PC build guides
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. Not everyone needs 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.
We have system builds for everyone here at PC Gamer, with five different builds each targeting a different price. From the cheap build starting below as $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.
The midrange PC is designed to give high marks for 1080p gaming, while still being able to touch 1440p gaming at medium settings. Now with the advent of the GTX 1070, you can expect solid 1440p performance as well. This is mostly achieved by virtue of the video card, though CPU and RAM do come into play as well. What this machine won’t be aimed at is those who need extra computing power for video, sound, and image editing. For those uses, you’ll need to spend more for a CPU that can deliver on those tasks.
We based this build upon 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 i5-6600K
There are really just two unlocked processors to choose from in Intel’s Skylayke line of processors, the i5-6600K and the i7-6700K. For this build, we’ve chosen the lesser of the pair, though the term “lesser” doesn’t do the 6600K justice.
The 6600K is a speedy quad core that offers impressive overclocking abilities. With a base clock of 4.0GHz, the i7-6700K is clocked higher than the 6600K’s base of 3.5GHz. However, than the 6700K did in our tests. While there’s no such thing as a guaranteed overclock, we were able to get a 6600K up to 4.5GHz on air. (We got the 6700K up to 4.7GHz.)
There are only three big differences that most people need to know about when choosing the 6600K and the 6700K. Like I noted earlier, the i7 carries a higher stock base and turbo clock than the 6600K does. However, this can be compensated for with even conservative overclocks. If you’re not comfortable with overclocking (after all, it does technically void your warranty), you can rest easy knowing that the 6600K’s base clock of 3.5GHz is plenty fast for gaming purposes.
Second, the 6600K has 6MB of cache, while the 6700K has 8MB. That means the i7 can store 33 percent more instructions than the i5 does before the CPU has to reach out to the RAM.
Finally, and most importantly, the 6600K doesn’t offer hyperthreading support, while the 6700K does. In a typical processor, you only have one thread per physical core. With hyperthreading, each core gets two threads. (Each thread is treated as its own logical processor by software). As a result, the Windows sees the 6600K as a quad core, while the 6700K can be treated as an octa-core. All of this doesn’t matter much for games, which rarely make use of more than one or two threads.
GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070
If you've been waiting to build a new gaming PC, the GTX 1070 gets our recommendation as the card you should consider first and foremost. Sporting more power than a GTX 980 Ti or even last generation's mighty Titan X, the 1070 delivers high performance with low power consumption, and a price tag that undercuts the GTX 980 and 980 Ti. If you can find it in stock, that is; the card is in high demand right now, and backordered at most places we've checked.
The 1070 models we've seen so far are still priced significantly higher than the R9 390. However, given the 1070's performance jump, the sub-$100 difference between the 390 and the 1070 is a worthy investment. EVGA, Nvidia and MSI all sell models of the GTX 1070 for $425 in the US. The GTX 1070 is more expensive in the UK, but you can get a Founder's Edition card for under £400.
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170N-Gaming 5
I have to admit, I like mini-ITX builds. I like the interesting forms that mini-ITX cases take on, and the challenge of building. But there’s a practical reason for choosing mini-ITX too. If you’re planning on building a mid-range gaming PC and plan on only using one video card, shouldn’t a single PCIe port be plenty? I think so.
Gigabyte’s GA-Z170N is a rather nice motherboard for its price range. It’s also fairly inexpensive, yet still offers plenty of features. This mobo sports USB 3.1 Type-C as well as M.2 support. (Both PCIe 3.0 and SATA modes are supported over M.2.) One of the biggest downsides to this motherboard (and most mini-ITX motherboards, really) is that there aren’t a lot of pinouts for case fans or USB 2.0.
Gigabyte’s BIOS is powerful enough, though some people may really dislike its layout. All the important bits are there, and one you get your system set up they way you want it, few people touch the BIOS afterwards anyway.
Memory: 16GB (2x8GB) G.Skill Ripjaws V Series DDR4-2400
Memory is one of the parts that become really competitive in terms of price. This is one of the reasons I went with G.Skil’s Ripjaws V Series. G.Skill’s Ripjaws (like Corsair’s Vengeance LPX or Crucial’s Ballistix and others) is one of the core memory brands that most people should go to. G.Skill tends to use Samsung's memory modules, which RAM makers have told us are the best around. Most gamers won’t see the advantages of memory with sky-high clocks, but it’s good to get a kit that’s above the slowest speed, 2133MHz. At 2666MHz, these 8GB sticks do just fine for gaming applications.
Since we last updated this guide, G.Skill's 2666MHz RAM has actually gotten a bit cheaper than its 2400MHz modules, making this a great buy—you can find a few sticks slightly cheaper, but these are fast and reliable. Memory prices change often, so you can always find a deal near this price point.
SSD: 500GB Samsung 850 Evo 2.5-inch SATA
The Samsung 850 Evo is the yardstick that all other SSDs are measured against. It's been our main pick for awhile, and there's still no better price/performance option. If you’ve never used an SSD-powered system before, the difference between running on an SSD and HDD is like night and day. However, SSDs are still pricey compared with spinning drives, though prices continue to drop.
