Gaming PCs are turbocharged computers that can blow regular desktops or dedicated video game consoles out of the water in overall performance.
Unlike basic desktop computers used for work or school, gaming PCs are outfitted with more powerful processors and graphics cards, as well as more memory to hold more games. This lets them render lifelike graphics and process background calculations (for strategy games) seamlessly.
Even though gaming PCs are the computer equivalent of a luxury sports cars, they remain practical enough to be used as everyday workstations for office or school work. The increased performance of a gaming PC can particularly benefit professional creatives who work with 3D modeling and other types of digital media.
As you might guess, gaming PCs tend to come with higher price tags. Each individual component of a gaming PC potentially costs hundreds of dollars, so a basic setup can easily set you back well over $1,000 — and higher-end options go well over $4,000.
Pre-built gaming PCs
Frugal gamers sometimes try to build their own PCs piecemeal, using sites like PC Part Picker to hunt for deals on components. However, if you don't have prior experience building PCs, it can be a very confusing and time-consuming process.
Thankfully, computer manufacturers offer pre-built models that suit a wide range of gaming needs and provide peace of mind because they've been put together by experts. The main benefit of these mass-produced models is that they’re ready to play right out of the box, while still allowing for easy upgrading. This lets you get used to tinkering with your PC components individually, which can save you money in the long run.
When shopping around for a pre-built gaming PC, it’s important to keep in mind what type of games you play. Someone looking to play the latest, most graphically intensive games — such as Elden Ring or Assassin's Creed: Valhalla — will benefit from a more powerful graphics card, which handles object rendering and most in-game physics. On the other hand, if you favor games that require many background calculations, but are not as visually impressive (think: the popular Civilization franchise of strategy games), a more powerful processor should be your focus.
If you're scared off by the high prices of many gaming PCs, keep in mind that even the most powerful pre-built models will have a more affordable version available. It is entirely possible to get your feet wet with a basic $800 setup that you can build up over time to rival cutting-edge $4,000 machines.
With the rise of professional esports, you may come across some affordable pre-made models billing themselves as “esports ready.” What this means is that they have just enough processing power and graphics capacity to run fast-paced games like "Call of Duty" or "League of Legends" with minimal visual delay. It does not, however, mean that they will be able to run games at their most impressive and demanding settings.
Likewise, virtual reality (VR) gaming is also becoming increasingly popular. One might think that VR technology requires a powerful setup to run, but that’s only true for so-called “AAA” big-budget games. Most games or applications with a VR component can run smoothly on mid-range gaming PCs, as long as their components are current or last-generation.
Gaming PC buying guide
Regardless of your preferences, there are a handful of important features and specifications to look out for when buying a brand new gaming PC:
• GPU. One of the two most important parts of any gaming PC is the graphics card or Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). The most current-gen setups use NVIDIA, though AMD is another big name in GPUs. If you want to run graphics-intensive games, it is usually best to pick a 20-series or 30-series NVIDIA card (RTX 2070 or RTX 3070). If you’re not concerned with how pretty your games will look, AMD GPUs are an affordable alternative, as well as NVIDIA’s GTX line.
• CPU. Having a powerful graphics card is important, but without a central processing unit (CPU, or just "processor") to match, your games will look choppy and stutter constantly. The processor handles all tasks that don’t involve graphics rendering — including background processes and running other programs. A CPU with 8 cores has just enough power for smooth gaming, though 4- and 6-core CPUs can do a good job for older games. If you favor games with a lot of calculations involved, make sure to pick a fast CPU to avoid slowdowns.
• RAM. Similar to the CPU, RAM, or Random Access Memory, is essential for running multiple processes at the same time. The difference is that RAM is a form of short-term memory for your computer (think of why some work doesn’t get saved if the computer shuts down without warning). RAM is measured in Gigabytes (GB), and 8GB is the bare minimum required for gaming, though 16GB or 32GB are preferable in the long run.
