Update (May 23, 2013): News about GTX 780 dropping today adds an attractive new option for graphics cards. Info about graphics card benchmarks also added.
With the reveal of the next Xbox and a variety of not-so-friendly "features", I've got it into my head that more and more people will be interested in moving their gaming to a PC, and that those people may feel lost. I'm interested in providing advice for anyone who fits that description: get someone to do it for you if you don't want to deal with building your own. There are many, many ways to get someone else to build a solid system for you, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing so. Sure, it's more expensive than building your own rig, but this is a service-sector economy: you pay for convenience.
A few places that will build systems for you:
●A friend of yours, if you buy the parts (best option).
●Newegg, TigerDirect, NCIX and similar online retailers in and out of North America.
●Small, specialty computer companies like Singularity Computers.
●Boutique PC builders like Falcon Northwest or Maingear (if you have more money than sense).
If you are interested in building a PC yourself but don't know where to start, this guide should help. My goal here is to help new PC builders understand what they should be looking for with each component, to skip past all of the detailed information about niggling little differences between this or that CPU or this or that graphics card and focus on only what choices matter most when choosing how to spend your money.
This guide will assume that this system will serve purposes other than gaming. After all, if you can use it for other things, you probably will at some point. As such, I recommend opening yourself to a larger expenditure than you've been accustomed to with past consoles. If you choose your parts carefully and don't cut corners you shouldn't cut, the system you build should last for a very long time. I aim to be as concise as possible while accomplishing all of the goals above (and if I fail, you should find me and beat me up). I hope to give you a basic understanding of what these parts do, and what specs to look for when comparing different candidates for a particular component.
Each post will cover one of these sections, which are presented in the order in which the parts should be selected. This post will include the first section.
1) Heart and Soul CPU - Do you get to overclock without the "K"? Yes.
Graphics Card - Don't overdo it.
RAM - They say 8 iz enuff. They're right.
2) Bones and Cartilage Motherboard - More to consider than you may think.
Power Supply (PSU) - Pay for what you need, and make it efficient.
5) Interface devices for pitiful, analogue humans Monitor - TN? IPS? PLS?
Keyboard - Mechanical? If... if you want?
Mouse - DPI matter
6) Putting it all together - A monkey with very good fine motor control and the ability to follow detailed instructions could do it.
7) Other Sundry Sound Card - Any audiophiles in the house?
Headphones - It's all about the Ohms.
Other Peripherals - Network adapters, fan controllers, that sort of thing
Helpful software - Keep things running at peak efficiency
For reference, here's my system. It's intended for much more than games, and I run programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, InDesign, QuarkXpress, 3DS Max and so on all at once, so the motherboard I chose, the amount of RAM I have and such are all things that you won't need unless you do the same sorts of things.
-Intel core i7 3820 CPU, stable 4.4 GHz overclock
-AMD Radeon HD 7870 (GHz ed.)
-32 GB RAM, 1600 MHz (9, 9, 9, 24)
-ASUS Sabertooth X79
-Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold 800W PSU (quite a bit more than I need, actually)
-NZXT Phantom 410 Midtower case
-Samsung 840 Pro 256 GB SSD
-2 TB HDD @7200 RPM
Heart and Soul These components will be the deciding factors in what choices are even available to you when looking at the other components in the system. The CPU will determine what motherboard you get: the motherboard has a "socket" into which the CPU is placed, and different CPUs require different sockets (you'll also hear about a "chipset" like Z77 or X79, but you don't really need to know what that means). The type and number of GPUs you get will require a minimum size for the motherboard: the more graphics and other expansion cards you intend on having, the more careful you'll need to be to ensure the board is big enough to accommodate all of them. Finally, the amount of RAM you can use is limited by how much ram the CPU can control, thus the motherboard will only have enough slots for the maximum amount of RAM; however, unless you're like me and do a lot of design work on your computer, this is unlikely to be an issue.
CPU The CPU (Central Processing Unit) coordinates with storage devices, graphics cards and RAM through complicated bundles of circuitry on the motherboard you don't need to worry about. When a program is run, the CPU executes the necessary computations to carry out the program's function. It's important, you already knew that, that's all you need to know, and you can look elsewhere for details on how they work.
There is one thing I will have to explain first, though: what does "base clock" mean? Without going into detail, the base clock is the frequency of a repeating on/off voltage that provides an absolute timescale the CPU uses to time operations within a program relative to each other, which is a fundamental part of how computing works. Faster clock speeds mean faster computation, and therefore faster program execution, but it also generally means more heat. The number you see advertised with the units "GHz" (something like 2.80 or 3.40) represents the base clock, and when people talk about overclocking, they're talking about increasing the clock speed above the factory set clock speed.
