Reality Check: Top Ten Factors for Choosing a Gaming PC

PCWorld has a nice, sedate and condom-wrapped version of ten factors to take into consideration when choosing a new PC. I have read and heard many of these "Helping Hand" stories, from sources that I trust even, and they simply don't give you the reality you need to hear - IT'S NOT CHEAP!

Oh, many sources really want you to believe the opposite, it's healthy for the PC industry. Don't scare away the new users with horror stories of $2000 rigs just to get a good frame rate in Battlefield 3 when they can just run back to their $150 consoles and play it there instead. TUFF! Forums everywhere are littered with reams and reams of hate posts from doorknobs (technical term) who are upset that their $125 netbook won't play Battlefield 3. Idiots (also technical) who complain about the $2 sound codec on their $50 motherboard not playing in 7.1 Hi-Fidelity and sounding like static on their $5 discount speakers. Best of all are the morons (not a religious term) who have never used anti-malware/anti-virus software and spend all night clicking OK to "Give me faster porn" popups. This has to stop, you are lying to these Luddites and their pent up anger is only serving to push game makers away from the PC due to the boatload of f**ktards (RvsB term) bombarding them with self-inflicted problems that they have to at least TRY to solve. You are chumming the waters with these bottom-feeders who are in all likelihood just pirating the game and looking for free tech support, McD's don't pay much you know and weed is expensive.

Maybe I'm painting this all wrong, maybe what we need is a REAL look at these top ten factors. Knowledge is power... to teach a man to fish... and tell you no lies... and other smart sounding proverbs - whatever. Here is MY take on their top ten factors:

1. Budget
Simple, take whatever you were going to spend and double or triple it. Thinking laptop? Don't! They are overpriced and offer no upgradability. Buy a real computer for home and a cheap netbook later for surfing on the go.

2. What Do You Play?
Don't worry about that as tastes change with opportunity and having a rig capable of running more than Facebook games gives you that opportunity.

3. Graphics: Consider Your Display
Actual display, as in screen on which you are looking? Just get a TV, it's big, cheap and you'll get the 1080p resolution that consoles can't play games at. Want crisper and better graphics? A sweet 30" at 2560x1600 for a mere $1300 would be killer if you didn't need a three-way SLI/Crossfire to power it maxed at a good framerate. A nice three monitor solution for a truly immersive experience? Nice, and stupid pricey for the sparse and high-maintenance game support you'll get. How about 3D? Just don't, it's equally demanding, gives terrible framerate in the most ideal of scenarios and is already dead but just doesn't know it yet. If you really want this option, get a passive TV with a built-in 2D to 3D converter - same basic job for the short time you'll use it (think Wii), cheaper and no speed costs. Best to stop into a real computer store where they actually have machines set up for a hands-on look, a quick play around will give you an idea of what to really expect.

Now Video Cards - this is where the bulk of your money will go. One third? Try half or better if you are doing it right. The latest, greatest generation, one-step down from the top tier is where you are aiming at. The roof is always overpriced and generally, you can SLI/Crossfire a step or two below for less money and more horsepower. Triple SLI/Crossfire is a waste unless you are doing that 30", three monitor or 3D setup, it's money best spent elsewhere. You are doing this now to save you money in the long run - see upgrades.

4. CPU and Cooling
Intel, full stop - AMD is cheaper/was better - NO! The AMD chipsets are janky and just too far behind to catch up - they own the budget arena for a reason. Again, latest and greatest generation but scale to your cash. Six cores? Don't bother unless you plan on doing some serious computing, like rendering (not converting) video. Gaming is barely taking advantage of four cores thanks to the console world and chances are you will upgrade long before that changes.

Never use stock cooling, period. A decent cooler with a large and quiet fan is a pittance and can save you from frying your machine when you don't game inside a refrigerator.

5. Memory
Max it out using your boards top speed/next to top speed rating, it's cheap and you will use it even when not gaming.

6. Storage
Thinking solid state? Think again! SSDs are way overpriced and WILL fail - it's a fact - and you'll get no warning before it happens. With all the compromises and adjustments you have to go through just to make good use of them, it's a waste. Two 2TB drives are cheap as chips and using RAID technology costs zero bucks, 10 seconds versus 30 seconds is not that big of a deal.

7. Power
If it's not branded by a company that anyone would recognize as a computer power supply maker, just don't. The gentleman/woman behind the counter at the computer store with the full tilt setups for you to try will know what you need.

