PC Hardware Explained
By Jimmy Thang on
8-7-17 update: This story has been updated to reflect new CPUs, GPUs, motherboard platforms, and more.
For the uninitiated, building a computer might sound as daunting as building a rocket ship, but assembling a PC is not rocket science. As a matter of fact, if you’ve ever put together a Lego set, then you’ve got the chops to build a basic PC. The more challenging part of the process is simply educating yourself on what parts to buy, but planning out your build is also arguably the most fun part. To help you enjoy this process, we’ve written this PC component shopping starter guide, and by the end of it, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running to start building your own custom PC!
First things first:
Building a PC doesn’t have to be expensive. If you plan to do most of your gaming at a resolution of 1080p (which is by far the most common gaming resolution today) and you only want to play less-demanding games like League of Legends, DOTA 2, or Hearthstone, you could spend as little as $400 on your PC. If you want to jump into the deep end to play games like The Witcher 3 at pupil-splitting 4K, then yes, that’s where the multi-thousand dollar PCs can come into play. Of course, there’s also a middle ground if you want to play demanding games, but aren’t concerned with turning up all of the graphical bells and whistles. As we mentioned, there’s a ton of flexibility here.
Generally speaking, you want to get the most bang for your buck. If you spend more money on a component, chances are you will get slightly better performance, but you’ll be paying a high premium for it. Conversely, if you spend too little, you might end up making some compromises down the road, and might be better off with spending a few dollars more for a better long-term experience. Deciphering all of that may seem difficult, but we’re here to walk you through it component-by-component.
Table of contents:
Unless all you're planning to play are non-graphically demanding indie games, we'd recommend a quad-core central processing unit (CPU). While the graphics processing unit (GPU) is often seen as the most important component of one's gaming rig, it is important to not overlook the value of having a good CPU. After all, the CPU is the brains of the operation, and if you go with a poor one, it will only serve to bottleneck your GPU. This means it will prevent your graphics card from going full speed, so to speak.
At the moment, Intel's $350 quad-core Kaby Lake 7700K CPU is arguably the best (non-enthusiast) consumer quad-core CPU right now, and the company's $200 quad-core i5-7500 is a great bang-for-your-buck gaming CPU. While Intel's chips seem to slightly edge out AMD's processors when it comes to games, there are great offerings from AMD that offer a good balance between gaming and productivity at affordable prices. The company recently released its Ryzen 3 series CPUs, which represent great entry-level quad-core chips that are tailor-made for budget gaming rigs. Its Ryzen 5 CPUs are great mid-range bang-for-the-buck CPUs, and the company's Ryzen 7 processors are aimed at enthusiast streamers and video production specialists. AMD is offering even higher-end processors designed for professionals with its Ryzen Threadripper chips. The highest-end 1950X SKU offers a whopping 16 cores and 32 threads, which makes it great at multitasking and running compute-heavy workloads like graphics rendering.
To conduct an accurate apples-to-apples comparison of core count, they should be kept in the same family. A quad-core Intel CPU will most likely be better than a dual-core Intel CPU, but an octo-core AMD CPU isn't necessarily better than a quad-core Intel CPU, for instance. To muddle things up a little more, an octo-core Intel CPU might not be better than a quad-core Intel CPU for gaming, considering most games aren't optimized for anything above four cores. In some cases, opting for a CPU with more than four cores is not only a waste of money for gaming, but can result in slightly poorer performance. Take for instance Intel's $1,000 5960X CPU. This is a great processor for gaming and a dream chip for productivity tasks. The CPU might have eight cores, but it carries a base frequency (speed) of 3GHz, which is slower than the base frequency of the 4.2GHz quad-core i7-7700K, which retails for $350. Why does the exorbitantly priced octo-core CPU run at a lower frequency than the cheaper part? When you have to squeeze twice as many cores into the CPU die, you essentially have to make some compromises when it comes to power and heat.
Technically speaking, Intel's highest-end CPU currently out on the market is the $1,000 i9-7900X, which is a 10-core CPU within the company's enthusiast line of processors. Intel's enthusiast chips, designated with an E at the end of the SKU, are typically tailored for professionals and come with more than four cores. The aforementioned $350 7700K is marginally faster than the 7900X in games typically, but the 10-core CPU generally beats the 7700K in productivity tasks where more cores can be leveraged.
If you can't decide between two CPUs, a good online resource is CPUboss.com. The website allows you to compare the specs of any two processors and will provide a score for each CPU. The site also provides comparison benchmarks and weighs performance against price.
