While it's possible to spend upward of $5,000 or even $10,000 on a top-gun gaming computer, few people -- with the exception of the most competitive or status-conscious gamers -- need or can justify spending that much for a system. Fortunately, more reasonably priced gaming computers provide nearly as much performance at a fraction of the cost.
The Maingear Potenza Super Stock (*Est. $1,325 and up) is a clear winner. This "tiny, unassuming PC will drop a few jaws when it's game time," HotHardware.com says. Sleek, silent and cool-running, the Super Stock's columnar aluminum shell conceals an overclocked Intel processor and powerful graphics that sail through tough computer games in tests.
If money's no object you can add tons of upgrades at Maingear's website, but experts are plenty happy with a $2,000 gaming computer configuration that boasts an overclocked 4.7 GHz Intel Core i7 3770K processor, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive, 60 GB solid-state cache and Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 graphics. It "would be welcome in a hard-core gamer's home," says PCMag.com, where it's named an Editors' Choice mid-range gaming desktop.
Unless you're into heavy-duty 3D gaming, you probably won't need more power. But if you do, try the Maingear F131 (*Est. $1,695 and up) ; it's nearly identical to the Potenza but with room for two graphics cards. "Amazing," says DigitalTrends.com about a $3,000 configuration that plays like a $5,000-plus gaming computer. PCMag.com has one word for the $5,300 version with dual Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan cards: "insane."
The tiniest advanced gaming PC you can buy, the Falcon Northwest Tiki (*Est. $1,745 and up) , can be configured identically to the Maingear Potenza Super Stock but costs a few hundred dollars more. You're paying for the Tiki's super-slim body that's just 4 inches wide and 13 inches deep and high and granite base, which looks luxurious or silly depending on the critic. Unless you really love the look, experts see no reason to pay extra for the Tiki.
You don't have to drop $2,000 to get a great gaming PC. The Digital Storm Bolt (*Est. $1,000 and up) is slim and stylish, and provides a more than satisfying experience when playing even advanced computer games.
The base model gets an Intel Core i3 processor, which is less muscle than experts usually expect for gaming, but testers are plenty happy with the $1,600 mid-range Bolt gaming computer. It's not quite as loaded as a Maingear Potenza Super Stock, but it's nicely equipped. It gets the same Intel Core i7-3770K overclocked to a lower 4.1 GHz than the Potenza, plus 2 GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 Ti graphics, 8 GB memory, 500 GB hard drive and 120 GB solid-state drive.
Bottom line? It's more than enough to thrash an Xbox and any other gaming PC in its price range. HD graphics, max settings and 3D gaming are no problem.
CNET calls the $1,600 Digital Storm Bolt gaming computer an "extremely compelling deal." It can't quite keep up with the better equipped $2,000 Potenza, but it's still an entirely satisfying performer. In CNET's test, "Crysis 3" and "Far Cry 3" play "without a stutter" on max image quality and a 30-inch, 2,560 by 1,440-pixel display.
Testers at PC World, Maximum PC and HotHardware.com agree: All pick the Digital Storm Bolt as a favorite gaming computer in its class. Only two notable drawbacks emerge: The Bolt is really noisy in several tests, and the slender metal case is hard to crack into and absolutely crammed with a jigsaw puzzle of components. It measures just 3.6 inches wide, 14 inches tall and 15 inches deep, and self-upgrades won't be easy.
Small is in, so crowded innards are just as big a problem on other otherwise well-regarded value-priced gaming computers. The Origin Chronos (*Est. $1,100 and up) charges $100 more than the Digital Storm Bolt for the same components, but offers a choice of two impeccably high-quality cases and a lifetime labor warranty. Digital Storm covers labor for three years.
On paper, the iBuyPower Revolt R770 (*Est. $1,400 and up) is the best deal among gaming computers: It costs $200 less than the $1,600 Bolt for similar hardware and is nearly as slim. But the Revolt finishes just a smidge slower than the Bolt in tests -- although it still handles intense computer games on max settings without breaking a sweat -- and it sports a plastic shell unlike the all-metal Bolt. The two offer identical warranties. Experts recommend the Revolt as a good gaming computer deal, just not as often as they do the Digital Storm Bolt.