You may recall that, back in 2014, I built myself a new lab PC. It’s a pretty good rig and it’s served me pretty well. I could have used it as the driver for the Vive except for the ancient NVIDIA GeForce 9500GT video cards. For reference, they were released in July 2008. They’re so old that they barely support DirectX 10, let alone the “12” requirement for the Vive. So, I decided that it was time for a purpose-built rig. My design goals were as follows:
- Very small form-factor
- Cutting edge
Since I’ll be converting the spare bedroom in my house into my Holodeck, I wanted a little box that I could put inside a pedestal of some sort along the wall, with a minimal footprint. I’ll use a wireless keyboard (hopefully with a built-in trackball) and a tiny (10″-12″) LCD monitor mounted right above it for control and maintenance when not using the headset.
Build Specs and Cost
HTC’s minimum requirements are as follows:
- GPU: NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 970, AMD Radeon™ R9 290 equivalent or better
- CPU: Intel® Core™ i5-4590/AMD FX™ 8350 equivalent or better
- RAM: 4 GB or more
- Video output: HDMI 1.4, DisplayPort 1.2 or newer
- USB port: 1x USB 2.0 or better port
- Operating system: Windows® 7 SP1, Windows® 8.1 or later, Windows® 10
I could keep my costs down by strictly sticking to the minimum specifications, but I wanted my VR experience to be as “premium” as possible. I wanted lag-free gaming with high frame rate. Of course, this drives the cost up more than I really wanted to pay, but I so rarely spend any money on myself that I was able to justify it using some fairly convoluted logic and telling my wife that the money was for “something special because I love her soooooo much“. I’m pretty sure she fell for it. C’mon, be a bro. Don’t tell her what it’s really for.
Here is the bill of materials:
- Motherboard: ASRock Mini ITX DDR4 Motherboards FATAL1TY Z170 GAMING-ITX/AC ($180)
- GPU: EVGA GeForce GTX1080 8GB Founders Edition ($699)
- CPU: Intel Core i7-6700k 4 Ghz unlocked ($346)
- CPU Cooling System: Corsair Hydro Series H100i v2 Extreme Performance Liquid CPU Cooler ($98)
- RAM: G.SKILL 16GB (2 x 8GB) Ripjaws V Series DDR4 PC4-25600 3200MHz Desktop Memory Model F4-3200C16D-16GVKB ($84)
- SSD: Samsung 850 EVO 500GB 2.5-Inch SATA III Internal SSD (MZ-75E500B/AM) ($155)
- Power: Corsair RMx Series, RM750x, 750W, Fully Modular Power Supply ($99)
- Case: Corsair Obsidian 250D Mini ITX Case ($85)
Total cost as delivered: $1,746 + tax (total $1,958)
Since I’m building an SFF (small form factor) PC, I settled on mini-ITX. These boards usually have minimal expansion slots for memory and PCI but since I’m not planning on adding any peripherals, this shouldn’t present a problem for Future Frank.
It does mean that I’ll be stuck with a regular SSD hard drive and won’t be able to use an NVMe M.2 SSD, but those are still pretty pricey and I’m not sure it’s worth it for the performance increase at this time. Turns out this board has an M.2 port on the underside, so I can still add a card to it later.
Generally speaking, I’m partial to ASUS motherboards. I’ve always had really good luck with them and the price is reasonable. However, while I was researching mini-ITX boards, I came across a similar build that used this ASRock board. I’ve never used them before, but I liked the layout and the software they use for the UEFI BIOS looks interesting. The wireless looks like it might be somewhat dated but I don’t think it will be a problem. I can always add a USB WiFi dongle if necessary. I couldn’t find any significant number of negative reviews and the support seemed to be acceptable so I thought I’d give it a try. It may suck hard. I hope not.