Another thing you may want to pay attention to is if the CPU is "unlocked." Unlocked CPUs allow you to overclock them for "free" performance. While all AMD CPUs made today are unlocked and overclockable, in the Intel world, generally only the more expensive "K" or "E" SKUs can be overclocked. While CPU overclocking is very common, every CPU has its own overclocking limit (even with CPUs in the same SKU!). While overclocking isn't necessary, if you want to try doing so, you should get an "aftermarket" cooler so that you can crank up the power a little more. We'll talk more about coolers later.
Provided you have a good enough CPU, your graphics card is going to be the single biggest component affecting your gaming performance. Essentially, the GPU should be the most expensive component of your gaming build.
This isn't to say that you should break the bank to get a graphics card. We also want to dispel a myth that you'll need to upgrade your GPU every year or every other year, just because new graphics cards come out at that cadence. A video card that you buy today will not magically get slower in the future (if anything, it may even slightly improve with driver updates). As a matter of fact, the GeForce GTX 660, which came out five years ago, can still play the overwhelming majority of modern games with acceptable frame rates. You just won't be able to crank up the graphical bells and whistles as high as you might like.
What graphics card should you get, though? That really depends on your budget and desires. We've put together an in-depth GPU buyer's guide where we've rounded up all the modern graphics cards to help.
If you want to max out most of your games at 1080p (the most common gaming resolution) with consistent frame rates above 30 FPS, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 and AMD RX 570 will do the job. They are also baseline GPUs for VR. The more powerful GeForce GTX 980, 1060, and Radeon RX 580 graphics cards are great for 1080p gaming as well, but they are also competent cards for handling the more demanding 1440p resolution. For better performance at 1440p, you'll want a GTX 1070 or AMD's upcoming RX Vega 56. If you want to go all in and try your hand at 4K, we'd recommend going with at least the GTX 1080 or AMD's upcoming RX Vega 64, but to be honest, 2160p is extremely taxing on hardware; you'll likely want a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, if not two of them, as it is the fastest gaming graphics cardonthemarkettoday.
If you don't need to game with your settings maxed out, a GTX 1050 Ti or an RX 560 are good bang-for-the-buck cards for your medium-to-high settings needs. For systems solely focused on non-graphically demanding games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and CS:GO (which are among the most popular PC games today), more affordable options like the GTX 1050 or RX 550 will do fine.
AMD vs Nvidia
Once you've figured out your GPU price range, the next logical question to ask yourself is, "Do I go with Nvidia or AMD?" As it stands right now, each vendor has its strengths and weaknesses, but the hardware community generally gives Nvidia the nod over AMD for better and more consistent driver updates. Nvidia also currently enjoys a lead in the performance-per-watt architecture category (that is to say, the company is able to deliver greater performance with less power). That means Nvidia cards are generally able to run cooler and quieter. Nvidia also offers a strong suite of features like GeForce Experience, which allows you to quickly enable optimal playable game settings, and Nvidia ShadowPlay, which allows you to easily capture in-game video. AMD is generally seen as offering a slightly better dollar-to-performance ratio, meaning you get pretty good bang-for-the-buck if performance is what you seek. Of course, graphics cards are always evolving and comparisons are going to vary on a situational basis. Like the iOS vs Android debate, both sides have their fervent fanboys and pitchforks. Luckily for you, both companies make great graphics cards and you can't really go too wrong either way.
But how do you recognize what makes a great graphics card? There are a couple things to look for. Both Nvidia and AMD use parallel processing cores for their GPUs. Nvidia refers to its cores as "CUDA" cores and AMD calls its cores "stream processors." The higher amount is generally a telltale sign of a card's quality. Like what we said about CPU core count, however, you can only compare numbers within the same family. This means you can't effectively compare CUDA cores against stream processors. You should also look at a card's base and boost clocks, which generally dictate the frequency, or speed, at which a card runs.
The amount of video RAM (VRAM) a card has is generally another indication of a card's quality tier. Again, the more you have, the better the card. Since VRAM, or the frame buffer (as it's also commonly known), is responsible for loading a game's textures, the higher the resolution you're gaming at, the more textures it has to push. VRAM therefore indirectly dictates what resolution each card should run at. Generally speaking, 2-4GB of VRAM is good for gaming at 1080p (HD), 4-8GB of VRAM is good for 1440p gaming, and you'll want six or more GB of VRAM to effectively game at 3840x2160 (4K).
Like CPUboss.com, if you can't decide between two GPUs, there is a similar website for graphics cards, appropriately titled GPUboss.com. Again, the site allows you to compare the specs between both devices, gives you a score for each, and provides comparison benchmarks.
