Many people seem to be thinking about buying or building a new desktop PC, especially given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. An increasing number of people are spending more time at home, for various reasons, so having a new, more powerful machine is probably a good idea. If you are thinking along these lines, one key question is what parts should you use for a new PC?
This post will cover some key points that you should consider as you choose the parts for a new desktop system. This is relevant whether you are building a new system from parts or ordering a prebuilt system from a system integrator.
What is Your Use Case?
Before you can make too many decisions about component choices or your budget, you should have a good idea what you plan on using your new system for. Many people use desktop PCs for multiple, different things, but usually one or two types of workloads are more important than the others.
For example, perhaps PC gaming is very important to you and you want to prioritize your choices and budget to help your gaming performance. Perhaps you need to do other types of work during the day, but you still do some occasional gaming at night.
For gaming, it is very important to understand what types of games you like to play and what resolution and refresh rate you plan on using. Playing eSports games at 1080p or lower on a standard 60Hz monitor is very different from playing the newest games at 4K on a high refresh rate gaming monitor. Typical eSports games are League of Legends, CS-GO, and Fortnight. Gaming at higher than 1080p resolution requires significantly more GPU horsepower.
You also have the question of single-threaded vs. multi-threaded performance. Some workloads (such as rendering) rely heavily on multi-threaded performance. Most PC games don’t really use more than 4-6 threads, so having a very high core count CPU does not help gaming performance for those games.
What is Your Budget?
Before you start picking components, you should have a pretty good idea how much money you are willing or able to spend on the total system. I would also urge you to try to rein in the natural tendency to spend more money than you need to. As you do research and read reviews is is all too easy to get caught up in the hype and enthusiasm about the latest hot new component.
Fast and new is great, but try not to drastically overspend chasing what may be small performance differences in real life. Buying open box or used components is one way to stretch your budget. Paying attention to the product life cycle can also save you money. Previous generation components are often heavily discounted after new generation components become available.
Intel or AMD?
If you follow my writing, you can probably guess my first choice for most situations. For many years (roughly 2005-2017) Intel-based systems were the smart choice if you cared about performance. During most of that time frame, AMD-based systems were miserably bad compared to Intel, and because of that long legacy, some people still assume that AMD-based systems are a bad choice.
Since the release of the AMD Zen architecture in 2017, this has not been true. Each successive Zen release has gotten noticeably better, with the 4th generation, Zen 3 desktop processors actually beating Intel’s best current CPUs for both single-threaded and multi-threaded performance in most benchmarks.
Right now, there are very few reasons to prefer a new Intel build over a new AMD build. One example would be if you have a workload that runs fine on integrated graphics and you have a tight budget. Another one would be if you run applications that are heavily optimized for Intel processors, to the point where you would actually see better performance with Intel.
Whichever way you lean, you do need to decide before you go much further. This choice directly affects your processor and motherboard choices. It may also affect your memory and CPU cooler choices, although this is less common.
Mainstream or HEDT?
You will also need to decide if you want a mainstream desktop system or a high-end desktop (HEDT) system. HEDT systems are significantly more expensive than mainstream desktop systems, and they are usually less well suited for gaming.
AMD AM4 mainstream desktop processors range from 4C/8T up to 16C/32T, and support up to 128GB of RAM in four memory slots. Depending on the motherboard chipset, you also get PCIe 4.0 support.
Intel LGA1200 mainstream desktop processors range from 4C/8T up to 10C/20T, and support up to 128GB of RAM in four memory slots. No current Intel desktop processors support PCIe 4.0, but this may not be that important for your workload.
Most people will probably be quite happy with the performance and capacity of an AMD mainstream desktop system. If you really need more cores, more RAM, or more total PCIe lanes, you will have to move up to an HEDT system. This will entail a big jump in your system cost, mainly from the CPU and motherboard.
AMD HEDT sTRX4 processors range from 24C/48T up to 64C/128T. You get eight memory slots, so you can have up to 256GB of RAM, and PCIe 4.0 support. In contrast, Intel HEDT LGA2066 processors range from 10C/20T up to 18C/36T. You also get eight memory slots and 256GB of RAM, but only have PCIe 3.0 support.
BTW, the top-end AMD mainstream 16C/32T Ryzen 9 3950X and Ryzen 9 5950X processors will smoke the top-end Intel HEDT 18C/36T Core i9-10980XE on most benchmarks and workloads. The only reason I might consider an Intel HEDT system is if I really wanted 256GB of RAM at a much lower cost than an AMD HEDT system.
