Chances are that if you found your way here, you are looking to step up and conquer the world with your very own custom gaming rig. Or maybe you're looking for better performance to thoroughly dominate the competition. Or, maybe you’re trying to figure out if building a gaming PC is right for you.
Yet, it really doesn’t matter where you fall on this spectrum, because it’s never been easier to assemble your own computer. Investing in a custom gaming PC (built yourself, no less), is the start of a long-term relationship that will change as your needs and requirements change. Never before have there been so many cool options for configuring your rig and outfitting it with bling and personal custom touches.
Yet, building a PC is not without risks to your pocketbook, patience, or physical well-being. Checking compatibility between components and hardware is critical—take your time in the selection process and during installation. PC component warranties vary so make sure you prepare to assemble your new PC safely—manufacturers all have guidelines and compatibility resources on their websites.
Decide on Hardware for Your Gaming PC
Components, such as graphics cards, motherboards, and solid-state drives (SSD) are readily available and are now very user-friendly, offering easy installation and software configuration. There are countless resources at your disposal, from gamers making video tutorials to text-based, step-by-step guides by the top tech sites. If anything, there may be too much information! As you research, make sure you’re watching or reading something recent—within the last three years. Hardware and peripherals are improving all the time.
Here are the typical hardware components you'll need to build a gaming PC:
- Memory (RAM)
- Graphics processing unit (GPU)—aka, graphics card
- Storage, hard disk drive (HDD), solid-state drive (SSD)
- Power supply unit (PSU)
- Cooling system (fans or liquid), fan splitter
- Gaming peripherals (keyboards, mice, headphones)
Budget and Upgrading Your Gaming PC
The power, look, and performance of your gaming PC depends primarily on your budget and your dedication. In fact, your budget should be your first consideration since it will drive all of your decision-making. Building a custom rig may not cost less than an off-the-shelf PC, but you can save money by shopping sales or reseller Websites for your hardware. Moreover, you’ll avoid building costs, since you’re taking that task on for yourself. Thankfully, there’s a range of great products on the market to choose from, so if your budget is tight, you can always upgrade some of the components later.
Don’t discount the advantages of stepping up to a higher-performing CPU, GPU, or other hardware to improve the performance of your gaming PC. If you do, you’ll likely have a build that has great headroom for the future, including some of the latest virtual and augmented reality experiences out there.
Let’s take a quick look at the purpose of each piece of hardware and how you can find the best one for your gaming needs. Do as much research as you can so you at least have an idea of some products to look for. Other gamers may have posted their favorite components online, or even posted a YouTube video. Up-front research will pay off in the long run!
At the very least, you'll want to make sure your hardware is compatible and works with each other. A quick Web search or look at a manufacturer’s website can help.
"I'm planning to make this computer last a long, long time, so I wanted to future-proof it as much as I could with a powerful CPU that'll exceed specifications for several years."
If the processor is the brain, the motherboard could be compared to the nervous system. The CPU provides directions, and then the motherboard communicates with all the other key components in the gaming PC—graphics cards, memory, hard drives, optical drives, and even wireless technologies—to ensure the CPU’s tasks are completed.
Selecting a processor and a motherboard should be done in tandem, as there are compatibility requirements.
Intel has a great tool you can use—the Intel® Desktop Compatibility Tool. Follow the simple steps to find the Intel® processor you own (or are interested in) and a list of compatible motherboards.
There are two types of graphics—integrated and discrete (also known as “dedicated”). Integrated graphics have improved through the years, and some, like Intel® Iris® Plus graphics, can even provide discrete-like graphics performance for:
- Watching movies in HD/4K
- Editing photos/videos
- Enjoying high frame rates while playing today’s popular games
In comparison, ‘discrete graphics’ (PCIe* add-in graphics cards from Nvidia or AMD) are a must for any serious gamer playing high-end, intensive games, and the top virtual reality solutions. A graphics card includes a built-in graphics-processing unit (GPU), which converts video signals and performs complex calculations to transform binary data into the rendered graphics you see in games.
