It’s amazing to look back at ads from the 80s and 90s and see what kind of PC hardware you could get for $2000. Technology marches on, PC parts become exponentially more powerful, and everything gets cheaper. Today you can build a high-performance budget gaming PC for less than $700. But we’d recommend most PC gamers spend a bit more to get a far more powerful, more future-proof machine. For about $1300, I think you can build an amazing gaming rig that will last at least four years without an upgrade. And I know just the parts that you should use.
This is PC Gamer’s guide to building the best mid-range PC money can buy. Really, this is the rig we’d recommend to the majority of PC gamers. It’s powerful and built to last, but not extravagant. The parts are reliable, high quality, and will get you close to the performance of a much more expensive rig. There are no compromises here, just smart choices.
With this rig, I expect you to be able to play most of today’s most demanding games on ultra settings, at 1080p and 60fps. You’ll probably be able to handle most of those games at 1440p, too. And three years from now, when games have even stiffer graphics requirements, this rig will still have the power to handle them on high or medium settings (especially with a bit of overclocking).
Update 10/2/2015: We’ve refreshed our build guide with a new motherboard, CPU and RAM with the release of Intel’s Skylake platform.
Here are the parts I recommend for a great gaming build for anyone. And, naturally, you can tweak this build to suit your needs, and save a few bucks by ditching the DVD drive or buying a smaller HDD. Scroll down below the chart for the reasoning behind each part choice, and a few different case recommendations for sizes, styles, and prices.
Processor: Intel Core i5-6600K
Price: $260 on Newegg (£215)
Ever since the Sandy Bridge Core i5-2500K in 2011, Intel’s i5 processor has been the perfect sweet spot for gaming. It’s reasonably priced, highly overclockable, and for gaming, not much different from the more expensive Core i7. Since most games are more GPU intensive than CPU intensive, an i5 processor is exactly the right amount of muscle you need.
An overclocked i5 can handily tackle some of gaming’s most demanding CPU tasks, like running the Dolphin GameCube/Wii emulator. It’s also a great all-around processor for normal PC usage. The new Skylake i5-6600K isn’t a major performance boost over its predecessor, but we recommend using Skylake if you’re building a new PC, as the new platform includes more PCIe lanes and support for much faster storage that will be important down the line.
Motherboard: Asus Z170 Pro Gaming
Price: $162 on Newegg (£110)
Motherboards are a nightmare to shop for: there are so many, with such a broad range in prices, it’s difficult to identify the features that are important and how much you should be paying. You can easily spend $300 on a motherboard, but you don’t need to. The Asus Z170 Pro Gaming includes most of the important features of Asus’ high-end boards that matter for gaming, at a lower price. It’s the latest iteration of our favorite gaming motherboard.
At $160, the ASUS Z97-A is well-reviewed by buyers, offers plenty of overclocking potential, and has Asus’ typically powerful and easy-to-use UEFI BIOS. It includes an important M.2 port rated for PCIe x4 speed, as well as two PCIe x6 lanes for a dual-GPU setup. In another nice bit of future-proofing, it includes two USB 3.1 ports.
Memory: Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR4 2400 (8GB)
Price: $55 on Amazon
DDR4 prices are thankfully dropping quickly these days, and it won’t be long before those prices match DDR3. The Ballistix from Crucial are an easy choice: they’re fast, cheap, and low profile enough to sneak under a chunky air cooler.
According to my research into RAM speed ( here’s a great article on Anandtech), faster speeds and memory timings aren’t that important, especially for gaming. You’re not going to see much of a framerate difference as a result of RAM speeds. In fact, you probably won’t see any difference at all. RAM speed makes more of a difference in other PC tasks, but Anandtech’s bottom-line advice is pretty simple: more RAM is a better upgrade than faster RAM, and RAM faster than 1600 MHz makes a small but meaningful difference.
While you could make the jump up to 16GB and see a bit better performance in heavy duty applications like Adobe Premiere, for gaming, it’s not going to make much of a difference. Some recent testing has shown how little difference 4GB, 8GB and 16GB of RAM actually makes on gaming performance.
