Get a Desktop for the Most Gaming Power
Despite the allure and simplicity of gaming consoles and handheld devices, PC gaming is still very alive and very much kicking. Indeed, it’s never been stronger. Enthusiasts know that nothing beats the quality of gameplay you can get with a desktop built for gaming. And today, it’s within almost every determined PC shopper’s grasp to get a PC with the graphics power necessary to drive the latest games on a full HD (1080p) monitor at lofty detail settings.
But what kind of PC can make major 3D games look and run better than they do on the Sony PS4 Pro or the Microsoft Xbox One S? If you have deep pockets, your answer could be a custom-built hot rod from an elite boutique PC maker such as Falcon Northwest, Maingear, or Velocity Micro. But a couple of well-informed choices will go a long way toward helping you get the right gaming desktop from a standard PC manufacturer like Acer, Asus, Dell, or MSI, even if you’re not made of money. Here’s how to buy your best gaming desktop, regardless of your budget, and our top 10 latest picks in the category.
This is, admittedly, simplifying a complex argument. But high-powered graphics, processors, and memory improve the graphical detail (in items such as cloth, reflections, hair), physical interactions (smoke, thousands of particles colliding), and the general animation of scenes in your favorite games. Throwing more resources at the problem, such as a more powerful graphics card or a faster CPU, will help, to an extent. The trick is to determine which components to favor, and how much.
Most Important: Consider the Graphics Card
Most gaming systems will come preinstalled with a single midrange or high-end graphics card; higher-priced systems will naturally have better
Our gaming-desktop reviews will let you know if there is room in the system’s case for adding more graphics cards, in case you want to improve your gaming performance in the future. Most boutique manufacturers, however, will sell systems equipped with multiple-card arrays if you want to run games at their best right away. AMD calls its multiple-card technology CrossFireX, and Nvidia calls its solution Scalable Link Interface (SLI).
This trend is fading, though. While multiple-video-card gaming is still a path to great gaming, know that a game must be written to leverage multiple cards properly, and game developers in recent years have been de-emphasizing timely support for CrossFireX and SLI in games. Sometimes this support only emerges well after a game’s debut; sometimes it never comes at all. Also, Nvidia has been putting a damper on SLI in the last couple of years; it has kiboshed support for installing more than two of its late-model cards at the same time, and only a subset of its higher-end cards can be installed in SLI. Our general advice for mainstream buyers is to concentrate on the best single card you can afford.
Indeed, the most pivotal decision you’ll make when purchasing a gaming desktop is which card you get. One option, of course, is no card at all; the integrated graphics silicon on modern Intel Core and some AMD processors is fine for casual 2D games. But to really bring out the beast on 3D AAA titles, you need a discrete graphics card or cards, and these cards are what distinguish a gaming desktop. Whether you go with an AMD- or Nvidia-based card is based partly on price, partly on performance. Some games are optimized for one type of card or another, but for the most part, you should choose the card that best fits within your budget. If you’re buying a complete gaming desktop, you of course don’t have to pay for a card in isolation, but this should help you understand how the card factors into the total price. You also have to know what you’re shopping for.
Turing, Navi, Ray-Tracing, and You
For some time now, Nvidia has been dominant at the high end of the GPU battlefield. Since September 2018, that dominance had been through the strength of its uber-high-end GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, as well as the still-pricey GeForce RTX 2080. Those two cards were followed by a step-down GeForce RTX 2070 in October of last year, still a powerful GPU in its own right, followed by the GeForce RTX 2060 this year. These, and the company’s other GeForce RTX cards, are built on what Nvidia calls the “Turing” architecture, supplanting the 10-Series “Pascal” cards as its latest top-end GPUs for gamers. GeForce RTX cards offer not only the most powerful graphics performance yet, but some exclusive features. Chief among these are ray-tracing (putting the “RT” in “RTX”), a fancy real-time-lighting feature that only cards with the RTX moniker are capable of running.
The top-end cards were certainly pricey propositions, and perhaps too costly for many shoppers. The MSRP for the Founders Edition versions of the RTX 2080 and GTX 2080 Ti launched at $799 and $1,199, respectively, though a bunch of third-party models were lined up for launch too, and some of them are a little more affordable.
As a result, in the summer of 2019, Nvidia launched upgraded “Super” versions of the RTX line, with the exception of the RTX 2080 Ti. The RTX 2060 Super, RTX 2070 Super, and RTX 2080 Super are, as you may have guessed, souped-up versions of the initial releases, and came with a price cut to boot. The performance jump is greater in some Super GPUs than others, but these are the go-to models moving forward. The RTX 2070 Super looks the best value of the bunch, offering near-RTX 2080 performance at $499, while the RTX 2060 Super and the $699 RTX 2080 Super are worth a look. While they’re more of a half-step up and not a whole new generation, boosts to clock speeds (and in some cases the introduction of newer memory) mean these are all a tick more capable than the original models.
