Buying a gaming PC used to be only for people with more money than time (or sense), but times have absolutely changed. Prices have come down to the point where building your own doesn't save you as much as it once did. Even if you do pay a price premium, you get perks like support, warranties, and discounts by buying prebuilt. But before you whip out your credit card, here are some things you should think about first to make sure prebuilt is right for you.
Is Now a Good Time to Buy?
When is it ever really the right time to get a gaming PC? They can cost as much as a used car, without the getting-to-places utility, and can prove as finicky as a large houseplant (without the air-cleansing benefits). Hear us out, though. We’re not really going anywhere right now, and unlike most houseplants, gaming PCs can last you about a decade if you invest time and money.
Gaming PC retailers really bury the lede on why gaming PCs are worth anywhere from $700 to $3,000. You don’t drop all that money just to play next-gen games with 4K resolution or to get the competitive edge with mouse-and-keyboard shooter accuracy. Gaming PCs are a social play environment. They offer access to an ecosystem of multiplayer games, in which you, friends, and strangers occupy the same digital space—in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, competitive shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, MOBAs like League of Legends, and in the infrastructure of PC gaming apps, including Discord and Steam.
Gaming PCs are channels for passive socializing, a way to stay in touch with homies or make new ones. A lot can be said before “Where we droppin’, boys?” and today’s online avatars are as expressive as ever. It’s hard not to feel lonely in quarantine, and for a lot of people, their gaming PCs form the heart of their daily online bonds.
“We’re seeing tens of digits of percentage increase in the amount of time people are playing at home, and tens of digits of increase in the amount of people playing,” says Intel’s GM of desktop Frank Soqui. “Gaming keeps people connected. Although you feel isolated at home, it’s extremely social—you can do things like stream your game, social media elements for voice and text in-game. Sometimes, people don’t use the game to game. They use it to hang out and connect again.”
How Are Prices?
Covid-19 has thrown much of the manufacturing world into flux. A lot of PC component manufacturers are based in China, which was hit hard by Covid-19. PC shipments have fallen 8 percent this year, according to analytics firm Canalys—the largest drop since 2013.
On the other hand, both AMD and Intel described PC and PC component prices as stable in interviews with WIRED. “We haven’t seen much volatility outside of the typical pricing competitiveness that we’re used to in our industry,” says Frank Azor, AMD’s chief architect of gaming solutions.
“We’ve seen prices fairly stable, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see one pick up here and there, depending on the manufacturer,” says Intel’s Soqui. Data on PCPartPicker.com corroborates this; although prices for video cards went up last year, they’ve remained mostly stable ever since. Monitor and power supply prices are a little up, and CPUs have had small ups and downs. Overall, nothing major.
PCPartPicker.com owner Philip Carmichael echoed this sentiment in an email: “Prices have remained fairly stable. However, we’re seeing a significant decrease in availability. With so many parts out of stock, getting the specific brand or model of components you want can be challenging.”
What Can I Do With a Gaming PC?
The obvious answer is, “You play videogames, you dork.” But gaming PCs have a lot of unappreciated range.
Let’s talk about gaming first. If you want to spend quarantine looming over a rainbow-lit mechanical keyboard in a dark room playing League of Legends and eating frozen pizza, we are completely behind that. That is a respectable existence. It’s the face of PC gaming—hardcore hardware running a hardcore game. Most top-level competitive gamers and esports pros play on a gaming PC because it generally means more accuracy, more fidelity, and less lag.
The online multiplayer gaming lifestyle is more inclusive than it ever was. (Although that’s not saying much.) Game companies have realized, finally, that by making their games easy for newcomers to understand, they can sell more games and in-game items. That perhaps cynical financial calculus has benefited countless newbie PC gamers, curious to check out what all the fuss over Overwatch or Fortnite was about. Barriers to entry are getting lower, with a lot of games going free-to-play and offering free trials, so if you want to dip your toe into the competitive multiplayer games your friends can’t stop raving about, now is a great time. Plus, when you’re playing alone, you’ll be sorted into a skill tier and matched with other newbie players until you git guud.
With a gaming PC, you can also really spec out your Witcher 3 play-through, but before you take the plunge and buy one, consider what sort of games you might want to play and where they’re available for less money. Basically everything is landing on PC eventually, except Nintendo games, and there’s a huge and vibrant PC indie game market on Steam and Itch.io. Yet if you’re mostly playing AAA single-player games, a gaming PC may not be a worthwhile investment. Although they go out of date much more slowly than a Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft console, the initial buy-in price is pretty high. The pitch for playing demanding single-player games on a gaming PC is that you can update your hardware as game tech improves, although Intel’s Soqui says that, on average, gamers change in new systems every two years. That’s a lot of money!
