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Over the past few months we’ve been getting messages about how to actually build a Windows PC, so in these series of featured articles I’ll be walking you through each step of building a computer.
It may seem a bit scary but I’ll be here to walk you through. This first article will only be about the process of deciding on the parts that will make up your build, figuring out your needs and how to apply them to the best value, or to fulfill your needs as well as possible.
Deciding Your Budget and Performance Needs
So the first thing you’d need to do is figure out your budget. This should be amount of money you can spend comfortably, though you don’t have to spend all of it. Just because you can spend $5,000 on a build doesn’t mean you must if all you want to play is League of Legends and Brutal Doom. After that you want to figure out how much performance you want.
If you plan on mostly gaming on Triple-A titles you’d want a beefy graphics card and a processor fast enough to keep up with it. If it’s eSports titles or old strategy games a faster CPU is more important. If you plan on doing things like 3D modeling, video editing, or compiling that is a whole different animal. For the scope of this article though we’ll focus on gaming use cases.
Picking the Components
Now with that out of the way I can give a basic description of what each of the components do and then give some product recommendations as examples.
The monitor is one of the most important things in your build and I could do an article on them on its own as the GPU, CPU should have the ability to play games at the resolution and refresh rate of the monitor you choose. Now you may pick up a cheap monitor or one that’s used temporarily until you get the better monitor or maybe drag an old monitor out of the closet from a family PC you haven’t used in years, or even (gasp) a television
But unlike in the past where monitor refresh rate and resolution had very few options, we now have 5 popular options (1080P/1080P Ultrawide/1440P/1440P Ultrawide/4K) and refresh rates from 60 to 360 Hz.
A quick aside about ultrawide monitors for those unaware, ultrawide is the same aspect ratio of most cinemas and began to grow in popularity as multi-monitor systems became less desired especially for gaming as it got rid of some of the drawbacks. The benefits are a wider and what some would argue a more natural field of view, and more overall screen space, while the downsides are the space requirement, not all games support it. Widescreen monitors also require a bit more horsepower from the GPU.
There is also the argument of VA/IPS vs TN panels, where TN panels are a bit better suited for gaming while IPS and VA panels are more suited for higher quality image reproduction and better colors. I personally have gamed on IPS panels for years and a good IPS panel is much better than a bad TN panel but this is a bit of a touchy subject for many and can take up an article all of its own.
The general consensus is, you would want a higher refresh rate for more competitive games and twitchier shooters keeping them smoother and more responsive, things like panning quickly or rapid motion is less blurry and easier to distinguish.
Alternatively, higher resolutions help for visual quality and details. Cyberpunk 2077 would look better with both a 144hz and a 4k display, though that will naturally come with a higher cost.
Monitors range in price from $100 to $700 plus, depending on the features desired. I will list a few here to get you pointed in the right direction but this is something you might want to do some research on your own for.
- 1080P Budget Monitor – Acer SB230 bbix 23″ 75Hz
- 1080P 144Hz Budget Monitor – AOC C24G1 24″ Curved
- 1080P 240Hz Monitor – ASUS TUF Gaming VG279QM 27“ HDR
- 1440P 75Hz Budget Monitor – AOC Q32V3 32″
- 1440P 165Hz Monitor – Gigabyte G27QC 165Hz Curved 27″
- 1440P 240Hz Monitor – Samsung Odyssey G7 27″
- 1440P Ultrawide 144Hz – Samsung Odyssey G9 49″
- 4k 60Hz -ASUS TUF Gaming VG 289Q 28″ HDR 10
- 4K 120Hz – ASUS ROG STRIX XG438Q 43″ HDR 600
The CPU – Eight Is Enough (For Gaming)
For gaming we’re going to start with the core of your computer – the Central Processing Unit, or CPU. The CPU handles things like Physics, AI, some effects as well as in cases the drawcalls which will allow very high FPS, using a very fast CPU can be very beneficial.
Exactly how fast also depends on your monitor, remember the higher refresh rate (which is how many FPS you’d ideally want your system to get) the more powerful your CPU and GPU need to be in tandem, however the higher resolution you use the more strain you’ll need to account for on the GPU.
Those among you who are a bit familiar with CPUs may already know that there are two main companies that produce CPUs – AMD and Intel. Intel is likely the more familiar name but has recently fallen behind in many ways to AMD, and for the scope of this article we will be focusing on AMD parts, which provide a better performance per dollar value.
