Optimizing your system for games.
Your computer's gaming performance is dependent on many different components, so this page is designed to clarify some of the key information that you will need to be aware of when trying to run today's demanding titles.
1. Processor (CPU) and memory (RAM)
Many games will require some seriously dedicated processing power, depending on how well the title is optimized. The overall speed of the CPU is not quite as important as some of the other features, such as core/thread count and cache size. In general, you will want to use a quad core processor of at least 3 gigahertz base speed. This provides a good spot for games, and will allow you to use some faster video hardware. In older systems with slower processors, the CPU could actually limit or "bottleneck" your overall frame rate, thus reducing visible performance from any other supplementary hardware upgrades.
Memory (not to be confused with separate video memory) is something else to consider, especially in terms of amount. I would recommend selecting between 6-8GB so that the system has plenty of space to store information while games and other programs are running. I would recommend using DDR3 or DDR4 memory if possible, but faster DDR2 should still be adequate to use. Always use matching sticks of memory and make sure to set them to optimal defaults in your motherboard's BIOS.
2. Graphics cards
Dedicated graphics or video cards are arguably the most important pieces of hardware when considering PC gaming. These are the cards that render what you see on your monitor and there are typically dozens of options every couple of years. These add-on cards, installed in expansion slots on the motherboard, are responsible for how smoothly a game will appear on screen. The amount of frames per second is the typical end-user measurement of how well a graphics card is performing in real time. Regular video is rendered at just about 30fps, which is plenty watchable considering that this basically means 30 images are being rendered on the screen each second. Games work the same way, but you are able to render virtual worlds at a much faster rate with a powerful graphics card, or two!
Without getting too technical, the graphics or video card is a somewhat complex piece of hardware with many different attributes. Most of it probably wont concern you, but you want to pay attention to API compatibility (like Direct X), memory capacity and interface output type. If you are looking to game at 1080p and beyond without trouble, I suggest using a card with at least 2 or 3 gigabytes of built-in video memory. This is basically RAM that is separate from your system memory and is dedicated to supplementing your graphics card with virtual data storage. Games with lots of high definition textures will appreciate as much vRAM as possible.
All PC games will ship with system requirements, so unless you want to shell out for the biggest and baddest card of the month, you can consult with the official release information in order to pick out a graphics card. There are different tiers for cards, ranging from general purpose web-browsing to extreme performance with gobs of onboard memory. It's ultimately up to you, though, just make sure that the card you are looking at will connect to your monitor via DVI, HDMI or DisplayPort.
I am capable of recommending video cards based on system specification and desired performance, so please feel free to contact me. Please note that using two or more linked graphics cards in one system greatly increases the power requirements and may not be supported by all games without 3rd party modifications and specialized hacks.
3. Power supplies
In order to adequately operate your powerful PC hardware, you'll need a quality PSU that is capable of powering all of that expensive gear. This is the most important part of any computer, because a faulty supply could actually damage the rest of your machine, though this would be a worst case scenario. The best power supplies are manufactured by OEM companies, or the guys who actually produce the hardware. Many OEM suppliers will deal with subsidiary companies who will brand them with their own logo and packaging etc. As a rule of thumb, always find the actual OE manufacturer of a power supply before you buy; there are plenty of online resources that will aid you in finding this information and how the companies rank in terms of quality and/or reliability.
Power requirements will depend on hardware, so it's impossible to give a general figure. With gaming, however, most machines will be able to get away with using a 600 watt power supply with a powerful single rail. May supplies will "clone" this rail, meaning that each one can only handle up to a certain amperage, so single is generally better for higher-end systems. As for fixed vs. modular... this is a matter of personal preference. Fully modular is great for those wanting to only use what cables they need, while semi modular and not modular (component cabling is attached internally) will still work, but you may have many unused cables floating around inside your computer's case. I typically prefer fully modular in order to reduce cable clutter, but the choice is purely aesthetic.
As with any electronic device, heat will come into play as the computer is stressed and load on hardware increases; games are no exception. Along with the main processor the graphics card(s), memory modules, hard drives, and motherboard itself will certainly heat up. This could cause issues if you are using inadequate cooling or if there is too little airflow through your case. Fans are good, but you need to arrange them so that the computer can breathe. Intake and exhaust ventilation is required for positive airflow and I recommend additional venting at the top of your case, with fans if possible. After a long gaming session, you will likely notice lots of warm air escaping from the machine. This is good, because that is the air that you do not want staying inside.
Liquid cooling has also become immensely popular and now it is easier than ever for anyone to implement a water loop in their computer. While there are thousands of options that correlate with this route, the concept is the same. Usually, laboratory grade or specialized tubing is used to circulate distilled water and coolant mix through the different components in the process. The processor and graphics card(s) are typically the primary target, but many motherboard models also support liquid cooling. You can piece together a custom cooling system yourself or purchase a all-in-one kit that features all of the necessary parts: pump, reservoir, radiator and water block. All of these items are available separately, or fully assembled and pre-filled!
Thermal interface material, or "TIM" is also important here, whether you are air or liquid cooled. This is basically the paste-like stuff that gets squished between the core of a processing component and a copper or aluminum heat sink or dissipation device. The TIM transfers heat from the hot component die to the cooling device, and will be pre-applied on all graphics cards. There are many brands to choose from, and many resources to compare and contrast. Most pastes are plenty adequate, but they only work if they are properly applied. If you are using an aftermarket cooler, then you should consult the product's manual for any special instruction.
5. Monitoring & benchmark software
This is more of an optional measure, but sometimes it is quite useful to collect real time data on your system while games are running. There are several types of software that can help monitor and benchmark how the hardware that makes up your computer is performing. You may want to use this for a variety of reasons—for example, if you’re finding that a certain game is taxing the graphics adapter and causing the driver to crash… This could indicate that the card is becoming too hot and the software is shutting it down to prevent further damage. You can collect this data with software that is monitoring the temperature sensor of the graphics core and adjust your cooling measures accordingly.
This is just one of the many reasons you may want to keep tabs on hardware performance but it is always a good idea to know if you are working within the limits of certain components; especially if you are an avid gamer (like me). I personally have the tools and know-how to analyze and tweak systems but it doesn’t hurt to know how to use even the simplest of monitoring applications just in case you need to troubleshoot on your own. Some of the more popular software is listed below: