What Is a Gaming Computer, And Why Do You Need One?
Playing a game is among the most taxing jobs you can give a computer. Editing video comes close, but nothing demands as much processing power as creating a photo-realistic environment that constantly reacts to your input. Above all, gaming PCs require a serious graphics card (also called the graphics processing unit, or GPU), the hardware that handles the calculations required to make everything look pretty, even when the scene is full of explosions and moving characters. They’re designed to be upgradable, so, years from now, when your system can’t handle the demands of the next Call of Duty, you can spend $600 on a new graphics card instead of buying a whole new PC.
That’s right—PC. Most Macs don’t have strong enough GPUs for modern games, and Apple packs hardware in so tightly that upgrading is impossible. Except for laptops, gaming PCs don’t come with monitors, and most don’t even include a keyboard and mouse, so you’ll have to find those separately.
Gaming on a Mac? The graphics cards Apple uses are great for editing video but not always powerful enough to run serious games. A new app called GeForce Now is basically a Cloud gaming PC. As long as your internet speed is fast enough, your Mac or older PC can access a high-test Nvidia server that does all the processing work remotely.
Sound intimidating? It’s not. If you’ve read this far, you already know most of what you need to get into the deep waters of serious gaming.
Spending at the lower end means getting a last-generation central processing unit (CPU) like the Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5, and a decent but not top-end GPU, like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 OC 3G. Spend on extra memory (at least 32 GB of RAM) and peripherals.
MSI Trident 3: Even if you factor in the cost of upgrading to at least 16 GB of RAM, this is a solid price for both an Intel Core i5 processor and Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics card. But for anyone who wants to avoid the look of a late-’90s tower PC, the Trident 3 wins for its Scandinavian furniture design. And somehow, MSI made it possible to reach in and upgrade parts, including the CPU, without disassembling the whole thing. BEST FOR: The console convert.
Dell XPS Tower: Out of the box, this PC will hit most spec requirements, which is insane at this price. If you can, spend extra for a newer generation of Intel’s CPUs, known as i7. Your computer will not become obsolete as quickly, and if this is also your primary machine, it will be faster when multitasking. Even if you buy a low-end setup, the casing makes everything accessible and easy to upgrade later. BEST FOR: The committed first-timer.
Lenovo Legion C730 Cube: The Legion line checks every important box: easy to upgrade without tools, high-grade Nvidia graphics card, enough power to make current top-tier games look gorgeous, and it ships with 32 GB of RAM. The profile makes it possible to fit underneath a desk without taking up all the floor space. We just can’t figure out why the designers put the headphone port and USB ports on the bottom, making them near useless if you set this on the floor. BEST FOR: Space savers.
Acer Nitro 5: You feel why this laptop costs over a grand less than others—flimsy plastic all over, even on the trackpad, and an unportable weight of six pounds. That money went to the hardware inside, which will handle most top-end games. Points, too, for the copious port selection, including Ethernet, so you don’t have to spend on adapters. BEST FOR: Cheap mobility.
One performance bump you see when you hit four figures: higher fps, or frames per second. In the tier below this, you’re stuck at around 60 fps, the same as most televisions and smartphones. Above that gives you an appreciably smoother experience.
MSI Infinite X: If you ignore the lights, geometric casing, and huge footprint, the Infinite X is pragmatic. A GTX 1070 graphics card makes games buttery smooth, it ships with enough RAM for multitasking, and front-facing ports let you easily add a VR headset. There are cheaper, less conspicuous options. But we would never talk anyone out of flashy tech. BEST FOR: Those with floor space.
Origin PC Chronos: A bit bigger than an Xbox, but with so, so much more power thanks to a trick liquid-cooling system. The magnetic feet can be set anywhere on the case, so you can lay it flat or upright without blocking the fans. BEST FOR: Fans of compact power.
Asus ROG Strix GL12: The Intel Core i7 processor makes for crazy fast multitasking, which is necessary if you’re streaming. If you’re into VR, upgrade from the base model to get a higher-level graphics card and 16 GB of RAM. Includes a solid keyboard and mouse that will hold you over until you decide to upgrade. BEST FOR: Demanding first-timers.
Want to run the most graphically gorgeous titles at full capacity? It’ll cost you. But for the few games that use all the tricks (UHD, HDR), it’s a visual feast.
Corsair One: Gamers know Corsair’s peripherals—keyboards, cases, headsets, fans. This is the company’s first PC, and it’s a compact powerhouse. The cooling system is quiet, the aluminum casing looks good enough to sit on your desk, and it can run 4K games at 60 fps (typically the highest frame rate you can get at 4K resolution). Pay the extra $200 for the Elite model, which comes with 16 GB more RAM. BEST FOR: Non-tinkerers.
