To build a gaming PC is to enter a dazzling realm of modern engineering, blazing fast processors and cutting-edge graphics. Why, just the process of selecting a hard drive offers hundreds of possible options, each one representing an opportunity to fine-tune your machine into peak performance. This is the guide for people who cannot be bothered with that crap.
Look, your consoles play games just fine. Some of them do other things as well, like streaming movies or facilitating identity theft. You don't need a gaming PC.
Sure, many games look better on a well-equipped computer, and there's the occasional big-ticket game that's exclusive to Windows. But in truth, there is only one good reason to build a gaming PC, which is that it's fun. It's fun to piece something together, plug it in and make it go. And the pride from a successful build lasts a long time.
This guide is not about maximising your computer's specs; it's about maximising fun (or, more to the point, minimising agony). It is designed to be both helpful and laughable in its inadequacy. Much of the advice I offer will be objectively terrible. Dedicated hobbyists will not like (or need) this guide. I am fond of hobbyists. I just don't think you need to be one in order to build your own PC.
1. Should you do this?
Probably not. It's sort of complicated. Take this questionnaire.
Do you know how a computer works?
A. Yes. The hard drive is for long-term storage, RAM is for short-term data, and they both connect to a motherboard, which... [You continue to recite an accurate outline of a computer's workings even though I have obviously stopped listening.]
B. Yes. I type the thing into the Google, and my internet goes to the thing.
C. Yes. I push the lever down, and a few minutes later, my potato waffles are done.
For those who answered anything other than "A," put down the hammer and nails - you are not going to be building a PC today. The fact that you thought you'd be using a hammer and nails should have been a red flag.
2. Prepare to shop
There are two things you need to start shopping: a store and a better guide than this one.
Here in the US, I like to get computer stuff from Newegg. I hear that in the UK, Novatech and Aria PC are popular. I'm not endorsing any of these. Honestly, if you can't find a computer store on the internet, that does not bode well for success in this process.
Watch out for money-saving opportunities. For instance, many items come with a rebate offer attached. A rebate works like this: the manufacturer promises to give you money if you buy a product, and then once you buy the product, they do not actually give you money.
As for the better guide, I mean a guide filled with the technical arcana that this guide lacks. You will reference this as you shop, and here's how: if the product you're considering seems to have a lot of the same acronyms and numbers as the products in the tech-speak guide, you can buy with 100 per cent confidence, maybe.
Select the homeliest, pixilated spreadsheety-est, jargony-est message-board guide you can find. I highly recommend the annual NeoGAF PC-building thread as a model of the form. It presents a surfeit of solid information in the most unattractive manner possible.
Ugly is good. Putting a computer together is a raw, nuts-and-bolts deal; that's part of the joy. When people try to make the process romantic, it feels false at best and icky at worst.
True story: while researching my recent PC build, I came across a glossy online guide in which the author described Intel's new Sandy Bridge processor chipset as if it were a woman whom he desired to have sex with. This despite the reality that Sandy Bridge is the least arousing name Intel could have chosen for their product.
The downside of message-board guides is that they are typically followed by thousands of enraged comments to the effect that everything in the guide is wrong. Ignore them. Which brings me to the next step:
3. Embrace your ignorance
Decide how much money you'd like to spend on this enterprise. For my recent PC build I set a budget of $900, which is the equivalent of about £25.50 or, in the imminent post-economic-apocalypse landscape, a tooth.
Don't worry too much about that budget at first. Just start piling motherboards and other junk into your cart while staying in the ballpark of your ideal figure. Maybe you end up with a computer worth two teeth. That's OK. Dream a little.
After you've pretend-splurged, whittle things back down under budget. Don't mourn the high-end kit you have to delete from your cart because - I can't emphasise this enough - you were never going to notice the difference anyway.
See, as you research PC components, a strange thing will happen. You, a person who stands there picking chunks of raw cookie dough from the tube without even closing the refrigerator door, will come to believe that you have the expert discernment of an audio-visual engineer. "This 6850 video card won't do at all," you'll harrumph, "a person of my taste requires the 6950."
