How To Build “The Best Gaming Desktop” - a step by step guide for dummies

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The Ultimate Guide To Building a Gaming Desktop

Building a Good Gaming Desktop

Gaming is something that more and more people do nowadays, but more often than not is an expensive hobby, so you obviously want the “most bang for your buck”. Obviously you don’t want to spend $1000 on a desktop only to find out you could’ve built something just as good with half the price. Here’s a guide on how to make the best gaming desktop with the available money.

What’s the “magic” that goes inside a gaming desktop?

Well, it’s simple. There are a bunch of components which when paired up give the whole build life. Here’s a quick list:

  • Central Processing Unit, also known as CPU
  • Motherboard, also known as Mobo
  • Graphic Processing Unit, also known as GPU
  • Random Access Memory, also known as RAM
  • Hard Disk Drive, also known as HDD
  • Solid State Drive, also known as SSD (this one is optional)
  • Power Supply Unit, also known as PSU
  • Fans and fan controllers (the fan controllers are optional, the fans are also optional but highly recommended)
  • The desktop’s case
  • A monitor
  • Peripherals (mouse and keyboard, joysticks and controllers, etc

If you do it properly you can end up with something that looks much neater than this

The desktop won’t run without the obligatory components above. At the beginning it seems that they are so many but don’t worry, it isn’t as hard as it seems. I will go through them in the same exact order, so let’s start, shall we?

The Central Processing Unit, or “CPU”

This little chip is the most important part of any desktop

A CPU is the “brain” of the whole system. It sends information and takes information from the other components. In a game, the CPU is responsible for: the physics engine, reflections, foliage, artificial intelligence and NPCs (non-playable characters), certain game rules like random item drops, and a few more. There are 2 CPU manufacturers around: Intel and AMD.

When you pick a CPU, you have to be wary of some distinct basic criteria as:

  • Core speed (measured in GHz, also called a frequency or clock)
  • Number of cores and threads
  • Cache memory
  • CPU socket
  • Architecture and manufacturing process
  • TDP (Thermal Design Power)

Let’s break those features down:

The core speed is how fast a certain CPU does calculations on each core/thread. The higher the number, the faster the CPU is up to a point. You cannot compare the core speed of CPUs from a different manufacturer, and you cannot compare core speeds between different architectures. Each manufacturer and architecture uses that core speed differently, so what is considered slow for Intel, might be fast for AMD and vice-versa. As long as DirectX 11 is around, the core frequency is king and most of the times will make the biggest difference in performance. DirectX 11 has a tendency to put all the work on the first processing core/thread of your CPU, while the rest won’t do too much work. This can result in FPS drops simply because the game won’t distribute its work evenly. By having a faster core speed, your first processing core/thread is also faster, so the work load bombarded at that first core will be done faster. But, consider that DirectX 12 will become the norm sometime in the future, and this issue will be resolved. When comparing an Intel I7 7700K which has a core speed of 4.2 GHz and the AMD Ryzen R7 1700 which has a core speed of 3.7 GHz, you might think that the Intel should be faster right? Wrong, they are in fact very similar. The AMD is much better at more intense games and operations, like an RTS(Real-Time Strategy) or rendering in Sony Vegas, but the Intel works better at games which aren’t very CPU heavy. Don’t buy a CPU just because it has a high core speed, there are more factors to consider. Only compare core speeds from the same manufacturer, and preferably architecture. 

The number of cores and threads signify how many processing units the CPU has. Higher is generally better. DirectX 11 is around and the “huge” problem with it is that it tends to spread the load on the first core of a CPU. Because of this, 1 core will almost be always fully loaded while the others “slouch”. Because of this, a fast core speed will mean that the first core will move faster, and in less intense games (CPU-wise) the CPU with the highest core speed will perform better. In games when the action is very much CPU bound, the load will be spread better and the number of cores and threads will come to light.

The cache memory is a small amount of memory inside of the CPU which is loaded with what the CPU thinks it’s going to need next. The cache memory is much faster than the RAM, so instead of going into the slower memory to search what it needs, the CPU just takes it from the cache. The cache is usually spread between levels, from level 1 up until level 4. To summarize, the higher the cache, the faster the CPU is going to probably be, obviously up to a point.

