You can easily spend $5,000, $7,000 and even $10,000 or more on a gaming computer. Whether you need to is another matter. Our research turned up some great choices that sell for much less but will still leave the vast majority of serious and even competitive gamers more than pleased.
First, though, if you have the cash and the desire to own only the best, take a serious look at the Maingear Shift Superstock (Est. $3,100 and up). Reviewers look at vastly upgraded systems that price out closer to $8,000. What's it like to own a rig like that? "An exercise in PC gaming decadence," says PC World.
The build quality is "impeccable" and gaming performance is "ridiculously impressive," says ComputerShopper.com, which awards the Maingear Shift Superstock an Editors' Choice award. That performance is achieved via the use of not one, not two, but three high-end GeForce GTX Titan graphics cards, each with 6 GB of dedicated graphics memory. "Yes, three of the world's fastest single-GPU cards all singing harmoniously together against the tyranny of slow frame rates," waxes MaximumPC.com, which gives the Maingear Shift Superstock a rating of 9, and the site's Kick Ass! award.
Those graphics cards are only a part -- albeit a big part -- of the computational chops the Maingear Shift Superstock possesses in its higher-end configurations. For example, PC World's test system also features a 4th generation Intel Core i7 processor over-clocked to 4.7 GHz, 16 GB of system memory and four 256 GB solid-state drives. "It's a stupefying level of computing power, one that sets the bar for what an elite gaming PC should be," says PC World's Alex Wawro.
For the rest of us, more modest gaming computers that provide much of the performance of a high-end system but at a lower price might be more in order. Case in point is the Falcon Northwest FragBox (Est. $1,700 and up). Once again, reviewers look at higher-end systems, but these top out at less than $5,000. Performance is generally impressive. PCMag.com awards the FragBox an Editors' Choice and adds that it "can compete on the game grid with systems costing thousands more."
You can configure your FragBox to almost your heart's content at the Falcon Northwest website. CNET looks at an under-$3,500 system that features a 4th generation Intel Core i7 processor overclocked to 4.5 GHz, 16 GB of system memory, Nvidia GeForce GTX780 graphics card with 3 GB of dedicated memory, Blu-ray drive, and two 960 GB solid-state drives. Dan Ackerman notes that you can add a second video card to the system (something that PCMag.com does for its even more upscale test system) but adds that as is "few PC games really need this kind of power, even to play at higher settings."
Benchmark testing proves the FragBox to be a formidable gaming system, and performance during actual game play is "amazing." Ackerman adds: "One of the fun parts about testing this system was hooking it up to a 2560-by-1440-pixel 27-inch display and really cranking games up to a very high resolution." Performance will, of course, vary widely depending on the system you configure. For example, "there are at least 10 video card options you can order with this system, and dual-card setups for many of those," Ackerman says.
According to CNET, build quality is top shelf: "You get the feeling Falcon Northwest is putting together each unit (which can take weeks to build) the same way you would if you had the time, talent, and tools to do so yourself."
The FragBox is small and semi-portable thanks to a removable carry handle, but it's absolutely gigantic compared to the Alienware X51 (Est. $700 and up), a svelte SFF (small form factor) gaming computer that could easily be mistaken for a video game console -- right down to its external 330-watt power brick. Of course, this is a full-fledged and fully configurable PC.
Most experts test an upgraded version of the X51 that sells for more than $1,800. It includes a 4th generation Intel Core i7 CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 discrete graphics (the current top-end graphics card is the GeForce GTX 760 Ti with 2 GB of memory), 16 GB of RAM, Blu-ray drive, a 256 GB solid-state drive and a 1 TB hard drive.
While $1,800 is certainly not cheap, it still sits at the low end of what gaming-optimized systems like the ones above will run. "Stop and think about that for a second," says DigitalTrends.com's Matt Smith. "This is a fully capable gaming computer the size of an Xbox 360 that can run any game at High detail (and most at Ultra) while maintaining well over 60 FPS, yet it's one of the least expensive gaming desktops we've recently tested." Smith also notes that while the version he tests is fully tricked out with all the options Alienware offers, "many are overkill."