Picking Your Parts

Selecting the parts that will make up your PC is, perhaps, the most important part of the process. The hardware you select will determine how fast your PC runs, how quickly it is able to open up programs, what games (if any) it is capable of running, how much information can be stored, and much more. You will also need to check for compatibility. The best tool for this, in general, is www.pcpartpicker.com. PC Part Picker allows you to create a custom build, and they have essentially every component available. It will only show you parts that are compatible with the other parts you have added. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of picking parts, try checking my Parts Lists for compatible components you can use in your builds, as well as the performance they’re benchmarked for in-game. Even if you opt to use a pre-assembled list of parts, I recommend reading this section, as it covers the function of each component in further depth, and highlights the differences between popular brands and types. Below is a general guide on what to look for in each specific part.

Motherboard:

You don’t need to spend big on the motherboard. The main factors to consider when choosing one are the number of RAM slots and compatibility with the rest of your components. In specific, CPU compatibility varies greatly between motherboards, since different generations and brands of processors feature different socket types. There’s no need to worry about these specifics, though, because if you pick a CPU for your system build on PC Part Picker, it will then only show you motherboards that are compatible, thus simplifying the process a little.

Unless you’re building a rig with dual graphics cards (which I wouldn’t recommend) you won’t need more than one PCIe slot. There are three main types of motherboard: ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX. While there are many other sizes, they are not nearly as common as these three.

  • ATX: This is the full-sized motherboard, and comes with multiple PCIe slots and four RAM slots. It costs more and takes up more space than the other two sizes, but in exchange allows for greater customizability; you can have more RAM and run dual graphics cards if desired.
  • Micro-ATX: This is the mid-sized motherboard. It is generally cheaper than its smaller counterpart, and usually comes complete with four RAM slots and one PCIe slot. This should be enough for just about any PC build, since theoretically you could have 128GB of RAM and just about any graphics card.
  • Mini-ITX: This is the smallest motherboard, but it’s typically more expensive than a Micro-ATX. It is usually only used when you need to fit your PC in a very tight compartment.

The best course of action is usually to decide what CPU, RAM, graphics card, and case to use first, then choose your Motherboard based on this.


CPU:

The CPU is probably the most important component, so it’s important to consider thoroughly when picking one. There are two main brands to choose from: Intel and AMD. There are many generations of CPU’s (Intel is on its 10th generation, and AMD’s Ryzen processors are on their 5th) Within each brand, there are four main categories to choose from:

  • The 9 category: Intel’s Core i9 and AMD’s Ryzen 9 processor. These are the most powerful processors available, and consequently the most expensive. You will only ever need an i9 or Ryzen 9 for pushing extremely high framerates or resolutions on the most demanding of games, or for extreme multitasking such as streaming and running games simultaneously.
  • The 7 category: Intel’s Core i7 and AMD’s Ryzen 7 processor. These are extremely powerful processors and are capable of running games at very high framerates when paired with a good graphics card, and capable of running many programs at the same time with no trouble. The i7 or Ryzen 7 is typically the best processor choice for a gaming rig, as these can get 240 frames per second in all but the most CPU-intensive games. Their in-game performance is almost identical to that of their i9 counterparts in most cases, so it’s definitely worth saving the money if you can. They may also be the best option for you if you plan on having a very large number of programs running simultaneously.
  • The 5 category: Intel’s Core i5 and AMD’s Ryzen 5 processor. These are still very strong processors and can pull at least 144 frames per second in most games when paired with a good graphics card. An i5 or Ryzen 5 is good if you’re looking to build a gaming rig on a budget, or if you need to run office-type software (like word processors, Internet browsers, or spreadsheets) at maximum speed.
  • The 3 category: Intel’s Core i3 and AMD’s Ryzen 3 processor. These are the cheapest processors, but also the least powerful. These are typically the best choice only if you’re looking to build a PC for basic office-type functions as described above, such as email and Internet browsing. That’s not to say they can’t be used for gaming, though. Some higher-end i3 and Ryzen 3 processors can easily run AAA games at well upwards of 60FPS, so do your research before buying.

As such, it’s worth noting that there is a great deal of overlap between these categories in terms of performance. This means that the best i3 is far better than the worst i5, the best i5 is a lot better than the worst i7, and the same goes for the i7 and i9. The Ryzen 5 5600x, for example, outperforms Intel’s i9-9900k in gaming benchmarks. As a general rule, however, when comparing same-generation processors, the i9 is the best, followed by the i7, i5, and i3 in that order. The same applies to Ryzen processors.

