Building a gaming PC is hardly the norm these days. We live in a disposable age. Ours is a time of one-click purchases, of throw-away whatnots and single-use contraptions. Our pre-packaged design-to-fail ethos accelerates obsolescence.
Batteries age well before their time and limp on like wounded soldiers fleeing a battlefield. We cast aside MP3 players once stuffed to overcapacity. We consign perfectly serviceable footwear to closet-space purgatory at the merest hint of wear and tear. Some 44 percent of Americans upgrade their cellphone as soon as their contract provider allows them to. In most cases that just so happens to be less than halfway through their operational life.
There always’s something shinier appearing over the horizon. New features, new bells, better whistles. Modernity has created a race of electrical-outlet vampires scouring environments in search of a top-up, planning pit stops based on battery-life estimates. There has to be a better way. Building a gaming PC might be it.
For PC enthusiasts at least, the truism holds. When hobbyists first got their hands on home computers during the 1970’s they came in kit form. They arrived bereft of software and anything even resembling a user interface. People soldered these early machines together sans-warranty, hooked them up to a television set and then said a silent prayer before hitting the "on" switch. They were not building a gaming PC in the strictest sense. But they were pioneers nonetheless surfing the cresting waves of a technological revolution. Such home brew enthusiasm is in the PC’s DNA.
Indeed, with no one company dominating the market PC design philosophy is reassuringly old-school. Competitors rely on off-the-shelf components sourced from a variety of manufacturers. The age of the kit based computer is not over. It’s just hidden from view, which is why building a gaming PC has never been easier.
All of which plays into the arms of those who want to get a little more hands-on with their computer building. Many of the very same parts that the likes of Dell, Asus, and MSI use to cobble together seemingly bespoke designs are available to the average consumer. Fundamentally modular, such models can be tweaked, modified, and improved.
For gamers, modifications are an essential consideration. Some may desire to cut corners for budgetary reasons. Knowing what is -- and is not -- imperative might lower the cost of a rig in drastic ways. For others, it's all about pushing the limits of what PC architecture can do.
All that is needed is a little time, a little patience, and a little know-how.
Laptop vs. Desktops
First, you need to decide what kind of PC you want to build. All technology rests upon a series of compromises. Take laptops for example. Laptops are designed to be both compact and light, but to achieve this design, manufacturers are forced to sacrifice raw power. Battery life is a secondary consideration because gaming is, after all, a power-hungry exercise.
Compactness is also an issue when building a gaming PC laptop. Some components are harder to reach than others, and the whole process can get a bit fiddly at times. Still, there is nothing intrinsic to the laptop that prohibits swapping out components. As long as you conduct the necessary research, pretty much any build is doable.
Desktop PC’s are free from such considerations. Without the need to conserve battery life or worry overmuch about size and weight they can focus on things of more immediate concern to gamers, namely performance. Elaborate cooling systems are possible, and redundancies hardwired-in are the norm. Ultimately, overall construction is simplified thanks to component size to space ratio.
The lack of portability is, at any rate, a small price to pay. Whether you spend $350 or $3,500, a desktop computer is going to be more powerful than a similarly priced laptop. A greater variety of upgrade options are available as are faster Central Processing Units (CPUs), larger hard drives, and maxed out Random Access Memory (RAM) options.
Once you’ve decided that building a gaming PC is for you and you’ve settled on what type you are going to make it’s time to take a look at the components you're going to need. Every computer is made up of several constituent parts, most of which are fully interchangeable.
The starting point to building a gaming a PC is choosing the case itself, which act as the chassis containing all the various components. For desktops, the housing has to be large enough to store all the base components. Aesthetics is generally a secondary consideration. Desktop cases come in three main sizes: full tower, mid tower, and mini-ITX.
Full and mid-tower
Early PC’s tended to be housed in horizontal or "pizza box" cabinets, but more modern PCs adopt the tower format instead. As the name implies, tower cases are designed to sit on the floor. Full towers can be as much as 24 inches high, and up to 19 inches in length but are generally only around 8 inches wide.
The height you choose when building a gaming PC is an important consideration. The motherboard (see below), is attached to one side of the chassis so that the various cards and add-ons are -- once inserted -- stacked horizontally like the floors of a building. Additional space for cooling systems such as fans and other accessories is also needed.
Mini towers are more common in work environments or anywhere else where space is at a premium. Of similar depth, they are usually only around 14 inches high and 7 inches across.
