The components you need, what they do and the reasons why!
A theory lesson! You’ve decided that a Gaming PC is the right choice. What components do you need to build your son or daughter their first Gaming PC? This one stop guide will lay out the essential components required to build the PC but more importantly give you context as to what each component does and what you need to consider.
The first choice to make is the case that houses all of your components. You’ll need to make a choice whether you would like a small compact PC or a larger one. The reason why this your first big decision is because other components such as the motherboard and GPU will need to be matched with the size of the case you have chosen.
For example, a small form case (e.g. Mini-ITX) may be a great choice if you are short of desk space but this will limit the size of the motherboard to only those that are Mini-ATX size too. If you have the space then a standard ATX size case would be a better choice, especially if this is your first build. Not only does this provide more choice of motherboards but running cables (cable management) will be considerably easier as you have a larger space to work in. Another important consideration is the airflow through the case. The cooler air you have entering the case results in lower overall temperatures. We should always be aiming for good airflow through the case by sucking in cool air and blowing hot air out through the exhaust (like a car) to keep the temperatures inside the case down. If your PC is running too hot then you may experience instability or even the PC shutting itself down to prevent overheating although this is very rare.
Not only is the case functional but it is often the key to a gaming PC to be proud of. Many cases have tempered glass side panels so you can see in to the case to view the components. Combine this with some RGB fans and neat cable management for maximum effect.
Recommendation: Pick an ATX sized case with good airflow entering the case
The Central Processing Unit (or CPU) takes instructions from various programs or applications and performs calculations. These Simply speaking, the faster your CPU the faster many applications can run. Back in the day a computer would be powered by a CPU with one core, so could only perform 1 task at a time. Modern CPUs now have multi-cores which essentially mean you have multiple CPU’s on a single processor which allows multiple calculations to happen simultaneously which is clearly important when Gaming. The speed of a CPU is expressed in Mhz (megahurtz) and is often a determining feature between different models of CPUs.
For our Gaming PC, our choice is really between AMD and Intel. AMD produce the Ryzen CPUs where Intel produce i3, i5 and i7 ranges of CPUs. The choice is very much down to you, many gamers have moved away from Intel to AMD in recent years as AMD produce some very good value gaming CPUs depending on your budget.
The choice of CPU dictates which motherboard you’ll want to choose as AMD CPUs can only fit in motherboards designed for CPUs made by AMD for example. A motherboard supports a certain “socket” which is where you install the CPU so it’s important that the motherboard supports the same socket as the CPU.
Recommendation: An AMD Ryzen CPU provides great value performance for Gaming
Your motherboard screws in to the case and is the backbone for all of the other components within the system. Every other component you buy for your build will plug in to the motherboard in one way or another. As mentioned above, the CPU must be paired with the correct socket motherboard. The CPU drops in to the socket and this is perhaps the most nervy part of the build but with some care and patience it should be entirely uneventful.
Once you have determined the CPU and chosen the correct socket, there is normally a wide price range from the budget offerings through to the more extreme performance motherboards. You may find that many of the features offered on the higher end boards are overkill for your needs and a mid-range motherboard will be perfectly adequate. The budget boards can also be sufficient but may lack features such as support for Overclocking, multiple storage connections and may not be a great choice for future proofing.
You may remember we discussed the case being the logical starting point to determine the size of the motherboard. If budget is a consideration then it’s worth noting that Mini-ITX tends to be priced at the higher end.
Recommendation: A mid-range board will offer a good balance between price and performance
The memory within your gaming PC is storage for short-term data. Anything that is being used actively and needs to be retrieved immediately will be stored within the memory. The more memory you have, the more you can store before it runs out of capacity.
For gaming you should really be aiming for 16gb, anything more is overkill (i.e. 32gb) but anything less (8gb) may cause longer load times and require you to upgrade in the future.
You’ll see memory come in various flavours from those with RGB lighting attached aimed specifically at gamers to more basic and dull looking sticks! The mid-range options tend to look attractive within the case while offering decent performance. The difference between the highest performing memory something sitting around the mid-range tend to be quite small.
Recommendation: A mid-range 16gb set is a good compromise between price/performance
Would you like your Gaming PC to be cooled by air or water? An air cooler offers good performance at a reasonable price point but some people prefer to use water cooling due to the cleaner look and addition of RGB fans.
An air cooler sucks cool air from the front of the case, passes it through small metal fins to move the heat generated by the CPU up through a metal heatsink and then expelled to the back of the case where the exhaust fan ejects it out of the case. An air cooler is often more sizeable and bulky around the CPU. Sometimes these coolers can be so large that you need to check whether they can fit in your case!
A water cooler works on a similar principle by using water to remove the heat generated by the CPU in a loop, using the cool air at the front of the case to cool the water passing over the CPU. The heatsink which meets the motherboard tends to be much smaller than an air cooler but a radiator and multiple fans need to be installed at the front of the case with tubing run across to the CPU. Water coolers do not need maintenance as they are within a sealed environment.
