Building a Gaming PC – Part 1
If you consider yourself a true gamer at heart, you've probably considered PC gaming at one point or another. The problem is, building a PC can be annoying: there is nothing worse than spending over a grand on parts in order to find out that your rig can’t post because you bought bad memory or your CPU doesn't play nice with your motherboard.
So naturally, you might have decided to buy a pre-made PC from an OEM. But this is a poor choice; you’ll likely overpay by approximately 30% – 50% of what your parts would have been alone. Thus, your best option is to build one yourself, and this article will (hopefully) help you out.
Before getting into the parts themselves, we should take a moment to figure out where to buy parts from. Now, your instinct might be to go to the local Best Buy or other department electronic store (personally, this is a Future Shop). This is a sore mistake: stores exist to make money and prey on lack of knowledge. There are two places I buy my parts from – TigerDirect and Newegg. Both of these companies are major wholesalers of computer parts and accessories who will give you some of the best prices and deals around. Keep in mind there might be others, but these two are the most common and offer plenty of customer reviews and decent return policies that make building a computer easier.
Determining Key Aspects
So before buying pieces all willy-nilly, you should really know what you want the machine to be capable of. Chances are if you’re reading this site (or rather, this article), you’ll want gaming performance and the ability to play all the next-gen games at high resolutions with the highest settings.
But there are other choices to make as well, such as the size of your rig. There are many different form factors for motherboards (mobos) that only fit into certain cases: ATX, mini-ATX, micro-ATX, micro-ITX, and so forth. For the most part, if you want a machine that you can hot-swap pieces into later in its life, then you’ll want an ATX form factor. But bear in mind that this will lead to larger cases. However, if you’re not planning on swapping out pieces like video cards and hard drives, then a micro-ITX board could better suit your needs. These boards can fit into nifty little cases that are typically quieter and better hidden at a desk.
The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is truly the heart of any computer. All the core calculations that are done in the machine are processed here. So despite the fact that you might think that the video card (or GPU) is the only important part to running games well, a good CPU provides some boost with its contribution to the physics engine and the game’s AI.
Now since I have no experience with AMD, I’m going to focus on Intel’s line-up of processors. Before naming some options, let’s run through the aspects of the processor you will want to take into consideration. First and foremost is the clockspeed. This is one of the main numbers you will see when purchasing a processor, and is the number of cycles the CPU runs divided by 109 (because it is measured in GHz). This will determine how fast the processor can do calculations.
Another important spec is the number of cores. These are essentially mini-processors within the die that can run simultaneously (i.e. do multiple calculations at once). The other key trait is the L1, L2, and L3 caches of the processor. These caches are extremely high bandwidth memory placed on the die to keep the processor fed with information so that CPU cycles aren't wasted waiting for information. To read more about caches are their importance, you can read this (old and long) Ars Technica article.
So now we can move onto choosing the processor. Since we’ll want high performance, we are going to stick with the i7 line of processors. Here are some of our leading options and their prices (from Newegg USD):
If you don’t know the Intel generations, the 2nd is Sandy Bridge (2011), the 3rd is Ivy Bridge (2012), and the 4th is Haswell (2013). As you can see, the main thing that decreases is the power consumption both under load and idle (these numbers are at idle). It’s also worth noting that the number of cores can be “doubled” because Intel processors use hyper-threading, which is a technology that artificially doubles the number of cores and allows for double simultaneous calculations on the same core. Also, the K at the end of the names designates the CPU is unlocked (ready to overclock) and the S is for more power efficiency. Finally, the number at the end of the socket type is the number of pins on the processor package and is important to note when purchasing a mobo.
Personally, when I bought my CPU for my new PC, I bought the i7-3770K Ivy Bridge. It has good overall power consumption and is plenty powerful, and it turbo boosts to 3.8GHz (which is to say that when it is only using one core, it runs at that speed). But if you’re looking into the future and hope to keep this PC for a couple of years, the Haswell i7-4770K is where I would put my money. Although it may look similar (or even worse), it is the newest, current processor and will still be usable when Ivy Bridge may start falling behind. Loyd Case from Tested has a great article outlining some of the advantages of Haswell over Ivy / Sandy Bridge, and makes some good points about upgrading.
Also, consider the CPU hierarchy chart from Tom's Hardware, the article of which is updated every month to include the best processors for your money.
Now that we’ve gone over the processors, it’s time to pick a motherboard. The reason that it is next is because the next few main choices depend on the motherboard (specifically the case and the memory). But in turn, the motherboard depends on the CPU, so now that we have it chosen we can determine our mobo.
