Best gaming PCs 2015 UK: buying advice
Consoles are great, but they simply can’t match the graphical power of a decent gaming PC. With the right processor and graphics card, you can achieve far higher-quality visuals and enjoy all the game modifications you desire. Of course, you also get high-performance for all your non-gaming needs and that graphics card will also offer a considerable performance boost to other applications, such as photo and video editing software.
Best gaming PCs 2015: Processor
Different games place different demands on your computer hardware, but choosing a gaming PC involves a balancing act between CPU and graphics performance.
For gaming PC’s we’re happy to allow overclocked processors, which will significantly increase your overall processing power without having to stump up for the most expensive chips. Several of the systems here use Intel’s quad-core Core i5-4690K processor, with another using the standard non-overclockable version of the same chip.
Nominally this chip runs at 3.5GHz, but with the right power and cooling this can be pushed much further – as far as 4.6GHz in the Case of Dino PC’s Spark GTX 960. The Core i5-4690K is a great starting point for a gaming PC and there’s not usually much to be gained from upgrading to a Core i7.
Overclocked processors place additional demands on the system’s power supply and also require better cooling, so expect to pay more for PCs with extreme overclocking.
Best gaming PCs 2015: Motherboard
There are several points to consider when choosing the right motherboard for your PC. If you’re not into technical details, you may be tempted to overlook the motherboard and concentrate on the processor and graphics, but the motherboard is equally important.
If you want to keep down costs, you can go for an Intel H81 Express chipset. These boards will cost significantly less than premium motherboards based on the enthusiast Z97 chipset, but come with reduced features. Crucially, the H81 Express chipset doesn’t officially support processor overclocking, but the feature has been independently enabled by many motherboard vendors and work just fine.
Opting for a lower-cost motherboard can also allow you to spend a little more on your graphics card, which can have a big impact on your final performance figures.
This option is now without risk. Although your warranty protects you from system failures due to overclocking, it’s theoretically possible for Intel to pull the plug and put pressure on vendors to remove the overclocking features in forthcoming BIOS updates. Similarly, Windows Update could also be used to install new processor microcode with the same effect.
The Z97 Express chipset brings many extra features, including more USB 3.0 and SATA ports, support for Intel Smart Response Technology, RAID and PCI-E M.2 SSDs.
Best gaming PCs 2015: Graphics card
It’s usually the graphics card that will determine the overall quality of your gaming experience. Once your processor is fast enough, it’s down to the graphics card to deliver the game to your screen.
To ensure smooth gameplay, you generally want to achieve a minimum of 60 frames per second (fps) in your game. This is the limiting speed of most PC displays, so you won’t really need to go faster than this unless you have a high-speed gaming monitor that allows for faster refresh rates.
Any extra performance will then allow you to increase the quality settings in your game, making characters sharper, textures more realistic and graphical effects more immersive. NVidia’s new GeForce GTX 960 offers an excellent balance of price and performance at this price range and features in four out of six of the PCs in this group test. Another great performer is AMD’s Radeon R9 285 DD Edition, which edged just ahead of the GTX 960 in most of our tests.
If you need more power, you may be able to fit a GeForce GTX 970 within a £1,000 budget, although you may have to make some cuts elsewhere. This would give you twice as much on-board memory for textures and multi-screen use, as well as a significant boost in performance at the higher quality settings.
Don’t worry too much about choosing between AMD and nVidia. As is usually the case, it’s down to which graphics card vendor has done a better job optimising any particular game for performance on its own cards. If you have an idea of which games you want to play, it can be worth investigating how well any given card performs with those particular games before you make your decision.
Best gaming PCs 2015: Cooling
Cooling is essential if any CPU is not to overheat, but especially one that’s been overclocked. The basic Intel CPU cooler vendors often fit will save you money, but it can be noisy and won’t keep your processor as cool, and will need careful attention paid to airflow through the case.
Expensive water cooling systems allow for extreme overclocking, but more modest budgets will generally allow for a smaller, sealed liquid-based coolers such as the Corsair Hxx range. Alternatively, you can go for a heat-pipe based cooler, which will give better cooling than a standard model while making less noise, thanks to larger, slower-moving fans.
Gamers like their systems to look the part, but the case needs to be practical. Internal cable management aids airflow, while fan controllers let you reduce noise or boost cooling as necessary.
Graphics cards can also come with various cooling systems, the more advanced of which can allow for faster clock speeds on the GPU and less noise from the graphics subsystem when playing games.
Best gaming PCs 2015: Monitor
For more immersive gameplay, go for the largest display you can find and one with a good contrast ratio. A fast response time will ensure that fast, frenetic gameplay remains free of blur, although not all game players will notice any difference. TN-based monitors will cost less and provide most of these features, but IPS-based displays will give you better overall colour reproduction and wider viewing angles, although response times tend to be slower. For a more responsive display, go for a gaming monitor with a high refresh rate of 120- or 144Hz, although you’ll need powerful graphics to supply frames at this speed.
For the very smoothest gameplay from an nVidia graphics card, look for a monitor that supports nVidia G-Sync. With G-Sync, the monitor stays in step with the graphics card rather than the other way around. This means less blurring or image tearing even at lower framerates, and will be of great benefit to mid-range graphics cards such as the ones found in these PCs. AMD offers a competing technology called ‘FreeSync’, which will soon be available for displays connected to AMD graphics cards.
Best gaming PCs 2015: Peripherals
If you’re using your PC on a desk with a monitor, you’ll benefit from the improved responsiveness of wired rather than wireless devices. Look for high-resolution mice, and keyboards with programmable keys and backlighting.
High-grade mechanical switches in keyboards have a better ‘feel’ and provide longer life than cheap membrane switches. Some draw attention to the W, A, S and D keys with a different colour or texture. A gaming sound card can provide a more immersive experience by adding multiple sound effects, with improved audio fidelity. Also consider a gaming headset with a built-in mic.
However, if you’re planning on playing from the sofa, you’ll want wireless controllers. For keyboard input, we would recommend a wireless model that comes with an integrated pointing device, such as a trackball or trackpad.
Most of the PCs in this group test come without internal optical drives, and those built into the NZXT Source 340 system case lack the drive bays necessary to install them. In these cases, consider adding an external USB DVD or Blu-ray drive. This time, Vibox has included one in the price of the system.
Best gaming PCs 2015: Power consumption and noise
If you’re using the PC as a home entertainment hub, you may also want to consider idle power consumption and noise. The more you overclock your PC, the more power it will consume and the louder it will become.
Best gaming PCs 2015: Warranty
Warranty terms are crucial when it comes to gaming PCs and a key advantage of buying a pre-built overclocked PC is that all of the overclocking will be tested and covered by the vendor’s warranty. The longer the warranty the better, but also look for a collect-and-return rather than return-to-base option. Also pay attention to whether parts and labour are both covered and for how long.