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What Matters (and What Doesn’t) When Buying a Gaming Desktop | Digital Trends


A gaming desktop is a big investment, so it’s a good idea to take the purchase seriously and do your research. Between your graphics card, processor, RAM, and storage, there’s a lot to consider. That’s why we’re here to show you how to buy a gaming desktop.

It’s a daunting task, putting together a gaming rig for the first time, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. As long as you know what to look for, and where to look for it, you can put together a gaming PC that will fit your needs in no time at all.

One size doesn’t fit all

Tomas Patlan

Most gamers start with the hardware inside a computer. We’ll cover that soon enough, but, before we get there, let’s talk about the exterior.

Gaming computers now come in many shapes and sizes. There are small systems such as the Falcon Northwest Tiki, midsize towers like the Acer Predator G1, and monoliths like the Origin Millenium.

Small systems are, well, small. They are unobtrusive and fit where larger systems simply can’t. They’re ideal for gamers who lack a large desk or want to use the PC in a home theater. Going small can limit future upgrade options, however, and some pint-sized PCs make a lot of noise due to their limited space for cooling.

Mid-towers are a good compromise and are ideal for most people. They’re small enough to fit under, on, or in a typical desk, yet large enough to offer upgradability and acceptable cooling. You’ll need to pay a little extra for glass side panels and fancy color schemes, but you’ll already know whether that’s something you care about.

origin millenium desktop review angle
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Finally, we come to the monoliths known as full towers. These are often so large that they won’t fit on top of a desk without hanging off the front or rear. A few full towers are so tall they won’t even fit under a desk.

A full tower system may carry a slight price premium over a mid-tower. But they are exceedingly easy to work with because they have enough space for anything you want to put in them, including your hands, which can be super helpful if you have large mitts.

Some custom manufacturers, such as Origin and CyberPower, offer a selection of cases during customization. A full tower is the easiest to grip and work with, but make sure you know its dimensions beforehand. If desktop space is important but you’re not totally comfortable working within a cramped area, opt for a mid-tower.

There are smaller options, but they are harder to modify, typically louder, and don’t necessarily support all of your hardware choices. Furthermore, small form factor cases get hot, so keep that in mind if you plan on running demanding games or if you want to venture into overclocking.

Start with the heart: The processor

laptop-processor

When you buy a gaming desktop, whether it’s one you built yourself, a custom gaming rig, or a premade model from Dell or HP, the processor will be the first specification you see — and for good reason. The processor determines how a system will perform in most software.

The processor core count is a major consideration. Options range between two and 16 cores in the mainstream space. Unless you’re on an extreme budget, a four-core chip should be as low as you go, lest you run into performance issues with some software and games.

However, thanks to current pricing, a six-core chip is a good place to start, such as Intel’s i5-10600K or AMD’s Ryzen 5 5600X (they show up in our best Intel CPU and best AMD CPU roundups, respectively) — last-generation counterparts like the 9600K and 3600X are also great choices.

Those looking to do a lot of high-powered work may want to aim for eight cores or more instead, depending on how well the software can take advantage of the high core count. A six-core or eight-core chip is plenty for gaming. Beyond that, core counts matter more for applications like Adobe Premiere and AutoCAD.

When it comes to AMD vs. Intel, AMD tends to offer better value throughout the pricing spectrum, providing more cores and much better multithreaded performance thanks to every chip enjoying support for simultaneous multithreading. The latest Ryzen 5000 processors beat everything Intel has to offer across gaming and productivity tasks.

Stepping back a generation, however, Intel has an edge in gaming. The company’s flagship i9-10900K remains one of the best processors for gaming, but it’ll cost you a pretty penny.

Most modern games are getting better at utilizing multiple cores at once. However, you’ll see nearly identical performance across processors when paired with the same GPU as resolutions push higher. That’s why, in many cases, you don’t need a high-end processor like a Core i9 or Ryzen 9 for gaming.

For a deeper dive into the best bang-for-your-buck CPUs, check our out in-depth guide.

