THE STATE OF GAMING 2015
The week of March 1, 2015
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Building the perfect gaming PC

By Dennis Scimeca

If you want the perfect personal computer for playing video games, you need to build it from scratch.

I’m not satisfied with PlayStation 4 or Xbox One—the dominant closed-box game consoles whose tech specs are set in stone. Not only do blockbuster titles have the ability to look better on PC consoles, I want to be able to play games that push the technical envelope, as well as games that really don’t work on consoles, like complex strategy and massively multiplayer online games.

Building a PC from scratch lets you buy the best components while also keeping costs down. It also means learning how the components connect to one another, having to depend on yourself or friends for technical support, and opening up numerous other headaches. I love PC games, but I want the dependability I’m used to from game consoles, so when it came time for me to get a new gaming rig, I used a build-to-custom service. I chose the parts, and the company did the assembly and quality-assurance testing.

All I had to worry about was choosing the correct components to make sure I had not only a powerful gaming rig but one I could simply and inexpensively upgrade in a few years to keep up with the inevitable advance of PC game graphics technology.

I went through this laborious process last year. Here’s everything I learned on my quest to build the perfect gaming rig.

What a ‘perfect’ gaming PC meant for me

My goal was to spend $1,500 or less on a high-end gaming PC that could be upgraded in two years with a new graphics card (read: GPU) and at that point still be considered a high-end gaming PC. I came up with my target price by looking at enthusiast guides for gaming-rig construction: $1,500 seemed like a median price for getting a PC rig with some serious power.

I also needed to build a “future-proof” gaming rig—meaning only a GPU upgrade, which is relatively painless, would be needed in a few years to keep the rig at high-performance levels. To do that, I needed to ensure all the rest of my core components, some of which aren’t easy to replace, would be considered high-quality for at least four or five years.

That way lies madness—and a really large amount of money.

My final requirement for building a perfect gaming PC was not having to overclock anything. “Overclocking” is pushing components past their design specs to get better performance out of them. Overclocking is associated with components generating more heat and wearing down faster. If I’m going for a high-end gig, I can’t introduce additional problems to the equation.

Resources for building gaming PCs

I received help on basic decisions from a friend of mine who has built his own PCs, but when it came to the details, I turned to YouTube, especially LinusTechTips. The channel’s advice was clear and to the point, and it gave me an idea of what I wanted to look for in other videos for second and third opinions.

I watched a bevy of GPU benchmarking videos, or comparative performance tests, that usually measure results in how many frames per second a GPU could produce on demanding games. Just identifying the games that kept popping up in those tests, like Far Cry 3, BioShock Infinite, and Battlefield 4 helped guide some of my decisions by referring to their recommended PC specs for best performance.

I also relied heavily on Newegg.com to research different parts, like motherboards and power supplies. I had no trouble conducting simple and useful research on every single part I had to consider. I had wrongfully assumed for years that the research would be onerous. I never suspected that it might, in actuality, be enjoyable!

This is what I finally decided on:

The 3 most important parts of a gaming PC

As a friend of mine advised me, “There are three things you can’t skimp on: your CPU, your memory (RAM), and your GPU.” Deciding on the first two was easy.

I chose the best, most powerful CPU I could from the list of available choices: a quad-core Intel i7-4790K processor that runs at 4.0 Ghz. That was the maximum number of cores and the highest speed I could get from my available choices. If I had waited just a few more weeks, I’d have been able to get one of the new Intel six- or eight-core CPUs. But I had no idea they were on the way to market.

For RAM, I had to decide how much and what speed I needed. The last time I bought a PC, 3 gigabytes of RAM was fine. Nowadays, 8 gigs is the standard for serious PCs. Keeping in mind how much this figure can change over time, I went ahead and double the RAM up to 16 gigs.

There were three speeds of RAM to choose between: 1600, 1866, and 2133 megahertz. I was looking at about a $100 difference between the top and bottom of the spectrum. My research suggested that the higher-speed RAM was unnecessary, unless I was working with HD video editing or processing special effects, so I went with the 1600 MHz speed.

Choosing your graphics card

The GPU is the arbiter of how well your gaming rig can handle high resolutions, anti-aliasing (smoothing out rough edges), shadow and particle quality, and maximum frames per second at different levels of graphics quality. This is the part I’ve always had the most trouble with, because there are so many damn options.

There’s the card itself, the amount of video memory (VRAM) on the card, and who the manufacturer is. By virtue of using a build-to-custom service, I was spared the latter choice.

The two primary brands are GeForce and Radeon, developed by NVIDIA and AMD, respectively. I’ve always dealt with and like GeForce cards. The research I did suggested that the best way to determine how much VRAM you need is to figure out how many monitors you want to have running high-definition graphics. One monitor is 2GB. Two monitors is 4GB. I was only going to run a single monitor, so I scratched all the cards with more than 2GB of memory off the list.

“There are three things you can’t skimp on: your CPU, your memory (RAM), and your GPU.”

That left me with a list of card models and the need to balance cost and power, with an eye toward finding the line of diminishing returns. I knew I’d be replacing the card in two or three years, so I didn’t want to spend too much on the GPU for the build. I also wanted to make sure I was getting superior performance for at least a few years.

More GPU advice than you can shake a stick of RAM at

PassMark Software has extensive charts of GPU comparisons, expressed as easy-to-read quality versus price assessments. The list is even broken down into categories by card quality. That gave me a nice place to start as I scanned toward the higher-end cards.

High_End_video_card_chart

The GPUBoss website lets you pair off different sets of graphics cards to measure their performance against one another. The library of GPU comparisons on GPUBoss is so rich that I was able to run any graphics card comparison I wanted during my search for the right card.

