One of the advantages of gaming on a PC is the flexibility you’re afforded. While console gamers have to make do with a fixed (and often underpowered) system for several years at a time, customers can look at buying a gaming PC to match their budget and gaming requirements.
For example, if you’re looking to play 4X strategy games like Civilization or Endless Space, then the power of your CPU will determine how long those late-game turns take to calculate. On the other hand, texture-heavy first-person shooters and adventure games will require plenty of video memory to keep those assets where they can be easily retrieved.
Pre-built vs. Custom PCs
If you want ultimate control over what goes into your machine, you’ll need to build it yourself. That said, there are several reasons to recommend opting for a pre-built one:
- Building a PC costs time
- There’s scope for error, both in choosing and installing parts
- Troubleshooting can be annoying, especially if there’s a faulty component to blame.
- Overclocking is much safer when a pro does it
Pre-built systems are tailored to provide a healthy mix of components, but you can still tweak things to suit your needs.
What about the machines?
In this gaming PC guide, we’ll look into how far your budget can go, and what stretching it a little can get you. It’s worth noting that the machines we’ll discuss here don’t include peripheral devices like monitors, which tend to be carried over from build to build, but which can still have an enormous impact on the gaming experience. Let’s take a look.
Buying a Gaming PC under £1,000
Nowadays, considerable heft of gaming power can be had for a very reasonable sum. Entry-level machines represent a significant chunk of the overall gaming industry: according to Steam’s hardware survey, Nvidia’s 1050, 1050Ti and 1660 Ti account for three of the top five cards used on the platform – with premium options sitting way down the list.
Now, the laws of economics haven’t gone anywhere, and enthusiast-level gamers aren’t spending money for no reason: it’s inescapable that entry-level machines can’t push as many pixels as those at the top end of the market. So what compromises are typically made to keep the price low?
Budget-targeted cards, like 1650, are stunted (though efficient) shadows of their premium-range cousins. At this price bracket, CPUs will come with locked multipliers, and you’ll get only a bare-bones RAM complement. With every penny counting here, it’s worth tweaking your budget according to your gaming requirements.
The lack of firepower here is hardly an issue for gamers who don’t play demanding games. That might mean a focus on indie titles like Cuphead or Return of the Obra Dinn; it might mean that you’re mostly dealing with older games. Similarly, big-budget games that ran only on high-end computers a few years ago may run comfortably on a system at this price range – but it’s always worth checking benchmarks for an idea of what your performance will look like.
Buying a Gaming PC: £1,000 to £1,500
A mid-range machine strikes the right balance between affordability and gaming power. It’ll be able to play the latest games capably, and at higher resolutions and refresh rates that might be denied to cheaper machines. It’s here that your decision should be informed by the native resolution and refresh rate of your monitor: if your device can support 4K display, then it’s worth looking at a card with enough video memory to handle the extra workload.
A faster graphics card will obviously confer superior performance, but that isn’t the only advantage: you’ll be able to run traditionally rendered (rasterized) games at higher resolutions and frame rates, and you’ll also find more outputs on the rear of the card, which makes multi-display setups possible.
Your budget might also extend to extras like third-party coolers, which will help to extend the lifespan of your CPU and reduce the irritating whirr of that fan during intense gaming sessions.
Buying a Gaming PC: £1,500 to £2,500
Higher budgets can accommodate superior components. Spend two grand and you should expect a premium-quality graphics card and CPU. That means more cores, larger caches, faster memory, and greater performance in real gaming settings. It’s at this price bracket that you’ll start to find real-time ray-tracing: a relatively new graphical change that’s been quietly revolutionizing the way that frames are rendered.
Rather than relying solely on traditional raster-based rendering, a ray-tracer will actually calculate rays of light as they bounce from surface to surface in the gaming environment. Working back from the player’s point of view, it accounts for the material properties of both the surfaces in question and the light source itself, thereby determining which colour should be displayed. The result is a more realistic representation of how the light source should actually look. It’s a technology that’s made the difference in games like Metro Exodus and Battlefield V, but it’s also breathed new life into classics like Minecraft and Quake II.
You’ll also start to find superior storage if you’re willing to pay for it. An NVMe storage drive, for example, slots directly into a compatible motherboard, and takes advantage of the PCIe bus to deliver speeds that a Serial ATA cable can’t hope to rival. This is not only advantageous in gaming; it also makes Windows more responsive and pleasurable to use in general.
Buying a Gaming PC: £2,500 and over
There’s no shortage of ultra-premium components when it comes to gaming PCs. Manufacturers rely on dedicated, free-spending enthusiasts to help introduce new architectures and technologies (like Nvidia’s RTX), which eventually filter down into mainstream machines.
If you’re willing to spend the money, you’ll have access to ‘extreme’-level CPUs, like Intel’s eight-core i9, or AMD’s 32-core threadripper. These tend to come with greater overclocking headroom, as they come from near the centre of a given wafer. You’ll also be able to pack in the RAM that’ll match, with DDR4 clocked at 3200MHz or higher.
Higher budgets also bring super-premium graphics cards within reading, like Nvidia’s Titan series. These cards are actually more expensive than many of the PCs we’ve looked at so far – but they come equipped with a staggering 24GB of video memory, and are without rival when it comes to gaming performance. They’re also extremely capable in professional applications, too.
The important thing to remember when buying a Gaming PC
The term ‘PC gaming’ covers an incredibly broad range of experiences, and there’s a broad range of hardware available to cater to every niche. Your needs may vary a little from what’s typical, so be sure to customize your set-up to make sure it’s right for the person who’ll be playing: you!