Rift ready

Take heed, Lenovo owners, if it’s your intention to purchase an Oculus Rift. But don’t try this at home.

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I now have a PC capable of running the Oculus Rift. My Lenovo i7 desktop tower PC has 8GB of RAM and – as of this morning – a GeForce GTX 970. I also have two USB 3 ports. So I’m there. I meet the Rift requirements.

It has not been easy. It has not been easy at all.

I love PCs. I’ve loved PCs since the very first one I got in 1994, a 286 with 1MB RAM, a floppy disk drive, a 40MB hard disk and a twelve inch black and white monitor. I love the concept of PCs. Anyone can make them. Anyone can make components to work with them. Anyone can write software to run on them. They are the true computer of the people.

I get why Apple products are so popular. When you buy an Apple thing it has a specific hardware capability and it will have exactly that capability from the moment you switch it on until the moment you buy its successor. You know exactly what you’re getting when you buy one and it works exactly as you were promised it would.

When you buy a PC, on the other hand, you’re buying a starting point. A whole world of potential upgrades are possible, not that you’re obliged to explore any of them. These can be off-the-shelf components or even home-made upgrades. For my 286 PC in 1995, for example, I actually made an interface for it so that I could load old software from a cassette recorder. It involved soldering and everything. All things are possible, then, but it usually involves hassle.

A lot of hassle.

So my Lenovo PC needed a graphics card upgrade. The installed GT 720 that I had hoped when I bought the machine a few months back might be sufficient for the Rift had to come out and I had to get a GTX 970 to go in its place. Well, that wasn’t such a problem. Over the years that I’ve been a PC owner, I’ve changed hard disks, added memory, installed CD and DVD drives, applied new thermal paste to the the CPU, changed faulty power supply units and – yes – changed graphics cards. Of all those operations, in fact, changing a graphics card is probably the most straightforward. It was a ten minute job, I reckoned. Fifteen at the most.

Lenovo, it seems, must have had a meeting at some point. The conversation must have gone something along these lines: How are things normally done on PCs? Ok. So how about we do it completely differently on our PCs?

Problem 1A: The power supply unit does not have a connector for the graphics card. No connector. Nothing. Not one single stray cable without a job to do hanging loose inside the computer. Which was odd. Anyone used to changing PC components will be used to the site of redundant cables cluttering up the inside of a PC. At that point, however, I realised it was pointless looking for one anyway; problem 1B had just made itself apparent. Problem 1B: The graphics card requires a 500W power supply and the installed power supply unit delivers only 280W. That settled it, then: the power supply unit had to be changed. Fortunately, I already had one of those residing in my old computer, a 550W unit I’d installed myself about two years ago. And it had the power connector for the graphics card that I needed. Perfect.

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Lenovo’s piece of crap power supply.

Problem 2: The Lenovo motherboard uses a proprietary power socket.  One of the cables that comes out of the power supply unit provides power for the motherboard. It connects via a 24 pin socket, a two by twelve block.  It’s the same in every mother board I’ve worked with in recent years. Except this one.

It turns out that Lenovo use something completely different: a two by seven block, requiring a fourteen pin connector. This is something new. Obviously, I said to myself, technology has moved on. So I wasn’t going to be able to use the power supply unit from my old PC after all, because it didn’t have the required connector to power the motherboard. Never mind; new power supplies aren’t too expensive; I would order one that delivered the required 500W and was fitted with this new motherboard connector.

Problem 3: No-one makes 500W+ power supplies with this new 14 pin motherboard connector. Including Lenovo. An hour or so of research on the web established a number of extremely depressing and – frankly – outrageous facts: 1) only Lenovo use this connector; 2) only Lenovo make power supply units that provide power to this connector; 3) Lenovo only do these in 280W and 450W models. Oh, and 4) lots of people have been very upset about this for quite some time.

It wasn’t looking good for the GTX 970. By design, this Lenovo machine would not accept it. It’s a high-end graphics card, yes, but it’s not like we’re talking something so top of the range that it’s inconceivable anyone other than a Hollywood animation studio would be purchasing it. It’s a product available off the shelf at my local PC World. Nowhere on the box does it say it won’t work with a Lenovo.

