You want the best gaming PC possible? You're going to need to get your hands dirty, because the best gaming PC isn't one you buy: it's one you build. Building PCs can be a very expensive hobby, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a great, powerful build for a reasonable price. You don't need to play games at 4K, after all. The trick is to build a PC that will offer impressive performance now while still delivering the power needed to play games at least two to three years in the future.
PC build guides
We have system builds for everyone here at PC Gamer, with five builds each targeting a different price. From the cheap build starting below $500 / £500 up through an extreme system priced well north of $3,000 / £3,000, we have your back. This guide represents the balanced option, giving you what we feel is the best PC gaming system that balances price and performance for around $1,250 / £1,250.
This midrange PC is designed to give outstanding marks for 1080p and 1440p gaming. There are multiple GPU options that are all viable, including the 1070, 1070 Ti, and 1080 from Nvidia, and the RX Vega 56 from AMD. The GPU is the most important part of a gaming PC, but we still need to include a good processor, motherboard, RAM, and SSD.
Our build won’t be strictly aimed at those who need extra computing power for video, sound, and image editing. It can do those tasks, but you’ll normally want to spend more on a faster CPU if those are major concerns. Similarly, gaming at 4K is best reserved for builds sporting one or more GTX 1080 Ti GPUs, and we're sticking with a single graphics card.
The price point also doesn't account for the operating system or any peripherals. Check out our buying guides for the best mouse, keyboard, and gaming monitor for our favorite picks to pair with your new rig.
We based this build on prices we could find at the time we updated this article, but prices do change. You'll find real-time prices for the parts in the list above and the part descriptions below.
CPU: Intel Core i5-8400
Intel's new Coffee Lake processors deliver the biggest boost to mainstream Intel platform performance in more than a decade. The key benefit is the move from 4-cores as the base configuration to 6-core parts. While Intel has had 6-core processors for a while, they've been confined to the enthusiast platforms and were priced accordingly. The new Core i5-8400 changes that, delivering 50 percent more cores than the previous generation. The result is performance that typically matches that of the i7-7700K, at a substantially lower price. And unlike the enthusiast K-series parts, you get a cooler in the box.
It's not just core counts that have improved, the turbo clocks on Coffee Lake are also higher than on Kaby Lake. The i5-8400 for example has a 4.0GHz turbo clock, and can run all six cores at 3.8GHz. This despite the low 2.8GHz base clock. Compare that to the i5-7400, which has a 3.0GHz base clock and 3.5GHz max turbo, and ends up running all four of its cores at 3.3GHz. That's a 15 percent increase in clockspeed at the same price, plus 50 percent more cores.
In our testing, even with a GTX 1080 Ti, the only CPUs that beat the i5-8400 in gaming performance are the faster Coffee Lake chips: the i5-8600K, i7-8700, and i7-8700K. And even the fastest of those, the i7-8700K, is only about six percent faster in games at 1080p. If you happen to run a slower GPU, like the GTX 1080, or at a higher resolution, like 1440p, the differences between the CPUs become even smaller.
What about for non-gaming purposes? The extra cores still keep the i5-8400 basically tied with the i7-7700K, though chips like AMD's Ryzen 7 and Intel's i7-8700K and i7-7820X (not to mention Core i9 and Threadripper) are all substantially faster. They're also substantially more expensive.
There are only two real drawbacks with the i5-8400. First is that it's in high demand, so while it should cost less than $200, it's priced quite a bit higher at some places. The second potential drawback is that it's multiplier locked, so other than some minor tweaks to performance available via the motherboard BIOS, what you see is what you get.
If you want something faster, there's always the i5-8600K for overclocking, the i7-8700, or the i7-8700K. Those will all work in the same Z370 motherboard, though again the K-series parts require a third-party cooler. Bottom line is that for most gamers, the Core i5-8400 is currently the best option.
GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
For a long time, this build recommended Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1070 GPU. It's an outstanding card, and well worth consideration if you want to shave a hundred dollars off your build, but since prices have dropped on both the GTX 1070 and 1080, we were able to fit the 1070 into our $800 budget build, while the 1080 gets the nod here. There's also the newer 1070 Ti as a middle ground, though we feel the 1080 is still the better overall buy, particularly for a completely new PC build.
Prices for the GTX 1080 have come down significantly since the $599/$699 launch is 2016. With the advent of the GTX 1080 Ti, Nvidia dropped the 1080 to $499/$549. This makes the GTX 1080 a much better value than at launch, with cards available for around $500, sometimes even cheaper on sale. The 1080 also remains readily available at those prices, unlike the RX Vega cards, and the fact that the 1080 remains faster than the RX Vega 64 while using less power makes it the easy choice.
As for which GTX 1080 to buy, the modest factory overclocks don't make a huge difference, so we recommend buying whichever 1080 is cheapest. If you want to overclock on your own, most cards will hit similar speeds, though larger coolers can help a bit and aren't as noisy as blower fans.
Motherboard: Asus Prime Z370-P
The Asus Prime Z370-P is a mainstream offering that will deliver everything needed to run the i5-8400. The board is capable of overclocking, if you have a K-series chip, though if you're going that route you might want something geared more toward enthusiasts.
