Gaming PCs

When it comes to PC performance, few people demand more power than gamers. Keeping up with developers who are constantly pushing hardware to its limits requires the best system possible, specifically tailored to peak every bit of performance it possibly can.

Unfortunately for buyers, this means a gaming PC can not really have a weakness. While the most important component is definitely the graphics card, you can not neglect other areas. If you are lacking in CPU or RAM power then you will find your PC bottlenecking at those parts and you will not be able to make the most of your card.

If you are on a tight budget however, there are certain shortcuts you can take to reduce the cost, including a cheaper monitor, mouse and a wise selection of other components. This guide will cover these shortcuts and also options for the hardcore enthusiast who wants to squeeze every frame per second out of their games.

Packages

Packages

A gaming PC

The gaming PC market is growing rapidly. Gamers are one of the few groups of people who are willing to spend more than $3000 on a PC to ensure they get the maximum possible performance. Originally this market was only catered for by small niche companies who produced high end PCs targeted specifically at the gaming sector; however in recent times sales of these PCs have increased dramatically and larger companies are beginning to mount an assault on the market.

There are two distinct ways you can purchase a gaming PC. Many companies offer traditional PC packages aimed towards gamers, which come with a predefined collection of components and hardware. Most retailers in Australia that offer these have several different options, ranging in price and performance that cater to different markets. Alternatively, many companies offer a range of customisable parts, sometimes grouped within different price brackets which give you more freedom but also allow room for error. Be sure to carefully read up on the parts you are purchasing if you select the latter option, to make sure everything is compatible and suits your needs.

The hardware

The hardware

Whatever option you choose, you will need to make up your mind about which individual hardware configuration would best suit you. It is likely that any pre-built gaming PC you purchase will be able to adequately play most games, but knowing how different components relate to different needs will help you can maximise your PC's effectiveness.

When buying a gaming PC, there are a large number of factors to take into consideration, but the most important are graphics card, memory and CPU in that order. There are also important peripheral considerations such as mouse, headphones and sound cards.

Graphics card

Graphics card

An ATI x800 graphics card

The graphics card is probably the most important element in creating a successful gaming PC. Very few other functions test your graphics card as much as a modern game. As a result, this is the area in which you should find yourself spending the most money.

There are two main competitors in this area, ATI and NVIDIA, who licence their GPU technology out to other companies. Neither is considered greatly ahead of the other in terms of game performance, although NVIDIA has recently released a new generation of cards, the 7800 range, which ATI has yet to respond to. At the moment many games are CPU limited, which means the power of your CPU will often be the factor that limits how well a game performs. This does not allow some high end cards to reach their full potential, but if you buy a high end system it should be capable of handling the most powerful card on the market. This may change in the coming months with the release of ATI'S R520 core, but no concrete specifications have been released.

There are a few things to look out for in a good graphics card, particularly DirectX 9 support and a reasonable quantity of memory. DirectX 9 is a system used by developers to render graphics and is used in the majority of modern, graphically intensive games, so this support is vital. These games also require a large quantity of memory bandwidth to operate within so you should aim for a card with a minimum of 128 megabytes of RAM. Most modern cards will have this, as well as support DirectX 9, but it is worthwhile to check. Graphics card memory comes in the same amounts as regular memory. Some of the common configurations include:

  • 32 megabytes (older cards, two or three generations back)
  • 64 megabytes (two generations back)
  • 128 megabytes (last generation)
  • 256 megabytes (last generation and this generation)
  • 512 megabytes (next generation)

The absolute minimum you should spend on a gaming card is about $250-$350. This will get you either an NVIDIA 6600GT or an ATI x800, both of which will run modern games comfortably on medium to low settings. These cards are excellent value for money, and should definitely be part of a budget gaming system.

There are some great bargains at the higher end of the spectrum too. With the release of the 7800 range, prices are being driven downwards. The NVIDIA 6800GT and the Radeon x800xl are both hovering around the $500-$600 mark at the moment, and will hopefully drop in the near future. They can both run any game on the market with moderate to high settings and will please all but the most hardcore gamer.

Memory and GPU clock speeds are the primary factors in gaming performance and generally the higher these speeds are, the faster the card is. The pixel shader technology the card incorporates is important if you're playing very modern games as this technology comes into play a lot. The number of pipelines is also important as these are the channels that convert the image from the card to your screen, so the more the better. Modern cards run at 16 or 24 pipelines, but an 8 pipeline card would probably suffice if you are on a budget.

One other option to consider is an SLI setup, which involves running two cards together to share the load, which increases performance by 30% or more. It only works with select cards such as the 6600GT or the 6800 Ultra and requires a specially designed motherboard with multiple PCI-E slots. Computer enthusiasts will relish the extra grunt, but for most situations a single high end card is more than enough. ATI are coming out with competing technology called Crossfire in the coming months, which purports even higher performance increases.