A great GPU makes a great gaming PC

GTX 1070 Ti

If you’re somewhat serious about gaming, the graphics card is where you should pay the most attention. It’s the component with the biggest hand in beautifying your games, spitting out high frame rates, and making higher resolutions playable.

Model numbers tell you much of the story here, with higher numbered cards typically meaning more performance, though there are some caveats there, and overclocked models from third-party GPU partners can close performance gaps between versions. The RTX 2060 Super is almost as powerful as the more costly RTX 2070, for example.

Starting at the bottom, entry-level GPUs such as the AMD RX 570, or the Nvidia GTX 1650 will give you decent performance when playing at 1080p. If you want to game at 1440p at decent frame rates, you need something more powerful like the RTX 2060 or RX 5700 from the last generation. From the current generation, Nvidia’s 3060 Ti is the only option in the same price bracket, at least at the moment.

Those interested in 4K gaming or 100+ FPS in anything but simple e-sports games will need to look higher and dig deeper into their pockets. High-end graphics cards will cost you plenty, reaching above $1,000 in some cases. At 4K, Nvidia’s RTX 3080 and AMD’s 6800 XT are the best options.

Your graphics card is the single most important element of your PC if you’re primarily gaming. Although higher-end cards show diminishing returns — the “sweet spot” is around $400, where the RTX 3060 Ti sits — they will still show performance scaling in most games. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should just spend more on a GPU, however. It’s important to consider the game you want to play before setting a GPU budget.

Still, it’s generally a good idea to opt for newer cards, which in this case are Nvidia’s GTX 20-series and RTX 30-series GPUs, and AMD’s RX 6000-series. However, there is great value to be had with older cards too, and that may be your only option, as stock issues persist for Nvidia and AMD’s latest graphics cards.

AMD Radeon RX Vega 56 and 64 review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

One often confusing element of graphics cards is video memory (or VRAM). It’s easy to find out how much system RAM you need, but GPUs are a little harder to determine. You may find yourself with a choice between two cards that are similar but offer different VRAM amounts. More VRAM does not have a significant impact on overall performance by itself, but it does allow a video card to better handle certain visual features and is a must for higher resolutions.

The baseline for modern gaming around 1080p should be 3GB, though we’d push that to 4GB if there isn’t much money in it, as most new cards sport that figure now. If you want to play using higher detail settings and to futureproof your system, 8GB is worth spending a few more dollars on, but it’s not strictly necessary, especially at lower resolutions.

We don’t recommend multiple video cards. Though once a great choice for high-end gaming, today, multi-card configurations often run into driver or game support issues that prevent them from unlocking their full potential. Multiple cards are also louder and hotter than a single card, and the most recent GPUs from Nvidia don’t even support it (unless you want to spend $3,000 on two RTX 3090s).

If you’re stuck choosing between AMD or Nvidia, the latter does have ray tracing support on its RTX 30-series and 20-series GPUs, but that’s not a great reason alone to buy in. The current list of games supporting ray tracing is minimal at best, with support for additional titles in the future expanding, but still far from expansive. Purchasing a graphics card just for ray tracing alone isn’t a great investment for now. However, Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) tech is a reason to buy in, with DLSS 2.0 games looking better than ever.

Both company’s drivers offer input lag reduction software, as well as image sharpening for improving the look of your games.

For more tips on GPU buying, check out our guide to the best graphics cards.

Don’t waste money on unnecessary RAM

RAM

We’ve tested systems like the Alienware Area-51 R5, which come with as much as 64GB of system RAM. That’s overkill for gaming.

A good baseline for modern gaming systems is 16GB, especially with how far prices have dropped in recent months. But you can get away with 8GB if you’re playing older games, or don’t mind sacrificing detail or frame rate to make additional savings.

After all, memory is one of the easiest things to upgrade later — and one of the most affordable.

