Building your own gaming computer may seem on the surface as a difficult and time-consuming task. The truth however is that building a PC for gaming is actually fairly simple, fun and straight forward. Yes it will take some time and research, but it is well worth the investment considering how much money we’ll save. Today’s PC games are both exciting and gorgeous, but they also require a ton of resources from your computer. This means your computer has to be a beast, and will at least take some amount of money to invest to ensure your system runs smoothly. But setting up a gaming computer today is nothing like it was 30 years ago.
Back then, PC building’s biggest problem was compatibility of components. You would buy a sound card (8 or 16 bit) and a video card (EGA was as good as it got) then hope that it would all fit and work with your motherboard. There was no website to visit back then for support. They gave you disks with a manual and from there you just had to figure it out. 30 years later, it’s all plug and play. To start, if you have a problem, there’s a website you can look up and they usually have the answer there.
How times have changed for the PC gamer, the one thing that hasn’t changed all that much is the budget. PC gaming is still expensive and you will want to make a plan for how you want to budget your money. How much have you set aside for the GPU (video graphics card)? Are you strictly looking to make this a VR gaming machine? Should you attempt to future proof the PC or upgrade as you go? In this discussion we will start with the basics, the components and the necessities. We will also talk about actually building a gaming computer, how much you should expect to spend and the tools you will need to build it. We’ll touch on the subject of multiple monitor setups and liquid-cooling, but it will not be the focus of our discussion today. After, you can also read our gaming gear guide if you need other pieces to your setup.
It’s time to start this journey, and by the time we’re done you’ll be able to bring a new computer into the world!
Gaming PC Components
Building a gaming computer all starts with the case, which is going to be a pretty straight forward. There are tons of options to customize the look of your case, so it should be fun to find a case that suits your taste. Most cases will come with fans installed that help to cool the components inside. You should expect to pay about $150 US for a large, “future proof” case. If you want to install some sort of fancy computer lighting into your case then this would be the time. They’re fairly inexpensive and add a nice touch to a custom system. The size of the case itself is not really a huge factor but a large case will help “future proof” your system for the years to come and allows for more space to install larger components and better cooling options.
A gaming computer is going to produce a tremendous amount of heat, and heat is bad for the circuits inside your computer. A quality cooling system is going to be paramount. There are basically two options, liquid-cooling or air-cooling. Air-cooling is cheap and easy, it’s the standard for today’s systems. You can pretty much put in as many fans as you can fit into the case. As long as you have a power supply large enough, you can run them all. Installation is a very simple matter of “bolt-on” and plug-in, anyone can do it. Liquid-cooling systems are a bit more complex and expensive (about $200-$300 US) but are unmatched in their ability to keep a system cool. Liquid-cooling systems will also require a larger case because you will need space for the tubing and reservoir. Liquid cooling also has the advantage of silence. Because there is just a radiator and a fan in the case, the liquid-cooled system can dissipate the heat quietly. Make sure that if you do choose to go the liquid cooled route, that you purchase one that is compatible with your chip manufacturer (AMD or Intel). Most liquid-cooled kits come with a bracket for both, but others don’t.
Choosing a CPU (Central Processing Unit) is a very personal choice. There is a wild debate these days about who is better for gaming, AMD or Intel? We won’t shout into the darkness here, except to say that whichever one you choose, it will be the heart of your system and deserves the amount of budget it will require. You may be able to purchase a cheaper version of the processor you want online somewhere, just take care to buy from a reputable seller. The AMD processors are less of a hit to the budget than the Intel’s and nowadays they are almost on par with each other. As we mentioned before though, the CPU is not the place you want to cut corners in the budget. One more thing to keep in mind, if you are planning to go extreme with your gaming then you should really consider Intel’s X series chips or AMD’s Ryzen models.
Motherboards are the next item on the list. The motherboard is where everything comes together in your system. There are some features that you will want to have on the board. Obviously you will want a Gigabit Ethernet board with at least 2 USB 3.0 Slots. Don’t worry too much about “onboard” video. You will want to just get a PCI-E video card to put in there anyway. We’ll talk more about that in a minute. Also, make sure the motherboard supports DDR4 memory. DDR stands for double data rate and without getting too far off shore with a needless and complex explanation, just remember that it’s a measurement of the memory’s speed. DDR5 is on the horizon but it’s not quite ready for primetime yet. With the speed of technology advancements today they may skip over it entirely for something better. However for now, DDR4 will give you a quality gaming experience when building a gaming computer.
There are several manufacturers of motherboards out there today and there’s not a huge gap in difference between any one of them. There is however a huge gap in price. Some boards go for as high as $1,500 US, but that would only be one of those “I’m rich!” purchases. For the rest of us “budget minded” gamers, you should expect to pay around $200 US for a decent board. Building a gaming computer without bottlenecking it is actually quite a challenge on a shoe string budget. There will always be some sort of limiting factor. The best practice would be to buy all high-end components but that may put too much of a strain on the budget. A pretty good rule is to spend about twice as much on the CPU as the GPU. For example, if you spend $700 US on the CPU then expect about $350 US for the GPU. That way you won’t have a great graphics card hamstrung by a poorly performing CPU chip.