This is an interesting topic. As of this writing, there are only a handful of NVIDIA cards that I would deem “acceptible”. The 970 listed in the minimum specs is barely passable. The Titan is way too expensive, clocking in at over a grand. That really leaves me with the 980 or the 980Ti. The day after I received my Vive, though, NVIDIA released a new reference board using a chip specifically designed for VR. The new GeForce 1080 has over twice the performance of a pair of 980Ti’s (linked with SLI) and the MSRP was only slightly higher than one of them, at around $600. And, in a first for NVIDIA, they were selling their own reference board called the Founder’s Edition (which, oddly, is also being sold by the OEMs while they ready their own versions).
So a few days ago, the board finally hit the partner channels and immediately sold out. I had a couple of options. I could wait a few more weeks for the OEMs to start selling their own versions of the board, see if any of the OEM Founder’s Editions came into stock, or just buy a 980Ti. While all of this is going down, prices are going bananas. Scalpers were selling the first round of FE cards for $1200 or more. How long would I have to wait to get an FE card at normal list price, let alone an OEM card with extra bells and whistles? The OEM offerings looked good and will have some interesting features but I didn’t want to wait around for weeks or months for things to settle down. I started trawling the tech sites and managed to locate an EVGA (my preferred brand) 1080 Founder’s Edition for sale from a Fry’s store in California and available for online purchase, so I went ahead and bit the bullet. I’m an Early Adopter, baby.
Picking out an Intel CPU is really challenging these days. There is no apples-to-apples comparison and the charts don’t really help. Back in the old days, you had “Pentium”, “PII”, “PIII”, etc. followed by a clock speed. It was easy to see which was “better”. These days, not so much. Would a Core i5 suffice? According to the Vive specs, yes. In some cases the i5 has better performance than an i7. The numbers following the “i5/i7” don’t necessarily equate to performance or speed, either. I can’t really explain my thinking in choosing the i7-6700k except for the following:
- It’s one of the latest chips, using the latest Intel architecture, Skylake, versus the previous Haswell.
- It’s an i7, with which I am already familiar from my lab PC.
- The cost of the 6700k versus the next “lower” model was fairly negligible when considering the build as a whole, including my design goals.
- The “k”, for some reason, means it’s not frequency-locked so I will have the option of overclocking it if I choose. The cost over the locked model was negligible.
Ultimately, it’s probably more processor than I need, but at least it should last me for a long time.
CPU Cooling System:
I’ve never used a water cooling system before, but this build is going to be pretty tiny and generate a ton of heat so I figured a CPU fan and heatsink was largely out of the question. I’ve used other Corsair products in the past, and the case itself is a Corsair so after checking some reviews, I thought I’d give this one a try.
Like the CPU, picking out RAM is difficult. It doesn’t help that the standards have several names. DDR4 PC4-25600, for example, runs at 3200MHz. Why not just call it DDR4-3200? About all I can tell you is that this particular RAM is mid-high in the speed category, it is compatible with the motherboard, and G.SKILL has a decent reputation. It’s cheap enough that I can change it if necessary.
Samsung EVO SSD drives (at the moment) are best-in-class for the price and for this application. Period. I went with the largest size that I felt my budget could tolerate.
I haven’t bought a power supply since 2014 and, at the time, modular power supplies were just starting to become a thing. The GPU’s power requirements mandate at least a 500 watt power supply, so I went with the Corsair 750 to give me a little wiggle room. It also has some interesting fan management features that should make it run almost silently most of the time. Also, somehow I accidentally bought two of these.
A case is a case. I could mount it to a cardboard box, as far as I’m concerned. I wasn’t too concerned about the one I picked, except that I wanted something small and subdued. I didn’t want a bunch of plastic bits sticking out, LEDs shining everywhere, etc. I also wanted to make sure that there was adequate side ventilation to handle the expected heat output. This case is about 12″ per side with generous side venting, so it should work out just fine. In fact, the GPU fan should butt right up to the vented side of the case to draw air in and expel it out the rear.