You can’t buy a more powerful gaming platform than a tricked-out desktop PC. Here’s everything you need to know, part by part, to pick the right killer gaming system, along with our current favorites, culled from our top-rated reviews.
Get a Desktop for the Most Gaming Power
Despite the allure and simplicity of gaming consoles and handheld devices, PC gaming is still alive and kicking. Indeed, it’s never been stronger. Enthusiasts know that nothing beats the quality of gameplay you can get with a desktop built for gaming. And today, it’s within almost every determined PC shopper’s grasp to get a PC with the graphics power necessary to drive the latest games on a full HD (1080p) monitor at lofty detail settings.
But what kind of PC can make major 3D games look and run better than they do on the Sony PS4 Pro or the Microsoft Xbox One S? If you have deep pockets, your answer could be a custom-built hot rod from an elite boutique PC manufacturer such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Maingear, or MSI. But a couple of well-informed choices will go a long way toward helping you get the right gaming desktop from a standard PC manufacturer, even if you’re not made of money. Here’s how to buy your best gaming desktop, regardless of your budget, and our top 10 latest picks in the category.ADVERTISING
This is, admittedly, simplifying a complex argument. But high-powered graphics, processors, and memory improve the graphical detail (in items such as cloth, reflections, hair), physical interactions (smoke, thousands of particles colliding), and the general animation of scenes in your favorite games. Throwing more resources at the problem, such as a more powerful graphics card or a faster CPU, will help, to an extent. The trick is to determine which components to favor, and how much.
Most Important: Consider the Graphics Card
Most gaming systems will come preinstalled with a single midrange or high-end graphics card; higher-priced systems will naturally have better cards,since purchase price typically correlates with animation performance and visual quality. AMD and Nvidia make the graphics processors, or GPUs, that go into these cards, which are made by third parties such as Asus, EVGA, Gigabyte, MSI, PowerColor, Sapphire, and XFX (to name just a few).
Our gaming-desktop reviews will let you know if there is room in the system’s case for adding more graphics cards, in case you want to improve your gaming performance in the future. Most boutique manufacturers, however, will sell systems equipped with multiple-card arrays if you want to run games at their best right away. AMD calls its multiple-card technology CrossFireX, and Nvidia calls its solution Scalable Link Interface (SLI).
While multiple-video-card gaming is still a path to great gaming, know that a game must be written to leverage multiple cards properly, and game developers in recent years have been de-emphasizing timely support for CrossFireX and SLI in games. Sometimes this support only emerges well after a game’s debut; sometimes it never comes at all. Also, Nvidia has been putting a damper on SLI in the last couple of years; it has kiboshed support for installing more than two of its current-generation (“Pascal”) cards at the same time, and only a subset of its higher-end cards can be installed in SLI. It’s still possible to have three or four AMD cards in your computer at once, provided you have the proper power and heat management (and lots of bucks). Our general advice for mainstream buyers, though, is to concentrate on the best single card you can afford.
Indeed, the most pivotal decision you’ll make when purchasing a gaming desktop is which card you get. One option, of course, is no card at all; the integrated graphics silicon on modern Intel Core and some AMD processors is fine for casual 2D games. But to really bring out the beast on 3D AAA titles, you need a discrete graphics card or cards, and these cards are what distinguish a gaming desktop. Whether you go with an AMD- or Nvidia-based card is based partly on price, partly on performance. Some games are optimized for one type of card or another, but for the most part, you should choose the card that best fits within your budget.
Here as 2018 winds down, Nvidia is dominant at the high end with its GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, GTX 1080, and GTX 1070 cards, as well as its elite-level GeForce RTX cards. (More about the latter in a moment.) AMD competes mainly in the midrange and low end, with its Radeon RX cards. Its high-end Radeon RX Vega video cards tend to be pricey, spottily stocked, and slightly outmatched by Nvidia boards at their price points. (For an overview of the whole graphics card scene, check out our graphics card buying guide, which details what to look for when making a purchase, and rounds up the best cards available now.)
Of course, there’s always a new generation of graphics cards just emerging, or just over the horizon. At the end of 2018, Nvidia launched its GeForce RTX “Turing” generation, starting with the super high-end GeForce RTX 2080and GeForce RTX 2080 Ti.The Founders Edition versions of these cards are expensive ($799 and $1,199, respectively), but at launch a bunch of third-party models were lined up that are a little more affordable.
The RTX 2080 cards were followed by a step-down GeForce RTX 2070 in October. For most users, the 10-Series “Pascal” cards will remain more than good enough for most scenarios. For those who need to be on the cutting edge, or are upgrading from below the Pascal cards, they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially as their core technology, hardware-based ray tracing, emerges in more game titles.
Prep for 4K Gaming and VR, or Keep It Real?
Equipping your system with any high-end GPU will boost your total PC bill by a few hundred dollars per card. Beyond adding extra power to your gaming experience, multiple graphics cards can also enable multiple-monitor setups so you can run up to six displays, but some single cards can power up to four, and few gamers go beyond three (and even that rarely).
A better reason to opt for high-end graphics in the long run is to power 4K and virtual reality (VR) gaming. Panels with 4K resolution (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) and the displays built into VR headsets have much higher pixel counts than a “simple” 1080p HD monitor. You’ll need at least a single high-end graphics card to drive a 4K display at top quality settings, with similar requirements for smooth gameplay on VR headsets. (See “Make VR a Reality” below for more information.) If you mean to play games on a 4K panel with detail settings cranked up, you’ll want to look at one of Nvidia’s highest-end cards, likely the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti or one of the GeForce RTX “Turing” cards. (See our guide to the best graphics cards for 4K gaming.)