The Video Card
Now, the video card is going to be another important purchase. As we mentioned before you want to get a quality graphics card with at least 4GB of GDDR4 or GDDR5 memory on the card. 8GB is even better but 4GB is the bare minimum. There are several manufacturers of video cards today and some are better than others, but not by much. It really is a “get what you pay for” deal with these cards. If you are planning on going VR with your setup than of course you will need to find one that is compatible with VR. Both AMD and Nvidia make a VR video card. In this case though, Nvidia video cards have a larger selection, but AMD’s price point is hard to beat. For those of you who are not quite ready for the jump to VR yet, there’s the multi-monitor setup.
A good three monitor setup will dazzle the mind and ensnare the senses. The best part is that the size limit is the screen. If you have three 65 inch televisions (and enough desk space) guess what? You now have a screen that is 195 inches across! That’s nearly 5 meters! As long as you have a video card that supports a three screen setup then you’re ready. However if you plan on going that big, you might want to consider two video cards connected with something like Crossfire.
System or desktop memory is one of those items that require your attention, but in the end it’s another easy to set up component. You want to have at least 8GB of ram on the computer, but you may want 16GB just to keep everything running smoothly. The typical modern memory chip has 288 pins on it and will only fit on the motherboard one way. Expect to pay anywhere from $70 US to about $170 US for the memory sticks.
Power Supply and Hard Drive
Power supply is going to depend on how far you want to go with your gaming. The option of buying a larger (800 watts, maybe 1,000 for liquid cooled systems) power supply would be advised. That way you can future proof your machine and won’t need a new supply for many years. Expect to pay about $120 US. When buying a hard drive, the solid state drive (SSD) is better for loading times and system startup. A 1TB SSD hard drive should last you a few years and hold all of your gaming saves. You should be able to pick one of these up for about $100 US.
Installing Your Gaming Computer Parts
When building your own gaming PC, installing all of the components is really just a matter of plug and play. You’ll need a Phillips head screwdriver, a flat-headed screw driver and a small tube of thermal compound. The first thing you want to do is take the motherboard out and place it on a rubber pad. Open the clips on the memory slots so you can insert the memory cards into the board. They only fit one way, so this should go pretty smoothly. Press firmly but not too hard on the top of the card until you hear a click. The sides of the cards should fit flush with the clips. Next we will install the CPU. Be careful not to touch the top or bottom of the processor as this will leave oils from your fingers in places that you don’t want oils. Find the arrow or other marker on the chip that should correspond with a marker on the motherboard telling you which way the chip is installed.
Open the “U” or “L” shaped clamp on the motherboard processor slot and gently place the chip on top of it. At this point you must be very careful because if you don’t seat the chip properly you may bend some of the gold pegs on the CPU which could damage the chip. So line up the arrows, make sure the gold pegs are seated properly and close the “U” or “L” bar which will secure the processor to the board. If you bought an air cooling kit with a heat sink then this is the time to install that. If you went with the liquid cooler kit then it will be the last thing we install. Take your thermal compound and make a small line in the middle of the CPU chip (it should be a small thin amount, about the length of your finger nail). Place the heat sink on top of the chip and secure it with the brackets or push screws that came with it. Give the compound about 10 minutes to set.
Next, take the case and power supply. It should be an easy matter of screwing it into the case. Take the power wires and just get them out-of-the-way for now. There should be small support screws that came with the motherboard. There should also be several holes in the floor of the case. Take a small felt-tipped pen and place the motherboard over the case matching the PCI slots to the slots in the back of the case. You should be able to see the holes on the floor of the case through the holes on the motherboard. Take the pen and make a mark through the motherboard. Take the board away and you should have a clear picture of where the support screws go. Screw in the support screws, place the motherboard on them and secure the motherboard to the case floor.
Now comes the cables for the disk drive, the hard drive and the system LED’s and speaker. Your motherboard manual will show you where these go. Don’t plug anything into the power supply yet. If you need to, take a flat head screwdriver and pry off the metal slot cover on the back of the case for the PCI slot so you can install the video card. There should be a tab on the back of the PCI-Express slot (it may be a push button depending on your motherboard) and pull that tab open. Place the video card back-end first into the slot and carefully press it down into the slot. Once you’ve done that, close the tab and make sure the video card fits the opening in the back of the computer (if you didn’t line up the motherboard properly when you installed it, this is when you’ll find out).
Assuming you have it all correct, you are now ready to plug-in the power supply. Plug in the disk drive(s) and the SSD hard drive first. Then plug-in the fan for the heat sink (there is a socket in the motherboard for that) and any power plugs that may go to the video card(s). Any extra fans that you purchased for the air-cooled kit should be plugged in now also. If you went the liquid-cooled path, this would be the time to install that component. Follow the directions carefully for the kit because if you don’t get it right you may end up with water squirting around inside your computer and that won’t be covered under any warranty. Now you’re ready to plug-in the motherboard. There is only one way to plug the power cables in (it didn’t used to be that way and any mistake there was costly) so that should be easy. You’re ready for power-up!
Building Your Own PC for Gaming
In setting up a gaming computer we didn’t cover some of the obvious items in the discussion, because things like buying Windows 10 just comes with the territory. We also didn’t cover peripherals because that’s a personal preference. Are you going to set up a flight simulator or a racing set up? Do you need a steering wheel or a joystick? Building a gaming PC is not just a rewarding experience, but once you’ve completed it you’ve now opened the door to a wider world of computing that not many people know about. Upgrading your machine from now on will be a breeze because you’ve already done it all. Not to mention, you’ll never have to shell out extra money for a pre-built computer again.