Get a Desktop for the Most Gaming Power
Despite the allure and simplicity of gaming consoles and handheld devices, PC gaming is still alive and kicking. Indeed, it’s never been stronger. Enthusiasts know that nothing beats the quality of gameplay you can get with a desktop built for gaming. And today, it’s within almost every determined PC shopper’s grasp to get a PC with the graphics power necessary to drive the latest games on a full HD (1080p) monitor at lofty detail settings.
But what kind of PC can make major 3D games look and run better than they do on the Sony PS4 Pro or the Microsoft Xbox One S? If you have deep pockets, your answer could be a custom-built hot rod from an elite boutique PC manufacturer such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Maingear, or MSI. But a couple of well-informed choices will go a long way toward helping you get the right gaming desktop from a standard PC manufacturer, even if you’re not made of money. Here’s how to buy your best gaming desktop, regardless of your budget, and our top 10 latest picks in the category.
This is, admittedly, simplifying a complex argument. But high-powered graphics, processors, and memory improve the graphical detail (in items such as cloth, reflections, hair), physical interactions (smoke, thousands of particles colliding), and the general animation of scenes in your favorite games. Throwing more resources at the problem, such as a more powerful graphics card or a faster CPU, will help, to an extent. The trick is to determine which components to favor, and how much.
Most Important: Consider the Graphics Card
Most gaming systems will come preinstalled with a single midrange or high-end graphics card; higher-priced systems will naturally have better
Our gaming-desktop reviews will let you know if there is room in the system’s case for adding more graphics cards, in case you want to improve your gaming performance in the future. Most boutique manufacturers, however, will sell systems equipped with multiple-card arrays if you want to run games at their best right away. AMD calls its multiple-card technology CrossFireX, and Nvidia calls its solution Scalable Link Interface (SLI).
While multiple-video-card gaming is still a path to great gaming, know that a game must be written to leverage multiple cards properly, and game developers in recent years have been de-emphasizing timely support for CrossFireX and SLI in games. Sometimes this support only emerges well after a game’s debut; sometimes it never comes at all. Also, Nvidia has been putting a damper on SLI in the last couple of years; it has kiboshed support for installing more than two of its current-generation (“Pascal”) cards at the same time, and only a subset of its higher-end cards can be installed in SLI. It’s still possible to have three or four AMD cards in your computer at once, provided you have the proper power and heat management (and lots of bucks). Our general advice for mainstream buyers, though, is to concentrate on the best single card you can afford.
Indeed, the most pivotal decision you’ll make when purchasing a gaming desktop is which card you get. One option, of course, is no card at all; the integrated graphics silicon on modern Intel Core and some AMD processors is fine for casual 2D games. But to really bring out the beast on 3D AAA titles, you need a discrete graphics card or cards, and these cards are what distinguish a gaming desktop. Whether you go with an AMD- or Nvidia-based card is based partly on price, partly on performance. Some games are optimized for one type of card or another, but for the most part, you should choose the card that best fits within your budget. Here in 2018, Nvidia is dominant at the high end with its GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, GTX 1080, and GTX 1070 cards; AMD competes mainly in the midrange and low end, with its Radeon RX cards. Its high-end Radeon RX Vega video cards tend to be pricey, spottily stocked, and slightly outmatched by Nvidia boards at their price points. (For an overview of the whole graphics card scene, check out our graphics card buying guide, which details what to look for when making a purchase, and rounds up the best cards available now.)
Of course, there’s a new generation of graphics cards just over the horizon. Nvidia recently announced the GeForce RTX “Turing” generation, starting with the super high-end RTX 2080 and 2080 Ti. The Founders Edition cards are nearly prohibitively expensive ($ 799 and $ 1,199, respectively), but there are plenty of third-party models lined up for pre-order that are a little more affordable. They’ll be available in September, with the RTX 2070 following in October. For most users, the 10-Series “Pascal” cards will remain more than good enough for most scenarios. For those who need to be on the cutting edge, or are upgrading from below the Pascal cards, they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on. We’ll be able to offer a better judgment of this generation’s capabilities once they’re available for
Prep for 4K Gaming and VR, or Keep It Real?
Equipping your system with any high-end GPU will boost your total PC bill by a few hundred dollars per card. Beyond adding extra power to your gaming experience, multiple graphics cards can also enable multiple-monitor setups so you can run up to six displays, but some single cards can power up to four, and few gamers go beyond three (and even that rarely). A better reason to opt for high-end graphics in the long run if to power 4K and virtual reality (VR) gaming. Panels with 4K resolution (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) and the displays built into VR headsets have much higher pixel counts than a “simple” 1080p HD monitor. You’ll need at least a single high-end graphics card to drive a 4K display at top quality settings, with similar requirements for smooth gameplay on VR headsets. (See “Make VR a Reality” below for more information.) If you mean to play games on a 4K panel with detail settings cranked up, you’ll want to look at one of Nvidia’s highest-end cards, likely the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, or one of its follow-on “Turing” cards expected to hit the market soon. (See our guide to the best graphics cards for 4K gaming.)
