There are vast amounts of guides out there that try to explain how to choose a gaming PC. I have found that 99% are either out of date of complete rubbish. The idea of this article is to set the record straight for 2010.
To help guide you though this we are going to follow an example throughout the guide based on a few requirements, you should also have a few requirements for your build.
Our requirements are;
Fast Gaming PC
This is one of the first choices you will make to decide the technology to base your custom PC around. The best way to describe it would be the brain of a PC. There are two players in this field, Intel and AMD. As its stands, Intel own the high end CPU market, the result is a very clear choice when choosing a CPU with most gaming PC builds being based around an Intel i5 or i7 CPU with the latter being the fastest. AMD’s Phenom II CPU is sometimes used but they are more commonly found in budget computer builds. Each technology has multiple choices, so study the specs of each CPU carefully.
We need to pick a CPU for our example, from our original requirements we can match the top three requirements with an i5 Processor which currently come in several flavours;
650 3.20GHz 4MB cache LGA1156
750 2.66GHz 8MB cache LGA1156
660 3.33GHz 4MB cache LGA1156
670 4.46GHz 4MB cache LGA1156
The most popular choice is the 750 because of the larger L3 cache. We are going to base our example around this. You may choose something different but for the purpose of this guide it will show you how a CPU choice affects your entire build.
Right, so you have picked your CPU? Don’t worry if you haven’t, often when choosing the right parts you will base your final decision around three or four parts as they all relative to each other. If you don’t, then you could end up with a badly balanced system, a big no no in our eyes.
This is where things then start to become a little tricky. There are probably 1000 motherboards out there that you can pick from so its important that you make the right choice. The best way to choose the right motherboard is to make a list of the features that you want your computer to have and may want to use in the future. Important features are mainly;
Internal and external connectors
Graphics card support
As you can see there are rather a lot of things to consider! Don’t panic though as once you choose your motherboard your other options are fairly straight forward as they have to conform to the motherboard specifications but this is the hardest choice to make. For our example we have chosen an Asus P7P55D LE Intel P55 Express Socket LGA1156 DDR3 Motherboard for the reasons outlined below;
Socket type – This motherboard has a socket LGA1156. You may notice that this is the same socket as the i5 750 CPU we picked, well if you did you would be correct. Motherboard socket types are directly linked with the CPU socket type, they have to match. It describes how many contact points are on the processor and motherboard, if these sockets do not match then the CPU just will not fit.
Ok, so hopefully you have matched your motherboard socket type with your CPU. It’s that black and white it makes the decision fairly easy. Your choices of motherboard have now dropped considerably. Your 1000 choices has now dropped to probably around 50, 5% of what you started with.
Chipset – Each socket type will have a unique chipset associated with it. Its sounds complicated but to put it simply it’s a fancy code that describes a motherboards basic features such as it having on board graphics, memory technology or the speed of the PCI-E slots.
Currently the socket LGA 1156 platform has four associated Chipsets, the H55, H57, P55 and the P57. The mainstream chipsets available to the home user is just the H55 and P55 so we only have to concentrate on them. Both chipsets vary from each other slightly, but not massively. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail about these particular chipsets as this could be an entirely different guide in itself, but in short the P55 is faster and we want a “fast gaming PC” so the P55 chipset is chosen. Depending on your chipset choices you are probably now only left with 20 motherboards to choose from.
Memory type, capacity and speed - This choice is almost made for you when you pick a chipset. The RAM that you choose later in this guide is defined by what your motherboard will support.
Expansion slots – Our requirements included being “upgradeable”. Expansion slots play a massive part into what you can “bolt in” to your PC. If you plan on adding things such as graphics cards, sound cards and network cards make sure your motherboard has the available slots to do this. The Asus P7P55D LE used for our example has plenty!
Onboard Devices – Motherboards come with some devices already installed. These could be something as simple as having 4 USB ports right up to having an integrated sound or graphics. If you plan on installing a device as an expansion then choose a motherboard that does not have these built in and save yourself a little money. On the other hand, choosing a motherboard with lots of onboard devices will also save you money as expansion cards are more expensive as they are superior to the onboard solutions.
RAID - Used to increase hard disk performance or data security. Do you want to back your data up “on the fly” or be able to read data faster? If the answer is yes then you will want a RAID feature on your motherboard.
Overclocking – If you plan on overclocking then you will want a motherboard that is good at this. Unfortunately manufacturers do not state how good their motherboard is at overclocking in the product spec. The only real way to tell is to research it yourself. Try hunting around forums online to see how others have got on overclocking your processor and motherboard combination.
Internal and external connectors – Its no good picking a motherboard out if you plan on using a PS2 keyboard and mouse and it does not have PS2 connectors. Check what you plan on plugging into the machine and if you have enough connectors to do so. Its not too much of a problem if its not quite right as you can add extra connections via the expansion slots but in the long run, it will cost more.
Graphics card support – In our example we are building a gaming PC, we therefore have to have a motherboard that supports the latest graphics cards. Our P7P55D LE has a PCIe 2.0 x16 expansion slot which will do exactly what we want. Our choice also has an additional PCIe 2.0 x16 slot that supports ATI® Quad-GPU CrossFire X Technology so if we want to install 2 ATI graphics cards we can.
Size - Most motherboards are of a standard size so you don’t get much of a choice here, just make sure it will fit in the case you have your eye on.
Brand – Choose a good brand. Someone who has been in the motherboard game a long while is a good start but the manufacturer should also have good customer support, reliable and generally well respected. 95% of the motherboards out there are thankfully from the good guys so you should be ok. Our recommendations would be to go with Asus, Gigabyte, MSI or DFI.