No, you don't. Richard Leadbetter can tell the difference between the graphics power of the 6850 and the 6950, probably with his eyes closed. You and me, we can't. MAYBE if we run a side-by-side demo. By the way, never do this.
Don't run benchmark software, either, because it makes a little chart with little bars on it, and then you compare the length of your bar to the bars that people have posted on the internet, and all of a sudden it's gym class 1996 all over again.
Your ignorance is an enormous asset. It saves money and preserves fun. Build something that works nicely within your budget, and then forget that anything else ever existed. If you still find yourself tempted by the high-end, keep in mind the great equaliser: no matter how much you spend on your PC, in a few years it will be junk.
Beware. People will try to undermine your bliss. Last weekend I mentioned to my brother, a PC-building enthusiast, that I had put together my own computer.
"I think I have an extra video card that you could use," he said.
"Nah, that's OK," I said.
"Are you sure? It's probably faster than the one you have. I think it's a 9500," he said.
"Oh, mine is a 9600," I said, and he relented.
Lesson: If you ever get into a conversation with someone about your PC's specs, lie. Specifically, take the last number mentioned in conversation and add 100. When the interlocutor asks about a 3.3 GHz Intel i5 processor, casually offer that you have the 103.3 GHz Intel i105 processor. If questioned further, say, "You know, the new one." Then place a large quantity of food in your mouth and walk away.
The truth is, I don't remember what the model number of my video card is. All I know is everything looks real pretty.
On to the components, then.
4. The case
The case is the hulking plastic box into which you will cram the computer's innards. To decide on a case style, it's time for another ultra-short questionnaire:
Do you have dignity?
If you answered "A," just get an inoffensive black / grey case and be done with it.
If you answered "B," ask somebody who answered "A" to pick a case for you.
"Case style" is an oxymoron. No one is going to find your computer stylish. It's a wheezing box of circuitry. Midnight-blue LED spotlights, transparent side panels and garish paint jobs aren't going to change that. They only compound the embarrassment.
(Confession: I think the see-through panel is a neat idea, but I've never seen a windowed case that didn't look like it was designed by a 12 year-old sketching in the margins of his geometry textbook.)
Because you will reuse it for future builds, choosing a case is the PC-building equivalent of getting a tattoo. A blinged-out dork-box is the equivalent of a rainbow-unicorn tramp stamp. While you might convince yourself that it's cool right now, it is a time bomb of regret.
By the same token, a boring grey-rectangle case is like a little heart tattoo by your ankle: still not so tasteful, but whatever.
5. The processor and motherboard
The processor, or CPU, is the "brain" of the PC, according to a Burger King placemat I read once. Modern games, however, depend much more on the graphics card than the CPU. In gaming PCs as in life, the brain matters a lot less than you might hope.
The gigahertz / cores / chipsets breakdown changes on a monthly basis, but processors are a commodity. As such you will notice they fall into a consistent price hierarchy, even as the technology evolves.
High-end processors are manufactured as a practical joke. In essence, Intel is daring you to purchase a CPU that is maybe 2 per cent faster than comparable products costing hundreds less. They put this precious jewel on the shelf and then sneak around the corner, trying to hold in their giggles as some dingus with a God complex walks up and buys the thing because he has to have the "very best".
Then there is the second tier. The prices are reasonable by comparison and their still-considerable power will come in handy for all that protein-fold analysis you do. What's that you say? You don't decode intensely complicated atomic structures on your PC? Rather, you play Desktop Dungeons and design flyers for your alt-rock band in Microsoft Paint? Right, that's what I thought.
In short, if you plan to spend more than £150 on your processor (and even that is a lot), it might be time for some soul-searching. Hie thee to the third tier.
Motherboards are pretty easy. Find the boards that are compatible with your processor's chipset. Next, find a midrange model that has plenty of slots and a number of decent user reviews. Buy that one. Sure, the most popular motherboard is not necessarily the best one, but at least if it stinks there are plenty of people suffering along with you.
