The wait is almost over. After numerous announcements and stories, March and April brings us the launch of high-quality Virtual Reality hardware and VR-optimized AAA games and other applications. VR equipment manufacturers are going as far not just to recommend, but also to sell a recommended configuration on their website. Oculus recently launched their “Oculus Ready PC” specification, and selected vendors (ASUS, Alienware and Dell) sell you their PCs ‘with purchase of Rift’. However, the components in question may not bring the results in the long run, and there is a geolocation limitation on the systems Oculus recommends to its customers.
Here at VR World, we look at things differently. From the day we launched, our intention was to treat all the readers, wherever they are in an equal manner. Our past and future giveaways will always try to be ‘global’ in nature, and we want to create a VR-ready system which can yield great performance. Today, we are introducing our reference platform, dubbed Virtual Reality Computer (VRC). In order to find the ideal balance of components, we’ve tested multiple configurations until we reached the point where the latency was the lowest, and frame rate was most stable.
Our future articles will include VRC’s targeting multiple price points, but this Virtual Reality Computer sets a reference point from which all other systems will be measured against. In order to find the best experience, we used multitude of benchmarks, some of which are not public.
- Unreal Engine 4 Showdown VR
- Project Cars
- SteamVR Experience Benchmark
- Space Sim VR Title
Test was run using Oculus Developer Kit 2, and we will update our benchmark configuration with the commercial versions of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (SteamVR), as they get released.
Virtual Reality Computer, March 2016
There are two routes to take. One is selecting Intel, which offers leading edge performance, while AMD offers good value and significant savings over the Intel configuration. Given that VR system is all about the GPU performance, our recommendation is that you invest the most in getting a fast GPU and fast storage. Thus, if your budget is limited (as all budgets are), we would strongly recommend that you buy the best GPU for your needs, and take it from there.
Traditionally, all system guides start with a central processing unit i.e. CPU. However, the world has changed and we’re now in visual era, and visual era dictates that GPU is what drives your experience. For comparison, pair a $1,084.97 processor (Intel Core i7-5960X, currently the world’s fastest CPU) with a $100 graphics card and your experience will be much poorer than buying an $100 processor and pairing it with a $600-700 dollar graphics card. That’s the (sad) truth. Good news is that today, we have great hardware at unbeatable prices. Graphics processors are all supporting DirectX 12, OpenGL 4.5 as well as brand-new Vulkan API, with multiple TeraFLOPS of compute power dedicated to delivering fantastic experience.
Graphics Processing Unit: AMD Radeon R9 Fury X
When AMD demonstrated Radeon R9 Fury X in June of last year, it marked the beginning of change for the industry. By focusing on the “everything is 4K”, AMD created a processing monster, which forced NVIDIA to essentially re-tune and re-name a $1000 card and brings that performance to a $650 level. When competition exists, the market wins. R9 Fury X is not an easy part to explain, since it represents probably the smallest high-end card since Radeon X850XT, which launched over a decade ago. For a limited period of time, new buyers of Fury X cards will receive Hitman (2016) bundled, a $59.99 value.
Even though it only comes equipped with 4GB of video memory, we’re talking about High Bandwidth Memory, which attaches to a 4096-bit memory interface. That interface is probably the widest interface in the computing world, bringing 512 GB/s of memory bandwidth. Although AMD PR team skipped us for Fury review cycle, we managed to get around the problem and acquire no less than eight R9 Fury X boards. While AMD did not allow for memory overclocking, we checked all eight samples we had and there wasn’t a single one that did not reach 560 MHz clock. That’s 573.4 GB/s, while five out of eight achieved 600 MHz. That’s 614.4 GB/s.
Not everything is perfect, though. R9 Fury X is a challenge to install in the system, since it comes in a closed loop system, produced by Cooler Master (caught in a legal tangle with Asetek), and regardless of which vendor you choose (Diamond, Sapphire, XFX, Gigabyte, MSI etc.) – you will always get a system designed and produced by AMD (ok, PC Partner) with a sticker or two thrown in the box. Putting two cards in the same chassis will present a challenge due to a 120mm radiator. You can find a spot for one, but if you go with two, and cool down your CPU with the third loop… if multi-GPU or upgradeability is your thing, think about going with a GPU liquid cooling vendors such as EK Waterblocks or Aquatuning.
The reason why we are giving AMD the nod is simple – AMD’s Liquid VR gained a lot of traction, and we’ve seen much more demos made using Liquid VR, rather than GameWorks VR. While this pendulum will swing to from green to red to green and back, it is the experience that matters the most. And our VR experience was mostly driven by AMD hardware, which was elected by the developers, not us – EVE: Valkyrie, Project CARS, MATTERvr’s The First Flight and many more.
