Awesome gaming requires an awesome PC. Gaming laptops are all well and good, but they’re still no match for the PC. Notebooks, like laptops, have come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, but high-end gaming consumes huge amounts of power and produces massive amounts of heat. To combat this, mobile devices have to compromise on performance and power to cope with the heavier demands for resources.
And console gaming has its place – and, in fact, many people still prefer their consoles to a PC – but, even with advances in console technology, a decent PC easily outstrips the features, functions, and capabilities of any console. That’s not to say consoles are totally bleugh and you should avoid them at all costs – they have their place. I still enjoy my next gen consoles – and I completely adore my retro models – there’s just something so amazingly special about setting up the SNES for a session of my ancient copies of Zelda or Mario!
But for serious gaming, a good PC is essential. So, we’ve put together a simple gaming PC buying guide to help simplify the process and to ensure you get a machine that both fits your budget and your gaming needs.
Lots of people, including existing gamers who should know better, rush out and simply buy the PC with the rawest power and prettiest case that they can afford. But there’s way more to it than that. You have to consider future-proofing, upgradability, storage, compatibility, and add-ons, too.
When it comes to the tower, there are more important considerations than how pretty it is. Consider how much space you have available, where you plan to put it, and the available height. There are lots of shapes and sizes available and some are flashier than others. Predominantly, there’s three tower categories: Small, mid, and full.
Small towers are sleek and slimline and generally have a simple, futuristic appearance. They have a small footprint and aren’t particularly tall, fitting into smaller spaces than traditional PC towers. For aspiring gamers with very limited desk space and a tight budget, small towers are a sensible option. However, among the drawbacks of this type is the lack of upgradability. Your upgrade and expansion options are strictly limited with small gaming PCs, primarily due to available space, so there’s no real way of future-proofing. Therefore, as games and technology continue to race ahead, if you want to keep up, within a few years, you’ll be buying another new machine.
The other main concern with small towers is how hot they get. Because of their size, there’s little room for fans, heatsinks, and other cooling features. What cooling features there are tend to be smaller and noisier, and therefore, less efficient. So with demanding processes or long gaming sessions that generate large amounts of heat, these small towers struggle to cope, and its comparatively easy to fatally overheat them unless you invest in external fans and heatsinks in an attempt to cool your system.
Mid towers make a good compromise. They are small enough to not take up an excessive amount of space and tend to fit in, on, or under most PC desks. At the same time, they’re large enough to accommodate more and better cooling functions and allow for more upgradability and future-proofing. Additionally, they tend to be less expensive than the monoliths. The main drawback, which is relatively minor for most people is their lackluster appearance, as they generally lack flair.
Full towers are behemoths. They take up a huge amount of space and pretty much dwarf most standard PC desks. If you want one of these huge beasts, you’ll need plenty of space, as many won’t even fit underneath a standard desk – so check how much floor or desk space you have available, and assess whether you’ll need to invest in a bigger desk. Remember you’ll also pay a premium for a full tower – and for good reason. They have much more space inside, providing ample room for extensive cooling systems, and giving you the opportunity to upgrade as much as you want, and these behemoths can handle hardware that just won’t fit inside a regular tower.
We’d recommend buying a full tower if space and budget constraints allow, as it’ll save you money in the long run and give you the best performance, cooling, and upgradability options. However, if you just can’t stretch to a full tower, go for a decent mid tower, which gives you the best compromise between size, performance, future-proofing, and cost. If you’re really pressed for space, or if you feel you just have to have one for aesthetic reasons, then a small tower is adequate – but remember you’re sacrificing performance, cooling, and upgradability.
Arguably one of, if not the most important consideration when it comes to the “specs”, the processor determines the performance of your machine, so however flashy your tower is, and however much memory you have, if you have a poor processor, you’ll never get decent performance and you’ll essentially just have wasted $100s on a machine that just can’t cut it in the modern gaming landscape.
Firstly, unless you’re working to a particularly tight budget, we’d say go with a quad-core processor rather than a dual-core. Most current games run adequately with a dual-core, but some of the latest games are essentially crippled without a quad-core. Additionally, a quad-core CPU effectively future-proofs your machine. As gaming tech becomes more advanced, so does the demands those shiny new games will place on your CPU. Therefore, a dual-core just won’t cut it. So, whether you’re getting a custom-built beast or an “off-the-shelf” model, where possible, opt for a quad-core processor.
