The best gaming PCs aren't built by the professionals, they're built by hand, by you. At least, that's what the purists will tell you. 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 £1,500 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: £500, £1,000 and £1,500. We’ve also included a VR-centric build that aims to provide the cheapest gaming PC for a great VR experience, based on Oculus VR’s recommended specs. 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 future-proofing.
Related: Best CPU coolers
With us now well into 2017, both AMD and Nvidia's latest raft of graphics cards have settled down in price and are widely available. That gives us a nice stable picture for that side of things.
Similarly, Intel's new Kaby Lake processors and Z270 motherboards are readily available and are the clear choice for most gaming PCs right now. Neither is a huge upgrade over the company's previous generation of products so finding an older Z170 motherboard and 6000-series Skylake processor might bag you a bargain, but for the most part there aren't too many discounts going round so you might as well get the newer kit.
Related: Best desktop PCs
Also, just round the corner is the launch of the AMD Ryzen, the Texan company's new CPU and motherboard line. Early signs suggest it might finally bring the fight to Intel after years of there being little real competition. You'll have to wait until next month's update to find out whether they make it into any of our gaming PCs, though.
Note: Prices correct as of 23rd February 2017
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.
Check 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 if 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.
You might also want to invest in 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 Arctic 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 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 £1,000 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 £1,000 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. A full license is around £100.
The 1080p Gaming PC – Best Gaming PC under £500 / $650
Cooler: Included with CPU
Total: £546 / $592
Thanks to reasonably stable prices compared to last month, we've only changed one thing with this month's build, which is the motherboard. We've saved £5 by switching from an MSI to a Gigabyte board. Otherwise we've just updated our prices in line with the cheapest we could find. That still pushes us slightly over budget, but what's £50 between friends?
The heart of this system is a basic but new CPU based on Intel's Kaby Lake architecture. This is accompanied by a new H270 motherboard that together provide a solid foundation for building a modest to mid-range machine. Crucially, the motherboard can also accommodate all of Intel's current lineup of top CPUs so a future upgrade is easy.
Elsewhere, we've stuck with the AMD Radeon RX 470 graphics card as it provides the best bang for buck at this price, even if it isn't the most power-efficient. Plus, you've got a nippy SSD for Windows and apps and a 1TB hard drive for storing all your bulk data.
This is a powerful, balanced build that'll happily play all modern games at 1080p and there's plenty of upgrade potential too.
Potential swaps: We've got a fairly graphics-heavy build that compromises on the CPU, so if you'd prefer a system slightly more balanced towards work than play, you could jump to the Core i3-7100, which will get you a nice jump in all round CPU performance for an extra £70. To keep within budget we'd then recommend you opt for the Nvidia GTX 1050 rather than the RX 470.
Otherwise there are few changes to be made here that wouldn't significantly impact the overall feel of this machine. Get an even faster CPU and slower GPU and you're compromising gaming, ditch the SSD and you'll have much slower boot/app loading/file transfer times. If you can find a spare £20, an aftermarket CPU cooler would be a good addition to this system.
Video: Intel Core i models explained
The Quad HD Gaming PC – Best Gaming PC for £1,000 / $1,200
Total: £1,106 / $1,268
We've managed to save a whole £4 compared to last month. But we're still over £100 over budget. Still, we think the extra is worth paying if you can afford it. You'll get a really powerful machine that's capable right across the board.
Again the Core i5-7400 is our CPU or choice as it provides quad-core performance for the least amount of money. This is accompanied by the cheapest Z270 motherboard we could find. Worry not about it's abilities, though, as it's still a very capable board that can overclock well (if you buy an overclockable CPU in the future) and has plenty of connectivity and other features.
For gaming we've got the cheapest Nvidia GTX 1070 we could find, which will monster through just about any game you throw at it, up to a resolution of 2560 x 1440. It'll still play some games at 4k but you'll have to drop the detail settings a bit.
The rest of the build provides a step up from the basics but there's nothing too extravagant here. A simple case, powerful PSU, a reasonably speedy but modestly sized SSD and a 2TB hard drive for all your bulk media.
Watch: Nvidia GTX 1070 review
Potential swaps: One area that's quite a compromise in this system is the size of the SSD. Its 250GB is only really large enough to fit two or three of today's AAA games. Getting a 500GB drive would allow you to not have to worry so much about installing and uninstalling games all the time. You'll have to double your outlay, but you could always drop the HDD and then add one back in when you start to run out of space – and if you're upgrading your system you can keep your old hard drives.
The other obvious potential swap is to drop to a GTX 1060. It's quite a fall in gaming performance, but you'd open up budget for that larger SSD and leave some spare for an even larger hard drive or a better CPU cooler.
Alternatively, if you really do want to stick with that graphics performance but want to keep under budget then you could opt for a Core i3-7100, which would save £60. However, it's not something we'd particularly advise unless you can see yourself quickly being able to afford to upgrade your CPU in the future.
The 4K Gaming PC – Best Gaming PC for £1,500 / $2,000
Total: £1,518 / $1,576
As with our cheaper builds, this month's £1,500 machine is almost identical to last month, with just a few small price fluctuations here and there.
The heart of the system is the Intel Core i5-7600K processor, which is a mighty fast CPU that's easy to overclock and has true quad-core performance. It's supported by a great mid-range Z270 motherboard that has a nicer design, audio hardware and connectivity than our £1000 build.
The real star of the show, though, is the GTX 1080. This month we've gone with a Zotac model as it's the cheapest we could find. Whichever model you get, though, it's a stonkingly fast card that'll power through most games even at 4K resolution.
Elsewhere the system is completed by a lightning quick SSD and large 3TB hard drive, a stylish and capacious case and whisper quiet CPU cooler.
Watch: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review
Potential swaps: The most obvious upgrade is to swap the large Noctua CPU cooler for a more compact all-in-one liquid cooler like the Corsair H110i. It's louder and slightly more expensive but it keeps the CPU even cooler and will make for a tidier looking system.
Alternatively, if you don't have a huge monitor then the GTX 1080 might be overkill, so you could opt for the GTX 1070 and save £200 or so. That could then be spent on getting the i7-7700K CPU or a larger 500GB SSD. Or you could drop to a slower SSD but get even more capacity with the Samsung 850 Evo 1TB for £390.
Oculus provides an optimum spec for a PC that will provide a great VR experience, but it's long since been superseded, so this is our recommended build instead:
Cooler: Included with CPU
Total: £713 / $840
Our VR build is essentially our cheapest build but with a quad-core CPU and larger, faster SSD, so as to better cope with the demands VR places on a PC. As per usual, this bumps this system up to around the £750 price range.
Potential swaps: The big upgrade here would be to jump to the GTX 1060 graphics card – a move that would cost you the better part of £100 but will provide a significant jump in gaming performance.
After that, the next obvious upgrades would be a better cooler for the CPU, a slightly nicer case and a bigger or even faster SSD.