When looking for a GPU, a good measurement of its performance is the frame rate. The frame rate tells you how fast an image is refreshed on the screen to produce movement and motion, as well as overall graphic quality. Frame rate is measured in frames per second (FPS). The higher frames per second, the better your gaming experience. Typically, anything lower than 60 fps will disappoint any serious gamer—consider it the baseline for gamers. On the other hand, at 90 fps, you’re ready for Virtual Reality play.
There are dozens if not hundreds of PC tech review and benchmarking websites out there to see what’s available. Check some out to compare products on the basis of FPS or other measures for the games/applications that matter most to YOU. Keep in mind that graphics cards and GPUs must work with other hardware, including the motherboard, the power supply unit (PSU), memory, as well as the CPU. Always check to make sure your chosen graphics card will install into your motherboard.
RAM, or random access memory, will help your gaming PC access files quickly and run multiple instructions at once without lagging. The more RAM, and the faster RAM, the better experience you’ll have.
If you’ve taken the time and effort to build your own gaming PC, you’ll probably want to install more than the basic 4 GB of RAM found in many pre-assembled PCs. While 8 GB of RAM will serve nicely, top gaming enthusiasts will use as much as 16 GB of RAM in their rigs.
Operating System (OS)
When you build your own gaming PC, you get to choose the operating system. Think about what programs and applications you’ll run (in addition to games) and make sure your chosen OS will work well with everything. Popular OS choices include Windows® 10, Linux*, and Mac* OS, but there are other options as well. Windows® 10 just recently pushed and update that includes important gaming refinements.
Storage: Solid-State Drive (SSD) or Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
Your next decision is SSD or HDD, or both? Many believe that a high-performing gaming PC demands an SSD for hyper-fast game loading times and almost instant responsiveness.
You could try for the best of both worlds and use a less-expensive SSD in conjunction with a hard drive. You’ll get fast loading times, cost efficiency, and storage capacity. To help select the right model (or models), make sure you check how much storage you’ll need from the games you want to play, and think about how many other things—games, files, music, videos—you could store here as well.
Power Supply Unit (PSU)
Veteran gamers will tell you—don’t underestimate the importance of the power supply! It’s not a good idea to try to save money in this area. The quality of your PSU matters. A cheap PSU could literally fry your hardware, especially if it can’t handle the cooling load you’ll put on it.
Any high-end PC or gaming rig is going to generate a lot of heat. Typically, graphics cards and processors ship with fans already built in to dissipate some of the heat. Also, PC cases now often come with intake and exhaust fans already installed. This is usually enough for a regular PC, but if you’re interested in overclocking your CPU and taking your game playing up a notch, you will need a cooling system.
There are two primary options—air or liquid. An air-cooling system is probably more economical and easier for novices to incorporate into a build, while liquid-cooling systems are expensive, but provide better results. However, these systems may not be easy to install. Also, consider how much space you have in your case for fans or tubes. Once again, your CPU choice will drive a lot of this decision making.
Choosing a case is also an important decision as they come in a variety of styles, sizes, and configurations so you can really personalize your build. If you make a sound investment in your case, it should last you through several builds or upgrades.
There are many things to keep in mind as you choose your case. First, consider your components—will they all fit into the case? Is there any additional room for more drives or upgrades? Do you want to include a cooling system or extra fans?
What about cable management? Access to your drives? You’ll need to consider these things as you pick out your next PC case, and determine if it’s compatible with your motherboard.
You’ll want a special mouse and keyboard designed for the rigors of gaming to fully complete your system. Gaming mice should be comfortable and ergonomic, and withstand hours of use. Most have customizable buttons and offer extra precision and accuracy.
Gaming keyboards are a must for most gamers, especially if you enjoy first-person shooters (FPS), strategy games, or Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs). Gaming keyboards include features like mechanical keys, extra keys for programming macros, and even colorful backlit illumination.
Putting It All Together
Once you have all the components for your gaming PC, it’s time to install them. How you install these parts, and in what order, is up to you. If you’ve spent enough time up front researching your components and their compatibility, it should be easy to assemble your gaming PC. Take your time, always follow manufacturers’ instructions, be careful as this is real electricity flowing here, and enjoy the process.