Thankfully (for me) this has been a problem for so many people for so long that someone’s come up with a third party solution, an adapter into which you can plug your power supply’s regular 24 pin connector and which gives you a 14 pin plug for Lenovo motherboards. There’s one here. This is what it looks like.

So the order for this got placed on Amazon, along with an order for a new Corsair 550W power supply unit – I could in theory have still used my old PC’s power supply unit with the adapter, but the original idea with that was I would use the Lenovo power supply back in that machine and clearly that wasn’t going to work.

Both items arrived within the week. Thank you Amazon. Thank you Google. Thank you long-suffering Lenovo users who aired your grievances online and were utterly ignored by Lenovo but had your pleas heard by third party developers. Thank you innovative third party developers.

Problem 4: The GTX 970 won’t fit. The new graphics card is huge compared to the old one, a massive, double slot, dual fan affair with heat sinks, metal piping and Lord knows what else heat reduction devices. It’s twice as long and three times as thick as the GT 720. Why didn’t I realise it wouldn’t fit earlier? When I first opened up the Lenovo I saw that the hard disk was in the way of where the end of the card would go, and I didn’t want to move that unnecessarily (once I figured the power supply had to be changed).  So when the new power supply unit and the adapter came, I tested that all out to make sure that it worked and then I relocated the hard disk to the upper slot on the metal bracket running from the bottom to the top of the Lenovo.

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And that was when I realised that the metal bracket itself was in the way.

So the next thing I went out and bought was a pair of Tinmans shears for cutting aluminium sheet up to 1.5mm thick. By the way, this is where I need to point out quite strenuously that I do not recommend that you do this to your computer.

I could have used a saw to cut away the portion of the metal bracket that was in the way (I checked first, of course, that the bracket would remain strong enough to continue to support the hard disk if a part of it was cut away; it’s fastened on three sides, so my guess was that it would be), but sawing would have created metal filings that might have shorted out the motherboard (plus it would have taken forever). A few snips and I had a nice big bit of air where metal used to be.

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My warranty is similarly in pieces.

Problem 5: The GTX 970 is too heavy. Did I mention the heat sinks and the metal piping? It would be one thing if the card was pushing down into a connector underneath it like the old horizontal desktop systems that used to sit under your monitor, but for a tower system cards get slotted in sideways and there is nothing other than the edge connector supporting all that weight. The whole card was sagging downwards at an angle away from the motherboard.

By now, however, I was starting to think of myself as some sort of superhero engineer. I found some spare screws to screw the card in at the side just like we used to; at the other end I tied the card up with some garden ties, looping them around one of the metal pipes and tying them off at the bracket (I originally thought about using plastic zip ties, but I don’t know how hot those pipes will get so I wanted something with a higher melting point).

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The cut away metal and the garden ties holding up the graphics card. Quality engineering.

Problem 6: Now the SATA cable is too short. A small problem, included here for the sake of completeness. The GTX 970 stands between the SATA data port on the motherboard and the hard disk, such that the cable was now too short to connect the one to the other. I swapped it for a longer one on my old computer.

So there we go. Job done. It all works, and I now get a framerate as high as 80 frames per second in Second Life at ultra graphics mode – with shadow rendering turned up all the way to setting 4. Yay! I can’t fit the side panel back onto the PC with all the stuff now sticking out of it, but leaving it off – as I will now – is probably not a bad idea what with all the new heat that will be generated inside. So why have I created this write-up? Do I honestly imagine the followers of my blog will be remotely interested in any of this?

Two reasons. First, it’s just possible this guide might be of some use to someone who finds themselves faced with a similar task (though I repeat, I do not recommend that you do what I did, it will void your warranty, if you do it then you do so at your own risk). Incidentally, if you know more about these things than I do (not difficult) and you want to lambaste me for doing something incredibly stupid, then please feel free to do so in the comments below. It all adds to the knowledge base.

Secondly, this whole adventure has really brought it home to me just how hard it’s going to be for people who buy their PCs of the shelf like me to make their machines ready for the rift. I bought my PC only a few months ago, aiming for an i7 with enhanced graphics precisely because I knew the Rift was on its way. Even so, I fell short of the requirements when they were subsequently announced. I wasn’t going to buy one of the Rift-ready PC bundles having only just upgraded, so getting a new card seemed like a simple thing.

In some cases it might well be. But don’t count on it.

 

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