A new desktop system will need these key components:
- Processor (CPU)
- CPU cooler
- Video card (GPU)
- Boot drive
- Power supply
Reusing Existing Components
If your finances permit, I think it is better (and less stressful) to get all new components, since this helps ensure everything will work together. It also lets you completely build the new system without having to take components from the old system. Your old system will still be working and available as you build and configure your new system.
If you need to stretch your budget by reusing some of your existing components, you can probably do that in many cases, depending on their age and compatibility. Quite often, older components simply won’t work in a new system. For example, DDR3 RAM is not going to work in a new motherboard that must have DDR4 RAM. Sometimes an old power supply might not work with a new motherboard.
Most of the time, your old case and power supply will work in a new system. An existing GPU and your existing storage will work too. Existing parts probably won’t perform as well as newer generation replacements though.
With an AMD mainstream desktop CPU, you can have anywhere from 4C/8T up to 16C/32T, if you include both Zen 2 and Zen 3 processors. The new AMD Ryzen 5000 (Zen 3) processors are the hot ticket right now, but they are still hard to find. Ryzen 3000 (Zen 2) processors are still good choices.
Gaming CPU Choices
Since most current games don’t use more than 4-6 cores, there is no real need to get a higher core count CPU if your primary use case is gaming. Getting a less expensive Ryzen 5 CPU leaves more money in your budget for your GPU.
Any of these four choices will be great for gaming, and there is about a $120 price difference from top to bottom.
- AMD Ryzen 5 5600X on Amazon
- AMD Ryzen 5 3600XT on Amazon
- AMD Ryzen 5 3600X on Amazon
- AMD Ryzen 5 3600 on Amazon
Productivity CPU Choices
If you are doing work that requires better multi-threaded performance, you should be looking at higher core count CPUs. This is not to say that Ryzen 5 CPUs can’t do productivity tasks, because they actually can. It’s just that higher core count Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 9 CPUs will have more total CPU capacity. They are also great for gaming, as long as you don’t mind spending more money.
These three choices give you the best price/core.
Most Ryzen 3000 series processors do come with a stock CPU cooler in the box, while most Ryzen 5000 series do not. The AMD Wraith Prism RGB CPU cooler that comes with several mid-range Ryzen 3000 series processers is actually pretty decent. Unfortunately, the AMD Stealth and Spire CPU coolers that come with some lower-end Ryzen processors are not as good.
If you want better boost performance and better performance under a sustained CPU load, an aftermarket CPU cooler is a worthwhile investment. I tend to favor air coolers because they are typically less expensive, easier to install, and have better long-term reliability than liquid coolers.
Here are several good air coolers at different price points.
- Noctua NH-D15 chromax.Black on Amazon
- be quiet! Dark Rock 4 on Amazon
- ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports DUO on Amazon
- ARCTIC Freezer 7 X on Amazon
If you are building a new AMD Socket AM4 system, I think you want a good quality B550 or X570 motherboard. One measure of the quality of the motherboard is VRM thermal performance. Hardware Unboxed does very comprehensive motherboard reviews with VRM thermal testing.
The B550 chipset is newer and is supposed to be less expensive than X570. Both chipsets will support Ryzen 3000 and 5000 series processors. The main difference is that B550 only has PCIe 4.0 support from the processor and not from the chipset.
Here are some good choices.
B550 Chipset Motherboards
- Gigabyte B550 AORUS Master on Amazon
- MSI MPG B550 Gaming Edge WiFi on Amazon
- MSI MAG B550 Tomahawk on Amazon
- ASUS ROG Strix B550-F Gaming on Amazon
X570 Chipset Motherboards
- Gigabyte X570 AORUS Master on Amazon
- ASRock X570 Steel Legend WiFi on Amazon
- GIGABYTE X570 AORUS Elite Wi-Fi on Amazon
For Ryzen 3000 and 5000 series processors, the sweet spot for price performance is DDR4-3600 or DDR4-3200 with tight timings. Good quality DDR4 desktop RAM seems to be in high demand right now, so it can be challenging to find.
Here are some good choices.
- Corsair VENGEANCE RGB PRO 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4 3600 (PC4-28800) C18 AMD Optimized Memory – Black on Amazon
- Crucial Ballistix RGB 3200 MHz DDR4 DRAM 32GB (16GBx2) CL16 BL2K16G32C16U4BL (Black) on Amazon
Video Card (GPU)
Since I’m recommending an AMD mainstream desktop system with a non-APU CPU, that means that you will definitely need a video card. If you are not going to be doing any serious gaming or other tasks (like rendering) that require a powerful GPU, you can save some money with a lower-end GPU. For gaming, you will probably want a more powerful GPU, but you can usually save some money on the CPU.
