So you’ve decided to build a rig yourself instead of going with a prebuilt. That’s great! We think building a computer is one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences a PC user and gamer can have. Before embarking on the journey, though, you need to know how to pick PC parts.
From choosing the right CPU and GPU to making sure you have the perfect case for your needs, it’s essential to know what to look out for when picking PC parts. It might seem intimidating, but don’t worry. We’ll get through it together.
Setting A Budget (Step 0)
Before you start picking your PC parts, we recommend you figure out how much you can afford to spend on this new rig. Having a budget helps you determine how much you can spend on each individual component, which will help you narrow down your choices.
To give you a rough idea, $1000 should be more than enough for 1080p gaming at 60 FPS as long as you’re ok with compromising on the graphics settings. You can go even lower if you’re only playing competitive and esports games. A $700 build with an AMD Ryzen 5 2200G APU should be more than enough for games like League of Legends or CS:GO.
If you have your sights set on graphically intense games and higher settings, be prepared to spend at least $1500, if not considerably more. This is where you start getting rigs capable of 1440p and higher resolutions at high refresh rates. If you want eight or more CPU cores, a high-end GPU, liquid cooling, tons of RAM, and other luxuries, expect to spend quite a lot of money.
The best way to ensure you stick to your budget is to use a site like PCPartPicker. Pick your parts, and it’ll add up the total cost and highlight any compatibility issues between your components. PCPartPicker will also direct you to the cheapest place to get those parts online, making it a convenient tool for PC builders.
Need more help setting your budget? We’ve got a guide on how much a gaming PC costs that goes into a lot more detail, including how much you should spend per component.
Step 1: Selecting A Case
Depending on your build philosophy, the case can either be the first part you pick or the last. Don’t have any space or positioning constraints? Then we’d suggest selecting all your other components first before getting a case that will accommodate everything at the end.
On the other hand, if you have particular needs like portability, it’s a good idea to choose your case first. Doing so ensures that you’ll be clear about what components will fit in your rig. This saves you the headache of buying a case only to find out it’s too small for the parts you want.
When you’re picking a case, you should consider the case’s aesthetics, features, and dimensions. Aesthetics encompass features like RGB lighting, tempered glass panels, and the design of the case itself. It’s a personal choice, but check out the “PC Builds” section on our homepage for some inspiration.
The dimensions and features of a case go hand-in-hand. The size of a case determines the motherboard size, GPU length, and CPU cooler height that can fit inside it. Make sure that there’s enough room in your case for these parts in particular.
Small form factor cases like the InWin A1 are designed for mini-ITX motherboards and low-profile CPU coolers. They trade component support and cooling performance for compact dimensions. On the other hand, a full tower like be quiet!’s Dark Base PRO 900 Rev. 2 will have no such compromises and have room for any component you could want.
The larger the case, the more slots and space you’ll have for expansion and cooling. Full tower cases will have more expansion slots, drive bays, and fan/radiator mounts than smaller cases.
Most users without particular needs should be happy with a mid-tower case like the Phanteks P400A. If you want to learn more, we recommend reading our guide to choosing a PC case for a more thorough explanation and some case recommendations.
Step 2: Choosing Your CPU
Now that you’ve decided on a case (or decided that it can wait), it’s time to choose the brains of your system: the CPU. The first choice you’re going to be making is Intel vs. AMD. Generally speaking, AMD’s new Ryzen 5000-series CPUs (the Ryzen 5 5600X, Ryzen 7 5800X, Ryzen 9 5900X, and Ryzen 9 5950X) are the best processors available right now.
However, AMD has been having difficulties keeping up with demand, making their CPUs harder to get and more expensive when they are available. It can be a bit harder to squeeze an AMD Ryzen 5 CPU into a budget-minded rig.
Intel has lost the performance crown to AMD, but it at least has a ready supply of CPUs for you to buy. One of their newest CPUs, the Intel i5-11600K, is a fantastic choice for gamers since it performs similarly to the Ryzen 5 5600X but is more readily available. It’s cheaper, too.
Unless you have an unlimited budget, choosing a CPU involves finding a delicate balance between a CPU’s cores and threads, clock speed (measured in Gigahertz), and instructions per clock (IPC).
The more cores and threads a CPU has, the better it is at multi-threaded tasks that spread the load across the entirety of the processor. On the other hand, clock speed and IPC are essential for a CPU’s single-threaded power.
Productivity and creativity workloads like Blender are great at taking advantage of multiple cores. On the other hand, games tend to prefer single-core performance. Which you should prioritize depends on what you want to do with your rig.
Most gamers will only need four to six-core CPUs, so processors like the AMD Ryzen 5 5600X and Intel Core i5-11600K should be adequate. If you’re rendering or encoding, then the sky’s the limit. Autodesk’s Arnold renderer, for example, scales incredibly well up to 64 cores.