Which is better: AMD or Intel?

It’s impossible to say whether one of these two brands are superior. AMD and Intel both manufacture excellent processors, and in the current state of the market neither brand is the definitive best. In terms of gaming performance, Ryzen currently holds the top 4 spots according to the Tom’s Hardware CPU Benchmark Hierarchy (which I’d definitely check out before settling on a processor), but Intel’s high-end processors are still a force to be reckoned with.

Conclusion:

When choosing a CPU then, it’s best to choose based on these general guidelines. Once you have narrowed your choice down to a category, you need to decide which specific processor you want (for example, there are 12 9th-generation i7 processors). When building a gaming rig, decide what kind of performance you want from your PC and what resolution you intend to run it at, and run benchmarks. First, I’d start by looking at this list to get a good idea of how each CPU compares to its peers. Once you have a general idea of what price/quality range you’re interested in buying from, I would test different CPU/Graphics card combinations here to get a reasonable estimate for what framerate you will be able to get, in what games, and on what settings. If you want to compare two different CPUs with the same graphics card, use this tool. If, say, you’re looking to run Modern Warfare on low settings at 144FPS in 1080p, try different combinations of CPU and GPU to see how cheap you can get your build while still getting the quality you want. Consider the benchmark an overestimate and leave some margin for error, so if you want 144 frames, look for a CPU-GPU combination that gets around 180 in order to play it safe. Games can become less optimized over time (see Fortnite Battle Royale for a great example of this), so it’s best to leave some wiggle room. If you’re building an office-grade PC and don’t intend to buy a graphics card, double-check that the processor you want has integrated graphics before you order it. Without integrated graphics, your processor can’t create an image on the screen, rendering  it worthless (I’m sorry).

CPU Cooling System:

Unless you plan to overclock your CPU (boost the speed it runs at to get better performance from it), the default cooler that comes with your processor should be more than adequate. For this reason, I won’t cover the process of picking a CPU cooler in this guide, but if you decide you want to buy an aftermarket cooler here’s a list of some excellent choices. It’s also worth noting that some higher-end processors don’t come with a cooler, so make sure to check before you order so you can get one if necessary.

Graphics Card:

The graphics card is another monumentally important part of your PC build. You won’t need a graphics card for basic office utilities, but for things like gaming, 3D rendering, and high-resolution video editing it’s essential to have a graphics card. The graphics card market, much like the CPU market, is dominated by 2 brands. AMD has its Radeon line of graphics cards, while Nvidia has its Geforce line.

Geforce cards can range in performance from can’t-run-Valorant-at-30FPS office-grade GPU’s to the RTX 3090, which is a beast of a graphics card to say the least (It’s the indisputable best consumer-grade card available). Meanwhile, Radeon cards mostly fall into the lower-to-mid tier, but offer a better performance-to-cost ratio.

Choosing your GPU is fairly straightforward. Similar to the CPU-selection process, the best way to decide on your ideal graphics card is to look up benchmarks and figure out what card will meet your needs. Make sure to take your time and whittle your options down before making an ultimate decision. As I recommended when picking a processor, this is a great tool for comparing framerates with essentially any GPU-CPU combination. Tom’s Hardware has also graced us with an excellent GPU hierarchy list, which you can view here, which should help you find where your prospective graphics card sits in relation to others.

Between these resources, it should be fairly simple to find your ideal graphics card. Find the general range in the hierarchy list that you think will give you the performance you need while not exceeding your budget, pick a specific card, and run a benchmark. If it performs better than is necessary (ie. It gets 300 frames per second in the game you will be playing when you’re only planning on buying an 144hz monitor), you might want to try a less-expensive card in order to get more value while still getting the performance you’re looking for. Picking a graphics card is a trial-and-error process, so it will probably take a decent amount of research before you finally find the exact one you’re looking for. Keep in mind that your CPU heavily influences your computer’s in-game performance as well, so it may be beneficial to try a different CPU in the mix as well.

A Note on Bottlenecking:

If you buy a CPU that is significantly more powerful than your GPU, or vice versa, this can result in a CPU or GPU bottleneck. What this means is that one piece of hardware is maxing out while the other is not using close to its full potential.

For example, a CPU bottleneck would occur if your processor was running at 100% of its capacity while your graphics card is only at 40%. At the most basic level, this means you inefficiently spent money. Your frames are capped by your CPU’s performance, so even though your graphics card can handle the workload demanded of it easily, its extra power does you no good. You’d be better off buying a more powerful CPU and spending a little less on your graphics card, since this way you will get more frames per second at the same cost. Ideally both your processor and GPU will be at similar percentages when running games at full blast, as this indicates that your system is efficient.