For many users, the 10-Series “Pascal” cards will remain more than good enough in many scenarios—if you already have one, it might not be the best value to upgrade your system. This is especially true if you aren’t that interested in ray-tracing, which is part of what you’re paying for in the RTX cards. For those who need to be on the cutting edge, or are buying a desktop that will be an upgrade from below the Pascal card generation, your best bet may be to go with the latest tech, especially as ray tracing emerges in more game titles in the coming years.
As a word of caution before you spend big on a desktop that can run games with ray-tracing, though, know that it’s only available in a handful of titles right now, and is a demanding technology to run that will lower your frame rate. As such, the RTX 2080 Ti and RTX 2080 Super are the two best cards for playing games with ray-tracing on at high frame rates, and doing so is more of a stretch as you go down Nvidia’s RTX hierarchy. But you saw the price tags. If you’re not that familiar with the space, don’t assume you need ray-tracing, and thus the priciest cards—especially if you’re shopping on a budget and/or only gaming on a 1080p monitor.
With that in mind, there are also new, lower-end GTX cards built on Turing: the GeForce GTX 1650, the GeForce GTX 1660, and the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti. These cards lack the specific cores needed for ray-tracing in order to cut the price. These budget GPUs bridge the gap between Pascal and the RTX Turing cards, falling roughly between the GTX 1060 and the RTX 2060. If you’re shopping on a more limited budget, desktops with these cards are worth checking out.
While those top-tier GPUs do offer fantastic pure performance separate from ray-tracing, too, shoppers looking for an entry-level or midrange system have many options. On the lower end, those GTX Turing cards (as opposed to the RTX ones) are a decent value, while the RTX 2060 is a budget-friendly, but very capable, 1080p card. An RTX 2070 system will fit the bill for high-frame-rate 1080p or 1440p gaming, and you can try ray-tracing on a per-game basis or just turn it off to your preference.
Meanwhile, AMD competes mainly in the midrange and low end, with its Radeon RX cards, and its midrange offerings are looking better now than they have for a long time. Right as Nvidia’s Super cards hit the market, AMD launched its first “Navi” graphics cards, based on all-new architecture. The Radeon RX 5700 and Radeon RX 5700 XT are legitimate contenders in the midrange space, delivering good bang for your buck. Unlike the Super cards, these are a wholly new generation of GPUs, and AMD is more competitive in this space than ever. Check out the reviews and see which seems like the best fit for your needs and budget. The Radeon RX 570, RX 580, and RX 590 are also good picks for more budget-minded gaming at 1080p.
Prep for 4K Gaming and VR, or Keep It Real?
Equipping your system with any high-end GPU will boost your total PC bill by a few hundred dollars per card. Beyond adding extra power to your gaming experience, multiple graphics cards can also enable multiple-monitor setups so you can run up to six displays, but some single cards can power up to four, and few gamers go beyond three (and even that rarely).
A better reason to opt for high-end graphics in the long run is to power 4K and virtual reality (VR) gaming. Panels with 4K resolution (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) and the displays built into the latest VR headsets have much higher pixel counts than a “simple” 1080p HD monitor. You’ll need at least a single high-end graphics card to drive a 4K display at top quality settings, with similar requirements for smooth gameplay on VR headsets. (See the “Make VR a Reality” section below for more information.) If you mean to play games on a 4K panel with detail settings cranked up, you’ll want to look at one (or even two) of Nvidia’s highest-end cards suited for 4K play, likely the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti or the RTX 2080.
Buying a graphics card for VR is a different set of considerations, and not quite as demanding as 4K play on recent AAA games. VR headsets have their own graphics requirements. But for the two big ones from HTC and Oculus, you’ll want at least a GeForce GTX 1060 or an AMD Radeon RX 480 or Radeon RX 580. Those are last-gen cards, of course; check for specific support for a given Nvidia Turing card if that is what you will be getting.
Now, VR and 4K gaming are unquestionably high-end matters (the latter even more so than the former). You can still get a rich gaming experience for thousands of bucks less by choosing a desktop with a single but robust middle-tier video card (an RTX 2060 or 2070, for example) and gaming at 1080p or 1440p; 2,560 by 1,440 pixels is an increasingly popular native resolution for gaming monitors. If you’re less concerned about VR or turning up all the eye candy found in games—anti-aliasing and esoteric lighting effects, for example—then today’s less-powerful graphics cards and GPUs will still give you plenty of oomph for a lot less money.
