What matters (and what doesn’t) when buying a gaming desktop

A gaming desktop is a big investment, so it’s a good idea to take the purchase seriously and do your research. Among the most important things to consider are storage, raw horsepower, upgradability, and add-in cards.

The first step is determining which factors are most important and which gaming desktops deliver what you need. But with so many decisions to make, it can be a little daunting.

Don’t fret, we’re here to help. Here’s how to figure out what is most important for you when buying a gaming desktop.

One size doesn’t fit all

Tomas Patlan

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.

Gaming computers now come in many shapes and sizes. There are small systems such as the Falcon Northwest Tiki, midsize towers like the Acer Predator G1, and monoliths like the Origin Millenium.

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 PC 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. You’ll need to pay a little extra for glass side panels and fancy color schemes, but you’ll already know whether that’s something you care about.

origin millenium desktop review angle
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

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. 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. But they are exceedingly easy to work with because they have enough space for anything you want to put in them, including your hands, which can be super helpful if you have large mitts.

Some custom manufacturers, such as Origin and CyberPower, offer a selection of cases during customization. A full tower is the easiest to grip and work with, but make sure you know its dimensions beforehand. If desktop space is important but you’re not totally comfortable working within a cramped area, opt for a mid-tower.

There are smaller options, but they are harder to modify, typically louder, and don’t necessarily support all of your hardware choices.

Start with the heart: The processor

laptop-processor

When you buy a gaming desktop, whether it’s one you built yourself, a custom gaming rig, or a premade 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.

The processor core count is a major consideration. Options range between two and 16 cores in the mainstream space. Unless you’re on an extreme budget, a four-core chip should be as low as you go, lest you run into performance issues with some software and games.

However, thanks to current pricing, a six-core chip is a good place to start. Those looking to do a lot of high-powered work may want to aim for eight cores or more instead, depending on how well the software can take advantage of the high core count.

When it comes to AMD vs Intel, AMD tends to offer better value throughout the pricing spectrum, providing more cores and much better multithreaded performance thanks to every chip enjoying support for simultaneous multithreading.

If you only play games on your desktop, Intel’s 9900K and 9900KS will enable the best frame rates, but their value elsewhere is diminished. They’re not cheap either.

For a deeper dive into the best bang-for-your-buck CPUs, check our out in-depth guide.

A great GPU makes a great gaming PC

GTX 1070 Ti

If you’re somewhat serious about gaming, the graphics card is where you should pay the most attention. It’s the component with the biggest hand in beautifying your games, spitting out high frame rates, and making higher resolutions playable.

Model numbers tell you much of the story here, with higher numbered cards typically meaning more performance, though there are some caveats there and overclocked models from third-party GPU partners can close performance gaps between versions. The RTX 2060 Super is almost as powerful as the more costly RTX 2070, for example.

Starting at the bottom, entry-level GPUs such as the AMD RX 570, or the Nvidia GTX 1650 will give you decent performance when playing at 1080p. If you want to game at 1440p at decent frame rates, you need something more powerful like the RTX 2060 or RX 5700.

Those interested in 4K gaming or 100+ FPS in anything but simple Esports games will need to look higher and dig deeper into their pockets. High-end graphics cards will cost you plenty, reaching above $1,000 in some cases.

It’s generally a good idea to opt for newer cards, which in this case are Nvidia’s GTX 16-series and RTX 20-series GPUs, and AMD’s RX 5000-series. However, there is great value to be had with older cards too, while stocks last.

AMD Radeon RX Vega 56 and 64 review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

One often confusing element of graphics cards is video memory (or VRAM). It’s easy to find out how much system RAM you need, but GPUs are a little harder to determine. You may find yourself with a choice between two cards that are similar but offer different VRAM amounts. More VRAM does not have a significant impact on overall performance by itself, but it does allow a video card to better handle certain visual features.

The baseline for modern gaming around 1080p should be 3GB, though we’d push that to 4GB if there isn’t much money in it, as most new cards sport that figure now. If you want to play using higher detail settings and to futureproof your system, 8GB is worth spending a few more dollars on, but it’s not strictly necessary, especially at lower resolutions.

We don’t recommend multiple video cards. Though once a great choice for high-end gaming, today, multi-card configurations often run into driver or game support issues that prevent them from unlocking their full potential. Multiple cards are also louder and hotter than a single card.

If you’re stuck choosing between AMD or Nvidia, the latter does have ray tracing support on its higher-end RTX 20 Series cards, but that’s not viable further down the scale. Moreover, the current list of games supporting ray tracing is minimal at best, with support for additional titles in the future expanding, but still far from expansive. Purchasing a graphics card just for ray tracing alone isn’t a great investment for now. Deep learning supersampling is useful but doesn’t always look great.

Both company’s drivers offer input lag reduction software, as well as image sharpening for improving the look of your games.

For more tips on GPU buying, check out our guide to the best graphics cards.

