Welcome back to part two in our series of building your own gaming PC: Choosing the essentials. In part one, we took a look at determining what you might want and what you really need in your computer, as well as current requirements for some games and setting a budget. Now we’re going to get down to the business of how to compare and pick out components.
If you recall, we posted a checklist of the bare necessities and another list of optional extras:
- Heatsink and CPU fan, if not included with CPU
- Memory (RAM)
- Storage – hard disc drive (HDD) and/or solid state drive (SSD)
- Graphics card
- Power supply
- Case and case fan
- Operating system
We’ll use these lists to guide our purchasing decisions. Remember to consider your budget wisely.
Picking out a processor
The first component we need to decide on is the processor (CPU). This could eat up a fair portion of our budget and will also determine what type of motherboard we will need. It is also one of the single most important decisions you’ll make when building your machine. While it is possible to replace processors and motherboards later on in the life of your computer doing so can be a headache and necessitate wiping your machine and reinstalling your OS and software which is essentially rebuilding your computer. It’s much easier to swap out graphics cards or hard drives than switch out CPUs and motherboards and rebuild your whole machine. Because of this, we ideally want a CPU that will perform well and run games for a few years at least.
Intel vs. AMD
There are two major companies out there making CPUs: Intel and AMD. The vast majority of gaming enthusiasts will vocally prefer one company over the other. We’ll save that debate for other corners of the Internet because frankly, each company’s chips have things they do well and things they don’t. Typically AMD aimed to have a higher number of processing cores with each having a modest clock speed, whereas Intel typically had fewer cores at higher clock speeds. Also, in the past, AMD was fairly well known for lower-priced processors with the A-series and FX-series chips, but frankly those are either lower-end or older processors that we’re really not considering for our gaming builds.
There also exists a concern that AMD processors tend to run hotter than Intel processors, which has some foundation in benchmarking but this generalization can be misleading. In our experience, the stock coolers and heatsinks with pre-Ryzen AMD chips were rather poor, but the Wraith cooler that comes with Ryzen chips and is an option on some of the older FX chips was better. If you intend on overclocking, you really need to look into aftermarket cooling or liquid cooling.
Our concerns don’t lie in which brand is superior but rather which processor gives me the best performance for my gaming dollar and will not need to be upgraded soon. Given that we’d rather compare individual chips and build the rest of the machine around that.
The first thing to note about AMD processors is that the underside of the chip has an array of delicate pins that insert into the socket on the motherboard. Careful handling is required so you do not bend any of the pins, which will cause your processor to fail unless you can somehow realign them. Also, most AMD chips do not come with integrated graphics. While this is not a concern if you have a graphics card at the time of assembly, it can require a little bit of extra troubleshooting if your machine does not POST properly.
Budget AMD Chipsets
The best of AMD’s budget-friendly chips is the Ryzen 3 2200G, which typically runs around $100. It is a quad-core processor with a 3.5GHz core speed and relies on an AM4 socket motherboard. The “G” designation indicates that it does offer an integrated Radeon Vega graphics chip, so if your budget doesn’t allow for a discrete GPU at the onset you can still get up and running without one. The graphics won’t blow you away and you probably won’t get 60FPS on high-end games, but the inclusion of the integrated graphics is more about convenience and budget rather than performance. When you are able to add a discrete GPU, the Ryzen 3 2200G is powerful enough to run many of them quite well.
Mid-Tier AMD Chipsets
For a mid-tier experience without breaking the bank, the Ryzen 5 1600X is a good bet. Checking in around $200, it offers six-cores and a 3.6GHz clock speed. It features multi-threading capabilities and can be safely overclocked. Like the Ryzen 3 we talked about above it also uses an AM4 socket motherboard, but it does not feature integrated graphics so you will need a discrete GPU.
One of the best AMD chips you can find for less than $400 is the Ryzen 7 1800X, which is typically around $360 online but the best deal we’ve seen on it recently is at the brick-and-mortar retailer Microcenter which sells it at $300 if you pick it up in store. It features eight-cores and a base clock speed of 3.6GHz, but also has multi-threading capabilities and can be overclocked. While most games and applications aren’t written to use these capabilities fully, they might in the future so this chip should exceed your needs for years to come. It also uses the AM4 socket motherboard and does not feature integrated graphics.
High End AMD Chipsets
Finally, if you have to have the biggest and best processor available and don’t care about cost there is AMD’s Threadripper line. Each of the Threadripper series exceeds $400, with the mighty 1950X checking in at $900 online. They use their own socket type, so you’ll need a TR4 motherboard and also a discrete GPU because they do not offer integrated graphics. However, you will be buying a processor with up to 16 physical cores at a base clock speed of 3.4GHz which is capable of multi-threading and overclocking. These will do pretty much anything you will ask of them for years to come.