Using these two resources, I narrowed down the range of GeForce cards I was looking at. The price-to-performance chart looked like this:

video-card-comparison

We included the Titan Black model to show how price and performance aren’t necessarily 1:1 when it comes to this decision.

The GTX 770 was smack dab in the middle of the chart. It is toward the top of the high-end video card on the PassMark website, so I knew the card was good for my purposes. Was it worth taking that one step further and getting the GTX 780?

This is where the line of diminishing returns come into play. It would have cost me another $179 to go up to the GTX 780, which would have put me over the $1,500 budget I’d set for myself. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being foolish by sticking to that number, however, especially since I was supposed to be future-proofing.

I looked at this side-by-side graphics comparison between the two cards, and even with the video resolution turned up all the way to 1080p, I still can’t tell the difference between the 770 and the 780. The frame rates for both cards I was looking at were also preposterously high in this test, with 60 fps considered the golden number by gamers.

I went with the GTX 770. But I’ll be honest, even with all the reading I did, it’s still, as with any time I’ve bought a gaming PC, the decision I am least comfortable with. It is entirely possible that I made the wrong choice. And this is why I ran my old PC into the ground: to put off having to face the realization that I should have spent just a little more to get a more powerful rig. That way lies madness—and a really large amount of money.

All the other bits

Once the trinity of key components had been selected, the rest was easy. I chose to get a regular cooling fan instead of a liquid-cooling system, even though the liquid-cooling system was free. Maybe I was gunshy after my old PC breaking. I had nightmares about tubes breaking and water running all over my carefully selected components.

That was probably an extremely stupid fear, but I knew that a fan would do fine, as long as I was only running a single graphics card and not overclocking anything. I did pay a little extra for a top-rated thermal paste—the connective substance between the CPU and the heat sink, a key component in making sure heat is properly bled off. It was a small extra charge and also tested very well in product comparisons.

The grand total? $1,460.

This was the first time I’d ever thought about the power supply or PSU for a gaming rig, but it was also an easy decision. The main factor was the power requirement of the GPU. The GTX 770 requires a minimum of 600 watts of power. The most powerful GPU in the GeForce line requires 700w. I went with a 750w PSU to leave myself a little space above and beyond what my new GPU might require in two years.

The motherboard, or the part of the computer that connects all the other components, was something else I’d never put much thought into before. I looked up reviews on Newegg of the various options available to me and went with the board with the most positive reviews.

The last decision I had to make was what to do about the hard drive, because for the first time since I’ve been buying PCs for gaming, I was looking at the possibility of a solid-state drive, or SSD, which use the same basic technology as thumb drives. SSDs have no moving parts and are thus more dependable than a traditional hard drive or HDD, which runs off a disc.

Putting your operating system—e.g., Windows—on an SSD is also a good idea for bootup speed. I was able to get a good price on a 128GB SSD and a 1 terabyte HDD (purely for storing data) that were paired as a package deal.

This is my final build from iBUYPOWER.com:

Processor: i7-4790K Processor (4x 4.0GHz/8MB L3 Cache)
GPU: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770 – 2GB
RAM: G.Skill Ripjaws X 16 GB [8 GB x2] DDR3-1600 Memory Module
Hard drive(s): 128GB SanDisk SSD + 1TB 7200RPM HARD DRIVE
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z97-D3H — 1x PCIe 3.0 x16, 4x USB 3.0, 6x SATA-III 6Gb/s
PSU: 750 Watt — Corsair RM750 — 80 PLUS Gold, Full Modular PSU
Cooling system: Certified CPU Fan and Heatsink[Intel]
Other: Tuniq TX-2 High Performance Thermal Compound

The grand total? $1,460.

I went to several other build-to-custom sites including Alienware, Digitalstorm, Cyberpower PC, Cybertron, and Avatar Gaming, to see how much a similar build would cost me. The prices ranged from $1,523 to a whopping $2,570, and none of the other builds were precisely as good, in terms of component quality, as my iBUYPOWER build.

It took a few weeks for iBUYPOWER to gather the parts, assemble the rig, and ship it to my house. And the first thing I did once the rig was hooked up was run the benchmarking tool that shipped with BioShock Infinite on PC. This is a chart of some of the frames per second results of GPUs at the top of the GeForce line. My average frame rate in my BioShock Infinite benchmarking test was 123 frames per second.

BioShock_Infinite_benchmarking_tests

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a quintessential example of a brand new game whose PC version that will tax anyone’s gaming rig if they want to crank up all the graphics settings for maximum quality. Because I built my gaming rig in the middle of 2014, some of the components are already slightly underpowered compared to new processors. For instance, if I were building my gaming rig today, I could choose from six-core or eight-core processors versus the quad-core processor I currently own. That’s a great example of how quickly PC technology evolves and why future-proofing is so important.

Game journalists have referred to the system requirements for The Witcher 3 as “brutal.” Here is the trinity of recommended hardware to run the PC version of the game at its maximum level of quality.

Processor: Intel Core i7-3770 3.4 GHz or AMD FX-8350 4 GHz
GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 770 or AMD Radeon R9 290
RAM: 8 GB

The fact that my gaming rig ought to be able to crush The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (i.e., run the game at max settings without loss of performance) is an even better measure of my gaming PC’s power than the Bioshock Infinite frame rate test. And considering some pre-built gaming PCs were running up to $2,500 when I started shopping, to have put together a rig that can crush The Witcher 3 for under $1,500 is pretty much “perfect,” for me at least.

Photo via StooMathiesen/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed