Editor's Note: This article last updated September 15, 2015.
There are plenty of ways to get your PC gaming fix, but nothing quite compares to building your own system. There are plenty of reasons to build a gaming machine yourself, whether it’s to meet your own particular wants and needs, or to save a bit of money as your pursue your favorite pastime. The best part of building your own gaming PC is that it puts all of the decision making in your hands. At the end of the day, it’s your PC, assembled by you, from the case to the graphics card, using parts and components that you personally selected.
Start With a Plan
The first thing you’ll want to figure out is pretty basic. What sort of gaming rig do you want to build? Will it be a compact and budget-friendly console replacement that tucks into your home entertainment unit and uses your TV as a monitor, or a hulking gaming monster that boasts the latest and greatest parts and performance, with no concern for size or expense? Settle the questions of budget and case size first, because they will be determining factors for everything else you buy. From there, it’s all about priorities. Do you want a system that’s built for graphics or general performance, or both? How worried are you about upgrading components in the future? Are you interested in overclocking? All of these questions are worth considering well in advance of selecting components or putting together a shopping list.
The easiest way to learn to build a gaming PC is to use an existing system as a guide. Find your system of choice from a boutique gaming PC company and select your ideal configuration there, and then use their spec list as you go shopping. If you’re willing to hunt for bargains and spread out the shopping over a month or two, you’ll be able to find savings on almost every part, making your cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars less than the price of buying a similar pre-built system.
Whether you’re a brand new PC builder putting together your first build or an old hand throwing together yet another gaming rig, it pays to do your research first. This is the time to read reviews and delve into the specifications for each product to learn about its features, capabilities and any compatibility issues to be aware of.
As you start looking at what you want in a gaming PC, you’ll see a long list of components, each one with unique capabilities and limitations. While we don’t have space here to get into specifics about every type of part, this basic rundown of components should give you a good start. As you assemble your list of parts, keep doing your research. All of these components need to work together in concert, and it’s always better to spot red flags when you’re researching and compiling your shopping list rather than when you’re assembling your new PC or trying to fire up your favorite game.
At the core of the system is the motherboard, processor, RAM and graphics card. Secondary parts might turn some heads, but these primary components will bring you bragging rights and keep you gaming. Once you’ve settled on what you want in these primary components, you can build the rest of the system around them.
The motherboard is the primary circuit board for the entire PC, and all of your other components will connect to it. The size of motherboard will determine what size of case you use, as well as the ports and features supported on your finished PC. Important details to watch for are the chipset, the socket type and the number of PCI Express x16 slots. The chipset and socket type will determine which processors can be used with the motherboard, while the number of PCI slots will determine whether or not it can support your graphics card. Major brands for motherboards include Asus (particularly its Republic of Gamers or ROG lines), MSI and Gigabyte.
The processor is an important piece of hardware on any PC, but it’s almost of secondary importance if you’re building a dedicated gaming machine. For a gaming rig alone, you’ll do just fine with a mid-range processor, such as an Intel Core i5. A general purpose machine, however, used for tasks like working with giant spreadsheets or editing photos and video, will be better served with a more powerful Intel Core i7, as those tasks will take advantage of the CPU’s multi-threading capabilities while most games will not. Finally, if you're looking to overclock your system to squeeze out optimal performance, you’ll be on the lookout for an unlocked CPU, like the Intel Core i7-4790K or the AMD FX-9590.
RAM provides the memory used by the processor in all of its operations. When in doubt, more RAM is usually better, but you’ll want to pay attention to a few things. First, look for RAM with the DDR3 standard, preferably DDR3-1330 or DDR3-1600, which offer the best all-around performance. The newer DDR4 standard is available on some motherboards, but it only offers advantages under some very specific circumstances. You can get by with 6GB of memory, but generally you’ll want 8GB or more to ensure that there’s always enough headroom for anything you want to do.
This is also one of the more affordable places to splurge, as RAM is relatively inexpensive, but it will directly impact the performance of your gaming PC. Installing two sticks of RAM will let you make some performance gains by running in dual-channel mode, but be aware that when using two modules of RAM that are rated at different speeds, your maximum speed will be the slower of the two. For the performance minded, you’ll want RAM with low CAS latency, which has less lag when the memory controller accesses the actual storage location on the chip. Major suppliers of RAM include Corsair, Kingston and PNY.
