A gaming desktop is a big investment. Therefore, it is a good idea to take your purchase seriously and do your research. There is a lot to consider between the graphics card, processor, RAM and memory. That's why we're going to show you how to buy a gaming desktop.
Putting together a gaming rig for the first time is a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be difficult. As long as you know what to look for and where to look, you will be able to put together a gaming PC that suits your needs in no time.
One size doesn't fit all
Most gamers start out with the hardware in a computer. We'll discuss this soon enough, but before we get there, let's talk about the exterior.
Game computers now come in many shapes and sizes. There are small systems like the Falcon Northwest Tiki, medium-sized towers like the Acer Predator G1, and monoliths like the Origin Millenium.
Small systems are small. They are inconspicuous and fit where larger systems simply cannot. They are ideal for gamers who lack a large desk or who want to use the PC in a home theater. However, as you get small, future upgrade options may be limited, and some pint-sized PCs make a lot of noise due to their limited cooling space.
Center towers are a good compromise and ideal for most people. They're small enough to fit under, on top of, or inside a typical desk, but big enough to provide upgradeability and acceptable cooling. You have to pay a little more for glass sidewalls and fancy color schemes, but you already know if you care.
Dan Baker / Digital Trends
Finally we come to the monoliths known as full towers. These are often so large that they cannot fit on a desk without hanging in the front or back. Some full towers are so tall that they can't even fit under a desk.
A complete tower system can have a small price premium over a medium tower. However, they are extraordinarily easy to use as they have plenty of room for anything you want to put in them, including your hands. This can be very helpful if you have large gloves.
Some custom manufacturers, like Origin and CyberPower, offer a choice of cases while customizing. A full tower is the easiest to grab and work with, but make sure you know its dimensions beforehand. If desktop space is important but you can't work comfortably in tight spaces, go for a medium tower.
There are smaller options, but they are harder to change, are usually louder, and don't necessarily support all of your hardware choices. In addition, small form factor cases get hot. So keep that in mind if you want to play demanding games or if you want to venture into overclocking.
Start with the heart: the processor
When you buy a gaming desktop, whether you built it yourself, a custom gaming rig, or a pre-built model from Dell or HP, the processor is the first spec you see – and for good reason. The processor determines how a system works in most software.
The number of processor cores plays an important role. The options range from two to 16 cores in the mainstream area. Unless you're on an extreme budget, a four-core chip should be as low as possible so that some software and gaming programs don't experience performance issues.
However, thanks to current prices, a six-core chip is a good place to start, such as the i5-10600K from Intel or the Ryzen 5 5600X from AMD (they show up in our top Intel CPU and AMD CPU summaries, respectively) . Generation counterparts like the 9600K and 3600X are also good choices.
Those looking to do a lot of high-performance work may want to aim for eight or more cores instead, depending on how well the software can take advantage of the high core count. A six-core or eight-core chip is sufficient for gaming. In addition, core counts are more important for applications such as Adobe Premiere and AutoCAD.
When it comes to AMD versus Intel, AMD tends to offer better value across the price spectrum, offering more cores, and much better multithreaded performance as each chip has support for concurrent multithreading. The latest Ryzen 5000 processors surpass anything Intel has to offer for gaming and productivity tasks.
However, Intel is stepping back a generation and has a head start in gaming. The company's flagship i9-10900K is still one of the best processors for gaming, but it will cost you a pretty penny.
Most modern games are getting better at using multiple cores at the same time. However, when paired with the same GPU, almost identical performance is achieved between processors as the resolutions are higher. Because of this, in many cases you don't need a high-end processor like a Core i9 or Ryzen 9 for gaming.
For more information on the best CPUs for your money, check out our in-depth guide.
A great GPU is a great gaming PC
If you are serious about gaming, your greatest attention should be paid to the graphics card. It's the component with the greatest hand in beautifying your games, spitting out high frame rates, and playing higher resolutions.
Model numbers tell a lot of the story here. Cards with higher numbers usually mean more performance, although there are some limitations, and overclocked models from third-party GPU partners can bridge performance gaps between versions. The RTX 2060 Super, for example, is almost as powerful as the more expensive RTX 2070.
Entry-level GPUs like the AMD RX 570 or the Nvidia GTX 1650 offer decent performance when you're playing at 1080p. If you want to play at 1440p and decent frame rates, you need something a little more powerful like the last generation RTX 2060 or RX 5700. Starting with the current generation, Nvidia's 3060 Ti is at least currently the only option in the same price range.
Those interested in 4K gaming, or anything more than 100 FPS for anything but simple esports games, need to look higher and dig deeper into their pockets. High-end graphics cards cost a lot, reaching more than $ 1,000 in some cases. At 4K, the RTX 3080 from Nvidia and the 6800 XT from AMD are the best options.
Your graphics card is the most important element of your PC if you mainly play games. High-end cards have declining returns – the "sweet spot" is around $ 400 where the RTX 3060 Ti is – but still show performance scaling in most games. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you should be spending more on just one GPU. It is important to consider the game you plan to play before setting a GPU budget.
