As much as we write about the best hardware for PC gaming, we don't always have the luxury of owning the best. We use what we have and what we can afford, and inevitably we get attached to our own pieces of PC gear. Some of them are cheap. Others are past their prime, but we don't want to give 'em up. Occassionally we fall in love with a piece of kit that's just great hardware. We do have some taste, after all.
Here are some of our personal favorite bits of PC hardware, and some of our most beloved accessories, from our PC gaming careers. They're not all flashy. They're not even all good. We don't know why Tom still uses that keyboard. But we love them all the same.
Microsoft Sidewinder 3D Pro Plus Joystick
It is not possible to play Tie Fighter without a Sidewinder joystick. Or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. Okay, too far, sure, but as a birthday present I received all three at once, and it’s the potent trio that arguably set the PC gaming hook in my preteen years.
They were the ubiquitous PC peripheral, found in every cool friend’s house, plastered with corn syrup residue and at least one broken button, or spotted through cracked doors in Weird Uncle’s houses—oh, the acrid aroma of sweat and Star Wars!
Speaking of, pulling back on the Sidewinder and watching my Tie Fighter spin upward, phew, I can’t count the times I fell out of my chair backward. It was the first time the controller input didn’t feel like a distant abstraction from the actions I was performing in game. It’s been a long time since I last went Sidewindin’, but I’ll never forget the pitch and yaw in Red Baron, fighting the force feedback for minutes before letting off a proton torpedo into the Deathstar, or pulling off unnecessarily convoluted Darkslides in THPS2 on the moon.
— James Davenport
Intel Core i5-2500K
Is it possible for love to grow between a man and a processor? Can a compact bundle of circuitry ever learn to love? In the end, it doesn’t matter if the love that flows between us is a two way street or unrequited; I’ve never owned a piece of PC hardware that delivered as reliably, so well for so long, as the i5 2500K. Intel’s mid-range Sandy Bridge processor wasn’t its first quad core chip, but this second generation of the “Core” series represented the best price/performance bump in modern PC history. The i5 2500K launched at $215, and offered serious architectural improvements over the previous generation Nehalem chips. And good god, could it overclock.
When I first got my i5-2500K, I overclocked it from 3.3GHz to 4.4GHz, using the ol’ reliable Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO to keep it cool. And it’s stayed like that for nearly five years. My computer slowed down a bit over the years, became cluttered with data cruff, but the CPU never wavered. It was always stable and still delivered fantastic performance in modern games when paired with a newer GPU. And for five years now, PC enthusiasts have greeted each new Intel update with the same refrain: “Is it worth upgrading from the i5-2500K? … Nah. I’ll wait till next year.”
Each processor generation has been better, and with Skylake there are some real chipset reasons to upgrade like faster storage performance. But if you’re waiting for an upgrade to offer the same holy-shit-game-changing increase in performance as Sandy Bridge, you may be waiting for a long, long time.
— Wes Fenlon
Astro A50 Wireless Headset
The Astros are the first gaming headset I’ve really fallen in love with. I’ve always dumped ungodly amounts of my not-so-disposable income into high-end headphones from the likes of B&W, Sennheiser and Grado, but always just for listening to music. It was relocating to America last year that meant I needed a gaming solution. Our apartment is so small that pretty much everything (not that) has to happen in the same small room, which contains the main TV and desktop PC. Enter the A50s. They might not have come out top in our definitive buyer’s guide, but I’ve found them supremely easy to use, crazy comfortable, and so good to listen to that I’m always excited to slip them on.
The build quality is also superb. This is the kind of industrial design that isn’t flashy but still has you running your fingers over it—the plush ear pads, the mic that bends just so—even when you’re not playing. For me they’re the little bear’s porridge of headphones, and I strongly suggest you treat yourself to a pair.
— Tim Clark
Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000 Headset
In the office we’re regularly sent review versions of fancy headsets—and I’ve cycled through a bunch of expensive options from the best manufacturers out there. And you know what? While the audio is categorically better on all of those sweet cans, none of them are as comfortable on my ears as the basic piece-of-crap Microsoft LifeChat headset, which was almost certainly designed as your grandparents’ first headset. I’ve got an oddly large head (like an actor!) and these are the only ones that don’t leave my ears feeling sweaty after use, because they’re so light on the head.
There’s a Plantronics headset I use in the office that’s got far superior audio, but it just tickles my ears a little too much. I do not recommend the LifeChat headset to you over any of those in our buyer’s guide, then, but I really don’t want anything more complicated than this when I’m playing online. In case it wasn’t clear: don’t trust my opinion on headsets.
