While most people are deserting the bulky desktop PC in favour of laptops and tablets, high-end gaming is one area where you can't beat a desktop PC for performance balanced with price. In this category vendors can tweak and tune as much as they like, overclocking processors and fitting the fastest components available. Here's how to buy a great gaming PC. For the latest reviews, see also Group test: What's the best gaming PC?
Best PCs for gaming: System Case
Desktop PCs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Larger cases allow for bigger and multiple graphics cards; arrays of hard drives; elaborate cooling systems and the biggest, most feature-rich motherboards. But traditional PCs can take up a huge amount of space and really dominate a small room.
We're seeing greater numbers of more compact PCs, featuring smaller Mini-ITX and Micro-ATX motherboards. These fit into rather more manageable case dimensions. They aren't for real power users though, people who want to double-up on graphics cards or install a large number of internal components, although they can nearly as powerful as their much larger counterparts.
Best PCs for gaming: Graphics Card
Inside the case, the next most important choice to make will be your graphics card. The largest cards may not fit in all system cases, but in general you should go for the most powerful graphics card you can afford as it is this component which is the driving force behind gaming performance.
There's an on-going battle between AMD and nVidia when it comes to graphics card selection, with price changes, new architectures and new driver releases often tipping the balance back and forth between the two.
Today, AMDs R9 280X or the faster R9 290 will give you a great gaming experience, and even the slower of these delivers over 60 fps at 1920 by 1080 pixels in many cases. Similarly, nVidia's GeForce GTX 780 is a force to be reckoned with, often delivering slightly higher frame rates in our tests although your experience will depend on precisely which games you play – software optimisations in the games themselves can tip performance in favour of one or the other brand.
Never skimp on the graphics card in a gaming PC – it's the single most expensive component, but is essential for the best Windows gaming. Don't be afraid to opt for a slightly slower processor if it means you can afford a better graphics card. In general you'll need to match the performance of the two components to avoid bottlenecks and to get the most out of both.
You can save money with a factory-overclocked graphics card with a lower base specification. These run the graphics processing chips and memory marginally faster than standard cards and use superior cooling systems. The result often provides graphics performance closer to that of the next model up, but at a lower price.
Dual-card solutions can also be a good idea, depending on the prices of the cards available at any given time. None of the vendors here has chosen such a solution but, if you choose a motherboard that supports nVidia's SLI or AMD's CrossFireX, it's easy to add a second graphics card later – provided your case has room and your power supply can handle the extra demand. For more see What's the best graphics card?
Best PCs for gaming: Processor
The graphics processor may drive the Windows gaming experience, but a PC still needs a central processor. The new Intel Core i5-4670K is difficult to beat for all-round performance at a reasonable price. You can opt for the supreme power of the more expensive Core i7-4770K, which can process double the number of threads, but you'll pay a considerable premium – and crucially, see minimal improvement in gaming framerates.
Any of these ‘K-series' processors will allow a reasonable amount of overclocking, but do make sure your system uses a motherboard that supports this function if you want to make the most of such a CPU.
We use PCMark 7 to quantify the general performance of each machine. When most PC vendors are selling in essence the same box of bits, differences can be attributed to the level of overclocking and the use of faster memory or choice of SSD. Graphics cards can also come into play for non-gaming tasks such as converting video formats, which will also be reflected in the overall PCMark 7 score.
Good cooling is essential if a high-performance CPU is not to overheat. The cheap Intel CPU cooler often fitted by UK vendors to family PCs simply won't do. Expect to find large heatsinks and several fans.
Liquid-cooling systems offer reduced fan noise and greater cooling capacity than airflow alone. Meanwhile, the dust filters attached to a computer's fans can help to reduce the incoming debris that clogs up games machines and can otherwise cause them to run even hotter and louder.
Gamers like their systems to look the part, but the case needs to be practical. Internal cable management aids airflow, and fan controllers let you reduce noise or boost cooling as necessary.