Perfect Processor Power
The parallel heart in any gaming system to its GPU is its main processor chip, or CPU. While the GPU specializes in graphics quality and some physics calculations, the CPU takes care of everything else, and it also determines how able your PC will be for demanding tasks that require non-graphics calculations.
On the CPU front, AMD and Intel are in a race to see who can provide the most power to gamers. In 2017, AMD restarted the competition for the top spot anew with its Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, which feature up to 32 cores and the ability to process 64 threads simultaneously. (A good example is the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X.) Intel countered with a new line of Core X-Series processors, in which the top “Extreme Edition” model flaunts 18 cores and 36 threads. Prices for these processors are high, with the Intel Core i9-7980XE and more recent successor the Core i9-9980XE carrying a $2,000 price, the chips by themselves the cost of a whole midrange gaming PC!
These CPU advancements are exciting, but it’s not essential to invest in one of these elite-level Threadripper or Core X-Series processors to enjoy excellent PC gaming. To that point, Intel also launched Core i9 chips outside of the Extreme Edition platforms last year, bringing increased speed to the main consumer line. That is to say, they’re not quite as over the top in terms of performance, in order to offer more consumer-friendly pricing. The Core i9-9900K is the flagship option in that regard, and it’s an excellent performer, though perhaps not the best value for money. (You can also quibble about the effects of Intel inserting a price tier between the Core i7 and Extreme Edition offerings.)
Similarly, and more recently, the latest from AMD is the announcement of the Ryzen 9 3950X, what the Intel rival is calling the first 16-core gaming CPU. There is crossover with the blistering Threadripper line here in terms of core and thread count, but this new Ryzen 9 is on the less costly AM4 “mainstream” platform (with a motherboard selection that should comprise some cheaper options; Threadripper boards tend to be pricey). Details on the 3950X are still lean, but it’s due to release in September 2019, so stay tuned.
Currently, the newest available option from AMD are its third-generation Ryzen chips, which launched in July 2019. There are models up and down the pricing scale, from $99 to $499, topped off by a 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X. Lesser, but still high-powered, CPUs, such as the AMD Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 lines, as well as locked and unlocked six- and eight-core Intel Core i7 processors
If your choice comes down to paying for a higher-level GPU or a higher-level CPU, and gaming is the primary use you will have for the system, favor the graphics, in most cases. A system with a higher-power Nvidia GeForce GPU and a Core i5 processor is generally a better choice for 3D-intense FPS gaming than one with a low-end card and a zippy Core i7 or i9 CPU. But you may want to choose the latter if you’re into games that involve a lot of background math calculations, such as strategy titles (like those in the Civilization series), or if you also mean to use the system for CPU-intensive tasks like converting or editing video, or editing photos.
Assessing Main Memory and Storage
One thing that’s often overlooked on gaming systems is RAM; it can be severely taxed by modern games. Outfit your PC with a bare minimum of 8GB of RAM, and budget for 16GB if you’re serious about freeing up this potential performance bottleneck. The most powerful machines out there will pack 32GB, though there are diminishing returns for gaming beyond 16GB.
Solid-state drives (SSDs), meanwhile, have become more popular since prices began dropping dramatically a few years ago, and the price drops have accelerated especially this year. They speed up boot time, wake-from-sleep time, and the time it takes to launch a game and load a new level.
Although you can get an SSD of any size up to around 2TB (with the larger capacities still being relatively expensive), the pairing of a small one (a capacity of 500GB is a good minimum floor to set) with a larger spinning hard drive (1TB or more) is a good, affordable setup for gamers who also download the occasional video from the Internet. You can keep your favorite games and applications on the smaller SSD, where they’ll benefit from quicker loading, and install the bulk of your library on the hard drive.
Make VR a Reality
With the release of the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift headsets and their subsequent revisions, real VR gaming is possible in the home for the first time. If you want to be able to use one of these to its fullest, your PC will need to meet the headset’s system requirements.
The most important aspect is the video card—on the original headsets, you are pushing a 1,080-by-1,200 display to each eye, after all—so go with the most powerful card you can afford from either the current or previous generation. For the Vive, the bare minimum is an AMD Radeon RX 480/580 or
You’ll also want a newer AMD or Intel CPU with a minimum of four processing cores. As a baseline, both HTC and Oculus recommend a Core i5-4590 or its equivalent; with current-gen CPUs, we’d recommend an AMD Ryzen 5 or 7 (second-generation or third-generation), or an Intel Core i5 or i7. (Any of AMD’s Ryzen Threadrippers or Intel’s Core X-Series chips will do, too.) And while the 8GB of RAM we recommended should be enough to ensure the fluid gameplay you want, 16GB is again a better bet.
