PC Gaming Buyer's Guide
So you want to play games with the big boys? Then you're in the right place.
Don't listen to old coots that talk about the Magnavox Odyssey and Pong consoles as the origin point of home videogames. The real heart of gaming beats inside a PC; the platform has been the core of gaming far longer than most of you (and I) have been alive. As consoles come and go, the PC always remains.
As much as I love consoles -- and I do love them so -- there are irrefutable advantages to gaming on the PC. Players find more multiplayer options and far more possibility for game customization. The mod scene ensures that many games never get old by providing a flood of free content. Some of it is even good.
Yes, there are downsides. You've got to contend with the ever-changing hardware landscape and the financial arrangements necessary to keep up. While Xbox 360 games released today run perfectly on the console you bought three years ago, that might not be the case with a PC.
But the advantages are too good to not game on the PC. Where else are you going to find a repository of every game genre available, as well as a library of the games that made gaming great, and the most robust player community on the planet? Xbox Live? Pshaw!
- A serious rig can deliver visuals that kill those on consoles.
- Infinitely customizable
- There's no better platform for classic gaming.
- A serious rig can cost more than your car.
- Hardware and software interaction can be daunting and confusing.
- New game releases have trailed off.
Recounting the history of PC gaming would take more space than Crispy is willing to pay me for this calendar quarter. Most of that stuff doesn't matter, anyway. You should know what .plan feuds were, what 3dfx was and why Infocom was the best game developer ever, but strictly speaking, you don't have to.
What you'll need
RAM. Years ago, there was an arguable reason to skimp on RAM -- it was expensive as hell. Today the exact opposite is true. Get at least 4 GB (especially if you're running Windows Vista or 7) and, even better, pack your system with as much RAM as it'll take. (That'll be 8 GB for most off-the-shelf systems.) Buy reputable stuff, like the sticks from Crucial, or go for the high-end boutique silicon if you want to overclock and really drive a system hard.
HDD. One of the biggest performance bottlenecks in a PC can be the hard drive. 7200 RPM drives are standard, 10000 RPM drives are out there and more reliable now, and ultra-fast solid-state drives are gradually getting cheaper. A reliable 1 TB 7200 RPM drive won't break the bank, and a SATA interface transferring at 3.0 GB/second with a 32 or 64 MB onboard cache can keep info flowing. You'll never have to worry about looking at slow-motion wireframes while your drive serves textures and other info to the GPU.
GPU. Once you've made the pesky ATI versus NVIDIA choice, there's the question of how much onboard video RAM you'll want, and whether you can afford to run two parallel cards. The ATI/NVIDIA decision can be made along party lines; people often pair ATI's Radeon cards with AMD (ATI's owner) CPUs, and NVIDIA cards with Intel chips, but there's no law that says you have to. Buy based on reliability and performance more than anything else. For serious performance, run two identical cards in parallel -- just make sure your mainboard has the PCI Express or (for older systems) AGP slots and power supply to support it.
CPU. Bigger, faster, stronger, right? As long as you're running at least a dual-core, the choice between Intel and AMD and their various specifics comes down to personal preference and budget. Serious quad-core CPUs, a boutique item a year ago, are now commonplace enough to be in $600 off-the-shelf systems. If you're building a new system, go quad.
Power Supply. This is what neophytes forget. Once upon a time you could power everything you needed with the little old 250-watt supply that came in your system from Best Buy. But with higher power requirements for single GPU cards, not to mention two running parallel, you might need to think about upgrading to a fancy box that spits out more juice. Skip the colored lights and other crap: Look for reliability and something with a fan quieter than a jet engine.
Other swag. How about a gaming mouse that is precise to 20,000 dpi and can figure Pi to 45 digits? Or a keyboard that features extra menu controls and programmable hotkeys? Don't even get me started on a good speaker system. If your system is ridiculously loud and/or running too hot, look into a liquid cooling option.
Wait, that adds up to a lot of dough!
Yep. I'd like to say that you can have it all for a thousand bucks, but that would be a big, fat lie. (You can have MOST of it for a grand, though.) Prioritize! Build a respectable system first, which can be done for a few hundred bucks if you go for last-gen components. Then figure out what you're jonesing to improve the most, and start the smart-shopper upgrade process.
What if I want to buy one of those fancy gaming desktops?
Go for it. Dell has cranked out some excellent gaming systems in the last two years, HP has its Voodoo division (established when HP bought the boutique company in 2006), and there are dozens of other small manufacturers dedicated to creating gaming systems that trump the hardware over at NASA.
So, I'm reading all these unreachable benchmarks!
Don't. Just stop. Right now. Benchmarks are a great way to kill any enthusiasm you've got for your own machine. It's like owning a 1977 Bug while obsessively reading about that Audi Quattro: fun, but maddening. Check benchmarks if you need to make a last-ditch decision between components, but a graph is no substitute for what's before your eyes. If you're happy with the images and frame rate your rig spits out, then just enjoy the games.
Back in the day, no one cared how their PC looked. It was a putty-colored box -- black if you were lucky -- and all that mattered was what ended up on the screen. But as the PC has moved into the living room, some styles (like Shuttle's, which aren't great for gaming, but will do in a pinch) have been created to hide a PC amidst all your other squat, black AV components. Or, you could be that gamer -- the one with a case mod that has a plexiglass side window in the shape of your World of Warcraft cleric's breasts and emits cool blue light and smoke effects every time you get a headshot. I can't afford all that, so I just tape a flashlight inside my PC and drop dry ice into a water bowl atop the case every once in a while.
Piracy and cheating. Piracy never used to impact the average gamer, but with strict measures such as SecuROM activated by some companies, players are occasionally having problems getting their games to play nice with a publisher's authentication server. And while you won't have to worry much about cheating over a console multiplayer interface, the customizable aspect of PC gaming means that the most enterprising and dastardly cheaters have a lot of room to play.
Oh, and another thing:
Drivers, and their issues. (Not Driv3r, which is what Atari is infamous for, or hubcaps, which is what Steve McQueen is infamous for.) Any number of issues can crop up when you try to make a new game and your old hardware play nice, but four times out of five they'll be related to drivers -- those little bits of software that tell a game how to interact with hardware like your graphics card. Console gamers get off easy, as necessary updates are now pushed to their hardware automatically. But with a PC you'll have to keep up with the drivers. Fortunately, that's usually as easy as bookmarking NVIDIA's or AMD's sites and checking in once in a while.
I want to play in 1080p!
And you can! But 1080p is a resolution that means something if you're gaming with a system meant for television displays. It's not a holy grail for PC gaming. If you're looking for a new monitor, look for low response time, which will keep games looking smooth and natural. (5 ms will do; 2-3 ms is even better.) And a good contrast ratio (at least 1000:1) will ensure that colors look great and that black levels are dense and natural.
What a massive back catalogue you have!
Perhaps the greatest thing about PC gaming is the ease with which you can discover the games that five or 10 years ago inspired the greats of today. Grim Fandango, Fallout and StarCraft are all easy to get, and will run on any PC built in 2009.
Ten must-play games
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