Best PCs for gaming: Peripherals
Look for a monitor that's large, clear and offers a fast response time. Twisted nematic (TN) panels offer the fastest response times, but in-plane switching (IPS) panels are now sufficiently fast and provide much better colour reproduction. Their wider viewing angles will benefit other (non-gaming) users of the PC, too.
Console gamers may want a display that has multiple HDMI inputs so they can hook it up to their PC and switch between the two.
The keyboard and mouse you use can make a huge difference to your gaming performance. An enthusiast system should come with peripherals designed for gaming. You may benefit from the improved responsiveness of wired rather than wireless devices. Look for high-resolution mice, and keyboards with programmable keys and backlighting.
High-grade mechanical switches in keyboards 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.
A gaming soundcard can provide a more immersive experience by adding multiple sound effects, with improved audio fidelity and reduced noise. Also consider a gaming headset with a built-in mic.
Best PCs for gaming: Warranty
Warranty terms are crucial when it comes to PC with processors pushed beyond their rated speed. The longer the warranty better, but also look for parts-and-labour cover rather than sneaky labour-only deals.
Best PCs for gaming: TOP 6 REVIEWS
A small form factor gaming PC that offers superb all-round PC performance, the Yoyotech Warbird RS2 doesn't come cheap.
£1,370 inc VAT
The Wired2Fire Diablo GTX – M is the most compact gaming PC we've seen. Here's our Wired2Fire Diablo GTX – M gaming PC review.
£1,099 inc VAT
If you don't mind sacrificing a little performance in order to get a near-silent gaming PC, the Quiet PC Serenity Mini Gamer is for you. Here's our Quiet PC Serenity…
£1,213 inc VAT
The CyberPower Infinity Perseus XT is a big, expensive but powerful gaming PC. Here's our CyberPower Infinity Perseus XT gaming PC review.
£1,499 inc VAT
The Chillblast Fusion Probe is a small form factor gaming PC that looks stylish and offers good performance. Here's our Chillblast Fusion Probe review.
£1,299 inc VAT
The Aria FX-Viper 8320 is a games rig with a difference: an AMD PC built for gaming. It's not the fastest or the most powerful, but it is good value for money. Here's…
£895 inc VAT
For the latest reviews, see also Group test: What's the best gaming PC?
Best PCs for gaming: HOW WE TEST
We test each PC for performance, measuring its speed in everyday computing tasks and its ability to play games.
For this group test we used 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.
An overall score in the high 6,000s is excellent for an overclocked gaming system. Without overclocking, you can expect scores in the low 5,000s.
We've used three games to evaluate graphics performance. We run our tests at 1280x720-and 1920x1080 pixels at various detail settings. Framerates are recorded using the following games and quality settings:
Final Fantasy XIV: 1280x720, Medium quality; 1920x1080, Maximum quality.
Alien vs Predator: 1280x720, all settings at Maximum quality; 1920x1080, all settings at Maximum quality.
Sniper Elite V2: 1280x720, all options set to Low quality, advanced shadows off, Supersampling off; 1920x1080, All options set to Medium quality, advanced shadows off, Supersampling off; 1920x080, all options set to Ultra quality, Advanced shadows – high, 4x Supersampling.
We've also added a test run at the lowest possible quality to allow comparison with non-gaming systems.
Power consumption torture testing
We measure the power consumption of each PC base unit (excluding peripherals) when idle and again while running at its performance limit.
During the idle test the PCs hard drives are still spinning and the power-management features are not enabled.
For the full-load torture test, we run Prime 95 to force all CPU processing threads to maximum utilisation and stress system memory. At the same time we run the Geeks3D Furmark benchmark to stress any installed graphics cards. We leave these tests running for 10 minutes, then record the system's power consumption and the CPU temperature reached.
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 to put things right in the event that the overclocking over-stresses your PC.
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 in this category, whereas fast, responsive peripherals will impress.
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 PCs must be returned to the vendor at your cost and if both parts and labour are included.