The CPU socket tells you what motherboard you should be looking for. The socket has a number(like 1151) on the Intel counterparts and a short code (like AM4) on the AMD counterparts. You have to buy a motherboard which fits the same socket, otherwise the CPU won’t fit at all. Think of it as trying to wear an XS sized shirt when you are 6 feet 3 inches tall.

The architecture and manufacturing process mostly show how hot the CPU will get, what kind of driver support the CPU gets, and the technology available to the CPU. The architecture has a specific date and release date, while the manufacturing process has a specific size, like 28 nm, or 14 nm (nanometers)

The TDP generally shows you how hot the CPU will get, and is a decent indicator on how much power the CPU is going to use from the power supply(around 1.5 larger than the indicated TDP). It’s measured in watts. Newer architectures have lower TDPs.

Now, you can either go on your preferred desktop component site and with a bit of research, after which you can look for benchmarks online. The benchmarks will surely tell how the CPU will fare precisely. Spending a bit in a CPU is a decent idea, because the CPUs are the components that hold their age the best. There are CPUs which are 4 years old and if they are paired with a strong GPU, they can push 4K resolutions.

The Motherboard, or “Mobo”

This is the "bridge" between all of the components which links them all together and transform the pile of parts into a desktop

The motherboard is that “sheet of metal” on which all your components sit and fit. A good motherboard can give you many features like different protections against a power surge, the potential of doing a good overclock, fast boot, and others. As far as ports and pins and other internals go, you are generally interested in.

  • The CPU socket
  • Memory (RAM - Random Access Memory) slots and max memory
  • PCI and PCIe slots (Peripheral Component Interconnect and PCI Express – GPU ports)
  • SATA ports (Serial AT Attachment – HDD and SSD ports)
  • M.2 ports (a special kind of SSD)
  • USB ports (Universal Serial Bus, they can be either 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, and type C)
  • Audio jacks (possibility of connecting speakers, headphones, and audio systems to your Desktop)

 

Let’s clarify all of them shall we?

We already talked about CPU socket. It’s what kind of “shape” the CPU is, but in reality is the number of pins (connectors) they have. Also, the AMD CPUs generally have pins on the CPU itself, while Intel generally has pins on the motherboard, but it doesn’t really matter.

The memory slots dictate how many RAM sticks you can fit on the motherboard, and they have different channel types. Single, Dual, or Quad Channel, but the difference in performance in games and day-to-day usage isn’t really noticeable, so don’t really bother. What you should bother with though is that each motherboard has a specific DDR type it can fit: DDR1 and DDR2 (obsolete), DDR3 (almost obsolete), and DDR4 (current). Same thing with the CPU applies, you can’t fit DDR1 memory into a DDR4 slot. Also, the motherboard has a maximum RAM frequency, if you exceed that, the motherboard will lower the RAM memory until its maximum allowed frequency is reached.

The motherboard also has certain memory support. Each motherboard has a list with memories which are 100% sure to run on the motherboard. It doesn’t matter if the DDR4 requirement is checked, if that certain memory stick model isn’t on that list you will have stability issues like crashes and memory leaks.

In the PCI and PCIe ports you stick in your GPU and other peripherals like sound cards. They come in certain performances as 3.0 and 2.0. All you generally care about right now is for it to have at least one PCIe 3.0 port.

SATA ports are the links between your HDD or SSD, and how they communicate with the RAM and CPU. They also come in many varieties like 3.0, 2.0 and many RAID possibilities (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) which allow you to merge 2 HDDs into one, make one HDD faster by joining force with another, make a constant copy of your HDD on a backup, and others. The more ports you have, the more HDDs and SSDs you can connect. SATA 3.0 is the norm nowadays and nobody ever uses SATA 2.0 recently, so don’t bother too much looking researching whether the SATA is indeed 3.0 or not.

M.2 ports are special PCIe ports which are specially designed to run M.2 SSDs. These kind of SSDs are generally faster, and smaller. Only bother with them if you intend to buy an M.2 SSD.

