On the hunt for the best desktop PC recommendations have always been among the most difficult, at least beyond the basic stream-video-and-surf-the-web systems. And gaming PCs rank among one of the hardest, at least if you're in the 99% for whom price matters. There are just too many choices, with way too many permutations.in 2020? This guide may be able to help. But first I should disclose that, in all my decades of offering buying advice, Windows
We've hit a big transitional period with respect to picking the two major system components,and processor. Intel earlier this year announced the first wave of its eagerly awaited . Though I don't expect a huge performance improvement in typical CPU tasks, Ice Lake's upgraded graphics engine could affect how important a discrete graphics card is to you. The 10th-gen edition adds Thunderbolt 3 native support as well -- no driver necessary -- which hopefully will speed its adoption in Windows desktops. At the very least, the faster transfer can potentially make storing or swapping games externally a lot less painful.
In addition, AMD finally shipped the first of its new line of mainstream gaming cards, the. Nvidia countered with . It doesn't provide new performance thresholds, but the pricing change affects the head-to-head choice in gaming experience with AMD.
|Origin PC Millennium||Best for take-all-my-money 4K, HDR performance||Starts at $1,935||See at Origin PC|
|HP Pavilion Gaming Desktop||The cheapest option||Starts at $750||See at HP|
|Alienware Aurora R8||Best for 1080p or under $1,000||Starts at $900||See at Alienware|
|Digital Storm Bolt X||Best for 1440p gaming in style||Starts at $1,650||See at Digital Storm|
|Falcon Northwest Talon / Tiki||Best for the artful gamer||Starts at $2,127||See at Falcon Northwest|
|CyberpowerPC Gamer Xtreme VR||Alternate $955 option||Starts at $955||See at Amazon|
Choosing the best gaming PC is all about trade-offs. Every game uses system resources -- processor (CPU), graphics processor (GPU), memory (RAM), storage -- differently, and often horribly inefficiently. You can't even count on resource core usage consistency across a specific game genre, such as first-person shooter (FPS) or platformer, because optimization levels can vary wildly. Gaming ( ) PCs are the angry toddlers of consumer electronics: They're loud, willful and require constant supervision. And just when you think they're under control, they veer off into crazytown.
I'll admit, I'm waving my hands a bit here: These are not recommendations for specific systems, more for ballpark configurations and honorable mentions of the manufacturers or system builders with a specific case design that you should consider in various scenarios. (And when it's time to sweat the details, User Benchmark is a great site for getting a sense of key features, and performance deltas between different components.)
If you want a little more guidance beyond these recommendations for the best gaming PC, scroll down to the end of the story. And note that this is not my final word; this story will evolve over time.
HP's Pavilion Gaming Desktop is a compact, budget-friendly, spare-me-the-flashiness model, targeting the same "casual" gamer as Dell's Inspiron Gaming or Acer's Nitro lines, but a lot more understated. This $750 base model should provide at least the minimum you need to play relatively undemanding games in 1080p without poking your eyes out with a stick: i5-8400 with a free Optane upgrade to accelerate disk operations for the 1TB hard disk a little, a GTX 1050 Ti and 8GB of RAM. That's about what you get with budget gaming laptops. It's got a ton of connections on the front, though -- four USB-A, one USB-C and an SD card slot.
Another option that's a little more powerful for just a little more dough, CyberpowerPC's Gamer Xtreme VR (GXiVR8060A7) is aggressively priced for its components -- for a little over $950, you get a GTX 160 and additional 120GB SSD over the HP. That little nudge in specs may be enough to tip performance into the acceptable range for some games.
For less than a grand, you won't get terrific performance from this midsize desktop -- well, midsize for a gaming system -- but you should be able to get more than 60fps in 1080p on action-oriented (i.e., not full of big-texture, detailed graphics) games. The chassis not only has a lot of connectors, it has a relative bounty of USB ports in the front -- one USB-C and three USB-A.
The $900 base configuration includes an i5-9400, 8GB RAM, a Radeon RX 560X and a 1TB hard drive. If you can afford it, I really recommend going with a solid-state drive (SSD) instead, even though it's much smaller capacities; Windows reallly does run faster. You can always get an inexpensive external hard drive for near-line storage. You may also want to spend a little more for the 2x2 Wi-Fi networking card.
However, if you're just looking to blast through 1080p and can spend more, upgrade to a GTX 1660 Ti (a plain 1660 would be fine, too, but it's not an option), 16GB of RAM and/or a 512GB SSD. Those should also bump your performance level up to decent 1440p performance on some games.
While HD (1,920x1,080 pixels) is still the most popular gaming resolution, 1440p (also referred to as 2K for its 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution) is sl-o-o-o-o-wly starting to rise in popularity. A 1440p-capable system has the side benefit of allowing for smooth 1080p play at a higher quality as well, so even if you're not ready to play in 1440p, you can think of it as future-proofing.
The GTX 1660 Ti is a solid choice here, and coupling it with an overclockable i5-9600K, 16GB 3,200MHz RAM and a 1TB SSD should give you great 1080p frame rates and decent 1440p at high quality. It's not cheap at about $1,800 for the setup, but it's reasonable for the components as well as Digital Storm's gorgeous and compact Bolt X case (though not as small as the never-materialized Project Spark), plus moral support in the company's relatively active on-site forums.
Falcon Northwest specializes in blazingly fast systems wrapped in custom paint jobs. The Tiki is its most compact system, yet you can cram up to a top-of-the-line i9-9900K and GeForce RTX 2080 Ti into it.
The Talon, on the other hand, has the design of a mundane midtower, but that means it can pack in a lot of high-end components, including an 18-core i9-9980XE and dual RTX 2080 Ti cards (or dual Quadro P6000s). And once you customize the chassis it's not so mundane anymore.
