Easy PC – 1: CPU, Motherboard & RAM

As promised last week, today marks the first of the series of articles I will be writing to guide those interested in building their own gaming PCs. We start off with arguably two of the most important components – the motherboard and the processor – with a footnote on RAM for good measure. Over the course of the next couple of months, I will go into detail regarding each vital piece of hardware, with the general aim of being helpful without any noticeable bias. After all the components have been discussed, there will be some bonus articles giving tips on how to put everything together, but if you’re not at least 90% confident in your abilities, this may be best left to professionals. If you have any questions regarding anything I bring up in a specific article, feel free to leave something in the comments and I’ll try to get back to you. But for now, without further ado:

Processor (CPU)

Processor (CPU)

Some people argue that you should look for a suitable motherboard first, then choose your processor based on that decision. While there’s certainly merit in that option (especially if you’re looking for key features like on-board wifi, bluetooth or delicious USB3), I respectfully disagree. Most motherboards nowadays are going to have a slew of features that will more than satisfy the average gamer, with plenty of advanced BIOS options to tweak if you’re so inclined. Much more confusing is the wide variety of different makes and models of CPU. Gone are the days when you could simply go from a Pentium III to a Pentium 4 and be assured of a performance increase. Which manufacturer should you choose? How many cores do you need? What do all these numbers, letters and ridiculous code-names mean?

Thankfully, the answers to these questions are all pretty straightforward. Right now, unless you have very specific needs, the Intel Core series of CPUs blows equivalent AMD chips out of the water. For all intents and purposes, you’re going to want to go Intel. As for the specific model, you need to take a few options into consideration. First of all, be conscious of the latest tech news and information regarding Intel’s processor releases. When I built my PC, the series of processor architecture that was prevalent was called “Sandy Bridge”, otherwise known as the 2nd-generation of Core-series processors. Now we have “Ivy Bridge”, which has been out for a number of months, but is still current and the best option to buy. However, Intel will inevitably bring out another series somewhere down the line; if you have the patience to wait until something newer and better is released, it can really pay off.

2 - Core i5, 550x330

With this in mind, there are three different options for your Intel CPU. If you are running on a budget, get the Core i3 3220; it’s a dual-core 3.3GHz processor with HyperThreading, meaning that those two cores act like four by switching rapidly back and forth between parallel processes. It’s not going to break any records and may eventually act as a performance bottleneck if you upgrade other components down the line (e.g. graphics card), you’ll still get a relatively smooth gaming experience. If you have a little more to spend, the best processor to get would be the Core i5 3570; this beauty is a fully-fledged quad-core 3.4GHz processor, albeit with only 1 thread per core. The 3570 represents the best cost-to-performance ratio for your gaming needs, and you can be assured that this processor will run just about anything you care to throw at it for a good couple of years. If you are a power-user and are considering overclocking your system, you might want to shell out a few extra quid for the Core i5 3570K, but for most people, the 3570 will be ideal.

Now some of you may be asking why I haven’t recommended a Core i7 in this lineup, or why I’ve not included some of the eight-core AMD chips. The simple answer to both of these questions is that they don’t measure up. Core i7 CPUs may be faster on paper, but they provide little-to-no noticeable improvement in gaming performance; certainly not enough to warrant the increased cost. As for AMD, they calculate the number of cores their processors have in a different way to Intel: specifically, they count the number of threads. That “eight-core” AMD is really just a HyperThreaded quad-core processor, which even despite this cannot outperform a Core i5.

Final Recommendation: Intel Core i5 3570

 

Motherboard

Motherboard

Thankfully, your choice in motherboard is more or less purely aesthetic at this stage. Once you’ve opted for the processor that you prefer, you can’t go too far wrong when purchasing the motherboard to fit it. This is because the vast majority of brand-name modern motherboards come with more or less the same features. Once again, unless you’re after something very specific that your standard motherboard won’t cater to (e.g. BIOS overclocking, onboard wifi, etc.), you won’t have to worry about your choice too much. The main things to remember when buying a motherboard are the brand and what’s called the Processor Socket.

The more important of the two is definitely the Socket, since if you get that wrong, you won’t be able to plug your processor into your motherboard. While obviously a physical element of the motherboard, the Socket is more than that: it’s also a series of numbers and letters that let you know which makes and models of processor it will accept. The easiest way to think of it is comparing it to games consoles: you buy a PS3, you get PS3 games. If you try to play a 360 game in it, it’s not going to work. If you try to play a 3DS game in it, you’re going to get a broken console. The same sort of rules apply to the Socket of your motherboard and CPU: the two need to match or you’re going to end up wasting a lot of money.

Z77-blockdiagram.vs1

For the purposes of our choice, we’re looking for a board with the LGA 1155 Socket. Once we have that, we can start choosing the next crucial feature: the chipset. Without going into too much detail, it’s safe to say that we’re after an Intel chipset in order to integrate most efficiently with our processor. The only two we should be considering are the H77 (budget option) or the Z77 (performance and/or overclocking). Lastly, the choice of size, which in this case really doesn’t matter. Physically, a board will either be ATX (which can be thought of as full-size) or mATX (compact). This is purely a matter of aesthetics and/or practicality, as it will dictate the size of the case you will need to encase your PC components.

Stick all of the above requirements together and there are a few solid choices for motherboards out there. The Asus P8Z77 series of motherboards are great for performance seekers, including an extensive series of BIOS features to tweak and customise to your heart’s content. Most useful for overclockers in this regard, there’s nothing stopping a standard user from buying this unless you’re particularly strapped for cash. The Asus board comes in two flavours: the P8Z77-V LX (ATX) and P8Z77-M Z77 (mATX), either of which would be fine. If you’re looking for a budget option and aren’t too fussed about a whole load of fancy BIOS options, then the MSI H77MA-G43 (mATX) is another decent choice that will still provide a respectable level of performance.

Final Recommendation: Asus P8Z77-M Z77 (mATX)

 

RAM

RAM

Last up for this article is the selection of the RAM for your new machine. Put quite simply, there’s no need for anything more than 8GB for the time being. No game you run will ever use anything close to this, even when you factor in your operating system’s requirements and any overhead from other background applications. If you still feel inadequate with single figures and simply must have more than 8GB, feel free to buy 12GB, but do so in the full knowledge that it’s being wasted.

The selection of RAM is the easiest component by far, but ironically probably the most complicated. There are no end of RAM manufacturers out there, all boasting super speed or low latency, or replete with sleek or serrated heat sinks and other nonsense stuck to them. The long and short is that – for the most part – RAM is RAM and it doesn’t matter what you get. Of course, you need to ensure you get the right form factor (in this case, DDR3), but beyond that requires nothing more than some fair warning and common sense. Don’t go for anything faster than 1333MHz Dual-Channel RAM. If you can get some with a voltage of 1.5v or less, all the better, and a lifetime warranty wouldn’t hurt, either. Just pick a brand (like Corsair) and find their cheapest set of 2 x 4GB sticks with the above features in mind – you shouldn’t end up spending anything more than about £30 or £40 at the very most.

That’s all for this instalment of Easy PC – be sure to check back soon for the next part, where I will discuss the choices for that all-important component: the graphics card.

About Chris Smith
A twenty-something gamer from the North-East of Scotland. By day, I’m a Computer Technician at a local IT recycling charity, where I fix and build PCs. Outside of that, most of my time is spent either sleeping or gaming, which I try accomplish in equal amounts.