• Storage space. Current-gen games take up a lot of memory space. Gaming computers usually come with at least one Terabyte (TB) of storage, but most include two separate hard drives — one for fast system startup times and the other for extra storage space. At the very least, make sure that the main hard drive on your computer is a Solid State Drive (SSD), which makes loading and startup times much faster.
• Upgrade potential. One reason desktop PCs made for gaming are appealing is that you can upgrade them as time goes on. Take note that some pre-built models have casings that make difficult to swap in new parts, possibly forcing you to buy a brand-new setup years down the line. Regardless of your gaming preferences, it’s always a good idea to pick a casing with enough space for future upgrades.
• Accessories. A powerful PC is important for running cutting-edge games smoothly, but you still need a mouse, keyboard and monitor to actually play them. When looking for gaming peripherals, always focus on the word “ergonomic.” Gaming sessions can run for hours, and the human body was not meant to hold the same posture or hand positions for extended periods of time. While good equipment can cost well over $50 apiece, your body will thank you for your investment.
Best gaming PCs
1. Best overall: Alienware Aurora r11 Gaming Desktop
CPU: Intel Core i5 10400F–Core i9 10900KF | GPU: Nvidia GTX 1650 Super–RTX 3090 | RAM: 8GB–32GB 2933MHz | Storage: Up to 2TB M.2 PCIe SSD + 2TB SATA HDD
Alienware has been synonymous with gaming PCs for years. The r11 is the brand's latest model of prebuilt machines, and unsurprisingly, it's one of the most powerful models available right now. This PC looks like it belongs on an alien spaceship and houses the latest generation of processors and graphics cards, allowing it to run current-gen games at the highest graphics settings with little effort.
The main draw is that it ships with NVIDIA’s latest-gen 30-series graphics cards. These GPUs are currently in high demand and are still hard to come by from many retailers. It also comes with Alienware’s proprietary liquid cooling system, helping it run at peak performance for longer times.
Beyond the impressive performance ratings, it boasts 12 different USB ports — both 2.0 and 3.2 — leaving ample room for gaming peripherals and other accessories. If you can spare the cash and don’t want to go through the hassle of building a top-notch gaming PC yourself, Alienware’s r11 sells for anywhere from $1,100 to $3,400.
2. Editor's pick: HP Omen Obelisk
CPU: Intel Core i5-8400 – i5-9600K | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti – RTX 2080Ti | RAM: up to 64GB | Storage: 1TB HDD – 1TB SSD, 3TB+3TB HDD
Finding a decent gaming PC on a budget is a difficult proposition. If you’re not building it yourself, odds are that you’ll be looking at pre-built models starting at $1,700 or more. HP’s Omen Obelisk keeps costs as low as possible while still delivering solid performance.
It’s capable of running most of the latest games in the market, though you may have to sacrifice graphics performance if you're opting for the cheaper and more basic model. The casing design is very sleek and spacious, allowing for customizable RGB lighting, as well as more powerful upgrades. No tools are necessary to open it up for upgrading, either.
Anyone looking to start gaming right away, while still leaving room to grow into their PC, can feel good about buying this HP model.
3. Best gaming console alternative: MSI MEG Trident X
CPU: Intel Core i7-10700K | GPU: MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Ventus OC | RAM: 32GB Samsung DDR4-2933 | Storage: 1TB Western Digital PC SN730 PCIe NVMe SSD
When it comes to gaming, some people prefer consoles over PCs due to their unique designs (and lower cost). MSI’s Trident X is a top-notch gaming computer with a slim, angular profile, and impressive RGB lighting that would not look out of place next to a Playstation or Xbox console.
Though the Trident X's appearance is a sharp contrast to its monochrome rivals, this particular model isn’t just about looks. It packs the latest generation of Intel processors along with NVIDIA’s 20-series graphics cards, letting you run resource-heavy games right out of the box. It does require computer tools to open for upgrades, but given what it comes equipped with, this may not be a concern for a long time.
The MEG Trident X is not cheap, easily reaching the $2,000 mark. But if you like the idea of a top-notch gaming PC without the hassle of building it yourself, this model fits the bill.