Choosing a computer

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Which computer should I buy for Second Life?

This is an excellent question which understandably keeps coming up — after all, without a quality system, you can't have an enjoyable inworld experience.

The good news is there's plenty of information already out there, with some special considerations for Second Life. A well-equipped general computer will also likely run the Second Life Viewer well. However, so many specs and numbers may be confusing, especially if you don't consider yourself a technical maven.

Important: This page is contributed to by Residents like you, so consider it "unofficial but possibly beneficial". This is a guide, not "the final word", so do your own research. Location-based aspects like price and availability may vary greatly, and the very nature of this info means details are likely to go stale soon. Keep this page updated, cite sources, correct errors, and add "See also" links to further resources, along with dates for context.

Simple principles to keep in mind

  • Check the Second Life System Requirements - The "Minimum Requirements" column shows what's at least acceptable, and you're in a much better comfort zone if you meet or exceed the "Recommendations".
  • What else are you doing with the computer? - A person who enjoys casual tasks like web surfing and word processing has much less demanding needs than someone who wants to make Second Life machinima, or someone who's also playing games that insist on having a cutting-edge graphics card (for example, DirectX 11 making inroads).
  • When asking for advice, clearly state your budget and intent - It helps to know what your resources are and where you're coming from. As the saying goes, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link". If you're talking to a brilliant geek, be sure they understand that the "super system" that barely meets their demands may be overkill for you. Don't be intimidated by tech talk; it's alright to ask "Why would you pick X over Y?" and learn. Useful experts should be able to demystify the tech jargon into simple language.
  • More specifically, be clear about your expectations for how well Second Life should perform - This is another area where there are strong differences of opinion. Some users are happy getting low framerates and minimal details. Others expect to run on high-resolution screens with antialiasing, and unsupported features in progress (like shadows and global illumination) enabled. Consider what your needs are, and try to communicate information such as:
    • What do you consider to be acceptable framerates?
    • What setting on the Quality and speed slider in the Preferences' Graphics tab do you wish to run at?
    • Preferred screen resolution? And whether you run the Viewer full-screen or windowed.
    • It's also helpful to note if you're a content creator, a casual user, a gamer involved in combat sims, a DJ or live musician, a fashion photographer, if you intend to create machinima, or if you regularly run multiple instances of the Viewer (or anything that you consider to be an important part of your SL experience), as all of this information will help others to recommend hardware for your specific tastes and needs. Considering your expectations before a purchase will help you to select a computer that you will be happy with.
  • There are many differing but valid opinions - Like meals, a computer should be well-balanced: having a powerful CPU but lame graphics card (also known as a "video card") will result in lacking Second Life performance. Don't get caught in "fanboi" wars who are irrationally polarized towards one thing and against another. Take your time to do research and don't buy based on synthetic benchmarks, look for real-world performance measurements. However, certain observations are clearer than others — for example, AMD often positions its CPUs as cheaper alternatives to Intel, which weighs in your overall budget.
  • The market changes rapidly - You may have heard the old jokes about a computer being obsolete before you buy it. What realistically counts though, is rather than being fixated on specific parts and models, to be aware of guidelines and principles for picking good combinations. Learning release schedules by reading tech publications is helpful because the introduction of newer models tends to lower prices of older models. Also, some product lines carrying the same name go in and out of favor over time — it's like cars, where a newer model with the same name may not have the same temporal quality as an older one.
  • Certain product generations have easy-pick "superstars" - For example, quad-core processors used to be ludicrously expensive until Intel's Q6600 had a massive price drop and brought quad-core into the mainstream. Graphics cards enthusiasts keep pining for the next "8800GT" (the NVIDIA GeForce 8800GT was lauded for a superb price/performance ratio). And so on. You can't always count on these, but a product garnering stellar reviews from different reputable publications and many customers has plenty of experience to back it up.
  • Customer service matters - Last but not least, and especially if you're new to this, a friendly shop that helps you make informed buying decisions is a lot more reassuring than one that never answers your calls or emails. Note that support for an entire system usually only applies if it was sold that way, so this point is more applicable to prebuilt system builders than "order the parts and build it yourself". But, individual component manufacturers also have their own support departments, which may factor into choosing one brand over another. For example, EVGA's warranty is often cited favorably by graphics cards enthusiasts.

