From cheapie computers that can just about handle HD to 4K PC monsters, we'll help you navigate the terrain.
On the hunt for the best gaming PC? This guide to some of the best gaming desktops we've seen within the past year or so will hopefully help. But recommendations are complicated: In all my decades of offering buying advice, Windows desktop PC recommendations have always been among the most difficult, either because they're mostly interchangeable (like basic stream-video-and-surf-the-web systems) or because there are infinite permutations aimed at small slices of buyers (like gaming PCs). The latter rank among one of the hardest segments, at least if you're in the 99% for whom price matters. There are just too many choices.
Chances are your buying decision has changed over the past several months, whether because you're anticipating working from home for the long haul or because your budget has shrunk substantially. If you're unsure about both, you may want to hold off for a little while before jumping in and fill in the gap with a cloud-gaming service
I'll admit, wave my hands a bit here: These are not recommendations for specific models, more for ballpark configurations and honorable mentions of the manufacturers or system builders with a specific case design that you should consider in various scenarios. (And when it's time to sweat the details, User Benchmark is a great site for getting a sense of key features, and performance deltas between different components.)
All power players ponder how to build a gaming PC at some point or another and whether it's worth it. That's great option if choices and DIY don't scare you -- it's sometimes the only way to get the exact configuration you want -- or if you think it'll be fun. But it generally doesn't work out to be a way to save money over an identical ready-to-ship model.
It may be cheaper than getting a premium custom built model from a company like Origin PC, Falcon Northwest, Digital Storm and the like, but the flip side is that it's nice to have someone else do the overclocking iterations, stability testing and burn-in runs. There are few things more frustrating than gearing up and sitting down to play the latest AAA only to have it crap out during the opening cut scene with only yourself to blame.
The other high-level decision you may confront is desktop vs. laptop, especially since 17-inch gaming laptops with desktop-class CPUs and GPUs like the Alienware Area-51m, Acer Predator Helios 700 and Gigabyte Aorus 17X (which I'm currently testing) deliver desktop-level performance with convenience similar to an all-in-one. An all-in-one with a really fast, gaming-optimized display. Though big laptops like these usually support upgrades, it's usually not as cheap or easy to do it as it is with even the least expensive desktop.
Choosing the best desktop for your gaming experience is all about trade-offs. Every game uses system resources -- processor (aka CPU), graphics processor (GPU), memory (RAM), storage -- differently, and often horribly inefficiently. You can't even count on resource usage to be consistent across a specific game genre, such as first-person shooter (FPS), platformer or simulation, because optimization levels can vary wildly. Gaming (and content-creation) PCs are the angry toddlers of consumer electronics: They're loud, willful and require constant supervision. And just when you think they're under control, they veer off into crazy-town.
As you configure your gaming rig, here are some considerations to keep in mind:
A "gaming system" is effectively defined by its use of a discrete graphics processor, which, for the moment at least, means AMD Radeon or Nvidia GeForce graphics. So it (should) go without saying that you should avoid dirt-cheap configurations with integrated GPUs (aka iGPUs). However, if the best gaming PC you can afford right now is an iGPU-based system, make sure it either has sufficient slot space and power supply for a GPU upgrade. Unfortunately, Thunderbolt 3 ports on desktops are pretty scarce, so attaching an external GPU (aka eGPU) at some point in the future may not be an option yet.
For whichever CPU you buy, get the latest generation available. It's usually indicated by the first digit of the CPU model name. In this case, that means the 10th generation for Intel Core i (such as i7-10700K) and third generation for AMD Ryzen (e.g., Ryzen 7 3700X). Even if it's not remarkably faster than the previous generation, they usually gain efficiencies gen over gen that improve performance in small ways without a big price premium. In the case of the latest generation of Intel processors, they gain back the hyperthreading Intel had dropped with the ninth-gen parts and incorporate better heat dissipation (to sustain higher speeds longer). If you want to save money, you can frequently go down a class, for instance, instead of getting an i7 get an i5, as long as you're not dropping below four cores.
Before you start configuring, think about what your most frequently played games are and check out forums to figure out whether their performance depends on a gazillion-core CPU or eats GPU cycles. For example, can they take noticeable advantage of 4K resolution, or do they look the same as in HD, just with an unplayably large drop in frame rate? Do you gain a significant increase in world complexity with a faster, higher-core-count CPU than you lose in frame rate by going down a class in GPU (usually in sims or RPGs).