Most pre-built gaming systems will come with a quality graphics card because companies recognise this is vital to a great gaming experience. Pay attention to the brand however, as different brands have different strengths and weaknesses. Some clock their card at slightly higher rates, offer extras such as games and software, have DVI or TV-out connections, or offer overclocking warranties for that extra bit of power. You can squeeze a little extra out of your system with cards like this, which is great if you are on a budget, but you may also be paying extra for things you don't want or need, such as useless software and outdated games. It is worth putting a bit of research into such a vital part of your gaming system.

Memory

Memory

The importance of memory when gaming cannot be underestimated. When it comes to basic PC use, web browsing, word processing, emailing etc, memory does not really factor in a great deal. When running complicated applications or games however, you will quickly find your system slowing down and will need to create virtual memory on the hard disk if you are not adequately prepared.

You can see our memory guide for a more detailed explanation of how memory works and what the different terminology means, but like anything in the computer world, higher numbers are better. Any gaming system you purchase will use DDR RAM now, with some utilising the faster DDR2 variation.

The minimum you can get away with in modern games is 512MB, but with windows XP using a large chunk of that, 1GB is definitely preferred. You can pick up 1GB of RAM for under $180 now, with prices really bottoming out, so it costs almost nothing to give your system a real shot in the arm. Some recent games such as Battlefield 2 will struggle even with that quantity and will perform better with 2 GB, which will set you back about $350-$400. RAM is the least expensive way to give your system a real boost and if you stick with 1GB, you can always purchase another 1GB stick later to increase performance.

PC3200 is the standard high end RAM, running at 400Mhz it gives plenty of grunt and is definitely one of the best options. There are RAMs that are clocked higher (such as PC3500, 3700 and 4000), but they are only really useful if you are an overclocker or a gaming enthusiast.

Similarly, DDR2, while boasting bigger and better numbers, is not currently much better than regular DDR, as systems and programs are not made to take full advantage of it. It currently boasts negligible gains over its predecessor. Like 64 bit technology, DDR2 will shine once programs catch up. It could be a worthwhile investment if you are building specifically for the future, but everybody apart from overclockers should be fine with PC3200.

CPU

CPU

The processor is the central part of any PC, controlling the majority of operations going on at any one time. Different games draw more on different parts of the PC with many being CPU intensive, so you a need a mid to high end CPU to run modern games at a comfortable level. We would recommend a CPU with a rating of at least 3.0GHz on the Pentium scale (or a 3000+ on the AMD scale) as being the absolute minimum required.

However, with the release of dual core technology and developments in high end chips (such as the Athlon FX57 and Intel's Extreme Edition releases), mid range chips around the 3.5ghz mark are rapidly becoming more affordable, and should be strongly considered even if you are on a budget. They will give a much needed performance boost for comparatively little money.

For the games enthusiast, chips can be acquired that are clocked at over 4.8GHz, but they come with hefty price tags, often in the $1400-$1500 range. If you are looking at spending that sort of money, it may be worthwhile to consider a dual core processor, which is discussed below. A single core powerhouse might be better on current games, but some future releases may benefit from the new technology.

64 bit processors are becoming the standard these days and with good reason. 64 bit computing, while not yet readily used and available, offers a huge performance increase, and although you can spend less to get a high end 32 bit chip, you'll be missing out by the end of 2005 when the technology really takes off.

With the current generation of chips, AMD seems to have the advantage in terms of gaming performance. The architecture of their socket 939 chips has shown greater performance in gaming benchmarks than comparable Intel chips (or socket 754 AMD chips) which makes it the best choice for the hardcore gamer who is not interested in other applications. Intel's hyperthreading technology means it shines in other areas, such as multi-tasking. So if your machine is intended for other functions besides gaming, be sure to take this into account.

Both companies now produce dual core CPUs as well, which makes the decision process more complicated again. These chips essentially take two CPU cores and link them together on a single chip, offering increased processing power. Their primary strength is in multi tasking, which is not a big concern for the current generation of games; however much like 64 bit technology, future releases will incorporate and take advantage of these developments, and so they are worthwhile in the long term. They do cost quite a bit more than normal chips, coming in at over $1000 in most instances and so are only viable for the hardcore gamer.

Motherboard

Motherboard

While your motherboard is a vital component in any PC, the quality of the motherboard won't offer much to your gaming experience. The motherboard is the component which all the other pieces of hardware plug into. It is the medium through which your various pieces talk to each other. Thus you need a reliable board, but it's not something you can really use to squeeze extra performance out of your system.