Still, it's generally a good idea to opt for newer cards, in this case Nvidia's GTX 20-series and RTX 30-series GPUs, as well as AMD's RX 6000 series. However, it is of great value on older cards too, and this may be your only option as the latest graphics cards from Nvidia and AMD still have storage issues.
Bill Roberson / Digital Trends
One of the most confusing elements of graphics cards is video memory (or VRAM). It's easy to figure out how much system RAM you need, but GPUs are a little more difficult to determine. You may have a choice of two cards that are similar but offer different amounts of VRAM. More VRAM doesn't have a significant impact on overall performance, but it does allow a graphics card to better handle certain visual functions and is a must for higher resolutions.
The base for modern games around 1080p should be 3GB, although we would increase that to 4GB if there wasn't a lot of money in, as most new cards now have that number. If you're playing at higher detail settings and want to future-proof your system, you should spend 8GB for a few dollars more, but it's not essential, especially at lower resolutions.
We do not recommend using multiple graphics cards. Although multi-card configurations were once a good choice for high-end gaming, today there are common problems with driver or game support that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Multiple cards are also louder and hotter than a single card, and Nvidia's latest GPUs don't even support them (unless you're looking to spend $ 3,000 on two RTX 3090's).
If you can't decide between AMD or Nvidia, the latter offers ray tracing support for the RTX 30 and 20 series GPUs. However, this is not a good reason to get involved. The current list of games that support ray tracing is minimal at best, with support for additional titles in the future, but still far from expansive. Buying a graphics card for ray tracing alone is not a good investment right now. However, Nvidia's Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) technology is a reason to buy. DLSS 2.0 games look better than ever.
Both companies' drivers offer input lag reduction software and image sharpening to improve the look of your games.
For more tips on buying GPUs, check out our guide to the best graphics cards.
Don't waste money on unnecessary RAM
We tested systems like the Alienware Area-51 R5, which has up to 64 GB of system RAM. That's overkill for games.
A good base for modern gaming systems is 16 GB, especially considering how far prices have fallen in recent months. However, you can get away with 8GB if you play older games or sacrifice detail or frame rate for additional savings.
After all, storage is one of the easiest things to update later – and one of the cheapest.
Here is the current memory footprint for six popular games to give you an idea of what you need on a desktop:
- Fourteen days – At least 8 GB, 16 GB recommended
- Doom Eternal – 8 GB minimum, 8 GB recommended
- Fate 2 – At least 6 GB, 8 GB recommended
- PUBG – At least 8 GB, 16 GB recommended
- Overwatch – At least 4 GB, 6 GB recommended
- Half-life: Alyx – 12 GB
However, additional memory beyond 16 GB is only left unused. Any money that could be spent on RAM over 16GB should instead be used for a component that has a greater impact on performance.
However, note the following: System memory is not only used by games. Everything that runs on your PC takes up memory, from the operating system to your mouse and keyboard drivers. If Destiny 2 alone is using 6GB of system memory while it's running, you'll need enough memory for everything else. For this reason, developers recommend higher amounts so that your PC has room to breathe while the game remains active.
And since all applications use some RAM, 16GB may not be enough. If you're just playing, 16GB is perfect. However, if you want to run other demanding applications such as B. DAWs like Pro Tools or video editing applications like Adobe Premiere are 32 GB better. 64GB is excessive in almost all cases unless you have specific needs, and 128GB on a consumer computer is just for bragging rights.
One final note on memory: make sure your configuration includes at least two sticks. Some gaming desktops offer 8 GB of RAM but only contain a single 8 GB stick. With two sticks you can use the two-channel memory on most motherboards, which effectively doubles the data transfer speed compared to a single stick.
Solid-state drives are fast, and now they are cheaper
Most computers sold today have a 500 GB or more mechanical hard drive, and in most cases a 750 GB or 1 TB model. Sure, more space is better, but unused space is not needed. So our recommendation is simple: buy as much space as you need and focus everything else on performance.
This is where SSDs come into play. Solid-state drives are not only much faster than hard drives, they are also much cheaper than they used to be. SATA SSDs are currently only about twice as expensive as hard drives with comparable storage sizes, and they do not require a large amount of storage space. A 512GB SSD is enough to store Windows and most of your games. This has a huge impact on how your PC feels and how fast your games load.
With a decent SSD under the hood, Windows should boot and be ready to use in less than 30 seconds. Games that take a minute to load onto a hard drive should run in 10 to 20 seconds on an SSD.
There are two types of SSDs: standard 2.5-inch SATA SSDs and M.2 NVMe SSDs. The best known are 2.5-inch drives. They use a SATA 3.0 connection to transfer data, just like traditional hard drives, and they require external power from the power supply.
