A friend of mine recently asked me for some advice on Twitter for choosing parts for a new PC.
“What would be your recommendation for a mid-high end desktop, gaming, video editing, coding.”
I get questions like this fairly often from people I know in the SQL Server community, which I am happy to oblige. When I get these sorts of requests, I try to ask some clarifying questions to narrow down the issue and give more relevant advice. That exchange is what prompted this post.
What Is Your Primary Use Case?
What are you planning on doing with your machine? The main workload(s) that your PC will see should strongly influence your component selection choices.
For example, PC gaming is usually most dependent on GPU performance. This is especially true at higher resolutions and higher graphics quality settings. But if you like to play older, less demanding games at 1080P or lower, your GPU is much less important.
One way to understand this is to think about what you do most often on your current PC, and what activities you do where you are waiting on the machine or feel like it is slow. What are the biggest complaints that you have about your current hardware?
What Is Your Budget?
Whether you are giving advice or making all the decisions yourself, understanding the available budget is crucial. If someone has a relatively low budget, making recommendations for high-end components is a waste of time, and could be embarrassing or insulting.
You should also resist the urge to over-spend on your PC components. Having a very nice high-end machine is great, but you should never strain your financial situation to achieve that. Unless you are using your machine in a professional capacity where more performance literally helps you make more money, your PC is an expense, not an investment.
What Is Your Build Timeframe?
Do you want to build something immediately, or are you willing to wait a few months? This is the age-old question. With PC components, there is always something newer and better that you could wait for. But at some point, you actually have to buy something and get on with it or else you won’t ever have a new machine. Timing is important, but don’t agonize over it.
Right now, (July 2022) we are in an interesting time. Existing AMD AM4 Zen 3 Ryzen 5000 Series processors (“Vermeer“) are very mature and starting to see growing price discounts. Current Intel LGA1700 12000 Series processors (“Alder Lake“) are newer and on a more modern platform, which is usually more expensive.
If rumors are true, new AMD AM5 Zen 4 Ryzen 7000 Series processors (“Raphael”) will be released (and available to buy) on September 15th, 2022. These will require new motherboards and DDR5 RAM, so they will be relatively expensive at first.
There are also rumors that new Intel LGA1700 13000 Series processors (“Raptor Lake”) will be released in October/November. I am much less confident about that. These CPUs will be able to use existing 600 series motherboards (with a BIOS update).
Getting what is available now, especially if it is heavily discounted prior to a new release is going to be significantly less expensive than the new generation components. Right now, there are some great bargains available for AMD AM4 processors and motherboards.
You Need Eight Main Components
To build a new desktop PC, you have to have eight main components.
- Some CPUs come with a stock CPU cooler
- Most stock CPU coolers are barely adequate
- CPU cooler
- Some CPUs have integrated graphics, which may be good enough for your use case
- Power supply
Most of your component choices are directly or indirectly tied to your CPU choice. For example, you can’t choose a motherboard until you know what CPU family you will be using. Your CPU and motherboard will determine your memory and storage choices. You will want to know your GPU and CPU choices before you pick out a power supply.
Choosing Parts for a New PC
Next, I’m going to discuss each of these choices. My recommendations are aimed towards a mid-range machine using components that are available now.
Note: Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, which means that I make a very small commission if you buy that item from Amazon from my link (which does not change the price you pay).
Rather than speculate about upcoming AMD Ryzen 7000 or Intel Core 13xxx Raptor Lake processors, I’m going to talk about some good AMD Ryzen 5000 and Intel Core 12000 Series processors.
Right now, my favorite all-around desktop processor is the AMD Ryzen 9 5900X. It has 12C/24T, and it usually has the lowest price per core of any Ryzen 5000 series processor. This processor can handle both productivity workloads and gaming with no problems at all. I like this processor as an upgrade for older socket AM4 systems and as the basis for a brand-new build.
Another good all-around processor is the 8C/24T Intel Core i7-12700K. This processor has 8 P-cores (with HT) and 8 E-cores. P-cores are performance cores, while E-cores are efficiency cores. Unfortunately, Windows 10 can’t really tell the difference between a P-core and an E-core, so your performance can be unpredictable. Windows 11 can use Intel Thread Director to more intelligently assign tasks to the appropriate core.
Of course, you don’t need a 12C processor for gaming. Most modern games do fine on six cores. Spending less money on your CPU frees up money to spend on a better GPU. A great 6C/12T processor is the AMD Ryzen 5 5600. Intel has the 6C/12T Core i5-12400 which is also a good choice for gaming.
AMD does have some Ryzen 5 processors that you should absolutely avoid!