Again, you’ll need to pick a cooler that supports the correct motherboard socket but the choice between air vs water typically depends on budget and personal preference.
The glowing colours you see within a case are RGB fans. These can be set to different patterns/combinations and can look really cool. A great finishing touch!
Recommendation: A mid-range air cooler will offer great performance while keeping the cost down
The GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit, renders or processes what you actually see on screen. As Gaming is the key, generally speaking the more powerful GPUs can provide additional performance for your gaming experience, displaying more frames per second at a higher quality. Frames per second (FPS) is a good measure of performance to gauge how smoothly the image on your screen is being displayed. A game being played at less 30fps is going to be a very different experience compared to the same game at 144fps (I’ll explain more in the monitor section). A more powerful GPU also provides the option of playing at higher resolution (the number of pixels displayed on the screen) as long as the monitor supports that resolution. Finally, the quality of the image on the screen can also be increased by displaying details textures, shading, shadows etc to provide a more immersive and realistic experience.
Your choice of a GPU will use the architecture created by either AMD or Nvidia. It’s often personal choice by Nvidia tend to be more popular with different models at different price points. It’s important to consider which games will be played on the PC so a suitable GPU can be chosen.
Recommendation: The GPU will be determined by your budget, the games you are looking to play and the quality you want to play the games at. Do you need the most powerful GPU or will one slightly cheaper suffice? The GPU will be one of, if not the most expensive components in your build and will be one of the single most important components for gaming.
A power supply takes power from your mains supply and powers the components within your system. The power that the power supply can provide your system is specified in watts (w) from 400w all the way to 1200w+. The range of quality differs enormously, there are some very cheap models out there that have been known to die and kill all of your components in the process. It is therefore prudent to buy a good quality power supply and avoid going for the cheap option.
The capacity of a power supply will largely depend on what other components you have in your system. If you have a power hungry graphics card then you’ll need a larger capacity power supply. A good quality power supply around 600w-800w should be sufficient for most builds. An under powered build will result in stability issues as vital components like the graphics card will be starved of constant power and therefore may not run correctly.
Recommendation: Don't be tempted to buy the cheapest power supply. It's a risk to the health of the rest of your components!
Any Gaming PC will use SSD (solid state drives) which stores your digital content. In the context of a Gaming PC this will save all of the files required to run the games you are looking to play. Some of these games have a large number of files and therefore require a lot of space to install (Call of Duty requires 250gb+ alone!).
NVMe is an additional performance enhancing feature which could reduce loading times for games so well worth considering.
Hard drives come as either small boxes which attach to your case (SATA SSD) or M2 SSD which slot straight in to the motherboard.
The biggest consideration is how many games you might be installing as you’ll need to allocate some space to Windows as well.
Recommendation: Aim for an NVMe SSD with a capacity of 512gb or greater
You’ll need a keyboard and mouse to control the PC. Not only can a good quality Gaming keyboard and mouse improve the experience but they can also look great with the inclusion of RGB lighting.
I’m a big fan of mechanical keyboards which tend to cost a bit more but they feel great to type on and have a nice satisfying click. Great for gaming but not so much if someone is sharing a room with you or if you are using it late at night.
A gaming mouse can provide extra buttons which you can assign within the game settings to different tasks. Gaming mice are often more responsive using fast lasers to respond to small inputs.
The other consideration is whether you would like to use a controller or not? Believe it or not you can use Xbox controllers on the PC using an adapter!
Recommendation: Aim for mechanical keyboard and gaming mice to improve the gaming experience
You can have a fantastic gaming PC with some powerful components but if you are using it in conjunction with a poor quality monitor then much of the experience will be lost. Monitors come in various sizes, widths and have features to improve the gaming experience such as high refresh rate.
Monitors can range from <£100 for a basic office PC through to many thousands for large, 4K, widescreen gaming screens. Firstly you’ll have to decide upon the size, a 27″ monitor is a good option to consider. Next is the resolution. You’ll find 1080p at the lower end, this is HD. In the middle is 1440p followed by 4K. Just a word of caution, to play the latest games at 4K resolution you’ll need an extremely powerful gaming PC otherwise you’ll be reducing the resolution down to 1080p or 1440p anyway which will be a false economy.
Refresh rate refers to the number of times the monitor updates per second. The most basic monitors will have a 60hz refresh rate so will update 60 times per second. If your PC is capable of displaying more than 60fps, you’ll still only be displaying 60fps on the screen if that’s all your monitor is capable of displaying. Gaming monitors commonly display 144hz so you’ll need to ensure your system is capable of running games at 144fps to get the full benefit.
Recommendation: A 27", 1440p with 144hz refresh rate is the sweet spot
You may have been inundated with choices previously learning about the different components. The software will be the most straight forward. The operating system for 99.99% of users will be Microsoft Windows 10 and the platform you’ll play the games on will be determined by the game you want to play.
Recommendation: Windows 10 and Steam most likely!