You can’t buy a more powerful gaming platform than a tricked-out desktop PC. Here’s everything you need to know, part by part, to pick the right killer gaming system, plus current favorites culled from our top-rated reviews.

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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 PS5 or the Microsoft Xbox Series X? 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.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

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: Which Graphics Card Do I Need?

Most gaming systems will come preinstalled with a single midrange or high-end graphics card; higher-priced systems will naturally have better cards, since purchase price typically correlates with animation performance and visual quality. AMD and Nvidia make the graphics processors, or GPUs, that go into these cards, which are made by third parties such as Asus, EVGA, Gigabyte, MSI, PowerColor, Sapphire, and XFX (to name just a few).

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).

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

This trend has faded, though. While multiple-video-card gaming is still a path to raw power, 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.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

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.

‘Ampere’ Is Here: The State of Graphics Cards

For some time now, Nvidia has been dominant at the high end of the GPU battlefield. Since September 2020, this has been through its RTX 30 Series GPUs, such as the flagship GeForce RTX 3080 and top-end RTX 3090. These replaced its RTX 20 Series GPUs, like the (still powerful and pricey) RTX 2080.

In general for both Nvidia and AMD GPUs, the first number in a model name denotes the GPU generation—3000 Series GPUs are Nvidia’s latest, while AMD is up to the 6000 line—while the last two numbers denote the hierarchy within that generation. For example, the RTX 3080 is superior to the RTX 3070, and both replaced their RTX 2080 and RTX 2070 predecessors, respectively.

The 20 Series GeForce RTX cards were the first to offer ray-tracing (putting the “RT” in “RTX”), a fancy real-time-lighting feature that only cards with the RTX moniker are capable of running. (See our primer on ray tracing and what it means for PC gaming.)

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

The 30 Series is based on the Nvidia’s newest “Ampere” architecture, replacing the “Turing” design of the 20 Series. The 30 Series GPUs not only offer better raw frame rate performance, but much are much more efficient and effective at ray-tracing. Ray-tracing technology looks great, but is a straining technique that generally pulls down your frame rates, a fact that made smooth ray tracing daunting on even the RTX 2080. This undermined the appeal of the 20 Series, given that the signature feature was difficult to run smoothly, even with the highest-priced GPUs. The RTX 3070 and the RTX 3060 Ti arrived in October and December 2020, respectively, delivering on the same concept at lower price points than the two top-tier options.

The top-end cards are certainly pricey propositions, too costly for many shoppers, and difficult to find available in 2022. The RTX 3080 Founders Edition launched with a $699 MSRP, as much as some whole computers on its own, but actually a better value than the RTX 2080. The RTX 3070 launched at $499, making it a very palatable choice, and the RTX at an even more attainable $329. That’s a much better entry price into ray-tracing than the 20 Series offered. As always, third party manufacturers make less (and more) expensive versions of each GPU, too.

There is, of course, the elephant in the room: availability. If you haven’t been paying attention to the graphics card space, it was extremely difficult to actually acquire these GPUs at retail price (or in general) since 2020. You can pay over the odds from re-sellers (some of who gobbled up many cards with the intention of reselling them at a higher price), but otherwise have to play the lottery with re-stocks. Nvidia, unfortunately, expects this to continue through most of 2022. Read our explanation here of why these graphics cards have been so difficult to purchase.

Thus, the listed MSRP of these GPUs doesn’t mean what it once did. You can try to snag one when a major retailer like Best Buy (or online seller like Amazon) refreshes its supply, but like buying a PS5, you’ll need some luck. You’ll also need to be patient, unless you want to pay hundreds of dollars over the list price to someone selling a GPU for profit. This is one reason why buying a prebuilt gaming desktop these days makes a lot of sense: easier access to the parts you want, without price gouging. Pre-built PCs from major manufacturers or boutique vendors are one of the most accessible ways to acquire a 30 Series system in 2022, because they take care of acquiring GPU stock for you to buy in their systems.

You may be able to find older GPUs instead, though the shortage has made these scarcer as well. MSRP for the Founders Edition versions of the RTX 2080 and GTX 2080 Ti launched at $799 and $1,199, respectively (though some third-party models are a little more affordable). Again, these (list) prices are not as good values as the less expensive and more powerful RTX 3080 on paper, but the current realistic cost of the 3080 may change that math.