For any gaming machine, the graphics card (also called the GPU or video card) is the most important component in terms of offering high-quality graphics. All games have minimum requirements for graphics hardware, but for your system, you’ll want to select a GPU that goes above and beyond the minimum, giving you better performance and offering support for future titles that may have more demanding requirements. You’ll also want to watch for the dedicated memory or Video RAM (VRAM) that comes with the card, as some cards will look otherwise identical. As with your CPU, more dedicated memory allows better performance.
The two brands to watch for are AMD and NVIDIA, though both have their hardware rebranded and sold through other companies like Asus, EVGA, Gigabyte, and Sapphire. For AMD cards, look for Radeon cards ranging from R7 and up, with current leading cards in the R9 series. For NVIDIA cards, look for anything labelled GTX (Nvidia’s gaming range of graphics cards), and look for something in the 700 series or later. The current model line is the GTX 900 series, but a high-end 700 or 800 series card will still support new AAA games for another year or two.
Some motherboards will be outfitted for using two cards at once, using what’s called SLI or Crossfire (the multiple-card technologies for NVIDIA and AMD, respectively). This technology lets you use two or more cards simultaneously, which may save you some money if you can get two mid-range cards instead of one high-end GPU. If you’re considering going the SLI or Crossfire route, you’ll also want to make sure that you have space for installing two or more cards, with proper spacing between PCIe slots, sufficient space inside the case, and enough room between the cards for adequate cooling.
Once you’ve settled on your primary components, you’re halfway there. The main components will be housed inside a PC case, powered with a Power Supply Unit (PSU) and kept cool with either some standard cooling fans or some other cooling system. You’ll also want drives for storage and maybe an optical drive. There are a few extra parts to consider as well, like built-in card readers, hot-swappable drive bays and a monitor or two. Even though they won’t make or break the system, these secondary parts are still important to the performance and overall feel of the finished product, so put in the time to find what’s right for you and your system.
The case may not seem like a primary concern, but it certainly has an impact on the sort of system you end up with, and what sort of use you’ll get out of it when you’re done. For most gamers, a mid-size case will do the trick, since it will hold a standard ATX motherboard with room for a full-length graphics card or two. If you’re looking to build a smaller console-like system, look for a smaller case, such as those built for smaller mini ATX motherboards.
Aside from size, some features to watch for in selecting a case are whether or not it comes with a preinstalled power supply and, preinstalled cooling fans, as well as what sort of accommodations are available for different components. Some cases are made to accept graphics cards longer than 12 inches, or multiple GPUs. Also keep an eye out for tool-free designs that use latches and thumb-screws to let you open up the case without having to grab a screwdriver first.
Several companies cater to PC builders, particularly with gaming oriented cases, and most anything you find from a manufacturer like Antec, Corsair, CoolerMaster or NZXT will be reasonably high quality. Gaming-specific cases are offered by all of these companies, with extras like windowed sides to show off the internals of your build, LED-lit fans, and exotic designs and materials. More expensive cases will often have built-in cable management to keep everything neat and tidy as you assemble your new gaming rig. You can even get cases with custom paint jobs. These features aren’t strictly necessary for a gaming PC, but you will want something that offers lots of cooling options and is built with easy access for maintenance and upgrades.
Whatever case you purchase will also include some accommodations for storage in the form of built-in or removable drive bays. Options for storage include traditional hard drives (HDD) and solid-state drives (SSDs).
Hard drives offer greater capacity for your dollar, and drives up to 4TB are available, though 1TB drives tend to offer the best balance of capacity and affordability. Hard drives are made with different rotational speeds, usually either 5,400 rpm or 7,200 rpm. The faster 7,200-rpm option will offer faster performance, with quicker boot times and less lag when accessing files. Hard drives generally come in either 3.5- or 2.5-inch sizes, which are sized for desktops and laptops, respectively. Popular HDD manufacturers include Seagate, Toshiba, and Western Digital.
Solid state drives (SSDs), on the other hand, are much faster than traditional hard drives, but they also cost significantly more per gigabyte. As of this writing, it’s not hard to find a 512GB drive for under $200, though capacities of up to 2TB are available. Bare SSDs come in a variety of form factors, so look for standard 2.5-inch drives, and make sure the drive connector is compatible with those on your motherboard. For SSDs, look to brands like Crucial, Kingston, Plextor, Samsung and SanDisk.
