Building a quality gaming PC isn’t as simple as buying the most expensive CPU or GPU. A holistic and balanced hardware setup is critical for an ideal user experience.
A “balanced” PC is one in which the hardware is equipped for the workloads the machine will be handling, such as gaming, and should be designed to avoid “bottlenecks.” With a properly balanced PC, your components will achieve the level of performance they were designed for, without any one component (or set of components) being disproportionately over or under-utilized. This means a better gaming experience, and a better user experience overall.
All PCs should be properly balanced, but we’re mostly going to focus on the hardware of a system designed for gaming. Many of the recommendations will apply to other systems as well.
What Is a PC Bottleneck?
In the context of a PC, a bottleneck refers to a component that limits the potential of other hardware due to differences in the maximum capabilities of the two components.
A bottleneck isn’t necessarily caused by the quality or age of components, but rather their performance. Bottlenecks aren’t unique to high-end systems either; balance is equally important in systems with more entry-level hardware.
Imbalance in Action
Bottlenecks are not exclusive to the CPU and GPU, but the interplay between these two components illustrates how a bottleneck can impact a system. Discussing that interplay can provide insight into how bottlenecks work and why balanced hardware is preferable.
The central processing unit (CPU) is responsible for calculating operations like physics, audio, netcode, positional data, and countless other systems in modern PC games. It also sends rendering instructions to the graphics processing unit (GPU).
These instructions from the CPU contain everything the GPU needs in order to know what to render, including shaders, textures, and other visual data. They are then executed by the GPU, resulting in the image you see onscreen. If the GPU is rendering these instructions faster than the CPU can provide them, the GPU will remain idle until the next set of instructions is ready.
This means the GPU is not operating at peak performance, and this can result in fewer frames per second being rendered. This is a bottleneck, in that the performance level of the GPU is being restrained by the limitations of the CPU.
The same can happen in the opposite direction. If a powerful CPU is sending instructions to the GPU faster than the GPU can render, the maximum computational effort of the CPU is being limited by the slower speeds of the GPU. The system would perform better with a CPU and GPU that are more closely matched in performance capability.
Again, almost any hardware can contribute to a bottleneck, not only the CPU, and GPU. Ideally, system hardware will work as close to maximum performance as possible, and one link in the hardware chain will not detrimentally impact the others.
A Balanced System
When planning a new build, consider not only the type of games you play and their hardware requirements, but also how each piece of hardware can potentially impact the others.
Though games are optimized differently, and some are more CPU-dependent than others, a high-performance processor is still critical to an ideal gaming experience, and is a great place to start when planning a new build. The CPU needs of someone launching a complex spacecraft in Kerbal Space Program while streaming to Twitch will be different than someone who occasionally plays League of Legends, so think about which more closely aligns with how you use your PC.
After choosing the right CPU for your system, next consider the GPU you are planning to pair it with in order to achieve a balanced build.
As with the CPU, choosing the right GPU will depend on the games you play, and how you plan to use the system.
Most PC games provide extensive graphics options that allow you to customize your experience. This often means you can experience newer games with an older or more entry-level GPU, though there may be some performance concessions, as well as an impact on the overall look and feel of the experience.
If higher resolutions are a priority, a high-end GPU is probably going to be the best fit. If 1080p gaming is sufficient, your options open up considerably.
In order to ensure a balanced build, your CPU, and GPU should be more than just compatible — they should be complementary. The latest Intel® Core™ i3 processor is an excellent entry-level CPU, but your system will not be properly balanced if it’s paired with a GeForce* RTX 2080 Ti GPU. Likewise, the latest Intel® Core™ i9 gaming processor is a great choice for a powerful gaming CPU, but when paired with a GeForce* GT 1030 GPU, the CPU’s full potential will be unnecessarily limited.
The CPU and GPU work together closely in a gaming PC, and as such, it’s best not to prioritize one to the detriment of the other. Both should enable the other to operate at the highest possible level of performance.
RAM isn’t usually a bottleneck when gaming, unless you don’t have enough. For most modern games, 8GB of RAM is a good baseline, though 16GB is quickly becoming the standard. It also depends on how you use your computer; if you’re only playing a game, you’ll need less RAM than if you’re also chatting on Discord or streaming video while playing.
Generally speaking, when it comes to gaming, speed is less important than quantity. Again, the idea is balance, so 16GB of very slow RAM is not ideal. But as long as you’re purchasing modern memory, 16GB of DDR4 RAM is usually preferable to 8GB of DDR4 with a slightly higher speed.
Also keep in mind the benefits of dual-channel architecture when selecting memory. If your motherboard supports dual-channel, there could be performance gains depending on which DIMM slots you utilize. In this case, two 8GB sticks of RAM installed in the proper channels might be preferable to a single 16GB stick.
Ensure that your motherboard is compatible with the speed of RAM you’re considering, as well as the capacity. This shouldn't be an issue with newer motherboards and RAM, but when working with higher speeds and larger capacities, or if you’re using an older motherboard, it’s worth double-checking to confirm compatibility.
Storage can bottleneck gaming performance as well as the overall system user experience. It won’t necessarily impact your graphics settings, but if you’re using an older hard disk drive (HDD), for example, you may encounter longer load times or stuttering as the game loads.
The simplest solution is to upgrade to a solid state drive (SSD), which allows for significantly faster access to data than a traditional HDD. Intel® Optane™ memory can also increase HDD access speeds by caching your system’s commonly used files for faster access, which can improve performance even if you’re not ready to replace your HDD.
Storage impacts overall system performance in addition to gaming. Upgrading to an SSD can dramatically speed up your PC’s load times and improve overall user experience. This is why a common multi-drive storage solution consists of an SSD for your operating system and most commonly accessed games and files with a separate, larger HDD for less frequently used files.
Your display can also act as a bottleneck. You won’t be getting the most out of the latest gaming hardware if you’re using a 60Hz,1080p display.
If you’re aiming for higher frame rates or resolutions, you’ll want to make sure you invest in a display that can properly showcase these features, along with a balanced CPU and GPU combination capable of rendering them.
Though CPU, GPU, RAM, storage, and display have the most substantial impact on gaming performance, other components also need to be considered for a balanced build. The power supply, for example, might not directly impact frame rates, but a mismatched PSU can still pose a risk to the longevity of your system. Similarly, a motherboard probably won’t affect gameplay, but it can limit your hardware options, make future upgrades more difficult, and impact some quality of life features like network connectivity and sound.
Every piece of hardware should be considered in the context of how it will work with everything else in the system, with a more balanced experience as the concept that ties it all together.
Balance Your Build
One of the advantages of pre-built PCs is that they are usually designed to be balanced. If you are building or upgrading your own system, however, you want to buy hardware that isn’t just compatible but complementary from a performance perspective.
Consider the best way to disperse your budget. You want the highest quality components, but you also want to prioritize for your needs. For example: If you want a higher resolution experience, allocating your budget to accommodate a higher resolution display and high-end graphics card is ideal. Or, If you play fast-paced shooters like Call of Duty*: Modern Warfare or Overwatch, prioritizing a high frame rate with the right gaming CPU and a higher refresh rate display makes sense.
When putting together your PC, keep in mind that you can always upgrade later. It’s preferable to have a balanced build you can upgrade rather than one very powerful component in a system that otherwise lags behind.
A balanced build goes beyond ensuring a better gaming experience. It’s about putting together a system that will perform at its best regardless of how you use it. Whether you’re gaming or creating, prioritizing balanced hardware will result in a better all-around experience.