Speaking of the top of the stack, the aforementioned GeForce RTX 3090 is a professional-grade replacement for the Titan RTX coming in at $1,499. You could use it for gaming, but it’s not remotely twice as fast as a RTX 3080 for more than double the money. If you are one of the rare few who need even more power, Nvidia went even further by releasing the RTX 3090 Ti in March 2022 for an eye-watering $1,999. Beyond just the high price, availability is limited, so good luck hunting if you can afford that monster.

One aspect not yet included in the 30 Series is the “Super” suffix that you may see on 20 Series GPUs while shopping. In the summer of 2019, Nvidia launched upgraded “Super” versions of the 20 Series RTX line, with the exception of the RTX 2080 Ti. The RTX 2060 Super, the RTX 2070 Super, and the 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 with some Super GPUs than others, but these essentially replaced the original versions of each GPU. At this point, the Ti GPUs may be the only boosted versions we see for the RTX 30 Series.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

If you’re not going to buy in to the 30 Series (though we’d recommend it at this price tier if you can somehow find retail pricing), these are the next-most-recent high-end GPUs to go for. The RTX 2070 Super looks the best value of the bunch, offering near-RTX 2080 performance, while the RTX 2060 Super and the RTX 2080 Super are worth a look. While the Super cards were more of a half-step up before the Ampere generation arrived, 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. If you can find a good deal on a PC with an RTX 20 Series Super GPU, it may be worthwhile, but not at full price.

For owners of older 10-Series “Pascal” cards, it was a tough call on whether to upgrade to the 20 Series. The raw performance gains were modest, and ray-tracing, while attractive, was a difficult proposition even on the best 20 Series GPUs. If you’ve held out this long, with the 30 Series impressing so much, we can much more fully recommend that enthusiasts make the jump if you can find one. We can even more emphatically recommend the newest GPUs if you play (or plan on playing) on a 1440p or 4K monitor.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

If you’re already on a 20 Series GPU, it’s still very tempting, but difficult to definitively recommend upgrading to Ampere when your GPU is still a solid performer. The RTX 2070 and RTX 2080 remain more than good enough in many scenarios—if you already have one, it might not be the best value to upgrade your system, especially with the current GPU price inflation. Still, the appeal of higher-frame-rate ray-tracing and 4K gaming are tempting. If you are not that interested in ray-tracing, and generally play simpler games or competitive multiplayer titles where visual fidelity is second to high frame rates, the RTX premium is not necessarily worthwhile. For those who need to be on the cutting edge, or who are buying a desktop that will be an upgrade from the Pascal card generation or earlier, your best bet may be to go with the latest tech, especially as ray-tracing sees wider adoption in the current market.

Affordable Nvidia Alternatives…and Don’t Forget AMD

With that in mind, there are also lower-end GTX cards built on Nvidia’s Turing tech: 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. If you’re shopping on a more limited budget, desktops with these cards are worth checking out. Also look for Super variants of the GTX 1650 and 1660.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

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. In mid-2019, AMD launched its first“Navi” graphics cards, based on all-new architecture. The Radeon RX 5700 and the Radeon RX 5700 XT are legitimate contenders in the midrange space, delivering good bang for your buck.

The more recent efforts in the high end, the Radeon RX 6800 and the Radeon RX 6800 XT released in late 2020, push closer to Nvidia’s top cards more than AMD has in many years. When they’re at their best, they’re about equal with Nvidia’s 30 Series GPUs for a little less money, but it depends on the game in question. Unlike the newest Ryzen CPUs pulling them level with or ahead of Intel, these did not exactly unseat Nvidia’s dominance, but do now offer a good value alternative for the first time in years.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

AMD also pushed a lower-end Radeon RX 5600 XT that competes with both the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti and the GeForce RTX 2060. On the AMD side, check out the reviews and see which seems like the best fit for your needs and budget. But you’ll definitely see more GeForce cards than Radeon ones in prebuilt desktops. At CES 2022, AMD added the $199 Radeon RX 6500 XT to the equation, releasing in January 2022, and a new low-end GeForce RTX card family, the RTX 3050, joined it soon after.

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 only rarely).

A better reason to opt for high-end graphics in the long run is to power 4K and virtual reality (VR) gaming. Monitors 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. If you mean to play games on a 4K panel with detail settings cranked up, you’ll want to look at one of Nvidia’s highest-end cards suited for 4K play, with the RTX 3080 easily the single best pick.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Selecting 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 older-generation cards, of course; check for specific support for a given Nvidia GeForce Turing/Ampere or AMD Radeon Navi card if that is what you will be getting. Generally a GeForce GTX 1660 Ti or a Radeon RX 5600 XT/RX 6700 (or higher, in either case) should suffice.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

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 3060, 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: Which CPU Do I Need?

