ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Thursday, November 07, 2013

ThinkBoxly’s PC-Building Parts Guide for Gamers (2013)

While there are a variety of PC builders out there, gamers are the driving force behind a significant portion of such enthusiasts. With the Xbox One and Playstation 4 arriving commercially in only a few weeks, next-gen will soon be here in full force–effectively outdating that beastly build from five years ago. Since both new consoles are based on x86 hardware we will likely see an increase in quality PC ports of new games over the next several years, if the PC is your gaming platform of choice now is a good time to start considering your next upgrade or totally new build. Or perhaps up until now you’ve lived with prebuilt machines, and you’d like to get into PC building for the first time to get more performance out of less money. Either way, this guide is for you–not a step-by-step how-to for putting everything together, but something even more preliminary than that. Today we’re going to walk through everything you’ll need and talk recommendations to get you started.

1 – The Case

For many PC builders the case is something of an afterthought. Many people tend to focus either on getting the flashiest frame possible or the cheapest thing they can find. But in reality your case deserves much more respect. After all, what case you buy will determine what size of parts you can cram inside, affect noise levels, and make a big impact on cooling. Now, there are many, many different cases to choose from, and at the onset they may appear to be fairly equal. However, here’s a few tips to consider:

• Most users will want to stick with an ATX Mid-Tower form factor. This size will usually accommodate even the largest of parts without being horrifically monstrous. While smaller varieties may look more console-like, a bit larger tower is well worth the extra space for the convenience it brings in putting everything together.

• Don’t think you’re getting a bargain if you see a tower that ships with a PSU. You’ll most likely end up purchasing a new PSU a week later. Buy for the quality of the case itself.

• Go for function over form.

+ Fractal Design Define R4
+ CoolerMaster HAF 912

2 – The Motherboard

Another under-appreciated component in a PC is the next item on the list, the ubiquitous motherboard. While it may not have any powerful specs on its own, your PC wouldn’t get very far without one. In some way or another, everything connects to your motherboard, or else it ain’t in your PC. This is the guy (gal?) that will boot into your operating system every day and manage all your hardware so that it works together like good little hardware should (the ‘mother’ in ‘motherboard’, yes?). So while it’s not especially exciting stuff, this component is absolutely critical.

A few things go into choosing a motherboard, but there are two big ones to consider: 1) it must fit a form factor supported by the case you chose, and 2) you must purchase a motherboard specifically for the brand of CPU you want (AMD or Intel). In fact, there’s a lot of back-and-forth play between mobo and CPU specs, so do your homework accordingly. If your CPU of choice is an AM3+ variety, your motherboard must support AM3+. If it’s LGA2011, the motherboard must be LGA2011. You get the idea. Different motherboards also have different limitations on how much RAM can be installed, what type of GPUs can be installed, how many GPUs can be installed (for SLI/CrossFire), and so on and so forth. So go ahead and pick one out so you have some direction for your other parts, but be prepared to reassess your motherboard decision before making a purchase.

• If you use a lot of accessories, look for a motherboard with lots of USB ports (or whatever input/output fits your needs)

• These days integrated sound is so good that most users will not need to purchase a sound card. Any recent motherboard will support 7.1 surround sound at anywhere from 96-192KHz

• If you plan on overclocking, your motherboard will dictate how far you can go. Check around online to see what skilled overclockers have to say about the mobos you’re considering

Brand recommendations:
+ Asus

3 – The PSU

“The what?” If you’re new to the PC building scene, it’s possible you haven’t thought a lot about power supplies. From the outside it seems like you just hook a cable up to the back of the computer and that’s that. But no, my friend, inside things are far more complicated. The motherboard, the GPU, and each individual hard drive/optical drive you install all require their own, separate flow of power. The device that manages this power and provides it to all these different components is the big transformer known as the PSU (power supply unit). Different components all together require different wattage, so make sure you get a PSU that is amply able to handle it all.