Razer Blade 15: Gaming laptops are often impossible to upgrade, hot, heavy, big. Newly updated Blade laptops are none of that. They look like an Apple product, but with un-Apple gaming capability. Get the 144-Hz display. That refresh rate will keep up with modern games—and nearly anything that might come out in the future. BEST FOR: Nintendo Switch deniers.
Origin Millennium: You can and should opt to have Origin install two graphics cards, and the latest-generation CPUs, which push the Millennium into supercar territory, capable of handling any game on the market at its highest graphics settings. BEST FOR: Aesthetes.
Once you have the main hardware settled, you need the rest of the computer.
All gaming monitors are G-Sync or FreeSync. The former works with Nvidia graphics cards, the latter with AMD. The distinction has to do with matching the computer’s rate of data production with the monitor’s ability to represent that data, often speeding up or slowing down the frame rate to produce the smoothest possible visuals. G-Sync is considered higher-end and FreeSync a better value, but buy based on your computer. Non- negotiable features include a DisplayPort port (the HDMI connections you use for a TV or Xbox won’t cut it) and 2560 x 1440 resolution.
Dell 24 S2417DG: If you can, spend extra for at least a 27-inch monitor. If you can’t, Dell’s 24-inch line has specs (165-Hz refresh rate, 2560 x 1440 display) that easily make up for the size deficiency.
ViewSonic XG2700-4K: Industry-top for FreeSync, with 4K and UHD, plus loads of ports, and a stand that swivels and adjusts both height and tilt.
Asus ROG Swift PG27UQ: Being able to run 4K resolution at 144-Hz refresh rate makes this among the highest-powered gaming monitors you can buy. In reality, you have to work really hard to get a game to run anywhere even close to this monitor’s peak performance. But if you have the cash and want your games to look as smooth and gorgeous as possible, this is the place to spend.
Kingston HyperX Cloud: Essential for modern games, where you listen for enemies based on the sound direction. Spending more gets you comfortable materials and wireless connectivity, necessary only if you’re a marathon player.
Logitech G610: Comes with responsive Cherry MX switches. Other keyboards cost more because they have color-changing keys, but you won’t miss that.
Logitech G305: Modern wireless mice are now as responsive as cable mice. The G305 feels every bit as fast as a corded mouse, and its software makes it simple to customize the functions of each button.
Q: If you have an Xbox, do you need a gaming PC?
A: If you have to ask, probably not. Gaming consoles are approachable, can involve more than one IRL player, and are cheaper than a PC. But if you’re starting from zero or have an aging console, PCs win almost every category. There are a few games that only come out on Xbox, PS4, or Nintendo Switch, but the biggest titles are usually available on a PC, plus other non-console exclusives. PCs are more expensive, but when you buy one, you get access to games, plus a device that will let you file your taxes or do homework.
The reason pro competitors and the most famous Twitch streamers use PCs is because the keyboard and mouse are, arguably, more precise than thumb joysticks. And unlike on a living-room Xbox, gaming on a PC can’t be done while either physically or mentally reclined. It’s engaging in a way that consoles can’t always match.
How An Upgrade Feels
Popular Mechanics’ copy chief (a former level 90 druid in World of Warcraft) tested the new Razer Blade ($1,900). How does it compare to her $200 Lenovo 110S laptop?
It feels sentient, a sleek black idol waiting for you to do something worthy. It’s total overkill for Stardew Valley, a pixelated retro-style farming game which, on my Lenovo, is, well, playable. On the Razer, Bumblebee Farm looks cozy and lush. Footsteps are weighty, and the cows, goats, and sheep sound alive. On the 110S, my farm appears to be covered with layers of old plastic, and the sound is muddy. Of the more graphically demanding games I tried, only one would even fit on my Lenovo. The Witcher 3 was exhausting to learn, but nevertheless, the woodsy world looks lovely. The sky changes throughout the day, and rivers twinkle as the sun sets. There is no lag at all, so much that the 360-degree viewing makes me dizzy. (An online forum suggests Dramamine.)
Next, I defend against an ear-crunchingly realistic mech attack in Mass Effect 2, then go spacefaring in Stellaris. After collaborating with other players to defeat a few bosses in The Lord of the Rings Online, I am quickly engrossed in Path of Exile, leveling up Onderel, my witch character. I can feel the Razer running quite hot. These games take a lot of energy, it seems. Clearly, this is a powerful, precisely engineered machine, incredibly fast and easy to use. The Razer wins this one. It does a freaking beautiful job. —Robin Tribble