Building a gaming PC that fits inside a Mini ITX casing requires a little extra effort. There is much variation in the standard definition of a Mini ITX, and some motherboards simply will not fit in them. Although often referred to as "cubes" most are not cubes in the strictest sense of the word. At any rate, there is little chance that you’ll be able to cram potent hardware or fancy options such as liquid cooling into these cases, so they might not be the best option for those wanting to build a real gaming beast.
Laptop cases are something else entirely. To begin with, they come with an inbuilt screen and a motherboard tailored to the exact dimensions of the computer. For many, building a gaming PC as a laptop involves buying a basic design from a major company such as Msi or Dell and then swapping out components such as the hard drive, CPU, and/or RAM.
If the CPU is the heart of a PC, then the motherboard is undoubtedly the soul. Most parts of the computer are either slotted into or in some other way connected to the motherboard. For that reason, it’s essential that when building a gaming PC you spend some time choosing one that fits your design ethos.
To begin with, make sure that the motherboard fits the case you intend to buy. Most are of a standard size, but with something like an ITX or laptop, you’ll need to take down some measurements before hitting the buy button.
Second, the motherboard itself has built-in limitations. The amount of RAM it can take, the maximum clock speed of the CPU, and the number of slots for dedicated graphics hardware are just some of the compatibility issues you might face. Fortunately, there are online tools that help make the task less difficult.
PC Part Picker is a pretty good place for a novice intent on building a gaming PC. Users can select the motherboard they are interested in and from that point on the site will flag any compatibility issues raised as you add other items such as the CPU, power supply, or memory. A list of user-generated builds are also available and are an excellent place to start before you take a stab at building a gaming PC.
The CPU is the workhorse of any computer, so it stands to reason that anyone building a gaming PC is going to have to invest some time in choosing the right one. Nowadays, however, the CPU tends to offload most of the graphics-intensive tasks to the GPU ( see below). For gaming purposes then, the CPU is not quite as central to a PC rig as you might think.
It is, of course, best to avoid hardwiring unnecessary bottlenecks via a slow processor when building a gaming PC. It’s also likely that you will want to use the computer for nongaming purposes at some point. With that in mind, two metrics need to be understood.
First, there is processor speed, usually measured in Gigahertz (GHz). Currently, a rate of around 3.7 Mghz or higher is considered good enough for most gaming PCs.
The second metric is the number of cores contained within the chip itself. Multiple cores allow the CPU to multitask more effectively but generally speaking, games rarely use more than two of the cores at any given time. Still, industry standards are hovering at the six core mark with processors such as Intel's i5 processors or AMD’s Ryzen 5 dominating the market. Even better performance can be squeezed out of the newer i7 models. With 8 cores and clock speeds just shy of 5ghz, such processors offer superb performance but at a premium price.
If budgetary issues are a concern, then from a strictly gaming perspective, it might be better to stick to six core models for now.
Those interested in building a gaming PC need to understand the importance of RAM to their rig. The acronym RAM stands for Random Access Memory. RAM acts a bit like the inside lane of a race track. As the computer boots up it sends instructions directly to the RAM which allows the CPU to process things that much more quickly. Too little RAM and the CPU has to access information from the hard drive instead.
Hard Drives are just memory dumps too, but the CPU has to access it in sequence. RAM -- as the name implies -- lets the CPU grab hold of memory at random. As a consequence, it offers much faster access. For those building a gaming PC, such speed is crucial.
Physically RAM resembles small rectangular printed circuit boards often referred to as "sticks." They are usually sold in pairs although single "sticks" are also common. A standard format might include two 8 gigabyte(GB) sticks for a total of 16GB. The type of RAM is important too. Speed comes in units of Megahertz (Mhz) and the industry standard format at the time of writing is known as DDR4.
You’ll want 16GB of reasonably fast DDR3 or DDR4 RAM if you’re building a gaming PC. Budget lines will clock in at around 2,500 MHz while high-end options are hovering around the 4,000 Mhz mark. Having to cut corners at this point is generally not the end of the world. RAM sticks are very easy to replace, and you can always beef up your gaming PC with something faster at a later date.
It stands to reason that the graphics cards (GPU) stand front and center of any good gaming PC. That high-end GPU such as the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti cost over a thousand dollars might be of some concern. Fortunately, it's more than possible to get great performance without breaking the bank.
There are currently two significant players on the market: Nvidia and AMD, the company that manufactures the Radeon series of GPUs. Which one you choose depends mostly on budget and the specifics of your build.
The model number is critical here; as a general rule of thumb, the higher the model number, the better the card. Companies begin with the brand name and then list the model number. So, for example, a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti supersedes a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 Ti while an AMD Radeon RX 560 4GB is slightly slower than an AMD Radeon RX 570 4GB.
