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Buyer’s Guide: So You’re Thinking of Getting a Gaming PC?

So you’ve been console gaming for a while, and the time has come to ask yourself the immortal question: is it actually worth joining the ‘Glorious PC Master Race’?

Glorious PC Master Race jokes aside, I personally don’t see PC gaming as some sort of ultimate end-goal for a gamer. We all game for different reasons, and PC gaming just happens to fill a certain selection of needs/wants. A PC’s usage extends beyond gaming, and the world of multimedia creation is open for you to explore. For the right kind of person, a PC can open up a much wider and creative world beyond the simple means of just playing games.

I’m going to skip straight to the thoughts and opinions section of this entire article right away, and simply tell you that there is no universally correct answer as to whether you should get into PC gaming or not. Everyone is different. It would be all too easy to throw in the usual arguments for PC gaming, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Is a PC right for me?

Obviously you’re here reading this article though, which means you’re either on the fence about it, or you’re looking for more specific advice or instructions. As such, we won’t debate too much if PC gaming is a good fit for your needs, because you should already be roughly aware of your decision before going any further into it. If you’re still not completely sold on PC gaming, then there’s always an easy discussion you can have with yourself that can help you arrive at a decision of whether you want to spend upwards of £500 on a decent one or not.

Do you have hobbies/interests that could directly benefit from a more open platform? Do you want to make your own videos, 3D models, or perhaps learn game development/modding? If you want to be more creative and have more customisation alongside a gaming machine, then the PC is a platform you should include in your life. Or you just want prettier graphics. Either will do.

Finding the right setup

Your next problem is what your build budget is, and what kind of usage you want. If you’re rich then it’s easy: you just go onto your favourite shopping website, sort PCs in order of price, and pick the highest one. Have your butler – if he’s the techy type –set up all the usual gaming applications and buy some games on Steam pre-loaded for you, and you’re done. Congratulations. For the rest of us, however, we need to do the usual normal person thing of finding the best amount of power but for the lowest possible price.

For me it was easy; I do a lot of stuff with my PC in a professional context around 3D/game development/video editing/music production etc., so I needed something fairly heavy duty. Let’s discuss what you might want to look at.

First off, don’t use ‘recommended’ specs on a game title to guide your decision process on what kind of PC to buy. Some games are optimised better than others; you might think that because you have a PC that runs GTA V on high graphical settings, every other game should also run on high. Unfortunately, it’s never quite that straightforward. Different developers are all capable of different graphical witchcraft in supporting older hardware for their lowest settings, and some can make their games look amazing regardless of what settings or PC hardware they run on.

I’m going to recommend three types of builds. The first will be an ‘entry level’ model, ideal for someone wanting to try out PC gaming for the first time without having to invest too much. The second and third builds are for someone who’s a little more sure that PC gaming is right for them they’re and are willing to spend a bit more money.

A side note: Take care when looking for graphics cards: you might think an Nvidia GTX 960 performs better than a GTX 780 because it’s a higher number for instance, but the model numbers don’t work like that. I’ve chosen my recommendations based on what’s best in that price range.

The entry-level gaming PC (£400-£600)

You’re on a budget, but after gaming on console for years, it’s finally  you want to give PC gaming a try. You aren’t sure if you want to fully commit in terms of money invested, but you want to tip your toe in. You want a light power system that performs just as well – or better – than your PS4.

You will want a system that advertises itself as having a i5 6400 processor or more. You could get a slightly older 4000 series i5 if you want to save a little more money, but I wouldn’t recommend going below the 4000 series, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend an i3).

RAM wise, 8gb of DDR4 RAM should do nicely, but upgrading to 16gb doesn’t cost too much more and would give you a small improvement, especially when running multiple programs or high-intensity applications. 2133mhz/2400mhz is a nice speed to have.

As for the all-important graphics card, I’d heartily recommend looking at a GTX 1050ti (be sure to look for the ti at the end!). A pre-built PC with one of these will likely take you to the top end of your budget, but will allow you to play the majority of titles at either high or highest settings, in 1080p and with 60+ frames per second.

AMD’s RX460 graphics card is also worth considering; it has slightly less power than a GTX 1050i but comes at a much lower price. It’s a good choice if budget is your main concern and you’re willing to compromise on graphical fidelity a little.

You can expect this sort of PC to last you 2-4 years, but you’ll most likely find yourself having to turn games down from ‘high’ to ‘medium’ settings well before that point arrives as games naturally become more demanding over time. One of the benefits of PC gaming is you can update your components as and when they need it; two or three years down the line, you always have the option of swapping out for a more powerful graphics card or processor rather than needing to buy an entirely new PC.

The mid-range gaming PC (£600-£800)

You’re still on a budget, but you want to get some serious gaming done. You know PC gaming isn’t going to be a fad for you, and you’re confident you’re making the right decision. You want to play graphically demanding games for the next year or two on high/highest settings comfortably.

