When shopping around for a desktop, you might see several computers that pack some pretty impressive specs, but aren’t marketed as gaming PCs. You can find desktops, laptops, or workstations that all seem like they might have the capability to play the latest in some capacity. So what exactly is it that makes something a gaming PC? (Hint: its sick LED lights.)
On the top end, it’s very easy to tell when a computer is meant for gaming. When you’ve got two Titan X’s in an SLI setup staring at you from a windowed side panel, it’s pretty obvious that you’re looking at a gaming system. However, on the lower end, it can be a little less clear when an ordinary desktop breaks the barrier into a gaming PC. The parts needed to build a gaming computer are much the same as the ones you’d need for a regular PC:
- Processor (CPU)
- Memory (RAM)
- Storage drive (Hard drive or SSD)
- Graphics Card (GPU)
- Power supply (PSU)
- Cooling (fans, CPU cooler, etc.)
Even basic business or home computers will have all of those parts. Perhaps except the graphics card, as many computers will instead use the on-board video processing instead of going with a discrete video card, but even then, others will have one if they need to drive multiple displays for example. So if both regular computer and gaming PCs have the same parts, what separates the two? It should be no surprise that the power and performance of the components is what divides the two types of PCs. This is definitely a gray area, because high end desktops will be able to play games, and could feature the same specifications of a good cheap gaming PC. A maximum PC with the best of the best components, might have parts more typically found in a workstation. When looking at a computers specs to determine if it will be able to play the latest games, there are 4 factors to keep in mind that will make or break a system’s ability to perform.
- The Motherboard
The motherboard is one of the most important gaming computer components. The motherboard and its chipset determine what processors your computer will be able to use, and what features it will have, like the maximum number of USB ports you can have and whether there is on-board video. When building your own gaming PC, or buying one built to order, many people start with the motherboard. Today, many gamers opt for the Intel Z170 chipset. This is one of the new chipsets that works with the Intel Skylake processors, but the Z170 chipset specifically allows for two sought-after features in a good gaming PC: overclocking and SLI. Overclocking allows you to manually speed up the processor, while SLI allows you to use multiple NVIDIA graphics cards. The x99 chipset is also a popular choice, but these motherboards only work with processors that don’t have onboard video processing so a graphics card is requried.
- The Processor
The processor is also one of the most important components for a gaming PC. While games tend to be more GPU intensive, the CPU is still important for overall system performance. Top end gaming computers will often feature i5 or i7 processors with up to 8 cores, however for a cheap gaming PC a processor with 4 cores is all you will need. If your budget is on the lower end, you can opt for a dual core processor, however you will see a noticeable drop in gaming performance. The Intel core i5 processor seems to sit right in the sweet spot of power and affordability for most types of gaming. Processors that have model numbers that end in K, like the Core i5-6600K and Core i7-6700K, are unlocked and are capable of being overclocked, provided you have the correct motherboard. The processor is one of the most difficult parts to upgrade, while others like storage, memory and graphics cards are easy. The general advice when you set out to buy a gaming PC is to get the best processor you can, so that your computer will last for many years as you upgrade the other components around it.
- The Memory
In order to have a PC run smoothly, it is important to have enough RAM, but it’s really not necessary to go overboard in this aspect. DDR3 ram is a fairly inexpensive upgrade, and a true gaming computer should have at least 8GB to run anything that’s thrown at it, but 16GB is also a good amount. While you can always opt for more, it won’t necessarily increase gaming performance. It’ll allow you to run more applications at the same time, but if your video game has to use system memory instead of the dedicated video memory (VRAM) on the graphics card, you’re already taking a performance hit. Gamers will typically opt for high speed memory, especially when overclocking, but the additional performance per dollar spent just isn’t there.
- The GPU
Finally, the single most important aspect that sets gaming computers apart is a dedicated graphics card. This is where you are going to see the biggest boost in gaming performance and it is important to stay away from low end cards. We recommend that you allocate about 1/3 of your total budget to buying the best graphics card that you can afford. For a mid-range card, we recommend at least an Nvidia GTX 960 or an AMD Radeon R9 380 for a good balance of price and performance. While you can play games on lower end cards, you will see a significant performance loss. If you want to dabble in virtual reality, the minimum is a GTX 970, but these days we recommend at least a GTX 1070.
An honorable mention should also go to solid state drives. While it is not absolutely necessary, an SSD will provide much faster start up and load times, and will definitely add to your quality of life. While there is not necessarily a clear line in the sand for what makes something a gaming PC, for us, it would be a computer with an i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a GPU that can keep pace with whichever games you like to play.