There are two ways to get into hardcore gaming fun. The first way obviously is to by a Gaming PC. There are several companies that make these, the big names being Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Velocity Micro and iBUYPOWER. These companies all put together great computers for gaming, but you pay a premium for them. You can pay anywhere from two thousand dollars to ten thousand and more. Why so much? First, because they use premium parts and second, you’re buying a brand name.
That leads us to the second way to get into hardcore gaming, building the PC yourself. The truth is that you can build the exact same computers that those gaming computer companies build, for less money. The problem with building your own, however, is that you have to have some basic knowledge, and you have to do the research.
To learn how to build a gaming PC, you need to know what to look for while you shop for parts. You will need to familiarize yourself with various terms like “front side bus” “socket” “chipset” and “HSF”(heat sink/fan). Let’s start from the core and work our way out under the assumption that budget isn’t a factor. We’ll start with the processor. You have to decide whether to go Intel or AMD, the two main processor (CPU) manufacturers. Reading up on each one, especially user reviews, will give you good information upon which to base your choice. Your choice of chipset will also determine your processor pick.
If you go with AMD, you’ll be looking at a range of chipsets, from AMD 770 to AMD 890FX. On the Intel side, you’ll have to go with either P55 or X58. Chipset and processor need to be compatible, and you’ll have to do some research here. As an example, we’ll build a top of the line Intel set, since that’s what most gaming PC companies are going with these days.
Using an X58 for our i7 980X processor, we want to choose a motherboard that will complement the Processor – you can’t choose just any X58 motherboard. With gaming computers, the key is to get high-end components that can handle the demand that modern games require, otherwise you’ll be replacing parts in no time. Now, there is some opinion bias when it comes to who makes the best motherboards, but you’d be pretty safe with an ASUS, EVGA, MSI or Gigabyte board. Those are some of the most common boards found in gaming systems, but there are other nice ones too.
Next you’ll want to get RAM. The things you are looking for here are the number of gigabytes you want and the RAM's speed. For 64-bit OS systems (which you’ll want, by the way), 4GB of RAM is probably enough, but we recommend that you go with at least 6GB or 8GB. You’ll definitely want to go with DDR3, and it ranges in speed from 800 to 2133MHz. 1333 to 1600MHz are very common speeds, but if it’s within your budget to go to the higher speeds, you’ll be happier with the result. Just remember that with these speeds you want to make sure that the motherboard’s memory bus speeds can handle the same or you’ll be bottlenecked at the lower speed of the two. Also, like everything else, you want to get high-end memory from manufacturers like Corsair, Kingston, OCZ, etc.
The other RAM specification you will want to look at is the CAS Latency. CAS latency is the time it takes to access and process information on your RAM. 5 is common for decently priced memory, however, the extremely fast 2.5 CAS Latency is a better choice, if almost twice as expensive. You also want to consider RAM channels. For a gaming rig, running 6GB (3X2GB modules) of DDR3 1600 (PC3-10700) in triple channel with a CAS Latency of 2.5 is an excellent choice.
Graphics cards are the main muscle in a gaming PC. The main contenders are Nvidia and ATI (which is actually AMD as of 2007). Which one you go with is mostly a preference thing. There are fans from both parties that’ll tell you why one is the better than the other, but the end result is that you just want something that’ll play all your games on the highest graphics settings with high frame rates. The main thing you want to watch out for is what version of DirectX it supports. The reason is that if you have a game that uses only DX 11 features and your card only supports up to 9 or 10, you’ll have to upgrade to be able to run those features. In some cases you may not be able to play it at all without upgrading. For our example, we’ll go with the current top of the line card, the ATI Radeon HD 5970.
Dual graphics cards are quite common in gaming computers but not necessary if you have a nice single card. SLI and CrossFireX setups will obviously improve game play since they are running 2 to 4 cards simultaneously but buying that many cards is expensive. If that’s the route you want to go, you’ll also need to get a motherboard that can handle this setup, which is pricey too. One with 3 or more graphics card slots is best so that you can space 2 cards out. If they’re right next to each other you may have heating issues. There can be space issues with SLI/Crossfire systems so your best bet is to get a full size tower.
Once you've addressed graphics, you’ll want a good hard drive. Ensure that you are using a Sata 3 or 6 if your board supports it. There's no point in running a Sata 1.5, half the rate of a 3. Western Digital, Samsung and Seagate make some of the best ones but there are a few others. Western Digital’s VelociRaptor will give you 10,000 RPMs, which is quite a bit faster than the standard and typical 7200 RPMs. Any faster and you’ll probably want to go with an SSD (solid state drive). SSDs are fast but quite expensive and there have been a number of issues with them. As for the example, we’ll go with a pair of 600 GB Western Digital VelociRaptors.
Next on the list is an optical drive or two -- and you can go as fancy as you want with that. Since technology is moving to Blu-rays, we’ll put a pair of 10X Blu-ray RW, DVD+/-RW combo drives in the example. Tying this all together are the power supply and tower. Towers are mostly a preference thing. Cheap ones will probably get the job done, but the more expensive ones will have convenience features like the ability to hide your cables. They will also usually look better. Just pick one out that you like and fits all your hardware. Mid-size towers are more compact but can have issues when it comes to SLI/Crossfire, so you may want to go with the full-size tower. We’ll put a full-size in the example to allow plenty of room for upgrades later on.
For a power supply you just want to make sure that it's robust enough to easily cover your PC, monitor and anything you plug into it that doesn’t have its own power source. The example we're building will probably require at least a 750 Watt PSU. If we decided to put a Crossfire board in it down the road, and add other things like liquid cooling, cold cathode lights, a front bay LCD display, a fan controller, multi-displays and overclocking, we’d have to up the power supply accordingly. Don’t skimp on the PSU because it’s not worth risking all your hardware.
There you have it -- building a gaming PC in a nutshell. Obviously, you’ll have to get all your peripherals, like a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Since those are purely preference, we won’t get into them; just get what fits your style. As a brief recap, get what you want but watch for the key compatibility issues we mentioned. All that's left after that is to plug in and enjoy.