8GB is the bare minimum that we'd recommend for a respectable gaming PC, and you shouldn't feel the need to go out and buy expensive RAM sticks. If you like to open up numerous tabs using Google Chrome or would like to do video editing/production work on the side, it's not a bad idea to opt for 16GB. In terms of RAM speed, getting 1600MHz and above is going to be fine for your gaming needs. RAM speed matters more if you're running on your CPU's integrated graphics, but since you'll be using a discrete desktop GPU, this won't concern you. We'd also advise you to get your RAM running in at least dual-channel mode as opposed to single channel. For a total of 8GB of RAM, we recommend going with two 4GB sticks, as opposed to one 8GB stick. The reason for this is that it offers greater memory bandwidth, which could help with productivity applications. When you're shopping, make sure that you get the right RAM for your motherboard: DDR4 is the newest consumer RAM standard, but if you're using a slightly older motherboard, there's a small chance that you may need DDR3 RAM. If you're building a Ryzen system, you'll also want to make sure that your DDR4 memory is compatible with AMD's CPUs. You can get a detailed list of confirmed compatible RAM on the company's website.
You'll want to shop for you motherboard, or mobo, after you've determined which CPU you're going with, since motherboards support specific CPU sockets. For instance, if you choose Intel's i5-7500 CPU, which uses the LGA 1151 socket, you'll need a motherboard that supports that socket. Current Intel sockets include the aforementioned LGA 1151 and LGA 2066, the latter of which is more of an enthusiast mobo socket. AM4 is AMD's modern, mainstream socket and is designed to work with the company's Ryzen 3, 5, and 7-series CPUs. The company's upcoming Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, which are geared for prosumers and professionals, uses the larger TR4 socket. In case you're concerned about socket compatibility, you can use PCPartPicker.com to put together your build online. The website will inform you of any CPU and motherboard mismatches.
In addition to sockets, you should also pay attention to chipsets, which usually dictate what ports and features your motherboard will support. For instance, Intel's latest high-end consumer Z270 chipset for the company's Kaby Lake processors supports overclocking, up to 10 USB 3.0 ports, and up to 24 PCI Express lanes. If you plan on overclocking a Ryzen CPU, make sure your motherboard is equipped with an X370, B350, or X300 chipset.
We'd generally avoid getting an older motherboard that supports an outdated socket; since older boards are no longer supported, you won't be able to slot newer, upcoming CPUs into them. You may also miss out on more modern features like USB type-C connectivity or even USB 3.0 support, if you go back far enough.
Once you've figured out what kind of socket your motherboard will need, the next big thing to decide is the motherboard's size. Mobos generally come in four form factors. From smallest to largest there is: Mini-ITX, MicroATX, ATX, and Extended ATX. If you select a Mini-ITX board, you can get a small, portable Mini-ITX case to go along with it. If you choose an Extended ATX motherboard, you'll probably need a big full tower case to house it. Going with an Extended ATX motherboard will likely provide the most features and ports, but it will generally be more expensive and you won't be able to squeeze it into a small chassis. Going with Mini-ITX, however, limits you to one video card and just two RAM slots. The other two options cater somewhere in between, so it's up to you to decide what you need.
Some key considerations when looking for a motherboard include: Does it support Crossfire/SLI for two or more graphics cards? How many PCIe slots does it have? (This will determine how many video cards you can slot into it.) Does it have the ports that I want? Does it come with WiFi? Does it offer Bluetooth? There's a bunch of other little details about motherboards, but these are some of the big-picture things to look at.
Arguably the most important thing to look for in a case is its size. It roughly follows the same size guidelines as motherboards. Meaning, Mini-ITX chassis are for Mini-ITX boards, Micro-Towers are good for Micro-ATX boards, Mid-Towers pair well with ATX boards, and full-towers are designed for Extended-ATX mobos. Another thing to look out for is, well, looks. Yes, you can get a cheap case if you’re on a budget, and it will do the job, but the case is the shell of your hot rod. It should ideally look sexy. Yes, that’s a little shallow, but it’s okay to “treat yo self” every now and then. Thankfully, you don’t need to spend a ton to get a nice looking case. Take for instance the Fractal Designs R5 pictured here. At around $110, the mid-tower offers a sexy, yet minimalist design that isn't outlandishly expensive.
Aside from the aesthetics, you’ll want to make sure the case can fit all of your components. We’re not just talking about the motherboard here. If you’re going to be getting a bulky aftermarket cooler, a giant video card, or a large power supply, for instance, you’ll want to make sure those parts will fit in that case. The case will often give you height or GPU-length info, but in case it gets too confusing, using a website like PCPartPicker, which informs you of incompatibility issues, can help you solve the problem.
Other things to look for in your case is to ask yourself: Does it have any cable management options to keep the innards of your PC tidy? Does it include any fans? Does it offer good airflow with vents at the top and back/sides? Does it include dust filters?
