Gaming Computer Advice

Written on March 11, 2009 by William George


As a custom computer builder, we get a lot of people asking for help designing high-end computers. Many times they are for media editing, stock trading, or research - but one of the most common uses of such powerful systems is video games. Given how much interest there is in gaming computers, I wanted to provide a guide for how to select what components to use in a modern gaming computer. There are lots of review sites that talk about specific hardware recommendations, but those are outdated quickly - so this article will focus more on the ideas behind the various parts of a custom gaming computer and what you need to take into consideration when building or purchasing one.

The main components in a computer that affect gaming performance are the RAM, CPU and video card (not necessarily in that order) - balancing those three items, and making sure each are sufficient for the sorts of games you plan to play, is crucial.

RAM (Random Access Memory)

The term "RAM" stands for Random Access Memory and is often referred to as simply 'memory', though some may confuse that term with hard drive storage space. RAM's role in a computer is similar to human short-term memory: it stores the data that the computer is currently working on, including parts of the operating system, currently open applications, files being edited, etc. For gaming purposes, one wants to have enough RAM that the game you are playing and any other programs you want to run at the same time can fit in the memory without needing to be paged out the the hard drive. Paging is what happens when there isn't enough physical RAM for everything open at once to fit: the operating system looks at what is in memory and tries to move the parts it thinks are least likely to be accessed to the hard drive. If that happens with a part of the game you are playing then things can slow down dramatically, and if you want to alt-tab over to a web browser and look something up it can take a lot longer if the data for that browser window got paged to the hard drive. Thankfully memory keeps coming down in price, so getting enough shouldn't be a problem. I recommend 4 - 8GB right now (2009), but in order to fully use that much you also have to be running a 64-bit operating system. That is another topic entirely, and if you are curious more info can be found here.

Memory speed is also something to consider, though much less important than having enough RAM. There are four factors that go into the "speed" of memory:

1) Memory type - DDR (double data rate), DDR2, DDR3, etc. Each new standard allows for higher bandwidth, discussed next, but usually at the cost of higher latency (the third factor). There are also other improvements made with each generation, though, which can contribute to better performance.

2) Bandwidth, measured in MB/s (PC2-6400, as an example, theoretically provides 6400MB/s) or MHz (PC2-6400 is also known as DDR2-800, for 800MHz). The more bandwidth there is the more total memory can be moved around per second, which can help with gaming - but since all memory today is high-speed in this regard it doesn't make a massive difference.

3) Latency, measured in clock cycles. This will sometimes be broken out into several specs, like 4-4-4-8, or often just shortened to one - like CL4 (CAS Latency 4). Lower latency means that when a bit of data is requested it takes less time to find it, which translates to slightly faster overall performance.

4) Memory controller technology also has a big effect on performance, but it does not lie in the memory modules themselves. The memory controller is the circuitry that keeps track of where things are and moves memory around to the places that need it (in very basic terms). It adds to latency depending on how efficient it is, and can support things like multi-channel memory access. Dual and triple-channel memory configurations improve performance by effectively doubling or tripling the maximum bandwidth, but as alluded to in the section above once you hit a certain point additional bandwidth doesn't help with gaming computers. As a side note this is why memory is best added in pairs or sets of three, depending on the number of channels being used.
A bigger factor to consider with memory controllers is their location. Traditionally memory controllers were a part of the chipset, so when the processor needed to access data it had to tell the chipset which in turn would find the correct spot in memory and then transmit it back to the CPU. To make that path more direct memory controllers are moving to the CPU itself on many newer platforms. AMD was the first to do that, and all of their processors from the past couple of years have incorporated such technology. With the Core i7 Intel adopted this approach as well - and further designs based off that chip should also have integrated memory controllers. Making a purchasing decision solely on the placement of the memory controller is probably not a good idea, but it is something to consider when looking at a gaming computer as a whole.

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too basic.

i wish for more information to make those choices. as i prefer to make them. do i differ from most of your customers?

Posted on 2009-03-12 05:24:55

In the interest of being able to better cater to our customers, what additional information would you be looking for? Please note that the intent of this particular article was not to make specific hardware recommendations, since those change with every new release, but to give folks a background in what goes into the hardware choices - with the hopes that they could combine this with up-to-date reviews (either here or elsewhere) and then be able to make decisions on what to order. If we failed in that aim, or if we overlooked things, please let us know!

Posted on 2009-03-12 15:51:21
mike pyne

Hi PCC-Jon,
I referred your link and i found it really interesting, hence there is controversies that using the PC for Gaming purpose even though built for gaming could reduce the life of PC.
How many of you agree with it.


Posted on 2009-05-25 05:26:03

As I mentioned in a previous post - I don't agree that a PC built specifically for gaming has a shorter shelf life than one built for 'standard' use.

Intense heat can be offset with superior cooling. Use of high quality parts (which most gaming systems use) also comes into play.

Will there come a day when the 'boutique' builders are gone? Tough call. I think at some point we will see a merging of console and PC systems.

As I also mentioned in a previous post - PCs lend themselves to ease of upgrading and even building your own. When was the last time you assembled an XBOX or PS3 on your kitchen table? ;)

Posted on 2009-05-25 08:33:56
mike pyne

Hi PCC-Jon,
I referred to your link and found it interesting. Can you please suggest that extreme gaming on standard PC could reduce the life of the PC. Do you agree with it.


Posted on 2009-06-16 04:49:21

Mike -

I don't agree. The chips do not contain moving parts. Higher temperatures outside their spec can reduce the life of a PC, so technically gaming could have an impact, but if the computer is properly cooled the impact of gaming will be insignificant enough to be unmeasurable.