Because the image of a gaming PC user is so focused around games, it’s easy to forget that gaming PCs are bigger than their marketing pitch. They’re whole-ass entertainment systems. You can keep one in your living room and watch Netflix off it. At parties, you can toss up “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to.” You can connect controllers and play couch co-op or local multiplayer games, like Gang Beasts, Sonic All Stars Racing, or Wizard of Legend. Gaming PCs are versatile pieces of technology.
Gaming PCs double as excellent and reliable home offices too. (Unless your employer asks everyone to use Apple hardware.) If you can ignore the temptation to catch a game of Magic: The Gathering Arena during your morning Zoom meeting, a powerful gaming PC might help boost your productivity. Plus, with peripherals, your setup may be a lot nicer than what your actual office supplies.
Should I Buy a Gaming PC or Build One?
Whenever someone talks about buying a gaming PC, the first response they get is “Why don’t you build one instead? It’s probably cheaper and you can get better specs.” Here’s the thing: That’s probably true. You could probably do the research yourself as to which video card can really max out the settings on the games you like to play, which case would look just perfect on your desk, and which color LEDs would totally match your gaming chair. If all of that sounds right to you, and you don’t mind putting in the time and energy, you should absolutely do that.
The benefit of buying a gaming PC, however, is the same benefit as buying any product over a DIY version: You get what you pay for, and you get extras like support should you run into problems down the line with a glitchy component, replacements in case anything arrives broken or defective, and of course, you get back all the time and energy you would have spent building. In short, if the idea of building a PC doesn’t thrill you, or you don’t think it’s a good use of your time—and I say that as someone who’s built all of my PCs—don’t feel bad about buying.
You’ll likely pay a premium to save that precious time, but it’s not completely without benefit. A caveat, though: If you are willing to pay that premium, make sure you’re doing it to save time, and not just because a PC brand is upcharging you for a fancy insignia. Some prebuilt PCs (for example, at MicroCenter) sell for fair prices because the stores buy parts in bulk.
So What Should I Buy?
There used to be a time when gaming PCs were exorbitantly expensive—to the point where it really, even with the benefits we mentioned, didn’t make sense to pay someone else to essentially put the pieces together for you. That’s changed though: Whole-PC prices are more in line with component prices, and there are way more options to choose from than two or three super-ultra-tricked-out rigs when all you really want to do is play that team shooter that came out four years ago.
For starters, we have excellent buying guides to gaming PCs and gaming laptops, if you’re in the market. Which should you choose? Jess Grey, WIRED product tester (and the author of both of those guides), explains, “Overall, I think lately it makes less sense to have a gaming laptop and a gaming desktop. I feel like most people will get more mileage out of a desktop, and your money goes way further.”
“In general it’s easier than ever to buy a good gaming PC for less than $1,000, and for most people, I’d say go for it. Don’t bother building your own; the savings aren’t as big as they used to be, and an off-the-shelf PC is going to be less of a headache (and probably look nicer) than anything you build yourself,” she says.
But what if you really, really want a gaming laptop—or you travel often and want to take your favorite games on the go? We get it, it’s OK. Grey explains: “I love a gaming laptop because I love gaming on the couch and having the option to not be tethered to a desk. For me, I also like having a gaming laptop that works as a work laptop (like the Razer Blade 15 or even an XPS 15), because I don’t like juggling devices.” Still, be ready to pay a premium and to deal with the hassles of having a powerful laptop—which can mean extra weight and heat output.
And What About Peripherals?
Peripherals are altogether a slippery slope, a rabbit hole, and any other cliché you can think of to evoke the image of sliding into the center of the earth and leaving your wallet behind.
Part of PC gaming culture is glamming out. That means keyboards, mice, headsets, mousepads, microphones, chairs, and webcams all customized to your taste and adorned with LEDs. And thankfully, today, there are more aesthetic options than sleek black hardware with alienesque green glowing lights. Razer has a gorgeous Quartz line of candy-pink peripherals. Secretlab sells an immense variety of gaming chairs, some with icons from Overwatch, Game of Thrones, and comic books. Filco sells mechanical keyboards with delightful retro color schemes like yellow-grey and white-green.
But because everything is so pretty, it’s good to draw boundaries or you’ll be dropping an extra $1,000 on your setup.
What are your goals? If it’s to be a top-of-the-heap gamer, then a monitor with a high refresh rate, a good mouse, and a large mousepad are your best bets. If it’s to look cute, then keyboards are the way to go. And if the PC gaming setup is doubling as a quarantine home office, then your back might thank you for investing in an ergonomic gaming chair. (I recently purchased an Arozzi chair with a soft matte fabric, and it relieved my back pain.)
The only things you absolutely need, though, once that big PC tower arrives is a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor. And maybe an ethernet cable.