When it comes to gaming, you really only have three choices. You can buy a console, you can buy a PC, or you can build your own gaming PC.
You might be intimidated with building your own system, but rising to the challenge will reward you well.
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as using something you built yourself. There’s also an inherent pride that goes with knowing that it’s running well because of your time, effort, and knowledge.
Since you’re choosing every piece, the system you have will be built exactly the way you want it to be.
With so much involved, where do we start? Just like building anything else, we’ll need to start with the parts.
You can’t build a house without bricks. Without all the necessary components, it’s hard to build a PC that runs at the bleeding edge you’ll want.
Let’s break a gaming PC build down piece by piece.
CPU – The Brain of Your Gaming PC
The “brain” of the computer is where our build begins. The CPU you choose determines which motherboard you can have, which in turn influences strongly at other available options.
More on that later, let’s first take a look at the CPU and what you should consider when selecting one.
The CPU, or Central Processing Unit, is a microprocessor that sits directly on the motherboard. Its function is to act as a bridge between software and hardware.
While the software you run is essentially a series of instructions, it cannot execute them without the proper hardware, and the hardware in your computer is fairly useless unless you’re running software that tells it what to do. The CPU’s job is to take instructions from the software, process those instructions, and pass them on to the appropriate hardware in your system.
If your game wants to write a bit of data, it should not write it to your hard drive.
It should write the data to your RAM instead. Since the program can’t tell the difference, the CPU processes these directions and makes sure that the jobs get done.
Essentially, it is as though the program is management, the hardware are factory workers, and the CPU is the foreman. Management tells the foreman what needs to be done, and the foreman makes sure that each worker is tasked appropriately.
When searching for a CPU, you’ll find a lot of terms floating around that may not make much sense. Things like “dual core”, “quad core”, “clock speed”, and others can make choosing a CPU an exhausting technical experience.
Let’s look at what all this means, and how it helps you find the processor that fits your needs best as a PC gamer.
Dual core and quad core are the two main kinds of processors on the market right now. A dual-core processor is a CPU with two processing cores, and a quad-core is a CPU with four processing cores.
These are the most common, but there are others available as well, up to 12-core. A processing core is the part of the CPU that actually processes the instructions from the software.
Basically, a dual core CPU is a chip with two little CPUs, and a quad core has four. Having more cores means that the chip can multitask, or handle more than one task at once.
This is important for a gaming desktop, because there is never a situation where you’re only running one program. The operating system is relaying instructions, the program you’re using requires processing power, and there are usually several background programs humming along as well.
Having multiple cores in your CPU means that instead of all of these instructions getting processed one at a time, they can be executed simultaneously, up to four at a time in a quad core, dramatically reducing the lag between when a program sends a command and when it gets executed. Most gaming PCs are going to need a quad core processor for this reason.
Clock speed is how “fast” the CPU is at executing tasks.
In order for everything to work in sync, the CPU sets a “clock” that the computer runs on.
Instead of seconds or minutes, however, this clock counts cycles per second. The term “overclock” simply means that the CPU is running at a higher clock speed than it was intended for.
This improves speed and performance, but at the risk of overheating and burning out the chip. A processor with a clock speed of 1Hz, for example, would be able to perform one operation per second.
A processor with a clock speed of 1KHz (1,000 Hertz) would be able to perform a thousand operations per second. Many modern computers have CPUs around the 2.5-3.0GHz range (A whopping three BILLION operations per second).
More importantly, the clock speed that you’ll see advertised isn’t for the entire chip. Instead, the number on the box is the clock speed of each core on the chip.
So a dual core processor with a clock speed of 3GHz is actually two processors with a combined total of 6GHz. A quad core processor with the same number on the box is actually four processors with a combined total of 12 GHz.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that bigger numbers always means a faster chip. A 2GHz quad core is faster than a 3GHz dual core (8GHz total for the quad core vs. 6GHz total for the dual core).
CPU COOLER – Looks Hot, But Stays Cool
Now you’ve got your sights set on a blistering 12-core overclocked monster of a CPU. You set it all up, turn on your system for the first time, and then all of a sudden there’s a puff of what electrical engineers call “magic smoke” and the computer stops.
