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. 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.
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, thanks to prices dropping on the GTX 1080, 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. Similarly, gaming at 4K is best reserved for builds sporting one or more higher-end GTX 1080 Ti GPUs.
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 i5-7600K
With the arrival of Kaby Lake, we now have more options to choose from when it comes to the processor. There's the i5-6600K we previously used, the newcomer i5-7600K, the higher performance i7-6700K and i7-7700K, and potentially the i3-7350K if you're looking to save a bit of money. We ruled out the last one as the price and features come up short, along with Core i7 as the extra money rarely pays off in gaming, leaving Core i5. When checking prices, we found the Kaby Lake Core i5-7600K is basically the same price (within a few dollars) of its Skylake predecessor. Combined with the extra 300MHz you get from the newer chip, the i5-7600K an easy choice.
The 7600K is a speedy quad-core that offers impressive overclocking abilities. With a base clock of 3.8GHz and 4.2GHz turbo, it's the highest clocked Core i5 Intel has ever released. With overclocking we were able to push even further, topping out at 4.9GHz (others report 4.9-5.1GHz as typical for liquid cooling). And when both are overclocked, the difference between the i5-7600K and the more expensive i7-7700K in gaming performance is pretty minute.
There are only three big differences that most people need to know about when choosing between the i5-7600K and the i7-7700K. The i7 has higher stock base and turbo clocks, though this can be compensated for with even conservative overclocks. If you’re not comfortable with overclocking, you can rest easy knowing that the 7600K’s base clock of 3.8GHz is plenty fast for gaming purposes.
Second, the 7600K has 6MB of cache while the 7700K has 8MB. That means the i7 can store 33 percent more data than the i5 before the CPU has to reach out to the RAM. This typically means that at the same clockspeed, even without the extra threads (see below), the 7700K would be a few percent faster.
Finally, and most importantly, the i5-7600K doesn’t offer Hyper-Threading support while the i7-7700K does. In a typical processor, you only have one thread per physical core. With Hyper-Threading, each core gets two threads (each thread is treated as its own logical processor by software). As a result, Windows sees the 7600K as a 4-core part while the 7700K can be treated as an 8-core. All of this doesn’t matter much for games, which rarely make use of more than 2-4 threads, though at least a few DX12 games are showing benefits from additional CPU cores.
If the choice comes down to spending more money on the CPU versus putting that cash into a faster graphics card, for gaming the GPU is nearly always the better choice. We wouldn't go so far as to pair a top-end graphics card with a budget CPU, but the Core i5 can handle just about any single GPU you're likely to throw at it.
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.
Prices for the GTX 1080 have dropped significantly since post-launch scarcity became less of an issue. With the advent of the GTX 1080 Ti, prices of the entire GTX 10-series of cards have dropped even further. This makes the GTX 1080 a much better value than at launch, with cards available for around $500, sometimes even cheaper on sale. It's also managed to largely avoid the cryptocurrency scarcity that is currently driving up prices on mid-range GPUs.
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.
Motherboard: MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon
MSI's Gaming Pro Carbon is an excellent midrange board that offers excellent performance and great features at an affordable price. The Z170 variant was a long-time top pick in our motherboard guide, and the Z270 version we're using here only improves upon things, with double the number of M.2 slots, more USB 3.1 ports, and bumping the audio to Realtek's ALC1220 codec. Styling-wise, you can keep things calm due to the board's neutral colors, or go all-out with MSI's RGB LED Mystic Light implementation.
On the performance side, the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon is hard to beat. In our extensive motherboard testing, the Gaming Pro Carbon is the lowest-cost motherboard to overclock the sample Kaby Lake i7-7700K processor used in testing to 5 GHz. We're only using an i5-7600K in this build, but this board will be able to overclock it well all the same.
Building with the board also proves satisfying, as the previously unused area along the right edge is now populated with components, relaxing the tight layout considerably. Connectors for the CPU fan, system fan, and 1151 socket power all have improved access, for example, so your knuckles and fingertips will thank you. The only drawback is it doesn't have Wi-Fi or Bluetooth built in, so you'll need a USB Wi-Fi adapter if you aren't planning on connecting via Ethernet.
Memory: 16GB (2x8GB) G.Skill Ripjaws V Series DDR4
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. This is one of the reasons we went with G.Skil’s Ripjaws V Series. G.Skill’s Ripjaws (like Corsair’s Vengeance LPX, Crucial’s Ballistix, Kingston HyperX, and others) is one of the core memory brands that most people should go to, and 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, so we aren't going to make a specific clockspeed recommendation, but it’s good to get a kit that’s above the slowest speed, 2133MHz. Unfortunately, DDR4 prices have been rising in the last few months, 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 clockspeed is cheapest at the time, and remember that sometimes tighter timings are more important than raw bandwidth.
Storage: Intel 600p 512GB 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 all around the same price point. Our primary recommendation is a 512GB Intel 600p M.2 SSD. It's a low-end pick, as far as NVMe drives are concerned—especially compared to the ultra-luxe Samsung 960 Pro, but it also costs half as much. M.2/NVMe drives are the cream-of-the-crop when it comes to storage speed, so even a budget M.2 drive delivers on performance in a big way.
The 512GB Intel 600p is our pick for best budget NVMe SSD. At around $170, it generally beats the similarly-priced Samsung 850 EVO—a long-standing mainstay in the SSD game—though it is a tad bit slower when it comes to random Writes. 512GB gives you more than enough room for your OS and a handful of games, and we really can't stress enough how nice it is spending as little time as possible on loading screens.
Alternatively, for around the same price you could pair a 250GB Samsung 960 EVO (~$130) with a 1TB HDD (~$50). The 960 EVO will load your OS and whatever games you can fit on it even faster than the 600p, but with game sizes often ballooning above 50GB these days, you won't have room to install more than a handful at a time. The 1TB HDD picks up the slack in that regard, but it means any games installed there will load on the slower side of things.
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo
As much as we love all-in-one water coolers, sometimes we need a slap to the face: "Hey stupid, there are really great air coolers out there too!" The Hyper 212 is one of those coolers, and 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.
Keep in mind that Intel’s K-model Kaby Lake 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.
If you're willing to spend a bit more, a nice AIO liquid cooler is a worthy investment, especially if you're planning on overclocking the 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: EVGA SuperNOVA 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 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.
We personally 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.
Case: NZXT S340
The NZXT S340 offers a lot for a mid-tower that's pretty well priced. It has enough room for all your components, including space for two full size hard drives and two SSDs, and even gives you room for water cooling (up to a 240mm radiator) if you want it. We aren't using a ton of that space with the components we've chosen here, but it's nice having extra space to assemble your parts in, especially for first-time builders.
Cable management is good thanks to ample room behind the NZXT vertical strut, and anyone with some zip ties and half a brain about them could easily wrangle their power cables. That said, we're recommending a modular PSU to save on the mess.
As noted in our guide to the best ATX mid-tower cases, we've built several PCs using the S340 and love it. The clean look goes well on any desk and doesn't obnoxiously stand out like many so-called "gaming cases." The plastic feels like quality high-gloss stuff, not the kind of bullshit you'd find on a no-name brand case.
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