It’s also worth noting that some games are more CPU-reliant, sometimes referred to as being “CPU bound” or “CPU locked”. The benchmark tool I showed earlier should account for this, but keep in mind that if you plan on playing multiple games, you should be aware of which ones are CPU bound so you can get a more powerful processor if you think that you will be playing these.

Storage Drive:

When deciding on a storage drive, the first consideration should, of course, be how much storage you need. If you know you’ll be using your computer to create and store videos, download photos from your phone, install massive games, or house clips you’ll need a decent bit of storage. I wouldn’t recommend getting less than 1TB of storage most of the time, since storage is immensely cheap (Seagate has a 2TB hard drive for less than 40 bucks). The one exception to this is if you know you won’t be storing any storage-heavy media on your computer (i.e. games, videos, and photos). In these instances, you probably don’t need a terabyte and could likely get away with buying 500GB of storage, or even 250 in some instances.

After storage capacity, the real quandary is whether or not to buy an SSD. Solid state drives are a little bit pricier, but they are well worth the money. Your computer will boot much faster, and you can search for and transfer files much more quickly. Moreover, prices have dropped significantly in the past few years. Cost used to be a major factor when deciding between a solid state or hard drive, but now there are some 1TB SSDs available for under $100.

Should you decide to buy an SSD, you must now decide between a NVMe or a SATA model. In the end, it will come down to how much you are willing to spend. If speed is your top priority and you have money to spare, go with an NVMe. For recommendations on what to buy, you can consult our buyer’s guide for a list of good choices. If you can do with a little bit slower drive in order to save money, go with a SATA. These are still plenty fast for the average consumer.

To summarize, you need to make sure you get enough storage for your needs. That should be your first priority. The good news is that all modern motherboards support multiple storage drives, often up to four, so you can always buy another if you’re running low on storage in a year or two. Secondly, if at all possible, you should purchase an SSD. It’s worth every penny.

RAM:

RAM is another component that is typically worth spending a little bit extra on. If you’re on a tight budget you can get by with 8GB of RAM, but you should never drop below that. There’s only about a $20 difference in the cost of typical 8GB and 16GB RAM, and the smoother performance is well worth the slight uptick in cost.

It’s also important to note the DDR type of your RAM. DDR4 is the most recent RAM type that is commonly available on the market, and is about twice as fast as its predecessor DDR3, so it’s important to make sure that you’re buying the best RAM.

If you will have many Chrome tabs, spreadsheets, text documents, videos, or anything of that nature open simultaneously, you may want to invest in a higher amount of RAM (32, 64, or even 128GB in extreme cases). If in doubt, know that most people never have occasion to use more than 32GB of RAM unless they frequently have a very large number of windows/tabs within a program open at the same time (think stock traders switching back and forth between spreadsheets and things of that nature).

Power Supply:

When choosing a power supply, your primary consideration should be its wattage. This is incredibly straightforward. The safest method is to use NewEgg’s Power Supply calculator or a similar tool to see exactly how much power your system will drain. Multiply this number by 1.3 and then round up to the next multiple of 50. That’s the power supply wattage you want.

If that didn’t make sense, here’s an example:

If NewEgg estimates my total system wattage will be 600W, I take:

600 x 1.3, which is 780. Now round up to the next 50W interval, which is 800. Based on this, I’ll buy an 800W power supply. This is a good rule of thumb to use in order to account for any sudden spikes in energy usage that may occur.

The next most important aspect of a power supply is its modularity. Modularity means, essentially, the customizability of a power supply. Fully modular means that every single power cable can be removed, allowing you to only use cables that are needed. On the other end of the spectrum, non-modular power supplies have all of the cables built-in, and you are unable to remove them.

This means that, with non-modular cables, you will probably end up having excess cables that aren’t connected to anything that are still taking up space in your case. The only benefit is that non-modular PSU’s are cheaper. When choosing a power supply, I would recommend opting for a semi-modular design (a hybrid between non-modular and fully modular), as they are usually the most practical. The essential cables, such as the ATX cable that powers your motherboard and your CPU cable, are built in. Other cables like the 8-pin used for most graphics cards are modular, so you can use them if needed, but not have extra unused cables in your case.