Uh oh. You’ve forgotten the CPU cooler, and now all you have to show for your huge multicore investment is a smoking piece of silicon and solder. Instead of having your heart broken like this, let’s take a look at what a CPU cooler is and what you should look for.
There’s a good chance that by this point you’ve probably deduced the CPU cooler’s main function: keeping the CPU cool. Since you have a lot of processing power being used in a very small area, the CPU produces a massive amount of heat, enough to completely destroy itself within a few seconds without the proper cooling.
To avoid this, CPU coolers takes the heat out in one of two ways: air cooling and liquid cooling.
Air cooling uses fans to blow air over heat sinks in order to keep the board cool.
The heat sinks are attached to the CPU directly, or use a series of pipes to channel heat.
Whichever you use, ensure that you’re properly applying thermal paste to the CPU before attaching the cooler. Thermal paste provides a way to transfer heat from the chip to the cooler.
If you’re a console gamer, and you build a gaming PC because you’re sick of dealing with the Xbox’s infamous “Red Ring of Death,” then you’re already pretty familiar with how important thermal compound is. The ring was caused by improper application of thermal compound between the Xbox’s CPU and cooler, leaving air bubbles that couldn’t transfer heat as quickly.
As a result, the board above those spots warped, breaking connection with the chip in several places.
Liquid cooling sounds intimidating to build, since liquids and sensitive electronics don’t generally play nicely with each other. It’s one of the most efficient ways to regulate CPU temperature, however, so don’t dismiss it out of hand.
Liquid cooling uses the same kind of system to cool your processor that your car uses to cool your engine. Heat is transferred to a liquid coolant, which is pumped past a radiator.
The radiator cools it, and it is pumped back to the processor to absorb more heat and carry it away. Most liquid cooling systems use water, and are self-contained so you don’t need to worry about filling them up.
Not only is water cooling more efficient, you won’t worry about your cores getting too hot from poor airflow under-the-desk.
MOTHERBOARD – Your System’s Real Estate
Now that you’ve got the CPU and the cooler for the gaming computer build, you’ll need somewhere to put them. This is the motherboard, and we waited till now to discuss it because not all boards fit with all processors.
Since the CPU is much more important, we’ll let our choice there determine which motherboard we can use rather than vice versa. The motherboard is the component that holds all the other components we’re putting in, and has printed circuits connecting all the various pieces so that the computer can work as a whole.
While there are a lot of really overpriced, flashy boards out there, the only thing you really need to consider when shopping for one is whether or not it supports all the components you plan to use, and whether it has ports for all the peripherals you plan to use (USB, Ethernet, etc).
RAM – The Henchman of Your Gaming PC, More is Better
If you’ve already purchased a motherboard, then you’ll notice several long slots that are significantly larger than the other ports. This is where you’ll fit RAM.
RAM is random access memory, and it’s one of the more important components of a gaming PC. Not enough RAM, and you can’t load the game, or the game can’t load the scene/map/etc.
It is the computer’s short term memory, and when a program knows that it’s going to need to access information in the near future it gets loaded from your hard drive to RAM. You’re generally ok with 8GB, but if you’re able to get 16GB, it will ensure that you don’t need to upgrade for much longer.
This PC part comes in four types: DDR, DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4. The higher the number, the newer the RAM type, and the faster the RAM is able to load.
DDR is long since obsolete, and DDR2 is close to that point now as well. Most modern machines run DDR3, and this would be sufficient for almost all gaming you’ll do as long as you have enough, but DDR4 now exists and may be a good investment if you don’t plan on upgrading for a while.
GRAPHICS CARD – Your Gaming Prowess Depends on It
Ahh, the graphics card. The king of the gaming PC. The part gamers like to brag about. It’s probably the most expensive piece of hardware you’ll buy when you’re building a gaming computer.
The graphics card (or GPU, for Graphics Processing Unit) is a processor like the CPU, but its only job is to process and render graphical information (displays). To accomplish this, the GPU is built a little differently.
Instead of a handful of powerful cores, the GPU is built of thousands of tiny, relatively low-power cores. Instead of a CPU’s two or four cores choking on millions of instructions for each pixel on your monitor, the GPU is able to dedicate a core to each task and do several thousand simultaneously.
It doesn’t take much processing power to run a pixel, but there are a lot of them, and it takes a ton of combined power to handle them all, especially with HD or 4K displays.
