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 £,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 03 Oct 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: £494 / $576
We've seen a raft of small prices rises compared to our last update in August. As such we've dropped our choice of graphics card down a notch from the RX 480 4GB to the RX 470 4GB, saving us around £25. That means we're precisely £6 lower overall than last time, though still over budget slightly.
Regardless, we've still managed to put together a nicely balanced system that's based on Intel's latest processor and socket, DDR4 RAM and a brand new graphics card.
Potential swaps: 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 under £1,000 / $1,200
Total: £1,025 / $1,159
In our August update we opted for the GTX 1060 6GB GPU, as the step up to the £400 GTX 1070 was just too much. This month, however, we've managed to find a GTX 1070 for £350. That still means having to save £100 elsewhere, but you get a big leap in gaming performance.
Those savings have been made in the motherboard, which has dropped by about £15 and we've ditched the all-in-one liquid cooler for the CPU and instead opted for an air cooler, saving £50. We're still a touch over budget but close enough to call it.
This way you're getting a seriously powerful system with few compromises and consistent performance for gaming at 1440p.
Watch: Nvidia GTX 1070 review
Potential swaps: The obvious potential swap is to go back to a GTX 1060, although there's not necessarily anything we'd particularly recommend you immediately spend the money you've saved on. You'd get the liquid cooler back but that won't gain you a huge amount of performance – your machine will just run a bit cooler and quieter so might deal with heavier workloads slightly better.
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 under £1,500 / $2,000
Total: £1,537 / $1,779
Where in our last update this build had seen prices rises almost across the board, the picture's a little rosier this time round, with some rising and some falling. We're still over-budget a bit but only by £52 this time, not last month's £101.
Again, the heart of this system is the pairing of the Intel 6600K CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, both of which have dropped a little in price. The latter is a heck of a lot of money but it's simply the fastest graphics card out there right now and will give you lightning fast performance for years to come.
Something to consider if you're looking to build a system of this calibre right now is the SSD. Samsung has just announced the 960 Pro and 960 Evo range of SSDs to replace the 950 Pro, so we can expect to see some bargains on the 950 Pro range. They're arriving in the next few weeks so keep an eye out for our review.
Otherwise this is a great hugely powerful system that'll play most games at 4K and run lightning fast at resolutions below that.
Watch: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review
Potential swaps: If you're looking to make a few savings there are a couple of things you could do. First is drop from the Corsair liquid cooler to the CoolerMaster air cooler used in the £1,000 system. That'll save you £80. You could also drop to a slower SSD such as the Samsung 850 Evo, and save another £75
Otherwise, you're looking at downgrading that GTX 1080 to a GTX 1070, which will save around £200. We'd recommend the above savings first, though, before you take such a big hit in graphics performance.
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: £671 / $794
It's eight months since the Oculus Rift was released so the company's recommended system is really starting to look a bit long in the tooth. Indeed this will likely be the last time we directly put together a system using the recommended specs, simply because stock of the GTX 970 in particular is drying up. From this point onwards we'll go straight to suggesting the best available alternative.
Potential swaps: As of now, the best alternative would be to jump straight to 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 ASrock motherboard 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, saving £50-£150.
Otherwise, the most obvious swap would be to go for the AMD RX 480 of GTX 1060. Neither is a huge amount faster than the GTX 970 but both have VR-centric software optimisations, and more video memory that's better suited for the high resolutions.