Sure, flashy lighting and transparent panels help advertise the gear inside your system, but they can sometimes also be configured to convey information, such as fan speed or component temperature, or to indicate which custom profile is loaded. And this particular MSI motherboard displays the internal temperature. (Origin PC Millennium)
Looking for the best gaming computers in 2019? We might be able to help. But first I should disclose that in all my decades of offering buying advice, Windows desktop PC recommendations have always been among the hardest, at least beyond the basic stream-video-and-surf-the-web systems. And gaming PCs rank one of the most difficult of the difficult, at least if you’re in the 99% for whom cost matters. There are just too many choices, with too many permutations.
Recently, Intel fleshed out its ninth-generation Core i processor line with most of the mainstream options, but we really don’t expect a significant performance delta between this generation and the last, or at least not enough to get hung up on if you can save some money to put toward more storage, memory or something else that will make a bigger impact for your needs.
It’s all about tradeoffs. Every game uses system resources — processor (CPU), graphics processor (GPU), memory (RAM), storage — differently, and often horribly inefficiently. You can’t even count on resource core usage consistency across a specific game genre, such as first-person shooter (FPS) or platformer, because optimization levels can vary wildly. Gaming (and content-creation) PCs are the angry toddlers of consumer electronics: they are loud, willful, require constant supervision and just when you think they’re under control, they veer off into crazytown.
I’ll admit, I’m waving my hands a bit here: these are not recommendations for specific systems, more for ballpark configurations and suggestions of the manufacturers or system builders with a specific case design that you should consider in various scenarios. (And when it’s time to sweat the details, User Benchmark is a great site for getting a sense of key features, and performance deltas between different components.)
If you want a little more guidance beyond these recommendations, scroll down to the end of the story. And note that this is not my final word; this story will evolve over time.
HP’s Pavilion Gaming Desktop is it’s compact, budget-friendly, spare-me-the-flashiness model, targeting the same “casual” gamer as Dell’s Inspiron Gaming or Acer’s Nitro lines, but a lot more understated. This $750 base model should provide at least the minimum you need to play relatively undemanding games in 1080p without poking your eyes out with a stick: i5-8400 with Optane to accelerate disk operations with the 1TB hard disk a little, a GTX 1050 and 8GB of RAM. That’s about what you get in a budget gaming laptop. It’s got a ton of connections on the front, though — four USB-A, one USB-C and an SD card slot.
Another option that’s a little more powerful for just a little more dough, CyberpowerPC’s Gamer Xtreme VR (GXiVR8060A5) is aggressively priced for its components — for $800, you get a GTX 1060 and additional 120GB SSD over the HP. That little nudge in specs may be enough to tip performance into the acceptable range for some games. (See on Amazon)
But if you want to go even cheaper, there’s a $650 Ryzen 5 2400G option with an RX 580 graphics card (see on Amazon), but I don’t think that will hit 60fps too comfortably.
Another option that’s a little more powerful for just a little more dough, CyberpowerPC’s Gamer Xtreme VR (GXiVR8060A5) is aggressively priced for its components — for $800, you get a GTX 1060 and additional 120GB SSD over the HP. That little nudge in specs may be enough to tip performance into the acceptable range for some games.
For less than a grand, you won’t get terrific performance from this midsize desktop — well, midsize for a gaming system — but you should be able to get more than 60fps in 1080p on action-oriented (i.e., not full of big-texture, detailed graphics) games. The chassis not only has a lot of connectors, it has a relative bounty of them in the front — one USB-C and three USB-A.
The $800 base configuration includes an i5-9400, 8GB RAM, a Radeon RX 560X and a 1TB hard drive. If you can afford it, I really recommend going with an SSD instead, even though it’s much smaller capacities; Windows reallly does run faster. You can always get an inexpensive external hard drive for near-line storage. You may also want to spend a little more for the 2×2 Wi-Fi networking card.
However, if you’re just looking to blast through 1080p and can spend more, upgrade to a GTX 1660 Ti (a plain 1660 would be fine, too, but it’s not an option), 16GB of RAM and/or a 512GB SSD. Those should also bump your performance level up to decent 1440p performance on some games.
