Buying a new games machine is a major investment in these financially tricky times. A capable PC that will cope with the latest releases for at least 18 months will start at £600, but, whatever you pay, your quest will involve a series of challenging decisions and compromises.
So, if you’re thinking about splashing out this year, we’ve pulled together tips and recommendations from a group of highly experienced PC builders. James Hannett is a coder at Frozen Synapse developer Mode7; Nick Tannahill is marketing director at Firefly Studios, creator of the Stronghold series; Byron Atkinson-Jones runs Xiotex Studios; and Guardian reader Simon Beck has built dozens of PCs over the last 10 years.
Whether you’re buying a pre-packaged machine, employing a specialist retailer such as Overclockers or Chillblast to construct a PC around your specifications, or hand-crafting your own gaming beast, here are our suggestions for a range of budgets.
Central processing unit (CPU)
Your choices here are basically between two manufacturers: AMD and Intel. “AMD shines at the budget end, with Intel chips often being overpriced or inferior to their AMD counterparts,” says Tannahill. “I’d probably go for the AMD Ryzen 3 1300X, which is able to punch so far above its weight that I almost regret not getting it myself.”
As your budget improves, however, the consensus switches very much in the other direction. “On average, games have specific requirements that are better met by Intel processors,” says Hannett, who opts for an i3 8100 at the budget level and an i5 7600k at intermediate. “But just spending lots of money doesn’t necessarily mean you get better performance. I could spend £1,000 on a ludicrous Threadripper or Xeon chip, but I’d probably get higher FPS and more consistent frame times from a high-end i5 costing a third of that.”
Tannahill also recommends Intel if you have a little more to spend. “For me, the best mid-range CPU would be the i5 7600,” he says. “A 7600k won’t cost you a whole lot more, but, unless you’re looking to overclock, that money is probably better spent on a superior GPU or extra RAM.”
Beck says the minimum he’d spend on a gaming PC would be £800, and at this price he’d suggest an Intel Core i5 7400 3.00GHz Socket 1151 CPU, stepping up to an Intel Core i7 7700 3.60GHz Socket 1151 8MB CPU if your budget allows.
If money is no object, Tannahill, Hannett and Atkinson-Jones also recommend an Intel i7. Tannahill specifically suggests the i7 7820X, while Hannett goes for the i7 8700K. “I guess i9s are also a thing,” says Tannahill. “But then we’re getting into double the price for far less than twice the performance.”
System memory (RAM)
This is where your PC holds the current programs it’s running, and modern games place quite a lot of demand on this element of your machine. “According to the Steam hardware survey, almost half of their participating users still have 8GB, which will get you by on minimum system requirements for new releases,” says Tannahill. “I’d say upgrade to 12GB on a new build unless you’re on a budget. RAM is one of the easiest and cheapest components to upgrade, as you have a free slot. So, unless you’re going for a godlike build, leave that extra 4GB for later on.”
“8GB is definitely the absolute minimum,” agrees Hannett. “I’d prefer 16GB as a minimum, but RAM prices are really high. You’re not really going to see any need for more than 32GB for a while unless you’re doing something that requires it (maybe certain types of music production or high-end video editing). Always buy RAM in pairs so you can take advantage of the slight speed improvement you get from enabling dual channel access. I don’t really have the time or space to get in to RAM timings, so just buy the default 2133MHz stuff.”
For budget builds, Beck specifically recommends Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4 2133MHz RAM, and for intermediate builds, the Patriot V4 16GB 3000MHz CL16 DDR4 RAM.
Once again you have two manufacturer options here: AMD or Nvidia, with the latter the most popular choice among gamers. However, our experts are dismissive about obsessing over which to go for. There may be minor performance differences between the brands, but it’s much more important to think about what you personally want – and can afford – from your machine’s graphics performance.
“Given how console-driven most baseline AAA games performance is these days, what you should be thinking about is resolution,” says Tannahill. “If you were to divide GPUs into budget, intermediate and high end, you’d basically be talking about running games at 1080p, 1440p or 4K. If you were to follow the lead of Steam users, 85% of which currently opt for Nvidia, we’d probably be talking about the 1050 Ti, 1070 and whatever version of the 1080 suits your needs.
“At the low end, you’re getting a steady 60fps at high settings, particularly with games that scale well across hardware, which is more common than ever for big PC releases. Really anything other than the newest DX12 games will run absolutely fine on a 1050 Ti, provided you stay locked at 1920×1080. In the mid-range, the 1070 will cover most bases, allowing you to run these game on the highest settings at 1080p or move into the realm of 1440p monitors at very high. You can also get current gen VR and even playable 4K frame rates at this level, assuming you’re happy dropping below 60fps for the latter.
“Something like the 1080 Ti is really necessary only if you’re looking to run games at the highest possible settings and will settle for nothing less than a silky smooth 60fps.”
Hannett suggests a 4GB AMD RX 560 for a budget build, a 6GB Nvidia GTX 1060 for an intermediate machine and an 8GB Nvidia GTX 1080 at the upper end. “If there are two versions of your card available with different amounts of memory (for example, the 1060 has 3GB and 6GB models), always get the higher end model,” he says. “You’re looking to pay about £100 on the low end, about £250-£350 on the mid and £600-700 on the high.”
Beck goes for a Palit GeForce GTX 1050 Ti StormX 4GB GDDR5 or the more expensive Palit GeForce GTX 1060 JetStream 6GB GDDR5.
You’re not just looking for a hulking great hard disk drive (HDD) any more. These days, solid state drives are becoming ever more important, usually employed in conjunction with an HDD. SSD storage is quicker to access, so most users will store their operating system and most commonly used apps and games on here, with all the other stuff dumped on an HDD.
“Ideally your HDD to SDD ratio should be 75/25, but don’t go cheap on the SSD,” says Tannahill. “Do a little research on performance and spend whatever you have left on a basic 2TB HDD. In 2018, your OS and main apps can take up 250GB, and this should all be on an SSD, in addition to the game or games you play on a daily basis. Games are getting much better at using SSDs – save plenty of room for that big MMO or 100-hour RPG.”
Hannett agrees on the importance of a good quality SDD. “It’s probably the single greatest contribution towards not making you want to chuck your computer out of a window,” he says. “Don’t go smaller than 120GB. 250GB is ideal and not too expensive these days. There are two kinds of SSDs widely available now: SATA and NVMe. NMVe is much better overall. Get a Samsung SSD if you can afford it, and get a Crucial one if you can’t.”
Beck recommends a Kingston A400 240GB SSD, augmented with a Seagate BarraCuda HDD if necessary.
So those are the key elements you’ll need to be looking at. Obviously, if you’re building from scratch, you’ll also have to think about a decent motherboard, power supply unit (go for at least 650w and don’t spend less than £40) and a good case to shove it all in. (Don’t get one with a built-in fan.) With higher-spec machines, an extra CPU fan might also be a good idea. Beck recommends Cooler Master’s Masterbox Lite 3 or Hyper 212x.
Budget machine: AMD Ryzen 3 1300X CPU, 12GB RAM, AMD RX 560 graphics card, 250GB Crucial MX500 SSD
Intermediate: Intel Core i5 (7400 or 7600), 16GB RAM, 6GB Nvidia GTX 1060 or Palit GeForce GTX 1050 Ti StormX 4GB graphics card, 256GB Samsung PM961 SSD
High-end: Intel i7 8700K CPU, 32GB RAM, 8GB NVIDIA GTX 1080, 512GB Samsung SM961 SSD