The 850 Evo is quite fast for a SATA drive. And the thing is, it’s reasonably priced too. It’s really hard to beat the 850 Evo in price per gigabyte if you want anything near what the Evo offers in read and write performance.
I chose to go with the 2.5-inch version of the 850 Evo because is significantly more expensive right now. I usually recommend going with the M.2 version of this drive if the price permits, since M.2 makes for a cleaner build. (You don’t have to run SATA and SATA power to the drive.) If you prefer the M.2 version of the SSD, the Gigabyte mobo has an M.2 slot on its underside.
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo
As much as I love all-in-one water coolers, I sometimes have to slap myself and think: Hey stupid, there are really great air coolers out there too. The Hyper 212 is one of those coolers, and I think builders should always consider this cooler in their lineup of possible components. (Unless, of course, you need a low-profile cooler for a slim case.)
The downside to using an air cooler is that the heat from the CPU is dumped into your case. As long as you have plenty of airflow, this isn’t a problem. All-in-one coolers help keep the ambient temperature in your case lower, but are pricier and take up a lot of room. In the machine I have at the office, I use a , which keeps my K-model CPU plenty cool.
Keep in mind that Intel’s K-model SKylake CPUs don’t ship with coolers in the box, so buying an aftermarket cooler of some sort is required with these CPUs. If attaching an aftermarket cooler feels too risky given your skillset, you can always consider a locked processor for your first build. Non-K model CPUs come with coolers that are (literally) a snap to install, and have thermal paste pre-applied.
PSU: EVGA SuperNOVA G1 650W
Power supplies are one of the least sexy parts of any build. After all, it’s hard to tell them apart in terms of features. EVGA’s SuperNOVA series of modular PSUs are solidly made and come at a reasonable price.
Most power supplies from the bigger names are generally great for a build, but I wouldn’t recommend that you put your money in anything with a warranty of less than five years or a efficiency rating below 80 Plus Gold. This particular PSU comes with an exceptional 10-year warranty.
I personally tend to go with modular PSUs where I can. 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.
Case: Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ITX
There’s a lot of really good mini-ITX cases out there. But for the money, it’s really tough to beat the Enthoo Evolv ITX. It succeeds in offering premium feel, features and appearance for a reasonable price. It’s the case I built my workstation at the office into.
One of the biggest reasons to go with the Evolv is that it can accommodate a full-sized graphics card, to the tune of about 13 inches (330mm). Without this capacity, there’s no way a card like a GTX 1070 would make sense in a mini-ITX build—hell, you can even fit an R9 390 in here if you want (which is what we used prior to the GTX 1070).
The case features a PSU partition that also hides the HDD cage when the windowed side panel is off. Speaking of which, the window is tinted. The tinting helps keep any lights or nonsense inside the case subdued, while still letting you show off the innards of your system. It’s a great compromise for those who would like a windowed case, but can’t stand the bright glare of multicolored LEDs that could signal aircraft.
The Enthoo Evolov ITX has reat integrated cable management as well. A cabling channel, grommeted cable holes and integrated hook-and-loop straps make keeping the rat’s nest effect at a minimum.
Phanteks designed the case with watercooling in mind, so you can always upgrade to a custom loop system in the future.
Fan Hub: Thermaltake Commander FX 10-port Fan Hub
Since I went with an air-cooling option for regulating CPU temperatures, you have to vent out that hot air somewhere. Unfortunately, a mini-ITX motherboard usually isn’t going to give you enough fan pinouts to connect more than one case fan. What is builder to do? Get a fan hub, that’s what.
The Thermaltake Commander FX 10-port hub only supports three-pin fans, which is fine for this situation. After all, the PWM fan connection in this build is being used by the fan on the 212 Evo. Between the included 200mm case fan and the need to install three more 140mm fans, a fan hub was the only effective way to get this done.
This particular hub gets its 12v power from a SATA connector. While it can be a pain having to route the SATA power cable to allow this, it does take some of the strain off of the motherboard.
Note that if you're not planning to do more than run stock clocks, you can leave out the fan hub and extra fans, or at least drop to just one additional fan. We like to keep good airflow, though, and if you get an open air GPU cooling solution as opposed to a blower, we recommend adding another fan.
Fans: 3x Phanteks PH-F140SP_BK 140mm Case Fan
To evacuate all of the warm air that the GPU and CPU generate, you need airflow. To get airflow, you need fans. (If you're using a blower version of the GTX 1070, which most cards are right now, you could get by with fewer fans.)
While the Enthoo Evolv ITX comes with a 200mm intake fan pre-mounted to the front of the case, it doesn’t come with a rear fan at all. This isn’t a huge deal if you’re using a water cooled system and a graphics card with a blower design. But given the part selection of this build, that air needs to get out, pronto.
The case can accommodate a 240mm radiator mounted to its removable top rack, so grabbing a pair of fans to evacuate air out that way is a logical way to go. And the third fan, of course, should be mounted to the rear.
All of these exhaust fans will create some negative pressure. The case has dust filters in place to help keep the system clean, but cleaning should occur more often to ensure that dust doesn’t clog up the filter screens or parts themselves.
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