You may hear a lot about how many cores and threads CPUs will have and that more is better. Well, this is probably one of the more complicated explanations that have to do with game engines, APIs and a whole bunch of other technical things.
As a general rule for right now 8 cores and 16 threads is enough for just about every game you could throw at it, and a high clock speed or GHz helps as well. Older titles and less optimized titles will favor 4 cores or fewer with a high clock speed while newer games will favor more cores but will also benefit with a high clock speed.
For today we will only have two product recommendations, a budget option and a higher end option. The higher end option is the 8 core Ryzen 3800X which is roughly equivalent to the CPU that is being used in the next generation consoles. The Ryzen 5 3600X is a bit cheaper and should be great for most games today.
I would recommend the 3800X for users who want a bit more cushion in future proofing their hardware configuration, or those who also like to do some extra tasks in the background.
The GPU – The Eye Candy
The GPU is the graphics processor for your system. Those who aren’t looking to max out your settings and are playing at a lower resolution can save a bit of money here, especially if you are the type to play Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch or older less graphically demanding yet competitive games.
An important thing to keep in mind here as well is the GPU is one of the easiest things to upgrade in your system. It typically has 2 screws to secure it to the chassis of your case, pushing down a lock on your motherboard, and you can easily unplug the extra power cable – and reverse the process with the new card.
Replacing or upgrading your graphics card is a process that takes me 2-3 minutes now and even the most inexperienced user can do within 20 minutes or so. So, buying a cheaper card now and upgrading later is always an option.
You may read a lot about a card with different amounts of VRAM, ranging from 4GB-8GB. This mostly acts as a texture buffer for higher resolutions and texture qualities, so again, if you aren’t all that picky about higher settings and are playing at a lower resolution, a card with 4-6GB of VRAM can be fine, especially if you only want to game at 1080P.
The decision you make here depends entirely on your needs and budget, so if you just want to move away from consoles you can very likely get away with a GPU in the $100-$250 price point.
However, if you want to use all the latest bells and whistles you could be spending up to $700 on your GPU, though remember with a PC you don’t have to break the bank, you just have the option to do so.
Note: the AMD GPUs above the budget 1080P tier will likely be replaced within the next month or two with new models, I will update these once more information becomes available.
- 1080P Budget GPU – ASUS TUF GTX 1650 Super OC Edition 4GB
- 1080P 144Hz/1440P GPU – XFX RX 5600 XT THICC II Pro – Our Review
- 1440P 144Hz/4K Budget GPU – XFX RX 5700 XT THICC III Ultra – Our Review
- 4K High End GPU – ASUS TUF Gaming RTX 3080 OC Edition
CPU coolers come in many variants, the two CPUs we’ve included today come with stock box coolers that should be fine for some people. However, not all CPUs include stock box coolers, and some users find them to be too loud, not cool as well, or limit their overclocking ability.
There are two different types of CPU coolers, there are ones that cool using a heatsink and fans, and another that uses a radiator, pump, liquid and fans to remove heat. The air coolers tend to be cheaper while liquid coolers are better at very long, sustained, use, especially if you are working in a small case where larger air coolers have clearance issues.
Most air coolers in the $30-50 range are much superior to what you get in the box, however $100 air coolers perform on par with $150-$200 liquid coolers. Most users can get a lot more out of a $50 cooler in terms of value unless you are planning on using a very power hungry CPU.
Those looking to minimize noise can also fork over a bit more cash for a beefier cooler and add premium fans, though this depends on your use case.
- Budget Air Cooler – Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo
- Value Air Cooler – Noctua NH-U14S
- Budget Liquid Cooler – Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML240L RGB V2
- High End Liquid Cooler – NZXT Kraken Z73 360MM
The motherboard is the main circuit board for your computer and is the thing you insert all the other components into. Each motherboard varies in the amount of RAM slots, PCIe slots for your GPU/add in cards, CPU compatibility, USB ports, fan headers, RGB headers, and newer models having both NVMe M.2 SSD slots and SATA ports.
Image Credit: MSI
For absolute beginners, which is the intent of this article, its important to get these things down: how many USB ports you need, storage ports, and a decent VRM/VRM cooling solution which is available on most motherboards over $100.
