In our last segment, we looked at picking out a processor, motherboard, and memory. In today’s segment we’re going to look at picking out other components such as graphics cards, hard drives, power supplies, and cases. Each of these components is highly important in a quality gaming machine and you should take ample time to familiarize yourself with the different features and terminology involved before selecting the component that’s right for you.
Graphics Cards (GPUs)
After your processor and motherboard, your graphics card is one of the most important and most costly components in a gaming machine. If you want your games to look beautiful and not have to worry about pixilation or a drop in frame rate you’ll definitely want a GPU that exceeds the recommended requirement for your favorite games. If a game recommends a 760, get a 960 or 1060. Does it require 2GB of video RAM? Get 4GB instead. This way you’ll future-proof your machine for the next generation or two of video games.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention a current trend that is dramatically affecting the prices of many popular graphics cards: cryptocurrency mining. With Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency prices skyrocketing, so to have the prices of graphics cards which are used to mine for these currencies. As such, the cost of many graphics cards is well beyond that of the manufacturer’s recommended price (MSRP). This is, unfortunately, the new normal for online retailers such as Amazon or Newegg. There was a series of articles a while back on PCGamer.com and TomsHardware that noted some Microcenter stores would discount their GPUs if you bought other components such as a processor and motherboard with it but that requires being near one of their brick-and-mortar stores. That being said, expect to pay more than normal for a solid graphics card.
Chipsets: AMD and Nvidia
Just like CPUs, there are two main chipsets for GPUs: AMD and nVidia. Some people have a preference of one chipset over the other but frankly, we’ll leave those arguments alone again. While both AMD and nVidia chips work fairly well with Intel processors, it is worth noting that AMD’s CPUs and GPUs are designed to work well together. Go figure. Three of the top manufacturers – ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI – make both AMD and nVidia cards.
NVidia Graphics Cards
NVidia’s main line of game-inspired graphics cards is the popular GeForce GTX series. While they do offer other lines such as the GT series, these are meant for ‘everyday’ use and will likely not perform well, if at all, on modern games. The GTX series has been around a while and uses standardized naming practices, which will read something like GTX 960. The first digit (or two digits in the case of the 10 series) represents the numerical series the card is in, which in this case is the 900 series. The last two digits, a ’60’, is a reference for which audience/price point the card is targeted for.
As a general rule of thumb, an x80 is typically their highest end card of the series, x70 is a very good gaming card, the x60 in the series is a mid-tier but solid gaming card, and the x50 is the entry-level gaming card. Anything with x20, x30, or x40 is not meant for gaming. The newest series, the 10 series hasn’t even released 1040 yet.
Some of the recommended specs for games will list either a 600 or 700 series graphics card, typically the GTX 660. As a point of reference, the 600 series was released throughout 2012 into early 2013, and the 700 series was released throughout 2013 into 2014. NVidia skipped the 800 enumerations, and released the 900 series in late 2014 and throughout 2015. Their current line, the 10 series, was introduced in 2017. While it is possible to find some 700 series cards still, they are likely either used or refurbished. We’d recommend looking at the latest line, the 10 series, as they’ll likely last longer and will certainly have better driver support.
AMD Graphics Cards
As for AMD’s chipsets, they have a slightly wider variety of names for their different incarnations: the Radeon HD series, the Radeon RX series which is further broken down into 200, 300, 400, and 500 series, and their latest the Radeon RX Vega series. Each of these The Radeon HD series’ last chipset was released in 2013. The 200 and 300 series of RX were predominantly in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
The cards you’ll likely be interested in are from the 400 series, 500 series, and Vega series. These are all from 2016 and 2017. Similar to nVidia’s nomenclature, the 400 and 500 series also show their targeted segment/price point with the last two digits of the number, with 50, 60, 70 and 80 being roughly equivalent between chipset brands with the 80s being the top of the gaming chips and the 50s being the entry gaming chip. The Vegas only have the 56 and 64 models, with the 64 being the more powerful of the two.
To exemplify the note on cryptocurrency driving up the price of cards that we noted above, consider this. According to Wikipedia, the release MSRP for a Radeon RX 480 8GB card was $239 in June 2016. Used versions of the RX 480 8GB model are currently selling for around $500 on Amazon, and a new version of the weaker RX 480 4GB model on Newegg is $550.
The other main thing to consider when buying a graphics card is the brand. As always, we’ll strive to maintain neutrality as best we can. Three of the most reputable brands: ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI make both AMD and nVidia cards. For the most part cards from any of these brands will be pretty solid and they all offer decent warranties, support, and up-to-date drivers. EVGA and Zotac only make nVidia cards, and manufacturers XFX, Sapphire, and PowerColor only make AMD cards.