The USB ports speak for themselves. Want to connect a keyboard or mouse? USB port. Have an external HDD? USB port. Want to transfer stuff from your phone/ camera to your desktop? USB port. USB 3.0 and 3.1 are faster, but if you don’t have a USB 3.0 or 3.1 on your phone/camera/external HDD/USB stick then you won’t notice the difference. The USB type C is a special USB which allows you to plug it without having to fiddle around with the orientation, but only USB type C jacks fit there.

The audio jacks show you what kind sound system you can link to the desktop. If you have a surround sound system, you would want to check how many jacks it has and what’s the maximum amount of speakers it can use.

In gaming, the motherboard isn’t particularly important, but this doesn’t mean that you should get the cheapest one around. A good motherboard gives you stability because the PC won’t have random blue screens, memory leaks, or unexpected crashes which is very desirable. 

Graphics Processing Unit, or “GPU”

The GPU distinguishes little desktops from gaming desktops

The GPU is the “bread and butter” of your gaming desktop. Its job is to draw textures, animations, some shadows, weather effects, anti-aliasing, post-processing, super resolution, super sampling, and the resolution as a whole to name some. The GPUs these days evolve decently fast, but a good GPU will hold its ground for enough years. As an example, I have an AMD R9 380x which was released in November 2015 so it has a bit of age on it, but I still can play games at high settings and it still has many years left in it, as long as I’m happy with playing games at low in a few years.

The GPU has many features that I explained here and I explained most of them and why you shouldn’t particularly look for whatever feature. But for a quick summary, look online for every possible benchmark you can find of your desired GPU. You can find so many which will give you the best idea on how a GPU will run. You can also find people with the same card who made a video of them playing a game with that specific card.

Random Access Memory, or “RAM”

RAM is used very much in open-world games and when you are having 50 tabs open in Chrome

The RAM holds temporary information which the game will need. Collision boxes, the game’s code, positions, and other stuff is stored into RAM.

The RAM has a few specific specs, but you are generally interested in:

  • Type of RAM
  • Size
  • Frequency

The type of RAM is straight forward. Either DDR1, DDR2, DDR3, DDR4, and DDR5 (which for a long time will be limited to graphic memory only. Motherboards can’t use DDR5 memory). If you got a motherboard that uses DDR3, then go for DDR3. Otherwise, the memory won’t fit the motherboard at all.

The size isn’t physical size, like the difference between 2 feet and 3 feet in length. Is the amount of memory the specific stick has, like 1 GB of RAM. These days, you should have at least 8GB of RAM in your computer, but you don’t need a single stick of 8 GB, you can go with 2 sticks of 4GB. RAM is easier to upgrade, you just add more as long as your motherboard has enough slots or still hasn’t reached its max capacity.

Frequency is how fast the RAM operates, and it’s measured in MHz. In RAM, the frequency isn’t particularly important, and you won’t notice large differences if you were to compare a 1333MHz stick to a 2400MHz stick. The difference in gaming is negligible, but in daily use you might feel the desktop going slightly faster. When paired with a CPU which doesn’t have a lot of cache, higher frequency memory can help it get along.

Hard Disk Drive, or “HDD”

The HDD stores your computer's programs, movies, photos, and the most imporant, your steam library

The HDD is the storage of your desktop, and that’s about it. In gaming you only feel a difference if the HDD is fast, and the only difference that you will feel is that the game loads faster. But other then that, a large HDD can store more games, the common norm being 1TB (1024GB). The HDD also has a buffer and rotation speed, the larger the buffer is and the faster it spins, the faster the HDD will perform.

Solid State Drive, or “SSD”

 

An HDD which is much faster, much smaller, more quiet, and a lot more expensive

The SSD is a much faster storage drive, but being smaller in storage capabilities and more expensive. The SSD is generally used to store the operating system on it, allowing you to install programs faster, the desktop will boot faster, and operating on it will generally be faster. In gaming, it only helps you if you install a game on your SSD because the game will have shorter loading screens. This will be a welcome sight in the games where the loading screens are endless. An SSD is completely optional, only buy one if you want the boot speeds and overall desktop use. You could achieve a similar effect by getting 2 HDDs, and setting them in RAID in such a way that one is an exact copy of the other. This way, files can be loaded  from both hard drives at the same time, making the HDD technically twice as fast, but they still will be a lot slower than an SSD.