Unless you’re buying an enthusiast CPU from Intel, most CPUs will come with a stock cooler. If you don’t plan to overclock, then sticking with these included coolers is fine. If you did want to overclock a little however, you'll want to get a more efficient aftermarket cooler. If you didn't want to spend too much for one, Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Evo is a great bang for the buck air cooler you can get for around $30. If you wanted to be a little more aggressive with overclocking, it’s a good idea to step up to a closed-loop water cooler. These coolers use liquid to more effectively dissipate heat. The most common closed-loop coolers will come in either single-rad or double-rad forms. The most important thing you’ll want to look for here is to see if the cooler will fit your case. Another thing to look out for is the size of the cooler’s fans. Most cases will support 120mm fans, but some cases will also support 140mm fans. Generally speaking, because larger 140mm fans are able to move more air with less effort (due to their larger blades), you don’t need to crank up the rpms as high to achieve optimal cooling. Experientially, this can save your ears from any leafblower-like noises. There are plenty of good closed-loop liquid coolers out there, but a good single-radiator 120mm cooler is the Corsair H80i, and a good 140mm cooler is the NZXT Kraken X42. There are also great double-rad versions of both (the Corsair H100i and NZXT X62, respectively). If you wanted even better cooling performance and flashier aesthetics, you’ll want to look into installing a custom-loop cooler, but these are much harder to install, and we’d only recommend them for more seasoned PC building vets.
As far as we’re concerned, an SSD for a gaming PC is a must. We’d recommend getting a 240GB SSD or greater. If that’s too much for your budget, you can opt for a 120GB SSD for at least the operating system. Having an SSD for your OS will allow you to boot up your PC super fast. We’re talking under 15 seconds here.
The new hotness in super-fast storage is Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) drives. They come in two form factors. Intel’s 750 PCIe SSD requires a PCIe slot, whereas Samsung’s 960 Pro requires an M.2 slot. While these drives are insanely fast, you will be paying a premium for them. For reference, Samsung’s 960 Evo NVMe SSD is up to five times as fast as traditional 2.5-inch SATA-based SSDs, but cost about twice as much.
Intel has also recently released an NVMe drive that's based on the company's new 3D XPoint architecture. Geared toward data centers, Intel calls its drive the DC P4800X SSD. While you can purchase the SSD, it only works with Intel's latest 7th generation Kaby Lake CPUs and costs a whopping $1,520 for 375GB of storage.
Intel also recently launched its Optane Memory caching drive; it, too, is based on 3D XPoint technology and can dramatically boost the speed of hard disk drives (HDD). While it's no replacement for having an SSD, it comes highly recommended if you're going to use a standalone HDD as your primary drive. Like the aforementioned DC P4800X drive, Optane Memory requires a seventh generation Intel CPU and a 200-series motherboard that has an M.2 slot.
While we love SSDs, unless you’re going to shell out for something like Samsung’s 2TB 850 Pro SSD, which costs roughly a grand, chances are you’re also going to want cheaper mechanical hard drives for your mass storage needs. Depending on how many games you play, your needs are going to be different, but we’d recommend getting at least a 1TB hard disc drive (HDD). Just make sure it’s a 7,200rpm one, which is the standard HDD speed nowadays. Don’t feel the need to opt for anything faster, either, as your SSD is meant to do the heavy lifting when it comes to speed. If you’re trying to be economical, a good thing to look out for is price per GB. Also, unless you have a super tiny case, you could always add a secondary hard drive later.
Now that you’ve picked all your components, you’ve got to get a power supply unit (PSU) that offers enough juice to power everything. To make your life easier, there are online power supply calculators that will tell you how much wattage you’ll need upon plugging in the components you plan to use. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to give yourself a 100-watt power buffer, in case of a power spike or the weather goes awry. You may also want to give yourself a bigger buffer if you think you’re eventually going to want to add a second graphics card to your rig. It’s also a good idea to get a good power supply made by a reputable PSU manufacturer, since you don’t want any of your components getting damaged in the event that a shady power supply keels over. Some reputable power supply vendors include Corsair, EVGA, Seasonic, Enermax, Lepa, Silverstone, and Antec among others. If that’s too much to remember, just make sure to get a PSU that’s rated “80 PLUS” or better (This means that it’s 80 plus percent efficient on any load that is above 20 percent).
Another thing to consider with purchasing a power supply is deciding between modular or non-modular. Non-modular power supplies have all the wires and cables dangling out the back of the PSU, whereas modular power supplies allow you to pull out any unnecessary cables you don’t need for your build. If you’re a neat freak, you may want to opt for the modular PSU, as it allows you to free your PC from clutter (which in turn can slightly assist with airflow). The downside to modular power supplies is that you have to keep track of where you left all the extra cables in the event that you needed them at a later date.