We don’t have space to have the complete discussion on choosing a CPU here, so head on over to our guide to choosing a CPU to get the low down on cores, clock speeds, IPC, and a whole lot more.
Note that not all CPUs will come with stock CPU coolers. You’ll have to get an aftermarket CPU cooler if you opt for any of Intel’s K-series overclockable processors or AMD’s Ryzen 7 5800X and above.
Aftermarket CPU coolers fall into two categories: tower-style air coolers or all-in-one (AIO) liquid coolers. Both have their pros and cons, so check out our comparison between air and liquid cooling to help you make an informed decision.
Step 3: Picking A Motherboard
Once you’ve figured out the CPU, it’s time to choose the motherboard. Your CPU choice will make at least one of your motherboard decisions for you, as Intel and AMD CPUs use different sockets and chipsets. An Intel CPU won’t work on an AMD board and vice versa.
After that, the real fun begins. The motherboard is one of the most important parts of your system, so it’s no surprise that there many specs to look through when picking one out.
First off, you need to decide what form factor you want. The three most common motherboard sizes are:
- ATX (12 x 9.6 inches)
- MicroATX (9.6 x 9.6 inches)
- Mini-ITX (6.7 x 6.7 inches)
If you’ve already chosen a case, make sure you’re only considering motherboards that will fit. If you’re leaving that choice until later, you can go for whichever motherboard offers the right combination of features and price.
There are so many specs and features to look out for in a motherboard that it’s impossible to list them all out here. So, for the entire run down, take a look at our guide to picking a motherboard. Some of the most essential features to look out for include SATA ports, M.2 slots, USB ports, and PCIe slots.
The number of SATA ports and M.2 slots determines how much storage you can have in your rig. If you want a lot of 2.5” and 3.5” drives for mass storage, get a motherboard with as many SATA ports as possible. The more, the merrier.
The number and type of USB ports will depend entirely on how many USB peripherals you plan to connect and the ports these peripherals use. It’s a good idea to get a motherboard with more USB ports than you think you’ll need, just in case.
PCIe slots won’t matter for most people who only plan to use one graphics card. However, if you use more than one GPU or have expansion cards for high-speed networking or RAID control, make sure your motherboard has enough slots for those.
It’s tempting to just get whatever motherboard’s within your budget when you pick your PC parts since it won’t directly impact performance. But your motherboard determines how much you can expand your rig, how much storage you can have, and even your overclocking potential. It’s definitely worth spending time on this choice.
Step 4: Getting The Right GPU
Knowing how to pick parts for a gaming PC involves being able to choose the right graphics card (or GPU) for your needs and budget. On the surface, it can seem quite complicated: there’s a ton of specs to potentially worry about, such as clock speed, memory, memory bandwidth, CUDA cores, Compute Units, and so on.
These specs don’t always directly correlate with real-world performance, though. Instead of poring over specs, the best way to determine the right GPU for your needs is to read reviews and compare benchmark results.
The trick here is deciding how much you should actually spend on your graphics card. Prices are all over the place now due to the combination of cryptocurrency mining and limited GPU supply, so it’s a lot harder to make budgetary suggestions at the time of writing.
However, in a “normal” world, $250 should get you a graphics card good enough for 1080p gaming at 60 FPS. A card like the Zotac GTX 1660 Super, at $239 MSRP, will offer enough power for even AAA games at 1080p without breaking the bank.
If you want to play at high resolutions or hit high refresh rates like 144 or 240 Hz, then you’ll need to spend a lot more. This is where cards like Nvidia’s RTX 3080 and AMD’s Radeon RX 6800 XT shine.
This sort of power doesn’t come cheap, though. These cards cost north of $500 even without any shortage-induced price gouging. With GPUs, you get what you pay for in terms of performance.
Your GPU choice will be the primary difference-maker for your rig’s gaming prowess. So take your time with this and check out as many benchmarks as possible to really zone in on the right card for you. It’ll be worth it in the long run.
Step 5: Choosing Memory & Storage
When it comes to picking PC parts, RAM is a relatively straightforward purchase. The first choice is RAM capacity. Most rigs should have a minimum of 8 GB of RAM, but 16 GB is quickly becoming the standard for even mainstream rigs. If you run RAM-intensive programs like Adobe Premiere Pro or Blender, start with 32 GB and add more if needed.
After you decide on capacity, it’s time to think about RAM speed. For both Intel and AMD systems, we suggest getting the fastest supported RAM that you can afford. However, you shouldn’t go faster than the 3733 MHz sweet spot on Ryzen systems.
Most users will be happy with a solid 3600 MHz kit from a company like Corsair or G.Skill. 3733 MHz RAM does perform slightly better, but the performance differences are so minimal that we don’t think it’s worth the extra cost.
