How to build a gaming PC
Motherboard: Asus P8Z68 V Pro - £146.00
Processor: Intel Core i5 2500K OEM - £159.06
Graphics: Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 2GB - £203.63
RAM: G.Skill RipJawsX 2 x 2GB DDR3 - £49.99
SSD: OCZ Agility III 120GB - £169.34
HDD: Seagate Barracuda 1TB SATA III - £36.98
PSU: CoolerMaster GX 550W Green - £48.71
Chassis: CM CM690 II Elite - £54.95
Cooler: Antec Kuhler H20 620 - £46.44
Optical drive: Sony DDU1681S-0B DVD - £11.87
OS: Win7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM - £67.28
As gamers, we tend to upgrade certain components once or twice a year depending on how flush we're feeling. Often we're spurred on by a stunning new title or the new generation of a particular gubbin. But how often do we get to just admit that our hard drive is nearly dead and our motherboard's always been dodgy, and just start again from scratch?
Not as often as we'd like. When we do, it's a great opportunity to take the plunge into the latest chipset - the least practical of incremental upgrades. If you've been languishing in first generation Intel Core territory, the step up to 6 series chipsets such as Z68 not only unlocks fantastic Sandy Bridge CPUs, but USB 3.0, SATA 6 Gbps, DDR3 RAM and more.
Set your budget
When it comes to budgeting, there are two factors to consider. Firstly, what can you afford to spend before you have to sell body parts and start living in your car? Secondly, how much should you pay?
Above a certain level of cash-throwing, you stop getting a noticeable performance increase and you're basically just making everything look nicer and hitting higher synthetic benchmark scores. We reckon that level is £1,000. It's still a massive outlay, and you'd expect some serious performance and longevity from that.
Unfortunately, the components market is a confusing place. Manufacturers release products £10 apart from each other within their own range. Model numbers are unnecessarily complicated and often misleading. Compatibility can be a headache, and it's far from clear which components will actually get you the most bang for your dollar.
Luckily for you, here at PCF we know those components like the back of our hand. We swim through them to get to our desks in the morning, furiously benchmark them all day, and eat our dinner off them when we go home. Such a lifestyle has given us fantastic insight into which bits of silicon are actually any good, and which aren't even fit to eat beans on toast off.
Get the best GPU
The glamour piece in a rig of this kind will always be the graphics card. A new GPU gives the biggest performance boost in game. With that in mind, a top-notch GPU should be your biggest outlay in a gaming rig. Spend as much as you possibly can, because the GPU's in charge of frame rates. And high frame rates make a good gaming rig.
There are other important considerations though. A quick SSD might not seem like the obvious gaming go-to guy, but it is worth shelling out on, as is a solid mobo and cooler for overclocking.
On the flipside, you don't need a Blu-ray drive, a gigabit network card, a fancy case or more than 4GB of RAM. Indulge in the parts that matter, omit the others heartlessly from the finished rig. You'll be happier, trust us.
Inside your new rig
Radeon HD 6950
The GPU is to the gaming rig what Lionel Messi is to F.C. Barcelona and what Alberto Tomba was to men's giant slalom skiing. As such, this should be your big purchase. We think £204 is fantastic value for a card as powerful as Sapphire's Radeon HD 6950.
For starters, it's equipped with a dual BIOS and 2GB memory so you can perform the famous HD 6970 BIOS flash on it, and unlock the full power of the Cayman architecture. Sapphire has also done a sterling job with the card's cooler, you can overclock it to beyond the reference HD 6970 card's settings.
Intel Core i5 2500K OEM
The other hard worker in your new gaming rig is Intel's Core i5 2500K - It'll keep the pace with your GPU and deliver buckets of performance.
The difference between this and first-gen Intel Core chips, such as the Q6600 that also has four cores and four threads is really staggering. This raw performance coupled with Turbo Boost and some excellent overclocking potential make this chip a must-have in your new rig. Save a few quid and go for the OEM version rather than retail.
OCZ Agility III 120GB
Hang on, what are we doing spending £169 on an SSD in a gaming rig? Couldn't we make do with traditional HDD storage and plump for a second GPU? Well, sure, you could squeeze an extra HD 6950 into the budget, but the performance increase you'll get will be barely noticeable in the real world and far from the 100 per cent boost some expect.
A high-performance SSD such as OCZ's Agility 3 can make a big difference to general desktop and gaming use. From boot times to level loads, an SSD with 500 MB/s reads and writes can boost your system in areas that your GPU and CPU can't.
On our 2560 x 1600 screen, this gaming rig gave us the surplus frames we expect for almost a grand. Flashing the GPU's BIOS will give you an extra 5 to 10 frames for free.
CPU rendering performance
Cinebench R11.5: Index: Higher is better
GAMING RIG: 5.33
DirectX 11 gaming performance
DiRT 3: Frames per second: Higher is better
Stock BIOS: 35.5
6970 BIOS: 40.8
DirectX 11 gaming performance
Shogun 2: Frames per second: Higher is better
Stock BIOS: 44.1
6970 BIOS: 50.7