— Samuel Roberts
Mionix Castor Gaming Mouse
A gaming mouse is by far one of the most difficult purchases you can ever commit to. There’s no way of telling whether you’re going to find the right precision-pointer to fit into your grubby mits. Even every review is in some way biased, and it all revolves back to this age old problem: everyone has different sized hands. Because of that everyone has a different styles for gripping a mouse. Me? I’m a palmer, I like to have my whole hand make contact with the thing, and I like it to feel snug too. On top of that? Well it needs to look stylish, feature some suave RGB lighting and include a soft touch finish.
Say hello then to the Mionix Castor. In my eyes, one of, if not the, best mice I’ve ever used. It feels divine, the side grips aren’t too abrasive, the soft touch finish looks beautiful as all hell and the very simple GUI software lends itself easily to all of my RGB needs. It’s simple, elegantly crafted and phenomenally comfortable and that’s all there is to say about it.
— Zak Storey
Microsoft Wired Keyboard 500
My keyboard is not what you would call “high-end.” In fact, picture “high-end” and then picture whatever you consider to be the exact opposite of that end. You now understand the “end” my keyboard is coming from. But, for the better part of a decade, I’ve been happily gaming on my Microsoft Wired Keyboard 500; a $10 keyboard from 2005 that my parents bought for our household PC. It’s a membrane keyboard with a PS/2 plug, but I love it to death and I have no interest in upgrading as long as the keys aren’t literally falling off as I type.
It’s not that I haven’t had the opportunity to upgrade, I’ve had plenty. But I’ve grown so accustomed to the feel and spacing of the keys that any time I use a different keyboard, I can feel how much slower I type and how much worse I play. Of course I’d get used to a new keyboard eventually, but I’ve taken such good care of this one that it’s barely showing any signs of wear, so why bother learning? There are absolutely better options, and I know this because I use a Corsair K70 in the office—potentially the best gaming keyboard currently available. And you know what? I like my Microsoft Wired Keyboard 500 just as much. Call me old fashioned or sentimental, but I’ll stick with my $10 hand-me-down keyboard over your $100 one any day.
Plus, it’s got a button that pulls up the calculator program instantly. Think of the convenience.
— Tom Marks
I’m cheating a bit with this one because it’s not a piece of hardware, but there’s nothing I consider more vital to my life in front of computers than the application f.lux. As the f.lux website states, “During the day, computer screens look good—they're designed to look like the sun. But, at 9PM, 10PM, or 3AM, you probably shouldn't be looking at the sun. f.lux makes your computer screen look like the room you're in, all the time. When the sun sets, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights. In the morning, it makes things look like sunlight again.”
If you use a computer screen past about 5 pm without f.lux, you have no idea how much that harsh blue light is punishing your eyes. f.lux mimics natural light by giving your screen an orange tint automatically, determined by your location. It looks weird at first, and takes a few days to acclimate to. But as soon as you turn it off at night, you’ll feel like your monitor is actually trying to melt your eyeballs right out of their sockets. f.lux has saved me from headaches, helped me sleep better after late night computing. It’s one of the first things I install on every single PC I use. And it’s free. Utterly essential.
— Wes Fenlon
1 TB Seagate External Backup Drive
Years ago I smartly decided having all my precious files in one place was a bad idea. What if my hard drive died, or there was a fire, or a leak, or a theft, or some other disaster in which I lost my hard drive? So, I purchased a 1 TB Seagate external drive and promised I’d make regular monthly backups of all of my stuff, and store the drive someplace like a firesafe box.
I kept my promise for almost one month. Meaning, I backed up my data exactly once, the day I bought the drive. Since then, the drive has sat on my desk roughly six inches from the hard drive it’s supposed to be backing up. This was about four years ago, so whatever data is actually on it is severely outdated. I never once put it in a firesafe box, so if something happens in my office like a fire, flood, or theft, the Seagate will mostly likely suffer the exact same fate as my PC within the space of a few seconds. Despite never once moving it, I still somehow managed to lose the power plug, and I have this weird fear that if I use the wrong power plug to power something, it will immediately explode in a fireball, killing me. So, I haven’t ever even tried to turn it back on or use it again.
In other words, I have a shiny black brick on my desk that has old data on it that I can’t access and is just as susceptible to disasters as my PC. It’s nice looking, though. Sometimes I rest a mug of coffee on it.
— Chris Livingston