Don’t worry too much about the CL numbers (CL16, CL18) you see when shopping around for RAM. These numbers indicate the RAM’s latency. Lower is better, and there are minor benefits from low-latency RAM. However, like 3733 vs. 3600 MHz, it’s not worth the extra expense unless you’re trying to squeeze every last bit of performance out of your rig.
Choosing storage is simple: get an SSD. Better yet, get more than one SSD. SSDs are orders of magnitude faster than traditional mechanical hard drives (HDD) and affordable enough that they’re no-brainers for even the most budget rig.
There are three main SSD interfaces: SATA, PCIe 3.0, and PCIe 4.0. SATA SSDs connect via SATA ports, while PCIe SSDs connect via the M.2 slots on your motherboard. PCIe 4.0 is the fastest of the bunch, with theoretical read speeds up to 7880 MB/s. However, that extra speed doesn’t matter much for games.
The most substantial reduction in load time happens when you move from a mechanical HDD (like the Western Digital 12 TB) to a SATA SSD like the Team Group GX1. Improvements are minimal after that, with the PCIe 4.0 Seagate FireCuda 520 only 2.3 seconds faster than the Team Group SSD despite costing significantly more.
The takeaway is that you’ll be more than happy with a SATA or PCIe 3.0 SSD if you’re mainly going to be gaming. There’s no need to splurge on PCIe 4.0 SSDs right now. This may change in the future once Microsoft’s Direct Storage technology becomes commonplace but until then, even a lowly SATA SSD will serve you well.
Despite all this SSD talk, traditional mechanical HDDs still have a place in your PC. The cost per gigabyte of mechanical drives is very low, making them great for mass storage. Music, movies, photos, and documents don’t need the fast load times of SSDs, so you can store them on an HDD without worrying about losing out on performance.
Step 6: Finding A Power Supply
In our experience, many people skimp on their power supply (or PSU) when picking PC parts. It’s understandable since the PSU is probably the least glamorous part of a PC and has absolutely no impact on frame rates or performance. But we’ve seen and experienced enough premature PSU deaths to recommend spending a bit more on a high-quality unit from a reputable manufacturer.
It’s difficult to recommend particular brands outright, as each brand has good and bad products. Corsair’s high-end RMx power supplies, like the Corsair RM550x, are very highly regarded. On the other hand, its low-end VS-series units reportedly fail quite often. So, as ever, read reviews and user reports to weed out the good power supplies from the bad.
When shopping around for a PSU, the two specs you’ll have to consider are wattage and efficiency. Wattage is pretty simple: it refers to how much electricity your PSU can supply. Get a PSU with enough wattage to power your rig with some room to spare.
Unsure how much power your computer needs? The easiest way to estimate your PC’s power requirements is to use a calculator like OuterVision’s Power Supply Calculator. Just plug in your hardware, and the tool will calculate your rig’s rough power draw and recommend a suitable PSU.
Efficiency refers to the amount of power a PSU actually delivers to your computer parts versus the power it draws from the wall. You’ll often see the phrase “80 Plus” followed by a metal ranging from “Bronze” all the way up to “Titanium,” and these indicate how efficient the power supply is.
An 80 Plus Bronze PSU like the Seasonic S12III 550 W will be adequate for most mainstream rigs. However, we recommend getting an 80 Plus Silver or Gold PSU since they’ll be built using better components and offer extended warranties. You might never need the five- or seven-year guarantee that the higher-end PSUs offer, but it’s nice to have just in case.
You’ll also have to choose between non-modular, semi-modular, and modular PSUs. These terms denote whether the power cables are permanently connected (non-modular) or completely detachable (modular). It doesn’t affect performance, so this choice is mostly a matter of budget and preference.
Modular PSUs can make cable management easier since you’ll only use the cables you need. That said, we don’t think that’s a big enough reason to get one if you’ve already found a non-modular PSU that fits your needs. If you need help with this decision, check out our modular PSU guide for a discussion of the pros and cons of each type.
Step 7: Checking Compatibility
Before you purchase all your parts, it’s a good idea to double-check that everything is compatible. We’ll link PCPartPicker again here, as it’s a great tool that can help spot compatibility issues for you.
It sucks to have your parts arrive and realize your GPU doesn’t fit in your case or that your motherboard doesn’t support the CPU you purchased. It’s a waste of time and money and can be incredibly disheartening. So, no matter how excited you are, take a step back and check everything thoroughly before spending your money.
The Best Part Is Yet To Come
Knowing how to pick PC parts is one of the most essential skills any budding PC gaming enthusiast should have under their belt. There’s a lot to learn, and some things will only come through experience. But this guide should give you a great head start to becoming a PC building master.
Now that you know how to pick parts for a gaming PC, it’s time to start brushing up on the next step. While you wait for everything to arrive, why not start reading up on how to build your gaming PC?