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Gaming PCs buying advice (December 2012)

Here's what you need to know when buying a Gaming PC

Gamers want power, excitement and flat-out speed. Gaming PCs therefore represent the only desktop PC category in which we allow processor overclocking.

Take a look at Group test: What's the best gaming PC?

Gaming PCs buying advice: Processor

All but one of the PCs here use overclockable Intel processors and compatible motherboards. Each takes advantage of the excellent price/performance ratio of the Core i5-3570K, or the supreme power of the more expensive Core i7-3770K, which has double the number of processing threads.

We use PCMark 7 to benchmark the general performance of each machine. Differences are largely down to the level of overclocking, but also depend on the availability of fast memory and an SSD.

Gaming PCs buying advice: Graphics card

Graphics cards fall in and out of favour as AMD and nVidia leapfrog each other with the latest technologies. It’s wise to base your GPU decision on the type of games you like to play, since many titles are sponsored by a particular graphics hardware maker and likely to run better on its own cards. In this group test nVidia sweeps the board, but an AMD Radeon HD might be better suited to your needs.

Never skimp on the graphics card in a gaming PC – it’ll be the single most expensive component. Accordingly, many of the PCs here are fitted with an nVidia GTX 680. You can often save money with a factory-overclocked card that has a lower base specification, such as the GTX 670 OC selected by Dino PC. This managed to outpace some of the slower GTX 680-based systems in our tests.

If you choose a motherboard that supports SLI or CrossFireX, you may be able to add a second card when funds become available.

Gaming PCs buying advice: Cooling

Cooling is essential if an overclocked CPU is not to overheat, and a standard Intel CPU cooler simply won’t do. Expect to find large heat sinks, often with multiple fans.
?Liquid-cooling systems can offer reduced noise and greater cooling capacity than airflow alone.

The dust filters attached to a computer’s fans can help reduce incoming debris from clogging up your machine and causing it to overheat.

Gamers like their systems to look the part, but the case also needs to be practical. Internal cable management aids airflow, while fan controllers let you reduce noise or boost cooling as necessary.

Gaming PCs buying advice: Monitor

Look for a monitor that’s large, clear and offers a fast response time. Look for an IPS rather than TN panel if possible, and console gamers may also appreciate a display that has multiple inputs.

Gaming PCs buying advice: Peripherals

The keyboard and mouse you use can make a huge difference to your performance. An enthusiast system should come with peripherals designed for gaming. You’ll benefit from wired rather than wireless devices, which tend to be more responsive. Look for high-resolution mice, and keyboards with programmable keys and backlighting.

High-grade mechanical switches in keyboards can have a better ‘feel’ and provide longer life than cheap membrane switches. Some draw attention to the W, A, S, D keys with a different colour or texture. Also consider a gaming headset with a built-in mic.

Gaming PCs buying advice: Warranty

Warranty terms are crucial in this category. The longer the better, but also look for a collect-and-return rather than return-to-base option. Beware of long warranties that cover only labour charges.

Gaming PCs buying advice: Conclusion

This is a fine set of Ivy Bridge-based gaming PCs, with prices ranging from the £643 Overclockers UK Primo GTX 660 to the mighty Quiet PC Serenity Gamer, which will cost you more than £2,000.

Every system here will provide a great gaming experience, but the individual machines have their own strengths and weaknesses. All but the Overclockers system employ a large amount of overclocking, which significantly boosts performance.

Although CPU power is important for gaming, the graphics card will have by far the greatest effect on your framerates. Most PCs here favour the nVidia GeForce GTX 680 for its uncompromising performance, but a factory-overclocked GTX 670 can perform just as well for significantly less money.

Special mention has to go to the Overclockers UK system for its incredibly low price. If you have only £650 to spend, you’ll get plenty of enjoyment from this system at a game’s lower quality settings.

If you have around double this amount to spend, Chillblast’s Fusion Firebird offers an almost impossible price/performance ratio, providing gaming framerates that consistently beat all challengers. It came second in our PCMark 7 tests, too. The Chillblast’s standard wireless keyboard and mouse combo is unlikely to impress, but you could spend another couple of hundred pounds on upgrading these and still have a system that beats the competition on value.
Overclocking demands powerful fans, which are able to shift around large volumes of air to keep the system cool. If you’d rather not hear a sound from the workings of your PC, Quiet PC’s Serenity Gamer is an expensive, but supremely quiet option.

If you want to really crank up the action, YoYoTech’s custom cooling solution could be a good starting point. You’ll want a faster graphics card and CPU overclock for the best gaming performance, however.

Gaming PCs buying advice: How we test

Application performance

We test each PC for performance, measuring its speed in everyday computing tasks and its ability to play games. We asked vendors to submit their systems running Windows 8, but our long-standing benchmark, WorldBench 6, won’t work with Windows 8.

For this group test we instead turned to PCMark 7, an industry-recognised test suite that uses 25 different workloads to measure areas such as storage, computation, image- and video manipulation, web browsing and gaming. We understand that results from this benchmark are not absolute, with Intel driver issues in Windows 8 meaning video-transcoding tests can present sub-optimal results. Nevertheless, the results give an idea of the relative performance.

Gaming performance

We use five games to evaluate graphics performance. We crank up the quality levels to 1920x1080 in all tests except the Medium-quality Stalker: Call of Pripyat and Alien Vs Predator tests, which are conducted at 1280x720 resolution.

Framerates are recorded using the following games and quality settings:

Hard Reset: Medium quality, no AA, no motion blur; Ultra quality with MSAA and motion blur.

Lost Planet 2: Medium quality, no AA; Ultra quality, 16x AA.

Stalker: Call of Pripyat: Medium quality, no AA; Ultra quality, 4x AA.

Alien Vs Predator: 720p resolution, all options on Maximum quality; 1080p resolution, all options on Maximum quality.

Sniper Elite V2: All options set to Medium quality, advanced shadows off, Supersampling off; all options set to Ultra quality, Advanced shadows – high, 4x Supersampling.

Overclocking

Because gamers demand the best performance from their hardware, we allow vendors to overclock PCs in this category.

We require that any tweaked component is designed for overclocking, and that the PC vendor offers a comprehensive warranty.

Subjective assessment

We pay close attention to the physical characteristics of each PC, its noise output and its build quality, delving inside the case and taking note of the quality of components used, cabling and airflow.

Good-quality peripherals are also important, and where they are supplied we note the ergonomics of the keyboard and mouse. Ordinary wireless keyboard and mouse combos are frowned upon, whereas fast, responsive peripherals will impress in this category.

Support

Differences in warranty terms can impact our scoring. Long warranties are sought after, but we also look at the terms and conditions – specifically, whether faulty systems must be returned to the vendor at your own cost and if both parts and labour are included.

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