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.

Let’s start at the top end of the power tiers. 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 3970X.) 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, though the 10th Generation of Core X-Series chips, which hit in the second half of 2019, saw some much reduced pricing. The top-end chips that went for $2,000 in previous generations of Core X saw a fall to around $1,000 in the equivalent Core i9-10980XE Extreme Edition we reviewed. Neither Core X-Series nor Threadripper have released new models of late (though pro-workstation-minded Threadripper Pro is expanding in 2022), but safe to say they will come eventually.

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. Most gamers do not need to shop in that tier.

To that point, Intel also offers mainstream Core i9 chips outside of the Extreme Edition platforms, bringing increased speed to the main consumer line. The Core i9-9900K was the first flagship option in that regard, and the most recent powerhouse is the Intel Core i9-12900K, based on Intel’s latest 12th Generation “Alder Lake” architecture, supplanting the “Rocket Lake-S” Core i9-11900K. The rest of Intel’s 12th Generation lineup was announced at CES 2022, and we’ve been impressed with the Alder Lake chips we’ve tested since. AMD had gained a processing advantage in this tier, but Alder Lake has pulled Intel back ahead (or in some cases, at least level) at the Core i7 and Core i9 tier.

For years, Intel also held the edge in gaming performance. The latest from AMD at this power tier is the Ryzen 9 5900X, which finally rivals Intel’s Core i9 superiority in gaming. It’s not as much of a bargain as some of AMD’s general computing and productivity chips are when compared to Intel, but perhaps more important, it closes what has traditionally been a big gap. Since the 5900X’s release, the Alder Lake chips have given Intel an edge again, but these are worthy competitors. AMD is really making a case for its chips in all scenarios, and gaming was the final frontier. We’ll have to see how AMD will respond to Alder Lake with its next generation, slated for later in 2022.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Below this are models up and down the pricing scale, from $99 to $499. The real sweet spot for most gamers are the lesser, but still high-powered mainstream CPUs such as the AMD Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 lines, and Intel Core i5 and i7 processors. These provide the computing muscle needed for a satisfying gaming experience without breaking the bank, losing out mostly on some higher-end productivity and media creation capability rather than gaming performance. On the higher end of midrange, you have chips like the Intel Core i7-12700K and AMD Ryzen 7 5800X, which really impress in this category.

Gamers on a lesser budget should look to lower-priced (but still speedy) processors, such as the AMD Ryzen 5 or the Intel Core i5 lines, which will knock hundreds of dollars off the bottom line. This includes the latest chips like the Intel Core i5-12600K and AMD Ryzen 5 5600G. The baseline has come a long way, so even these less expensive chips are well suited to gaming. Even AMD’s latest Ryzen 3 processors can get the job done if you’re shopping on a budget.

If your choice comes down to paying for a higher-level GPU or a higher-level CPU, and gaming matters most, 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.

How Much Memory and Storage Should I Get?

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. (See lots more about how to choose RAM in our memory primer.)

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 over the last couple of years, unlike most PC components. They speed up boot time, wake-from-sleep time, and the time it takes to launch a game and load a new level.

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Although you can get an SSD of any size up to around 4TB (with the larger 8TB capacity still being relatively rare and very expensive), the pairing of a small one (a capacity of 500GB is a good minimum floor to set) with a large-capacity spinning hard drive (4TB or more) is a good, affordable setup for gamers who also download lots of games and the occasional video from the internet. You can keep a subset of 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.

Favor, where you can, PCI Express SSDs over SATA ones. (The former, the performance darlings of the moment, are becoming the norm in desktop gaming systems.) Almost all of these drives come on gumstick-size modules in a format called M.2.

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. A high-refresh-rate monitor can absorb the excess frame rates that a robust video card puts out, for smoother gameplay. In-monitor support for Nvidia G-Sync or AMD FreeSync, matched to your brand of video card, can also eliminate artifacts that result from varying frame rates.

(Photo: Mike Epstein)

A comfortable gaming keyboardgaming mouse, or specialized controller can round out your options at checkout, but know that oftentimes you’re better off selecting these items separately, rather than limiting your selection to what’s offered by the system seller.

So, Which Gaming Desktop Should I Buy?

Below are the best gaming desktops we’ve tested of late. Some 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.

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6 best PC speakers of 2022 | Best Speaker For PC Gaming Review

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