Lastly you should give some thought to efficiency, which is usually listed as the “80-Plus” rating. When a PSU sends power to your computer, some percentage of the power from your outlet never reaches the computer, and is instead released as heat. The more heat is released, the less power reaches the computer and the less efficient the PSU is. This is where the rating system called the “80 Plus system” comes in. If 18% of the total wattage coming from the wall is lost in transit to your PC, your PSU is 82% efficient, and thus would earn a Bronze rating based on the chart shown above. If only 8% is lost, it would be 92% efficient, and would earn a Titanium rating. This is the premise of the 80 Plus rating system.

Which should I get?

In theory, then, you should always buy a Titanium-rated PSU, right? Not exactly. Take this EVGA fully-modular 650W PSU, for example. At the time of writing, it costs $155, nearly twice as much as the $80 price tag on its bronze counterpart shown here, for only a 9% jump in efficiency at full load. It would take nearly 10,000 hours, or over a year, of your computer running at full speed to save the $75 extra you spent on the Titanium (assuming a $.12/kwh electricity cost).

Which should you get, then? This entirely depends on your computer’s intended use. If you’re building a PC that you intend to use an absolutely monumental amount, such as for computations or very long-term crypto farming, then it may be worth it to buy a more efficient PSU. Otherwise, save your money and stick to the Bronze. For 99% of people, the difference in efficiency is negligible, while the price difference is not.

Case:

The case is one of the more fun parts to choose, since usually it boils down to aesthetics. If you need a case with a CD/DVD tray, SD card reader, or anything else specific make sure to ensure that the one you order has those features. Look for a case that comes with fans installed, as this will help keep your entire system cool. Ideally, you’ll have at least one in both the front and back. Alternatively, you can buy extra system fans if your case is compatible.

If you know you’re going to have to store your tower in a cabinet or tight space, it’s good to check the dimensions and make sure your chosen case will fit. Likewise, if you already have your heart set on a certain motherboard, you will need to double-check that the case is compatible with that motherboard. Cases will have a set list of motherboard types they support so, for example, a smaller case probably won’t support a full-sized ATX motherboard.

Aside from these considerations, picking a case boils down to what you want your PC to look like. Take your time, because you’ll be looking at the case for as long as you have your computer.  

Monitor:

Last but not least comes the monitor. You may already have one if you’re upgrading from an old computer, but if not, you’ll need to select a new one. The four main factors to consider with a monitor are size, response time, refresh rate, resolution, and adjustability.

Size boils down to personal preference and how much space you have. In my experience the ideal size for a monitor is between 24 and 32 inches.

Secondly, response time is important (mainly in conjunction with a gaming PC). Response time is the time it takes for a monitor to switch from one color to another. It sounds abstract, but in essence a lower response time means your monitor will be more responsive when playing games, and display the image in closer-to-real-time. It’s difficult to notice any difference between a 10ms and 1ms response time, but you should aim to buy one that’s 10ms or lower. Most good monitors these days are in the 1ms to 5ms range anyway, so it doesn’t make sense to settle for less.

At this point you should have already decided on the rest of your components, and should have a good idea of what frame rate you’ll be running games at. Your monitor should make full use of the frames your computer gets, so if your PC gets 144FPS on most games, you should buy an 144hz monitor. If it gets 240FPS, get a 240hz monitor. When on a budget, 144hz is usually the golden standard, since the jump from 60 to 144FPS is massive compared to the jump from 144 to 240. If you can’t afford that, 60hz is still fine, especially if you’re not playing games competitively, but shoot for 144hz if at all possible. They’re very affordable; there are even some for less than $150 with a 1ms response time. If you won’t be playing games on your PC, refresh rate still affects your overall experience, as it makes everything feel smoother, not just games, so it may still be worth the extra money on an 144hz monitor.

Next is resolution, which goes hand-in-hand with refresh rate. Your monitor’s resolution will directly impact the framerate you’re able to get, and the refresh rate you need. By this point, you should already have a specific resolution in mind, so buy a monitor that supports your desired resolution.

As a last consideration, look into your monitor’s adjustability. Some come with an adjustable arm that allows you to move the screen up and down, which will allow you to view the screen at the desired height, rather than having to strain your neck. If this is important to you, make sure you get a monitor that includes this feature.

Conclusion:

As a final precaution, put all of your parts into PC Part Picker if you haven’t already. It doesn’t take much time, and it should catch any compatibility errors that may arise. Doing this will ensure that you don’t buy all of your parts just to find that they won’t work together.

Next section: Parts Lists (Recommended Builds)

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