M.2 SSDs are built into the motherboard and are usually much more expensive than their 2.5-inch counterparts, but there's a reason for it. The “M.2” part refers to the form factor, which is a small stick that fits into your motherboard (see the image above for reference). The “NVMe” part refers to the drive that PCI Express uses instead of SATA for data transfer. PCIe can support much more bandwidth than SATA, making M.2 NVMe drivers faster than their 2.5-inch counterparts.
However, not all M.2 drives use PCIe. You can use PCIe or SATA depending on the specification. Make sure the drive is labeled "NVMe" like the Samsung 970 Evo drives mentioned above.
Regardless of which drive you buy, make sure the SSD you choose as your primary storage device includes the operating system. You benefit from fast start-up times and fast operation in daily use. For this reason we do not recommend an SSD with less than 200 GB of storage space. With Windows installed, a small drive can only hold a handful of games.
If you need a lot of space for media or work, consider a secondary hard drive for additional space, with the SSD only used for Windows and games.
Cool and quiet
Cooling is not directly related to performance, but it can affect the performance of your PC. AMD CPUs and all graphics cards are immediately delivered with their own coolers. So, if you don't care about noise levels or keep components cool for overclocking, then you don't have to think about it anymore – especially if you play with headphones where noise isn't that important.
Newer Intel processors don't come with a standard cooler. However, you can find a decent cooling solution for around $ 30.
If you want a whisper-quiet PC and / or want to push it beyond its basic specs, it's a good idea to think about advanced cooling. Large air coolers are some of the most inexpensive and efficient ways to cool a CPU. All-in-one water cooling and custom loops are also an option.
Graphics cards are a little more complicated, although you can also use water to cool them. We recommend simply buying a third party card with a decent custom cooling solution for lower noise levels and better performance.
Organize power supply cables
There are some components that you should spend a little extra on to get the quality you need. A good power adapter is a prime example, and we have a list of the best power adapters that you can buy for different budgets.
Never buy a bad power adapter as a cheap power adapter can die and take away other components. The first thing to consider is your performance. Pick a power supply that is way beyond what your PC needs, but you don't need to go crazy (a 650W power supply is perfect for a 400W build, for example).
After that, look for an 80 Plus certification. The 80 plus standard power supplies are based on their energy efficiency and there are several levels. For example, 80 Plus certified power supplies are 80% energy efficient with average power consumption, while 80 Plus Titanium power supplies in the same power range are 92% energy efficient.
The 80 Plus certification only provides a statement about energy efficiency. However, PSUs with an 80 Plus rating generally use better components to get that rating and deliver the stated performance.
Finally, you will find modular, semi-modular, and non-modular power supplies. For non-modular power supplies, all cables are connected to the power supply as shown in the picture above. With semi-modular power supplies, some important cables are connected, e.g. B. the 24-pin power connector on your motherboard. However, you will get detachable cables for other components such as: B. 8-pin power supply for your graphics card. With modular power supplies, all cables are removed.
The advantage of a modular power supply is that you only need to plug in the cables that you will actually use, making building and cable management much easier. However, modular power supplies are expensive, sometimes twice as much as their non-modular counterparts. You can save a lot by opting for a non-modular power supply.
Put the parts together
Bringing it all together is your motherboard. You don't want to be cheap out here, but you don't have to get too expensive either. There are two things to consider: the socket and the chipset. Fortunately, the former is easy. Each processor fits into a specific socket – Ryzen 3000 processors use the AM4 socket, for example – so all you have to do is make sure your CPU fits into the socket on your motherboard. When you buy a pre-built machine, you don't have to worry about the power outlet.
The chipset is more interesting. Both AMD and Intel offer different chipsets with different functions for different prices. For example, the Intel flagship chipset Z490 supports overclocking, but the cheaper B460 chipset doesn't. Likewise, AMD's top-end X570 chipset has more PCIe lanes than the cheaper B550 chipset.
In all fairness there is almost too much to consider between chipsets. For gaming, the important question is whether or not you want to overclock your processor. AMD supports overclocking its X- and B-series chipsets, while Intel supports overclocking only the X-series chipsets. Otherwise your motherboard will have almost no performance impact.
There are considerations outside of performance, however. Manufacturers will incorporate various functions into their motherboards, such as: B. better network functions or a better sound chip. In addition, motherboards are expandable in different ways (for example, some may only have two RAM slots). You don't have to spend a lot on your motherboard, but you should consider support for overclocking, expandability, and other features like networking and sound.
For a better look at which motherboard to choose, read our guide to the best motherboards for gaming.
Focus on what is important to you
A gaming desktop is a balancing act. It is important that you weigh your investment in the right components.
The graphics card and CPU should get most of your budget to improve the look of a game. Faster storage improves the overall system feel and the speed at which everything loads. A fancy case is nice, but it won't make your games play any better. More memory has its place, but if it's more than you're actually using it won't do much.
With that in mind, build a PC that is comfortable with the end result. If looking your best is important, make sure it is yours. If you want to tweak and overclock, spend some cash to get a nicer motherboard and a decent cooler. There are things you can do to get the most out of your gaming performance, but the most important thing is finding the right PC for you.