6. Storage: Think Solid State
In the context of a pure gaming system--one that you don't plan to use for archival storage of photos or digital video, for example--you should seriously consider buying a solid-state drive. SSD prices are dropping substantially: You can now find 256GB SSDs for around $200, and even 480GB or 512GB SSDs for under $400. Yes, that costs more than a 1TB hard drive. But the benefits of an SSD include quick boot times, incredibly fast loads of games and game levels, lower power use, and less noise.
If you’re on a very tight budget, you might consider a motherboard based on Intel’s Z68 or Z77 chipset with a small (20GB or so) SSD to use as a hard-drive cache. The combination of a small SSD and a 1TB hard drive offers better performance than a single hard drive.
What about optical drives? If your system is exclusively for gaming, a low-cost recordable-DVD drive is sufficient. You can find fast DVD drives for under $30, and those are often the default types of optical drives if you're buying a game system off the shelf. A Blu-ray drive isn't necesary, unless you have the burning desire to watch high-def Blu-ray movies on your PC. More than likely, any optical drive will see relatively little use, given the prevalence of digital download services such as Steam and EA's Origin.
Modern PCs are substantially more power-efficient than machines made a few years ago. A quad-core CPU, plus a midrange GPU, can idle at under 70 watts, and full load power in an intensive game consumes less than 300W. Unless you plan on significantly overclocking your system, or running two high-end GPUs simultaneously, a 500W power supply should be more than enough.
I recently built a fairly high-end gaming system, with a Core i7-3820 CPU and an Nvidia GTX 680-based graphics card. The whole affair idles at just 68W, and the maximum power draw I’ve seen on that system is 336W. That’s about as green as you can get on a high-end PC. I used a 650W power supply in that build, but it’s an 80-Plus Platinum-certified unit, the most efficient kind. PSU efficiency ratings range from 80-Plus Bronze through Platinum, and most power supplies rated as such are far more efficient than previous generations of PSUs.
8. Motherboards and Cases
If you’re buying a system off the shelf, you probably don’t need to worry much about the motherboard. You just want to be sure that it has some key features, such as plenty of USB ports. If you’re building a system, however, you’ll want to confirm that the motherboard supports the CPU and memory speeds you desire. LGA 2011 CPUs, such as the Core i7-3820, need a motherboard with an LGA 2011 socket. An Ivy Bridge CPU requires an LGA 1155-based system. If it's an AMD Bulldozer CPU, you'll have to get a socket AM3+ system. If you want to overclock your PC, make sure that it supports all the settings you need in its BIOS, and that it has the robust power regulation necessary for overclocking. If you’re not overclocking, though, you can opt for a less-pricey board.
Similarly, the case you get when you buy a premade system is what you're stuck with. For DIY enthusiasts, a gaming PC case should offer good airflow, but it should also provide quiet acoustics. The last thing you need when you're trying to listen to the nuanced dialogue in some games is to have your case cooling fans roaring like small tornadoes.
9. Input and Control
A host of high-performance gaming keyboards and mice exist to maximize your PC gaming pleasure. However, unless you’re an elite competitive online player, you may not notice the benefits of very high-end keyboards. And even modestly priced gaming mice now support high DPI levels.
The real choice is between wireless or tethered input devices. You can find wireless keyboards and mice that offer low latencies and good gaming performance, but they’re often quite expensive. Good tethered gear costs much less.
Many triple-A action titles are ports from consoles, so you might want to add a gamepad. You can even connect an Xbox 360 wireless game controller to your PC via the Microsoft Wireless Gaming Receiver. Alternatively, Microsoft also makes a wired controller for the PC that connects via USB and is identical to the Xbox 360 controller.
10. Audio and Communications
Modern games make heavy use of surround sound. Fortunately, every modern PC ships with on-board multichannel audio codecs that can handle multichannel game audio. Using 3D virtualization software, the system can simulate multichannel audio through stereo speakers or headsets. Discrete sound cards still exist, but they’re pretty rare on modern PCs, and aren’t necessary for good game audio.
Speaking of headsets, if you’re into online multiplayer in any form, including massively multiplayer RPGs, you’ll want a headset with a good microphone. USB headsets are the simplest to configure; but if you have a high-end discrete sound card, you may want a high-quality analog headset.
Fire It Up!
Buying or building a gaming PC can be straightforward, if you follow these rules of thumb. Keep your needs in mind, and you’re likely to find the right system for immersive, engaging gaming, whatever your budget. The important part is what you get out of your gaming, not what you spend on your machine. Once your PC is in hand, remember that it’s the game that counts, not the gear.
Now, excuse me, I have to go. Mass Effect 3 is beckoning.