UK readers: This exact kit isn’t available in 8GB in the UK, but you can grab similar G.Skill Ripjaws V Series for for £53 on Amazon.co.uk.
Graphics card: MSI GTX 970 4G
Price: $335 on Amazon (£270)
There’s still a lot of controversy around the GTX 970. Nvidia messed up and gave out incorrect information about the card, and it took several months for the divide between 3.5GB of VRAM and a slower 500MB to come to light. Despite the controversy, the MSI GTX 970 is still the best price/performance graphics card on the market. It’s fast, incredibly overclockable, and should handily deliver 1080p, 60 fps gaming for the next few years.
And there’s a reason why the memory issue didn’t show up in positive initial reviews of the card like ours: you have to go far out of your way, and run the card at resolutions/settings it’s not really capable of handling, to spot any issues with its memory management. If you’re still suspicious/confused about the 970’s performance, read Digital Foundry’s excellent breakdown of the controversy. It’s a great, informative read.
Now, why the MSI GTX 970 4G over other alternatives? Simply put, it’s a great card: quiet, very overclockable, and much cheaper than other 970 options.
I recommend the 970 over any other currently available card for price/performance, but if you’ve sworn off Nvidia, the Radeon R9 290X is the only close option. It’s much louder, and far more power-hungry, than the GTX 970, but you can get close to the same performance for the price.
Power Supply: Corsair CX600M 600 watt 80 Plus Bronze
Price: $65 on Newegg (£61)
How much power do you need for a gaming PC? Nvidia’s latest graphics cards are more power efficient than ever, but if you overclock your graphics card and CPU, you could easily be using 400 watts of power. A 600 watt power supply offers plenty of headroom for lost power (with a 80 Plus Bronze rating, a PSU is at least 82% efficient) and even a more power-hungry graphics card down the road.
I recommend Corsair’s power supplies for their reliability, and the CX600M model in particular because it’s modular. You can certainly find a cheaper power supply that offers as much juice, but modular power supplies are far nicer to build with. They leave you with fewer cables to deal with and let you plug in exactly what you need for your rig.
Primary storage: Samsung 850 EVO 250GB
Price: $98 on Amazon (£74)
Now that it’s come down in price a bit, Samsung’s 850 EVO is a great buy for a fast, affordable SSD. On sequential R/W speeds it pushes the SATA standard to its limit, and on random R/W it puts up substantially better numbers than last year’s competition, the Crucial MX100 and Samsung 840 EVO. For $115, the 850 EVO is worth it.
If you know you’ll want more SSD space, you can upgrade to the 500GB model for $190.
Secondary storage: Western Digital Black 2TB WD2003FZEX
Price: $125 on Amazon (£96)
This is an optional addition to your primary SSD, but it’s one I expect most modern PC owners will want. Unless your PC is for games, and nothing but games, you’re probably going to want storage space for music, personal photos, movies, PC Gamer fan letter drafts, and all sorts of other files. You may also want to keep most games installed than you have room for on a 250GB SSD. Spinning disk HDDs still have a place in today’s PCs, since they’re so dang cheap.
The Western Digital Black is the HDD I’d recommend to anyone installing applications on the HDD. It’s considerably faster than a WD Green drive. While I wouldn’t recommend it for storing games where load times really matter (an MMO like Guild Wars 2 or a giant game like Battlefield), smaller, quick-loading indie games will be just as playable on a HDD as they are on an SSD. The speed of the Black drive gives you plenty of storage, still at a good price, without poor performance.
CPU cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO
Price: $35 on Newegg (£25)
The Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO is our recommendation for a budget CPU cooler, and it’s our recommendation for a mid-range CPU cooler, too. Why? It’s just that good. It’ll give you plenty of cooling for a heavy overclock, it’s extremely cheap, and it’s easy to install. It’s far better and cooling, and quieter, than a stock Intel cooler. It’s the easiest choice of any part on this list.
The cooler is also $35 on Amazon with Prime shipping, if you’d prefer to buy it there.
Disc drive: Asus 24x DVD-RW
Price: $21 on Amazon (£14)
Do you need one? Do you want one? What the hell. This one costs $21, and it’s probably not going to break. You’re only going to put about three DVDs in it a year.