Building the best gaming PC for your budget isn't as hard as you might think. But with so many components to choose from, where do you start? Right here, that’s where. We’ve picked out the best bits to buy whatever your budget. So whether you’ve scrabbled together £500 or got £1500 burning a hole in your pocket, read on to find out what you should be buying.
Each month we scour the online shops to find the best deals for the best combination of components to suit three main budgets: under £500, under £1000 and Under £1500. We’ve also included a VR-centric build that’s based on Oculus VR’s recommended specs, and it comes in around the £750 mark.
The components are all carefully balanced to ensure you’re getting the absolute best gaming performance possible for your money, but also without compromising too much in other key areas like day to day performance, power consumption and futureproofing.
The whole gaming PC market has been realigned recently thanks to the introduction of Nvidia's GTX 1080 / GTX 1070 and AMD's Radeon RX 480 graphics cards. Each is now the best choice at their respective price points so for us to include them in our systems we've had to change things around a bit.
In the case of our cheapest system that means we've freed up enough budget to move to the latest Intel CPU platform, leaving just our Oculus Rift/HTC Vive-ready PC as the only one using older tech (and even then that's only because it's the minimum spec Oculus specifies).
Elsewhere we've had to do the opposite, saving money elsewhere to squeeze the best graphics cards into our budgets.
Watch: Your graphics card questions answered
Note: Prices correct as of 31 Aug 2016
What else you’ll need to build your PC
Our recommended systems include all the key components you’ll need to put inside your PC case, but to fully get up and running there are a few other bits you’ll need and things you’ll have to consider before gaming glory is yours.
Although most motherboards and cases come with enough cables and screws to mount and connect everything you’ll need, it’s worth double-checking. If you can find the “what’s in the box” list for all the components you’ve chosen you should be able to see if they have enough for what you need.
Things to look out for are whether your motherboard includes enough cables for connecting your hard drives or optical drives. You may also have to buy a cable to connect your monitor, and you should also check if you have a mains cable or that one comes with the power supply you’re buying.
If you’re connecting up your computer to a network via an Ethernet cable also check that you have one or one that’s long enough. If you don’t want to trail cables everywhere you can always use Powerline networking instead.
Considering how complicated they look, PCs are actually fairly simple things to put together, with the minimum of tools required. Most components either slot into place or just require a few screws to be held down.
As such there are just a couple of tools you’ll want to have on-hand when building your system.
The first is a decent screwdriver, preferably one with a long shaft so that it can reach those awkward screw positions deep inside your case. Something like the Stanley Fatmax PH2x250mm is ideal.
Next you’ll want a half decent set of fine pliers. They are great for fishing out dropped screws as well as threading cables through tight gaps and occasionally on cheap cases you may have to pry some metal sections off.
You may also want to grab something soft to rest your case on to stop it getting scratched while you’re installing everything, and something to keep all your screws in is a must. There’s no need to spend money, though: a towel and a yoghurt pot (empty) will suffice.
Each of our systems is complete but if you want to kick things up a notch then there are a few upgrades you can invest in.
The first is extra fans. Most cases of any price only come with one or two fans but have mounts for many more. Generally, it’s diminishing returns to go above four but if your chosen case only includes one then you’re almost guaranteed to make a huge improvement to cooling, and thus the stability, noise and life of your PC, by adding a couple more.
Something else you might want to invest in is high-performance thermal paste. That’s the stuff that sits between your CPU and its heatsink/fan. It’s there to fill any air gaps and thus increase the flow of heat away from the CPU.
All CPU coolers include some form of thermal interface material (TIM – the technical name) but after-market solutions can help reduce CPU temps by up to 5C. You can even use it on your GPU too, if you dare remove the cooler from it.
The best-performing are literally like liquid metal and can be a nightmare to use but something like Artic Silver 5 is cheap, easy to use and should perform noticeably better than the stuff included with your CPU cooler.
If you are starting from scratch with your PC build then you’ll need to factor in a bit of extra budget for all the bits you actually use to interact with the machine – all the peripherals. The three essentials are a monitor, keyboard and mouse, but you may also want to buy some speakers, a gaming headset, and more.
Starting with those essentials, though, you can pick up a basic monitor for little more than £50 but realistically you’ll probably be looking to spend at least £150. We won’t dive deep into how to choose a monitor here but essentially each of our builds is roughly optimised for one of three resolutions. The cheapest will run most games at their maximum detail settings at 1,920 x 1,080 (Full HD), the £1000 system will run most at 2,560 x 1,440 (1440p), while the top end system will run many at 3,840 x 2,160 (4k).
Check our best monitors round-up for a list of the best from each category.
The worst setup you can imagine for a gaming PC, but you get the idea
So if you only have a 1080p monitor but have £1000 to spend on a system you may want to consider using some of that money to upgrade your display – say £250 for the monitor and £750 for the rest of the build.
One final essential you’ll need to get up and running is some software, namely an operating system of some sort. For gaming there really is no all-encompassing alternative to Windows so you’ll need to factor that into your budget. An OEM license that only works once – so if you upgrade all your components it’ll stop working – costs around £40 while a full license is around £100.
The 1080p Gaming PC – Best Gaming PC under £500 / $650
Cooler: Included with CPU
Total: £509 / $624
Last time out we changed our choice of graphics card for our cheapest build to the new AMD Radeon RX 480 4GB, as it was available for just £175. That left quite a bit of room in our budget. However, prices have since risen, and we couldn't find that card for less than £200. Along with a few other prices rises that's meant that this month we're a touch over budget.
