Or: “Battle for Your Oats.”

Building a New Gaming PC (2021 Edition)

3181 wc

Building a New Gaming PC (2021 Edition)

Or: “Battle for Your Oats.”

Hey it’s one of those posts nobody ever reads! At least I don’t. Every time I see a post about somebody’s new PC, I immediately ignore it because reading about PC specs is either boring or annoying.

But I know why people write them. It’s because you put so much effort into researching what the current state-of-the-art is, so you can make a reasonably informed buying choice. But first, since you’ve completely forgotten the research that was done last time you built a PC, you have to research the last build again, then research what’s changed since that last build. All that effort has to count for something, so it goes into a blog post I guess. Maybe next time I can refer to this post so I don’t have to spend weeks figuring this stuff out.

I keep threatening myself that next time I do a gaming PC upgrade, I’m going to buy a pre-built one. But every time I investigate those, they either look ridiculous in a godawful case design, or they’re at least twice as expensive as the parts they’re made of. Or both. And I almost always disagree with the parts they use in those builds. For example, the pre-builts with the GeForce 30xx graphics cards in them usually have a Core i9 processor in them, and I didn’t want that.

Why an Upgrade?

First, why should I upgrade? I built my last gaming PC in 2016 and it has performed admirably since then. It still runs most games pretty solidly.

It all started with The Division 2 Open Beta. It was the first game I remember thinking “hey this doesn’t run so hot on my PC, maybe it’s time to think about upgrading.” Subsequently I was able to get it to run and record at a solid 60 fps, which is the most important thing to me as a gamer. (It doesn’t matter what resolution it runs at, or whether it’s using High, Medium, or Low settings, as long as it runs at 60 fps with vertical sync on, and I can record it at the same time.)

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey struggled to reach 60 fps on my PC as well, but that game wasn’t good enough for me to care so much about.

Now I’m playing The Surge 2, and it also has problems. I don’t mind switching from High to Medium (most of the time, I can’t even tell the difference between Ultra High and Medium graphical settings anyway, especially in an action-based game). I’ll always pick higher frame rate over higher visual fidelity. But I draw the line at having to set a frame rate cap of 50 fps to maintain a smooth experience. That’s going too far!

(Kudos to The Surge 2 for even having a 50 fps frame cap. Most of the time the frame rate cap setting goes from 60 all the way down to 30, which is absurd.)

I’ve subsequently learned that graphical problems in The Surge 2 aren’t entirely the fault of my PC, since it uses some wacky game engine and a “Vulkan” API instead of DirectX, whatever that is. But still, the signs have been pointing to a PC upgrade for a while now. I used to think two years between upgrades was a long time, and it’s been almost five years now.

The Old PC

I was looking for a link to a 2016 blog post about my current PC, but it turns out I barely even mentioned it. I think I deliberately avoid writing blog posts about new PCs, because it always feels very pretentious to write a blog post that basically boils down to, “Look how much more well-off I am than you!!” There’s a long history of gloating surrounding PC upgrades that I don’t particularly care to participate in. (It’s the same as people who gloat about shiny new cars, or raid gear in MMORPGs.)

My PC was pretty spiffy in the summer of 2016. I intentionally spent more back then because I wanted something that would last a while, so I went a little higher on the price/performance hockey stick curve than I usually go. I even bought a pricey 144hz 27" Dell monitor. It was the most expensive gaming rig I had ever put together. It’s performed admirably during the last almost-five years. Here’s the core stat block for that 2016 PC:

  • Processor: Core i7-6700K 6th generation “Skylake”
  • Motherboard: MSI “GAMING” M7 (Intel Z170 chipset)
  • GPU: MSI GeForce GTX 1070
  • Memory: Corsair Vengeance 16GB DDR4-3000
  • HDD: 2TB Western Digital “Black” 7200rpm
  • SSD: 250GB Intel (which was since died)
  • Cooling: Cooler Master Hyper T4
  • Power: Thermaltake 750W
  • Case: Rosewill super duper plain black mid-tower box (which was hilariously labeled a “gaming” case even though by today’s wacky standards it’s nothing of the sort)

The only complaint I could possibly make about that PC is that I’ve seen some occasional weirdness with USB connectivity. (I’m saying “that PC” like it’s already in the past, even though I’m typing on it right now.) Also it doesn’t have enough USB connectivity. Every PC should have at least 12 solidly-performing USB 3.0 ports, and maybe another 6 USB 2.0 ports, if you ask me. And then maybe another 10 or 20 just in case. I have potentially so many USB peripherals to plug in.

What I’ve Learned in 2021

With every new PC I build, I learn about new things. To cut to the chase, here’s the new information I gleaned for 2021 PC builds.

There are rumors that the AMD processors are actually better than Intel processors right now, but I just can’t bring myself to investigate that world. It’s just easier not to have to think about it. I’m also a GeForce guy instead of a Radeon guy. (I bought a Radeon card many many years ago when there was a big stir about them finally being better than GeForce cards, and it was a terrible gaming experience.)

I recently read a compelling argument somewhere (of course I can’t find it now) that the Core i5 is the better processor for a dedicated gaming PC, because it has a higher base clock speed, and the extra cores you get with the i7 and i9 are less useful in gaming. It made sense to me. I’m going to see if there’s any truth to that. (I’ve selected a motherboard where I can pop in a Core i7 or i9 later if I want to.)