The Perfect Accessories
Don’t stop at internal components. Once you have your ideal gaming desktop, a couple of extras can really enhance your gaming experience. We recommend that you trick out your machine with a top-notch gaming monitor with a fast response rate, as well as a solid gaming headset so you can trash-talk your opponents.
Comfortable keyboards, mice, and specialized controllers round out your options at
Ready for Our Recommendations?
Below are the best gaming desktops we’ve tested of late. Many are configured-to-order PCs from boutique manufacturers, but some come from bigger brands normally associated with consumer-grade desktops. Note that many of the same manufacturers also make gaming laptops, if you’re weighing between the two.
Pros: Compact case with small footprint. Sleek look. RTX 2080 Ti ensures superior gaming performance, even at 4K. Advanced cooling system. RAM and storage accessible for upgrades.
Cons: Custom design limits core component upgrades. Expensive.
Bottom Line: The thoughtfully designed Corsair One i160 Gaming PC delivers outrageous RTX 2080 Ti grunt and blistering CPU speed in an attractive, super-compact chassis.
Pros: Great gaming performance. Plenty of speedy SSD storage. Well-designed case with tempered glass and attractive customizable lighting. Spacious interior.
Cons: Etched text on glass is a bit tacky. Bulkier form factor compared with some microATX PCs.
Bottom Line: The Corsair Vengeance 5180 is a sleekly designed, upgrade-friendly gaming desktop packed with the power to play any title smoothly.
Pros: Affordable price. Appealing low-key case lighting. Smooth HD gaming performance. Speedy new Intel “Coffee Lake” processor. Plenty of storage (boot SSD and a hard drive).
Cons: Messy interior. Only 8GB memory in test model.
Bottom Line: The configurable Dell Inspiron Gaming Desktop delivers 60fps 1080p gaming and Core i7 pep at $999, making it an attractive bargain for gamers on a budget.
Pros: Well-priced given the parts inside. Great for fast-paced 1080p and 1440p gaming, as tested. Impeccable attention to detail. Remote-controlled LED bling system. Ample cooling.
Cons: Could be quieter under load. No flash-card reader.
Bottom Line: Digital Storm’s Lynx will make you think twice about building your own gaming desktop. It’s expertly crafted, with top-tier performance at the right price.
Pros: Stellar performance, as tested. Good case airflow. Neatly wired insides. Highly customizable from the factory.
Cons: Audible fan noise under full load. No flash-card reader.
Bottom Line: An expertly crafted mid-tower gaming desktop, this 2019 revision of the Maingear Vybe packs the heat for 4K gaming for a reasonable price versus the build-it-yourself route.
Pros: Priced right for the component mix. Plenty of pep for modern gaming at 1080p or 1440p. Name-brand parts and quality construction. Runs quietly. Standard two-year warranty.
Cons: Case has some sharp corners. No case interior lighting or media card reader.
Bottom Line: Assembled entirely from aftermarket parts, NZXT’s BLD Starter PC Plus midtower gaming desktop is packed with value and ready for today’s top titles at mainstream resolutions.
Pros: Well priced. Plenty of power for 1080p gaming. Compact size. Good front port selection.
Cons: No SSD at this price point is a sore point. Not designed for tool-less upgrades. Cooling fans are audible while gaming.
Bottom Line: HP’s Pavilion Gaming Desktop 690-0020 is priced to sell, offering high-fps 1080p gaming action in a compact design. Just be sure to budget for an SSD; its hard drive will test your patience.
Pros: High-end gaming performance in a slim, compact chassis. Loads of storage. Uses standard, upgrade-ready parts. Close-to-60fps rates at 4K in recent AAA games.
Cons: Niche target audience. Overkill for most gaming scenarios. Case includes a lot of plastic.
Bottom Line: While the Trident X may cast a small net, MSI’s compact gaming PC does its job well, with top-notch performance at maximum settings and above-average upgrade potential.
Pros: Exceptional performance. No-fuss case design that fits professional settings. Clean installation and cable management. Good customer-support offerings.
Cons: Minimalist aesthetic may not please all shoppers at this price.
Bottom Line: Velocity Micro’s 2019 Raptor Z55 is a straightforward, cleanly assembled power desktop that posts excellent all-around performance. Its GeForce RTX 2080 Ti in our test config is ready for high-refresh 1440p gaming and capable of 60fps 4K gaming.
Pros: Big-desktop performance in a compact design. High-quality internal components. Integrated carry handle. Three-year warranty is standard.
Cons: Pricey. Loud cooling fans.
Bottom Line: The latest rev of Falcon Northwest’s classic FragBox is a costly but formidable pick for top-notch 4K gaming in a luggable SFF chassis.