Begin choosing parts for your system by selecting a CPU. Here are the decisions you'll have to make:
Intel or AMD? Honestly, they're both fine options, and odds are either choice will work just fine for gaming. There have been some reports that certain games like Crysis 3 or Farcry 3 run better on one or the other, but for most games this isn't much of an issue if you have a modern CPU. Pick whichever you prefer, based on price or what have you. I will say that Intel does have some nice low power consumption options, and I generally like Intel chips (though my reasons are unrelated to gaming), but read below for more detail on these two choices.
If you go with Intel: First of all, you may wish to wait until next month to do anything, as Intel's new 'Haswell' chips will be released, and these promise much better energy efficiency and slightly better performance than current CPUs. The associated Z87 chipset (don't worry about what that means, doesn't matter right now) also comes with some advantages.
i3, i5 or i7? i3 processors are dual-core with hyperthreading, i5 are quad-core without (usually) hyperthreading, i7 are quad- to hexa-core with hyperthreading. More cores (separate CPUs within the CPU) mean more efficient (therefore faster) computation if utilized fully by a given program.
This paragraph is extra detail that you can skip unless you would like to know more about the differences between these processor lines. What Intel calls "hyperthreading" is their implementation of simultaneous multithreading, which is a way to run several simple programmed instructions ("threads") within a larger set of programmed instructions simultaneously. Put simply: hyperthreading allows for a program to run several instructions at the same time given there are cores available to do so, which makes some programs run noticeably smoother and faster (Windows interprets this as a 4 core processor with hyperthreading having 4 cores and 4 virtual cores). A CPU with more cores is better at hyperthreading than a CPU with fewer cores, and with only 2 cores as with the i3, the hyperthreading capability usually won't make much of a difference. The i3's also don't have the dynamic overclocking of the other two, further limiting their relative performance.
Importantly, hyperthreading won't have much of an effect with most games at the time of writing. This makes the i5 series very attractive for a system meant primarily for gaming. If you also intend to stream or capture and render gameplay footage, the hyperthreading capability of the i7 series might help you, but certainly isn't necessary. For most people, the choice will be an i5 processor (note: these are all from the 3rd generation of processors; the new generation due in a couple of weeks will bring with it some attractive advantages, which I will write about then if there's any interest).
Which line of processors? 3870? 2820? X? K? S? T? What the hell do these numbers and letters mean? Intel's naming conventions are horrible, and they do an equally horrible job informing people about what those letters after the numbers mean. The numbers are simple enough: look at the first number of the 4. That number indicates the generation, and higher is generally better. For example, my processor--a 3820--is of the 3rd generation, and the 4th generation out in June will have numbers starting with 4. The other three numbers are just a SKU, and you'll have to go to intel's website to tell the difference using this handy comparison tool. As for the letters:
●X means EXTREME! These are the top-of-the-line of the 3rd generation. These have 6 cores and a high base clock with very good "turboboost" capabilities and other nonsense that doesn't matter for pure gaming. These are produced assuming you'll be using a dedicated graphics card and do not have integrated graphics. Intel press copy calls it "the perfect engine for hardcore gaming", but don't fall for that malarkey.
●S and T are both low power consumption options, with T being the lower of the two and also optimized for low operating temperatures. If your power bills are a concern for you, grab a T processor, just know that T's have lower base clocks and aren't great overclockers, but honestly, overclocking won't be relevant for most people.
●K means "unlocked multiplier". The multiplier is an integer value that multiplies the base clock for the CPU alone. See, if you try to overclock by simply adjusting the base clock, like I had to do with mine, you'll be affecting the clock for the RAM as well and make managing the voltages a chore. With an unlocked multiplier, a basic overclock is as easy as adjusting that one number (the overclock I have on mine, for example, would be easy). Many people seem to think that an unlocked multiplier is necessary for overclocking. It is not. An unlocked multiplier makes overclocking easier. My recommendation is to simply go for a cheaper option and either don't bother with overclocking or plan on doing it by the old method of adjusting, stress testing, and adjusting again.
So, in summary: get either a 3xxx or a 4xxx and decide whether you care more about power consumption, overclocking, or price.
If you go with AMD: AMD is more merciful than Intel with their naming conventions. A-series means integrated graphics and low power, and these may be comparable to the T series from Intel, and for an integrated graphics option these chips have a good reputation. The FX series is the thing to buy if you're also buying a graphics card. Each processor in this series is given 4 numbers. The first number indicates the number of cores in the CPU: 4, 6 or 8. The second number indicates the architecture generation. There are currently three generations within this series, and the latest generation is what you'll be looking for. For example, an FX 4170 is a quad-core processor with first generation architecture, and an FX 8350 has 8 cores and third generation architecture. All of these processors come with an unlocked multiplier by default.
