Tue, Nov 10, 2009
Whether you’re looking to dodge Big Daddy in Bioshock, mow down Nazis in Castle Wolfenstein or trade, fight and live in WoW, the chances are that you will need a new rocket-ship of a PC.
Our guide is here to help you choose the best gaming computer for your budget and your needs.
Do I DIY it?
This is all about cold hard cash, and how much of it you have; for those on a limited budget, building your own PC is an ideal way to get exactly what you need for less and gain some useful experience in putting together computers.
Building your own computer is surprisingly simple; once you have bought your components you only need a few screwdrivers to screw the case together and fix the components together.
Component prices fall fast so choosing a slightly older sound card might be a better choice if it means you can spend more on a knock-out graphics card.
For those with a little more money to spend, getting a customised PC will get you a mean machine that looks cool.
Whatever your choice the following look at the hardware that makes your PC fly, will help you decide on what you want in your computer.
What CPU do I need?
The tiny beating heart of your machine is the CPU. The market is dominated by Intel and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices). Intel make the Pentium and Celeron processor models, while AMD have the Athlon and Sempron series.
The CPU speed is measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz), and this is known as the clock speed. Intel® and AMD are not strictly equivalent however and a slower AMD can still match a faster Intel.
Quad core™ processors, with four microprocessors instead of two, are needed if you’re playing large games and will become increasingly vital. AMD’s most popular range is Phenom II X4 while Intel® has the Core i7 range.
DIYers should remember that certain CPUs only fit certain motherboards, so check that the socket types match.
What graphics and sound cards do I need?
The graphics card market is also dominated with two key players; ATI’s Radeon range and nVidia with their Geforce range.
The fill rate is the speed at which the card renders and writes an image, normally given in megapixels or gigapixels a second. For onboard memory 512Mb is the minimum for a decent gaming set-up.
A VGA (Video Graphics Array) is the standard connection from your computer to your display, although HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) is taking over. A S-Video port will allow you to connect to a TV – see our guide to setting up a home cinema.
Every PC comes with basic integrated audio output, but to get the most from your games you have to consider getting a new sound card. Integrated cards can slow down your CPU and suffer from interference.
Sound cards will be rated by channels, with 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound a good starting point. See our home cinema guide for more information. Sample rate is a measure of audio resolution – CDs are sampled at 44.1KHz (or 44100Hz), meaning there are 44100 portions of sound stored for each second of audio.
When played back the human ear recognizes this as sound, so the higher the sample rate for a sound card, the “smoother” the sound. The bit rate of a sound card refers to the amount of information stored in each individual chunk of sound.
CDs are recorded in 16-bit with a sampling rate of 44.1KHz, so any card with base specifications above that will be able to handle CD-quality playback. A good starting point for a crystal clear gaming sound will be a 24-bit card with a 96KHz sampling rate.
What hard drive and memory do I need?
When buying memory, either as a component or when ordering a pre built machine, get the maximum you can afford. Games take up a lot; Bioshock needs 2Gb of memory (RAM) and 8Gb of hard disk space.
Hard drives come rated by speed and size; with 7,200 rpm and 500Gb memory enough for most machines. RAID configurations allows you to hook up multiple hard drives for better performance.
What monitor do I need?
CRT is dead long live LCD!
LCD monitors are lighter, easier on the eye because they don’t flicker, and use less power. There have been problems with the angles at which they can be comfortably viewed and ghosting – where fast moving images blur – but many new models are overcoming this.
For gaming you need a good response rate – the speed at which the pixel can change – normally measured in milliseconds. The contrast ratio governs how sharp the colours look on the screen – 4,000:1 is a good ratio.
These however are factory optimum measurements, and screens can differ substantially depending on the ambient light that will be hitting your screen.
Screen size is measured diagonally just like TVs, there are numerous screen variants, with TN Panels normally being the cheapest, though they can still make good game screens.
Any other questions?
Sorry I can’t hear you. That’s because if you’ve shelled out for the best components then chances are that the multiple cooling fans will make a lot of noise. There are two main alternatives, a bigger fan – which spins slower – or liquid cooling. Liquid cooling runs a liquid through the CPU’s heatsink to a radiator which disperses it into the air. It takes up a lot of space but it’s virtually silent.
Who make the best gaming PCs?
Alienware is one of the market leaders. Not only do they make some of the most powerful gaming machines out there, they look cool. Really, really cool. You might accuse us of being shallow but we don’t care, they’re cool.
Other customised PC makers include Arbico, Wired2Fire and Ginger6.
Dell’s XPS gaming range offer just as much bang for a little less buck. Sony’s VAIO AW 18.4-inch models also make a viable alternative, although you lack the Quad Core™ processors.
How do I start gaming online?
Most games will have online content but to really experience the power of internet gaming you have to sink into the world of Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games. After purchasing the initial software, players then interact online with others in a universe.
World of Warcraft, is a MMO Role Playing Game (MMORPG) with 11.5 million users it is the most subscribed of all online games. Players can interact with one another, trade, fight and explore the world of Azeroth. Other popular pay to play titles include Warhammer Online and LoTR online. Free MMORPGs include the ever popular Guild Wars.
Make sure your anti-virus software is up to scratch and you’ll love the whole new world of online gaming, try Norton’s gaming edition which won’t slow your system down but will keep you protected.
Written by Tom Mowlam
Tom is a young technology journalist based in London. Though a diehard Windows user, if pressed he will admit to quite liking Apple products – he just doesn’t get on with touchscreens.