VR headsets have their own graphics requirements, but for the two big ones from HTC and Oculus, you’ll want at least a GeForce GTX 1060 or an AMD Radeon RX 480 or Radeon RX 580. (See our guide to the best graphics cards for VR.)
Now, VR and 4K gaming are unquestionably high-end matters. You can still get a rich gaming experience for thousands of bucks less by choosing a desktop with a single but robust middle-tier video card and gaming at 1080p or 1440p; 2,560 by 1,440 pixels is an increasingly popular native resolution for gaming monitors. If you’re less concerned about VR or turning up all the eye candy found in games—anti-aliasing and esoteric lighting effects, for example—then today’s less-powerful graphics cards and GPUs will still give you plenty of oomph for a lot less money. (See our guide to the best graphics cards for 1080p gaming.)
Perfect Processor Power
The heart of any system is its processor. While the GPU specializes in graphics quality and some physics calculations, the CPU takes care of everything else, and also determines how able your PC will be for demanding tasks that require non-graphics calculations.
On the CPU front, AMD and Intel are in a race to see who can provide the most power to gamers. In 2017, AMD restarted the competition for the top spot anew with its Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, which feature up to 32 cores and the ability to process 64 threads simultaneously. (See our review of the latest-gen chip, the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X.) Intel countered with a new line of Core X-Series processors, in which the top “Extreme Edition” model flaunts 18 cores and 36 threads. Prices for these processors are high, with the Intel Core i9-7980XE carrying a $ 2,000 price tag, or by itself the cost of a midrange gaming PC. These CPU advancements are exciting, but it’s not essential to invest in one of these elite-level Threadripper or Core X processors to enjoy excellent PC gaming.
Lesser, but still high-powered, CPUs, such as the AMD Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 lines, as well as locked and unlocked quad- and six-core Intel Core i7
If your choice comes down to paying for a higher-level GPU or a higher-level CPU, and gaming is the primary use you will have for the system, favor the graphics, in most cases. A system with a higher-power Nvidia GeForce GTX GPU and a Core i5 processor is a much better choice for 3D-intense FPS gaming than one with a low-end card and a zippy Core i7 CPU. But you may want to choose the latter if you’re into games that involve a lot of background math calculations, such as strategy titles (like those in the Civilization series), or if you mean to use the system for CPU-intensive tasks like converting or editing video, or editing photos.
Don’t Forget the Memory
One thing that’s often overlooked on gaming systems is RAM; it can be severely taxed by modern games. Outfit your PC with a bare minimum of 8GB of RAM, and budget for 16GB if you’re serious about freeing up this potential performance bottleneck.
Faster memory also improves overall performance and lets you keep your CPU more stable if you decide to overclock it. For example, DDR4-3200 SDRAM (aka 3,200MHz) will be more stable than DDR4-2133 if you overclock your Core i7 processor. That said, installing expensive, higher-clocked memory won’t necessarily help a CPU that’s running at stock speeds, so make sure you budget wisely.
Storage: Speed and Space
Solid-state drives (SSDs) have become more popular since prices began dropping dramatically a few years ago. They speed up boot time, wake-from-sleep time, and the time it takes to launch a game and load a new level.
Although you can get an SSD of any size (with the larger capacities still being relatively expensive), the pairing of a small one (a capacity of 256GB is a good minimum floor to set) with a larger spinning hard drive (1TB or more) is a good, affordable setup for gamers who also download the occasional video from the Internet. Favor, where you can, PCI Express SSDs over SATA ones. (The former are the performance darlings of the moment.) These drives will typically come on gumstick-size modules in a format called M.2. (See our picks for the best PCI Express SSDs.)
Make VR a Reality
With the release of the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift headsets, real VR gaming is possible in the home for the first time. If you want to be able to use one of these to its fullest, your PC will need to meet the headset’s system requirements.
The most important aspect is the video card—you are pushing a 1,080-by-1,200 display to each eye, after all—so go with one of the most powerful cards from either the current or previous generation. For the Vive, this means an AMD Radeon RX 480 or
You’ll also want a newer AMD or Intel CPU with a minimum of four processing cores. As a baseline, both HTC and Oculus recommend a Core i5-4590 or its equivalent; with current-gen CPUs, we’d recommend an AMD Ryzen 5 or 7, or an Intel Core i5 or i7. (Any of AMD’s Ryzen Threadrippers or Intel’s Core X chips will do, too.) And the 8GB of RAM we recommended should be enough to ensure the fluid gameplay you want.