Unfortunately, you're stuck with the onboard audio and networking for some of the configurations, like the i9-9900K/dual RTX 2080 Ti we just tested, and of course, get ready to throw wads of cash at it. You do get personalized service, though the website is noticeably devoid of support information -- all you get is the hardcopy documentation and media arranged in a binder -- and FNW doesn't have its own command center software.
If you're going for maximum performance or maximum configurability, then go boutique. You can get fast systems for the same breathtaking prices from companies like Alienware, but they're a little more cookie cutter (though it feels odd to call anything that looks like the Area-51 "cookie cutter"), tend to be more conservatively tuned, and when you drop $10,000 on a system, you're still just a drop in the bucket for Dell's business.
In addition to the extra care, boutique sites like Falcon Northwest, Origin PC, Digital Storm and so on are a lot more transparent about the components you're choosing -- none more extreme than Origin PC, where your choices get pretty granular. In addition to picking the brand and speed of memory and power supply, which is typical, you choose which motherboard you want and what color the cover for the power supply cables should be.
Being able to choose the motherboard rather than just the chipset can be important; they all have their quirks, lighting schemes (I love the visual of the MSI Z390 Godlike we had in the Millennium we tested) and connector differences, for example.
And if you want reliable, smooth 4K gaming, especially with HDR tossed in, you're going to need at least an i9-9900K and RTX 2080 Ti. Probably two 2080 Tis if you want a side of ray tracing with that.
Origin PC's cases aren't the prettiest on the outside, though you can get custom paint jobs and laser etching to bling them up, but they're well designed -- easy to open and work inside -- and what you see through the transparent side panels looks great. And you can get 'em big: The Millennium is the second-largest case option and it still intimidated all the other desktops on the lab bench.
Digital Storm also has thoughtfully designed cases. I love the Aventum X which has perks such as quick-disconnect fittings on the cooling tubes so you can actually get your hands in to swap components. Plus, it's a sleek standing slab with cool lighting schemes that really give off the Tron vibe.
As you configure your gaming rig, here are some considerations to keep in mind:
- For whichever CPU you buy, get the latest generation available. It's usually indicated by by the first digit of the CPU model name. Tn this case, that means the eighth - or ninth generation for Intel Core i (such as i7-9700K, a processor) and third generation for (e.g., Ryzen 7 3700X). That may or may not still be true once we see a subsequent generation of either, but for now, there have been noticeable performance increases from the previous generations.
- A "gaming system" is effectively defined by its use of a discrete graphics processor, which, for the moment at least, means AMD Radeon or Nvidia GeForce graphics. So it (should) go without saying that you should avoid dirt-cheap configurations with integrated GPUs (iGPUs). However, if the best gaming PC you can afford right now is an iGPU-based system, make sure it either has sufficient slot space and power supply for a GPU upgrade. Unfortunately, Thunderbolt 3 ports on desktops are pretty scarce, so attaching an external GPU (eGPU) at some point in the future may not be an option yet.
- Figure out what kind of tech support client you are. Do you waste hours banging away at a problem, scouring the web for help, rather than contacting the company -- guilty! -- or do you want humans available to you to quickly help smooth over the rough patches? Big manufacturers usually have active user forums scattered around the web for user-to-user help and knowledge-bases with some troubleshooting help; boutique builders, not so much, because you're paying a premium for more personal human help and because the configurations are highly customized.
- Before you start configuring, think about what your most frequently played games are and check out forums to figure out whether their performance depends on a gazillion-core CPU or eats GPU cycles. Can they take noticeable advantage of 4K resolution, or do they look the same as in HD, just with an unplayably large drop in frame rate?
- On the flip side, don't get hung up too much on frame rates past a certain point: If you look at the numbers across a variety of benchmarks and game types, you do get a sense of the relative power of one configuration over another. But your goal is smooth gameplay -- depending upon the game and your monitor's capabilities, that can vary from a minimum of 60fps to 240fps or more -- at a quality level that pleases you and that fits within your budget. The Falcon Northwest and Origin PC systems I've tested most recently have given me over 200fps in 4K running Doom because that game takes advantage of the dual GPUs in it. But I'd be dying just as spectacularly at 120fps in 1440p (2,560x1,440) and have learned I would gladly exchange some of those frames for more stability in Adobe's applications.
- Intel vs. AMD CPUs: Unless you're buying a custom build or doing it yourself, you really don't get to choose comparable configurations to mix and match. The manufacturers tend to choose the configurations based on what they think will be popular at given price levels. Pick your preferred graphics card and then see what CPU options are on offer within your budget. AMDs tend to have slower clock speeds -- they have higher base clocks and lower boost clocks -- but better multicore performance for the same money. If your favorite games are old, they probably don't take advantage of more than four cores (if that), and will likely give you the power you need from Intel's fast individual cores.
|Alienware Area-51m||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080; (2) 512GB SSD RAID 0 + 1TB HDD|
|Digital Storm Lynx (2019)||Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.2GHz AMD Ryzen 7 2700; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060; ADATA SU650 SATA600 240GB SSD + Toshiba HDW120 SATA600 2TB 7,200rpm HDD|
|Falcon Northwest Talon (2018)||Windows 10 Professional (64-bit); 3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K (OC to 4.7GHz); 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000MHz; 2 x 11,264MB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti; Samsung SSD EVO 970 2TB|
|Origin PC Eon-17X (2019)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM3GHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080; 500GB SSD + 2TB HDD|
|Origin PC Millennium (2019)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,200MHz; 2 x 11,264MB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti; 512GB SSD + 3TB HDD|
Originally published April 11, 2019.
Update, April 30: Added information on CPUs, as well as performance data.