Gaming systems are the newest trend for PC manufacturers, and we’re not just talking about a new model or two. In additional to traditional gaming-centric brands such as Alienware and Razer, almost every other brand has launched dedicated gaming sub-brands with a whole slew of models and devices: ASUS has ROG, Gigabyte has Aorus, HP has Omen, Lenovo has Legion…you get the drift.
Now, for PC gamers, there’s little doubt that the do-it-yourself route has always presented the ultimate in value and flexibility, but it may not always be the most feasible. The cost of technology has also come down quite a bit, and purpose-built gaming PCs are no longer that hard to come by. And as manufacturers start to put in more effort in developing dedicated gaming machines, you do get better integration, with features that are actually useful and a boatload of options that suit everyone from casual all the way to the hardcore and PC enthusiast geek.
Often, the trouble is in finding the right balance between price and performance. It’s easy to get carried away with the latest advancements or excessive future-proofing. On the other hand, mismatched components may wind up giving you more trouble than it’s worth.
With that in mind, we decided to address the core need of why you’re buying a gaming PC in the first place. So this feature isn’t straight up about buying 'X' product, but rather, what kind of system would work for your needs.
(If you’re actually looking for buying recommendation, we've got a Slim Gaming Notebook shootout in this very issue. – ed.)
By Team GameAxis Art Direction and digital imaging by Ashruddin Sani.
IDENTIFYING YOUR NEEDS
THE FIRST QUESTION YOU SHOULD ALWAYS ASK IS: WHAT IS MY NEW SYSTEM REALLY FOR?
“Gaming” is the obvious answer but we’re going to have to be a little more specific. What do you normally, or hope to, play?
You aren’t particularly demanding on rig specs, but they do have specific hardware and performance goals to gun for. Long story short: you want highest possible framerates that can be at the expense of graphical fidelity. In fact, too much detail can even become a distraction to your singular quest for victory among peers. You also want responsiveness; every keystroke, mouse flick, and screen refresh rate must have the fastest possible response time and the lowest possible latency.
For DOTA 2 players, you don't need a high-end computer to play the game, even at professional competitive levels.
SIMULATOR AND STRATEGY ENTHUSIASTS
Similarly, you push your PCs in a very specific direction, namely processing power. While graphics are important, your PC has to cope with all the data, visible and in the background, that these games thrive on. Ballistics, AI, cockpit instruments, and so much more – there’re tons of calculations performed under the hood that would benefit from a beefier CPU rather than the GPU.
Space sims such as Elite: Dangerous is getting a mini revival too.
THE CORE GAMER
You probably do not dedicate all your time to any single title or genre, choosing instead to keep up with whatever your friends are playing, the latest trends, or whatever catches your fancy. You would typically want to straddle that sweet spot between price and performance, getting the best bang for your buck with every component in your specs. You’d want gaming-grade hardware to handle the wide variety of games out there, but the keyword is balance.
Counter-Strike: Global Off ensive is a 17-year old game that's enjoyed by both professional and casual gamers.
Like the core gamer, you want your system to be able to play any game, but taken to an extreme. You are able to abandon budgetary constraints to go after the latest and greatest, driving the high-end market in your quest to conquer every visual benchmark there is: 4K, HDR, VR, 240Hz. It’s no longer a matter of games being out of reach but about technical achievement, though it’s worth noting that even the best of systems crumble before a poorly optimized game.
Playerunknown's Battleground may not seem like it, but it requires a very high-end computer to run it at full visual settings.
You are a gamer yourself, and tend to identify with any one of the above categories, but instead of just playing games, you want the world to watch you play. Whether it’s simple live streaming of a gaming session, or creating gaming tutorials, getting started as never been easier. However, certain production goals do call for specific hardware requirements. Streaming in general requires a good multi-core processor and lots of RAM. Your system typically needs to keep up with running the game, recording and encoding the gameplay video, plus live streaming all at the same time without dropping performance. Latest generation CPUs are powerful enough to allow simultaneous gaming and streaming on the same PC, but serious streamers who do more video production tend to have separate rigs for gaming and streaming.
Streaming while playing a game simultaneously requires a fairly powerful PC as well.
PICTURES ASUS, VALVE CORPORATION, TENCENT GAMES, FRONTIER DEVELOPMENTS
UNDERSTANDING THE KEY COMPONENTS AND SPECS OF YOUR GAMING MACHINE
Coming to grips with PC technology isn’t something to be done overnight, with information often getting outdated faster than you’d like. That said, it’s good to know what each component does and why it matters in gaming. We tackle the most important components that play a pivotal role in determining your gaming experience with some broad recommendations.
CPU (CENTRAL PROCESSING UNIT)
The brain of any system, the CPU is often one of the first things listed on a specifications sheet and with good reason: they largely determine how well applications perform. While graphics cards are usually the star of gaming conversations, the CPU is just as, if not more essential, for certain genres. It’s worth dipping your toes into deeper waters, but check for core counts and clock speeds. For example, a good reference entry point for a gaming PC would be Intel’s 8th-Gen “Coffee Lake” Core i5-8400 (6 cores with a boosted clock speed of 4GHz) and AMD’s Ryzen 5 2600X for something equivalent. To simplify it further, make sure your system is equipped with at least a Core i5 class processor better.
Keep in mind that the above examples pertain to desktop-variants CPUs, and notebook buyers should look out for slightly different prefixes. As a rule of thumb, Intel’s mobile-based CPUs have either a “U”, “Y”, “HQ” or “HK” letters behind their numbers and they determine different class of capabilities. In general, avoid "Y" suffix based processors for gaming needs as they are made for business ultrabooks with a focus on extreme low power consumption and longer battery life. Once more, anything Core i5 or better with "U" suffix onwards should be the minimum to consider for an Intel processor-based notebook, such as the Intel Core i7-8550U, for example.