Not that there's anything wrong with the Prime Z370-P. It supports memory speeds up to DDR4-4000 and includes two M.2 slots for fast SSDs. It's an excellent entry-level Z370 board performs great and comes at an affordable price. About the only thing missing is USB 3.1 Type-C support, and there's also no WiFi or extra accoutrements, so for example SLI isn't supported either (though CrossFireX is).
If you're interested in those extras, the least expensive board with a Type-C port is the ASRock Z370 Pro4, and if you want WiFi there's the ASRock Z370 Killer SLI/ac. If that's the case, you're probably also looking at a higher-end build, which we cover in our best high-end PC.
Memory: 16GB (2x8GB) Team T-Force Dark DDR4-3000 CL16
Memory is one of the toughest components to make recommendations for, since it is especially susceptible to diminishing returns. You really just want a solid choice that will get the job done, though if the price isn't much higher you can improve performance a bit with faster RAM. This leads us to the Team DDR4-3000 CL16 memory, which balances performance with price. It's not much more expensive than basic DDR4-2400 but delivers improved bandwidth and performance.
If you're looking for other options, G.Skill, Corsair, Crucial, Kingston, Samsung, and others) are equally viable. If you can find something that will do DDR4-2666 or higher speeds with CAS latency of 14, you should be set. There's not much benefit to sky-high RAM clocks, particularly with the i5-8400, so really it's about finding a good balance.
Unfortunately, DDR4 prices have been rising lately, due to increased demand from both PC builders and smartphones. Memory prices change often, so you can always find a deal near this price point. Grab whatever costs the least (or not much more), and remember that sometimes tighter timings are more important than raw bandwidth.
Storage: Samsung 960 Evo 500GB M.2 SSD
Storage is one of the most subjective parts of any build, as people can have wildly different opinions on how much storage they need in their rig. Obviously, more is better, but prices can easily skyrocket if going that route. But regardless of size, the most important factor when choosing storage is speed.
At PC Gamer, we've reached a point where spinning disc drives are simply not worth our time. If you’ve never used an SSD-powered system before, the difference between running on an SSD and HDD is like night and day. We consider it an essential part of any gaming PC—as such, even our super-cheap sub-$500 build uses an SSD.
For this build, you have a couple of choices. If you want to save money, the Crucial MX300 525GB is a slower SATA drive that's still more than fast enough for gaming—it's our pick for the best budget SSD. But SATA is old school, and with a new build we felt it was time to step up to a higher performance M.2 NVMe drive. While we previously recommended the 512GB Intel 600p, the price is close enough now that we feel the faster Samsung 960 Evo is the better buy. Both drives show up in our best budget NVMe SSDs guide, so you can't go wrong.
If you want more capacity, an alternative would be to drop down to a 240-256GB SSD and then grab a larger 1-3TB HDD ($50~$75). With some games now hitting the 100GB mark, even a 500GB SSD can get full fast, so a larger HDD picks up the slack in that regard. Unfortunately, any games installed there will load on the slower side of things.
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo (Optional)
The Core i5-8400 includes a cooler, and it will be more than sufficient. But in case you're looking at the i5-8600K or i7-8700K as a higher performance option, or you want something quieter, we felt it would be worth mentioning our old standby cooler, the Hyper 212 Evo. It's something to always keep as an option with system builds.
If you're willing to spend a bit more, a nice AIO liquid cooler is another option worth considering, especially if you're planning on overclocking a K-series CPU. Corsair's H60 is a nice entry-level pick on that front, or the H110i if you want to go one step further.
PSU: Corsair CS650M 650W
Power supplies are one of the least sexy parts of any build. After all, it can be hard to tell them apart in terms of features. Even so, you don't want to skimp on your PSU. Corsair has an excellent and well-deserved reputation for its power supplies, and the CS650M comes at a reasonable price and delivers 80 Plus Gold efficiency.
Most power supplies from the bigger names are generally good, but we wouldn’t recommend that you put your money in anything with a warranty of less than five years or an efficiency rating below 80 Plus Gold. The $10 or $20 saved just isn't worth the risk.
We also tend to go with modular PSUs where possible. It means less cable mess inside the case, since you don’t have to stash unused cables somewhere. Instead, the unused cables have to find a home in your closet. If you’re looking for more details, check out our article on what to look for in a PSU.
Case: Phanteks Eclipse P400
Cases can be as sexy or boring as you want. We're going to go for the former rather than the latter, with the Phanteks Eclipse P400, a sweet tempered glass case. It's available in white or black, and there are also variants that skip the tempered glass and go with a windowed side panel instead. The Phanteks Eclipse P400 is also reasonably priced, which is always a bonus.
It's not a perfect case in all areas, and may not be the best option for a beginner, but if you can follow a set of Lego instructions you can put together a PC inside the P400.
If you want other options, check our guide to the best ATX mid-tower cases. The NZXT S340 was our previous pick, and it's still highly recommended. The clean look goes well on any desk and doesn't obnoxiously stand out like many so-called "gaming cases."
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