Playing video games has been a nice outlet for creative enjoyment that I indulge in ever so often. Due to my policy of not playing or not using the work laptop(s) for playing games, I decided to get a dedicated gaming PC instead. Something beefy enough to play all those nice-looking games. I had a little saved money from all the TA/demonstrating work I did over the past few months. And with a firm belief that I must do something with it, I decided to get a custom machine.
Earlier ideas were around ordering all the parts myself and just taking a weekend to build them together. This brought up thoughts about the likelihood that I may not take important compatibilities around, not to mention the customer service when something does eventually go wrong is a memorable experience for all the wrong reasons. I put up a post on Facebook about this, and friends (thanks Gareth, Aaron, Tam!) responded about PCSpecialist, a UK based company that built custom PCs according to spec, and offered warranty and after-service. Okay, but what about the price difference? Turns out that it was about a hundred or two more. I thought it was a good deal, considering I was going to get it shipped in one piece with the comfort of knowing that things will work together well, and if they don't, I have a number to call. So off I went to configure the beast of my gaming glory.
Everyone knows Intel rules the processing kingdom with both hands tied behind its back. No matter what AMD does, and sometimes it does things that are very promising, eventually, things never work out. So with the arrival of Ryzen CPUs, there was a huge furor of how things were going to play out. The nice thing about Ryzen is that they are cheap, like really cheap. Although Intel still might have the most powerful chips, AMD has the cheapest performant ones. Therefore, it made sense to go with the newer Ryzen CPUs.
Ryzen has tiers, just like Intel does with i3, i5, and i7. Quite (un)cleverly, they are named Ryzen 3, 5, and 7. Ryzen 3 is good enough for entry level computing, but will not result in performant gaming. Therefore, Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 are best suited for gaming. The price difference between the top-tier Ryzen 5 and bottom-tier Ryzen 7 is nearly 100$. For economical reasons, going for a top-tier Ryzen 5 is better due to the comparative performance specs. R5 (Ryzen 5) 1600 and 1600X are the two top-tier with the difference between them being the base clock speed and 50$. If one can afford it, the 1600X offers better performance, but the 1600 itself is good enough as well.
Just like Intel up there, NVIDIA has been the de-facto awesome graphics card maker since ages. But they also have been the de-facto assholes in many cases. As an open source advocate, and as someone who is quite adamant on using linux over Windows, I think going with the flow of the community is of essence. In terms of pure performance metrics, sure, NVIDIA works better. But with the advent of Vulkan, which AMD has much better support in Linux, things might get changed. So the question I asked myself was, could I sacrifice a little graphics quality as contribution towards the open source efforts (AMD and their work with the kernel), and was this a step that I felt was justified in spending my money. The answer is a resounding yes.
AMD offers the Radeon series in Graphics card based on their new architecture. These are RX200, RX300, 400, and 500 series with increasing performances. The 500 series offers the best money to performance ratio. The latest amongst those is the RX 580, which is better than the comparable NVIDIA 1060.
RAM and VRAM
RAM is the memory you stick on the motherboard, which is accessed by the CPU and which contains your data, programs, and operating buffers. VRAM is the memory inside a graphics card, where data related to the graphics is stored and only the card has access to it.
For RAM, the wisdom has been more is better. But at what point does more become insignificant in terms of the gains it gives. Turns out that it depends on what one does with it. For virtual machines, more RAM means better simulation. For browsers, it does not really matter because if you have a 100 tabs open, maybe you should take a good hard look at your workflow. The sweet spot today sits at around 16GB. It is enough to deal with most heavy tasks, and is big enough to hold large amounts of data. The configuration them becomes 2x8GB. With RAM, having two sticks of 8GB each instead of 16GB gives a better data transfer rate (10%-20%) as it allows the motherboard to communicate with each RAM stick individually.
For graphics memory, more is always better because it allows the graphics card to hold in more memory and assets while processing. If stuff is in the VRAM, then it does not have to go fetch it in the RAM or the slower disks. The current architectures offer 8GB graphics card, which is enough to make it future proof for a few more years. Another thing to note is the kind of memory being used here. DDR (double data read) allows twice the reads in a single clock cycle, and there are advances in this technology numbered serially. So DDR4 is better than DDR3 and so on. The latest is DDR4, which means that the RAM and VRAM must be DDR4. The same thing applies to RAM clock speed. Faster speed means faster memory access. So anything 2133MHz and above should be fine.
The thing that ties everything together, motherboards are simple to reason about and easier to choose because of their dependence on every other peripheral. The CPU socket type determines what motherboard to choose, and the GPU and RAM types further narrow it down. Thankfully, these days, everything fits in well together and there are no real mismatches. Well known companies in this are are Gigabyte, MSi, and ASUS.
SSD and HDD
SSD is faster, smaller, and the future. Since it contains no spinning parts, it has a better life and deals with shocks in an elegant manner. Ideally, once would only have SSDs in their system, but owing to how expensive they are, a mix of SSD + HDD is economical. Because the SSD offers faster access to data, it should house the operating system and any programs or applications within it. The data can be stored on the HDD, and most data is read (buffered) into the RAM and VRAM anyway.
For SSD, the size should be at least 128GB because that is how much the operating system and applications eat up these days. Being one step ahead is always nice, so 256GB sounds like a better deal. This can be accompanied with a HDD of size 1TB or above. Since these come cheap, even multiple disks of 1TB each can be configured for backups and holding less important data.
A gaming mouse or a gaming keyboard is nice because they offer faster responses and precision, which offer benefits in games, especially ones that test reaction speeds. However, they are quite expensive. The best ones have a laser precision system that offers incredible accuracy for aiming. The best keyboards are mechanical, which are great to type on, but are again, very expensive. A compromise could be getting a good laser-based mouse, and a comfortable keyboard to type on. Because I'd like to play from my bed as well, might as well make them wireless. Both Microsoft and Logitech make some good wireless combos.
A gaming PC evokes images of a cool looking case with LEDs flashing all about, a transparent side through which one can grok at the innards as they turn up the heat through processing. In practice, the only one looking at that case is me. The case sits beneath my table, out of eyesight, so apart from the cool factor, the case doesn't really help me out here, especially on a budget. A good case must be able to circulate air, have good cable management, enough space for everything to fit together.
Based on a thoughtful process which involved a lot of internet based researching and witch hunts for weird bugs which might not get reported, I finalised the specs based on what PCSpecialist had available with them and what I wanted in terms of gaming.
- AMD Ryzen 5 1600 3.2GHz 6-core processor
- Corsair Vengeance 16GB (2x8GB) memory
- MSI Radeon RX 580 8GB video card
- Samsung PM961 256GB SSD
- WD BLACK 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM HDD
- Corsair SPEC-03 ATX case
- Cooler Master - Hyper 212X 82.9 CFM CPU Cooler
- Asus - PRIME B350-PLUS ATX AM4 Motherboard
- Corsair - VS 450W ATX Power Supply
- Gigabyte - GC-WB867D-I PCI-Express x1 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi Adapter