Don’t waste money on unnecessary RAM

RAM

We’ve tested systems like the Alienware Area-51 R5 which come with as much as 64GB of system RAM. That’s completely redundant for gaming.

A good baseline for modern gaming systems is 16GB, especially with how far prices have dropped in recent months. But you can get away with 8GB if you’re playing older games, or don’t mind sacrificing detail or frame rate to make additional savings.

After all, memory is one of the easiest things to upgrade later — and one of the most affordable.

Here’s the current memory requirement landscape for six popular games to give you an idea of what you need in a desktop:

  • Fortnite — 8GB minimum, 16GB recommended
  • Doom Eternal — 8GB minimum, 8GB recommended
  • Destiny 2 — 6GB minimum, 8GB recommended
  • PUBG — 8GB minimum, 16GB recommended
  • Overwatch — 4GB minimum, 6GB recommended
  • Half-Life: Alyx — 12GB

That said, additional memory beyond 16GB merely sits unused. Any money that might be spent on RAM beyond 16GB should instead be put towards a component that has a bigger impact on performance.

But keep this in mind: System memory isn’t only used by games. Everything running on your PC requires memory, from the operating system to your mouse and keyboard drivers. If Destiny 2 alone uses 6GB of system memory while it’s running, you need ample more available for everything else. This is why developers recommend higher amounts so your PC has room to breathe while the game remains active. Want to play Doom Eternal? Pack your desktop with 16GB.

Solid-state drives are fast and now more affordable

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, sure, but unused space isn’t needed, so our recommendation is simple: Buy as much space as you need, and focus everything else on performance.

That’s where SSDs come in. Solid-state drives are not only far faster than hard drives, but they’re also much cheaper than they used to be. SATA SSDs are only around twice the price of hard drives at comparable storage sizes at this point, and you don’t need massive space. A 512GB SSD is enough to store Windows and most of your games and it will make a huge difference to how your PC feels, as well as how fast you games load.

With a decent SSD under the hood, Windows should boot and be ready to use in under 30 seconds. Games that take a minute to load on a hard drive should be done in 10 to 20 seconds on an SSD.

You don’t even need to buy the fastest drives to benefit. An older 2.5-inch SATA SSD for $60 will perform almost as well as a $200 NVMe drive with the same capacity. While those latter, smaller, stick-shaped drives are leaner, faster, and don’t require any power or data cables, they don’t deliver massive performance improvements in Windows or game load times. They’re more of a benefit if you do frequent file transfers, video editing, or don’t mind spending quite a lot more for a slight performance edge in real-world usage.

Whichever drive you buy, make sure the SSD you choose as your primary storage device 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.

If you need lots of storage space for media or work, consider a secondary hard drive for additional space, with the SSD for Windows and games only.

Cool and quiet

Cooling isn’t directly related to performance, but it can have an impact, as well as the enjoyment you get from your PC. Your CPU and graphics card ship with their own coolers right out of the box, so if you don’t care about noise levels, or keeping components cool for overclocking, you don’t need to think any more about it — especially if you play with headphones on, where noise isn’t as important.

But if you want a whisper-quiet PC and/or want to push it beyond its basic specifications, thinking about advanced cooling is a good idea. Big air coolers are some of the most affordable and efficient ways to cool a CPU, though all-in-one watercooling and custom loops are an option too.

Graphics cards are a little more complicated, though you can watercool them too. We recommend simply buying a third-party card with a decent custom cooling solution to enable lower noise levels and better performance.

Don’t lose money on the kitchen sink

There are some components which we would recommend you spend a little extra on to get the quality you need. A good PSU is a prime example, and we have a list of the best PSUs you can buy on various budgets.

Never buy a poor PSU, as a cheap one can die and take other components with it. You also shouldn’t spend over $100 to get something good at your wattage range. Check with sites like RealhardTechX and GamingScan for more details on PSU choice.

A motherboard isn’t something you need to spend heaps on, but don’t go super-budget either. Mid-range motherboards will give you a stable system with all the expansion slots and performance-enhancing features you need. Super-expensive ones are more targeted at overclockers or those going for a particular look to their system. Budget $80 to $150 and leave it at that.

Other than those two factors, you don’t need to sweat it too much. Components like sound cards, Ethernet, USB ports, and so on are all included with a decent motherboard. You’ll already know if you need a specific feature like Wi-Fi or a niche connector.

Focus on what matters to you

A gaming desktop is a balancing act. It’s important to weigh your investment in the right components.

The graphics card and CPU should receive the bulk of your budget for improving how a game looks. Faster storage will help improve the overall feel of the system and how fast everything loads. A fancy case is nice, but it won’t make your games play better. More memory has its place, but if it’s more than you’ll actually use, it won’t do much.

With all that in mind, build a PC that will make you feel good about the end result. If looking good is important, then make sure yours does. If you want to tweak and overclock, spend some time getting good memory and a decent cooler too. There are things you can do to maximize your gaming performance, but getting the right PC for you is what’s most important.

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