What about SL-specific considerations?

Yes! The Second Life Viewer is a unique hybrid of use cases. For example, many games (like first-person shooters) take over your full screen, so you aren't meant to be flipping between multiple apps. But with SL, running in windowed mode is popular, since you may need to view an external web browser, create textures in Photoshop and upload them into SL, and so on. Furthermore, individual workflows can vary a lot, so when receiving advice from others, always present your intended uses, and consider what is specifically right for you. This is worth repeating until it's burned into your mind.

If you multitask with several other heavy applications, you should definitely have the resources to run them all comfortably. Multi-core CPUs are now common; you may want to check your current Task Manager load to watch if under typical usage, you're using a lot of current processing power. If so, that may be good reason to expand into faster, more cores. Another example: the Viewer can take up considerable RAM (easily over 1GB by itself if you stay inworld for awhile) verify this, so if you're also running other RAM-hungry apps like Photoshop and Firefox, at least 4GB RAM (on a 64-bit OS like 64-bit Windows 7 so you can use all of it) will give you a lot more breathing space. The Task Manager also shows RAM usage.

Another thing often pointed out: a lot of games are fine with a somewhat skimpy CPU but much higher-end GPU (graphics card). That's not the case with Second Life: the Viewer will use whatever it can take on your CPU (it's typical to see close to 100% usage of a single core), so make sure you have a powerful CPU and matched GPU. The Viewer is multithreaded to a limited extent.

In addition, Linden Lab continues to improve performance so the Viewer will run even better on your current configuration. And don't forget to optimize your graphics preferences! There are a lot of variables you can tweak to squeeze more juice out of your current setup, including overclocking (if you're up for it).

If you're making machinima, fast hard drives are a must. Incidentally, hard drives are also a common bottleneck (the weakest link on the chain). Don't skimp on hard drives or you'll get ugly stutters while recording, since disk activity includes both the Viewer reading from/writing to disk cache and realtime video-to-disk (whether it's FRAPS, Camtasia, etc.). If a single fast mechanical drive isn't giving you the speed you need, you may want to opt for a SSD paired with a traditional hard drive. For example, as of 2010-07-19, Torley Linden uses a 128GB Crucial M225 + 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black. Also for consideration is RAID.

How much does a computer that runs Second Life well cost?

It used to be somewhat of a challenge to beat, but now, it's pretty easy to assemble a powerful computer — including monitor and peripherals — that far exceeds the System Recommendations for less than US$1,000. And sites like Maximum PC regularly run articles on how to build a bang-for-your-buck system in the $500-750 range (not including peripherals), like this December 2009 feature.

You should spend quality time on deals sites like SlickDeals because promos, bundles and other discount can result in steep savings. For example, if you're building your own system, you can easily save $100-200 instead of buying prebuilt. On top of that, well-placed Newegg combos and rebates can result in an easy, additional $100-200 savings.

However, understand convenience (saving time rather than money) has its place, especially if you're not technically savvy and are scared to mess something up during assembly. As mentioned earlier, buying prebuilt may carry more robust overall support for your system, including a peace-of-mind warranty. If convenience trumps budget for you, there are lots of manufacturers offering prebuilt PCs. Check sites like ResellerRatings for what other customers think.

In any case, learning about different combinations of parts and figuring out what will offer you the best deal is a fun game. A resourceful place to ask is on the EggXpert System Builds forums, which many Newegg regulars post complete system builds at. Pay attention to the intended use of each system. (Incidentally, on 2010-07-12, Torley Linden asked for recommendations on a desktop tower with a budget of $1,100.)

