Building a gaming computer is about looking cool. But it also can give you an edge and help you win! You may wonder, which parts really are the most important for gaming performance? Read the article below for some helpful advice for building a gaming PC on any budget.
Determine what processor (CPU) you want to use for your system. Currently, the two leading CPU companies are Intel and AMD. It might be more beneficial to find benchmarks and compare them with current prices.
Currently, the Intel i5 is the best option, in terms of performance in comparison to price. The i7 is more powerful but the benefit is minimal over the i5 and the price is much higher.
A good entry-level option is the AMD Athlon II X4 640, while a good mid-range is the Intel Core i3-3220.
This is it, boys and girls. We're nearing the end of days for the PC processor as we know it. There are storms of change on the horizon and it's anyone's guess what the PC will be like in hardware terms when it blows over.
Right now, things are much as they've always been. You pays your money, you takes your choice. In other words, you get to choose any CPU you like and match it with a motherboard and a graphics card. You've got both AMD and Intel options. And in many cases, you've still got full control over the chip you buy. You can overclock it, underclock it, swap it out and generally mess about with it.
Trust us on this - much of that could begin to disappear within the next 18 months, so enjoy it while it lasts.
If you're wondering why, there are a number of trends at work. Firstly, AMD's position is pretty precarious. We'll come to that in more detail later, but AMD is truly teetering on the edge of oblivion. Then there's the market's obsession with all things ultra-mobile and the technological trend towards greater feature integration that entails.
Very likely, it won't be long before you can't buy a drop-in CPU. They'll come soldered onto motherboards. So while we've a few complaints about the current state of play in CPUs, there's a chance we'll soon be looking back on this as a golden age in terms of choice and flexibility. So get out there and revel in it, we say.
There are some great CPUs from both AMD and Intel that can still be enjoyed in true enthusiast fashion. They're fully drop-in-able. They're tweakable. They're fun. And the way the CPU market is going, they'll probably keep getting the job done for at least a couple of years.
During the making of this CPU roundup, it felt like we were living on borrowed time. The PC is in a transitional period and five years from now much of what you take for granted when you spec up a rig will either be gone or very different.
There are two major drivers here: the trend towards ultra-mobile and AMD's failure to really stick it to Intel at the performance end of the market, even if it produces good chips for tighter budgets.
But let's start with that ultra-mobile mania. It explains why all of Intel's mainstream PC processors now contain on-die graphics. With any generation of computer chip, you have a given quantity of transistors available. That transistor 'budget' increases over time as manufacturing technology shrinks individual transistors.
In the past, it was pretty much all spent on improving CPU performance. More complex execution units, more cache, more cores, added features to help the cores like an on-die memory controller.
Already, however, that process has slowed. Intel's latest Ivy Bridge processors are a great example. At around 1.4 billion transistors for the quad-core version, such as a Core i5-3570K, Ivy Bridge is fully 240 million transistors bigger than the Sandy Bridge quad-core chip it replaced, but it doesn't have any additional cores or extra cache. Okay, the execution units are slightly tweaked, but we're talking typically low single-digit improvements in per-clock performance. That's not a lot to show for a 20 per cent increase in complexity.
The logical explanation, of course, is that Intel chucked almost all those 200-odd million transistors at Ivy Bridge's graphics core. The same thing will apply next year when the new Intel Haswell chips arrive. They will still be four-core beasts at best, and most of the increase in transistor count will be blown on improving the integrated graphics.
The problem is that, to date, Intel's on-die processor graphics has not been gaming worthy. In a mobile PC context, the power efficiency of integrated is great, but on the desktop and if you're into games, it's dead silicon. Worse than that, it means Intel is compromising processor performance - performance you'll actually use - in favour of improving integrated graphics performance that you won't use from crap to merely mediocre.
Eventually Intel's processor graphics will come good for gaming, but we're still several years away from that happening. Anyway, all this is because mobile computing is driving CPU design. Actually, that's not entirely the case - it's also because AMD hasn't stepped up to the plate.
AMD can't compete with the sheer raw performance of Intel's fastest current four-core chips in the LGA1155 socket. And that means it's nowhere near Intel's high-end chips in the LGA2011 socket. LGA2011 chips, of course, don't have processor graphics and are entirely focussed on CPU performance. But without AMD keeping Intel honest, LGA2011 chips are intentionally hobbled and very expensive.
Put it this way: if AMD had a competitive CPU, Intel's six-core LGA2011 CPUs would probably be half the price they are today, and there would also be eight cores on top. Put it all together and the unavoidable, undeniable conclusion is that Intel's desktop CPUs are already nothing like what they would be if Intel was simply focusing on performance.
But what of AMD? Well, that's an entirely different problem. And it's all to do with execution. Put simply, everything AMD has launched in the past five years has been too late and too slow. That's a great pity because AMD is more likely to sell straightforward CPUs in the configurations that desktop PC enthusiasts want. Plus, if those CPUs were more competitive, Intel would surely be forced to do things differently, too.
On the bright side
At this stage, we've painted a pretty bleak picture of the state of PC processors. But actually, things are still pretty good. You can still buy CPUs separately and mix and match them with motherboards and GPUs, allowing you to get the performance balance just so.
And AMD's chips are still competitive at certain price points, which has a knock-on effect across the market. More to the point, while it's likely CPU performance would be even higher if AMD had played a better game in recent years, of course today's processors are still extremely effective bits of kit. Intel may not have actually added cores to its mainstream chips, but it has done a very good job of improving per-core performance.
