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A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Your First Gaming PC

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Photo: Gorodenkoff (Shutterstock)

PC gaming has a reputation for being expensive and complicated. And sure, playing games on PC is arguably the “deep end” of the video game hobby compared to playing on consoles, but it’s much easier to wade into those waters than you might think.

If you’re interested in PC gaming but aren’t sure where to start, we put together this comprehensive guide to dispel a few common myths, learn the basics of PC parts, and help you find a great entry-level machine that won’t cost thousands of dollars.

What do you actually need for a gaming PC?

One of the most prevalent misconceptions about PC gaming is that you need an expensive setup. Many would-be PC gamers (or their parents or spouses) are understandably alarmed by the sticker price for new PC parts—the recently announced Nvidia RTX 4090 GPU is a whopping $1,700 at launch. But the good news is you don’t need bleeding-edge parts to play PC games.

It’s true that high-fidelity graphical settings like 4K and 1440p resolutions, super-high refresh rates, ray tracing, and DLSS require very powerful—and very expensive—hardware, but they’re largely optional.

Part of the beauty of PC gaming is its flexibility. Games often have numerous graphical settings so you can run them on modest hardware. Fortnite, for example, even includes special settings for playing on “potato” PCs, and some titles like Guilty Gear Strive have fan-made mods that boost performance on weaker machines. They may not look as good at lower graphics settings, but they will usually run well enough to be playable.

Similarly, older games like Minecraft or World of Warcraft, and smaller indie titles like Stardew Valley, can run just as well on weaker PCs as they can on stronger ones. The point is, you do not need high-end hardware to play the vast majority of PC games. And just because you can’t play a game at its highest settings now doesn’t mean you’re stuck with that performance forever. Depending on the type of computer you buy, you can easily upgrade to more powerful parts in the future.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few options for buying your first gaming PC.

Prebuilt PCs

A prebuilt computer is a great option for burgeoning PC gamers that want a long-term desktop rig without the stress of building a rig themselves. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and recommend you don’t build your own PC if you’re just starting out and want to keep things easy.

Learning to build a computer is part of the joy of PC gaming, but it’s not a required skill. Think of PC gaming like any other hobby—the goal of any beginner should be to find an approachable way into the hobby, then slowly graduate onto the more complex levels as they feel more comfortable. You wouldn’t expect a first-time fisherman to tie their own fly fishing flies, so don’t worry about building your own PC if you’re new to the hobby. The only trick here is taking the time to find the right deal.

Popular companies like Alienware, ASUS, Origin, and NZXT are great for those who want a beefy PC with a “gamer” design, but even their “lower-end” models can be prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, many PCs from manufacturers like HP or Dell feature gaming-ready hardware even if they look like unassuming office PCs, and often at far cheaper prices—we’re talking just a few hundred instead of a few thousand. The lower-end configurations won’t be very powerful, but most can be upgraded with better components later on.

What about laptops?

Image: Digital Storm

Like pre-built PC, gaming laptops ship with all the necessary components already installed, removing the stress of shopping for each individual part yourself. However, gaming laptops can be some of the most expensive devices out there and are rarely ever “portable” due to their size, weight, or low battery lives compared to the average workstation laptop. Laptops also can’t be upgraded like desktop PCs, making them less cost-effective in the long term.

The only real benefit to a gaming laptop is the all-in-one form factor and relative portability compared to a tower PC. That said, if you’re willing to pay for a powerful model, laptops can be just as effective for gaming as full-size desktops.

If you’re looking for the simplest portable gaming setup, you can play games on compact laptops or even Chromebooks via cloud streaming services like Xbox Game Pass, Nvidia GeForce Now, or Amazon Luna.

Streaming has its drawbacks compared to running the game locally on your hardware; most notably the variable visual and gameplay quality if your connection dips, and the need for a constant wifi or mobile data connection, preferably via ethernet or 5G mobile data. A streaming setup is best for casual gamers rather than hardcore PC gamers, but it’s worth considering if you only play occasionally and are always connected to the internet.

Steamdeck and handheld PCs

Image: Valve

Lastly, there are all-in-one handheld PC gaming devices. The most popular is the Steam Deck. It’s similar to a Nintendo Switch, though much bulkier and more durable, and it only plays PC games. As such, it’s best suited for hardcore players, but its portable nature, strong specs, and gaming-focused SteamOS operating system make it a worthwhile choice as a handheld gaming PC if that’s what you’re after.

There are some caveats, however. Unlike a full desktop that you can use for work, gaming, media editing, and more, the Steam Deck is a gaming-focused device. The hardware is fixed and cannot be upgraded, and it doesn’t run Windows out of the box, so it cannot play every game. Similarly, the battery life is low, so expect to mostly use this while at home. And even if you customize the device with Windows or Linux, and use an external keyboard and mouse to run apps, it’s simply not built to be a comprehensive PC replacement.