VR headsets have their own graphics requirements, but for the two big ones from HTC and Oculus, you’ll want at least a GeForce GTX 1060 or an AMD Radeon RX 480 or Radeon RX 580. (See our guide to the best graphics cards for VR.)
Now, VR and 4K gaming are unquestionably high-end matters. You can still get a rich gaming experience for thousands of bucks less by choosing a desktop with a single but robust middle-tier video card and gaming at 1080p or 1440p; 2,560 by 1,440 pixels is an increasingly popular native resolution for gaming monitors. If you’re less concerned about VR or turning up all the eye candy found in games—anti-aliasing and esoteric lighting effects, for example—then today’s less-powerful graphics cards and GPUs will still give you plenty of oomph for a lot less money. (See our guide to the best graphics cards for 1080p gaming.)
Perfect Processor Power
The heart of any system is its processor. While the GPU specializes in graphics quality and some physics calculations, the CPU takes care of everything else, and also determines how able your PC will be for demanding tasks that require non-graphics calculations.
On the CPU front, AMD and Intel are in a race to see who can provide the most power to gamers. In 2017, AMD restarted the competition for the top spot anew with its Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, which feature up to 32 cores and the ability to process 64 threads simultaneously. (See our review of one of the latest-gen chips, the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X.) Intel countered with a new line of Core X-Series processors, in which the top “Extreme Edition” model flaunts 18 cores and 36 threads. Prices for these processors are high, with the Intel Core i9-7980XE and recent successor the Core i9-9980XE carrying a $2,000 price, or by themselves the cost of a midrange gaming PC. These CPU advancements are exciting, but it’s not essential to invest in one of these elite-level Threadripper or Core X processors to enjoy excellent PC gaming.
Lesser, but still high-powered, CPUs, such as the AMD Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 lines, as well as locked and unlocked quad- and six-core Intel Core i7 processors, will provide the computing muscle needed for a satisfying gaming experience. Budget gamers should look to lower-priced (but still speedy) quad-core processors, such as the AMD Ryzen 5 or the Intel Core i5, which will knock hundreds of dollars off the bottom line. And Intel’s Core i3-8350K is a four-core chip as opposed to its two-core predecessor, which could save you even more money while giving you plenty of overclocking potential, too. (See our picks for the best gaming CPUs.)
If your choice comes down to paying for a higher-level GPU or a higher-level CPU, and gaming is the primary use you will have for the system, favor the graphics, in most cases. A system with a higher-power Nvidia GeForce GTX GPU and a Core i5 processor is a much better choice for 3D-intense FPS gaming than one with a low-end card and a zippy Core i7 CPU. But you may want to choose the latter if you’re into games that involve a lot of background math calculations, such as strategy titles (like those in the Civilization series), or if you mean to use the system for CPU-intensive tasks like converting or editing video, or editing photos.
Don’t Forget the Memory
One thing that’s often overlooked on gaming systems is RAM; it can be severely taxed by modern games. Outfit your PC with a bare minimum of 8GB of RAM, and budget for 16GB if you’re serious about freeing up this potential performance bottleneck.
Faster memory also improves overall performance and lets you keep your CPU more stable if you decide to overclock it. For example, DDR4-3200 SDRAM (aka 3,200MHz) will be more stable than DDR4-2133 if you overclock your Core i7 processor. That said, installing expensive, higher-clocked memory won’t necessarily help a CPU that’s running at stock speeds, so make sure you budget wisely.
Storage: Speed and Space
Solid-state drives (SSDs) have become more popular since prices began dropping dramatically a few years ago. They speed up boot time, wake-from-sleep time, and the time it takes to launch a game and load a new level.
Although you can get an SSD of any size (with the larger capacities still being relatively expensive), the pairing of a small one (a capacity of 256GB is a good minimum floor to set) with a larger spinning hard drive (1TB or more) is a good, affordable setup for gamers who also download the occasional video from the Internet. Favor, where you can, PCI Express SSDs over SATA ones. (The former are the performance darlings of the moment.) These drives will typically come on gumstick-size modules in a format called M.2. (See our picks for the best PCI Express SSDs.)
Make VR a Reality
With the release of the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift headsets, real VR gaming is possible in the home for the first time. If you want to be able to use one of these to its fullest, your PC will need to meet the headset’s system requirements.
The most important aspect is the video card—you are pushing a 1,080-by-1,200 display to each eye, after all—so go with one of the most powerful cards from either the current or previous generation. For the Vive, this means an AMD Radeon RX 480 or an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 at the minimum. For Oculus headsets, a processing technique called asynchronous spacewarp promises full performance with slightly lower-end video cards, but we still suggest opting for the minimums posited by the Vive.
You’ll also want a newer AMD or Intel CPU with a minimum of four processing cores. As a baseline, both HTC and Oculus recommend a Core i5-4590 or its equivalent; with current-gen CPUs, we’d recommend an AMD Ryzen 5 or 7, or an Intel Core i5 or i7. (Any of AMD’s Ryzen Threadrippers or Intel’s Core X chips will do, too.) And the 8GB of RAM we recommended should be enough to ensure the fluid gameplay you want.
The Perfect Accessories
Don’t stop at internal components. Once you have your ideal gaming desktop, a couple of extras can really enhance your gaming experience. We recommend that you trick out your machine with a top-notch gaming monitor with a fast response rate, as well as a solid gaming headset so you can trash-talk your opponents.
Comfortable keyboards, mice, and specialized controllers round out your options at checkout, but know that oftentimes you’re better off selecting these items separately, rather than limiting your selection to what’s offered by the system seller.