There are eight core, required components for any gaming-grade PC build. It used to be the case that we considered optical drives a requirement, but those have now been faded into the “optional category;” operating systems can be installed via USB key now, invalidating the need for optical drives (ODDs). Even though an OS purchase often ships in the format of a CD, that CD isn’t required – just download the ISO from the vendor, burn to a USB device, then use the serial number included with your purchased CD.
But that’s a future topic – we’ll get there.
WHAT IS THE REQUIRED HARDWARE TO BUILD A PC?
Required Hardware #1 – Motherboard
If the CPU is the “brain” of the computer, the motherboard and chipset (which is on the motherboard) would be considered the “brainstem.” Without the motherboard and chipset, nothing happens. The CPU’s got to be socketed somewhere – and that’s the board.
Motherboards have three primary form factors: ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX (listed in descending size). ATX runs roughly ~12” x ~12”. Micro-ATX sizes at 9.6” x 9.6” (maximum size). Mini-ITX is sized at 6.7” x 6.7” (maximally).
As for compatibility, the CPU’s socket type must match the motherboard’s – that’s the starting point. Once you’ve validated that the socket types are the same, it’s good to check that the CPU’s memory, the memory you’ve selected, and the motherboard are all compatible. Skylake (Intel Core 6000 series processors), for instance, supports both DDR3L and DDR4. The actual memory used will depend on the motherboard, but both are supported by the CPU (note: DDR3L is not the same as DDR3).
Required Hardware #2- CPU & Cooler
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) – which is almost never called by its full name – is the component responsible for controlling almost all input/output (I/O) functions. It’s also responsible for tasking and scheduling neighbor components, like memory and the GPU (though that is becoming less common with the growth of Dx12 & Vulkan APIs).
A CPU should be selected based upon needs for the system. Gaming rigs can normally opt for something more middle-of-the-road (as a general rule), enthusiast and production machines (or high-end gaming – e.g. for 144Hz gaming) should generally go high-end. Budget-class machines round-out the low-end, of course.
At their heart, CPUs are comprised of cores and caches. CPUs are normally advertised as being dual-, quad-, or octo-core products (or more). One thing to know is that AMD and Intel – the only two noteworthy CPU makers in the desktop space – define cores vastly differently, and so 4 Intel cores does not equal 4 AMD cores. They are not linearly comparable.
Cores also operate at a certain clock-rate, or operating frequency. Some CPUs – often denoted with a “K,” or “K-SKU” – allow an increase in that frequency by overclocking, generally tuning a multiplier (base clock * multiplier = core clock). These parts are of interest for enthusiasts who may play with overclocking in an effort to get more “free” power out of their rigs.
Most CPUs include a CPU cooler, though they’re not very good. Aftermarket coolers are available for superior cooling-to-noise performance – that is, an aftermarket unit will significantly reduce temperature while sustaining a lower noise level.
Required Hardware #3 – Memory
Memory (RAM) transacts live, volatile files and requests to operate at higher speeds than a hard drive might sustain – but with no permanence. Memory wipes regularly. A complete shutdown, for instance, will clear memory. This is the counter to a hard drive, which is non-volatile (more-or-less permanent) memory.
RAM speeds are consequential – but not too much with gaming tasks. It is more important to focus on density – higher capacity-per-stick – than raw speed, though certain production tasks will benefit from the higher frequencies.
Required Hardware #4 – Video Card
After the CPU – or maybe before, in some instances – the video card (GPU) is the most important component in a gaming computer. The video card is directly responsible for graphics processing and outputting high framerates (but the CPU must also keep up, and does plenty of its own physics or queuing work).
With video cards, core specifications include the core count, clock speed, and memory capacity. AMD and nVidia define their cores differently (see: above section on CPU cores), and so are not linearly comparable. The frequencies are also not comparable cross-architecture. It is easiest to compare within a single brand, then check online benchmarks by professionals for performance in individual games. As for memory capacity, that’s also in flux – memory standards are changing for GPUs right now.
It is trending that more games push graphics demanding 4GB+ of video memory, but running lower settings will still allow 2GB capacities (depending on the game, of course).
The best advice is to search a particular card within your price-point – spend more on the GPU if building a gaming box – and then determine which card benchmarks best for your purposes.
Required Hardware #5 – Storage Device
Storage devices consist of hard drives (HDDs), 2.5” solid-state drives (SSDs), M.2 SSDs, PCI-e SSDs, and similar devices. Hard drives are currently capable of running lower prices for higher data densities, but are made of physically spinning disks with higher inherent reliability risks. Solid-state drives store data electrically on something called Flash (or NAND Flash). Because the storage mechanism relies upon transacting data with electrons rather than spinning platters and heads, SSDs are significantly faster than hard drives. They’ve got a trade-off with storage capacity, though, but that’s slowly minimizing.
Some machines run a single SSD, some run an SSD + HDD, and some just run a hard drive. If using an SSD at all, we suggest setting it up as the boot drive, using the HDD for large media like games and movies.
Required Hardware #6 – Case
Computer cases house everything. They’re uniquely important in that looks matter more than with most other components. You’ll be looking at this thing for years, potentially – so make sure it looks good. Cases are also somewhat relied-upon for their cooling, as the case stands as a gateway between the components and the outside world. Some cases focus more on silence than cooling, some vice versa – it’s always a trade-off – so just be sure to look for what suits your needs best.
Required Hardware #7 – Power Supply
Power supplies connect everything together. It’s common for new builders to buy power supplies that are “overkill” for the system. Check for GPU and CPU requirements and recommendations for power supply minimum wattages. Some websites have done power draw tests that should help give an idea for power needs.
Power supplies are provided “80 Plus” ratings that determine their certified efficiency ratings. Although 80 Plus certification is not required, some level of 80 Plus certification is recommended for a power supply. Bronze and Silver PSUs (though Silver is uncommon) are reasonable for budget and inexpensive builds. Higher-end builds with long uptimes may be best off with a more efficient PSU, as power savings over time can be significant.
THERE’S ALWAYS MORE HARDWARE YOU CAN USE WHEN BUILDING A PC
Every PC and every builder is different. The PC hardware you decide to use will vary greatly depending on your needs and budget. However, every PC will have the above components inside of it. – Steve Burke, GamersNexus