 

Power Supply Unit, or “PSU”

This weird looking box powers your whole desktop

The PSU is the powerhouse of the desktop, similar to how an engine is the workforce of a car. The PSUs come with different wattages, and you have to be sure that the PSU can power your entire desktop with some wattage on top of that. There are calculators online which estimate the power usage of your desktop, thus giving you a guide on what PSU you should buy in terms of power. Also, if you hate wires, you can get a PSU which is modular(like the one in the image), more precisely you plug into the PSU only the wires that you need plugged. It looks neater than having all the wires hanging on the floor of your desktop's case.

When buying a PSU, don’t be cheap. A bad PSU can kill your entire desktop if there is an electrical surge or anything similar. Look for at least a bronze certified PSU, and look for a decent brand (Corsair, Antec, EVGA to name a few). Also, check their protections. A PSU should list their specific protections in their specification list, the more it has, the better.

Fans and Fan controllers

They keep your desktop cool and healthy, while also making your desktop look more complete

The fans are literally that. They push air through your desktop and cool it down. Don’t think that a fan and a CPU cooler are the same thing, because they aren’t. The CPU cooler has a heat sink which draws heat away from the CPU, and blow the hot air away from it using a fan. Case fans only push air inside the desktop. These are recommended because a cooler desktop will last longer due to less heat, but if you don’t have dust filters on the case, it will get really messy if the desktop isn’t taken care of. The fan controllers are entirely optional. They tell the fans, that’s if the fans are any good, how fast they should spin. 

 

The desktop’s case

Makes your desktop look nice while also adding utility

The case is where the components will do their living. All you need to know is that you shouldn’t buy a cheap case, and if a case has many flashy LEDs and its very fancy looking, it doesn’t mean that the case is made for gaming. Those flashy cases are only there to impress. Buy a case which fits your motherboard, that has fan slots, and in the best case scenario buy a case with dust filters. You can get away with a cheap case though.

 

The monitor

You prefer to see what you are playing right?

Well, the monitor is straight forward and everyone knows what it does. If you don’t have one, look for these:

  • Resolution
  • Aspect Ratio
  • Display Ports
  • Size
  • Refresh Rate

The resolution speaks for itself. The norm nowadays is 1080p, but if you are buying yourself a good GPU you can go for 1440p or even 4K.

You should buy a monitor with an aspect ratio that you are comfortable with. Most people run 16:9, while I have a 16:10. If you have some work to do on your computer where you need screen space, you can get a 21:9 Ultrawide monitor.

Check the display ports and be sure that the GPU and the monitor have the same ports. Otherwise, you will have to look for an adapter which is tedious. Don’t use VGA ports, those are basically obsolete and only run low resolutions.

Buy a monitor with a size that fits your desk and your eyes. Resolution and size are linked together, but at a monitor where the distance between your eyes and the screen is small, that isn’t very important. Don’t buy small 4K TVs if you plan to play in your living room. Because it’s small, you won’t notice the difference until you sit really close to the TV, and you will waste a bunch of money.

The refresh rate shows how many frames per second can be shown on the screen. Everyone likes 60 FPS, so look for screens which have at least 60 Hz.

 

And last but not least, the peripherals

They look nice and are very comfortable, but they won't turn you into an E-Sport champion so don't spend too much

It’s simple. Buy what you are comfortable with, and buy what you need.

 

And that’s it! By now, you should have a decent idea on how to build the best gaming desktop. Do not rush it. Be sure that you are more than content with what you built, you don’t want to spend money on something that won’t satisfy you completely. You can always ask a professional for a second opinion.

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Master degree in daydreaming. Video Games, Music, and Coffee addict. Wannabe Programmer. It's not procrastination; it's chilling until proven otherwise.
Gamer Since: 2002
Favorite Genre: FPS
Currently Playing: Tomb Raider, Stonehearth, The Walking Dead Season 3
Top 3 Favorite Games:Portal, Borderlands, The Stanley Parable
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