There are a few things to note from your choice of CPU that will narrow your motherboard choices down. The first is the socket type. There are a few different types of sockets for i7 processors: LGA 1156 is common for first generation i7s, LGA 2011 (also some LGA 1155) for Sandy Bridge, mostly LGA 1155 for Ivy Bridge, and finally LGA 1150 for Haswell. As we mentioned above, the number after the LGA is the number of pins on the processor package and must match the socket of the motherboard. This means that an LGA 1155 processor will not go into an LGA 1156 motherboard. This is crucial to note because you may end up wasting $150 on a board you can’t use (spoilers: I did this).
The other thing is what generation chip your processor is. Some boards can only do 2nd gen., while some can do 2nd and 3rd. Usually the socket type will help sort this out, but with Ivy and Sandy Bridge both using the LGA 1155 socket, you’d be best to check it before you buy it.
After determining those things, picking a motherboard comes down to finding which one fits your needs the best. I personally wanted plenty of USB connectors in the back with some USB 3.0 for the future. I also wanted plenty of PCIe connectors (for video cards and other additional things like Wi-Fi connectors). Also, you’ll likely want to go with 4 DiMM slots (for RAM) using dual channel. You can go more or go quad channel, but keep note of which one it is. Also keep note of the form factor of the board (ATX, micro-ATX, micro-ITX) as it will affect your case purchasing. Remember, ATX works the best for future changes but has bigger cases, and micro-ITX is better for static PCs.
I won’t be able to list any motherboards because there are so many that could be bought. My best advice would be to narrow down which ones you can use given your processor specs, and then determine which one fits your needs. Also, I would stick with either Asus or Gigabyte brand boards, as they have very nice UEFIs (fancy BIOSes) that are convenient and easy to use.
My personal choice of board was the Asus P8Z77-V LK, which fits my needs well and will work with my i7-3770K Ivy Bridge processor.
Now comes the memory of the computer, more commonly known as the RAM. RAM (Random Access Memory) is where the computer stores any information that will be needed soon by the computer but not right at that moment.
When it comes to buying memory, there isn’t that much to mess up if you pay attention. For the most part, you will be buying DDR3 memory, which is supported in most (if not all) current motherboards. The only thing you need to pay attention to is whether the memory is dual or quad channel. You need to buy whatever kind of memory the motherboard supports or else it won’t work. After that, it comes down to how much you want and what you want to pay. You can pay a little more to get higher frequency memory, but aiming for about 1600MHz seems appropriate. Honestly, in most cases it won’t make that much of a difference. Even after 8GB of RAM, it becomes pretty pointless unless you are a hardcore power user.
If you’re still having trouble deciding on memory, some motherboards (I know Gigabyte and Asus do it) come with a QVL (Qualified Vendor List) which lists all of the memory modules/packages that can be used with the motherboard. Now bear in mind that these aren’t all the memory packages that will work, but there is a decent selection of ones that are guaranteed to work.
The memory I purchased for my new build was 8GB (2x4GB) of G.SKILL dual-channel memory rated for 1600MHz. It’s nothing fancy, but for 8GB it was a good price and it’s on my board’s QVL.
Now we come to the case. This is probably the easiest thing to buy that you will spend too much time pouring over all the alternatives. When it comes to buying a case, all you need to make sure is that is has the right form factor so that your motherboard will fit. Other than that, it comes down to your needs and your sense of style. When buying the case, you’ll probably want a few front facing USB ports (which only really need to be USB 2.0) and a decent amount of drive bays.
When it comes to drive bays, there are a few different sizes. The 5.25" bays are for things like DVD and Blu-ray drives, 3.5" drive bays are for traditional platter hard drives, and 2.5" bays are for small drives like SSDs. Thus you can decide how many you want for your PC.
The only other thing I would make sure of is that if you want a high end video card, they tend to be quite long, so you’ll want to be careful of that. My choice of case was a cheap APEX PC-389-C, which fit my needs well and looks decent.
The GPU (Graphics Card)
Now we come to the crucial part of a PC for gamers: the video card. The video card (also referred to as a graphics card or a GPU (graphics processing unit)) is the part of the PC that draws the screen and will throttle your ability to play high-end games on your PC.
Now, there's one major thing to decide about the video card you want to buy: whether you want to go with the AMD HD Radeon line of cards or the Nvidia GeForce line. I personally have stuck with the Radeon line, but for my next upgrade I am highly considering going with a GeForce. The reason is that for the same price, Nvidia cards typically have better performance specs and give you more bang for your buck. Now for some leading choices:
It’s worth noting that any of these cards can be bought twice and hooked up to run in SLI (for Nvidia cards) and Crossfire (Radeon cards) mode, which allows the cards to act in tandem when running games, although this won’t work for everything and is not an ideal situation for people in our position.
The card I own and will be sticking with for the foreseeable future is the Radeon HD 6970. It runs fairly well for the price I paid for it, but it doesn’t run games at the highest resolution anymore. If I was going to upgrade now, I would buy the GeForce GTX 770. While $400 seems like a lot for a video card, you won’t be switching it out anytime soon, so the price is more tolerable. I bought my current card (the 6970) over 2 years ago for about $350, and it still runs most games on medium to high settings at about 50-60 FPS.