There are, of course, a few hexa-core and octo-core processors available. Now, they sound flashy and impressive, but in the current gaming landscape, and even with a view to the future, they’re really just pointless. They cost a bomb and don’t offer much in the way of a performance boost, as current and even up and coming games just don’t make use of the additional cores.
Now, AMD CPUs have their fans, but when compared with Intel, specifically for gaming, AMD models just don’t offer solid single-tread performance. Yes, going the AMD route is a sensible way to get a quad-core on a small budget, but when possible, go with Intel. While you may pay a little more, these models offer better performance for gaming.
The video card, or GPU, is equally as important as the CPU. Even with the very best CPU, if your GPU isn’t top-notch, performance seriously suffers. The video card determines how awesome the graphics are, so the better the card, the better the graphics, and the more immersive the gaming experience.
With AMD and Nvidia, there’s really not that much of a difference between them. They both offer high, mid, and low-end units at similar price points. We’d recommend avoiding low-end models for gaming – so for Nvidia, that’s models that include a 20, 30, or 40, while for AMD, avoid units with a 4, 5, or 6 as the second digit in the model number, unless you’re working to a really, really tight budget.
If you’re running a resolution of 1080p or under, your best choice is likely a mid-range GPU such as the Nvidia GTX 960 or the AMD Radeon R9 380. For higher resolutions, you need a high-end model, but you’ll pay a premium.
Memory is of secondary importance when it comes to choosing the right GPU. In theory, yes, bigger is better, because it allows the card to smoothly handle bigger data loads before it chokes. However, if you’re running a resolution of 1080p or lower, 2GB of memory is plenty. A higher resolution ideally requires 3 or 4 GB.
There’s a growing trend of using multiple video cards. The theory is, running multiple cards improves speed and performance. However, there’s a couple of flaws with this theory: Multi-card users run into numerous issues with game support and driver issues, so the multiple cards don’t achieve their full potential. Additionally, extra cards take up valuable space, produce more noise, and generate large amounts of extra heat, all of which have a negative impact on performance.
RAM – everybody is obsessed with it – both consumers and retailers. Is it important? Yes. Is it the be-all and end-all of PC specs? No. If you’re on a tight budget, 8GB of RAM will work for most games. 16GB is better, and we’d advocate opting for a 16GB model if your budget allows. Anything over this? It’s pretty much a waste. It sits there and just doesn’t get used. Yes, in theory, 32GB of RAM will help to future-proof your machine – but you’ll pay a ridiculous premium for it. So why is it so commonly on offer and given a place of importance in the specs list? Simply because RAM is so inexpensive and easy to add. So manufacturers whack in extra RAM to make their machine a “premium” model and add on a big price mark-up. So, we’d say, go for a 16GB model if you can afford it. If your budget just won’t stretch, go for 8GBs and upgrade when you can afford it. As long as you’ve got a tower with plenty of space inside, there’s no reason you can’t install extra RAM when you need it.
How much and what type of internal storage space is yet another consideration. Firstly, you need to choose between a hard drive and a solid state drive, or a combination of both. Solid state drives, or SSDs, are less prone to failure and errors and have faster read, write, and load speeds. They are also more robust than traditional hard drives. However, they are considerably more expensive than HDDs. And do you really need a tougher internal storage drive? It’s unlikely that you’ll be carrying your PC around with you. And if you do happen to drop your PC hard enough to damage a regular hard drive, it’s likely you’ve also done serious damage to other components. SSDs, largely because of their expense, tend to be smaller than HDDs, so many people choose machines with both an SSD and an HDD. Why? Because SSDs are up to 10 times faster than HDDs, so, for example, instead of waiting 30 seconds for a game to load, you only wait for 5. If you go this route, make sure you get an SSD with a bare minimum of 200GB – otherwise, you won’t be able to store many games or pieces of software on the SSD.
Don’t forget, if you need extra storage and can’t immediately afford either a huge 4TB HDD or a 500GB SSD, you can simply purchase an external drive later on, as and when your budget allows.