The only thing to watch out for is that, while there is simultaneous multithreading on AMD CPUs, the implementation leaves something to be desired. These and a few other technical details lead to a common "Intel > AMD" refrain (more cores does not mean better CPU). While I generally agree with this from a not-just-gamer standpoint, I also think that the difference is not as important as your budget. Don't be afraid to buy an AMD chip if it makes a big enough difference to the bottom line or that some sources say gives better performance in your favorite game. There is a possibility that the next generation of consoles, with MS and Sony relying on AMD chips, will lead to AMD being preferable for gaming, but this remains to be seen.
Anyway, here's a simple flow chart:
Get to whichever end suits you most and pick from the options based on what you're willing to pay. Also, I realize this is a very simplistic look at AMD. You should also consider their A series for a budget build without a dedicated graphics card.
Graphics Card Choosing a graphics card can be as overwhelming as choosing a CPU. The naming conventions are almost as bad, and the number of choices is made more maddening by all this talk of multi-GPU configurations. Fortunately, there are some rules of thumb here to make everything easier:
●Higher numbers mean better performance in Nvidia's modern GTX line and AMD's modern Radeon HD line, so it's generally best to choose based on what you're willing to pay.
●Multiple card configurations, in which more than one card is used and the cards are linked in "SLI" (Nvidia) or "CrossFireX" (AMD) which amounts to connecting them with an included adapter, can be a pain in the ass to configure and don't work very well with some games, not to mention most games don't really need that much horsepower to run at fairly high settings. I recommend trying to get the best single card you can afford and leaving it at that.
●VRAM is most important for high resolutions. 1 or 2 GB of VRAM is plenty unless you are planning to play at extremely high resolutions such as on a television or with multiple monitors.
There are four "tiers" of pricing, as I see it: cheap (<$100), low-end though not bad (~$100-$150), good for pretty much anything (~$250-$400) and "I'm rolling in cash so why not" (~$1000)--this is ignoring cards for professionals and only looking at cards marketed to gamers. My advice: pick one of those tiers and roll with either AMD or Nvidia:
●A decent card in category 1, cheap, is the Radeon HD 6670.
●Good cards category 2 are the GTX 660Ti and the Radeon HD 7770.
●Great cards in category 3 are the Radeon HD 7870 and the GTX 670.
●An expensive card in category 4 is the GTX Titan.
For reference, I use a Radeon HD 7870, and it's able to play Bioshock Infinite with smooth framerates at max settings and The Witcher 2 at high settings with smooth framerates (don't have numbers off the top of my head, but it felt like 60ish FPS). A monster like the Titan or the ASUS Ares II will only be worth it if you only play games because pretty graphics.
EDIT: Taterchimp was kind to remind me of the large amount of searchable benchmarking information available online, and that this is important information to consider in choosing a card for your system. Benchmarks, for those who don't know, are stress tests for hardware to determine how much a given piece of hardware can take before it stops working properly and comparing those stats to the results of other hardware in the same category. This term predates computing by a long time, and it means pretty much the same thing as it does in other contexts in which you may have encountered the term.
The procedure for choosing a graphics card has two steps: 1) Choose a price range within your means. 2) Make a list of cards in that category with a price you like and compare benchmarks by searching for benchmarks on the internet.This site contains a bunch of comparison charts, as does the article linked previously.
RAM For RAM, 8 GB will be enough for most people. RAM isn't all about capacity, though. What makes some RAM worth more than some other RAM is what guaranteed frequency (meaning the frequency it's guaranteed to operate at stably) it will run at. This is much like the clock speed of the processor: higher number is better number. The guaranteed frequency will be a stat like 1333 MHz or 1600 MHz. 1600 MHz will be just fine for most people. There are also the latencies to think about, and these will be reported usually as 4 numbers like this: 9, 9, 9, 24. The lower these numbers are, the better. I won't explain what that means here, because it doesn't really matter, just know that a lot of premium RAM modules have higher frequencies and latencies, but the latencies need to be compared against the frequency; in other words, you can't just directly compare the latencies of a 1600 MHz RAM kit to those of a 2400 MHz RAM kit.
To select the RAM that's right for you, go to your online retailer of choice and search desktop memory by the frequency first, then compare the latencies of the kits you see with the same frequency. You may also see "DDR", "DDR2" and "DDR3". Choose DDR3 and avoid anything else.
If you don't want to think about all of this: get an 8 GB kit of DDR3 1600 MHz with the lowest latencies you can find.