If you are a competitive eSports gamer who plays at 1080P or lower, you might be interested in the relatively new AMD Ryzen 7 5800X3D. It has 96MB of L3 cache, which makes huge difference in many games. This SKU is more expensive than a Ryzen 9 5900X, and it is slower for general productivity work than a Ryzen 7 5800X (due to its lower clock speeds).
Here are some good processor choices:
Very few new processor SKUs include a stock CPU cooler. The ones that do are mainly entry-level SKUs. Even if your new processor does come with a stock CPU cooler, you should consider an aftermarket CPU cooler. This means that in most situations, you are going to want to buy an aftermarket CPU cooler.
Good CPU cooling lets your CPU run at lower temperatures, which lets it spend more time running at higher clock speeds with no thermal throttling. A good CPU cooler will help your system generate less noise, since the fan(s) won’t have to spin as fast to maintain an acceptable temperature.
You have three main CPU cooling choices. These include air cooling, AIO liquid cooling and custom loop liquid cooling. CPU air coolers are usually less expensive, more reliable, and easier to install. AIO liquid coolers tend to be more expensive, less reliable, and more difficult to install. Custom loop liquid cooling systems can be very expensive, finicky, and a lot more difficult to install and maintain. Liquid cooling systems can outperform air cooling systems and can also be less noisy.
Some things to consider with CPU coolers are RAM clearance and whether the heatsink or radiator will fit in your case. I strongly suggest you look at the documentation for the case and CPU cooler to ensure that everything will fit. If you are going to use an Intel LGA1700 CPU, make sure the CPU cooler you are considering will work. Many CPU coolers require adapter kits to work with LGA1700 CPUs.
BTW, I consider Gamer’s Nexus to be the absolute best source for CPU cooler reviews.
Right now, my favorite CPU cooling vendors are Arctic, Noctua, and Corsair. Here are some good CPU cooler choices:
- Arctic Liquid Freezer II 280
- Noctua NH-D15 chromax.black
- Arctic Freezer 34 eSports DUO
- Corsair Hydro H100 x 240
FWIW, all of my current main personal systems have Arctic Liquid Freezer II AIO coolers. I have two with the 280mm size, one with a 360mm size and one with a 420mm size radiator. This AIO is affordable, easy to install, and it performs very well.
As previously discussed, you have to make a CPU choice before you can make a motherboard choice. With Intel Alder Lake processors, you also need to decide on whether you will be using DDR4 RAM or DDR5 RAM. DDR4 RAM is much more affordable right now, but the DDR5 price delta should go down over time.
Another decision point is the motherboard form factor. The most popular size is ATX, which has more space for various sockets and slots. When you start going to smaller sizes, you usually start losing sockets, slots, and other features. For example, you might only have two RAM slots instead of four RAM slots.
You also have to decide on which motherboard chipset you want to use. AMD has X570, “X570S” and B550. There are other choices, but I think they can be ignored for a new build. The “X570S” is just an X570 with no chipset fan. Intel has Z690 and B660. Once again, there are other choices, but you should ignore them for most new builds.
After these basic decisions, you should think about what specific features you need or want. Do you need integrated Wi-Fi, and if so, what type? Wi-Fi 6E or Wi-Fi 6 are the best for a new build.
What sort of wired LAN port(s) do you need? Most new motherboards have a 2.5 Gbps port, while some more expensive models have a 10 Gbps port.
Do you need or want Thunderbolt 3 or 4 support? How many and what type of USB ports do you need? For some workloads, the number and type of PCIe slots and M.2 slots can be very important. It can also make a huge difference where these slots are connected, whether it is to the CPU or the chipset.
Typically, you will need to spend between $200 and $350 to get a “good” motherboard. Right now, my favorite motherboard vendors are ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI. Here are some good motherboard choices:
Current mainstream desktop processors and motherboards can have up to four memory slots that can hold up to 128GB of DDR4 or DDR5 RAM. You need to have either two or four memory slots populated in order to be in dual-channel mode (which is what you want).
I think the absolute bare minimum amount of RAM you should have for a new machine is 16GB, which would be two 8GB DIMMs. A more comfortable amount would be 32GB, which would be two 16GB DIMMs. If you need/want more than that, you will probably know it (and know why you need it).
If you are unsure of how much RAM you will ultimately need, it is better to start out with two larger capacity DIMMs rather than four smaller capacity DIMMs. Otherwise, when you upgrade, you will end up replacing your existing DIMMs rather than just buying two more sticks. Then you will end up with a stash of small capacity DIMMs gathering dust in a drawer.