Still, for that you're getting a really capable system that's based on the latest Intel CPU/motherboard socket. The specific CPU and motherboard we've used are very basic but the latter supports DDR4 memory so you can potentially upgrade the CPU and motherboard at a later date without having to also buy new RAM.
Potential swaps: There are very few obvious tweaks we'd make to this system, as it's just such a great balance and has great upgrade potential.
The main thing would be if you insist on using Nvidia graphics then you'd be looking at getting a GTX 970 for around £200. It's not quite as fast as the RX 480 but it's pretty close.
Otherwise if you do fancy upgrading any other component we'd suggest just stretching your budget a bit further, rather than compromise the system elsewhere. Want a larger, faster SSD? Save another £50. Want a faster CPU? Save another £70 and get the Core i3-6300 or another £100 and get the Core i5-6400.
As it stands, this system will allow you to play most games at 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) with high detail settings and many at 1440p too. Not bad for £500. And, if you don't mind going slightly overbudget, a cooler such as the Raijintek Pallas 140mm Low Profile (£33.95 from Overclockers) will help if you choose to overclock your CPU.
The Quad HD Gaming PC – Best Gaming PC under £1,000 / $1,200
Total: £1,004 / $1,090
In our last update we lamented the pricing of the then brand new Nvidia GTX 1070, as its £400 asking price was just too pricey to fit in to this build. Now, though, we have the GTX 1060, which costs a much more reasonable £260 and comes with all the latest features - if not the raw performance - of its pricier siblings.
Although it doesn't consistently outperform our previous choice at this price level - the GTX 980 - it offers very similar performance and has better power consumption.
Otherwise this is a solid mid-range system based on one of Intel's latest quad-core CPUs. You've budget for a sizeable SSD and a large hard drive plus a good range of quality other components.
Watch: Nvidia GTX 1070 review
Potential swaps: If you're happy to really compromise on the CPU (to, say, a Core i3-6100) and maybe drop the SSD altogether then you could switch to the GTX 1070. However, it's not something we'd particularly advise unless you can see yourself quickly being able to afford to upgrade your CPU and storage.
Alternatively, if you really do want to build a balanced system with the option of upgrading your graphics later you could go for the faster and much more overclockable Intel Core i5-6600K (£199.99) and drop the graphics card down even further to a GTX 970 (£200) or AMD RX 480 4GB (£209).
Either way, the key to this build is that the motherboard here is based on the latest Z170 chipset and so supports all Intel’s latest CPUs, and likely its next generation of chips too - based on the so-called Kaby Lake architecture. Plus, it includes support for the latest USB 3.1 standard and has masses of upgrade potential in terms of more storage or graphics cards. There are a few enthusiast features included, too, which make upgrading, overclocking and testing easier.
This setup will get you high frame rate performance with high detail settings in most games running at 1440p (2,560 x 1,440).
The 4K Gaming PC – Best Gaming PC under £1,500 / $2,000
Total: £1,601 / $2,001
For some reason this particular build has seen prices rise almost across the board. Often it's just a handful of pounds here and there but nearly every component is up. As a result we're nearly £100 over budget.
Assuming you can swallow that extra cost, we've seen no reason to change any component this month, other than swapping the brand of graphics card to the cheapest we could find. The combination of the fastest graphics card you can buy, the GTX 1080, and the mighty fast Intel 6600K CPU makes for a monstrous machine, and all the other components are still ideal choices.
Watch: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review
Potential swaps: However, if you do want to remain closer to budget then the obvious place to start is with that £600 GTX 1080. Drop it to a GTX 1070 and you've instantly saved £250. You do take quite a hit in gaming performance but the GTX 1070 is still faster than any other card - it's even faster than the Titan X - so is still a great choice.
Otherwise you'll be looking at things like dropping from the Corsair H100i to a high-end air-cooler for around £30, and you could get a cheaper SSD - still impressively fast 256GB SSDs can be had for under £100.
Oculus Rift-ready PC
If you're looking to put together a new system or tweak your existing PC so that you can take full advantage of an Oculus Rift, thankfully Oculus has provided a handy guide to the minimum specs you'll need and, as of now, this is how much it'll set you back.
Cooler: Included with CPU
Total: £653 / $878
Six months on from the release of the Oculus Rift and the company's recommended system is really starting to look a bit long in the tooth. Nontheless, if you simply want a PC that you know will support VR gaming then it's still a great overall setup, especially now prices for the GTX 970 have dropped since the launch of the GTX 1000 series. Indeed this is the only system to have actually dropped in price since our last update.
Potential swaps: Nonetheless, for most buyers I'd recommend upgrading the core of this system to a Skylake, 6000-series Intel processor, Z170 motherboard and DDR4 RAM, so that you're much more future-proofed. The Intel Core i5-6600K from the top-end build plus the Asus Z170-A and RAM from the £1,000 system would fit the bill, which would bring the total cost of this Oculus system up to £970. If that's a bit much then you can go for the Intel i3-6100 or i5-6400 instead.
Otherwise, the most obvious swap would be to go for the AMD RX 480. It's not much faster than the GTX 970 but it does have a larger chunk of VRAM and is better suited for higher resolutions.