8. Motherboard and Cases
Motherboard - latest generation of non-conservative chipsets is what you want. Intel's I5 came out after Core I7 but was actually a cheaper version of the I7 with some new tricks to make it suck less. This takes a little research to check into but hardcore hardware sites can give you the information you need. Do not be fooled into the whole "hard-core, best overclocking gamers motherboard" path, you want rock steady stability. I don't care what they tell you about performance vs cost, it's just not worth the price. Frying or at the very least shortening the life of your equipment for a lousy 5-10fps is ridiculous. Also many games are overclock sensitive and will crash or not run at all when enabled. Buying new tech gives you the luxury of not having to do that as everything runs great at stock speeds.

Cases - fans. Fans, fans, fans. If you are going water cooled, and the maintenance is not worth it unless you are dedicated, you need something that will hold all your cooling gear. Again, your friendly neighbourhood shop guy/gal will have the answers. If not, then you need fans. Not one, not two, several and in various areas for best results. It will get stinking hot in your case and parts will slowly fry themselves if not cooled properly. This means you will have to dust your case regularly, with air, thoroughly and preferably outside. Twenty minutes powered-off cool down before cleaning, twenty minutes waiting for parts to return to room temperature before powering on. Don't be lazy and miss the filters or the heatsinks, it's important for the gobs of money you've spent. Space inside is important and proper cabling is a must, don't get little Jimmy down the street to build your pricey system to save you a few bucks, get someone (read: a professional) who knows how to do it for you.

9. Input and Control
Don't waste money on "gaming" peripherals. Get what is comfortable for you, those gaming mice and keyboards come at a speed and resource cost of sometimes a dozen of background processes running and examining everything for a measurement to display on a tiny screen that you will look at for a week and never use again. High DPI mice are nice if you want to go through the pains of setting them up properly, but I'll take comfort over extra options any day.

10. Audio and Communications
Onboard audio is crap, period. Don't buy into any of the tales you will hear about it, if you are gaming - it's crap. You want a dedicated gaming audio card, and if you are not spending over $100 on it then it too will leave you wanting. Audiophile cards and gaming cards are not the same thing, if the first recognizable bullet point is about Blu-Ray playback or music recording you are likely in the wrong area. $50-$70 cards are usually targeted at movie boxes with Optical 7.1 output and dedicated hardware decoders for non-audiophile movie and music playback. They are usually better than onboard for gaming, but for slightly more you can have much better sound. Do not waste this fantastic audio on headphones or crappy $10 speakers, treat it like your surround sound movie experience and buy accordingly.

Voice communication - you want a headset with a dedicated USB audio chip so it's separated from your audio card. Yes, that fancy card will handle it just fine but you want to completely separate your voice communication for a number of reasons such as latency. A dedicated voice line will not tax your gaming in any measurable way on today's hardware and your gaming will not interfere with communication no mater how terribly it's ported. Plus you can use external programs like Ventrilo or TeamSpeak without fear of a game taking control of the audio inputs and outputs for it's own means.

Some mentions should be made to your internet connection. I would use a dedicated network card unless your motherboard's Lan has no CPU offload liabilities. You want the best speeds and lowest ping available and a Lan card that tries to offload processes to your CPU is not giving you that. You don't need a Bigfoot Killer NIC but having a card that takes care of all it's own processes is desirable for performance. Wireless is a lost cause in this regard, if you have to go wireless, dedicated hardware is of little benefit.

11. Upgrades
Yes, you will have to upgrade. No there is no final purchase for all time you can make no matter how much you are willing to spend. The key here is time before upgrade. Purchasing the latest and greatest gives you more options for upgrades later: If you had to buy a less powerful CPU, those prices will have come down quite a bit over a year or so and a beefy upgrade will be far less then buying all new hardware. That video card you purchased could go SLI at a fraction of the cost it was when you bought it after less time than that. You can get five years out of a high end purchase and still be running ninety percent of what's available then at full details.

This guide is meant for those who want max settings on their games, at a good framerate and a respectable resolution. Having to reduce the quality of my gaming for the sake of speed is not something I do easily. Call me a graphics w**re, call me elitist but you won't call me compromising. It's those shiny screenshots companies show you that you fall in love with, not the watered-down blurry and sparsely populated facsimile in banded 16bit that those forums complain about.

Telling people that they can get into PC Gaming for cheap is hugely misleading and the only person you are hurting is every PC Gamer in the world. Gamers don't want compromise, they want flash and glitz; realism and fast response. Getting their money now may boost PC sales for this year but in the long run it's just going to bite us in the ass. Game makers will get sick of the extended development time and constant patching to cover low end garbage hardware and simply jump over to the latest console generation in frustration. PC Gaming will once again be dominated by six month to a year wait times for what little will be coming our way.
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