So you’ve decided you want a new gaming PC. Before you start sizing up the specs and features of your next build, the first step in the selection process is determining what type of PC is right for you.
If you are still on the fence between a laptop and a desktop, click over to our gaming laptop vs gaming desktop comparison article before proceeding.
Assuming you already know you want a desktop, the next step is choosing between a pre-built PC vs custom PC. One of the biggest draws of PC gaming is having the ability to choose a system that aligns with your preferences, needs, and skill level at working on your system. While there is a spectrum of options available, you generally have three choices:
- You can buy a PC that’s already been built. Pre-built gaming PCs are complete systems put together by well-known manufacturers using balanced and reliable hardware configurations. They are produced in quantity by some of the most trusted names in the PC space. These are usually available in local stores and are designed to be ready to use right out of the box.
- You can have someone else build it for you. Another option is to order your build from a company who specializes in building custom PCs. Custom-built gaming PCs offer a broader range of customization options than pre-builts without requiring you to roll up your sleeves and build a PC yourself. You select the features and components you want, relying on a team of qualified technicians to build a PC to your specifications.
- You can build a PC yourself. Lastly, you can obtain the individual components and assemble them at home. Choosing to build a gaming PC gives you ultimate authority over the look, design, and performance of your PC. This route also comes with unique challenges that require some technical know-how to navigate.
While there is some overlap between them, each option has its own distinct advantages, and they are all worth taking into consideration. Your choice should ultimately be based on the important factors of budget, convenience, and the level of customization you want. Let’s explore each category in closer detail.
Let’s start with one of the most important factors to think about when buying a new PC: the components inside. Gaming on PC lets you get the performance you want with the hardware you choose. But you don’t have to make granular decisions about hardware yourself. You can let someone else make those choices for you, if you prefer.
- Less choice over the components in your system
- Helps to know the CPU and GPU you want
Pre-built systems are an attractive option for those who are less concerned with the minute details of every component in their build (such as the manufacturer and detailed specifications like RAM speed).
They are ideal for someone who values convenience over the ability to pick and choose every piece of hardware in their system.
Knowing some specifics about what you want (for example, your preferred CPU and GPU) will help you choose the right PC, but you’ll have to trust the PC manufacturer to select the additional hardware for you.
- Customizable hardware configurations
- Should have a rough idea of the specs you want
If you’re looking for customization and the ability to easily upgrade your hardware down the road, but don’t necessarily want to build your own computer, consider ordering a custom-built machine from a PC building company.
This option provides some of the advantages of building your own PC, in that you can choose the parts you want. The difference is that an experienced builder will put the PC together for you.
Keep in mind that suggested hardware configurations might not always align with your personal needs. It’s useful to have a rough idea of the hardware specs you’ll need to balance your system. This allows you to adjust your build parameters to make sure they reflect the level of performance you’re looking for.
- Fully customizable
- Built by you
- Expand your technical know-how and expertise
Building your own PC is the best solution for those who want full control over every aspect of their build. It provides the most thorough customization options, from major components like the CPU down to the fans and lighting.
That means you’ll always have the exact hardware you need. And because you built it, you’ll know exactly how to upgrade and customize your PC.
Not to mention, building a PC isn’t as hard as you might think. (And we have a handy guide to walk you through it.) However, it does require enough technical expertise to select and install your own components.
The old adage that building your own PC is the cheapest option isn’t always true anymore. Between pre-built, custom-built, and DIY, there isn’t a clear “cheapest” choice. The price of the same hardware configurations across all three categories can vary depending on factors like component availability, demand, and volume discounts.
The decision ultimately comes down to how meticulous you want to be with your spending strategy—whether you prefer to buy a PC for a lump sum or to price out individual components.
Pre-built. If you’re considering a pre-built system, keep an eye out for online and retail store discounts, especially around time-sensitive sales like Black Friday. Price reductions will vary by retailer, but remaining vigilant when these discounts appear can be a great way to make sure you get your desired system at a good price.
Flexibility is helpful here. You might not find the exact system you’re looking for on sale, but keeping your options open can result in substantial savings.
Custom. Custom-built PCs have a feature-based cost structure that isn’t as simple and straightforward as purchasing a pre-built system for a lump sum. The cost will scale depending on the hardware you select. Additional features like liquid cooling systems or customized aesthetics also add to the price.