Here’s the current memory requirement landscape for six popular games to give you an idea of what you need in a desktop:

  • Fortnite — 8GB minimum, 16GB recommended
  • Doom Eternal — 8GB minimum, 8GB recommended
  • Destiny 2 — 6GB minimum, 8GB recommended
  • PUBG — 8GB minimum, 16GB recommended
  • Overwatch — 4GB minimum, 6GB recommended
  • Half-Life: Alyx — 12GB

That said, additional memory beyond 16GB merely sits unused. Any money that might be spent on RAM beyond 16GB should instead be put toward a component that has a bigger impact on performance.

But keep this in mind: System memory isn’t only used by games. Everything running on your PC requires memory, from the operating system to your mouse and keyboard drivers. If Destiny 2 alone uses 6GB of system memory while it’s running, you need ample memory available for everything else. This is why developers recommend higher amounts so your PC has room to breathe while the game remains active.

And because all applications use some amount of RAM, 16GB may not be enough. If you’re just gaming, 16GB is perfect. However, if you plan on running other demanding applications — such as DAWs like Pro Tools or video editing applications like Adobe Premiere — 32GB is better. 64GB is overkill in almost all cases, unless you have very specific needs, and 128GB on a consumer machine is just for bragging rights.

One final note about memory: Make sure your configuration comes with at least two sticks. Some gaming desktops advertise 8GB of RAM but only include a single, 8GB stick. Two sticks will allow you to take advantage of dual-channel memory on most motherboards, which effectively doubles the data transfer speed versus a single stick.

Solid-state drives are fast and now more affordable

Most computers sold today come with at least a 500GB mechanical hard drive and, in most cases, a 750GB or 1TB model. More space is better, sure, but unused space isn’t needed, so our recommendation is simple: Buy as much space as you need, and focus everything else on performance.

That’s where SSDs come in. Solid-state drives are not only far faster than hard drives, but they’re also much cheaper than they used to be. SATA SSDs are only around twice the price of hard drives at comparable storage sizes at this point, and you don’t need massive space. A 512GB SSD is enough to store Windows and most of your games and it will make a huge difference to how your PC feels, as well as how fast your games load.

With a decent SSD under the hood, Windows should boot and be ready to use in under 30 seconds. Games that take a minute to load on a hard drive should be done in 10 to 20 seconds on an SSD.

There are two types of SSDs you’ll encounter: Standard 2.5-inch SATA SSDs, and M.2 NVMe SSDs. 2.5-inch drives are the most familiar. They use a SATA 3.0 connection to transfer data, just like traditional hard drives, and they require external power from the power supply.

M.2 SSDs slot into the motherboard, and they’re usually much more expensive than their 2.5-inch counterparts, but there’s a reason for that. The “M.2” part refers to the form factor, that being a small stick that slots into your motherboard (see the image above for reference). The “NVMe” part refers to the drive using PCI Express instead of SATA for data transfer. PCIe can support much more bandwidth than SATA, making M.2 NVMe drivers faster than their 2.5-inch counterparts.

Not all M.2 drives use PCIe, however. They can use PCIe or SATA depending on the spec. Make sure the drive is marked with “NVMe” like the Samsung 970 Evo drives above are.

Whichever drive you buy, make sure the SSD you choose as your primary storage device contains the operating system. You’ll gain the benefit of quick boot times and fast operation in day-to-day use. This is also why we don’t recommend an SSD with less than 200GB of space. With Windows installed, a small drive can only contain a handful of games.

If you need lots of storage space for media or work, consider a secondary hard drive for additional space, with the SSD for Windows and games only.

Cool and quiet

Cooling isn’t directly related to performance, but it can have an impact, as well as the enjoyment you get from your PC. AMD CPUs and all graphics card ship with their own coolers right out of the box, so if you don’t care about noise levels, or keeping components cool for overclocking, you don’t need to think any more about it — especially if you play with headphones on, where noise isn’t as important.

Recent Intel processors do not ship with a stock cooler. However, you can find a reasonable cooling solution for around $30.

If you want a whisper-quiet PC and/or want to push it beyond its basic specifications, thinking about advanced cooling is a good idea. Big air coolers are some of the most affordable and efficient ways to cool a CPU, though all-in-one water cooling and custom loops are an option too.

