How to Buy a Gaming PC
October 28, 2008
PC gaming isn't dead, it's just been resting for a few months. But with hot titles like Prince of Persia and the new World of Warcraft expansion hitting the shelves this holiday season, now's a great time to consider upgrading your rig so you can dominate the deathmatch arenas throughout 2009 and beyond.
Here's what to look for when shopping for a new PC, gaming-style.
An easy, if obvious, critical consideration: Graphics capability should be your primary concern when outfitting any gaming rig. The good news is that both graphics mainstays -- ATI and Nvidia -- are producing top-notch video boards right now. Which one you get is likely a matter of personal taste and what you can find on sale: The ATI Radeon HD 4000 and higher-end 3000 series and the Nvidia Geforce GTX 200, 9000, and higher-end 8000 series are all very capable cards that will give you seamless performance on the latest game titles. You'll of course save a lot of money if you shy away from the bleeding edge hardware: Both the Radeon HD 4850 and Geforce 9800 GTX will burn through any game you throw at them but will cost you well under $200.
If you're shopping for a laptop, you'll have to settle for technology about one generation behind: The Geforce Mobile 9000 and Quadro series cards generally outpace the Radeon HD 3000 series, so snag a high-end Nvidia laptop card if you have the option.
The other critical component in your gaming rig is the CPU. This can be harder to upgrade than your video card, so it's a good idea to get the best microprocessor you can afford when you first configure your desktop. That said, you'll pay through the nose for an Intel Core 2 Extreme CPU but probably won't notice any better gaming performance over a solid Core 2 Duo processor (or a Core 2 Quad if you really must have four cores). (The Extreme QX9770 runs nearly $1,500 on its own, while you can find a Core 2 Duo E8500 for under $200. Performance is nearly identical.) AMD's Phenom X4 CPU is capable and worth considering if you get a deal.
Laptop buyers should steer clear of the current AMD offerings: Intel Core 2 Duo chips (particularly T-series models) are far more capable all around on portable PCs.
2GB of RAM is now the recommended minimum for a gaming rig, desktop or laptop. You won't see much (if any) improvement by going with more RAM, but it won't hurt. Going to 4GB of RAM will probably run you less than $100 extra.
Audio is key for any game, so don't neglect this important part of your gaming setup. A Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer card will give you awesome output with minimal distortion to up to eight speakers, and it will even simulate surround sound if you only have room in the budget for two speakers. All for under $100.
You'll need Windows Vista to enable DirectX 10 on games, and the Home Premium edition will be fine for most users. There's not really any need to upgrade to the 64-bit version of Vista: Some applications don't run right on it and performance is no better if you're running 32-bit games (which all of them are). If you like the look and style of the new Macs, you can even run Vista (or Windows XP) alongside MacOS by installing Apple's Boot Camp software. For some users, this gives you the best of both worlds.
Much noise is being made over solid state drives (or SSDs), but for now there's no reason at all to replace your traditional hard drive with a lower-capacity, slower, far more expensive solid state drive. As well for optical drives: Unless you really must watch Blu-ray discs on your PC, a standard dual-layer DVD burner will be fine and will save hundreds of dollars you can put toward a better GPU or CPU.
Don't forget to budget for a nice screen (or a 17-inch LCD if you're buying a gaming notebook). The latest LCDs feature richer colors, faster response times, and larger screen real estate than models from even a few years ago.
About the Author:
Christopher Null is a veteran technology journalist. He covers tech daily on his blog at tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null.
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