With this in mind, the main selling point of a motherboard is going to be its extras. These include things like RAID support, firewire support and built in network support. Most of these won't be particularly relevant to gaming. However there are exceptions, specifically PCI-E support. PCI-E stands for PCI Express, which is a new technology being phased in to replace AGP. It offers faster data transmission than its predecessor and motherboards are increasingly being released that support it. All graphics cards will either be PCI-E or AGP so we strongly recommend purchasing a system with PCI-E support. It's the technology of the future and if you're buying a new system there is no reason not to upgrade to it as there is virtually no price difference and a year from now it will be the standard format (Nvidia have already begun to ignore AGP with their latest card, the 7800). SLI is another technology that is worth considering, but that will be covered in more depth further on in the guide.

Another element that may be important is the overclocking options of the board. While the CPU itself is an obvious limitation on how far it can be overclocked, different motherboards offer different overclocking options, such as FSB, multiplier and voltage control. Some will overclock the same chip better than others. This is only important for the computer enthusiasts who want to get the most out of their system and for most purposes the majority of motherboards will perform the same.

Soundcard

Soundcard

Depending on who you ask, the soundcard is either the be all and end all of a system or, totally irrelevant. With regards to a gaming system, it depends on the sort of games you play. A competitive first person shooter for example, often requires stealth so the sound of footsteps and gunfire is vital to locating and dealing with opponents. In action and horror style games, sound helps create atmosphere and mood to immerse you in the game. If you play more racing and strategy games however, sound might not be so vital. It is background and somewhat token, as opposed to vital to the gaming experience. So depending on the purposes of the machine, your sound card needs will differ.

For most gaming purposes a standard 5.1 surround sound card will be more than ample. You could spend several hundred dollars on a high end card and hardly notice a difference in game. Expensive sound cards are largely targeted at an audiophile market, or sound and video editors who require crystal clarity in their audio applications. As long as you stay away from onboard sound (which no gaming PC should come with anyway) and purchase a good pair of headphones (discussed below) then your games should sound great.

Cooling

Cooling

A PC case fan

Most PCs come with basic cooling. Increases in technology have meant that modern CPUs and graphics cards typically run at higher temperatures than their predecessors so most systems have a CPU fan and a heat sink or two to help ease the load. Gaming PCs are no exceptions to this; however some do come with added cooling features which are worth noting.

If you are an avid PC user, and are interested in trying to overclock your system, then extra cooling might be just the thing you need to push it that little bit further. A few more powerful fans in the right places can do wonders. Most vendors stock higher quality third party fans for cases, CPUs and graphics cards, so do a little investigation and choose the combination you think fits best. You can buy some extremely powerful heatsinks designed to allow you to push your system to its limits, but these can cost in excess of a few hundred dollars.

Alternatively, you could take it a step further with water cooling. Not as dangerous as it sounds, water cooling involves pumping water through small pipes placed against hotspots in your system. The water cools down vital system components and is considerably more effective than air cooling. It does come at a cost, but it is not out of reach with a basic setup being available for about $300. Some retailers might even help set it up if you decide to enquire about it, so be sure to ask.

There are other methods of cooling out there, including phase cooling (which uses refrigeration techniques) and several types that involve chemical combinations, but they are often unstable and only available from retailers that focus on extreme cooling.

Extra cooling is only necessary if you intend to push your PC past the standard limits. You can boost your performance if you know what you are doing but it can be dangerous. Hardware can be damaged or completely ruined if you push it too far, so overclock at your own risk.

Other pieces

Other pieces

There are other elements to a PC that are less vital to gaming, such as hard drives, DVD burners and floppy drives. You can tailor the amount of disk space, and the types of drives you want to your needs. Most gaming PCs should already come with a basic CD-Rom and probably DVD drive, as well as a reasonable quantity of hard disk space (50-100GB).

You may also need to consider the network card that comes with the system if online play is important to you. Most PCs will come with broadband enabled cards out of the box these days, but it's worth checking to be safe. A standard 10GB card will be fine for gaming over a LAN, but you may wish to pursue a more powerful 100GB connection if speed is your thing.

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Peripherals

Peripherals

In addition to what's in your box, exterior peripherals are equally important for a proper gaming experience.

Case

Case

Not necessarily a peripheral in the traditional sense, some companies that specialise in gaming PCs like to make their cases a little more aesthetically pleasing than normal. While this does not have an impact on the way you play games, some people make a hobby out of modifying their case with windows, LCD lights and other setups. This is not a big concern for most people, but if you take your PC to LANs (events where many people bring their PCs to network up and play games) then the look of your PC may be important.

Monitor

Monitor

An LCD monitor

For many people, the monitor is one of the most important parts of their computer. It is the vessel through which you view the thousands of dollars you've spent on your system already, so it's logical to buy a decent one. While it won't actually improve your game play much, playing a modern game with all the settings cranked up on a 19 inch screen is a great experience.