The Perfect Accessories
Don’t stop at internal components. Once you have your ideal gaming desktop, a couple of extras can really enhance your gaming experience. We recommend that you trick out your machine with a top-notch gaming monitor with a fast response rate, as well as a solid gaming headset so you can trash-talk your opponents.
Comfortable keyboards, mice, and specialized controllers round out your options at
Which Gaming Desktop Is Right for You?
Below are the best gaming desktops we’ve tested of late. Many are configured-to-order PCs from boutique manufacturers, but some come from bigger brands normally associated with consumer-grade desktops. Note: The prices listed are for starting configurations; click through to the reviews to see prices as tested.
The Best Gaming Desktops Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: Elegant compact design. Sleek minimalist aesthetic. HD and 4K gaming power of a larger desktop. Liquid-cooled processor and graphics card. No external power adapter.
Cons: Restricted expansion and upgrade capabilities.
Bottom Line: Corsair’s first PC, the One Pro, is the new benchmark for small-form-factor gaming systems. It delivers high-end gaming performance of desktops twice its size, with a sleek look and a sensible price.
Pros: Extraordinary gaming proficiency. Plenty of storage, plus speedy M.2 SSDs. Stylish, relatively compact tower. Easy access for maintenance and upgrades. Customizable case and RAM lighting.
Cons: Pricey as configured.
Bottom Line: The Origin Neuron is a stellar gaming machine with practically unrivaled gaming power housed in an elegant design. It’s our top pick for high-end gaming desktops.
Pros: Affordable price. Appealing low-key case lighting. Smooth HD gaming performance. Speedy new Intel “Coffee Lake” processor. Plenty of storage (boot SSD and a hard drive).
Cons: Messy interior. Only 8GB memory in test model.
Bottom Line: The configurable Dell Inspiron Gaming Desktop delivers 60fps 1080p gaming and Core i7 pep at $ 999, making it an attractive bargain for gamers on a budget.
Pros: Excellent connectivity. 4K and VR capable. Very quiet GPU fans. 64GB RAM. Easy storage upgrades.
Cons: Ostentatious styling isn’t for everyone.
Bottom Line: With 4K- and VR-capable components, the MSI Aegis Ti3 is powerful enough for intense gaming, but the bold design of this desktop PC might not appeal to everyone.
Pros: Great gaming performance. Slim footprint and modern look. Vertical stand included. Quiet cooling fans.
Cons: Bulky external power supply. No media card reader. Included SSD is SATA, not PCI Express.
Bottom Line: The MSI Vortex G25VR is a console-like, VR-ready desktop with a slim footprint and excellent gaming performance.
Pros: Fast gaming performance. Neatly assembled. Flashy case lighting. Flip-down headset hangers.
Cons: Only 500GB of storage, with no separate hard drive. Case design will likely be divisive.
Bottom Line: The Acer Predator Orion 5000’s style, shape, and glow may prove sticking points for some. But this is one powerful, ready-to-roll gaming desktop right out of the box.
Pros: Performance monster, including greater-than-60fps 4K gaming. Tons of RAM and storage. Clean, well-designed interior.
Cons: Huge and heavy. Plastic build. Case style won’t appeal to everyone.
Bottom Line: Although the Acer Predator Orion 9000 costs a pretty penny (okay, hundreds of thousands of pretty pennies) and features a divisive design, this gaming desktop delivers top-end performance with the most cutting-edge parts available.
Pros: Smooth 4K gameplay. Excellent multithreaded performance. Expandable chassis. Efficient, quiet cooling.
Cons: Expensive. USB-C lacks Thunderbolt 3. Lags rivals on most benchmark tests.
Bottom Line: The latest Alienware Area-51 runs on AMD’s blistering Ryzen Threadripper for the ultimate in CPU-intensive 4K gaming performance. But for most, this expensive, flashy desktop PC is overkill.
Pros: Breakneck performance. Capable of 60fps 4K gaming. Case is easy to work with. Test model uses unique factory-overclocked, limited-edition Core i7 chip.
Cons: Plain design and interior layout for such a pricey system.
Bottom Line: It isn’t a major head-turner, but Velocity Micro’s Raptor Z55 gaming desktop is highly configurable, well built, and low-fuss. As tested, with a limited-edition Intel CPU and top graphics, it’s blazing-fast for 4K gaming-and all other tasks.
Pros: Classy, compact design. Uses a desktop GTX 1080, not an MXM-style mobile card. Quiet fans. Available as a bare-bones PC or ready-configured.
Cons: Pricey. Large external power adapter. No front-mounted HDMI port for VR headsets.
Bottom Line: Stuffing a real GeForce GTX 1080 into a lunchbox-size mini PC isn’t something you see every day, but the power-packed, costly Zotac ZBox Magnus EK71080 does it, and in style.