Most gaming PCs can be built with two or more drives, allowing you to use a larger hard drive for bulk storage of games and media, with a faster SSD serving as your boot drive that stores the operating system and frequently used applications. Hybrid hard drives can also be purchased, which pair a traditional hard drive with a cache of flash memory for faster performance, but the same effect can be had with a dual-drive system. This two-drive solution offers the best of both worlds, and tends to be the more affordable option, as well.
While laptops have largely abandoned the optical drive, building your own desktop PC means you'll have plenty of space for a CD/DVD drive, or even a Blu-ray drive. Companies like LG and Samsung offer DVD burners for very little, while a Blu-ray drive can also be had at slightly higher, but very affordable, prices.
Once you’ve lined up what parts you want, it’s time to figure out how to power it all, and that means buying a power supply unit or PSU. You can find several online calculators that will let you enter in your selected components and estimate the power draw or wattage of that system. Even if you don’t use one of these tools, you will want to do some back-of-the-envelope math to figure out what sort of wattage each component demands, total it up, and then find a PSU that offers more power than your estimate. If you have no plans to upgrade your system in the future, you should be safe picking a PSU at least 100 watts higher than your total wattage load, while if you plan to upgrade, you will want to go higher to provide some flexibility for adding additional drives or GPUs, or simply for swapping out for higher-powered components down the road.
There are several manufacturers offering PSUs, but top names include Antec, CoolerMaster, Corsair, EVGA, SilverStone and ThermalTake. As you shop for power supplies, look for units with modular connections instead of standard cables, which will let you swap out cables as needed and won’t clutter up your case with unneeded wiring.
Finally, you need to keep all of this hardware cool while it’s running. Most PC Cases include one or two preinstalled cooling fans, but you may want to add a few additional intake and exhaust fans, or even step up to a liquid cooling system. The benefit of multiple fans is two-fold: First, more fans allow greater airflow and cooling, but second, more fans also mean that cooling is quieter. Multiple fans running at low speeds can move the same volume of air as one fan at high speed, but it does so with much lower noise levels.
Liquid cooling isn’t always necessary for the average user since most components are built with air cooling in mind, but if you’re looking to build a really impressive rig, or if you want to overclock your system, it is worth looking into.
Odds and Ends
As you shop for PC components and plot out your perfect custom-built gaming PC, you will probably stumble across all sorts of additional parts and features you can add. Some of these are functional, like a built in multi-format card reader, or a case-mounted system console, while others are more about looks, like internal LED lighting for your case. None of these are essential to a functioning system, but this is your creation, and if you want it, feel free to add it.
You’ll also want to think about peripheral devices, like a monitor (or two or three), a gaming keyboard and a gaming mouse. These are all worth thinking about as you shop for your components – you might even find a discount or a bundle deal as you shop – but they fall outside the scope of this guide.
While we’ve taken a close look at the hardware you’ll need for your gaming machine, remember that there’s software in the mix as well. Custom-built systems rarely include an operating system, so be prepared to shell out a bit for a new copy of Windows, or get acquainted with free alternatives like Linux. As a rule, it’s best to stick with whatever operating system you’re already familiar with.
Even with your operating system sorted out, there’s still the issue of drivers for all of these assembled parts. The various part manufacturers should have the drivers available for download, or included on DVD or USB drive with the device, but you’ll still need to make sure you get all of these gathered and ready to install when you fire up your new system. Your best bet is to collect any and all drivers that come with each part, and then go hunting online for any drivers that aren’t already included. This will mean using a separate PC to search for support pages and download the necessary files, as well as making sure you have the right equipment to use whatever media was sent. If you chose not to install an optical drive in your new PC, you'll need to scrounge up an external USB drive for this initial set-up.
Finally, it also helps to know what other software you want to include on the system. If you’re a big user of Steam, Origin or similar online game libraries, you’ll want to get that set up as you get the system up and running. Other utilities, like overclocking tools, system monitors, media playback software and office programs may not be included with your OS, so you’ll want to have some idea of where to find those to save yourself a headache further along. You don't want to realize that your new PC and Blu-ray player may not be able to playback Blu-ray movies without separate software installation. Some of these programs will be free, but others may not, so be sure to figure software costs into your budget as you plan for your new system.
With your newly assembled gaming system, put together by you, using components handpicked from top to bottom, you’re now the proud owner of something that’s truly yours. If you’ve planned things out properly, you should now have a gaming machine that will support your favorite games and fits your budget perfectly.