As above, 8gb of RAM at a 2133mzh/2400mhz speed will do the job nicely. RAM is so easy to upgrade that you can just buy more in future when you need, but you can save a bit of money now if you don’t want to jump straight in with 16 or 32gb.

In terms of the CPU, I recommend you start looking at an i5 6500/6600. If a build advertises a 6600k that’s even better, but you’re paying for overclocking potential you probably won’t end up using. The 6000 series is Intel’s previous iteration, known as Skylake. The current generation is the 7000 series, known as Kaby Lake. If you see an i5 7000-numbered CPU, then by all means buy it if it’s within your budget! Generally speaking however, last year’s 6500/6600 processors will be cheaper and offer more or less the same performance.

You’ll find plenty of i5 6600 8gb gaming PC builds online, but it’s the graphics card that comes inside it which will be the biggest factor in deciding what price bracket it sits in. If you’d rather go with an AMD, the RX470 is one of the best mid-range models to look at. The Nvidia equivalent would be a GTX 960/970 build. It’s worth going for the best graphics card that you can within your budget; most games are bottle-necked by the graphics card and hardly ever the CPU.

The high end gaming PC (£800-£1,100)

In this final scenario, you have a larger budget to play with, or you need to account for digital media creation in your build. You might want to do some 3D modelling, or you want to edit videos, create some digital graphic designs, or maybe you’re thinking of developing your own games. For whatever reason, high-end gaming and fast media creation is what you’re after.

Here’s where I’ll recommend you certainly start out with at least 16gb of RAM. As I mentioned above, high intensity programs – which all media creation software will be – use a lot of RAM, so the more you have spare, the better. 2400mhz is once again fine (I won’t bore you with latency explanations!), but you may want to think about going for 2666mhz/3000mhz if it doesn’t blow the bank.

In terms of CPU, you’ll want to consider playing with the big boys now. An i5 is still serviceable, but I’d recommend you look at an i7 for optimum performance. You’ll see faster render times in 3D applications, faster video rendering, and better processing in general across all applications. Games in the near future will likely take full advantage of all those hyper-threaded cores your i7 has.

When looking at what specific model of processor to get, there’s no huge reason to get a 7700k over a 6700k. The 6700k is last year’s model, and so you’ll be able to pick it up a little cheaper, and there’s not a great deal of difference in performance. The jump from 3.4ghz to 4.0ghz is quite a step though, and for media creation it could shave off a huge amount of time spent rendering something!

As for a graphics card, I’d say the higher end choice is quite easy these days thanks to the newest cards to enter the market. A GTX 1060 (3gb edition!) is a great choice for getting max/ultra 1080p gaming done. This kind of setup will cost around £1,000 though, and that’s before you enter the £1.2k–£1.5k territory of a GTX 1070/1080 build! As before, AMD offer competitive graphics cards at a slightly lower price – an RX480 is a cheaper option that will still get you great performance.

Finding the best price

Different websites give wildly different prices for all of these possible setups. Shopping around for each of the components separately and building a PC yourself is likely always the cheaper option, but if you’re new to PC gaming, it’s understandably a daunting task. Most PC sellers will offer some kind of build configuration tool on their website that will let you customise exactly what you want. Here’s what to look out for to ensure you get the price as low as possible.

Make sure you get a 1tb SATA hard drive as your main hard drive for the operating system. 1tb is an adequate size for beginner PC gamers, and is easily upgraded with external hard drives that are easy and relatively cheap to pick up. Unless you care about quick boot times, you can save money by opting out of any Solid State drives and any other secondary drives and just stick with regular SATA drives. Make sure your hard drive is at least 5400rpm (general speed of reading/writing data). 7200rpm gets you faster loading times for games, but also hikes up the price considerably. The performance of your games won’t suffer from a slower SATA hard drive unless it’s an open world game that streams data dynamically quite regularly, but as long as it’s 5400rpm or more then you’re safe; I promise.

The graphics card is the number one component that will drive up the price. Decide what suits your needs and your budgets best by looking at my scenarios above. The super-budget cards are the 1050ti/RX460. The mid ranges are the GTX 960 and RX470. The high-ends are the GTX 1060 and RX480. Taking them down a step or going for AMD’s option rather than Nvidia will lower the price.

The really budget option

You can get PC setups cheaper than £400 if you’re really on a budget, but you’ll struggle to run modern AAA games on anything other than low/medium settings. An i3 gaming PC with an RX460 or GTX 950 and 4gb of RAM will likely do just fine for playing less demanding indie games and will still run more graphic-heavy stuff but just at a lower setting. Just don’t expect it to last you more than a year or two before you have to completely upgrade. If you are committed to the idea of PC gaming, it really is worth spending that little more initially for a rig that will last you longer and perform much better in the meantime.

And that, my PC-searching friends, is pretty much the basics. Hopefully this article has helped you figure out what kind of budget and setup you’re looking at. If there’s anything I’ve missed, or if you have any questions, fire away in the comments below.

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