Building a new computer (or updating an existing one) can be a daunting task, even for seasoned professionals. There are a number of challenges to building your PC; compatibility issues, case and component sizing, cooling, changing technologies, and just knowing how to hook everything up are just a few of the things you’ll need to know or research prior to buying all of your components and building your new rig. You wan to be sure to get the recommended gaming motherboard for i7 8700k or whichever processor you want to build your computer around.
But there’s good news! There are numerous resources out there for all of these things, so even if you aren’t a complete pro at putting together computers you’ll still have the info you need to be shooting, racing, platforming, and Battle Royale-ing quickly.
Unfortunately, there’s one aspect of PC building that doesn’t get talked about quite as much but is one of the most frequent reasons people’s home-built computers don’t wind up working as well as they should, or easily could. As you might have guessed from the title, this is the issue of bottlenecking.
What is bottlenecking?
Don’t know what bottlenecking is? That’s okay, many people aren’t very familiar with the concept, or if they are, don’t really understand how to avoid it. Bottlenecking is when one part of your computer (generally speaking your CPU, GPU, or RAM) can’t keep up with your other parts and cause performance issues.
One thing to note is that almost any computer will bottleneck eventually, in a challenging enough task. Your main goal when building a computer is to ensure there’s no extreme bottlenecking. This happens when one of your components is vastly underpowered compared to the others. Similarly, having one component much more powerful than the rest of the computer is unlikely to net you significant performance gains while gaming.
First Thought that comes on your mind
Many times people will be tempted to buy a new part- often a graphics card- and put it in a very old and underpowered computer. Another common mistake is adding far more RAM than is needed.
So, the first question that most people ask is, “How do I know how to avoid bottlenecking? How do I know what to get?”. The truth is, it’s a challenging topic and the answer depends on YOU. What do you want to do with your computer? What kind of gaming? Do you also stream? Do graphics renders? These questions will determine the best way to build your computer.
Keep reading for a closer look at what the best answer for you might be, and a deep dive into picking each component appropriately for your overall build shortly, but first there is one shortcut. If you’d rather not learn the more challenging ideas, or feel you may not have any special considerations in your needs, you may be able to use a simple reference to pick your parts rather than rely on your own knowledge. For an excellent general reference check out logicalincrements.com.
This is a superb starting point for novices and a fantastic reference for pros as well. Look at the first column for a general description of the tier, or look at the end of each row for a total budget. Sticking to one row (or +/- a row or two for each part) will generally ensure you don’t bottleneck in normal activities. Even if you want to learn the details behind picking all of your parts (or already know them!), Logical Increments is a great starting place.
How to Know Which Parts are Worth
So you’re all ready to build your PC, maybe you’ve learned what things like VRAM and overclocking mean and how they relate to your parts. You know how to compare and contrast each part against other candidates, but how do you know how to compare a CPU with GPU, or any other part that could become a bottleneck? Obviously you can’t compare directly, because their stats don’t match up to each other. Before we jump into each specific part and how to pick it, we should talk about benchmarks.
Benchmarks are one of the best ways to guide an informed decision on a purchase. A benchmark is a compiled data set of actual performance from machines using specific parts. While you can’t necessarily use benchmarks to directly compare different components, you can use them to ensure your performance is similar.
There are many benchmarks with data available, but a good starting place is passmark.com. They benchmark many different parts, but most importantly CPUs and GPUs. If you’re looking for a top end build, consider looking at their benchmark results and picking out a CPU and GPU which are both near the top end of the benchmarks. Or, if you want a mid-tier build, consider picking out parts that perform similarly near the middle.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when comparing these benchmarks that can throw you off. First, the pricing on passmark may not always be accurate, so make sure to double check prior to making any decisions. Second, the results include older parts. While sometimes purchasing older parts is a good idea for budget builds, make sure your new rig will be compatible with whatever you’re buying and new parts for the same price don’t outperform them!