An under-$1,000 alternative is Dell’s Inspiron Gaming Desktop 5680, which packs more power for $999, including an i7-8700, 16GB of memory, a 128GB SSD + 2TB hard drive and a GTX 1060. Alienware is a sub-brand of Dell, so it’s all in the family, but I don’t like the case design nearly as much.
While HD (1,920×1,080) is still the most popular gaming resolution, 1440p (also referred to as 2K for its 2,560×1,440 resolution) is sl-o-o-o-o-wly starting to rise in popularity. A 1440p-capable system has the side benefit of allowing for smooth 1080p play at a higher quality as well, so even if you’re not ready to play in 1440p, you can think of it as future-proofing.
The GTX 1660 Ti is a solid choice here, and coupling it with an overclocked i5-9600K, 16GB 3,000MHz RAM and a 1TB SSD should give you great 1080p frame rates and decent 1440p at high quality. It’s not cheap at $2,162 for the setup, but it’s reasonable for the components as well as Digital Storm’s gorgeous and compact Bolt X case (though not as small as the never-materialized Project Spark) , plus moral support in the company’s relatively active on-site forums.
Plus, you can’t yet get the 1660 Ti through more mainstream channels, so with a big manufacturer you’ll end up either downgrading or upgrading. But it’ll take about three weeks for them to build it.
Falcon Northwest specializes in blazingly fast systems wrapped in custom paint jobs. The Tiki is its most compact system, yet you can cram up to a top-of-the-line i9-9900K and GeForce RTX 2080 Ti into it.
The Talon, on the other hand, has the design of a mundane midtower, but that means it can pack in a lot of high-end components, including an 18-core i9-9980XE and dual RTX 2080 Ti cards (or dual Quadro P6000s). And once you customize the chassis it’s not so mundane anymore.
Unfortunately, you’re stuck with the onboard audio and networking for some of the configurations, like the i9-9900K/dual RTX 2080 Ti we just tested, and of course, get ready to throw wads of cash at it. You do get personalized service, though the website is noticeably devoid of support information — all you get is the hardcopy documentation and media arranged in a binder — and FNW doesn’t have its own command center software.
If you’re going for maximum performance or maximum configurability, then go boutique. You can get fast systems for the same breathtaking prices from companies like Alienware, but they’re a little more cookie cutter (though it feels odd to call anything that looks like the Area-51 “cookie cutter”), tend to be more conservatively tuned, and when you drop $10,000 on a system, you’re still just a drop in the bucket for Dell’s business.
In addition to the extra care, boutique sites like Falcon Northwest, Origin PC, Digital Storm and so on are a lot more transparent about the components you’re choosing — none more extreme than Origin PC, where your choices get pretty granular. In addition to picking the brand and speed of memory and power supply, which is typical, you choose which motherboard you want and what color the cover for the power supply cables should be.
Being able to choose the motherboard rather than just the chipset can be important; they all have their quirks, lighting schemes (I love the visual of the MSI Z390 Godlike we had in the Millennium we tested) and connector differences, for example.
And if you want reliable, smooth 4K gaming, especially with HDR tossed in, you’re going to need at least an i9-9900K and RTX 2080 Ti. Probably two 2080 Tis if you want a side of ray tracing with that.
Origin PC’s cases aren’t the prettiest on the outside, though you can get custom paint jobs and laser etching to bling them up, but they’re well designed — easy to open and work inside — and what you see through the transparent side panels looks great. And you can get ‘em big: the Millennium is the second-largest case option and it still intimidated all the other desktops on the lab bench.
Digital Storm also has thoughtfully designed cases. I love the Aventum X which has perks such as quick-disconnect fittings on the cooling tubes so you can actually get your hands in to swap components. Plus, it’s a sleek standing slab with cool lighting schemes that really give off the Tron vibe.
Originally published April 11, 2019.Update, April 30: Added information on CPUs, as well as performance data.
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