Want to game on a PC? Buy a desktop. While notebooks have come a long way over the last decade, they are, to this day, an inherently compromised solution. Fast processors and video cards consume gobs of power and produce tons of heat, so mobile systems have to cut back on performance while packing on the pounds.
Even a modest desktop can put current consoles to shame and run today’s most demanding games at 1080p. Want more? You can have it. The most powerful gaming rigs are several times faster than the least powerful, and every gradation of performance between those extremes is available.
Yet, there’s more to the equation than raw horsepower. Upgradability, storage, and add-on cards also deserve thought. This guide will help you cut through the confusion and buy an amazing gaming desktop computer at a surprisingly low price.
One size doesn’t fit all
Most gamers start with the hardware inside a computer. We’ll cover that soon enough, but, before we get there, let’s talk about the exterior.
Small systems are, well, small. They are unobtrusive and fit where larger systems simply can’t. They’re ideal for gamers who lack a large desk or want to use the desktop in a home theater. Going small can limit future upgrade options, however, and some pint-sized PCs make a lot of noise.
Mid towers are a good compromise and are ideal for most people. They’re small enough to fit under, on, or in a typical desk, yet large enough to offer upgradability and acceptable cooling. Flair, or lack thereof, is the only flaw. Most mid towers look like any other ho-hum desktop.
Finally, we come to the monoliths known as full towers. These are often so large that they won’t fit on top of a desk without hanging off the front or rear, and a few full towers are so tall they won’t even fit under a desk. A full tower system may carry a slight price premium over a mid tower. However, full towers are easy to upgrade and can handle hardware that won’t fit in smaller PCs.
Some custom manufacturers, like Origin and CyberPower, offer a selection of cases during customization. We recommend the full tower if you can find room for it, but make sure you understand the size before buying. Otherwise, a mid tower is best. Smaller systems can be great, but are also a niche solution. You should only buy one if space is at a premium or you’re dead set on a small system for aesthetic reasons.
Start with the heart: The processor
When you buy a gaming desktop, be it a customized model from a boutique or a pre-made model from Dell or HP, the processor will be the first specification you see – and for good reason. The processor determines how a system will perform in most software.
Your first choice will be between dual- or quad-core processors. We recommend a quad unless your budget is extremely low ($600 or less). A dual-core processor is often fine, but some modern games make use of additional cores and can be crippled by a dual-core CPU.
Gamers with a lot of money may be lured in by Intel’s hexa-core and octo-core processors. These are priced at a premium and not worthwhile for gaming. We only recommend them to buyers who have absolutely no concern about a rig’s final price. The same can be said of all Intel’s Extreme Edition processors.
Intel is the way to go unless your budget is below $1,000 — and even then, it may still be the better choice. Though AMD is competitive at a few price points, all of the company’s processors fail to offer solid single-thread performance. They’re a great way to pick up a quad-core (or better) chip on a tight budget, but Intel’s quad-core chips are a better pick for games if you can afford them.
A great GPU makes a great gaming PC
The video cards sit side-by-side with the processor in importance. This one component is responsible for drawing the beautiful graphics you see onscreen. Faster video cards allow better, smoother graphics and a more immersive experience.
As a gamer, you’ll want to stay away from low-end cards. In Nvidia’s stable, this means you want to stay away from products that have a 20, 30, or 40 in their model number (like the GT 730). In AMD’s product line, you want to stay away from cards that have a 4, 5, or 6 as the second digit in the model number (like the Radeon R7 240).
The price-performance sweet spot usually sits with mid-range cards like the Nvidia GTX 960 and AMD Radeon R9 380. These can handle almost any game in 1080p with full detail. If you want to make sure that games run well, or you want to play at an even higher resolution, like 2,560 x 1,440 or 4K, you should move up to an even more powerful card.
While shopping, you may sometimes find yourself with a choice between two cards that are similar but offer different memory. More memory does not have a significant impact on overall performance by itself, but more memory does allow a video card to handle more data before choking. We recommend at least 1GB of memory if you have a display below 1080p resolution, and at least 2GB of memory if your display is 1080p. If your monitor’s resolution exceeds 1080p, you should buy a card with at least 3GB of memory, and 4GB is better still.
Related: Check out our full AMD Fury X review
Nvidia and AMD remain in tight contention at most price points. The former has a slight advantage on the whole, but it’s close. If you don’t have a preference, the choice between the brands may come down to what’s on sale the day you choose to buy.
We don’t recommend multiple video cards. Though potentially quick, multi-card configurations often run into driver or game support issues that prevent them from unlocking their full potential. They’re also louder and hotter than a single card.
Don’t waste money on too much RAM
Our review of the Acer Predator provided the perfect example of how marketing is sometimes placed before performance. That system, which was relatively affordable, came to us with 32GB of RAM. Thirty-two! As in 30, and then two more.
That’s insane, yet not uncommon. Why? RAM is inexpensive, so adding more makes a system seem powerful to uneducated consumers at minimal cost. Don’t fall for it. The majority of games sold today will run well on a computer with only 8GB of RAM (as we proved in our Steam Box build). For a serious gaming rig, however, 16GB is our recommendation. Anything on top of that is effectively useless.
Additional memory doesn’t make a game run more quickly; it merely sits unused. Any money that might be spent on RAM beyond 16GB should instead be put towards a component that matters.
Solid-state drives are expensive, but useful
Most computers sold today come with at least a 500GB mechanical hard drive and, in most cases, a 750GB or 1TB model. More space is better, but unused space isn’t needed, so our recommendation is simple: buy as much space as you need.
Whether or not you should buy a computer with a solid-state drive is a more difficult question. SSDs are many times more expensive than mechanical drives when measured by gigabyte-per-dollar. They also have no impact on in-game performance. Still, we recommend that you buy an SSD if you can afford one that offers over 200GB of storage. Why? Load times.
A solid-state drive is many times quicker than a mechanical drive. For games, this means a level that could take 30 seconds to load on a normal drive instead loads in 5 to 10 seconds. Games with short load times may sometimes load almost instantly.
Related: SSD vs HDD – Which is best for you?
If you do choose a solid-state drive, make sure it’s also the drive that contains the operating system. You’ll gain the benefit of quick boot times and fast operation in day-to-day use. This is also why we don’t recommend an SSD with less than 200GB of space. With Windows installed, a small drive can only contain a handful of games.
Don’t lose money on the kitchen sink
After you’ve nailed down the processor, video card, RAM and hard drive you’ll start to browse through a wide selection of extras including sound cards, Ethernet adapters, additional USB ports, and more.
These extras aren’t required. Today’s motherboards ship with a built-in sound card, Ethernet adapter, and gobs of connectivity. Some even come with standard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. These have made peripheral cards far less of a necessity.
That doesn’t mean they’re useless, but skip it if you don’t already know that you need a certain add-on card for a specific reason.
As you browse computers and choose custom hardware, you should always return to one question: “Does this make games look and play better?”
A gaming desktop is a balancing act. No one component should dominate without bringing the others up to par, and unnecessary hardware should be axed to keep the price down. For example, a system with 32GB of RAM and a dual-core processor doesn’t make sense. The money spent on memory could be far better spent on a fast quad-core.
Restraint is required to perfect the balance. When you buy a gaming desktop, you’ll be bombarded by ads, both on manufacturer websites and elsewhere, that insist what you really want is a fancy Ethernet card that allegedly improves multiplayer games, or a triple-GPU rig, or a computer the size of a cat.
As you browse computers and choose custom hardware, you should always return to one question: “Does this make games look and play better?” The information in this guide will help you answer that question, and if the answer is no, you don’t need it.