Price – You tend to get what you pay for when motherboards are priced. Go for the best you can afford to ensure you not left lacking in any department and importantly to aid with future proofing.
Not easy is it? Although once you have picked a motherboard and CPU combination everything else falls into place and your choices are then based on what your motherboard will support. You also may find that you have to compromise a little on your feature list, don’t worry, its normal there are very few “perfect” motherboards out there and not to mention, everyone’s requirements are different.
Choosing the right RAM is a decision that is halfway made for you by your motherboard if you have already picked one. Your motherboard will only accept certain RAM, a bit like the socket example when considering a CPU. Try not to base your build around the RAM, what you go for should be secondary to the CPU and motherboard you choose. Our Asus board has the following memory specification;
“4 x DIMM, Max. 16 GB, DDR3 2000(O.C.)*/1600/1333/1066 Non-ECC,Un-buffered Memory, Dual Channel memory architecture.”
In English, this means there are 4 memory slots that will take a total of 16GB DDR3 type RAM. Frequency speeds of 2000(O.C.)/1600/1333/1066 MHz are accepted in dual channel configuration (has to be paired). The memory has to be of non ECC type.
Generally you choose how much you want followed by how fast it is and what it costs. The rest of the specifications are something you have to abide by rather than choose. Overclockers and performance hunters will look at other things like Latency timings. We want 4GB in our build and price and availability defines that we should get a dual channel kit that has a frequency of 1333MHz. We have chosen some;
Corsair 4gb (2x2gb) Ddr3 1333mhz Xms3 Memory Kit Cl9 (9-9-9-24)
Why? Well its fast, probably the best brand out there, good latencies, will overclock well is stable not too expensive and importantly fits our motherboard.
We are building a gaming PC so we are going to want a decent graphics card. It’s the most important component that defines how good a PC is for gaming. Just like the CPU option there are two players; Nvidia and ATI (owned by AMD). Our motherboard has 2 x PCIe 2.0 x16 expansion slots so we can choose either 1 Nvidia or ATI card or two ATI cards in crossfire. We have value and upgradeability in mind so we are going to choose one single ATI card rather than two but we have the option to crossfire them at a later date should we choose too. There are lots of features that a video card has that will help make you mind up. The graphics card market is very tight so to be honest, you do get what you pay for. Pick a budget and try to stick to it. We have chosen an ATI 5850 for our build, its great value for money and importantly very fast. You may have another budget and card in mind so it is best to google the bench marks for the particular card(s) and see how it fairs to the others.
An often underrated part of a custom computer build. Out of all of the parts you choose for your build, this is the part that will survive time. If you have the right case, then you will re use it upgrade after upgrade so it is important you get it right.
When looking for a case you will need to consider;
Size – Make sure what you plan to put inside will fit. Especially important if you are fitting the latest graphics cards or CPU coolers.
Cooling – How many fans does it have? Are they quiet?
Price – Go for the best you can afford. If it lasts 10 years then it will pay for itself over and over.
Features – Fan controllers, air filters cable management, dampeners and displays all help. Decide if these features are for you and include them in your search should you wish.
Cases are definitely a personal choice. What I think is a good looking case you may think otherwise. Just make sure you don’t go for a cheap case as you will regret it. For our build we are going to use an Antec 902, it’s a little more than we want to spend on a case but we know it will last build after build. Another brand to consider is Coolermaster, who along with Antec are the market leaders and have been for sometime.
Probably the most underrated part of a custom PC build. When choosing a power supply, don't just look at the rating. If you not clued up on PSU's then the best thing to do is choose a decent brand, compare a 800w cheapo brand with a quality branded 650w PSU and the lower rated quality branded PSU will come up trumps every time. The next rule of choosing a PSU is do not push your luck! If you plan on popping in a meaty graphics card, extra hard drives and a couple of DVD drives then upgrade the power supply! Always have more than you need, which will not only give you a 'safety barrier' but also room to upgrade.
Things to factor into picking the right PSU;
Watts – This tells you how powerful a PSU is in watts.
AC Input – Your wall voltage
DC Output – Power supply peak amperage
Peak – Maximum wattage for each rail
Continuity – The continuous amperage value
Cables – Does the power supply have the right connections?
Form factor – Will it fit your motherboard?
Efficiency – Choose something that doesn’t cost a fortune to run
Noise – The quieter the better
We have chosen a corsair 650w TX unit for our machine. It ticks all our boxes and whilst it isn’t one of the cheapest units out there it is probably one of the most reliable, quietest and has loads of connectors for us to use.
You will pick a hard disk based on how much it will store compared to its cost. 500GB – 1TB tends to be the area where cost per GB is at its lowest. Choose a disk that will spin at 7200RPM or more and has a cache of at least 16MB, 32MB if going for a larger disk. Everything is SATA II interface now, so choose a SATA II interface disk too. Good brands include Seagate, Samsung, Maxtor and Western Digital.
Solid state hard disks are also making an appearance here and there, if you are all for performance then look into these further but they are still very expensive and the cost per GB is sky high. For our build we have opted for a Seagate 500GB Hard Drive 7200rpm 16MB Cache disk, perfect for what we want.
CD and DVD Drive
Optical storage cant get an cheaper. For the price of a couple of cinema tickets you will find an optical drive that will do everything you want. Again, 90% of the time optical drives have a SATA II interface so make sure you go with one of these. Blu-ray players and writers are considerably more, so decide if you really want blu-ray functionality in your custom PC.
There is no denying that choosing the right parts for a custom PC build is a difficult and laborious process, don’t be surprised if it takes you a week to make your mind up fully. The important thing is to weigh up all your choices together and try to come out the other end with a few firm requirements and resulting component choices. You can then base your other choices around these firm choices which should make things easier.