Since the new generation of video game consoles are increasingly becoming all-in-one multimedia machines, it's no surprise that serious gamers are flocking toward the PC to satiate their video game desires. Computers offer better performance per dollar spent, PC gamers gain a better understanding of computer architecture and functionality—which can assist in troubleshooting— and enormous customization options become a source of pride and a display of personality.
While consoles are definitely easier to transport back and forth during overseas deployments, armed forces members serving stateside are going to get a lot more power and a better gaming experience by jumping into the fray and building a gaming computer. But if you want to join the world of PC gaming, where do you start?
If you haven't built a PC before, the process can be a little overwhelming at first. Nearly every component inside a PC has hundreds of options on the market, and some of them have barely noticeable performance gains but massive price differences. But before you get flustered by all of these newfound choices, realize the process isn't as daunting as it initially seems, and even somebody completely new to computers can build a PC they can be proud of.
This guide will serve as an introduction to the components you need, what they do, and what to keep in mind while picking parts. Plus, the guide will include three different build recommendations: a budget conscious machine, less than $500, the mid-to-high range machine, less than $750, and a high-end computer, $1,000 plus.
Using PC Part Picker to find components is highly recommended. It'll show you options, user ratings, and help avoid any compatibility issues.
- The CPU
- Power Supply
- Optical Drive
- Operating System
- Audio System
The central processing unit, or CPU, is the brain of your computer and carries out the tasks you've designated. The higher that processing power is and the more cores a processor has, the more tasks you can simultaneously run and the faster they'll be completed.
For gaming purposes, the processor needs to be pretty hefty but not absurdly overloaded with whimsical additions. Unlike complex video and photo editing software from companies like Adobe, most games won't take full advantage of multi-core hyper threading options found in top tier processors like Intel's i7 4930K, which is good news if you're budget-conscious.
The CPU is constantly being used when the computer is on, and it generates a lot of heat. To avoid melting your shiny new gaming rig, ensure that the CPU you choose has ways to properly disperse and distribute that heat, either by means of a fan or a heat sink. Many mid-range units will come with a built-in heat sink and fan, but if those are not up to your standards (the in-box fans are often loud) then buying and installing an aftermarket one is advisable.
Now it comes down to the time-honored CPU feud: Intel vs. AMD. Both companies produce great processing units and benchmarks rate the real-world application results very similarly. AMD is often chosen by more budget-conscious consumers, as the power doesn't score quite as high on benchmark tests as Intel processors. Intel's processors are a lot more expensive than AMD's, about $50 to $100 for comparable processing power, but they do offer a noticeable performance gain. If you have the money, grab an Intel i5 processor, or if money is a concern and missing a bit of that speed won't bother you, then AMD's FX series is the way to go.
One critical thing to keep in mind when choosing a CPU is its socket type, because that will dictate the type of motherboard, and in turn graphics card, you can use.
Budget: AMD Athlon X4 740 3.2GHz Quad-Core Processor
Mid: AMD FX-8320 3.5GHz 8-Core Processor
High: Intel i5 4670K 3.4Ghz Quad Core Processor
A motherboard is the component that lets your computer parts communicate with each other. It determines the number of internal and external hard drives and optical drives, USB ports, Internet connect speeds, the amount of supported RAM, and if you'll be able to use multiple graphics cards at once via Crossfire and SLI.
There are three standard motherboard sizes ATX, mini-ATX and mini-ITX. The most common size for a gaming PC is going to be a regular ATX, but if you're looking to make a compact build at the sacrifice of power, then the other two are viable candidates.
Budget: ASRock FM2A55M-VG3+ Micro ATX FM2+ Motherboard
Mid: Gigabyte GA-970A-DS3P ATX AM3+ Motherboard
High: ASRock Z87 Pro3 ATX LGA1150 Motherboard
If the CPU is the computer's brain, the graphics processing unit, or GPU, is the machine's brawn. This is one of the most important parts in a gaming computer, and also one of the most expensive. Nvidia and AMD have market control over the actual GPU chips, and there are a dozen or so main players who assemble the graphics card for use.
Some of the more reputable companies are ASUS, ATI, EVGA, Gigabyte, MSI, PNY, Sapphire and XFX.
There are several factors to take into account when picking a GPU. Will it work with your chosen motherboard? Are you going to overclock it? Does it have one, two or three built in fans? How many giga-hertz can it clock up to? How much RAM does it support? Is it SLI or Crosfire capable? What type of display quality are you looking for, and do you want to use technologies like G-Sync?
Start by deciding what type of performance you want; that will help narrow down your options. Are you trying to run Crysis 3 on ultra-settings at higher than 60 frames-per-second in 1080p resolution? Or will playing something like Titanfall on high in 720p meet your needs?
The price for a decent card is going to vary heavily, but most begin at around $100 to $150 for low end, $220 to $300 for mid-range, $350 to $500 for high end, and finally $600 and up for the latest and greatest.
Low: EVGA GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB Video Card
Mid: Asus GeForce GTX 760 2GB Video Card
High: MSI Radeon R9 290 4GB Video Card
The computer is going to have two types of memory: short term and long term. RAM, or random access memory, stores all of the short term memory the computer will use to run processes. Generally speaking, the more RAM your build has, the faster the computer will be. The long forms of memory are found in hard drives, and serve as storage all of the programs and files held on your computer for indefinite amounts of time.