That said, even the U-series chips are still more commonly reserved for ultrabooks, and most off-the-shelf gaming laptops should come with an Intel Core i7-8750H.
A mobile CPU chip is designed for portable computers, and to run cooler, it uses lower voltages than its desktop counterpart (thus a lower power profile) and has deeper sleep mode states than desktop-class processors. However, there are few 8th Genpowered laptops on the market right now, so most will still be using an Intel “Skylake” 7th Gen.
AMD processor-based notebooks are quite rare in this part of the region, but they are some in the wild. One such model is the ROG GL702ZC notebook, which is quite a unique offering.
Intel’s 8th-Gen “Coffee Lake” Core i5-8400.
GPU (GRAPHICS PROCESSING UNIT)
Also known as video card or graphics card, these eye-grabbing components are responsible for bringing video games to life. While older and simpler games can be rendered entirely through a CPU’s integrated graphics chip, taking the discrete route opens the door to beautiful textures, effects, and of course, far better performance. In addition to clock speeds and core counts are factors such as video memory (VRAM), as well as differences between reference cards and their third-party equivalents. Look to NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 1060 6GB or AMD’s Radeon RX580 8GB for a reliable mid-range pick. This recommendation mirrors both desktop and notebooks needs as the mobile version of the GPUs these days are very closely matched in capabilities.
RAM (RANDOM ACCESS MEMORY)
While all data is stored on hard drives, computers load models, textures, music, and other files into a memory cache for faster read/write access. RAM is useful for more than just gaming, playing a huge role in a system’s responsiveness and multitasking ability. Fortunately, things are a little more straightforward here: 8GB RAM is the absolute minimum, although 16GB is better for newer games or a desire to get into visual production.
Third party can off er performance tweaks to help you stretch your dollar.
Note the plural because you’ll always want a pair, if not more – a fast solid-state drive (SSD) for your operating system and core applications, with a high capacity hard disk drive (HDD) for storing the actual games, videos, and everything else. The former are basically flash drives that store data electrically, whereas the latter writes to physical electromagnetic disks. SSDs come in either standard SATA 3 or the faster M.2 PCIe variants. As HDDs are a mature tech, they make up for the slower speeds with a far better capacity-per-dollar ratio. Avoid hybrid drives if you can, as they don’t quite offer the best of both worlds as their marketing would like you to believe. Always go for dual drives like the Samsung 970 EVO 500GB SSD and a Western Digital Blue 1TB (7200RPM) HDD combo. You may not always be privy to the exact brand/model details, but the gist of the idea is to have an SSD and HDD to play off the best of both their storage attributes.
PC manufacturers often have a line of monitors to match their desktops, making your purchases that bit simpler. Whether it’s an external display or a laptop’s in-built screen, there are some points to look out for when it comes to gaming. With refresh rates the hot topic for screens, you may want to take this opportunity to jump onto the 144Hz bandwagon (or even 240Hz screens if you must). Response time also matters for fast-paced and motion-heavy games, although most gaming-oriented options tend to keep them below 5ms. Screen size, resolution, and color accuracy are more personal decisions, but whatever you decide, make sure it doesn’t compromise your budget for the more essential components listed earlier.
Good screens are however not just the domain of desktop systems with flexible screen choices, but some higher specced notebooks these days are also equipped with speedy display panels; one such example is the Gigabyte Aero 15X with its 15.6-inch FHD 144Hz display.
There are other things that make up a gaming PC: keyboards, speakers, ports, and network connectivity. While they all play a role in the usability and, ultimately, the entertainment you’ll derive out of your new PC, they’re more of a secondary concern and into the realm of personal preference once you’ve figured out the important hardware bits that actually impact how your game runs. Focus on the above to narrow your selections, before considering the peripherals and accessories. Another benefit to pre-built PCs is the one-stop manufacturer warranty for all your parts, so do remember to ask.
PICTURES 123RF, INTEL, MSI
THE FORM FACTOR QUESTION: TO GET A DESKTOP OR NOTEBOOK?
The nice thing about pre-built systems is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a desktop PC. If space is a concern you could always scale down to something smaller, be it a laptop for mobility or a desktop replacement for power. Whatever you pick, always remember the holy trinity of price, performance, and size.
GET A DESKTOP
If you have the space for it. They’re more affordable, have better upgrade potential, and are generally much easier to clean and maintain. It’s also a decent way of gingerly learning and identifying the components whenever you pop open the case (so long as it doesn’t void the warranty), taking the time to see how and why the cables are routed the way they are. Other benefits include a ton of connectivity options for all your peripherals, and generally better cooling performance. Nowadays, desktop PCs come in compact flavors too, rivaling consoles in terms of size.
One good example is the Aftershock Impulse, a super-compact desktop with the specs to rival a full-sized tower.
GET A NOTEBOOK
If you want to keep things neat and simple, portability aside. As attractive as a desktop PC is to enthusiasts, there’s plenty to be said about the charm and flexibility of a laptop. Thanks to huge leaps in hardware they can be just as powerful as a desktop PC, except you’ll get to lug it with you for work and play. You are, of course, sacrificing price and customizability, and the cooling systems tend to run loud when you get into some intense gaming. Desktop replacements retain that all-in-one look for even beefier hardware and cooling, at the expense of being larger and heavier. There's always a trade-off.
In comparison, slim gaming notebooks are all the rage these days, and can be packed with just as much gaming tech as desktop replacements.
(Remember to check out our slim gaming notebook recommendations in this issue's Test section. – ed.)
PICTURES AFTERSHOCK, GIGABYTE