On the flip side, don't get hung up too much on frame rates past a certain point: If you look at the numbers across a variety of benchmarks and game types, you do get a sense of the relative power of one configuration over another. But your goal is smooth gameplay -- depending upon the game and your monitor's capabilities, that can vary from a minimum of 60fps to 240fps or more -- at a quality level that pleases you and that fits within your budget.
Dual GPUs still aren't worth it. Falcon Northwest and Origin PC systems I've tested with dual GPUs have delivered over 200fps in 4K running Doom because that game takes advantage of them. But I'd be dying just as spectacularly at 120fps in 1440p (2,560x1,440) and would gladly have exchanged some of those frames for more stability in Adobe's applications.
Intel versus AMD CPUs: Unless you're buying a custom build or doing it yourself, you really don't get to choose comparable configurations to mix and match. The manufacturers tend to choose the configurations based on what they think will be popular at given price levels. Pick your preferred graphics card and then see what CPU options are on offer within your budget. AMDs tend to have slower clock speeds -- they have higher base clocks and lower boost clocks -- but better multicore performance for the same money. If your favorite games are old, they probably don't take advantage of more than four cores (if that), and will likely give you the power you need from Intel's fast individual cores. However, AMD's most recent processors have significantly closed the single-core-performance gap with Intel and almost all support overclocking (only Intel's K series do).
Figure out what kind of tech support client you are. Do you waste hours banging away at a problem, scouring the web for help, rather than contacting the company -- guilty! -- or do you want humans available to you to quickly help smooth over the rough patches? Big manufacturers usually have active user forums scattered around the web for user-to-user help and knowledge-bases with some troubleshooting help; boutique builders, not so much, because you're paying a premium for more personal human help and because the configurations are highly customized.
For turnkey-ish streaming, you should consider a Corsair or Origin PC. Corsair owns the latter as well as Elgato and equips almost all the systems with Elgato cards.
Best inexpensive gaming PC
HP Pavilion Gaming Desktop
HP's Pavilion Gaming Desktop is a compact, budget gaming friendly, spare-me-the-flashiness model, targeting the same "casual" gamer as Dell's Inspiron Gaming or Acer's Nitro lines, but a lot more understated and a good gaming experience. This $700 base model budget gaming PC should provide at least the minimum you need to play relatively undemanding games in 1080p without poking your eyes out with a stick: Intel Core i5-9400F, GeForce 1660 Ti, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD+1TB HDD. That's about what you get with budget gaming laptops.
Best small PC for gaming and more
Corsair One Pro i200
The Pro model of the Corsair One I reviewed is oriented toward content creation, but it differs only from the gaming models by choice of the CPU -- Intel's X series rather than K series -- which also makes the gaming systems cheaper. The Corsair One i164 is the gaming analog of the i200, with an i9-9900K instead of the i9-9920X and costs $1,000 less, and the entry model configuration is pretty well-equipped for even less -- $2,499. The Corsair One models may not eke every bit of performance out of the components, but that's the tradeoff for going with a petite powerhouse. The design is especially great for VR, thanks to HDMI and USB ports in the front.
Best midtower for customizers
Falcon Northwest Talon
Falcon Northwest's 2020 version of its midtower (38 liter) Talon case, formerly called the "20th Anniversary Edition," is much improved over the older case and because FNW's a custom builder you get a gazillion configuration options and pretty paint jobs. The configuration I tested was fast and stable. It's not cheap, but it should last you a long time.
Best for multiplatformers
Origin PC Big O
Origin PC's mashup of Xbox One S or PS4 consoles and a PC is an interesting approach and there are some advantages of getting the Big O instead of just buying a PC and duct taping a console to the side. First, an optional Elgato 4K60 Pro card that goes on the console side is one of the few ways to breach the divide between the left and right brain of the Big O; it can capture video directly from the console to the PC's drive, which can be a great convenience for people who want to edit their game footage. Because the Elgato feeds the video from the PS4 to the PC, you can also play one PS4/Xbox without swapping inputs. Second, Origin can configure the consoles with SSDs rather than the stock spinning drives.
Best all-in-one for gaming
HP Envy 32 All-in-One
I'm not sure an all-in-one is the best route to go for gaming, partly because the built-in displays are all fixed at 60Hz refresh and they use mobile parts. But for gaming where a big (32 inches) 4K HDR screen may make a big impact, like simulations, HP's RTX 2060-equipped all-in-one can't be beat. The model we tested was the highest-end configuration; prices start at about $1,700.