Also, the statistics I posted about clockspeeds aren’t all that useful; they are a good indicator but shouldn’t be what you hinge on to make your final decision. Again, Loyd Case over at Tested did a good rundown on some of these options, testing the GTX 780 and then the GTX 770.
Also consider this graphics card hierarchy chart by Tom's Hardware, the article of which is updated every month to include the best GPUs for your money.
Remember, a good gaming experience is going to hinge on this decision, so spend a decent amount of time balancing your gaming wants and the price you are willing to pay. It should also be noted that video cards can come from plenty of companies but vary only slightly in their builds, so look out for similar cards at lower prices between the manufacturers.
We’re getting close to the end now, but we still need to provide power to machine. This is another easy step that comes down to how much power your GPU needs and what you are willing to pay. There are a handful of good companies out there to buy from, so don’t worry too much. You will probably want to put about $60 - $80 down for a good PSU with nice braided and protected cables that will make sure that nothing breaks in your PC and help keep things tidy.
For reference, my current PSU is a ULTRA L8006 650W PSU with an approximately 78% efficiency at its best. It’s not anything special, but it was a good price with nice cables.
For most single-card GPU PCs, a power supply of 600W will suffice (possibly more with extra case fans).
Finally, we come to the hard drive. When it comes to purchasing a hard drive, there is really only one decision to make: how much space do I want? If you plan on doing a fair amount of gaming with Steam and you procure plenty of totally legal content over the Internet, I’d recommend getting a 2TB drive. This will leave plenty of room for your games and other media without having to keep too close an eye. You’ll also want to stick with a 7200 RPM drive and avoid the less-power consuming 5600 RPM drives because they are noticeably slower. Also, if your motherboard has SATA 6.0 Gbps bandwidth ports, you should buy a hard drive that is SATA 6.0 Gbps because the speed will help.
And if you’re really looking to spend some money, you could always get a SSD (solid state drive). As of late, they have dropped below $1/GB and can be gotten on sale for some really good prices. Be wary though: not every SSD is made equal, and some are significantly slower than others, so make sure you look out for the different read/write speeds on the different drives you are considering.
If your budget provides it as well, you should consider picking up a backup drive to have redundancy in your computer. As hard drives become older, their tendency to fail becomes higher, so having a weekly backup for all your photos and documents can be a lifesaver.
My current setup is one Dell 1TB drive (that came with my first computer) with SATA 3.0Gbps, one Toshiba 1TB drive with SATA 6.0Gbps, and one external 1TB drive using USB 2.0, which is currently the backup drive for my pictures, movies, TV shows, music, and important documents (redundancy is great).
For the most part now, we’re done. There are only a few things left to pick up and some optional stuff. We’ll start off with the necessary peripherals.
Don’t forget to pick up a monitor! It comes down to your choice about the size and type, but I’d recommend LED screens at around 24” diagonals. If possible, dual screen setups are great.
A decent keyboard is a solid investment for any gaming PC, although make sure you don’t get gypped. I bought a Razer Lycosa (with blue backlight!) for way too much at my local Future Shop and have regretted it ever since – although it is a nice keyboard. To go with your keyboard, don’t forget an inexpensive yet tolerable mouse.
Finally, don’t forget to buy some speakers so you can listen to your music, games, etc., and purchase some extra HDMI or DVI cables (depending on your video card and monitor hookups).
Now we have some options that I’ll run through quickly.
If you want Wi-Fi in your computer, you have to pick up a separate little card. Don’t fret though; they are typically pretty cheap to buy (~$20).
If you still have disk games (e.g. Starcraft 2), then you’ll probably want a disk drive. Blu-ray drives are down to about $50 for PCs, so it’s a good little investment to make in case you need it for games or installing drivers.
You can also buy a sound card if you wish, but unless you are an audiophile, then the built-in sound chip on your motherboard will service you just fine.
Finally, you’ll probably want to pick up a controller to play racing games or third-person games. If you have a wired Xbox 360 controller (not the charge-and-play, a legitimately wired controller) it will work by default on any Windows 7 or 8 PC. If not, Logitech sells some decent wireless controllers with convenient little dongles that can be hidden.
That’s really all there is to buying parts for a PC! It probably seems like a lot, but once you dive in it’s actually not that bad. Just make sure you do your research to make sure everything will work together. Forums and feedback on parts are usually a great place to look for help if you’re really unsure, so use those things to your advantage.
Also, don’t forget to buy a copy of Windows for your PC. 7 or 8 will work, so make your choice. I should be able to post something next week about putting a PC together (I’m just waiting on my case) using the specs summarized below. Until then, happy shopping!
My PC Build: