Build Guide: the extreme gaming PC

Congratulations! You've just (choose one) won the lotto / received your inheritance / started a new six-figure job / robbed a bank. What should you do with the wad of money burning a hole in your wallet? Build a new dream PC, naturally. And since you're presumably rolling in the money, the still-elevated prices on graphics cards (not to mention SSDs and memory) aren't really a problem. But if money is a concern, you might want to wait a bit longer to see if GPU prices become more reasonable.

If you're looking for the best overall value for building a new gaming PC, you're in the wrong place. But sometimes you need to put games in their place. Forget about turning down the settings, lowering the resolution, or any other compromises. You want to build a PC to rival PC Gamer's Large Pixel Collider (minus the decorative fluff). Whether it's 4K 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.

But this PC isn't purely built for gaming. Yes, it will run every game you care to throw at it, typically at maximum quality and 4k. But it will also help you jumpstart your budding career as a YouTube streamer, software developer, CAD/CAM modeller, or any other job that requires as much PC power as possible. An extreme gaming PC can do anything else you might need—it just happens to handle games really well.

Our high-end gaming PC is no slouch, but we can go higher, 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.

Intel's Coffee Lake and AMD's Ryzen processors are great CPUs, but we're pulling out all the stops. That means Intel's Skylake-X Core i9-7900X gets the nod as the fastest 'reasonable' CPU around, particularly when it comes to gaming. 10-core processors certainly aren't necessary for games, never mind the even more insane 18-core i9-7890XE, but a 10-core Intel CPU running at 4.5-4.7GHz is arguably the sweet spot for extreme performance.

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 Ti cards for SLI, which puts the price tag at the time of writing a bit north of $5,000 / £4,600. Note that a display, keyboard, and mouse are not included in our build guides—but those links give our recommendations for each category.

Extreme Gaming Components

CPU: Intel Core i9-7900X

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 Core i5/i7 or Ryzen 5/7 build, there are a couple of places where you come up short. First is core and thread counts. 6-core/12-thread has been around since 2010, and while 8-core/16-thread at less than $500 is a nice though, 10-core and beyond is now available. We're going with a 'moderate' choice with the i9-7900X, but you could easily swap in the i9-7920X, i9-7940X, i9-7960X, or i9-7980XE. It's really only a question of how much you're willing to spend and whether the applications you depend on will scale to that mane cores/threads.

The other deficit is in PCI Express lanes. AMD and Intel's mainstream AM4 and LGA1151 platforms top out at 16 Gen3 lanes from the processor, with four more lanes for the chipset. If you run multiple GPUs, they'll end up using x8 connections. It's not going to be a huge hindrance to performance, but when you're putting together a dream machine, every little bit counts. Intel's Core i9 processors more than double the number of PCIe lanes off the CPU, providing room for future growth.

What about AMD's Threadripper 1950X, which will give you 16-cores/32-threads for the same price as the i9-7900X? It's a viable option for professional work, but when it comes to gaming, we've found many games simply don't like the added latency and slower per-core performance of Ryzen. The Ryzen 7 1800X actually ends up faster in nearly every game we've tested, and yet Ryzen performance with a single 1080 Ti raises some concerns. If you're serious about buying a pair of GTX 1080 Ti cards, do yourself a favor and stick with Intel CPUs. Maybe Ryzen 2 will address the shortcomings next year, but for now Intel remains the best gaming CPU company.

Motherboard: Gigabyte X299 Aorus Gaming 9

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 Gigabyte X299 Aorus Gaming 9 is the proverbial everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to motherboards, with a sweet set of features. We had mixed feelings about the 'auto-overclocking' with our initial testing, but if you're building an enthusiast PC, getting stock performance of 4.5GHz on all 10 cores is great, and 4.7GHz with a good cooler was also possible. The X299 Aorus Gaming 9 also includes three M.2 slots, 802.11ac WiFi, dual gigabit Ethernet, RGB lighting, five reinforced x16 PCIe slots (though you'll need to pay attention to lane allocations, depending on your CPU choice), and more.

