What matters (and what doesn’t) when buying a gaming desktop

A gaming desktop is a big investment, so it’s a good idea to take the purchase seriously and do your research. Between your graphics card, processor, RAM, and storage, there’s a lot to consider. That’s why we’re here to show you how to buy a gaming desktop.

It’s a daunting task, putting together a gaming rig for the first time, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. As long as you know what to look for, and where to look for it, you can put together a gaming PC that will fit your needs in no time at all.

One size doesn’t fit all

Tomas Patlan

Most gamers start with the hardware inside a computer. We’ll cover that soon enough, but, before we get there, let’s talk about the exterior.

Gaming computers now come in many shapes and sizes. There are small systems such as the Falcon Northwest Tiki, midsize towers like the Acer Predator G1, and monoliths like the Origin Millenium.

Small systems are, well, small. They are unobtrusive and fit where larger systems simply can’t. They’re ideal for gamers who lack a large desk or want to use the PC in a home theater. Going small can limit future upgrade options, however, and some pint-sized PCs make a lot of noise due to their limited space for cooling.

Mid-towers are a good compromise and are ideal for most people. They’re small enough to fit under, on, or in a typical desk, yet large enough to offer upgradability and acceptable cooling. You’ll need to pay a little extra for glass side panels and fancy color schemes, but you’ll already know whether that’s something you care about.

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Finally, we come to the monoliths known as full towers. These are often so large that they won’t fit on top of a desk without hanging off the front or rear. A few full towers are so tall they won’t even fit under a desk.

A full tower system may carry a slight price premium over a mid-tower. But they are exceedingly easy to work with because they have enough space for anything you want to put in them, including your hands, which can be super helpful if you have large mitts.

Some custom manufacturers, such as Origin and CyberPower, offer a selection of cases during customization. A full tower is the easiest to grip and work with, but make sure you know its dimensions beforehand. If desktop space is important but you’re not totally comfortable working within a cramped area, opt for a mid-tower.

There are smaller options, but they are harder to modify, typically louder, and don’t necessarily support all of your hardware choices. Furthermore, small form factor cases get hot, so keep that in mind if you plan on running demanding games or if you want to venture into overclocking.

Start with the heart: The processor

When you buy a gaming desktop, whether it’s one you built yourself, a custom gaming rig, or a premade model from Dell or HP, the processor will be the first specification you see — and for good reason. The processor determines how a system will perform in most software.

The processor core count is a major consideration. Options range between two and 16 cores in the mainstream space. Unless you’re on an extreme budget, a four-core chip should be as low as you go, lest you run into performance issues with some software and games.

However, thanks to current pricing, a six-core chip is a good place to start, such as Intel’s i5-10600K or AMD’s Ryzen 5 5600X (they show up in our best Intel CPU and best AMD CPU roundups, respectively) — last-generation counterparts like the 9600K and 3600X are also great choices.

Those looking to do a lot of high-powered work may want to aim for eight cores or more instead, depending on how well the software can take advantage of the high core count. A six-core or eight-core chip is plenty for gaming. Beyond that, core counts matter more for applications like Adobe Premiere and AutoCAD.

When it comes to AMD vs. Intel, AMD tends to offer better value throughout the pricing spectrum, providing more cores and much better multithreaded performance thanks to every chip enjoying support for simultaneous multithreading. The latest Ryzen 5000 processors beat everything Intel has to offer across gaming and productivity tasks.

Stepping back a generation, however, Intel has an edge in gaming. The company’s flagship i9-10900K remains one of the best processors for gaming, but it’ll cost you a pretty penny.

Most modern games are getting better at utilizing multiple cores at once. However, you’ll see nearly identical performance across processors when paired with the same GPU as resolutions push higher. That’s why, in many cases, you don’t need a high-end processor like a Core i9 or Ryzen 9 for gaming.

For a deeper dive into the best bang-for-your-buck CPUs, check our out in-depth guide.

A great GPU makes a great gaming PC

If you’re somewhat serious about gaming, the graphics card is where you should pay the most attention. It’s the component with the biggest hand in beautifying your games, spitting out high frame rates, and making higher resolutions playable.

Model numbers tell you much of the story here, with higher numbered cards typically meaning more performance, though there are some caveats there, and overclocked models from third-party GPU partners can close performance gaps between versions. The RTX 2060 Super is almost as powerful as the more costly RTX 2070, for example.

Starting at the bottom, entry-level GPUs such as the AMD RX 570, or the Nvidia GTX 1650 will give you decent performance when playing at 1080p. If you want to game at 1440p at decent frame rates, you need something more powerful like the RTX 2060 or RX 5700 from the last generation. From the current generation, Nvidia’s 3060 Ti is the only option in the same price bracket, at least at the moment.

Those interested in 4K gaming or 100+ FPS in anything but simple e-sports games will need to look higher and dig deeper into their pockets. High-end graphics cards will cost you plenty, reaching above $1,000 in some cases. At 4K, Nvidia’s RTX 3080 and AMD’s 6800 XT are the best options.

Your graphics card is the single most important element of your PC if you’re primarily gaming. Although higher-end cards show diminishing returns — the “sweet spot” is around $400, where the RTX 3060 Ti sits — they will still show performance scaling in most games. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should just spend more on a GPU, however. It’s important to consider the game you want to play before setting a GPU budget.

Still, it’s generally a good idea to opt for newer cards, which in this case are Nvidia’s GTX 20-series and RTX 30-series GPUs, and AMD’s RX 6000-series. However, there is great value to be had with older cards too, and that may be your only option, as stock issues persist for Nvidia and AMD’s latest graphics cards.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

One often confusing element of graphics cards is video memory (or VRAM). It’s easy to find out how much system RAM you need, but GPUs are a little harder to determine. You may find yourself with a choice between two cards that are similar but offer different VRAM amounts. More VRAM does not have a significant impact on overall performance by itself, but it does allow a video card to better handle certain visual features and is a must for higher resolutions.

The baseline for modern gaming around 1080p should be 3GB, though we’d push that to 4GB if there isn’t much money in it, as most new cards sport that figure now. If you want to play using higher detail settings and to futureproof your system, 8GB is worth spending a few more dollars on, but it’s not strictly necessary, especially at lower resolutions.

We don’t recommend multiple video cards. Though once a great choice for high-end gaming, today, multi-card configurations often run into driver or game support issues that prevent them from unlocking their full potential. Multiple cards are also louder and hotter than a single card, and the most recent GPUs from Nvidia don’t even support it (unless you want to spend $3,000 on two RTX 3090s).

If you’re stuck choosing between AMD or Nvidia, the latter does have ray tracing support on its RTX 30-series and 20-series GPUs, but that’s not a great reason alone to buy in. The current list of games supporting ray tracing is minim

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