Given that all the Fury X cards are the same, we opted for XFX board, since it comes with a 30 bucks mail-in rebate, meaning in the end it will set you back for $599.99, good 50 bucks less than AMD’s original MSRP. Time will tell how will RTG / AMD (Radeon Technologies Group) work out for AMD, but for now the products are finally getting into ‘Recommended’ category, and the market is reacting positively.
Graphics Alternative: EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti VR Edition
On CES 2016, EVGA introduced VR Edition of its GeForce GTX 980 Ti graphics card. Taking the well known performance of GeForce GTX 980 Ti (essentially a GeForce GTX Titan X with half the memory) and making it VR-friendly. The VR edition brings a 5.25″ slot with USB 3.0 and HDMI connectors, needed for the operation of Oculus Rift. If HTC Vive is your pick, there’s no need for the ‘VR Edition’, but you’d still be getting one of best performing GTX 980 Ti’s out there.
GeForce GTX 980 Ti is based on the GM200 chip, packing 3072 processing cores connected to 6GB of GDDR5 memory using 384-bit wide interface. Clocked at 1,752 MHz QDR, this board delivers 336.5 GB/s.
In Valve’s SteamVR benchmark, GeForce GTX 980 Ti intially showed higher results than AMD’s R9 Fury X, but the moment we involve DirectX 12 or Vulkan-based applications, AMD’s featureset achieves higher results than NVIDIA. Be that as it may, given that GTX 980 Ti is air cooled, it should be easier on you to build a system featuring more than one card.
Battle of the Platform: Intel vs. AMD
Once you selected your graphics card, there is a question of processor and with that, the computing platform you will use. We selected the two processors which will provide good feed for the graphics card, and supporting the fast memory and storage subsystem.
Central Processing Unit: Intel Core i7-6700K
Intel’s second 14nm processor experienced a troubled birth, with a stability issue when running a scientific test which pushes the processor to the max. We’re talking about Mersenne Prime number search, of course. With a CPU microcode update, that issue was resolved and we now have no qualms about recommending a processor which continuously sets the benchmark in consumer and gaming PCs.
The i7-6700K offers four cores, eight threads running at 4.0 GHz, with Turbo mode kicking it to 4.2 GHz. Running on nothing else but an Arctic Cooling baseline double heatpipe heatsink, we pushed the processor to 4.5 GHz. The temperature jumped from 57C to 68C, so you might want to consider liquid cooling. If there is one recommendation we would give to Intel, is that with 14nm Kaby Lake (2017) – the company offers a version without the graphics subsystem, just like Skylake-based Xeon E3 1280 v5. This processor will set you back for $369.99 on Amazon.
Processor Alternative: AMD FX-8370 Black Edition with Wraith Cooler
If you’re running a system on a budget, we would recommend to put the focus onto the GPU and the storage subsystem. Retailing for $199.99, this processor comes bundled with the latest Hitman game ($59.99 value). First and foremost, AMD FX is not a bad processor. While it cannot compete with 14nm Skylake-based processors on pure IPC (Instructions Per clock) performance, but it is far from ‘being bad’. Manufactured in 28nm HKMG process at GlobalFoundries Fab 1 in Dresden, Germany – it now comes with a brand new Wraith heatsink, and a Hitman game, which would (separately) set you back for about 25% of what you paid for this processor alone. Should you go with an AMD-based platform in our VRC, the savings alone are enough to add a 1TB SSD from Mushkin, or double the system memory when compared to the Intel one.
This “octal-core” processor will set you back for 200 bucks.
Motherboard: MSI Z170A Gaming M5
If we take a look at what MSI motherboard offers for $180, it is clear that it goes the distance in terms of value. First and foremost, the board comes with Killer E2200 Networking chip. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Killer Networking technology, and while the feeling is subjective, it is changing the systems where you will start to see the difference. Playing a game uninterrupted while downloading updates (sadly, Microsoft’s Windows 10 doesn’t give a damn when they will shove updates down your digital throat) is becoming an issue of utmost importance when it comes to our VRC. While you will have the VR HMD (Head Mounted Display), you will still have an active desktop.
Even though there are higher specced motherboards out there, and Gaming M5 isn’t the shiniest part of MSI’s lineup, we kinda love the simplicity and rigidity of the design. First and foremost, you have not one, but two M.2 ports, one of which will be occupied by our SSD of choice, HyperX Predator 480GB. Then, using steel PCIe slots is something we definitely appreciate for our high-end graphics cards. Neither R9 Fury X nor GeForce GTX 980 Ti belong to the ‘light as a feather’ category.
Motherboard Alternative: GigaByte GA-990FX Gaming
Our choice for the AMD-based platform is GigaByte’s GA-990FX-Gaming motherboard. Its a part of the new 2016 motherboard line-up for AMD processors, bringing all the contemporary features to the Red Team. Killer Ethernet E2205 provides you with great networking features, AMP-UP audio is kept separate of the main PCB, while built-in M.2 port supports up to 20Gbps (2.5 GB/s). USB 3.1 is supported through USB-C connector.
Furthermore, this motherboard offers great value. At only $139.99 (Newegg, Amazon carry the same price), your AMD-based system carries a lot of value, and leaves you spare cash to invest in that high-end graphics card which you have to have for a smooth VR experience.
Intel System Memory: 32 GB Kingston HyperX Savage DDR4-2666
If Intel platform is your first choice, as it is ours – then opt for the highest capacity DIMMs on the market. HyperX, Kingston’s performance division developed black Savage DDR4 modules offering 2x16GB capacity at 2666 MHz. This gives you a theoretical memory bandwidth of 42.66 GB/s, which was all but confirmed in our testing (over 40 GB/s). It gets better. Intel’s Skylake architecture is the first one we experienced running four memory modules at the higher clock – with 64 GB installed, the performance remained the same – over 40 GB/s read and higher write than read speed.
AMD System Memory Alternative: 32 GB Kingston HyperX DDR3-2400
One of biggest strengths of AMD’s platform is the ability to achieve high memory clocks, even when all four memory slots are populated. With AMD’s platform being stuck on DDR3 standard until Socket AM4 and ‘Bristol Ridge’ processors come to the market in mid-to-late 2016, it is good to know that AMD’s CPUs always supported higher memory clocks. In our AMD-based system, we had no issues getting four memory modules to work at 1.2 GHz DDR, i.e. the rated 2.4 GHz. That is 1.07 GHz faster than the initial DDR3 standard, and these aren’t even the most extreme DDR3 memory modules out there. Still, our goal is to achieve 100% system stability, rather than a ‘suicide 3DMark run’. With memory at 2.4 GHz, the AMD platform delivers theoretically higher bandwidth (38.4 GB/s) than stock Intel at 2133 MHz (34.1 GB/s), with significantly lower latency.
That memory will set you back for $193.20, and also comes with Rainbow Six: Siege. The game retails for $59.99, and even though it is not a VR-ready game, you’ll be pleased to know that it is an eSports title, as the publisher just launched a professional competition.
System Storage: Samsung 950 Pro 512 GB M.2 NVMe
VR demands the lowest possible latency, and here is where the M.2 NVMe standard excels. And when it comes to the PCIe / M.2 based drives, there are only two real options; Samsung 950 PRO 512GB and Kingston HyperX 480 GB. Unlike a large number of M.2 drives, which offer the same bandwidth as their SATA-based counterparts, the 950 Pro claims 2.5 GB/s read and 1.5 GB/s write. In our testing, this figure was more 2.17 GB/s read, and 1.23 GB/s write. Still, this is over four times read and two times the write when compared to an SATA-6G drive.
Are you serious? This is 2016.
Power Supply – beQuiet! Dark Power Pro 11 1000W
Over the life of computer, we typically recommend investing in high-quality display, keyboard, mouse, power supply, and the case. Once the hardware changes, simply sell the components that lost the value anyways, and keep the components of value.
In my line of work, there are few power supplies that offer the build quality and silent operation as beQuiet! does. Given that we mostly run computers in an open test bed configuration, we often notice things such as Quadro M6000 working more silently than AMD R9 Fury X (and incredibly, more silent than GeForce GTX 980 Ti), for example. But there’s one thing we haven’t heard so far, and that’s beQuiet! power supply. Rated at 80 Plus Platinum, it should offer plenty of power once you upgrade the system with next generation graphics. The power supply goes for $210.00 on Newegg.
Chassis BeQuiet! Silent Base 800 Orange
BeQuiet! shipped us a Silent Base 800 last summer, and we’ve been delighted since. I purchased several Silent Case 800 in different colors for friends that needed good noise insulation, and this is where this German brand excelled. Every case ships with thick, 1cm padding on every movable panel. For us, the best part of the case is that you can take out the 3.5″ brackets (which fit 7 devices) to liberate the airflow. VRC comes with a single (or double, depending on your budget) M.2 drive, and the motherboard backplate has place for two 2.5″ drives. We advise you to wait for those crazy affordable 4TB Mushkin drives.
The case retails for $159.99 on Amazon.
VRC – What’s it going to Cost You?
In a nutshell, this is our inaugural VRC, and the system we will use as a 100% base for our upcoming reviews. Our recommended configuration costs $2,116.95. AMD-based alternative brings the cost down to $1,830.16.