Right now, my favorite memory vendors are G.SKILL and Corsair. Here are some good memory choices:
- G.Skill Trident Z RGB Series 32GB (2 x 16GB) F4-3600C18D-32GTZR
- G.Skill Ripjaws V Series 32GB (2 x 16GB) F4-3200C16D-32GVK
- Corsair Vengeance RGB Pro 32GB (2 x16GB)
For the past couple of years, the GPU market has been an absolute nightmare, with very high prices and terrible availability. I think this was mainly driven by crypto mining and some shenanigans by GPU vendors, distributors and retailers. Another factor was COVID-19 and global supply chain issues.
Regardless of that, the GPU market is quickly getting back to what it used to be. Prices are still higher than they were in 2019, but they are dropping quickly. Availability is pretty good, so it is not that hard to get most GPU models now. Personally, I would avoid used GPUs that have been used for mining.
Unless your CPU has integrated graphics, you must have a discrete GPU. Even if you do have integrated graphics, many workloads will benefit dramatically from having a decent discrete GPU.
High resolution gaming (above 1080P, with high quality graphics settings) is the most obvious example. Some video editing and rendering software also benefits from good GPU performance.
For most people, I think you will want a current generation GPU in the $300-$500 range. If you need or want a higher end GPU, you will probably know why. Unless you are doing specialized or professional workloads, you probably don’t need an RTX 3090 Ti…
Personally, I prefer three-fan GPUs since they tend to run at lower temperatures. They are physically larger, so they may not fit in some smaller cases.
Here are some good GPU choices:
- EVGA GeForce RTX 3060 Ti FTW Ultra Gaming, 08G-P5-3667-KL
- GIGABYTE GeForce RTX 3060 Gaming OC 12G
- XFX Speedster QICK308 Radeon RX 6650XT
In this context, I am talking mainly about the OS/boot drive. In mid-2002, I think you should prefer a 1TB M.2 PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSD for your OS/boot drive. Nearly all current generation CPUs and motherboards have PCIe 4.0 support for at least one M.2 NVMe drive.
With NAND SSDs, larger capacity models from the same family usually perform better than smaller capacity models. Pricing on 1TB models is usually much less than double the price of the same model in a 500GB size. Having PCIe interface (whether it is PCIe 4.0 or 3.0) and an NVMe protocol is a huge advantage over a SATA interface and AHCI protocol.
Of course, this depends on your workload. Most common daily tasks don’t “feel” that much faster with a high-end PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSD vs. a slower SATA AHCI SSD. But some tasks are much, much faster.
Another small benefit of M.2 SSDs is that they are very quick and easy to install compared to a SATA SSD. You also don’t need a SATA power cable or SATA data cable.
Right now, my favorite storage vendors are Samsung, WD, and Sabrent. Here are some good storage choices:
Your power supply is very important for the reliability and power usage of your system. One common mistake people make is to pick out a power supply that has a LOT more capacity than their system will ever use. A 1000W (or larger) power supply is going to be quite expensive, and it will be less efficient at low power usage levels (below 50% capacity). Modern power supplies are most efficient at 50% power usage.
Your system power usage depends mainly on your GPU and CPU choices. Most new mainstream desktop systems idle at 100W or less. Peak power usage is often in the 200-to-400 watt range (but this depends on your part choices). You can use PCPartpicker to get a decent estimate of the total power usage from all of your parts.
Most mainstream desktop systems will do just fine with a 650-to-800 watt power supply. Your power usage is also affected by the efficiency rating of your power supply.
I strongly prefer fully modular power supplies that are rated 80 Plus Gold or better. They save power and tend to have better components and longer warranties.
Right now, my favorite power supply vendors are Seasonic, Corsair, ASUS, and EVGA. Here are some good power supply choices:
Case selection can be a very subjective choice. Some people like lots of tempered glass and LED lighting, while some people hate that aesthetic.
You will need a case that is large enough to accommodate your motherboard, GPU and your cooling solution. I think you should favor cases that are designed for good air flow over what the case looks like. Larger cases give you more flexibility in all of these areas, and they are easier to build in and maintain in the future.
Of course, larger cases take up more space and are heavier. They also tend to be more expensive. If you really want the smallest case possible, you will have to make many other compromises because of that.
Other things to consider about cases include how many drive bays or drive mounting points and the type and number of top-mounted USB ports they have. You should also think about what kinds of case fans and radiators the case will support.
I also consider Gamer’s Nexus to be the absolute best source for case reviews.
Right now, my favorite case vendors are Lian Li, Corsair, and Fractal Design. Here are some good case choices:
One nice thing about choosing all of the components for a new PC is all of the choices you have. This is also frustrating for many people, who are overwhelmed by the complexity. I hope that I have provided some useful guidance for how to think about these choices, along with some specific recommendations.
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!