Posted by Craig

The Definitive Buyer’s Guide for Building Your Own Mid-Range Gaming PC

gaming pc mega

Building your own PC is a rewarding and educational experience that can also save you money and allow you to squeeze every possible bit of performance out of your custom rig. Building your own computer can save you money as well, especially if you already have some components from an old PC to use with the new one. This way, you get exactly the machine that you want without extra features and pre-installed software that you are never likely to use.

Many people are under the impression that building a computer is something best left to the experts. This is not really the case, however, since, these days, the parts are all standardized and it is largely just a matter of fitting them together. Provided that you do your research carefully and get a set of components that are all compatible, it is then largely just a matter of slotting them all together. The harder part, if anything, is installing the operating system and getting all of the drivers to work properly.

Anyone who has at least a basic knowledge of computer hardware and software should be able to build their own PC without too much trouble. If you know what a BIOS is, what a driver is and have a basic familiarity with the core components of a computer, you are ready to begin. If you’re uncertain, be sure to do some further research beforehand.

The following instructions will tell you how to buy the necessary parts so that you can start assembling your perfect rig. For a mid-range gaming computer, you should expect to spend about $1100-$1200 in total. This also includes the monitor, keyboard and mouse.

The CPU (Central Processing Unit)

cpu

The first thing to decide is whether you are going to go for an Intel or an AMD-based system. The choice is entirely your own, but AMD CPUs are often slightly cheaper. Intel CPUs, by contrast, are widely respected for their reliability and low operating temperatures. For a mid-range system, you won’t want to be spending more than $200 on the CPU. This will buy you a quad core CPU from either AMD’s high end Phenom II product line or Intel’s mid-high range Core i5 line.

With the AMD CPU, you will usually have a little more performance per dollar, but they also draw more power and there are fewer motherboards that will work with the new 120 or 140 watt chips. Both brands offer advantages and disadvantages, so the best idea is to stick with what you know already. Otherwise, go for the best deal.

All of these CPUs support DDR-III memory which is what you will be using.

The Motherboard

MSI Gaming Motherboard

For the motherboard, the thing you need to consider first and foremost is CPU compatibility. For this, $100 should buy you something ideal. Motherboards will work with either AMD (Socket AM3) or Intel (Socket LGA1156) CPUs from the Phenom II or Core i5 product lines respectively. There are often some further complications as well. For example, an AMD Phenom II CPU 120 watt edition will not work with certain motherboards even though they might have the right socket. Before you purchase a motherboard, be sure to check the manufacturer’s compatibility chart for the CPU that you have decided to get.

Another thing to consider when buying a motherboard is to make sure that it supports DDR-III RAM. Almost all motherboards come with onboard sound as well. Onboard sound can be more than adequate on higher end motherboards and most come with 7.1 speaker set support as well as high definition audio playback. In spite of this, enthusiasts often prefer to go for an add-in sound card which you can easily add later.

Any motherboard should have all of the required connectivity options including ample USB and SATA-II ports. If you plan to use more than two SATA-II hard disks, however, be sure that there are enough slots on the board as sometimes there are only two. Virtually all modern motherboards come with a PCI Express slot for the graphics card. Some motherboards come with two PCI Express slots for dual graphics cards, but this is not a concern for building a mid-range machine.

Finally, motherboards come in two different sizes. The ATX motherboards are the standard size while the smaller microATX specification is considerably smaller and popular for fitting into compact cases or LAN party computers.

The RAM (Random Access Memory)

gaming series

While the CPU is the brain of your new computer and the motherboard is the backbone, the RAM is its memory. More of this means more programs can be run at the same time and the higher your computer’s overall performance will be. Memory is not expensive these days. When buying RAM, there are two main factors that you will want to consider: the speed of the chip in MHz (megahertz) and the capacity in GB (gigabytes). Actual speed makes little difference to the overall performance of the computer.