There are two types of hard drives: mechanical and solid state. Solid state drives are expensive and the storage space is often smaller, but they're incredibly fast and silent as the devices use a type of flash memory. The mechanical hard drives are slower, but also much cheaper and have larger storage space.
For many people, the ideal scenario is having both. Use the SSD to hold the computer's operating system and any memory-intensive programs or games you frequently use, and then the HDD is for everything else.
The nice thing is that you can easily purchase a basic mechanical HDD, and then later install a SSD when the funds become available.
Budget: Patriot Viper 3 4GB (1 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory, Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive
Mid: G.Skill Ares Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory, Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive
High: Corsair Vengeance 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 Memory, Sandisk Ultra Plus 128GB 2.5" Solid State Disk, Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive
The power supply is fairly simple: It turns the AC from your wall outlet into usable power for all of the PC parts. Despite its simplicity, choosing a power supply can be slightly tricky. You'll need to have one that has enough wattage to power your components, but not by too much if you want to save on the electrical bill. Another aspect to consider is if the supply is 80 plus certified, which means that at least 80 percent of the power the unit pulls from the outlet is being used instead of dissipating throughout the unit. The more efficient the supply, the less overall power it's going to waste.
If you can afford it, try and get a modular unit. Modular units allow you to pick and choose the cords you want installed which improves airflow and tidiness. Non-modular units have all of the cords attached, so you'll need to find a way to manage the ones you don't use.
In an increasingly digital download market, optical drives are slowly becoming obsolete. However, they're also cheap and if you intend to use CD's or DVD's at all then it's a necessary component to have. It's also a useful component to have if you're installing an operating system through a physical DVD. If you intend to use your computer as a multimedia machine as well, investing in a Blu-ray drive is another wise choice.
Computer cases vary widely in aesthetics, size, power and modifications. A workable case can be cheaper than $30, and a top-of-the-line model can reach above $400. Your case needs to revolve around the components you're choosing to fill it with, specifically the motherboard and graphics card.
Another thing to keep in mind is how many optical drives and hard drives you want to use, because different cases might support one drive size more than another, and they will likely mount the drives differently. Some will have non-tool drive bays that use a snap locking system, others you'll need to use screws to mount the drives.
The second thing to consider is how many pre-installed fans come with the case, and what level of expansion is provided for adding fans. Keeping crisp airflow is crucial in letting the computer run without danger of overheating.
How the computer case looks is also important to a lot of people. If you're going for a higher end build that includes a lot of shiny components, then getting a case with a window to show those off might be up your alley. If the case just needs to be functional, then something simple will do the job as well.
Lastly, build components and cable management are the two final qualities to consider. Is the case going to mostly plastic or metal, and does it have options to tie down cables? Are there feed ports to keep cords out of the way, or will you need to fiddle with the cable management in your own way?
These are all important factors in choosing a case. Don't be too afraid to spend a little money on the case either; it'll likely outlast your components, so you can use it for future builds.
Budget: Rosewill Blackbone
Mid: Rosewill CHALLENGER
High: NZXT H440
An operating system is the software you use to navigate and run computer programs. There are three main operating systems for computers, Windows, Mac and Linux. Each has its own merits and disadvantages. For most users, Windows 7 or 8.1 are going to be the best options on a gaming PC. If you're making a Steam Box, then Linux is going to be simpler. If you're a mac fan then you can still install the Mac OS and turn your machine into a Hackintosh.
Keyboards can actually be a surprisingly complex option when it comes to gaming computers. For more serious gamers, choosing the right keyboard is important because it serves as an extension of you inside the game. There are cheap, basic keyboards for less than $20 that will get the job done, but only barely. Then there are high-end gaming-specific boards than can cost upward of $160.
The basic keyboard is going to be something similar to what is sold bundled with a general office desktop, and then as the cost and quality increases, so do the types of keyboard keys and programmable options. Once a keyboard starts hitting the $80 mark, the average silicon switches on the backs of keys are typically replaced by mechanical keys, which means each key has its own spring-loaded switch and has a much longer lifespan and a more sensitive response. Additionally, these higher-end keyboards often have backlighting and macro programming options for autonomous tasks.
The differences in keyboards are pretty significant, but PCMag has a pretty good breakdown of 10 gaming keyboards to help you choose.
Audio systems can be an incredibly simple pair of basic speakers or super complex surround sound system. This decision is ultimately up to the user, and that choice depends on the sound quality you want and your price point.
Computer monitors range fairly greatly in size, quality and price. Most gamers shoot for having a 1080p monitor, but for others 720p works just as well. The newest technology to sweep the display market is Ultra High-Definition, or 4K resolution. 4K monitors offer excellent clarity, but also carry a steep price tag. However, if you search around you can typically find a pretty good deal.
There are dozens of brands that manufacture displays, and many of them also build TV sets. Many people who are searching for a large screen, but are not too worried about clarity are using HDTV's as computer monitors since they're overall cheaper to an equally sized computer monitor.
Once you've ordered the components and they've arrived, check out this excellent Newegg video series that shows how to put it all together.
Travis McKnight is a recent journalism graduate from Arizona State University, and enjoys reporting on science, technology, wildlife and video games. His exploits and random ramblings can be followed on Twitter at @Khellendos.