Unlike the AMD processors we just discussed, Intel’s chips do not have the pins on the underside of the chip. Instead, each of their motherboards has the exposed pins within the socket and you must carefully insert the chip without dropping it and damaging the pins on the motherboard. As always careful handling is required. Also, most Intel chips do have some form of integrated graphics capability with the notable exceptions being the Xeon chips and the Extreme-series chips. Typically, Intel’s chips do cost a little more than their AMD counterparts.
Budget Intel Chipsets
One of the most budget-conscious gaming quality chips Intel offers is the Core i3-8100, which runs about $115. Like the Ryzen 3 2200G, it offers integrated graphics so it doesn’t require a discrete GPU right away. It is a quad-core processor with a core speed of 3.6GHz, but it is not an “unlocked” processor so it is not designed for overclocking. Based on comparisons between it and the Ryzen 3 2200G, it isn’t as powerful a processor but it does use less power and produces less heat. It requires any LGA1151 motherboard that supports Coffee Lake (8th generation) processors.
Mid-Tier Intel Chipsets
A solid offering for the mid-tier chips is the i5-8400 which runs around $180. It is a six-core processor with a base clock speed of 2.8GHz but utilizing its’ Turbo Boost technology can go up to 4.0GHz. In order to utilize this feature, you’ll need a motherboard that supports it and most likely an aftermarket cooling solution. This chip requires an LGA1151 motherboard that supports Coffee Lake processors. Because it’s not “unlocked” don’t pay extra for a motherboard designed for overclocking as you won’t be able to do so. If you want to overclock you should opt for the more powerful i5-8600K which runs about $50 more and requires a more expensive overclocking board as well as a heat sink and CPU fan.
One of the best Intel chips you can find for less than $400 is the i7-8700K, which runs around $340 online. Like the Ryzen 7 above, Microcenter’s physical locations offer a lower price of $300 if you pick it up in store. The i7-8700K is an “unlocked” processor for easier overclocking. Even when it’s not being overclocked it features six-cores with a base 3.7GHz clock speed that can Turbo Boost up to 4.7GHz. It is also capable of multi-threading. Like the two 8th generation chips we just talked about, it requires an appropriate LGA1151 motherboard but this time you should opt for one that supports overclocking. It does not come with a heat sink or CPU fan.
High End Intel Chipsets
The crème de la crème of Intel’s chipsets are the Extreme series Core i9 chips. Unlike the Ryzen Threadripper series which top out at around $900, that’s the starting price for the i9s. The biggest beast of them all is the i9-7980XE which is around $1900 but features 18-cores, multi-threading, a base clock speed of 2.6GHz and a turbo boost speed of 4.2GHz. Each i9 Extreme series chip requires a 2066 Socket motherboard and a robust cooling solution as well as a discrete GPU. These chips will handle just about anything you can throw at them for years to come, but the price tag is fairly steep.
The next essential piece of any computer is the motherboard. These come in several different sizes called form factors and have a wide variety of different features to be aware of. The prices will vary depending on so many factors, but they can start as low as $50 and go much higher. Rather than list a bunch of recommendations, the aim of this section is to inform you about several of the key components to better arm you to make a well-informed decision.
One of the easiest parts of the motherboard to recognize is its form factor. Essentially, the smaller motherboards will have fewer features but require less space whereas bigger boards can pack in more features but require bigger cases. There are three major form factors to choose from: ATX, mATX or microATX, and mITX or mini-ITX. The largest of these three is the ATX motherboard at around 9.6″ x 12″. The middle size is the mATX board at around 9.6″ x 9.6″. The smallest of these is the mITX board at around 6.7″ x 6.7″. Typically, the mITX board is considered “small form factor” or SFF. There are other sizes as well, such as extended ATX for those who want an even bigger motherboard.
Understanding the label
Motherboard manufacturers have a wide array of features that they can pack onto a single motherboard but have come to the realization that different groups of people look for different common elements in their motherboards. As such they tend to create motherboards with targeted segments of the computer community in mind such as the bare essentials user, the mainstream user, the business user, and the enthusiast user. Unfortunately, AMD and Intel boards target slightly different groups and their designations vary. Below we have put together a list of common motherboard designations and which audience they’re targeting:
“A” boards – AMD’s designation for no-frills motherboards targeting the bare-essentials crowd. These do not support overclocking, and low cost is their most important feature.
Intel’s “B” boards – Intel’s designation for business-class motherboards. These typically have different capabilities targeted to business users such as parallel port support. May not be appropriate for gamers.
AMD’s “B” boards – AMD uses the B designation for their boards targeting mainstream users. These typically have a few more features than the A boards such as more USB ports, more PCIe lanes, and the ability to overclock.
