With the new console generation in full swing, it's about time for many of us in the PC Gaming Master Race to update our systems. A new generation means a new standard benchmark, and a new benchmark means the minimum and recommended system specifications of all the games coming this holiday have jumped forward. This guide seeks to help you build a new system that will play all your favorite games moving forward.
A number of system build guides are more concerned about hitting specific price points, like $500 or $800. That's all well and good, but the most important thing shouldn't be the price point, it should be "Can this system play my favorite games?" A $500 system is good for bragging rights, but if Dragon Age: Inquisition is a stutter-fest when you load it up, that build has failed you. So the build outlined here aims for the recommended specs of most recent AAA PC titles. I'm not going to hit it on everything, because some games have crazy CPU or GPU requirements at the recommended level, but I'll do my best not to leave you out in the cold. Want to get better performance? Upgrade any of these options. I'd start in the GPU, CPU, and memory categories, in that order of priority.
This build offers options in the GPU category, because some people are AMD/Nvidia diehards. You can't train that out of people, so we'll roll with it. We'll also be updating this guide month-to-month if there are any large changes, so you can just bookmark it and return whenever you need an upgrade.
Let's begin. Here's the PCPartPicker list for November 2014's build and a concise rundown of all the parts.
- CPU: Intel Core i5-4460, 3.2 GHz
- Motherboard: ASRock H97 PRO4 ATX LGA1150 Motherboard ($88)
- RAM: PNY XLR8 8GB DDR3-1600 ($68)
- Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($54)
- Video Card: MSI Radeon R9 280 3GB TWIN FROZR ($170)
- Case: Antec Three Hundred ATX Mid Tower Case ($35)
- Power Supply: Corsair Builder 500W 80+ Bronze Certified ATX Power Supply ($40)
Understanding The Build
CPU: Intel Core i5-4460, 3.2 GHz ($187)
On the Intel side, this was a semi-tough choice because there's a number of good options here: the i5-4460, the i5-4590, and the i5-3470. All of them are in Intel's mid-range Core i5 family and all of them break the clock speed I was aiming for: 3.2 GHz. I dropped the i5-3470 because it was Intel's older Ivy Bridge architecture and its price just hasn't come down enough. That left me with the i5-4460 and the i5-4590, both of which came out this year. At current prices, it's a $7 difference - meaning it's up to you - but I'll save that $7 for another component. If you feel you can part with two coffees or you find them at the same price, grab the 4590.
I'm going to be dead honest: AMD is lagging in the CPU space. The alternative chip (AMD FX-8350) is two years old at this point and hogs more power for less performance than our Intel options. If you're not doing a lot of video encoding, you won't even see a benefit from the extra two processor cores. Hopefully, AMD has something better in store for 2015 or 2016.
Motherboard: ASRock H97 PRO4 ATX LGA1150 Motherboard ($88)
For Intel's processors, there's two directions you can go. The higher end motherboards are in the Z97 family. If you care about overclocking or SLI configurations, you'll need to go with a Z97. This guide assumes you are a neophyte who doesn't want to mess with overclocking or someone who doesn't want to buy two video cards. That means we're going with a mid-range H97 board. For the price above, you get 1 PCE-Express 3.0 x16 slot for your video card, 3 PCI Express slots, 6 SATA 6GB/s hookups for your storage, 4 USB 3.0 ports, 2 USB 2.0 port, and 1 HDMI port. It does not explode, so it'll do you nicely.
RAM: PNY XLR8 8GB DDR3-1600 ($68)
8 GB seems to be the recommended amount of memory most of these games are looking for. This is a single stick of 8GB of RAM, not a configuration of multiple sticks. If you have more money, pick up another one, but it's not necessary. Rock out.
Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($54)
This hard drive costs $10 more than other available options, but it has support for SATA 6GB/s and 64 MB of Cache. The latter probably means nothing to you, but the former bit is good since we're not going with a solid-state drive (SSD) for this build. If you have the money to spend, I'd recommend getting an SSD - this one for example - and this hard drive.
Video Card: MSI Radeon R9 280 3GB TWIN FROZR ($170)
The AMD Radeon 280 is an absolutely solid mid-range card that will run most of this holiday's games at recommended spec. Some games will ask for more - Assassin's Creed Unity, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare ask for more on the GPU side and The Evil Within on the VRAM side - but the 280's power and 3GB of RAM should keep you running smooth for everything else. And at that price point, the performance is tough to beat.
Video Card Alternative: EVGA GeForce GTX 760 2GB Superclocked ($190)
This card matches or outperforms the R9 280 for only $20 more. You're still below the recommended specs on the games listed above, but there's not much you can do about that without getting around $50-60 more expensive than this pricepoint.
Case: Antec Three Hundred ATX Mid Tower Case ($35)
This is literally what my build is currently residing inside. It's simple, it's cheap, it's black, and the front fans have a foam mesh in front to catch dust. Seriously, keeping dust from caking the inside of your system is important. Dust your PCs occasionally people!
Power Supply: Corsair Builder 500W 80+ Bronze Certified ATX Power Supply ($40)
I love Corsair power supplies because of their cables. They're nice and wrapped, which keep everything looking swag in your case. This is another area where you could upgrade to a 600W power supply if you want a little breathing room. This 500W model should power everything in this build, but if you add more parts, you may need to upgrade.
Final Price: $643.97 ($688.80 before rebates)
Not bad for a full PC build. Of course, this is missing all that extra stuff, like an operating system, monitor, keyboard, and mouse. I'm assuming you have all of these things, but just in case you don't here's a few additional recommendations in those categories below.
This is a good monitor to get you started. 24-inches is a decent size and you don't need 4K or 2560x1440 native resolution monitors at the mid-range. This BenQ also has a low 2ms response time with a standard 60Hz refresh rate. Got the money? Maybe pick up two.
I'm a huge fan of mechanical keyboards because I love that tactile 'click' when I'm gaming or writing. The CM Storm QuickFire XT offers a full-sized budget mechanical keyboard with Blue or Brown Cherry MX Switches. If you write more, go with the Blue. If you game more, go with the Brown. (The Red Switches are less clicky and best for gaming, but you'll lose the numpad in the CM Storm lineup at this price.) No, it doesn't glow or anything.
Mouse: Razer DeathAdder ($52)
The Razer DeathAdder is a no-frills wired gaming mouse for the player on a budget. It sports a 6400 dpi sensor, which is good enough for most budding PC gamers, and it only has four mouse buttons, skipping all the extra mess that comes on some other gaming mice.
Operating System: Windows 8.1 64-bit ($100)
You may find an OEM copy for cheaper than this price, but you shouldn't budget around $100 for Windows 8.1 regardless. Some may have issues with Windows 8, but I honestly spend all my time in Desktop Mode and haven't had any problems with 8.1.