For under $100, you should be able to buy a good brand name pair of DDR-III RAM chips of the 1600 MHz variety. This specification is also known as PC3-12800. Make sure that you buy a pair of RAM sticks together, as this way they will be the exact same type and optimized for dual channel. More than 4 GB of RAM is only necessary if you plan to use your PC for video editing or extremely demanding computer aided design work.

The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)

msi gpu

A GPU, more commonly known as the graphics card, is like a miniature computer in itself. The most basic of computers, such as those used in standard office scenarios, often have integrated solutions which make video gaming impossible for the most part. Since this guide covers the building of a gaming PC, the graphics card will likely be the most expensive component of the computer itself. For $200-$250, you should be able to get a mid-range card. This will happily play every game currently on the market and likely to be released in 2011 on the highest or near highest settings.

Here you have a choice of either nVidia or ATI. Benchmarks have consistently shown that the nVidia GeForce GTX 460 provides amongst the best performance (specifically frame rate) per dollar. Be sure to get the 1024 megabyte variety. If you prefer ATI, the HD 5850 or HD 5870 both provide a good price / performance ratio.

While the above mentioned graphics cards fit snugly into the mid-range GPU market, there are some other things to consider as well. These models simply refer to the GPU chips themselves. The cards which use these chips are assembled by other companies such as MSI, Leadtek or XFX etc. Performance varies only slightly between the brands, but there are some notable points. Some graphics cards come with better stock cooling solutions than others, for example. A better cooling system means that there is more headroom for overclocking. Some graphics cards even come factory overclocked.

Since the graphics card is the most important component of any gaming PC, you will want to think carefully about which one to get. Choose either ATI or nVidia and find something in your budget range. The Internet is full of benchmarks and reviews that can help you get a better idea of the precise model to go for.

The PSU (Power Supply Unit)

Fatality PSU

Very unwisely, the PSU is the component most often overlooked. Novice system builders make this mistake all the time, often placing an inadequate power supply in their computer. The worst thing of all is that this can, in some cases, cause damage to the other components.

When buying a power supply, you need to know how much power your new rig will require. For this mid-range gaming PC, a decent quality 500 watt PSU is the minimum. However, it is not quite so simple. Lower quality brands, usually reflected by very low prices, may advertise a 500 watt PSU which can actually only consistently produce two thirds of that power output or even less.

For this rig and for improving future upgrade-ability, it is recommended that you go for a 650 watt power supply from a well-known brand such as Corsair, Cooler Master, OCZ or Antec (though there are also many more). This will provide you with ample headroom for overclocking and make your machine a bit more future proof for upgrading to a more power-hungry graphics card or CPU later on. For $80, you should be able to find what you need.

The Case

aerocool

The case you purchase can be pretty much any case you want. The only mandatory factor to consider is whether you are going for a standard sized motherboard or one of the microATX variety. For the latter, you may as well get a smaller case designed for that form factor. A smaller PC is not only much more mobile, but they can be just as powerful as standard size tower systems.

Another thing to consider when buying the case is whether it offers the convenience of a pair of front-mounted USB ports and a SATA-II port. All in all, expect to spend no more than $80 on a decent case.

Drives

Gaming Harddrive

You will need a hard disk drive (HDD), a DVD or Blu-Ray drive and for extra convenience, a front-bay card reader is worth having as well. For $120, you should be able to get a Blu-Ray optical drive (which will also read DVDs and CDs), a 750 GB SATA-II hard drive and a card reader.

Peripherals

Razer Naga

For $200, you should be able to find a high quality 22″ flat screen. A screen of this size will normally have a native resolution of 1920×1080. Larger screens support larger resolutions. Remember that you will need more graphics processing power for higher resolutions. For most people, a 22″ is ample. This rig described here will be able to run most games on high settings at the screen’s native resolution.

Get a keyboard and mouse set, either corded or cordless, and you are ready to start assembling everything!

Operating System

Windows 7

Finally, you will need an operating system. An OEM copy of Windows 7 Home Premium can be obtained for around $140. Be sure to get the 64 bit edition.