• These days it’s good to get a PSU with no less than 600W. 1000W is not unreasonable.

• Try to go for a modular PSU. “Modular” means that there are no cables hard-wired onto the PSU, so you can use different cable configurations as you have need. Saving space equals better cooling.

• There are numerous PSU wattage calculators around the internet. Try a few to see what power requirement your hardware will have.

(Listed models are available in multiple wattages)
+ Corsair CX750M
+ Cooler Master V700

4 – The CPU

Ah, the venerable central processing unit. Not so long ago these were the prized possessions of any computer enthusiast, but alas they have fallen from glory as of late. It no longer matters as much as it used to what CPU your computer comes packing. Multiprocessing has shattered the numbers game where more MHz equals more power. Additional integrated technologies now turn a once-straightforward piece of technology into a Frankenstein’s Monster that’s no longer sure what exactly it is. Of course, all that isn’t to detract from the importance of choosing a good CPU–or how cool a good CPU is. But the fact of the matter is that for most tasks these days–gaming included–pretty much anything available that runs in excess of 3.0 GHz is going to be more than sufficient. After a certain performance point CPU prices skyrocket, but presently the additional cost is by far not justified by the performance boost over the competition. Bottom line: make a smart decision, but don’t break the bank or lose sleep over your CPU.

• Not all GHz are created equal. A slightly slower CPU with slightly more cores will usually be faster than a slightly faster CPU with slightly fewer cores. Favor CPUs with more cores over CPUs with high frequencies. Check benchmarks online to compare CPUs you are considering. The results may surprise you!

• Don’t bother with APUs (accelerated processing units). The notion of a GPU built into your CPU may be cool, but on its own an APU is very limited for gaming, most GPUs can’t take advantage of the APU’s graphics processing capabilities, and those that can don’t get a significant performance boost.

• Intel’s naming structure is not indicative of how many cores are in the CPU. i3, i5, and i7 do not mean 3, 5 and 7 cores, respectively.

• AMD is generally far more affordable than Intel, but offers comparable real-world performance. Intel CPUs do have a legitimate edge, but if you’re on a budget it’s not worth splurging for Intel over AMD.

+ AMD FX-8350
+ Intel Core i7-4770k

4.5 – The CPU Fan

Yes, any CPU you order will come with a fan in the package. But trust me, you probably won’t want to use it. The vast majority of stock CPU fans are based on ineffective heatsinks, and to compensate the fan must spin at four to five thousand RPM (revolutions per minute). The result is akin to a jet engine, and on top of that your CPU will run hotter than is ideal. Any half-decent CPU heatsink and fan will be better than what comes in the box and won’t cost much either, so there’s really no reason to suffer through the noise and potential heat damage to your PC that comes with using the stock fan.

+ CoolerMaster Hyper TX3
+ CoolerMaster Hyper 212 EVO

5 – RAM

Next on the list of vitally important parts is RAM. Everything you do on a computer uses some amount of memory, so it’s important that 1) you have enough, and 2) it’s fast. It’s not rocket science for anyone the least bit familiar with how a computer works, but there it is. Something not every gamer may be aware of, however, is that modern computers share a limited amount of RAM with the GPU to ease the load on its dedicated graphics memory. Installing good RAM for this purpose can really make a difference in your gaming experience, so choose well.

• RAM works better when it is not mixed and matched. Most motherboard will come with four RAM slots–go ahead and purchase four of the same stick.

• Are you remembering to check all these specs with your motherboard? Try to get the fastest, highest-capacity RAM that you can.

• Expensive RAM is generally only marginally better than the regular stuff.

• Be careful when purchasing RAM with fancy, tall heatsinks. These can sometimes conflict with other components, especially CPU heatsinks.