You’ll probably notice that similar cards from different manufacturers can have drastically different prices. For example, browsing the prices for GTX 1060 6GB GPUs on Amazon range from around $350 to around $600 dollars. There are a number of reasons that can explain the differences ranging from the brand, the number of cooling fans, clock speeds, and warranties.
Hard drives (HDDs) and Solid state drives (SSDs)
Every machine needs someplace to store its data, whether it is on a traditional platter hard drive or on a solid state drive. Your operating system, every installed program and game, and all your music, movies, and files need to reside somewhere. When you’re designing your new gaming system you’ll have to consider whether you desire capacity, speed, or both.
Hard Disk Drives
Traditional hard disc drives (HDDs) are ideal if you require large storage capacity and aren’t overly concerned about transfer speed. Most standard desktop drives spin at 7,200RPM and transfer using the SATA III protocol (6Gb/s), and they come in a wide variety of capacities. They also tend to be cheaper per gigabyte than solid state drives. There are a few potential shortcomings to traditional HDDs though: sectors on hard drives can go bad causing the loss of the data on those sectors and also the mechanical components of the hard drive can fail, making the entire drive unusable and potentially unrecoverable.
Solid State Drives
Solid state drives are much newer than the traditional platter HDD, and significantly faster. This is in part due to the lack of moving mechanical parts and in part due to electronically storing data on microchips rather than magnetically storing data on platters. While their speeds are noticeably faster in accessing files, opening programs, and even booting the operating system, they are also more expensive per gigabyte than a HDD. In addition to having SSDs that use the standard SATA channels, there are also drives that can use your system’s PCIe lanes, which are even faster. Like HDDs, SSDs also have their share of potential shortcomings: they aren’t susceptible to magnetism like platter drives but are instead far more susceptible to electrical shocks including static which could short the entire drive making data retrieval incredibly expensive.
Rather than having to choose between capacity and speed, we recommend making room in your budget for both an HDD and an SSD. Buying a modestly sized solid state drive (e.g., 250GB) and a larger HDD (1 or 2TB), you can get the best of both worlds without breaking the bank. Installing your operating system on the SSD and using the HDD for storage means that you can get the fast boot and access times from the solid state as well as the storage capacity of the platter drive for your music and movies.
Power supplies (PSUs)
Another major component to consider is your power supply. While it certainly isn’t the sexiest piece of hardware it is extremely important and requires careful consideration. Having been on the wrong end of a power supply dying, I can tell you from first-hand experience that you definitely don’t want to see sparks and flames coming from the back of your computer, nor do you want to see scorch marks on your motherboard and processor when said power supply fries them because you tried to save a few bucks on a cheapo PSU. Memory and storage can be added and graphics cards can be changed out, but you don’t want to have to deal with a blown power supply and the potential havoc it can wreck on every other piece of hardware in your machine (not to mention the horrible smell from a fried PSU).
There are several factors to consider when picking out a PSU, cost notwithstanding what wattage you’ll require under load, the efficiency rating, the 12V rail, modularity, and its physical dimensions among others.
One of the reasons we listed PSUs after the majority of the other components is in an effort to help you calculate wattage requirements. Since you already have an idea about which CPU, motherboard, RAM, GPU, and storage you want, it will be far easier to calculate your wattage requirements. There are a number of power supply calculators freely available online to help you determine a good starting point for a PSU. While many of the PSU manufacturers have a calculator to recommend their own, there are unaffiliated ones such as Outer Vision which makes recommendations regardless of brand. Just remember that these calculators will give you a good starting point, but you’ll have to ultimately decide for yourself. If you plan on overclocking you’ll also need to consider the additional power draw when determining wattage.
Energy Efficiency Rating
Another consideration is the energy efficiency rating of your PSU, which is essentially a rating of how well it can manage energy consumption under load. The better the efficiency rating, the better your PSU is at managing energy, which can help your overall electricity bill. The standard for energy efficiency is the 80 PLUS certification, which states that the PSU has at least 80% efficiency at certain key load levels. If your PSU has a metal listed after 80 PLUS then it has met more stringent requirements. In increasing levels of efficiency, the ratings are 80 PLUS (sometimes called WHITE), Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Titanium. For more information, see the Wikipedia page on 80 PLUS.
One of the more frequently forgotten considerations for a PSU is the 12V rail. Most graphics cards have a minimum requirement for the amperage on the 12V rail (listed as +12V on the PSU) and without meeting that requirement your GPU will be useless. It’s simple to check, just look at your GPU specifications, see what amperage it needs on +12V, and compare with the PSU. If the power supply is equal to or exceeds that number, you’re set.