Also your motherboard choice is tied to the CPU you are using, if you are using an AMD Ryzen CPU you will need an AM4 motherboard (there’s a bit more to that but I will recommend one that’s compatible with Ryzen 3000 series and upcoming 5000 series CPUs too). If you are using an Intel CPU you will need an LGA compatible motherboard, your CPU specifications on the box or webpage will tell you which LGA socket it is.
- Budget AM4 Motherboard – MSI B450 Tomahawk MAX
- Mid-Tier AM4 Motherboard – ASUS B550-F Gaming
- High End AM4 Motherboard – Gigabyte X570 AORUS Pro Wifi
- Ultra High End AM4 – ASUS ROG X570 CROSSHAIR VIII
RAM – The Memory
Image Credit: G.Skill
One of the places where PC’s differ from consoles is they have two types of RAM, one which is Video RAM and the main system RAM, without boring you too much if you can afford, 16GB of RAM, which should be around $60 at this time, go and pick this up.
32GB will give very little real world performance increase for gamers unless you’re the type to leave every program running at once (30 tabs on the browser, a few MS Excel/Word docs open with your games, Discord as well).
However if you are like most people, 16GB is plenty, and while some people will recommend 8GB, I think at this point in time – especially considering the fact its only saving you about $20-$30 – it’s just not worth it, unless you only want to play older games.
16GB can also help as spillover on the cards with lower VRAM amounts, as VRAM can’t be used as system RAM but System RAM will hold the textures for the VRAM to swap to.
RAM speed is the final point here and as a general rule you want it to be 3000MHz to 3600MHz anything over that has diminishing returns.
- 16GB RAM Budget – Teamgroup T-Force Vulcan Z 3200MHz CL16
- 16GB RAM High End – G.Skill Trident Z Neo RGB 3600MHz CL16
Image Credit: Newegg
Storage is a simple one. Hard drives are slow but cheap per gigabyte, SATA SSDs are faster but expensive, and NVMe SSDs are slightly more expensive per gigabyte but much faster (the new PlayStation and Xbox use NVMe SSDs).
Buying SSDs (NVMe or SATA) should perform the same in most current games but we would expect in the future as games are developed for the current consoles, however future games may take advantage of the faster NVMe based drives.
Both are better than a mechanical hard drive which are still useful for some games especially if you don’t mind long loading times, however you should at least have an SSD that you can boot your Windows operating system from, as Windows acts very sloppy from mechanical drives.
- NVMe – SSD Value – 500 GB WD Black SN750 – 1TB
- NVMe SSD High End – 500GB Corsair Force MP600 – 1TB – 2TB
- SATA SSD Budget – 512GB Teamgroup GX2
- SATA SSD High End – 500GB Crucial MX 500
- Hard Drive – Seagate Barracuda 4TB – 2TB WD Blue
The power supply is an item that will change depending on your build requirements and the features or efficiency that you’d want. 80+ bronze, silver, gold and platinum are all efficiency ratings which means how much power it draws from the wall to get that into usable power for the PC, and the wattage on the box is the rated amount it will supply to your system.
Image Credit: Corsair
A general rule I’ve used for the PSU and case is both should take about 10% of the total build cost each, and in general this works. Unless you are looking for a specific build, a semi modular power supply is all you’ll need (only the additional cables are detachable) for good cable management.
The case is the most personal choice of the entire build as there are hundreds of options and most of them are absolutely fine for most users, though for the absolute beginner if you plan on building a very high end system I’d recommend a larger case.
If you are looking for a smaller case you might have to do a bit of research on your own, but for mid tier builds a case from $50-100 should do very well. Also, if you want RGB fans or a specific “look” now is the time to figure it out.
- Budget Mid-Tower Case – Phanteks Eclipse P300
- RGB Case Mid-Tower – Thermaltake LvL 20 MT RGB
- RGB Case Mid-Tower – NZXT NZXT H710i
- Premium Full Tower Case – Phanteks Enthoo 719
There is a lot to cover here and I’ve tried my best here to explain as much as I can without overcomplicating things. There will be plenty of caveats or specific “what if” scenarios, though it is important to remember that there is only so much you can throw on someone new without overwhelming them.
In the next article I will be explaining what you should need to prepare to do the build as well as the actual build itself. So keep on the lookout for that in our next PC Building feature.