Build Guide: the extreme gaming PC

We need more power, so we picked the best parts for building an extreme gaming system.

Sometimes you need to put games in their place. Forget about compromises like turning down the settings or lowering the resolution. You want to build a PC to rival PC Gamer's Large Pixel Collider, but without all the decorative fluff. Whether it's 4K 60Hz gaming or 1440p 144Hz, all running at the highest quality you're likely to see this side of 2018, you're ready to join the upper echelons of gaming hardware.

PC build guides

The best cheap gaming PC (<$500/£500) - Our alternative to buying a console.
The best budget gaming PC (~$750/£750) - A good entry-level system.
The best gaming PC (~$1,250/£1,250) - Our recommended midrange build for most gamers.
The best high-end gaming PC (~$2,000/£2,000) - Everything a gamer could want.
The best extreme gaming PC (>$3,000/£3,000) - You won the lotto and are going all-in on gaming.

Of course, you don't need to pitch the PC as a gaming build to the significant others in your life. Maybe you're building up your livestream YouTube and Twitch audience, or you need to do some real work like video editing, graphic design, or software development. The fact is an extreme gaming PC can do anything else you might need—it just happens to handle games really well.

With the holidays now upon us, there are plenty of great deals to be had. Our high-end gaming PC is no slouch, but we can do better, and with some new components and a focus on pushing things to the next level, we're ready to assemble a PC most people only dream about. If you're looking for less extreme options, check out our other build guides on the right.

You can see the regional pricing for the components we selected in the above table, which will update in real time. Remember that you'll need two GTX 1080 cards for SLI, which puts the price tag at the time of writing at around $4,000 / £3,800. That price reflects some current sales, but those come and go on the various components and we expect the overall price to be relatively consistent, trending slowly downward over time. Note that a display, keyboard, and mouse are not included in our build guides—follow those links for our recommendations in those categories.

Extreme Gaming Components

CPU: Intel Core i7-6850K

For most gamers, we shy away from Intel's so-called 'enthusiast' platforms, sticking instead with the mainstream offerings. While you can usually get everything you need from a Skylake + Z170 build, the one area where you come up short is in PCI Express lanes. Z170 tops out at 16 Gen3 lanes from the processor, with four more DMI 3.0 lanes for the Z170 chipset. If you want to run multiple GPUs, they'll end up using x8 connections—unless you buy a more expensive motherboard that includes a PLX chip, but even that doesn't fully overcome the PCIe lane limitation.

Getting more PCIe lanes is also why we opt for the Core i7-6850K over the i7-6800K, and while the CPUs perform similarly when overclocked, the extra lanes actually do make a difference when you're running dual GPUs—particularly of the GTX 1080 variety. How much of a difference depends on the game, but you don't normally go into an extreme PC build with the intention of giving up ground in ways that could be easily avoided.

We've argued both sides of the X99 vs. Z170 debate, but ultimately there's only one choice for our dreamlike build, and that's going to be 50 percent more cores and twice as many PCIe lanes (from the CPU) thanks to Broadwell-E. And while there's definitely a benefit in some games—we've seen differences of up to 20 percent compared to a Skylake platform when running GTX 1080 SLI—the additional cores are even more useful when it comes to other tasks.

Do you want to live stream a game without dropping frames? Or are you a budding videographer with a decent camera? Maybe you're hoping to become the next indie gaming sensation and you need a good PC for software development. Whatever your plan, the i7-6850K can outperform an i7-6700K by 25 percent or more in applications that put the extra cores to good use. It's no surprise that our own PC gaming benchmark system uses hardware very similar to this build.

And yes, if you really need more cores the i7-6900K and i7-6950X are potential upgrades, but they won't be any faster in gaming performance, so I opted to stick with the 'affordable' Broadwell-E processor.

Motherboard: MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon

If the CPU is the brains of your new PC, the motherboard is the nervous system and other vital organs that actually keeps things running smoothly. Skimp on a motherboard at your own peril—especially when using multiple graphics cards. The MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon has a sweet set of features and runs rock-solid. Among the more interesting inclusions is support for both M.2 and U.2 connections for SSDs—so if you want one of Intel's SSD 750 2.5-inch drives, this board can use it. It also has manual overclocking buttons to tweak performance on the fly, assuming the board is in a place where accessing the buttons isn't too difficult.

The carbon fiber aspect of the motherboard probably isn't that important, but it adds a nice aesthetic. Perhaps more importantly, black goes with just about anything, so you can use the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon with red, blue, white, green, or whatever lighting. And speaking of lighting, the board also has RBG lights that you can configure from within Windows.

About the only thing you might miss is built-in wireless networking, but you're running wired gigabit Ethernet, right? I also would have preferred a second M.2 slot instead of U.2—there's really only a single viable U.2 option right now, and the market is moving away from that standard. Besides, M.2 to U.2 adapters exist, whereas U.2 to M.2 don't (at present). You could potentially go with an Intel SSD 750 U.2 drive instead of the 960 Pro, but they're generally more expensive and slightly slower so unless price changes that's not something I recommend.

Graphics Cards: 2 x GeForce GTX 1080

Titan alternative

There have been enough high-profile games with lackluster multi-GPU support during the past year that some people will prefer running a single GPU. For the same price as a pair of GTX 1080 cards, you can pick up the new Titan X. It will be quite a bit slower in games where SLI works well, but faster in games that don't ... and you won't have to worry about the idiosyncrasies of SLI, like micro stutter.

More than anything else in an extreme gaming PC, the graphics card—or cards—matter. In sticking with my 'not entirely insane' mantra, I've elected to go with the GTX 1080 rather than the Titax X (Pascal), since the latter costs twice as much and is only about 20-25 percent faster. If you really want an SLI Titan X build, though, have at it! Or wait for the inevitable GTX 1080 Ti rumored to be coming in January 2017.