Brand recommendations:
+ Kingston
+ Corsair

6 – GPU

Ahh, now we get to the fun stuff! Your choice of GPU will undoubtedly have the biggest impact on gaming performance in your PC. It’s also the point where you will discover some of the greatest brand loyalty among users. AMD or NVIDIA, Radeon or GeForce? At one point in time the answer to this question was a no-brainer–NVIDIA held the prize, far and away. But these days while NVIDIA still offers terrific hardware support, flexible software, and powerful cards, ever since AMD picked up ATI they’ve been carefully building the Radeon brand into a capable competitor in all these areas.

GeForce and AMD GPUs are internally so different that making direct comparisons is difficult, but the real-world performance of both is undeniable. What matters is not so much which brand you elect to go with, as NVIDIA and AMD both offer terrific DX11 and OpenGL performance, but what the card is capable of for the price. It no longer matters so much how much dedicated memory is on the card. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything packing less than 1GB, which is plenty–especially if you plan on installing a lot of RAM, which can be shared with the graphics card to an extent. The two factors to focus on are clock speeds and cores. While CPUs have yet to break 10 cores, we’re already seeing GPUs with excess of 2,000 cores, and clock speeds over 6GHz. Those kinds of figures are what will make your gaming experience great, not so much the memory (because that’s basically a given these days, not because VRAM isn’t important).

• Contrary to popular belief, it does not matter what brand of CPU you use with your GPU. While it makes sense to use an AMD GPU with an AMD CPU it is not at all necessary. Use AMD with NVIDIA or Intel with AMD if you wish–it makes no difference.

• For those who are unaware, it is possible on certain motherboards to install as many as four GPUs. This setup is called SLI on the NVIDIA side, and CrossFire on the AMD side. However almost nothing out there requires this kind of horsepower, and some games actually perform worse on multiple GPUs than they do on just one. Only the most hardcore gamers should consider SLI/CrossFire.

• Nothing will draw more power from your PSU than your GPU. Make sure your power supply is up to spec.

• It’s worth noting that NVIDIA has announced plans for the GTX 800 series, to be released Q1 2014. These new GPUs will feature an onboard ARM CPU to work alongside a normal, but improved NVIDIA GPU architecture. If you can hold out until Q1 to see what the new cards bring, it may be a good idea to do so.

+ NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760 (budget)
+ NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 (performance)
+ AMD Radeon HD 7870 (budget)
+ AMD Radeon R9 290 (performance)

7 – The Rest

Items 1-6 cover all the critical stuff. From there on its up to you. You’ll need at least one hard drive, but everything else is optional. It’s still a good idea to have an optical drive in a desktop PC, but it’s not strictly necessary. Go for a Bluray drive if you can, or just stick in a cheap DVD drive so you can install your OS and any disk-based games you might own or want to own.

In the hard drive realm you now have to decide between a normal HDD or a speedy SSD, but that is entirely up to you. Large capacity SSDs are still very expensive, while it’s much easier to afford a 1-2TB HDD. Those really concerned about speed should consider investing in a low-capacity SSD just for their operating system and then purchase a secondary, high-capacity HDD for game storage. This way your games won’t benefit from the ultra fast loading times an SSD provides, but at least you’ll be able to get into your games faster with the OS running like silk.

Another thing you may or may not need is a new monitor. Again, this used to be a one-way street, but now there are a few options to consider. 1080p is definitely the current standard, but we are progressing fast to 2K and 4K. While it’s hard to find monitors in these resolutions yet, it’s quite possible to pick up a monitor that runs in 1440p or even 1600p. 3D gaming equipment is also readily available to both AMD and NVIDIA customers, but it will require a special monitor to use. You’ll need to get a monitor with a 120Hz (or higher) refresh rate if you’d like to take advantage of your graphics card’s stereoscopic 3D capabilities–or just have super smooth, high FPS gameplay otherwise.

So there you have it–a complete guide to choosing parts for your PC builds and/or upgrades. Be sure to comment below if you have any questions, or a recommendation to make!