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 £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: under £500, under £1,000 and Under £1,500. We’ve also included a VR-centric build that aims to meet 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 future-proofing.
Related: Best CPU coolers
The tail end of October 2016 saw the introduction of the GTX 1050 Ti, which brought consistently good Full HD gaming to the sub-£150 mark. It followed a slew of other new cards from both AMD and Nvidia that have arrived since the end of the summer. These include Nvidia's GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 and AMD's Radeon RX 480 and Radeon RX 470, each of which is a great option at its price point.
Watch: Your graphics card questions answered
Note: Prices correct as of 7th December 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.
Related: Best Amazon UK Black Friday deals
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 £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 while a full license is around £100.
The 1080p Gaming PC – Best Gaming PC under £500 / $650
Cooler: Included with CPU
Total: £520 / $612
Post Black Friday there are still a few deals around here and there but not enough to make much of a difference to our budget build. We've again chosen the AMD RX 470 over the Nvidia GTX 1050Ti as it offers a lot more performance for only £20 more and nearly everywhere else we've stuck with the same build as last month.
As a result, we're actually £20 over budget in total thanks to just about every component being £1 or so more expensive. That's on top of having already seen big price rises across the board in the last six months as the economy and currency value has fluctuated due to Brexit uncertainty.
Nonetheless, you're getting a powerful build that'll happily play all modern games at 1080p and there's plenty of upgrade potential too, with the motherboard able to accommodate the latest DDR4 memory and all of Intel's current processors.
Potential swaps: We've got a fairly graphics-heavy build, that compromises on the CPU, so if you'd prefer a slightly more balanced system you could jump to the Core i3-6100T, which is slightly faster for single-core applications and has Hyper Threading for even faster multi-threaded workloads. It costs £113, though, so even if you drop to the GTX 1050 Ti you'll still be some way over budget.
In terms of performance, there's actually very little to choose between the RX 470 4GB, RX 480 4GB, RX 480 8GB, Nvidia GTX 1060 3GB and Nvidia GTX 1060 6GB – there's only about 5fps difference on average between each step. However, there is a fairly big price difference, with the RX 480 8GB and GTX 1060 6GB hitting £250 or so.
As such you could pretty much choose any of those cards – and those looking to "future-proof" themselves might want to pick one of the ones with more VRAM – but to keep within budget we opted for the cheapest. It'll still comfortably get you 40-60fps in most games at 1080p and set to high detail settings.
Otherwise there's not too much you could change on this system without either dropping down another level in graphics performance or dropping back to an older CPU socket and DDR3 RAM.
The most obvious option would be to scrap the SSD and just go with a hard drive. Then that £50 could be spent on the CPU or graphics. However, we'd definitely recommend keeping things balanced and keeping the SSD. If you can find a spare £20, an after market 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: £1,077 / $1,141
Our choice of the Nvidia GTX 1070 again means we've pushed the budget a bit this month, as it's just no longer the case that you can pick one up for £350 like you could a few months ago. However, we think stretching the budget a little further is worth it for most as the GTX 1070 is such a fast card. Plus, we've save £40 or so by dropping to the smaller NZXT S340 case, rather than the Corsair 400C.
Otherwise, the system is exactly the same as last time, with just a few very small price differences here and there. Overall, this is a hugely powerful setup that'll get you great gaming performance in just about any game at a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440.
Watch: Nvidia GTX 1070 review
Potential swaps: One area that's quite a compromise in this system is the size of the SSD, which at just 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 drop in gaming performance but you'd open up budget for that larger SSD plus 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 i3-6100, 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.
Otherwise, the key to this build is that the motherboard 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, has an M.2 slot for super fast SSD storage upgrades, and generally has masses of upgrade potential.
The 4K Gaming PC – Best Gaming PC for £1,500 / $2,000
Total: £1,541 / $1,592
We've actually managed to save about £30 compared to last month's build, though we've still crept over by £41. That's mainly thanks to finding cut-price GTX 1080 graphics cards and we've slightly reduced the speed of our DDR4 RAM from 3200MHz to 3000MHz.
The result is still a hugely powerful system that has several components that are just about as fast as you can get. In particular, as well as the GTX 1080, the Samsung 960 Evo SSD is only beaten for speed by the Samsung 960 Pro, while the Intel 6600K is secondly only to the 6700K, without jumping to the much more expensive LGA 2011 CPUs and motherboards.
Watch: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review
Potential swaps: The easiest way to grab back that £41 overspend is to drop the Corsair Hydro cooler and opt for a cheap air-cooler like the CoolerMaster Hyper 212 that costs just £30. Or you could swap the case for an NZXT S340 and save almost £41.
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 6700K CPU or a larger 500GB SSD. Alternatively 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 getting quite old now so isn't made up of hardware we'd actually recommend you buy if you're looking to put together a new PC. Instead here's our recommended build:
Cooler: Included with CPU
Total: £747 / $801
Like with our most expensive build, we've managed to save a little bit of money this month by finding two great deals on our graphics card of choice, though as usual the total cost is around £750.
The whole system is basically made up of our cheapest build but with a more powerful quad-core CPU and Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics card. These add about £250 to the build but are essential for the demands that VR places on a PC.
Otherwise, you're getting a basic setup with a nippy SSD for your Windows installation and games along with a modest sized hard drive for all your bulk data. Plus a modest case, power supply and the CPU cooler that comes with the CPU. It's enough to get you a great VR experience with no extravagance.
Potential swaps: If you're looking to save a bit of money, the best place to start would be to drop back from the motherboard chosen here to the one in our cheapest build. You could also ditch either the SSD or the hard drive depending on whether fast loading times or more capacity is a higher priority for you.
As for upgrades, that trio of CPU, motherboard and RAM won't need touching for some time. Instead you're best looking for a faster graphics card, a larger SSD, larger hard drive or better CPU cooler and case. It all depends where your priorities lie.