When looking at GPUs, there are a few things to consider..
First is to compare the VRAM to the RAM you’re putting in your machine.
VRAM is kind of like onboard RAM for the graphics card. Unlike your system RAM, VRAM is dual-port memory, meaning that it can read/write on two channels at once.
It can receive instructions from the computer, store rendering queues, and read/write from the GPU simultaneously. Ensure that there’s twice as much system memory as VRAM on the GPU so that there are no memory bottlenecks.
The major manufacturers for graphics cards are NVidia and AMD
While you’re likely to find diehard fans on either side, it really comes down to price.
Both offers products in generally the same performance range, and the best deal can be found with either of them. The one thing that NVidia has that AMD does not is CUDA.
The CUDA is a parallel computing platform that harnesses the GPU for processing data instead of the CPU. Parallel computing is incredibly powerful for tasks that require lots of little calculations, such as video/photo editing, data analysis, and research.
AMD has a similar platform called OpenCL, but it is not nearly as advanced, supported, or adopted.
Here’s a fun video showing how important it is to have a powerful graphics card:
SSD – Knocks HDD Right Out of the Park
Now that you have all the parts that make a gaming PC sing, we’ll need something to keep these games. While RAM is the computer’s short term memory, the hard drive is long-term storage.
There are two kinds of hard drives available: traditional spinning drives and solid state. Besides price, there’s no reason you shouldn’t get a Solid State Drive (SSD) for your build.
The RAM size or CPU speed won’t matter if you’re bottle-necked by a slow-reading, spinning hard drive. A solid state drive, like its name implies, uses flash memory instead.
This means much quicker read/write speeds, and makes the drive itself much more durable. Since we’re building a gaming PC, buy up as much storage as your budget allows.
Games are usually pretty large, and a 1TB drive will fill up much quicker than you might expect.
COMPONENTS YOU MIGHT FORGET ABOUT
There’s a few more things needed to build the perfect gaming PC, but they’re not as exciting as the above. If you’re a beginner gaming PC builder, you might forget that you need them until it’s time to assemble everything.
First and probably most importantly is the power supply unit (PSU). It has one job, but it’s an important one: providing clean, stable, reliable power to the computer.
Note: spend extra dollars to buy a good PSU. Being cheap might be bad, if it fries the expensive parts.
Another component that is often overlooked when buying parts is the wireless card. A hardwired Ethernet cable is the fastest and most stable way to connect to the internet if you plan on playing online, but the layout of your home may not make this possible.
If you need a wireless card as you build your own gaming computer, make sure it supports the kind of router you’re using (don’t buy a 5 GHz card if your router operates on the 2.4 GHz band), and that it works with the operating system you’re planning to use.
CASE – Unleash the Monster
Finally, somewhere to put all this. The case is up to you and what you want it to look like.
Everyone’s perfect tower is different, and your ultimate gaming build should be a reflection of yourself. Just make sure that it has enough space, so that everything will fit while allowing for ventilation, and material.
Metal cases generally last longer and look better than their plastic counterparts. You’ll also need to select fans to keep everything cool, or you could pick cases that have these pre-installed.
Everything else is up to you: whether you’d prefer an unobtrusive tower for under the desk or a windowed, LED-studded attention-grabber, your PC’s form factor is limited only by your imagination.
Alright, Now What Can I Do With My GAMING PC?
Well, at this point we’ve got a throbbing multicore beast sitting at the center of an extensive motherboard; with 16GB of RAM feeding data to a beautiful NVidia graphics card holding 8GB of VRAM. We’ve got a liquid cooling system keeping the CPU comfortable, and a massive SSD to hold all of our games.
Your case is a work of art, and you have put in quiet and powerful fans. From the case, your high-end PSU is keeping all the electronics inside happy and you’re ready to go!
From this point on, the build is yours to explore. There’s no way to know what else you want until you start using it.
Perhaps you’ll decide that 1080p isn’t HD enough, and you’ll want to make the jump to 4K. Depending on the graphics card you put in, you may need to upgrade.
These are just some of the things that are considered by those who build gaming PC of their own.
There’s a whole world of peripherals to explore, from joysticks and controllers all the way up to VR. There’s a whole world of PC gaming available to you now, and it’s yours to play with.