Fully, Semi or Non-Modular
Another consideration for your power supply is whether or not it is fully modular, semi-modular, or non-modular. This concerns whether the connector cables for the interior of the machine are removable or not. Non-modular PSUs have all of their possible cables coming out of the PSU on the interior, regardless of whether or not you’re planning on using them all. Fully modular PSUs allow you to choose which cables you need and only plug those into both the PSU and the related hardware. Semi-modular PSUs typically have non-removable motherboard and CPU cables but allow you to choose which peripheral cables you use (GPU, SATA, Molex, etc.) Fully and semi-modular PSUs are particularly useful when it comes to cable management. Good cable management not only is more aesthetically appealing but also improves airflow inside the machine which can keep all of your components cooler.
Size & Brand of PSU
The final considerations come down to physical size and brands. Obviously, you need to consider how big the PSU is and whether or not it will fit inside your case. Also, consider whether or not the PSU can pull in cool air and vent warm air by noting the locations and directions of its fans. Finally, in terms of brands, there are quite a few PSU manufacturers. Some of the more reliable PSUs come from CoolerMaster, Corsair, EVGA, and Thermaltake but your mileage may vary.
Now that you’ve picked out the necessary hardware, we need to find a case in which to assemble the disparate components into a functioning machine. Just like motherboards, cases have a variety of form factors to choose from. The four main sizes are SFF or small form factor, mini tower, mid tower, and full tower. These correspond with the largest size motherboard they can handle. SFF cases can hold mini-ITX boards, mini towers can take up to mATX boards, mid towers can take up to ATX boards, and full towers can even handle extended ATX boards (eATX). These distinctions also represent other functions as well, such as what size PSUs they can hold, how many and what size of case fans they can take, how many graphics cards or other expansion cards they can hold, and so on.
Airflow and Cable Management
An important factor to consider when picking out a case is airflow and cable management. While not always the case, we have found that cheaper cases tend to put less emphasis on ease of cable management than some of the mid-range cases. If your case forces you to run all of your cables in front of the board, that will impede airflow and can cause heat issues. We recommend looking for a case that will allow most, if not all, of your cables to run behind the motherboard or at least out of the main airflow. Also, consider where the cooling fans can and will be placed. If you’re running an exclusively air cooled system you’ll want to have a fan or two pulling cool air in from the front of the machine, over each of the components, and then have another fan pushing the hot air out the back.
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the aesthetic factors in choosing a case. For some people, this is more important than others. The look of the case is vital in these instances, and aspects like color, clear paneling, and available LEDs are important considerations. For other people, a simple black case without a windowed side panel is more appropriate. Others still aren’t concerned with aesthetics but rather with acoustics, and for those, you’ll want to look into cases that focus on sound dampening rather than appearance.
As far as manufacturers go, there are dozens of them out there for pretty much every aesthetic, including the yacht crowd. Coolermaster, Corsair, Inwin, Lian Li, and NZXT are just some of the manufacturers who make some phenomenal products.
In addition to all the hardware components necessary for a functional machine, there is one critical software component that you will need: an operating system. If you are one of the vast majority of computer users, this means Microsoft Windows. In years past, we could have had a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of Windows 7, 8.1, and 10; now, not so much. If you are running a 7th or 8th generation Intel processor, or any AMD Zen architecture chip, you’ll need Windows 10. Simply put, the newer chips were designed to only run Windows 10. If you want to run Windows 7 or 8.1, you’ll need an older chip.
32-bit or 64-bit Operating System
About the only choices then come down to the following: 32-bit or 64-bit; Home or Pro; and DVD, USB, or digital download?
The first decision is a no-brainer: 64-bit. I suppose if you’re a business owner running an old 16- or 32-bit application then maybe 32-bit is ok, but you’re not. You’re building a gaming machine, so get 64-bit.
The second decision comes down to the following: do you need to join a domain or use BitLocker? If yes, get Windows 10 Pro. Otherwise Windows 10 Home is sufficient.
The final choice concerns the installation media, and in this instance, we’d probably opt for the USB stick. Every motherboard will have USB ports, but not every computer today has an optical drive. Also, we like to have a physical copy of our installation media and certificate of authenticity. It’s rather hard to go re-download installation media and access your emails for your product key if your hard drive is dead and needs to be replaced with a bare drive.
In the interest of full-disclosure, the OS restrictions built into the newer CPUs is in regards to Windows only. If you have the knowledge and/or patience to go with your favorite flavor of Linux, the latest Intel and AMD chips can handle it. Similarly, if you want to try UNIX, OSX, or some other non-Windows OS you have that option.
This concludes our segment on choosing other components for your gaming PC. We hope you’ve found it informative and helpful. Please stay tuned for our next segment on building your own gaming PC: Putting it all together.