The main choice is between LCD and CRT. Originally LCDs suffered from a "ghosting" effect, where fast movements in game would lead to a blurring that made it difficult to see. This was particularly evident in first person shooters and other fast paced games. Thus, CRT monitors have been the favourite amongst gamers.

Recent LCD technology however, has drastically reduced the response time of the monitors. Now you can buy 12ms (millisecond) or 8ms LCD screens which have virtually no blurring. A few things to note about LCDs Pros:

  • They have a wider viewing area than CRTs (a 19 inch LCD is bigger than a 19 inch CRT.)
  • They are easier on the eyes.
  • They are lighter, which is a big factor if you go to a lot of LANs.
  • With DVI input you can avoid any loss of quality when converting from analog to digital (as is popular with CRTs.)
Cons:
  • There are still some minor ghosting issues (not enough to really be noticeable).
  • They have a native resolution (which means you must play in that resolution to get the best image quality); this is typically 1280x1024, which is not small by anyone's standards.
At this stage of development it comes down to personal preference. The LCD ghosting is all but gone from modern monitors, but if you go down that road be sure the monitor the computer comes with has an adequate response time for gaming (12ms minimum, 8ms preferred). LCD is definitely the technology of the future, but at the moment the differences are quite negligible. CRTs however can be bought cheaper than LCDs, so if you are on a tight budget that is probably the way to go.

Mouse and mouse pad

Mouse and mouse pad

A greatly underestimated part of your gaming setup, many games rely on quick mouse reflexes and accurate responses, so a quality mouse is crucial. Regardless of whether you're shooting down enemies or quickly managing large numbers of troops, a good quality mouse will improve your game play dramatically. Optical mice have basically taken over from ball mice, with technology having developed to the point where they are skip-free on all but the lightest, shiniest surfaces. They work by having a tiny camera that takes hundreds of pictures of the surface and uses them to work out how far the mouse has moved.

There are a number of choices in this market, ranging from laser mice to wireless mice. Many wireless mice suffer from response problems which are not noticeable during everyday office applications, but can become a pain when gaming. More recent developments seem to have this under control, but it is worth asking to test the mouse you wish to buy, just in case.

Pay attention to the DPI of the mouse you are getting, as that indicates the quality of the camera present and the number of shots it takes. The higher the number, the more accurate the mouse is. Some gaming mice have as high as 2000 DPI, while basic desktop opticals clock in at a mere 200 or 400. Typically a good quality mouse will set you back $80-$100, and will last several years if kept in good condition.

A Funcpad mousepad

To go with your mouse you need a good quality mousepad. While you may think the $2 pad that came with a game is a suitable surface to play on, many game enthusiasts would tell you differently. There are a number of well known gaming pads, ranging from cloth through to glass, metal and plastic. Some are specially created by professional gamers, others by individual companies that focus on gaming mice and accessories. Do a little research and find the surface that is right for you.

Keyboard

Keyboard

The quality of your keyboard is much less of a factor. As long as it is comfortable and functional it won't really have an impact upon how you play. There are several gaming specific keyboards available, but they are generally acknowledged as being inferior to a regular setup, as their layout is unwieldy and in attempting to enhance gaming options become useless for anything else. There are also several wireless keyboards, which are a viable consideration if you are trying to minimise your cords. There are a few known problems with response times (as with wireless mice) so try to use one before you buy it if taking this path.

Headphones

Headphones

While many home PC users enjoy the surround sound associated with a speaker setup, competitive gamers swear by headphones as their preferred audio source. As with sound cards, the importance of the sound depends on the type of games you play. With first person shooters for example, the ability to precisely locate the source of a sound is enhanced by the use of headphones and you can achieve the sort of immersion that comes from an expensive speaker setup for a fraction of the cost.

They are also very useful if you attend a lot of LANs, as speakers are prohibited at such events. Similarly, living with other people or in a small space, you can play your games as loud as you want without worrying about disturbing your room mates.

Most computers will not come with headphones as standard so it will be something you have to pursue as an extra or from a different company. You can get a good pair of headphones for around $80-$100, but the quality continues to increase the more you spend. If you enjoy listening to music while you game, spending a little more for a better listening experience can be well worth it.

Price

Price

If you are looking at pre-packaged systems, one thing to do before buying is price the individual components to get a rough idea of what you are paying for. A quality gaming PC will never be cheap, with a full budget system setting you back around $2000. For a high end experience you will be looking at over $3000, with extremes available for over $5000-$6000.

That said some companies may place an exorbitant premium on their systems simply for the job of piecing them together. If you check the rough market price of the individual components that make up your package you will get a rough idea of what you should be paying and any great disparities will become obvious.