Graphics cards are a little more complicated, though you can water cool them too. We recommend simply buying a third-party card with a decent custom cooling solution to enable lower noise levels and better performance.

Power on

Organizing PSU Cables

There are some components which we would recommend you spend a little extra on to get the quality you need. A good power supply (PSU) is a prime example, and we have a list of the best PSUs you can buy on various budgets.

Never buy a poor PSU, as a cheap one can die and take other components with it. The first thing to consider is your wattage. Select a PSU that exceeds your PC’s required wattage by quite a bit, but you don’t need to go crazy (a 650w PSU is perfect for a build that’s rated for 400w, for example).

After, look for an 80 Plus certification. The 80 Plus standard rates PSUs based on their power efficiency, and there are multiple tiers. 80 Plus certified PSUs, for example, are 80% power efficient at average power draw, while 80 Plus Titanium PSUs are 92% power efficient in that same wattage range.

The 80 Plus certification simply makes a statement about power efficiency. However, PSUs with an 80 Plus rating generally use better components to earn that rating, as well as deliver the advertised wattage.

Finally, you’ll find modular, semi-modular, and non-modular PSUs. Non-modular power supplies have all of the cables attached to the PSU itself, like the image above. Semi-modular PSUs have some essential cables attached — such as your motherboard’s 24-pin power connector — but give you detachable cables for other components, such as 8-pin power for your video card. Lastly, modular power supplies come with all the cables detached.

The upside of a modular PSU is that you only need to plug in the cables you’re actually going to use, making building and cable management much easier. However, modular PSUs are expensive, sometimes twice as much as their non-modular counterparts. You can save big by opting for a non-modular PSU.

Putting the pieces together

Bringing everything together is your motherboard. You don’t want to cheap out here, but you don’t need to go too expensive, either. There are two aspects to consider: The socket and the chipset. Thankfully, the former is easy. Every processor is manufactured to fit in a certain socket — Ryzen 3000 processors use the AM4 socket, for example — so you just need to make sure your CPU fits the socket on your motherboard. If you’re buying a prebuilt machine, you don’t need to worry about the socket.

The chipset is more interesting. Both AMD and Intel offer different chipsets with different features targeting different prices. For example, Intel’s flagship Z490 chipset supports overclocking, while the cheaper B460 chipset does not. Similarly, AMD’s top-end X570 chipset has more PCIe lanes compared to the cheaper B550 chipset.

Frankly, there’s almost too much to consider between chipsets. For gaming, the important question is if you want to overclock your processor. AMD supports overclocking on its X- and B-series chipsets, while Intel only supports overclocking on its X-series chipsets. Otherwise, your motherboard will have almost zero performance impact.

There are considerations outside of performance, however. Manufacturers will include different features on their motherboards, such as better networking capabilities or a better sound chip. Furthermore, motherboards come with different levels of expandability (some may come with only two RAM slots, for example). You don’t need to spend a lot on your motherboard, but you should consider overclocking support, expandability, and other features like networking and sound.

For better insight into what motherboard to pick, read our guide on the best motherboards for gaming.

Focus on what matters to you

When setting up your gaming desktop, keep in mind that your gaming ecosystem is a careful balancing act. You have to figure out what you prefer and want from your overall gameplay experience and then invest in the resources that will make that happen. 

If you’re struggling to organize a budget for this, we recommend investing the majority of your budget in the graphics card and the CPU. Those features will make the biggest difference in improving how your game visually looks. From there, reliable and ample storage will make the game run and load faster. While a sleek design or fancy case would look nice, it won’t affect your in-game experience. More memory has its place, but if it’s more than you’ll be able to use, it won’t do much.

Keep in mind; this investment is entirely up to you, so build a PC that works for you. If how your PC looks matters to you, then trick it out. Light the PC up and make it look incredible. If you’d rather tweak and overclock, spend some money getting a nicer motherboard and a decent cooler. We recommend that you spend the bulk of your money on features that will ultimately improve your device’s gaming functions, but the PC should also fit your preferences.

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