There are other Steam Deck-like handheld PCs from other companies, some of which are more powerful or run full versions of Windows but are more expensive. Others are simply glorified Android tablets with limited game and app support. In either case, I would avoid these devices if you’re looking for a portable PC gaming setup.

PC buying tips

While I strongly recommend a pre-built gaming PC over a laptop or handheld PC gaming device, all of these devices simplify the PC buying process and circumvent the need to build your own. Nevertheless, you will inevitably run into long spec sheets or be asked to select between different components when customizing your computer or laptop configurations. My advice here is to stick to your budget—don’t worry too much about which parts you’re getting if you’re simply after a budget gaming rig.

However, if you’re working with a more flexible budget and aren’t simply buying the cheapest option, or are simply curious about the various PC parts you’ll come across and what they’re for, here are some general buying tips. We won’t go into specific part recommendations (since prices and availability change constantly), but these should help you understand what each part is, and how it affects gaming performance.

  • CPU: The CPU, aka processor, is your computer’s “brain,” controlling the different components, apps, and functions your run. Intel and AMD are the main CPU manufacturers. If you’re parting out your PC on your own, you will need to make sure you select a CPU that’s compatible with your other parts, but pre-made PCs will handle this for you. Instead, you may be asked to select from a specific model range. In general, a 10th or 11th generation Intel i5 processor or higher, or AMD’s Ryzen 3, 5, 7 or 9 are best for gaming, with higher-numbered models offering higher processing speeds and multitasking capabilities. CPUs are complicated, so definitely check our guide on finding the right CPU if you need more help.
  • Graphics card (GPU): Your GPU is what renders in-game graphics, and will likely be the most expensive component you buy. Nvidia and AMD are the two major GPU manufacturers. Some common entry-level models include Nvidia’s GTX 1660 and RTX 2000 line, and AMD’s Radeon 5000 series. Nvidia’s RTX 3000 and 4000 series, as well as AMD’s RX 6000 series, are much more powerful, but increasingly more expensive (and may be harder to find). Avoid computers and laptops that only use Intel’s “integrated graphics,” since these chips are not built for gaming.
  • RAM: This is your computer’s memory. The more of it you have, the faster it can perform certain tasks. At least 8GB of DDR4 RAM is the baseline you’ll want for a budget PC gaming PC, but 16GB is preferred if you can afford it. 32GB or more is best if you plan to edit videos or stream with your PC as well. Luckily, expanding your PC’s RAM is one of the simplest and most affordable upgrades you can make.
  • Hard drive: These make up your PC’s storage space. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are faster and load games and apps quicker than hard drives (HDDs), but HDDs are more affordable and can store much more data for the price. You can outfit a PC with multiple drives, and even mix and match SSDs and HDDs. Either way, you’ll want at least one drive with 256GBs, though 1TB drives are best—modern PC games take up tons of drive space, usually between 20-100GBs or more, so having more space is always helpful.
  • Operating system: Windows is best for gaming, since it has the broadest game and app support. Some gaming PCs use versions of Linux (like SteamOS or Ubuntu), which are fine but can be hard to learn if you’re not already familiar with Linux, and may not run every game or program.
  • Case, motherboard, and power supply unit (PSU): These last three components are the bedrock of any PC build: The motherboard performs many important functions, including running your PC’s BIOS and interfacing with the CPU and other hardware, but the most important thing to know is it’s the main circuit board all your components plug into. The PSU is what draws electricity from your outlet and powers each component. And the case houses all the hardware safely and securely. Selecting the right model for each of these components is important, but pre-built PCs or laptops will normally handle this decision for you.

All of the above parts are included in any PC build, but you will also want to keep these additional parts and accessories in mind when buying a PC, since they’re rarely included with a pre-made desktop or laptop. Be sure to factor them into your budget.

  • Display: For entry-level PCs, a simple 1080p monitor with a 60 Hz refresh rate is just fine. Not only are they more affordable, you can also maximize your hardware’s potential by choosing a monitor that fits your PC’s capabilities. For instance, a 1080p monitor with a 60Hz maximum refresh rate is better suited to a weaker rig than a 1440p or 4K monitor with high refresh rates.
  • Internet connectivity: Unless you plan to hardwire your PC to your router via Ethernet cable, you will need a wifi card to connect wirelessly. Some motherboards include these, others will require a separate component.
  • Keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals: A basic keyboard and mouse will work just fine, but competitive players may prefer the feel and performance of mechanical keyboards and gaming mice. As for gamepads, you can pair up Xbox, PlayStation, and third-party controllers via USB or Bluetooth. Some monitors come with speakers, but a pair of headphones or a gaming headset will work, too.

     

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