Also keep in mind other factors, like the quality of your network connection and Linden Lab's own servers, determine Second Life's overall performance. In other words, if you have a rockin' computer but your ISP is sluggish (and the weakest link in the chain), don't count on a smooth time.

What about monitors?

Once an exotic luxury, 1920x1200 and 1920x1080 LCD monitors have become affordable and mainstream, many of which can be found for US$300 or less. Prices can go higher for bigger monitors with the same resolution, more accurate color gamut, and so on. (The next big resolution and price jump is to 2560x1440 and 2560x1600.)

If you do a lot of visual work like inworld building and photography, or if you like to have a lot of windows open at once, the added screen real estate is worth it and will, as they say, "pay for itself in the long run".

Higher resolutions need more powerful graphics cards to run smoothly, especially with enhancements like antialiasing turned on.

And how about keyboard, mouse, etc.?

  • Keyboard - Get one that's not just comfortable for long periods of time, but makes it easy to switch between modes. For example, some compact keyboards (including slim, laptop-style ones) have a cramped set of arrow keys, which makes it difficult to navigate inworld if you prefer arrow keys over WASD. Having the usual function keys, or even additional macro keys can be useful to trigger emotes, gestures, and other extended commands.
  • Mouse - At a minimum, get one that has a mouse wheel, which makes it easier to zoom your camera in and out. The mouse wheel also lets you zoom the World Map easily, scroll through inventory, and easily peruse other things you shouldn't have to stumble around for. If more buttons can be assigned to keystrokes, this is useful for opening/closing the sidebar, placing yourself in build mode, and other shortcuts you find useful.
  • 3Dconnexion SpaceNavigator - This is a special type of input device sometimes called a "3D mouse". 3D mice from 3Dconnexion (of which there are several varieties) are highly useful for smooth control of your avatar, objects, and the camera. Highly recommended if you want to make movies or simply have better immersion. The SpaceNavigator, once plugged in, is controlled through the Joystick Flycam settings.
    • You can also use a normal joystick, but it will need manual setup and will not be as supported as seamlessly.
  • Sound card - Onboard sound on most current motherboards is fine. While the Viewer supports OpenAL and does have spatialized stereo sound, it doesn't make use of true multichannel surround, nor special effects like spatial reverb.

Is Second Life compatible with [thing that isn't on the System Requirements]?

If it isn't on the System Requirements, Linden Lab can't guarantee compatibility. Our Quality Assurance testing for a specific configuration may be incomplete and still in-progress. While we examine what's broadly useful to our customers, we're not able to humanly test every possible combination of parts out there (of which there are billions) and we'd rather set expectations so you're not disappointed. Thus, a good move may be to wait awhile after some hot new part comes out, then ask other Residents who are "early adopters". So even though an unsupported component is a gamble and may or may not work, you can increase the odds by doing diligent research.

For example, Linden Lab supports Windows 7 (32-bit), but this hasn't been added to the System Requirements yet (update pending per non-public issue XDWCE-143). The Viewer runs well on Windows 7 for many Residents. Some have reported troubles. See actual posts by Residents.

Does Linden Lab provide performance benchmarks?

On an ongoing basis? No. However, this would be very helpful to have, and as a connection from our developer testing to our Residents, make it easier to decide what to buy.

A long time ago on 2007-11-16, we posted "Typical Frame Rate Performance by Graphics Card/GPU" which was also adapted to this wiki's help page. We're aware of requests to update this chart but have no confirmation on when this might happen.

I just got a new computer, how can I help?

Congratulations! Use the Viewer extensively with your new computer so you understand firsthand how it performs under different conditions. Then, share your experiences openly, whether it's on your blog, our forums, or even on the discussion area of this help page. Your recommendations could help other Residents be well-informed about what to pick for their next PC build, and with continued sharing, you'll be regarded as an authority with a trusted opinion who's helped make Second Life easier. Doesn't that make you feel awesome? :)

Does viewer choice have an effect on performance?

