Xp (official name). In general, just remember that the Titan V and Titan Xp are the latest and greatest, but check benchmarks for the specific model if you are going to spend this amount of money. The much cheaper 1080 is actually more powerful or comparable to some of the other Titan models for cheaper.

AMD Graphic Cards

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AMD’s consumer line is the Radeon, following a numbering scheme similar to NVIDIA’s. The last generation to use this scheme is the 500 series, with the 5 signifying the graphic card generation and the last two digits designating the level within the graphic card generation. From the 500 and 400 series, we recommend at least a 580 and 480.

Cards from the 300 and 200 generation are acceptable if you go with the highest end from these generations, the 390 and 290. The older generations of these cards may also attach an X to the naming convention to indicate higher performance. A 290x is stronger than a 290, however, we highly recommend going with the newer generations. The Fury is the flagship of the 300 series, and is the strongest card from that generation.

There are also two desktop products, the Vega 56 and Vega 64. Both are excellent cards with the Vega 64 being more powerful than the Vega 56. This is AMD’s newest flagship graphics card, replacing the “Fury”, and is the best AMD has to offer.

GPU Pricing — Why is it insane?

GPU hardware (especially the high-end cards) is being used for cryptocurrency mining and because of the increase in demand, GPU prices have risen to the point where people are selling used cards they bought years ago for more than what they paid when the graphics card was new. The traditional gamer market is now competing with the cryptocurrency market since supply has not increased to match this higher demand.

So how do you get around this? You can try setting up in-stock alerts for various sellers who are willing to sell it to you at MSRP (a deal nowadays). A more likely way to get a GPU at a great price is to buy a prebuilt system.

Dell, HP, and other computer system sellers have large contracts in place for their components and their GPU prices are not as heavily affected by the increased demand. The drawback is while you can buy the GPU at a reasonable price, you must also purchase the rest of the system with it since it is a prebuilt system. There is nothing wrong with this unless you really want to build your own system from scratch. In some cases, it may still be cheaper to buy a prebuilt system and sell the parts you do not need if you want to build your own.

Laptops are also reasonably priced, as they are prebuilt computers from major manufacturers. Additionally, cryptocurrency miners do not want to use laptops because of the increased risk of overall failure and efficiency limitations due to the form factor. Since cryptocurrency miners run their systems 24/7, well ventilated desktops with multiple GPU cards are better for this purpose.

Why build your own versus pre-built

Some people find it fun. When building a custom system, you learn a lot in the process and there is a sense of satisfaction to be gained from the final product being ‘your’ unique system. You also get to choose higher quality parts, as pre-builts tend to come with cheap-as-possible components that meet the minimum requirements (for example, power supplies won’t be platinum rated).

Traditionally, the main argument for building your own computer system versus buying pre-built was that you could build a custom system for cheaper than a pre-built, but the inflated GPU prices have silenced that argument.

Backpack PCs

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There is a subclass of laptop form factor systems that you wear like a backpack. You will pay a premium for these systems over a traditional laptop, but they are designed specifically for VR experiences. With the backpack PCs, the VR headset wires connect to a battery powered PC on your back, untethered from a fixed object in the room giving you more freedom of movement. This is a nice setup if you have the cash, but consider wireless adapters for VR headsets are coming to market and some have recently been released, such as the TPCast.

RoadtoVR recently wrote a good article covering 5 VR backpack PCs available on the market if you’re interested in learning more.

External GPUs (eGPU)

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An up-and-coming tech solution are external graphics cards that you can plug into a laptop or desktop via a Thunderbolt port. Traditionally, only a direct connector to the motherboard via a PCI lane had enough bandwidth to support the amount of data sent back and forth with a GPU, but the new Thunderbolt connector is fast enough to move the GPU outside of the laptop.

If you want to use an external graphics card, you have to ensure the computer system you purchase or build has a supporting Thunderbolt port, purchase an eGPU enclosure, and purchase a desktop GPU that will fit in the eGPU enclosure. Do be mindful the eGPU enclosure adds an extra couple hundred to your costs.

Enclosures should support both NVIDIA and AMD cards. However, if you happen to be running OSX, it seems that AMD drivers (software) are better at the moment so we suggest purchasing an AMD RX 580, a Vega 56, or a Vega 64.

eGPU users also report having a smoother experience if the onboard GPU (if it exists) brand matches the card in the eGPU enclosure, so a system with a NVIDIA GPU will play more nicely with an eGPU that has a NVIDIA graphics card.

Laptop Comparison

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This is not a comprehensive list of VR ready laptops, but a brief list of options for each category of good, better, and best as it relates to performance in VR experiences.

Good Laptop Options (GTX 1060 graphics)

Better Laptop Options (GTX 1070 graphics)

Best Laptop Options (GTX 1080 graphics)

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning how to get started in Virtual Reality, be sure to check out our comprehensive VR guide covering just that.

For questions or comments, be sure to follow me on twitter or send an email to kristian [at] notiontheory [dot] com.