With the autumn video game release schedule now in full swing, the thoughts of many PC owners are turning to hardware upgrades. Blockbusters such as Halo Infinite, Battlefield 1942 and Forza Horizon 5 will all support demanding visual effects such as ray tracing, so it seems like the perfect time to invest in new kit.
There’s just one problem: this is probably the worst, most expensive time in recent memory to boost your processing power. Manufacturing and distribution problems, together with skyrocketing demand, have seen prices soar, especially for high-end graphics cards. “There are GTX 1080Ti cards listed on eBay for over £500 – that’s a four-year-old GPU for half a grand,” says Chris Wilson, design director at Cardboard Sword. “The suggestion for most people would probably be to wait it out. Intel is rumoured to have a serious GPU out early next year and they are likely to price it aggressively to try and gain some market share. Eventually the bottom has to fall out of this current disaster.”
However, if you’ve made up your mind to improve your ageing set-up, there are options out there. Here are some tips …
Let’s say money is no object. You want something that can support 4K monitors and two key features: ray tracing, which creates realistic lighting and reflection effects, and DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) which uses AI to improve visual detail and frame rates. I’m using an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060, with 12GB of ram, G6 memory and HDMI 2.1 support and it has given me blistering performance on games such as Flight Simulator 20, Metro Exodus and even Cyberpunk 2077, at 1440p. According to Alan Dexter, senior hardware editor at PC Gamer, however, the standout card this winter is the GeForce RTX 3080. “At its intended £649 retail price, there’s nothing out there that can really touch it,” he says. “It’ll handle anything you can throw at it and even let you play at 4K properly, with everything tuned high. It’s expensive, but it’s such a leap in performance it feels like an investment that will last you for years.”
Chris Wilson agrees on the RTX 3080 but adds, “For most people running games at 1440p resolution, a 3070/3070ti should be more than enough. The previous generation cards are still decent. They were arguably overpriced at launch, but in the current state of things they aren’t that bad.” The AMD equivalent of the 3080 is the Radeon RX 6800 XT. As Dexter explains, “Its ray tracing isn’t quite as strong as Nvidia’s, but it manages to put up a good fight elsewhere, and overall, it’s a strong offering.”
Although the graphics card is the heart of a games machine, you’ll want an up-to-date CPU to get the most out of it. I’m a big fan of the AMD Ryzen models, having built a PC around an AMD Ryzen 5 5600X this year, and PC Gamer currently recommends the Ryzen 9 5900X. If you’re an Intel gamer, the Core i5 10400F or 10600K are excellent workhorses. Whatever you go for, make sure it’s compatible with your motherboard and GPU and remember to apply thermal paste before attaching the cooler!
Upgrading your system memory is the most cost-effective way of improving gaming performance, allowing for faster, smoother frame rates. For this year’s releases, 16GB is becoming the recommended requirement, but even 32GB is going to become more common. Check the speed of the ram you buy – usually given in MHz – it’s debatable how much effect this has, but 3200MHz is a good guide if you’re buying new. I recommend Corsair Vengeance or HyperX Predator kits, or at the budget end, I used the Crucial Ballistix RGB in my first home build.
If you’re somehow still solely relying on a hard disk, or want to upgrade from an older SSD/HDD combo, now is your chance – prices are quite good, and a fast SSD will greatly improve loading times, both in booting games and loading new levels while you play. The industry is now moving away from the old Serial ATA drives toward PCIe-based SSDs using NVMe communication drivers. If that means nothing to you, a site like PCPartPicker will help you decide which type of SSD your motherboard is compatible with. Also, you’re not just looking for memory capacity, you need to check the data transfer speed too, measured in MB/s – a SATA drive will manage 560MB/s while a new PCIe NVMe SSD will operate at anywhere between 3500 and 7000 MB/s.
So which models do we recommend? “1TB NVMe drives, such as the WD Black SN850 are impressive and can have a massive impact on loading times and just using Windows for that matter,” says Dexter.
If you’re still relying on an old office monitor you bought from Currys five years ago, this is definitely an update worth making. When buying a screen for gaming, you need to think about the three Rs: resolution, refresh rate and response times. The first is the amount of detail on screen, the second is how quickly your monitor updates the image, and the third is how long it takes pixels to switch colour. Also, check whether the monitor supports G-Sync or FreeSync to prevent screen tearing.
If you’re on a budget, you’ll need to compromise, so think about what you need depending on the games you’ll want to play this winter. “In terms of resolution, do you want 1440p or 4K?,” says Dexter. “Or are you looking at 1080p at a super high-refresh? Curved or flat? Ultra widescreen or a more traditional 16:9 ratio?” Broadly, if you want to play a fast-paced shooter such as Battlefield 1942, then refresh rate and response times are going to be most important (and maybe a curved or ultra wide screen for better peripheral vision). If you’re going to play beautiful narrative adventures such as The Forgotten City or Psychonauts 2 you might prioritise resolution, or if you really want to show off your RTX 3090 GPU with Far Cry 6 running at ultra in all settings, a 4K or even 8K beast will be necessary.
Dexter recommends the Gigabyte G27Q – “a great, mostly affordable screen, and it ticks a lot of PC gaming boxes too”. Wilson is a fan of Asus monitors, specifically the ROG Swift PG32UQ, which he acknowledges is pretty pricey. “Something like the ASUS ROG Swift PG278QR is a good choice,” he says. “This hits the 1440p sweet spot while delivering high refresh rates.” Elsewhere, I have an Acer Predator, which is excellent, and the Alienware 25, LG UltraGear and Samsung Odyssey are all good gaming models.
The nuclear option
If your gaming PC is really creaking, buying a pre-built model might make sense in the current market. “Pretty much the best way of getting your hands on the very latest hardware is to buy a whole new machine,” agrees Dexter. “These are a bit pricier than a simple upgrade, but it does mean you’ll have a complete PC that should operate well for years to come.”