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PC build guide: Recommended mid-range gaming PC

Great performance for a reasonable price

Pc Build Guide Mid Range Recommended Header

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. As time passes, price begin to fall. What was yesterday’s top-tier performer can be found in the bargain bin tomorrow. With the coming of the Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 1070, this will definitely ring true. 

We have three different recommended builds here at PC Gamer, each with their own price target. For the gamer who needs a budget system, we shoot for $700. This midrange system aims for a more capable $1,300, while our high-end system delivers yet more power for $2,000. 

The midrange PC is designed to give high marks for 1080p gaming, while still being able to touch 1440p gaming at medium settings. 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 tasks you’ll need to spend more for the CPU that can deliver on those tasks. 

Since the video card plays such a pivotal role in building a gaming PC, I really have to say this piece of advice: If you’re looking to buy a new video card, this is a very, very bad time to do it. The GTX 1070 is due to is due to hit retail next month, so the wise builder will hold on to their horses and wait for it, especially since the price will be about on par with the GTX 970’s price now. 

With that said, the rest of the build will remain about the same once that graphics card ships. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Components

CPU: Intel Core i5-6600K - $240

GPU: Sapphire Nitro R9 390 - $340

Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170N-Gaming 5 - $145

Memory: 16GB (2x8GB) G.Skill Ripjaws V Series DDR4-2400 - $50

SSD: 250GB Samsung 850 Evo 2.5-inch SATA - $85

HDD: 2TB WD Black 7200RPM 3.5-inch SATA - $122

CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo - $30

PSU: EVGA SuperNOVA G1 650W - $78

Case: Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ITX - $70

Fan Hub: Thermaltake Commander FX 10-port Fan Hub - $13

Fans: 3x Phanteks PH-F140SP_BK 140mm - $51 ($17 ea.)

Total: $1,224

CPU: Intel Core i5-6600K

Price: $240 at Amazon

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, the 6600K actually offered more overclocking gains 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: Sapphire Nitro R9 390 OC

Price: $340 at Newegg

The R9 390 is an interesting piece of hardware that seems to fill a particular niche quite well. Packed with a whopping 8GB of VRAM, the R9 390 costs just a little more than Nvidia’s GTX 970. The card’s pixel-pushing ability is about on par as well, landing somewhere between the GTX 970 and GTX 980 in terms of performance.

All of that VRAM matters, too. While the R9 390 isn’t the GPU that will deliver 4K gaming, it lands well above the bar for Oculus VR’s minimum recommended spec and above Doom’s recommended 5GB of VRAM.  This particular card, the Sapphire Nitro, is a big card. At 12.1 inches (307mm) long, this card requires some space to live and breathe.

While I do really like the R9 390 for the role it plays in the mid-range GPU game, this will all change with the Nvidia’s GTX 1070 that’s due out next month. The 1070 will likely be priced to compete with the likes of the 390, but promises to completely blow it out of the water. That means until the GTX 1070 launches, I really have to recommend that builders not go out and buy a graphics card at this time. This is really the worst possible time to buy a graphics card.

If you have to build now, wait a month on the graphics card.

Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170N-Gaming 5

Price: $145 at Amazon

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

Price: $50 at Newegg

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. Most users won’t see the advantages of memory with sky-high clocks, but it’s good to get a kit that’s above the starting indicator too. At 2400MHz, these 8GB sticks do just fine for gaming applications. 

From what I’ve learned building, most name-brands offer pretty darn good memory. If you do happen to get a bad module, they are easily replaced with an RMA. Memory prices change often, so you can always find a deal near this price point.

SSD: 250GB Samsung 850 Evo 2.5-inch SATA

Price: $85 at Amazon

The Samsung 850 Evo is the yardstick that all other SSDs are measured against. 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 have been coming down over the past year.

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 the M.2 version is significantly more expensive (by about $40) 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.

HDD: 2TB WD Black 7200RPM 3.5-inch SATA

Price: $122 at Newegg

Coming from the world of SSDs, even the speedy WD Black will feel slow. But unfortunately, multi-terabyte SSDs are still really quite expensive for most users. When it comes to keeping Steam backups or music files tucked away, spinning platters are still where it’s at.

The good thing about hard drives is that even the top performers are pretty damn cheap nowadays. A 1TB WD black usually runs around $72 or so, and Seagate’s offerings can be even cheaper. The reason I tend to go with Western Digital Blacks is the warranty: The bare WD Black drives come with a 5-year warranty, while Seagate’s retail boxed 2TB Barracudas only come with a 2-year warranty. As someone who’s had to send a failed hard drive off to a data recovery lab, I’ll take the hit to the wallet for the warranty. (I’m also now the first to advocate for backups either to a NAS or an external drive as well.)

CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo

Price: $30 at Amazon

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 Corsair H80i v2, 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

Price: $78 at Amazon

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.

If you’ve got a minute, be sure to read this article on what to look for in a PSU.

Case: Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ITX

Price: $70 at Amazon

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. And 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 monster like the Nitro R9 390 would make sense in a mini-ITX build.

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 to it. 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

Price: $13 at Amazon

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.

Fans: 3x Phanteks PH-F140SP_BK 140mm Case Fan

Price: $51 at ($17 ea.) at Newegg

To evacuate all of the warm air that the R9 390 and the CPU will be dumping into the case, you need airflow. To get airflow, you need 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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A note on affiliates: some of our stories, like this one, include affiliate links to stores like Amazon. These online stores share a small amount of revenue with us if you buy something through one of these links, which helps support our work evaluating PC components.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex first built a PC so he could play Quake III Arena as a young lad, and he's been building desktop PCs ever since. A Marine vet with a background in computer science, Alex is into FOSS and Linux, and dabbles in the areas of security and encryption. When he's not looking up console Linux commands or enjoying a dose of Windows 10-induced schadenfreude, he plays with fire in his spare time.
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