I've intentionally left the specific model of GTX 1080 up to the user, because all of the 1080 cards fall within a narrow performance spectrum. For an SLI build, some people prefer blower coolers that vent heat out of the case, while others are fine with large open air coolers, and still others like liquid cooling and will want a hybrid card. All of those are viable options, though the larger open air coolers often cool a bit better than blowers (provided you have a large case with other fans helping out).

Overclocking is definitely possible with any of the 1080 cards, and if nothing else you should use EVGA's Precision X OC software or MSI's Afterburner to increase the power limit of your GPU to the maximum—it's a quick and easy way to add an extra five percent to gaming performance over stock. If you want to increase clock speeds, most 1080 cards top out in the 1.9-2.0GHz range, unless you go with liquid cooling.

Extra Graphics Stuff: Nvidia HB SLI Bridge

You'll also need an HB SLI bridge if you want to get the most out of a GTX 1080 SLI build. The high-end GP104/GP102 Pascal GPUs support two SLI connectors and can use both concurrently. In testing, using two of the old ribbon cables or one of the hard SLI bridges drops performance 5-10 percent compared to the HB SLI bridge (slightly more at 4K). Just make sure you get the appropriate spacing on the HB SLI bridge—2-slot (no gap between dual-slot graphics cards), 3-slot (one extra slot between the cards) or 4-slot (two extra slots between the cards) bridges are available. Unless you have other plans, I recommend getting a 4-slot bridge as that provides more breathing room for the top card.

Memory: Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-2400 32GB Kit (4x8GB)

You could definitely put more memory into this build (up to 128GB), but for gaming 4x8GB DDR4-2400 is more than sufficient. Corsair makes good memory, and G.Skill, Kingston, and Crucial are safe picks as well. RAM has reached the point where most modules work well, so it's often a question of price—and color, if that's your thing—rather than miniscule performance differences. Higher clocked DDR4 might add a few percent to the overall performance, but the money would be better spent on a faster CPU or GPU, or a larger SSD.

Primary Storage: Samsung 960 Pro 1TB M.2 NVMe

An extreme build like this needs equally extreme storage, and the fastest SSDs are M.2 NVMe drives. Of those, Samsung's 960 Pro rises to the top, beating the previous generation 950 Pro and Intel SSD 750 by up to 10 percent. More importantly, the 960 Pro is available in 1TB and 2TB capacities, along with 512GB. If you really want a ton of fast storage, the 2TB 960 Pro costs about as much as a complete high-end gaming PC, though it's generally out of stock right now.

Mass Storage: Samsung 850 Evo 2TB SATA

I know, only 2TB of SATA storage for the secondary drive. I was trying to be somewhat reasonable, but if you really want to go whole hog, check out the 4TB 850 Evo—and maybe pair up several of them in RAID for good measure. In testing, the 850 Evo 2TB is nearly as fast as the 850 Pro 2TB, mostly because few people will hit storage hard enough for long enough to cause the write performance of the 850 Evo to drop. You could always add a few 10TB HDDs as well, but I'd personally recommend a good NAS with 10GbE rather than adding HDDs to your main PC—because spinning disks are the opposite of extreme performance.

Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA 850 T2

A wise man once told me to never underestimate the power of the dark supply. Or something like that. The point is, you don't want a crappy PSU taking down the rest of your rig, and when you're putting together the best PC possible that means getting an equally bodacious power supply. The top of the heap is 80 Plus Titanium, and it may be some time before we see anything more efficient. EVGA's SuperNOVA 850 T2 is one of the best power supplies around, building on the legacy of their equally impressive P2 line. If you want to save a bit of money, though, the SuperNOVA 850 P2 costs about $50 / £50 less and is every bit as good.

Case: Phanteks Enthoo Luxe

Phanteks is a relative newcomer to the PC case scene, with their first Enthoo Primo case debuting in mid-2013. They've since expanded the Enthoo line, and all of the Phanteks cases look great and are highly functional. The Enthoo Luxe has been around a couple of years now, and it remains an excellent choice for a high-end build, with plenty of room for liquid cooling radiators and reservoirs—you can stuff up to four radiators into the case if you're so inclined. Assembly is easy, and the window lets you show off your build, not to mention the RGB lighting.

There are many options for extreme cases, so mostly it comes down to personal preference. I like the Enthoo Luxe, but other great cases include the Corsair Carbide Air 540, Graphite 760T, and Obsidian 750D; the Phanteks Evolv and Primo; Thermaltake Core X71; NZXT Switch 810, Cooler Master Pro 5, and Rosewill Blackhawk—to name just a few alternatives. All of these should also support the large H115i radiator, with room to spare.

CPU Cooling: Corsair Hydro H115i

This rig has a beastly CPU, and yes, it needs overclocking. Liquid cooling is highly recommended when you're trying to get the most out of Intel's Broadwell-E chips, and Corsair's H115i is an extremely impressive piece of kit. It features a large 280mm radiator with a pair of 140mm fans, and once everything is installed having a small waterblock on your CPU instead of a massive air cooler makes things look much cleaner. You'll need a large case capable of housing the radiator, naturally, which we already took care of above.

Some online stores give us a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Read our affiliate policy for more info.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jarred got his start with computers on a Commodore 64, where he has fond memories of playing the early AD&D Gold Box games from SSI. After spending time studying computer science and working in the IT industry, he discovered a knack for journalism, which he’s been doing for more than a decade. This enables him to play with (aka “test”) all of the latest and greatest hardware; it’s a tough life, but someone has to do it. For science.
We recommend