Sandy Bridge was a huge step forward in that regard and the latest Ivy Bridge processors raised the game a little further. All of which means that these are still the good times, right now. Five years from now, it's hard to say, but it's extremely likely you'll have a lot less choice, and year-on-year CPU performance increases may have slowed to a trickle - AMD may be a goner, for instance, and it's likely you won't be able to buy a stand alone CPU and drop it into your motherboard of choice. A few years after that, you may have to swallow motherboard, CPU and graphics in one big pill.
Back in the here and now though, let's enjoy what's on offer. If you're gaming mad, like us, the good news is that you don't need to go right to the top of Intel's current catalogue to get great performance. Intel's mainstream quads are still outrageously good. For those on tighter budgets, there are some very compelling options, some of which come from AMD.
If you've got a ton of cash, of course, there are even more options. In fact, we've thrown an Intel Xeon chip into the mix to show both how things might have been at the high end and also how you can get round Intel's increasing tendency to sandbag.
It's also worth noting that from a PC performance and gaming enthusiast perspective, now is a really great time to buy. Next year's Haswell chips from Intel are highly unlikely to bring dramatic increases in CPU performance. On the AMD side, we had hoped to see the company really raise its game next year, but now that's looking unlikely before 2014. If ever.
So it's fair to say that a decent CPU bought today will still be competitive for several years to come. As Arnie says, then, do it. Do it now.
Find a motherboard that supports your processor. Take note of the processor socket (ex: LGA 775), the memory module type (ex: 240-pin) and the RAM frequency (ex: 1066 MHz) in choosing a motherboard. Some motherboards come with features such as HDMI and Firewire, so look for a motherboard with these features if desired. Beware of high frequency RAM. While it may at first seem that any computer part which works harder or faster must certainly be better, this is not always the case. The benefits of high frequency RAM are inconsistent and it is known to have a high failure rate. Consider this before you buy. You should note the number of pins for your memory module only because of how it will connect to your motherboard. More pins does not equate with better performance. The same can be said of the processor socket: different types to not necessarily indicate performance.
Get enough RAM to meet your needs. Having more RAM, or desktop memory, will offer smoother performance and shorter loading times. Choose memory that is within your budget from a known manufacturer. There are many different memory manufacturers, but a select few make quality memory. You will want to choose the highest clock speed (the rating in MHz) and the lowest timings as possible (displayed in #-#-#-#) -- the performance of your memory relies greatly on them.You will want to buy enough memory to run your applications. Understand that while your games may say that 1GB is enough, what it really means is that it’s enough to run the game badly. If you want games to run smooth, generally you should overshoot the requirement.32-bit CPUs can only support up to 3GB of RAM; 64-bit CPUs can support much more.DDR2 Memory runs Dual Channel, so remember to buy memory in pairs: 2 x 512MB is better than 1 x 1GB. Take note of the pin type. 184-pin sticks are DDR(1), 240-pin are DDR2. Do a bit of research on your chosen motherboard to see what it supports.
Choose a video card. This may be one of the most important, yet toughest decisions to make because there are so many different video cards on the market. Because there are so many, the best way to find your card is to look for reviews on cards within your budget. Currently the two leading video card companies are ATI and NVIDIA, but other companies such as Sapphire and eVGA are licensed to produce these cards. Use review websites such as Tom's Hardware to compare performance between videocards. Currently, the Radeon HD 6670 DDR3 is a good entry level graphics card. The GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2 GB is a good mid-range card. The GeForce GTX 780 is a good high-end option. There have been some confusion on the NVIDIA cards, which are recommended by gamers. A higher number in the card name does not mean it is better. A GeForce 7950 would be much better than a GeForce 8500. The first number is the card series, while the second and sometimes third indicate performance level.If you really want to pump up the game, and you have a motherboard that can support it, get 2 identical cards from the same manufacturer and run them in SLI (Nvidia), or Crossfire (ATI) mode. This is generally a bad idea, however, unless you already have a top of the line card, because it's cheaper and more efficient to get a single better graphics card.
Choose your hard drive storage. Games, audio, and videos require plenty of space to store the large files associated with media such as these. Read reviews on hard drives and choose the best for the price. Check the specs to make sure it runs at at least 7200 RPM, because you can potentially get better performance with higher values.
Faster hard drives will only affect game loading times, and even then not by much. Focus mainly on ensuring that you have enough storage space and do not prioritize hard drive speed.
SATA cards are currently the best choice because their small cables allow for better airflow and transfer speeds than traditional PATA cables.
Choose a power supply. Check the power of the power supply. Power supplies come with either 20-pin or 24-pin connectors. Get the same number of pins as your motherboard has so that it will connect. Be sure that it meets all the recommended power requirements for your parts, such as the graphics card.
It is important to remember that most power supplies that come with cases are of low quality. Consider replacing it with one that is more powerful and more efficient as soon as possible.
350 Watts is the minimum you should expect for modern computers. More powerful components such as high-end video cards may require 500 Watts or more.
Purchase a case. Never overlook the importance of your case. After all, it houses all the expensive parts that run your computer. Here you will want to focus on cooling.
Some cases use 80mm, others use 120mm fans, and some are built for both. Generally, larger fans produce less noise and push more air through your case. More powerful components will require more cooling, so be thoughtful of which case you purchase.
If possible, you will want to have equal pressure in your case. Usually, you will want to have back fans blowing out, front fans sucking in, top fans blowing out, bottom fans sucking in, side fans sucking in.
A mid-tower case is standard, but a full-tower case may be necessary if you have a high number of peripherals, such as CD-ROM drives and hard drives.
Choose an operating system. With all the above components purchased, you will want an operating system which can make use of the system you have put together. When it has installed, check online for driver updates.
Windows tends to be the best operating system for gaming, though you may initially want to choose Windows 7 over 8, as some of your older games may have compatibility issues with the new system. This will not be an issue for any games released during and after 2013, however.