The Best Gaming Desktops of 2018
Get a Desktop for the Most Gaming Power
Despite the enticing lure of game consoles and handheld devices, PC gaming is still alive and kicking. Enthusiasts know that nothing beats the quality of gameplay you can get with a desktop built for gaming. But what kind of PC can make major 3D games look and run better than they do on the Sony PS4 Pro or the Microsoft Xbox One S? If you have deep pockets, your answer could be a custom-built hot rod from an elite boutique PC manufacturer such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Maingear, or MSI. But a couple of well-informed choices will go a long way toward helping you get the right gaming desktop from a standard PC manufacturer, even if you’re not made of money. Here’s how to buy your best gaming desktop, regardless of your budget, and our top 10 picks in the category.
This is admittedly simplifying a complex argument, but high-powered graphics, processors, and memory improve the graphics detail (cloth, reflections, hair), physical interactions (smoke, thousands of particles colliding), and the general animation of scenes in your favorite games. Throwing more resources, like a more powerful graphics cards or a faster CPU, at the problem will help, to an extent.
Consider Graphics First
Most gaming systems will come preinstalled with a single midrange or high-end graphics card; higher-priced systems will naturally have better cards, since purchase price typically correlates with animation performance and visual quality. Our gaming desktop reviews will let you know if there is room in the system’s case for adding more graphics cards, in case you want to improve your gaming performance in the future. Most boutique manufacturers, however, will sell systems equipped with multiple-card arrays if you want to run the best-looking and best-performing games right away. (Nvidia has deemphasized, if not discouraged, using more than two of its current-generation cards at the same time, though it’s still possible to have three or four AMD cards in your computer at once provided you have the proper power and heat management. AMD calls its multicard system CrossFireX and Nvidia calls its solution Scalable Link Interface, or SLI, but in practice both work the same.)
The most pivotal decision you’ll make when purchasing a gaming desktop is which 3D graphics subsystem to use. Integrated graphics are fine for casual 2D games, but to really bring out the beast on 3D AAA titles, you’ll want one or more discrete graphics cards. These cards, powered by technologies from longtime rivals AMD or Nvidia, make more advanced graphical details and improved performance possible. And although both companies’ cards boast exclusive features to help smooth on-screen animation or deliver improved visual effects of various kinds (and some games are optimized for one type of card or another), for the most part, you should choose the card that best fits within your budget.
Equipping your system with any high-end GPU will unavoidably boost your total bill by a few hundred dollars per card. Still, beyond adding extra power to your gaming experience, multiple graphics cards can also enable multiple-monitor setups so you can run up to six displays. Higher-level graphics will also pay off in the long run for 4K and virtual reality (VR) gaming. Panels with 4K resolution (3,840 by 2,160) and the displays built into VR headsets have exponentially higher pixel counts than a simple 1080p HD monitor. You’ll need at least a single high-end graphics card, or two lower-end cards, to drive a 4K display at top quality settings, with similar requirements for smooth gameplay on VR headsets. (See “Make VR a Reality” below for more information.)
You can still get a rich gaming experience for thousands less by choosing a desktop with a single but robust middle-tier video card. If you’re less concerned about VR or turning up all the eye candy found in games—anti-aliasing and esoteric lighting effects, for example—then today’s less-powerful graphics cards and GPUs will still give you plenty of oomph for a lot less money.
For more, check out our graphics card buying guide, which details what to look for when making a purchase, and rounds up the best cards available now.
Perfect Processor Power
The heart of any system is its processor. While the GPU specializes in graphics quality and some physics calculations, the CPU takes care of everything else, including making sure the soundtrack syncs up with gameplay, managing the game’s load screens, and determining if you hit your targets.
AMD and Intel are in a race to see who can provide the most power to gamers. AMD started the competition for the top spot earlier this year with their Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, which feature up to 16 cores and the ability to process 32 threads simultaneously. Intel recently countered with a new line of Core X-Series Extreme Edition processors, with 18 cores and 36 threads. Prices for these processors are astronomical, with the Intel Core i9-7980XE expected to be $2,000, or the price of a midrange gaming PC. You’ll have to buy a new motherboard to support either of these platforms, but these CPU advancements have made it an exciting time to be a gamer.
Lesser, but still high-powered, CPUs, such as the AMD Ryzen 7, and unlocked quad-core Intel Core i7 K-series processors, can also provide the computing muscle needed for a satisfying gaming experience. Budget gamers should look to lower-priced (but still speedy) quad-core processors, such as the AMD Ryzen 5 or the Intel Core i5, which will knock hundreds of dollars off the bottom line. And Intel’s recently released Core i3-7350K is its first unlocked dual-core processor, which could save you even more money while giving you plenty of overclocking potential, too.
When given the choice between paying for a higher-level GPU or a higher-level CPU, however, go with the graphics in most cases. In other words, a system with a higher-power Nvidia GeForce GTX GPU and a Core i5 processor is a much better choice for 3D-intense FPS gaming than one with a low-end card and a zippy Core i7 CPU. But you may want to choose the latter if you’re into games that involve a lot of background math calculations, such as strategy titles like those in the Civilization series.
Don’t Forget the Memory
One thing that’s often overlooked on gaming systems is RAM; it can be severely taxed by modern games. Try to outfit your PC with at least 8GB of RAM, and budget for 32GB if you’re truly serious about freeing up this potential performance bottleneck. Faster memory also improves overall performance and lets you keep your CPU more stable if you decide to overclock it. For example, DDR4-3200 SDRAM (aka 3,200MHz) will be more stable than DDR4-2133 if you overclock your Core i7 processor. That said, installing expensive, higher-clocked memory won’t necessarily help a CPU that’s running at stock speeds, so make sure you budget wisely.
Storage: Speed and Space
Solid-state drives (SSDs) have become more popular since the prices began dropping dramatically a few years ago. They speed up boot time, wake-from-sleep time, and the time it takes to launch a game and load a new level. Although you can get an SSD of any size (with the larger capacities still being relatively expensive), the pairing of a small one (such as 128GB) with a larger spinning hard drive (1TB or more) is a good, affordable setup for gamers who also download the occasional video from the Internet.
With the release of the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift headsets, real VR gaming is possible in the home for the first time. If you want to be able to use them to their fullest, your PC will need to meet their system requirements.
The most important is the video card—you are pushing a 1,080-by-1,200 display to each eye, after all—so go with one of the most powerful cards from either the current or previous generation. For the Vive, this means an AMD RX 480 or an Nvidia GTX 1060. For Oculus headsets, a processing technique called asynchronous spacewarp promises full performance with lower-end video cards: specifically an RX 470 or a GTX 960.
You’ll also want a newer AMD or Intel CPU with a minimum of four processing cores; both HTC and Oculus recommend a Core i5-4590 or its equivalent. And the 8GB of RAM we recommended should be enough to ensure the fluid gameplay you want.
The Perfect Accessories
Don’t stop at internal components. Once you have your ideal gaming desktop, a couple of extras can really enhance your gaming experience. We recommend that you trick out your machine with a top-notch gaming monitor with a fast response rate and a solid gaming headset so you can trash talk your opponents. Comfortable keyboards, mice, and specialized controllers round out your options at checkout.
Which Gaming Desktop Is Right For You?
Below are the best gaming desktops we’ve recently tested (we update the list monthly). Many are configured-to-order PCs from boutique manufacturers, but some come from bigger brands normally associated with consumer-grade desktops. Note: The prices listed are for starting configurations; click through to the reviews to see prices as tested.