It can. Things change often, so experiment with the official Viewer and alternate viewers to find what works best for you.

What about laptops? Macs? Linux? Etc.

Tip: You can add your expertise here and to other areas of this page!

Laptops

Laptops are relatively less powerful than their desktop counterparts, although there are "gamer" laptops with mobile versions of powerful graphics cards which can perform capably. Most gaming and workstation laptops will cost 1½ to 2 times as much as a desktop with similar performance. Additionally, laptops are much more difficult to upgrade than desktop computers. Adding memory or upgrading a hard drive is easy for most users with basic computer skills. Upgrading laptop CPUs is possible, but can be expensive and requires more confidence in working with computers. Most laptops have graphics "cards" that are part of the motherboard or soldered to it. For those laptops with removable video cards, upgrades (if available) are expensive and may require modification to the laptop's cooling system. All of this makes upgrading more expensive and difficult than upgrading parts of a desktop computer.

Second Life runs poorly if at all on entry-level laptops with integrated graphics (chips that share memory with the main system). If you're purchasing a laptop for use with Second Life, look for mid-range or better graphics cards with dedicated memory. The forums at NotebookReview include a section where you can post information about your budget and computer needs and get suggestions for models to consider. There are a few users on the forums who are familiar with the requirements of SecondLife, as well as a larger group of gamers familiar with current hardware.

All currently sold laptops from Apple are capable of running SecondLife at a basic to medium experience as they are configured with dual core processors, discrete GPUs with adequate graphics memory and sufficient system RAM. Their higher end laptops are capable of running a high experience, but does not support all ultimate graphics settings. All their laptops are 64-bit systems. As for all laptops, these systems can run very hot under heavy graphics load, so be sure to monitor your system temperatures with free or commercial utilities for the purpose. A failed GPU usually involves replacing the motherboard.

Netbooks, which are basically miniature laptops, generally don't perform well with SL because of lacking CPU, GPU, and RAM. This is subject to change as hardware continues to get faster, bless Moore's Law. As of July 2010, most netbooks have one of three graphics chipsets: Intel GMA 500, Intel GMA 945, or Nvidia ION. GMA 500 units have poor OpenGL performance and will not reliably run most viewers. GMA 945 will run at the lowest settings. Nvidia ION chipsets include the Nvidia 9400 graphics chip, which is capable of decent performance on the typical resolution of a netbook.

The Second Life Viewer is a very demanding application, and running on a portable computer creates a lot of heat. It's helpful to monitor your system temperatures and use a notebook cooler whenever possible to improve performance and prolong the lifetime of your computer.

Macs

Macs have a simpler selection of hardware to choose from than PCs built to run Windows or Linux. Most Macs come with fixed configurations of CPU and graphics cards, but you can usually select from different options when purchasing a system.

If you want a Mac dedicated to run Second Life, higher performance can be found in a iMac or a Mac Pro. The Mac Pro tends to be costly compared to their other systems, but it's also the most configurable Mac product line: memory, hard drives and peripherals can be easily added to, or upgraded after purchase.

The Mac mini has recently been upgraded with a discrete GPU and can make for an inexpensive entry-level system for running Second Life. The advantage of this system is a very small footprint, and you can take advantage of your existing peripherals. The newest Mac minis are capable of running the Second Life Viewer at medium to high graphics settings with decent performance.

The recommended setting for graphics memory on the Mac is to dedicate half the memory to the Second Life Viewer. As most systems are typically configured with 256MB graphics memory, this leaves 128MB for the Viewer. This is adequate in most situations, but you'll get better performance by selecting a system with 512MB or more graphics memory.

Mac graphic drivers are supplied by Apple, which are updated either through regular system upgrades, or sometimes in the form of firmware or other specific updates. Some Residents have reported improved performance with the OS X 10.6.4 update but broader graphics problems are reported elsewhere.