The only catch is the sticker shock, as this is a $500 motherboard. Gigabyte's X299 Aorus Gaming 3/5/7 motherboards drop a few of the features, with the Gaming 3 coming in at $280 without all of the bells and whistles. Asus and MSI also offer multiple X299 boards at various prices, but for an extreme build the Gigabyte Aorus board is an impressive tour de force.

Graphics Cards: 2 x GeForce GTX 1080 Ti

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. The 1080 Ti is the fastest 'mainstream' card, and it can mostly handle 4K ultra at 60 fps. The Titan Xp takes things just a little further, but with a substantial jump in price. It's mostly about bragging rights at this point.

More than anything else in an extreme gaming PC, the graphics card—or cards—matter. In sticking with our 'not entirely insane' mantra, We've elected to go with the GTX 1080 Ti rather than the Titan Xp, since the latter costs nearly twice as much and is only about 5 percent faster. If you really want an SLI Titan Xp build, though, have at it!

We've intentionally left the specific model of GTX 1080 Ti up to the user, because all of the 1080 Ti 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 keep temps and noise lower 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 5-10 percent to gaming performance over stock. If you want to increase clock speeds, most 1080 Ti 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 Ti 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. For the Gigabyte board, that means you'll want to use the first and third PCIe slots with a 4-slot bridge. That provides more breathing room for the top card, though it leaves only the bottom PCIe slot easily accessible.

What about 3-way or 4-way SLI? Forget about it. Nvidia appears to have abandoned such configurations, and only a few games and benchmarks ever worked well with 3/4 GPUs.

Memory: Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-2667 32GB Kit (4x8GB)

You could definitely put more memory into this build (up to 128GB), but for gaming 4x8GB DDR4-2667 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.

Unfortunately, RAM prices have jumped quite a bit since last summer, due to increased demand from the smartphone industry (and perhaps some collusion among RAM manufacturers to increase profits). The net result is that memory kits that cost $150 last year now cost $250-$300. Ouch. Shop arounds and get whatever brand fits your needs best.

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.

Will this crazy SSD actually make your PC feel faster? If you're copying files or installing games (or verifying Steam installs), yes. But it's definitely an extravagance, so it's one area where you could definitely get by with something less extreme.

Mass Storage: Samsung 850 Evo 2TB SATA

Yeah, only 2TB of SATA storage for the secondary drive. We were 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 we'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: Corsair AX1500i

A wise man once told us 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.

When it comes to power supplies, the Corsair AX1500i is one of the best around, with a fully digitally controlled design and monitoring software as a bonus. But that's not the main selling point, which is the 1500W of clean power at up to 94 percent efficiency. And you'll need most of that, as the i9-7900X and motherboard can draw around 400W under load, and each GTX 1080 Ti is 250W—more if you run the CPU and GPU overclocked, which is sort of the point of an extreme build.

If you only plan to run a single GPU, or a lower tier CPU (like the i7-7800X), EVGA's SuperNOVA 850 T2 is a great alternative that will save some money. If you want to save even more the SuperNOVA 850 P2 costs about $50 / £50 less and is every bit as good.

Case: Phanteks Enthoo Luxe (Tempered Glass)

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.

More importantly, there's now a tempered glass version of the case. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever!" 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. We 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 enthusiast chips, and the new Skylake-X processors recommend liquid cooling as a minimum.

Corsair's H115i is an impressive piece of kit, and since Intel made LGA2066 cooling compatible with LGA2011, you don't need to worry about a new mounting solution (which won't be the case with Threadripper). 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.

But even with the H115i, you may run into thermal limitations. If you're serious about pushing the i9-7900X to its limits, you'll want to consider going with a fully custom liquid cooling loop. That's beyond the scope of this buying guide, but know that even a good AIO cooler likely won't allow maximum overclocks with Skylake-X.

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