“H” boards – This is the Intel designation for ‘home-user’ motherboards. These are similar to AMD’s A designation, but Intel typically goes a step further and breaks this class up into boards with a few additional features and boards with the bare bones. They cannot overclock.
“X” and “Z” boards – These designations are for the enthusiast crowd, such as high-end gamers. These boards have the most features and are unlocked for overclocking. AMD uses the X designation and Intel uses the Z designation, except with their extreme series 2066 boards where they also use the X designation
With any of these motherboards, the number indicates which chipset the motherboard is using and thus which processor it is compatible with, see below:
AM4 motherboards – A320, B350, or X370 (or A, B, or X300 for SFF boards).
TR4 motherboards – X399
8th gen 1151 motherboards – H310, B360, H370, or Z370
2066 motherboards – X299
Form factor and chipset are not the only features we care about in our motherboard, we also care about what other things our board has to offer. Some things to consider include:
RAM – How many slots? How close to the CPU? What speed?
Audio – What chipset / codec does it use? How many speakers can it handle? Subwoofer?
SATA ports – How many? What types? Where are they located?
PCIe slots – How many? What types? How are they spaced? Can it handle multiple GPUs?
USB – How many ports on the back panel? How many headers does it support? What types?
M.2 – How many slots? What speed? What lengths?
Fan headers – How many? Where are they located?
CPU power – 4-pin or 8-pin?
BIOS – How to update? Backup available?
Troubleshooting – Error code LED? On/off button? Reset button?
Aesthetics – Do I like how it looks? Are there built-in LEDs? Are they customizable? Do any of the plastic shields interfere with other components?
Obviously, some of these questions may not apply to everyone. For example, if you only plan on running one graphics card and no other expansion cards you may not care about most of the questions on PCIe slots. But you should still be mindful of its location on the motherboard. You can still run into trouble if your card cannot fit due to one of those plastic shields nearby, or if it cools by venting hot air right into another component like your power supply.
When it comes down to it your motherboard is one of the most vital components of your computer and the hardest to replace. We recommend taking time to figure out exactly what you need in a board, checking out reviews about reliability, and even talking to a BYOPC specialist if you feel completely overwhelmed.
The third major component we’re going to examine today is the system memory. If you are purchasing a processor of the current generation (8th gen or Extreme series for Intel, Ryzen or Threadripper for AMD), then you are going to need DDR4 RAM for your system. This is the latest generation of RAM and represents a significant upgrade over its predecessor DDR3. The DDR4 standard can handle sticks up to 64GB (as opposed to a maximum of 16GB for DDR3), has faster data transfer speeds, and has lower voltage requirements. Unfortunately, it also costs more than DDR3.
Your biggest choices to consider in choosing RAM are how much do I need, how many sticks, what transfer speed, ECC or non-ECC, what brand, and what appearance?
Typically, most users will either choose 8 or 16GB of RAM for a gaming machine. 8GB comes as either a single 8GB stick or two 4GB sticks and will typically run between $100 and $150 dollars. Purchasing 16GB will typically run between $180 and $300 and comes in a single 16GB stick, two 8GB sticks, or four 4GB sticks.
DDR4 comes in a wide variety of speeds, anywhere between DDR4 1600 up to DDR4 4800, but the most common is DDR4 2400. Other common speeds include DDR4 2133, 2666, 3000, and 3200. These numbers refer directly to the data transfer rate in MT/ and indirectly as double the clock speed (i.e. a clock speed of 1200MHz is read as DDR4 2400). Thus the higher numbers represent faster RAM.
If you’re not familiar with ECC RAM, this stands for Error-Correcting Code memory. This type of RAM is used in systems where even a single-bit of corrupt data can have disastrous effects such as in high finance or scientific applications. This added security comes at an additional cost. Unless you have some non-gaming requirements that require this feature, stick with non-ECC memory.
As for brand, the standard brands such as Corsair, Crucial, GeiL, G-Skill, and Kingston are all fine. There are a number of other brands but your mileage may vary. They all offer a variety of appearances in terms of colors and heat-shield styles, so you can make a choice depending on your aesthetic preferences. The only thing we would caution is to stay away from unshielded memory, as heat generation can cause damage to the chips. Having a functional heat shield will help disperse the heat and keep your chips safe.
Hopefully, this entry in our guide will help inform you on how to choose some of the most critical components in your new computer: the processor, motherboard, and memory. With these core decisions out of the way, we can turn our attention to choosing other components like graphics cards, hard drives, solid state drives, power supplies, and cases. In our next segment, we will learn about these different components, what features and functions they serve, and how to choose the right ones for our system.
Thank you for your continued reading. Please stay tuned for the next in our series: Choosing the other components and software.