With some Mac configurations, different graphics cards are offered — usually the same ones available for PCs, although Mac-specific variations can cost significantly more (like the Mac-edition NVIDIA GeForce 285 GTX), so learning about PC parts is still useful. (Exception: in some cases, you can "flash" a PC graphics card to work with a Mac Pro, but this is unsupported.)

All current Intel Macs have the advantage of being able to use Boot Camp to run Windows natively. Under certain conditions, the Viewer may perform noticeably slower on a Mac running Mac OS X rather than on the same hardware's Boot Camp with Windows, as shown in Torley's benchmarks. If you have results of your own, post them here.

Linden Lab hasn't confirmed the exact source of why OpenGL (which the Viewer and other 3D games use) performance is broadly better on Windows than Mac OS X; this is a complex issue with many dependencies, and only Apple may know for sure. However, what's established: graphics drivers on Windows get a lot more time and attention than they do on Mac, so more resources and optimization are involved. As mentioned earlier, Apple controls driver updates so there may be greater stability (as Valve claims), but Windows users are frequently able to try different variations, including betas that may have more bugs, but performance gains, too. OpenGL performance is a situation not unique to Second Life but shared by other 3D apps and games, as noted in Steam for Mac benchmarks and Phoronix's benchmarks.

Linux

Various Linux distros run on the same hardware as Windows PCs or Macs do. Some Residents dual-boot so they can run either at their choice.

While operating system-specific details are beyond the scope of this page, sometimes, the cost of a Windows OS vs. a free Linux distro is part of the buying decision. Most laptops and pre-built desktops from the major computer companies, like Dell and HP, come with an operating system as part of the purchase price; this is usually Windows, but Dell has some models available with Linux pre-installed. Desktops built by smaller shops can usually be supplied with the OS of your choice, or at least sold without an OS installed. For laptops, Clevo/Sager models can be purchased from resellers without an operating system, and are available with some of the fastest laptop GPUs on the market.

Why isn't platform advocacy covered here?

There's already an abundance of that info on the wider Internet, including the "See also" links below.

As stated several times, this page is designed to help you decide what's right for you with specific Second Life usage in mind, not pressure you into getting a particular system. While some degree of comparison is useful and this page does include some perspectives from its various authors, extended discussions inevitably tend to veer towards "This rules, and that sucks!" emotional opinions, which isn't useful.

Second Life Residents are incredibly diverse. Our diversity extends to being compatible on multiple platforms, which is fairly unique with virtual worlds. Sure, we have many Residents who're passionate not just about Second Life, but the platform (operating system, chipset, and so on) they've chosen to run the Viewer on. Deeper platform advocacy — "Mac vs. Windows", "Intel vs. AMD", "NVIDIA vs. ATI" and the like — is beyond the scope of this page.

See also

Research

You can ask fellow Residents about what's worked well for them on Second Life Answers.

  • Maximum PC - Magazine that runs recurring challenges on how to build a powerful computer on a budget. They also have their "Best of the Best" list which gets updated, and their own forums.
  • Newegg - Very popular place to to buy computer stuff at realistic prices. Even if you don't buy from here, the reviews are illuminating. A current product that has hundreds of reviews and at least 4 stars is likely a "safe" buy.
  • NotebookReview - Extensive news and reviews of laptop and netbook computers with an active forum discussing laptop hardware, software, and operating systems.
  • PassMark Software - One of several great sources for comparative benchmarks. Make sure you read their testing methodology so you understand why the rankings are the way they are.
  • Windows System Assessment Tool - You can probably run this right now — it can give you clues where the weak links are in your system.

There's no shortage of technology analysis sites out there. Some of the smaller players tend to cite the larger ones' research and propagate their news. Some popular ones are:

If you know what you're looking for, a good way to search many of these in one go is use Google News. Torley did this to learn about the GTX 460 the day it was launched.

There is a discussion thread on sources for computer parts in General Discussions.

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