Unfortunately, now is not the greatest time to buy a new high-end GPU. Both NVIDIA and AMD have recently released several families of new high-end GPUs. That would be great, but demand for high-end GPUs is extremely high, and supplies of these new GPUs have been very low so far.
My advice for right now is to consider getting a mid-range GPU as a temporary stop-gap, and see how it works for you. If you are not gaming, one of these mid-range GPUs should be perfectly fine.
- PowerColor Red Devil AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT on Amazon
- MSI Gaming GeForce GTX 1660 Ti Gaming X on Amazon
- MSI Gaming GeForce GTX 1660 Super Gaming X on Amazon
I think an M.2 NVMe PCIe 3.0 or better NAND flash drive is the best overall choice for a boot drive. Make sure to get at least a 500GB or larger size, since smaller capacity NAND flash drives lose a lot of performance compared to larger capacity drives from the same model line. Larger drives (up to a point) also are usually less expensive per GB.
These are all good choices, at different capacities and price points.
- 2TB Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus M.2 NVMe PCIe 4.0 on Amazon
- 1TB Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus M.2 NVMe PCIe 4.0 on Amazon
- 1TB Samsung 980 PRO M.2 NVMe PCIe 4.0 on Amazon
- 500GB Samsung 980 PRO PCIe 4.0 on Amazon
- 2TB Samsung 970 EVO Plus M.2 NVMe on Amazon
- 1TB Samsung 970 EVO Plus M.2 NVMe on Amazon
- 500GB Samsung 970 EVO Plus M.2 NVMe on Amazon
- 500GB Samsung 970 EVO M.2 NVMe on Amazon
I strongly prefer air-flow optimized, “mesh” cases from companies like Lian Li, Corsair, and Fractal Design. The Gamer’s Nexus YouTube channel does the best case reviews, so if you really want to do deeper research that is the place to go.
These are some good choices that I have personal experience with. The bottom two are smaller, so some larger air coolers may not fit well, especially with very tall RAM.
- Lian Li Lan Cool II Mesh on Amazon
- Lian Li LANCOOL 215 RGB on Amazon
- Corsair 4000D Airflow on Amazon
- SilverStone Technology FARA R1 on Amazon
- Corsair 275R Airflow on Amazon
- Fractal Design Meshify C on Amazon
This is a great case review roundup from Gamer’s Nexus.
I strongly prefer fully modular power supplies with a 80+ Gold efficiency rating or higher. These tend to be more expensive than non-modular, less efficient power supplies. The pandemic has caused power supply prices to rise, and has decreased available supplies. Getting the power supply you actually want can be challenging.
You also don’t want to get a power supply with far more capacity than you actually need. Most systems don’t really need a 1000 or 1200 watt power supply. Higher capacity power supplies are more expensive, and they are less efficient when they are running at a small percentage of their rated workload.
The picture below gives PSU sizing guidance for some different GPU/CPU combinations. Most gaming systems will be fine with a 750-850 watt power supply, while most non-gaming systems work well with a 500-750 watt power supply. Ideally you want your full system load to be about 50-60% of the capacity of the power supply.
Here are some good choices.
- ASUS ROG Thor 850 on Amazon
- EVGA SuperNOVA 220-G3-0850-X1, 850 G3, 80 Plus Gold 850W on Amazon
- Seasonic PRIME Fanless PX-500 on Amazon
- Corsair CX750F RGB, 750 Watt, 80 Plus Bronze on Amazon
Note: Links to Amazon are typically monetized on my blog (affiliate links) and may return a commission of sales to me from the retailer. This is unrelated to the product manufacturer and does not increase the price you pay.
I have several recent posts that you might find interesting.
- Flashing Your BIOS with No CPU Installed
- AMD Ryzen 5000 Series Review Recap
- Essential AMD Desktop PC Configuration Checklist
- What Speed RAM Do You Need For a Zen 2 CPU?
One of the main challenges right now is actually finding all of the components that you might want to buy for a new system. Several key component categories are in short supply. This includes Ryzen 5000 CPUs, high-end GPUs, and good quality power supplies.
This has been another long post! I hope you have found it interesting and useful.
If you have any questions about this post, please ask me here in the comments or on Twitter. I am pretty active on Twitter as GlennAlanBerry. Thanks for reading!