How to choose 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. Here's our gaming PC buying advice. See all gaming PC reviews and our most recent gaming PCs group test.

Gaming PC buying advice: Processor

For all-round performance at a balanced price, the Intel Core i5-3570K is very hard to beat. You can opt for supreme power of the more expensive Core i7-3770K, which can process double the number of threads, but you'll have to pay a considerable premium for it with only minimum improvement to gaming speeds.

We use PCMark 7 benchmark to quantify the general performance of each machine. When most PC vendors are selling essentially the same box of bits, differences are largely down to the level of overclocking, as well as the use of fast memory and an SSD. Graphics card still come into play for non-gaming tasks such as converting between video formats and this also plays a part in the overall PCMark 7 score. See all Power PC reviews.

Gaming PC 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 one of the two graphics card designers and are thus likely to run better on its own cards. In this group test we see examples from both nVidia and AMD, with great performance results delivered by both.

Never skimp on the graphics card in a gaming PC – it's the single most expensive component, but requires that investment for best Windows gaming. Accordingly, many of the PCs here are fitted with high-end cards such as the nVidia GTX 680 and AMD Radeon HD 7970.

You can save money with a factory-overclocked card that has a lower base specification, such as a Radeon HD 7950 with boosted clock speeds. These often cost significantly less with a minimal reduction in performance.

Dual-card solutions can also be a good idea depending on the prices of the cards available at any given time. Two systems this month come with dual-card configurations – one aimed at keeping the price down with decent performance; the other aimed at simply delivering the fastest results possible, at a higher price.

If you choose a motherboard that supports nVidia's SLI or AMD's CrossFireX, you could start with a single card, then add a second when funds become available.

Gaming PC buying advice: Cooling

Forced cooling is essential if an overclocked CPU is not to overheat. The basic Intel CPU cooler UK vendors often fit simply won't do. Instead 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, causing them to run even hotter and noisier.

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

Gaming PC buying advice: Monitor

Look for a monitor that's large, clear and offers a fast response time. TN panels offer the fastest response times which result in blur-free action during fast-paced gamers, however IPS panels are now fast enough and offer vastly superior colour reproduction. And their wider viewing angles will benefit any other user of the PC. Console gamers may appreciate a display that has multiple HDMI inputs.

Gaming PC buying advice: Peripherals

The keyboard and mouse you use can make a huge difference to your gaming skillz. An enthusiast system should come with peripherals designed for gaming. You'll 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. They can also offload sound-processing work from your CPU to improve overall performance. Also consider a gaming headset with a built-in mic.

Gaming PC 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. See also: gaming PC buying advice and our latest gaming PC group test.