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Building a PC is all about modularity. Exploiting that modularity takes some pre-build planning, but is well worth the extra few minutes. The nature of PCDIY is to avoid restrictions imposed by pre-built systems bought from retailers; the DIY approach, however, means that it’s equally possible to build a $300 “internet box” as it is to build a $2000 high-end rig for video production. All the between options are fully customizable as well, of course, and that includes budget, mainstream, and enthusiast gaming machines.
What are the different types of PCs you can build?
PC Type #1 – Gaming PC
Starting with gaming makes the most sense. Gaming drives hardware advancement in the PC space, so using gaming computers as a launching point into “production” and “streaming” machines simplifies some of the component searching.
This type of PC is primarily geared toward gaming; or, at least, gaming is the most hardware-intensive task the computer will have to sustain. Gaming PCs have a variable price range. It’s possible to build a cheap system – call it $500 – but high-end machines will naturally perform with greater image quality, framerate, and frametime performance. This is especially true when challenging the PC with high-fidelity, triple-A titles or with VR applications, which demand high sustained framerates with consistent frametimes.
We always recommend leveraging all available support channels (media outlets and forums, reddit, official NZXT or vendor support) to ensure that a computer’s specs meet your demands.
Here are a couple rules of thumb for building a gaming PC:
- The video card and CPU are most critical. The GPU, especially with the advent of Dx12 and Vulkan APIs, is easily the most critical component for stably running a game. That said, going disproportionately cheap on the CPU can create bottlenecks that limit GPU performance artificially. There will always be a bottleneck somewhere – but attempting to mitigate or eliminate bottlenecks will ensure the best value out of your purchases.
- Cooling matters. Pick a cool case and, if running a hotter CPU (higher TDP) or planning to overclock, also buy an aftermarket CPU cooler. Websites that run thermal benchmarks will help in this regard. Gaming workloads push components to their limits for long periods of time, and so the computer should be built with greater sensitivity to temperature & breathability than might be attributed to an internet box.
PC Type #2 – Production PC
PCs specified for heavy workloads are usually referred to as “production” or “workstation” machines. We assume that most readers are doing some amount of gaming, so we’ll lay out this section as a “white box production rig capable of gaming,” rather than going full-workstation (as might be desired in a corporate CAD environment, or similar).
Production tasks considered herein are video editing and rendering, 3D modeling, and game development. All three share similar needs: They’re heavy on the CPU, RAM, and modern applications will utilize OpenCL or CUDA on the GPU. This last point is critical. You’ll want to research your applications of choice (maybe that’s Premiere, Photoshop, 3DS Max, etc.) and determine if the software supports CUDA or OpenCL acceleration. If so, shop for GPUs capable of accelerating those applications. GPU acceleration is parallel rather than sequential, and will substantially decrease render and encode times.
But the CPU is still critical in such tasks. CPU intensive workloads are growing less common in games these days (a joint effort of API groups and a movement of some game logic to the GPU), but still exist in production environments. Software like Adobe Premiere will more-or-less use every single thread and core available to it, unlike games with limited thread assignment. RAM is also heavily consumed by post-production effects, modeling, and rendering applications, as they will try to store all relevant materials, FX, and frame analysis in the memory for faster access and real-time preview playback.
Game engines tend to be CPU- and GPU-intensive, depending on what type of real-time calculations are going on in the engine. Production rigs can be expensive for all of these reasons, but if it’s something you’re hoping to use to make a living – on the side or full-time – it’s a worthwhile research project.
PC Type #3 – Streaming PC
Game streaming PCs are still kind of new, largely thanks to the unstoppable rise of streaming sites like Twitch.tv and YouTube. Game streaming requires all the same hardware as gaming does – at least, specifically as it relates to the games you’d like to play – but has some extra recommendations.
If rendering and editing videos (for example, building a PC for a YouTuber), additional memory and more powerful CPUs can be advantageous. If strictly live streaming, it’s helpful to ensure a sufficiently powerful CPU and GPU for the live encode/decode happening on the hardware. You’ll want to research XSplit, OBS, or other relevant streaming software to determine their overhead and recommendations.
There’s more than one function for a PC
One of the best things about building a PC is that you’ll be able to use your machine for more than its intended purpose. This means your “gaming PC” can also be your “homework PC” whenever you need it to. As long as you take the time to research the right hardware, you’ll be able to do a lot more with one PC than most people realize. – GamersNexus
The previous article provided a basic outline and structure for gaming, production, and streaming DIY computer builds. In this extension piece, we’ll talk about the unrepresented minority of DIY projects – but an important and growing minority.
Home-theater PCs, home office / “mainstream” machines, and “internet boxes” make for unique build opportunities with different considerations than a PC gaming rig might have. If purpose-built, these setups can be made efficiently and cheaply, but with great ability to accomplish their home media or light office tasks.
What are some non-gaming PCs you can build?
Non-Gaming PC Type #1 – Home-Theater PC (HTPC)
HTPC builds have a few different categories – but the main two are “media consumption” and “gaming.” An HTPC for media consumption will specialize in movie/TV viewing, music playback, and web streaming. A gaming HTPC could invest a little more in a gaming-grade GPU for TV-bound gameplay, and would likely also account for a controller when buying peripherals.
Regardless of whether the HTPC is targeted at “console replacement” gaming or at media consumption, both have the same baseline needs: Relative silence for tolerable use in a living room or bedroom, reasonably large media storage (networked or local), and a smaller form factor. The NZXT Manta would make for an excellent HTPC case with a bit of flair.
Home-theater PCs should focus most immediately on form factor – the case and motherboard likely should be mini-ITX or (maximally) micro-ATX, as these motherboard form factors will allow more compact sizes. The case should be accordingly fitted and use quieter fans. Together, these build factors make the system more discreet and out-of-the-way as a DVR or console replacement.