Posted on 2009-06-16 16:53:14
mike pyne

So we need to integrate external cooling device because in general it's not available by default. So this is the point that i was proving that unless you don't install cooling device into your PC system then definitely extreme gaming could result in reducing PC's life.


Posted on 2009-06-19 01:49:22

So we need to integrate external cooling device because in general it's not available by default. So this is the point that i was proving that unless you don't install cooling device into your PC system then definitely extreme gaming could result in reducing PC's life.


I don't understand what you mean by a "cooling device."

Any well built PC in a quality enclosure will have proper air flow to pull-in cool air and exhaust hot air from the components.

"Extreme gaming" machines will produce more heat because they tend to have hotter components (overclocked CPUs, powerful GPUs, RAID arrays, SLI or Crossfire, etc). Gaming itself isn't as stressful on a PC's components. Most games are only a single or dual threaded and they don't even come close to 100% utilization on CPU cores.

Posted on 2009-06-19 08:24:24

If you don't install a cooling device, even hitting the power button will dramatically reduce the life of the PC :)

Posted on 2009-06-19 10:44:07
mike pyne

Hi PCC-Jon,
Thanks for giving such awareness. I had never used cooling device for PC. Can you recommend some best PC cooling device.


Posted on 2009-07-06 06:02:56
mike pyne

Hi cccmd,
The design meant for cooling CPU and cooler both are different. According to Jon we need to externally install cooling device or else make the PC environment cool by switching to AC.


Posted on 2009-07-15 01:10:52

Don't know if the poster still comes to the forum, but comparing his question to some of mine and the way I (sometimes don't) think, I think he was unaware that ALL processors are provided with cooling. I think he was confused by the upgrades, and thought for gaming you had to add a cooler.

Posted on 2009-08-30 17:20:27

Actually Mike, it looks like I misunderstood what you meant. I only meant that a CPU cooler needs to be installed, which I'm sure you already knew.

Posted on 2009-07-15 11:03:34

here's a maybe not so quick question.

I'm very close to deciding on a new computer and I'm not sure whether to choose a core i7 or core 2 quad (or duo) build.

I bought my last computer from you guys and have been very satisfied. I've had it for 5 years now and I can't play the new games now so it's upgrade time. I'm looking to keep this new computer for a similar time frame, with a probable gpu upgrade in a few years.

Which CPU would you guys recommend going forward. Sure the Core 2 duo stuff is cheaper right now and performs great but it 3 years, am I gonna be feeling the hurt when all the new games are built to use quad cores?

What's gonna get me the most longevity?

Posted on 2009-08-18 12:04:24

Core i7, hands down (for gaming). Now, here is the second half of that question - which you might not have known about: "Socket 1366 or 1156?"

The current i7s are using the socket 1366 platform, which has come down a lot in price but is still more expensive than the mainstream Core 2 line. However, next month Intel's P55 chipset and socket 1156 are coming - for the price-conscious that might be a better choice, as it will house Core i7 processors (and their little brothers, the i5 and i3). The main difference between the two sockets is going to be the memory setup: 1366 uses triple-channel memory, while 1156 will be dual-channel. For gaming, though, that should make very little difference. If you can wait a few weeks I think I would aim for the upcoming socket to maximize your return on investment and longevity!

Posted on 2009-08-18 12:09:03

And that completes the question I asked about the new chipset in the other thread. Thank you very much for being so fast with that response.

While i'm trying to be price conscious, I don't want to be too stingy. I haven't been able to play a newly released game for a while now and I don't want to have that situation again for a long time. Do you think that the choosing 1366 versus 1156 will make a difference in that regard?

Sorry if I'm asking an incredibly broad question.

Posted on 2009-08-18 12:35:37

It is hard to guess what the next generation of game titles will need, but historically memory bandwidth has not been a limiting factor in that area. Latency can be a bottleneck for some games, so I would make sure to get lower-latency memory if possible (like the HyperX we carry from Kingston), but pure memory speed usually makes little difference.

When socket 1156 gets closer to launch there should be performance comparisons on many of the major hardware websites - AnandTech, TomsHardware, etc - that will shed more light on the new chips and how they work relative to the established socket 1366 models.

Posted on 2009-08-18 12:44:01

I recently entertained such decisions before I placed an order with Puget. Even though I know the p55 chipset and socket 1156 CPus are due in early September, I went ahead and chose the 1366 CPUs. I did so because it is a mature platform these days. The boards have been out for awhile and BIOS revisions are minor. Plus builders are comfortable with these boards and chipsets. The performance between the two should be minor, but it does seem the new CPUs will have a lot of overclocking headroom. Time will tell with that. Certainly you will be able to get a machine with Intel's i7 architecture for a bit cheaper with the new socket as the memory will be dual-channel and the boards less pricey. Intel has stated they will continue support of both sockets.

Posted on 2009-08-18 13:51:37

When socket 1156 gets closer to launch there should be performance comparisons on many of the major hardware websites - AnandTech, TomsHardware, etc - that will shed more light on the new chips and how they work relative to the established socket 1366 models.

I'm gonna have to wait for that then because after a day of reading as much as I can my head is ready to explode.

Though if I'm this conflicted over what I'm going to put in the computer, it probably means that I'm buying too close to the edge and I should take a step back in tech and price.

Posted on 2009-08-19 07:48:52

We don't have pricing info yet, but I'm hoping that the new socket 1156 stuff comes out at the same price as current Core 2 products - so that while you may be buying 'close to the edge' you shouldn't be spending more than you would on older tech.

Posted on 2009-08-19 10:48:30