Doing a little online researching is probably a good idea, not least of all because naming conventions can be confusing. AMD’s recent batch of premium GPU launched under the umbrella name of "Vega." The Radeon RX Vega 64 is, therefore, much more potent than previous iterations of AMD GPU despite the relatively low number attached to the terminology.
Remember also to keep bottlenecks at the forefront of purchasing decisions. There is no point investing $1,000 on a graphics card and then dropping it into a PC running a slow processor with sluggish RAM. Most people interested in building a gaming PC are aiming for a mid-range machine. As a rule of thumb, mid-range GPUs pair well with other mid-range products. High-end GPUs likewise need serious investment in other areas of the gaming PC.
At this point, your gaming PC is pretty much good to go. All that needs doing is to fil in the corners with a few other vital ingredients. Some parts of the PC, such as optical drives, are optional. Others, such as the hard drive and operating system, are must-haves.
Since Gaming PCs generally make use of fast RAM, your choice of a hard drive is less about speed and more about space. Still, many gaming PCs now contain both types of hard drives currently on the market.
Solid state drives (SSD), are faster -- and as a consequence more expensive -- than standard Hard Disk Drives (HDD). Installing an SSD might make your PC boot more quickly, but actual gaming performance hikes are rare.
For that reason, most gaming PCs have a relatively small SSD with an Operating system (OS) such as Windows 10 installed on it. A 500 Gigabyte (GB) drive offers a quality of life improvement without breaking the bank. For everything else -- storing work, movies, photos, games, etc. -- a standard HDD is sufficient. If you aim for around 1 Terabyte (TB), you should have plenty of room.
It might sound trite, but you’re going to need a monitor of some kind to display all those fancy graphics. The most important question to ask is what type you need. As with the purchase of televisions, there are a few buzzwords to watch out for. Ultra HD or 4k refers to the maximum resolution a monitor can display.
The term HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and refers to the ability of a monitor to display a greater depth of color. To be sure, greener greens, blacker blacks, and brighter whites have a noticeable impact on graphical quality. Still, committing to the purchase of a 4k HDR monitor is no small thing.
The cheapest on the market is going to set you back at least a few hundred dollars. Then there is the question of performance benchmarks. A high-end gaming PC isn’t going to struggle with 4k visuals, but mid-range models might.
Having said that, a decent monitor is one of those areas where a computer can be future proofed without too much fuss. Invest in a good one today, and you might still be using it ten years from now.
Mouse, keyboard, speakers, et al.
All that remains then are the last few pieces of the puzzle. The chances are good that unless this is your very first time building a gaming pc -- or you’re building a gaming PC in the form of a laptop -- you already have some of the things you’re going to need lying around. While "performance," and gaming versions of PC peripherals are familiar enough, they are far from essential. Having dropped a fair amount of money on your new gaming PC, you might want to hold off on the fancy keyboard and mouse for now.
You’re still going to need to get yourself a power supply compatible with your motherboard, and you might want to think about investing in a few fans to keep things nice and fresh, but basically, the design phase is over. Oh and if you haven't already purchased an operating system such as Windows 10, now would be a good time to do so.
Putting It All Together
Now that find yourself surrounded by boxes, it's time actually to build the thing. The good news is that most of the hard work is now behind you. PC design is such that most of what needs doing is pretty straightforward. Indeed, all you need is a screwdriver.
It helps that there are loads of helpful guides to building a gaming PC that will walk you through the process step by step. Regardless, the process itself is deeply intuitive. Slot A into B, attach the power supply to X, screw such and such in tightly and so on.
Just remember to follow the guide and to treat the components with care. Static electricity and processors don’t mix, so discharge any build up by touching something metal before handling sensitive electronics.
Of course, you’re going to want to ensure that your PC keeps pace with games for a few years to come. Your best bet is to choose a motherboard with a little "wiggle room." Check to make sure that you have not "maxed" it out. Items that are outside your budget this year won’t stay outside it forever. Technology depreciates at a rapid pace. So a motherboard that can take a faster CPU or has options to "slot in" faster RAM at a later date are an absolute godsend.
Should You Try Building a Gaming PC?
There is nothing wrong with pre-built PCs bought ready to go, but they lack the satisfaction of a bespoke build. Sniffing out the odd bargain or two is an exhilarating experience. By focusing on off the shelf components, you remove unnecessary redundancies. The design of the PC is from the ground focused only on those tasks that interest you.
Having removed unwanted features -- and self-performed the labor -- the chances that you’ve saved a few dollars is relatively high. It brings new meaning to the concept of the machine being "yours." And that’s the kind of added satisfaction that money can’t buy.