6. The video card
Feel free to spend a little more on your video card as games rely on this component more than anything else. That said, you should still avoid the deep, pricey end of the technological pool, which is where the rubes swim. And, in all likelihood, where they pee.
If you're hooking your PC up to a huge, high-resolution desktop monitor, you're going to want a powerful card because it has a lot of pixels to push. (This is a colloquialism; the card is not literally pushing the pixels. In actuality, the process is more like a stern beating.)
I connected my gaming PC to my TV, a setup I recommend. A TV typically has fewer pixels than a comparable monitor, you see. Plus, my couch is eight feet away from the set. The viewing distance means that I can buy a cheaper card and the picture still looks great. Therefore, if you want to save money on a video card, move your couch.
7. The hard drive
Hard drives are cheap. Get a fast one. Anything slower than 7200 RPM, and you might as well chisel the ones and zeroes in there by hand. I mean, honestly.
The other consideration is size. Here is the formula for determining ideal hard drive capacity: take the number of times per week that you download internet pornography, and multiply that number times 100. This is the number of gigabytes your hard drive should have. (NOTE: Current drives generally max out at 3000 gigabytes, but you can buy more than one.)
An exciting new innovation is the advent of fast solid-state drives. Less capacious and far more expensive than traditional hard drives, today's SSDs are great for PC builders who find themselves in a "Brewster's Millions"-type situation, in which they must spend a huge quantity of money within 30 days so that they may inherit an even larger sum of money. Good luck!
8. Everything else
RAM is even cheaper than hard drives so there's no need to skimp. A pair of 2-gigabyte sticks, for a total of 4 GB, should do the trick. You must install the sticks in adjacent slots on your motherboard for maximum performance. Placed in such close proximity, each stick of RAM will fight to outperform its sibling and win your favour. They will grow to resent each other and, with time, you.
Do you need a sound card? If it is 1997: definitely.
You'll have to purchase an OS for your rig, which is to say Windows. Microsoft sells discounted editions for system builders; don't buy the regular boxed copy. You may have a friend who will urge you to try gaming on an open-source OS like Linux. This is a great opportunity to not be friends with that person anymore.
Buy your power supply last. There are a number of online calculators that can help you determine the right wattage (probably in the 500- to 600-watt range). Get more wattage than you need right now, to allow for later expansion.
The most reliable power supplies carry what is called an "80 PLUS" certification. This seal of approval indicates that the unit has undergone rigorous industry tests to ensure that it has at least 80, and sometimes even more than 80.
9. Put it all together
The parts will be shipped to your home in the finest cardboard boxes. Open these boxes and take the parts out. Put everything into the slot where it looks like it's supposed to go.
No kidding, it's not much more complicated than that. Sure, there are going to be gaps between the myriad instruction booklets you receive, and Tab A doesn't always slide effortlessly into Slot B. You'll have figure a few things out for yourself. But that's your deal - you're a gamer, right? You thrive on challenges like this.
Keeping that philosophy in mind, here are a few general tips to make your assembly go more smoothly.
- Always ensure that parts are seated firmly, yet do not apply excessive force.
- The tangle of wires coming from the power supply can be intimidating at first. Be patient; sort through the cables one by one.
- Minimise the number of tacos you consume while assembling the computer. If possible, eat no tacos (or, more reasonably, only soft tacos).
- If the PC doesn't work the first time you start it up, don't panic! Simply switch the computer off, put it in the garbage and begin again from Step 1.
- If you find that the verge depth of your anchor escapement is causing the wheel to bind up, you have mistakenly assembled a cuckoo clock.
10. Bask in your superiority
Congratulations! You have joined an elite group: those who dared to build it themselves. Granted, you didn't do much more than place a bunch of pieces in their respective holes - you "built your PC" in the same way that a guy who screws in a light bulb has "invented electricity".
Still, you should be proud. Now it's time to reward yourself with - what else - a pleasant afternoon of gaming. So fire up that Xbox and enjoy. You've earned it!