Another great starting place is finding the recommended specs for several games that you intend to play and working from there. Make sure you’re looking at recommended and not minimum. If you’re looking to build something top of the line, this may not be helpful, but for those on a budget this can get you a good idea of some affordable parts that should run your favorite games well. Next, we’ll talk about your individual parts and a few flags to keep an eye on there.
A small note about hard drives: You may have one minor issue if you store your games on an HDD rather than an SSD. This is generally that for very large AAA titles you may have longer load screens as the game reads level data off of your hard drive. SSDs can speed this process up some, leading to shorter load times. Other than this, the type of HD you buy isn’t that important for gaming.
GPU (AKA Graphics Card)
Graphics cards are one of the most important parts of a gaming PC. As you may know, high VRAM helps with high graphics fidelity games that have large amounts of textures, and high clock rate helps perform more computations quicker, but there are also a couple of other important things to keep in mind while choosing.
SLI and Crossfire are ways of connecting multiple graphics cards to run in tandem and combine their performance. Some people used to advise buying two cheap cards to run together for theoretically equivalent performance to a single much more expensive card. This is generally bad advice, especially recently. SLI/Crossfire compatibility has many issues and will almost certainly cause problems in your games. More importantly, a single newer generation card like a GTX 1040 can get you great performance in many games for a very budget friendly price.
With that in mind, it’s almost always better to buy a more modern graphics card at a lower tier than an older one at a higher tier thanks to recent changes. For example, you’re almost certainly better buying a GTX 1060 than a GTX 980. But as with everything- always check benchmarks first!
You might need a better GPU than usual for your setup if: you game on higher resolutions than 1080p, you intend to run a VR headset, you mostly play AAA titles
You might need a worse GPU than usual for your setup if: you enjoy mostly indie games, you play mostly older games.
CPU (AKA Processor)
CPU advice closely mirrors the GPU advice these days. Always check the benchmarks, but once again recent developments have made it so that buying a modern processor is more advisable than an older one.
One minor note is that some CPUs may come with what’s called an integrated graphics card. These are almost never optimal for gaming and come at the cost of using your system RAM resources! If you chose to only rely on integrated graphics you can be almost guaranteed it will be your bottleneck!
As a small side note, in benchmarks some CPUs that are called “workstation” CPUs may get very high scores, especially in benchmarks that aren’t games focused. DO NOT BUY THESE FOR GAMING. They are not intended for gaming and will vastly underperform. Don’t be fooled by their specs or scores. One example is the Xeon line from Intel, but there are others so just check before buying.
You might need a better CPU than usual for your setup if: you stream games to services such as Twitch, you tend to keep resource heavy processes running while you game, you do video editing, graphics renders, or other CPU-heavy processes
You might need a worse CPU than usual for your setup if: it is an unlocked CPU that can be overclocked (but still this isn’t a recommended shortcut to take).
RAM is one of the few places where people tend to overspend, mostly because it is misunderstood. RAM, generally speaking, is a performance enabling part, not a performance enhancing part. What does this mean? It means that RAM enables your computer to do its job by being there, but adding more beyond what you need doesn’t improve your system.
You should buy as much RAM as you think you’ll need plus a bit for a buffer. This can be a challenging number to pin down, but in brief 8 GB will be plenty for most people. If you want to future-proof or do lots of multitasking, 16 GB is also a great and budget friendly amount. 32 GB might be reasonable if you are an extreme multitasker or just have money to spend. If you’re buying more than 32 GB of RAM you are almost certainly wasting your money. At this point, consider buying faster RAM rather than more.
To be simple, unless your computer is actively running out of RAM, adding more will not help you game better. You’ll never get more FPS, be able to run on higher settings, or anything else just by having tons of extra, unused RAM on your computer. Save your money and buy an appropriate amount.
You might need more RAM than usual for your setup if: you’re relying on an integrated graphics card, you stream to a service such as Twitch, you multitask frequently, you leave many browser tabs or programs open all the time.
You might need less RAM than usual for your setup if: you always use only one program at a time
Building your own PC is a fun and cost-effective way to game your way. Using the knowledge in this article, you should have the tools you need to build your PC without any major bottlenecks. And always remember- check those benchmarks!