Whether you want to build one from scratch, or just figuring out how your pre-build exactly runs — you’ve come to the right place. Throughout this article, we’ll get you up to speed on any and all hardware components that make a gaming PC. From case to add-in cards, we will list all you need to know on internal hardware.
True, an entire gaming set-up is bigger than just your PC. To even get a game going, you’ll need other peripherals around said desktop. For starters, a pc is nowhere without at least a display, a keyboard, and a mouse. But, first things first. Let’s get acquainted with the actual computer, and all the components therein.
Down below, we will be listing all relevant, internal gaming PC components. All of these parts can come in many different sizes, shapes and prices, but most systems are built up in roughly the same way. If you want a general step-by-step checklist for a gaming desktop, just read (and browse) along.
It’s hardly considered “hardware”, but it is an integral part of any gaming PC: the actual case. They can be big, small, partly transparent, or oddly shaped, but they all serve as housing for your internal components. Most modern cases come with at least a case fan or two, to get some airflow going.
When picking cases, there’s two things to keep in mind: the actual size, as well as the compatibility with your other components. It’s far from rocket science. A big ATX motherboard won’t fit into a case built for smaller ITX systems. In other cases — literally — the clearance needed for cooling components or video cards might run short.
Keeping compatibility in mind, picking a case is mostly a matter of personal taste and preference. This comes down to style, as well as things like optimal airflow or soundpadded side panels. Whether it’s flashy lights, tons of fans, or dead silence you want out of your case, there’s quite a lot to choose from.
Do you feel like browsing some great cases, straight away? Head on over to our article on the Best PC Cases for some of our favorite housings.
The motherboard (sometimes shortened to ‘mobo’) can be seen as the central nervous system of your PC. These complex circuit boards serve as the connection between all other gaming PC components. Your processor, memory, and video card are most likely directly plugged into the motherboard.
Motherboards come in a set amount of varying sizes. Most gamers opt for the biggest available, which would be the ATX form factor. That’s not without reason, of course. Due to their size, ATX motherboards offer more slots for additional cards and memory, while also coming with some of their own additional features. These can range from built-in Wi-Fi to exceptionally solid sound cards.
Alternatively, you might opt for a smaller form factor. Micro-ATX (mATX) motherboards cut back on size and some ports, but can still make a mean gaming system. Mini-ITX motherboards scale even further down, making them infinitely interesting for minuscule gaming builds. As they grow smaller, the amount of ports — and possible expansions — also diminishes.
When buying a motherboard, you’re usually also settling for a certain processor socket. This socket determines what kind of CPUs your system will be compatible with. Usually these sockets stay in fashion for at least a couple of generations, but do note that your choice in motherboards will also set you up with a certain processor brand. You can’t build an Intel system from scratch, just to swap out the CPU for an AMD model later on.
Get to know all shapes and sizes of motherboards with our article on Motherboard Form Factors. Or alternatively, check out our recommended models (for Intel and AMD) in our extensive list on the Best Motherboards for Gaming.
The central processing unit (CPU) is likened to “the brains” of a computer. This little bit of add-in silicon will send out almost all instructions towards other components, as well as running its own calculations. Most games don’t heavily rely on processor performance, but a speedy CPU is almost always beneficial to your system.
These days, your processor can be either an AMD (known for their Ryzen range), or an Intel (known for their Core-iX range). Apart from their brand, CPUs only connect to motherboards with a fitting socket. Every handful of generations, these sockets might make way for newer form factors — usually without any compatibility backward or forward.
Currently, AMD is still using their AM4+ socket, while Intel is on their LGA 1200 socket. Newer generations of CPUs might open up more possibilities in memory speed, as well as volume of USB ports and PCIe lanes, but big generational leaps usually only come when new sockets are introduced.
Apart from processor generations, actual performance results are mostly defined by the architecture, the speed, and the amount of transistors within. More cores and higher frequencies will boost your performance, but come with increased power requirements and heat dissipation. That’s exactly where our next PC components comes in handy.
A CPU cooler can come pre-packaged with your processor, but that’s not always the case. Either way: if you want to get big results out of your CPU, it’s always beneficial to have a cooler that supports your use case.
If you intend on running a processor at stock speeds, the included cooler should work just fine. If a cooler doesn’t come prepackaged — or you just want something that looks cooler — you’ll need to buy one yourself. This is, yet again, where you should take in mind what processor sockets are supported, as well as the amount of clearance your case offers these components.
CPU coolers work by constantly dissipating built-up heat away from the processor. This can be done by blowing fresh air through metal fins, or by adding a closed loop of flowing water to the equation. The latter can be a single, all-in-one (AIO) water cooler, or can be custom built with tubing, pumps, radiators and additional cooling modules.
If custom water loops sound a bit “extra” to you, old fashioned air coolers or a solid AIO system get you going in a pinch. Keep in mind that air coolers are usually cheaper and easier in upkeep, while not being that much worse than liquid cooling solutions.
Are you interested in those easy-to-install liquid coolers? Feel free to check out our top picks, with our article on the Best AIO Coolers of 2021.
Apart from long-term storage, your computer will need some short-term memory. Sounds complex, but it’s one of the easiest PC gaming components to install. This Random Access Memory (RAM) usually comes in the form of so-called DIMM sticks, which are plugged straight into the motherboard.
Just like processor sockets, RAM is confined by its generational form factor. Some older systems might still run DDR3, but most of us transitioned over to DDR4. In turn, the upcoming DDR5 generation is also peaking over the horizon in 2021. The sticks and sockets are in no way backwards or forwards compatible.
When browsing compatible memory sticks for your motherboard, keep in mind their volume, as well as their speed. These days, 8GB can be seen as your entry point to gaming performance, with 16GB granting you more headroom for multitasking. Anything above that is mostly useful for power users, or creative professionals. The memory frequency is often capped by your CPU, so keep that ceiling in mind.
Want to dive deeper into the world of computer memory? Head on over to our extensive Guide on RAM for more knowledge, tips, and tricks.
Now we’re talking. When gaming on a PC, the integrated graphics card is doing the bulk of the work. This board will render most of what you’ll see, as well as translate all that data into a video signal. A graphics card (or video card) is usually a bulky circuit that plugs into the motherboard through a PCIe connection. Apart from the CPU, this card will most likely draw the biggest amounts of power.
Aside from its looks, fans and perhaps some RGB lighting, the entire graphics card is mostly a sort of housing for a graphics processing unit (GPU). While graphics cards come from many different manufacturers, the actual GPUs are made by either NVIDIA or AMD. These define what kind of generation and performance you can expect from the card in general, as well as the amount of video memory (VRAM).
As of 2021, graphics cards are a hot commodity, with prices surging more than ever. NVIDIA is on their highly sought after Ampere architecture (the GeForce RTX 3000 range), while AMD is making leaps with its RDNA2 architecture (the Radeon RX 6000 range). Both come in an array of different models, and are added into boards from third parties, but demand is simply higher than supply.
If you intend to game on lower resolutions and frame rates — say, 1080p and 60 frames per second — getting a GPU from a few generations back won’t hurt. Do you however feel like going up to 1440p and competitive refresh rates? Chances are, the most expensive part of your PC will be the graphics card.
To stay within the organic analogies, your power supply unit (PSU) would be considered the heart of any gaming PC. Through many different cables, a PSU pumps vital juices towards all components, making sure they can run at peak performance. They’re clunky units, that most modern cases choose to tuck away behind panelling.
When choosing a PSU for your system, it’s beneficial to consider how much wattage your system will need. Most other components will list a certain (maximum) amount of watts that they require. When you add all those up, you’ll get a rough estimate of what your power supply should be able to pump out. To be extra sure, it doesn’t hurt to leave at least an additional 100 watts of headroom.
In addition to the right wattage, you’ll want an efficient and reliable PSU. To get a grasp on that part, you can look for the 80 Plus certification on certain models. Anything “Gold” and above, is considered to be extremely reliable. A more efficient PSU inherently means a smaller chance of components getting overloaded — which means a more stable PC overall.
Looking for some great PSU recommendations? Check out our Best Power Supplies in 2021 article to get acquainted with our top picks.
You can never have enough of this: storage. When it comes to choosing gaming PC components for storage, the more gigs you can get, the merrier. Modern storage comes in two categories: it’s either a solid state drive (SSD), or a hard disk drive (HDD). Modern SSDs are known for their speed and stability, while the HDDs of old are way bulkier and slower, but offer bigger volumes for cheaper price points.
For gaming performance, you’ll want to run your operating system and your favorite games on a speedy SSD. The faster the disk, the shorter your loading times will be. It’s as simple as that. A secondary HDD is always welcome for multimedia storage or some smaller applications, but solid state is where it’s at, these days.
SSDs come as traditional 2.5” drives (over SATA connection), but are also available as smaller NVMe drives (over M.2 connection) that plug directly into the motherboard. The latter is even faster and easier to install, but they are the priciest. In addition, you’ll need a motherboard that sports at least one M.2 slot.
Do you want to know more about disk drive storage for your gaming PC? Head on over to our dedicated article on The Best Hard Drives for Gaming for some solid recommendations.
Wi-Fi is a “nice-to-have” for a gaming PC, but it’s far from a requirement. If you intend to use your PC in a singular place — that already has a solid ethernet connection — you can skip this part. If you think a wireless connection might be beneficial to you, there’s always the possibility to add a Wi-Fi adapter to the equation.
A wireless network adapter can be either external or internal, but the latter has our recommendation. If you have a free PCI(e) slot left, you can easily upgrade your desktop with a reliable Wi-Fi 6 connection. This will often outperform any built-in Wi-Fi that some motherboards boast on their marketing material.
A dedicated sound card seems like a relic of the past. And yes, it’s certainly not one of the more pressing gaming PC components For about a decade, most motherboards come with decent sound cards integrated into their circuit — some even offering 7.1 surround output straight out of the box. Optionally though, there’s always possibilities to upgrade to still add a sound card, should you feel like getting better noise suppression or cleaner audio throughput.
If you intend on live streaming your gameplay anytime soon, it’s probably worth looking into solid microphone amplifiers, that also serve as an external sound card. Internal sound cards usually lack any input for professional microphones, but offer great digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) for high-end headphones and speaker systems. Many audio purists and professionals will benefit from one of these.
And with that, we wind down our list of essential gaming PC components. It’s quite a lot, and might sound complex to PC builders-to-be, but now you’ll at least have a rough understanding of the matter.
In the near future, we’ll make sure to expand upon our article with helpful links and updated information. If there’s any type of component you want to know more about, feel free to head over to any of the listed articles above.
Alternatively, you can always hit us up with questions or suggestions. Let us know what you would like to add, or what aspect of PC building you would like to know more about, and we’ll be sure to get back to you.
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