That being said, watching for discounts on individual components, site-wide deals, and bundled hardware or upgrades can result in significant discounts.
DIY. Building your own PC allows you to strategize based on your needs. You’ll have more opportunities to be selective about the hardware that goes in your system. By going into the process with a general sense of what you’re looking for — and being flexible with your building strategy — you’ll be in a solid position to maximize your budget.
Provided that you’re upgrading from an older PC, you might be able to reuse some components. Just make sure they’re compatible with your newer hardware and still function properly.
To learn more about shopping for a gaming PC on a budget, continue reading here.
Another important aspect to consider is how quickly you’ll need your new PC.
Pre-built. If you’re looking to pick up a system as soon as possible, buying a pre-built machine online or locally could be the way to go. A pre-built gaming PC usually comes with almost everything you need to get up and running, including a keyboard, mouse, and operating system.
Custom. Custom-built PCs, on the other hand, have to be constructed before being shipped. The timeframe will depend on where you make the purchase. Some companies excel at fast-turnaround work, while others take several weeks or longer. The complexity of your build may also determine the time you have to wait.
DIY. How long the process takes will mostly depend on you. It’s certainly possible to put together a system in a day, but physical assembly is only part of the process. Researching the components, case design, and best prices can take considerably longer, especially if you are building your first PC.
Tech Support & Troubleshooting
You’ll also want to think about what happens after you purchase your PC. If you run into issues, are you confident that you’ll be able to fix them yourself, or are you going to need assistance?
Pre-built. When selecting a pre-built system, there’s often a manufacturer warranty or store protection plan available. These details will vary, so you’ll always want to double-check what is being offered if post-purchase support is a priority.
Custom. PC building companies often provide robust support options, like phone assistance and warranties. Again, this varies from vendor to vendor, so always confirm that they offer what you think you’ll need when shopping for your new build.
DIY. If you’re building your own PC, you probably won't have access to system-wide support. Be conscious of component-level warranties. These can be useful in the event that your PC needs work.
Though you may need to repair your computer yourself, there are plenty of helpful guides out there to use for reference and support.
Additionally, you’ll want to consider what software you’ll be using with your new PC.
Pre-built machines usually come with an operating system installed, often alongside manufacturer-recommended programs. Custom builds also usually come with an OS installed, typically Windows.
When you buy storage separately for your own build, you’ll be looking at a clean slate. Keep in mind the operating system you want to use as well as any other programs you might need.
Aesthetic elements like custom paint, RGB lighting, and the physical design of the case can vary greatly from one gaming PC to the next. You’ll likely have your own preferences as to whether you want to modify your casing or not.
Pre-built. These systems are fine for those with no interest in modding their system. That doesn’t mean your build will lack visual appeal. Computer makers often place an emphasis on making gaming PC cases stand apart from ordinary non-gaming desktops. Because they are mass produced, however, they may lack individuality.
Custom. Bespoke PCs often have more aesthetic flavor than pre-builts. The cases for default builds often have visual features such as transparent shells that display the components glowing within.
Additionally, some custom PC companies specialize in visual customization options including UV printing and laser etching. For example, well-known system integrator Falcon Northwest* adds a unique flair to their PCs with custom finishes.
Going with a custom-built PC is a good option for those who want a customized case but lack the tools or the confidence in their artistic ability to do professional-quality work themselves.
DIY. Building a PC yourself gives you free rein to design a system with a personalized aesthetic. Your build will look exactly the way you want it to.
Should you choose to prioritize the visual elements of your build, a wide assortment of custom cases and components are available to help you along. Our interview with the case fabricator Peter “L3p” Brands serves as a good introduction to custom PC case designs.
Side by Side Comparison
Whether you’re gravitating towards the simplicity of a pre-built computer, desire the flexibility of a DIY build, or land somewhere in the middle, there’s a gaming PC out there that’s right for you. Keep your unique needs in mind as you begin the selection process.
Once you’ve decided on the direction you want to go in, our gaming resources can help you identify a system with the specifications and features you need.
For a comprehensive guide to pre-built systems, read here. Before buying a custom PC, study up on proper system balance. If you want to build a gaming PC, begin by researching the components you’ll need — including CPU, RAM, and storage — and make sure you have a good walkthrough handy.