Unless you’re exclusively streaming from online video service providers, HTPCs also have storage demands. Entertainment media – high-quality music, video, and games – takes a considerable amount of storage space. Remote media can be managed through a router for external, network-attached storage (like a NAS or cheap network-attached drive), but if that’s intimidating or undesirable, take inventory of the naturally limited drive bay availability of smaller cases and buy accordingly. Higher density drives are desirable if working with only one or two 3.5/2.5” slots.
Tips for building a gaming HTPC: Consider the possibility of consolidating home consoles into a single home-theater box. This is easily done with emulation of older hardware and software, like the NES, SNES, or even N64, and will allow for an immediate reduction in behind-TV cable clutter and boxes. Modern computers are readily able to operate as DVRs (with capture cards and signal converters) or as emulators. Taking advantage of this capability simplifies the overall setup and reduces a reliance on RCA and HDMI switching between multiple devices.
Non-Gaming PC Type #2 – Home Office PC or Mainstream PC
Home office and mainstream PCs are more simplistic. This is what you’d build for a non-technical friend or family member, an office that needs a simple POS/QuickBooks computer, or for general school-style research and writing.
A mainstream PC can be had at more affordable prices than ever, largely thanks to the proliferation of integrated graphics processors (IGPs & APUs). The processing requirements of Office-like software and web browsers have also only modestly increased – but have nowhere near kept pace with architecture advancements in modern processors. Cheap, $50-$100 CPUs can readily sustain such a computer, as can their stock coolers and accompanying cheap motherboards. There’s no need to get Z-series boards and even i3 CPUs for a simple, Office-focused PC. It certainly doesn’t hurt to grab something akin to an i3, but (and check your needs against hardware requirements) Pentiums and Athlon CPUs will get the job done.
Non-Gaming PC Type #3 – Internet Box PC
Not distant from their home office and mainstream brethren, internet boxes have one objective: run a browser. Installing a lightweight OS would be acceptable here – something like Chrome OS or a stripped-down version of Ubuntu – and would further enable usage of cheap hardware. Internet boxes demand little more than Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) ports and a reasonably modern CPU (plus a couple gigabytes of RAM – we all know how greedy browsers and websites have gotten). These can be thrown together using scrap parts that have been cannibalized from retired systems, plus a few modern throw-ins. A new case or cooler quickly cleans-up a build.
Gaming PCs can usually do everything you need and more
Because PC gaming is essentially what drives the the PC hardware industry to innovate, a gaming PC will usually let you do everything you need. This means your gaming PC can also be your HTPC or Internet Box if you want it to. – GamersNexus
Defining that the core focus of a PC build is for “gaming” is a good first step – but there’s more to figure out before just buying top-rated parts from your favorite retailer. Gaming PCs come in many flavors – mostly budget, mid-range, and high-end – and can offer unique capabilities at various price-points. Outside of the usual “just gaming” requirements, builders who seek to stream, make YouTube videos, host Minecraft/game servers, or perform other tasks of varying intensity will need to research part selection.
How should you build a gaming PC?
Picking a Budget for a Gaming PC
This step is largely a function of your available funds – but keep in mind that PC building can be done as an over-time activity; if you just need something functional for now, you can always buy more expensive parts later. That’s the beauty of PCDIY.
But there’s another hard aspect to this: what is an appropriate amount to spend? Maybe you’ve got a flexible budget if the results are worth the extra money – that’s where we come in.
Most budget-friendly gaming PCs are going to land in the ~$500 to $700 range, and will offer generally reasonable performance for gaming at (again – generally) medium settings, 1080p. You’ll forfeit luxuries like an SSD, or maybe a faster GPU or aftermarket CPU cooler, but those are acceptable sacrifices to make if budget is tighter. Generally, if building an entire system from the ground-up, expect that a minimum of ~$550 is pretty reasonable (though there is room as low as the $400s, with cheap parts).
As with anything, quality does start to go down as price does – but that ~$550 area is a great starting point.
Once that’s defined, we can look at options that’d increase price. Adding an SSD, for instance, may be another ~$50 to $100 (for 120-240GB). Upgrading the platform (motherboard and CPU) could be, jointly, about $100-$150. GPUs exist in all price-points, of course, and can also be upgraded.
But do you need those upgrades?
Tips for Building a Mid-Range Gaming PC:
When more intensive games are your lifeblood – or it’s just not acceptable to drop frames or play with lowered settings – a mid-range gaming PC is a good option for 1080p gaming with reasonably high settings. These types of PCs fill-in the middle of the market, and will generally use something akin to a Core i5 CPU and a GTX 960/970/1070 or R9 380X/390X. These builds run a price of ~$700 plus, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule that defines what is firmly “mid-range” versus “budget.”
Tips for Building a High-End Gaming PC:
Going for high-end gaming PC is suitable to streamers, content creators, or budding enthusiasts who demand only the highest settings, framerates, and resolutions. There’s really no cap to how much can be spent. If you don’t feel strongly about ultra graphics with higher resolutions – like 1440p or 4K – and don’t have a need to produce content, then it might be possible for you to save some cash and buy a cheaper setup.
Answer these questions before you build a gaming PC
Before taking the plunge, define these requirements for yourself:
- How much money can I budget toward this project?
- What do I want to spend?
- What am I OK with spending, if I had to?
- Will I be streaming games or making YouTube videos?
- Will I be playing at 1440p, 4K, or UltraWide resolutions?
- Will I be playing AAA titles with Ultra or near-max graphics?
If the answer to most of these lower questions is “no,” then budget and mid-range options may be appealing. If you answered mostly “yes,” then you should consider spending a little bit more money to build something you can use across the board. Just think about what the system will be used for, then start building! – GamersNexus