The new hotness at the start of 2021 is the 11th generation “Rocket Lake” processors, the Intel Z590 chipset, and the faster PCIe 4.0 bus.

Another new thing for me in 2021 is M.2. This is a new interface for connecting SSDs (and other stuff, but it seems like SSDs are the main thing that use it right now). With the 11th generation Rocket Lake processors, there’s a particular kind of M.2 SSD you have to get that supports the fastest transfer rate on the PCI 4.0 bus. And you have to make sure you get the right “key” that matches your motherboard.

There is now an 8+4-pin CPU connector to the motherboard instead of a 4+4-pin CPU connector. I think it’s some derivation of the “EPS” power supply standard for servers. It’s apparently used when the processor is drawing a lot of power, as in “extreme” overclocking. I read a lot of conflicting reports about whether you actually need to plug in the extra 4 pins or not. But hopefully MSI knows how to make power supplies for their own motherboards.

When you really get down into the nitty-gritty and compare specs, it turns out there isn’t really a huge difference between 2021 and 2016 in terms of processing power. Processors today are still running at roughly the same clock speeds as they were in 2016, with roughly the same number of cores. GPUs still have roughly the same clock speed and memory. We’re all still running Windows 10, with no new OS anywhere on the horizon. I fully expect I’m not going to see as much of a noticeable improvement in a new PC today as I did in 2016.

As a species, I think we’ve reached a technical plateau in gaming. I think that’s why the industry is trying to get us to move to ray-tracing: Because there’s nowhere else to go in order to convince the dumb glory-hungry gamers to keep buying new stuff every few years. But that’s a different discussion.

And last but certainly not least: You can’t buy a graphics card in 2021 because everyone is constantly out of stock. It’s been going on for a solid six months or more. It makes building a new gaming PC somewhat challenging. I buy most of my computer parts at NewEgg since forever, and they have a “lottery” system for graphics cards. And if you do happen to find a graphics card, they’re way more expensive than they normally would be. This is a terrible time for a gaming PC upgrade, in other words.

The New PC

Here’s what I’m buying for the new 2021 build. It’s the same basic idea as what I did in 2016: Not the bleeding edge, where you’re throwing most of your money away, but a couple steps back from the bleeding edge to increase price/performance ratio. There’s a point where that ratio gets ridiculous, and the only reason you’re spending that extra money is so you can say, “Hey, I got the newest thing, look how special I am!” I like to stay below that point.

  • Processor: Intel Core i5-11600K 11th generation “Rocket Lake”
  • Motherboard: MSI Torpedo Z590
  • GPU: MSI GeForce RTX 30… maybe a 20… a 16…?? it doesn’t matter you can’t get one
  • Memory: G.SKILL Ripjaws 32GB DDR4-3200
  • SSD: 1TB Samsung M.2
  • Cooling: Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO
  • Power: MSI MPG 750W
  • Case: MSI Gungnir 100 “Mid-sized” har har it’s ridiculously huge

I happened to already have a 2TB hard drive that I haven’t installed anywhere else, so I’ll be putting it in the new PC as a second drive. However I’m hoping to avoid recording videos on this new PC, so hopefully I won’t be constantly running out of space. The plan is to use the old gaming PC as a dedicated recording PC. (We’ll see how long that lasts, because it’s probably going to be more inconvenient.)

In general, here’s my current philosophy on gaming PC upgrades:

Brand selection is largely a matter of personal preference, unless you’re super into this stuff, which I’m not. My last PC was an MSI build and it worked flawlessly for almost five years so I don’t see any reason to change. (Before that I bought Gigabyte parts. Before that it was always an ASUS motherboard. A long, long time ago I had a Tyan dual Pentium Pro motherboard, which was rad.) I don’t remember why I ended up on MSI parts.

In the old days, I only bought the guts of the PC, swapped out the old guts, and put the new guts into an existing case and power supply. I don’t do that anymore, because I don’t want any “down time.” I want the new PC to run simultaneously with the old PC, so now I always get a new case for the new parts. I don’t always get a new keyboard or mouse though.

I don’t mess with overclocking anymore and I’ve never touched liquid cooling. I like to match the brand of motherboard with the brand of GPU card, just so there aren’t any weird incompatibilities. Stability is generally the most important thing to me in PC hardware.

In 2021, I decided to widen the scope of my brand-matching plan to match the motherboard, GPU, power supply, and case brands. I often run into subtle incompatibilities between power supplies and motherboards, and between cases and motherboards, and I don’t want to deal with that anymore. Price differences are negligible, relative to the overall cost. (A 1% savings on a cheaper brand of power supply or case is meaningless to me.)

Last time I bought Corsair memory, but this time I’m buying G.SKILL memory because it’s notably cheaper. I don’t have any brand loyalty or preferences when it comes to memory. As far as I know, they’re all the same, and one CAS latency number is the same as another. (Not that I have any way of verifying whether they’re making up those numbers or not.) I don’t know anything about the G.SKILL brand but it comes up a lot in searches and the specs look the same to me. Cross your fingers.

I don’t care in the slightest for “RGB” lighting or whatever, so I’ve bought exactly none of that. I want my gaming PC in a plain black box on the floor where I can’t see or hear it. I personally think the visual aesthetic of most “gaming” hardware in 2021 looks a lot like cheap plastic Fisher Price baby toys from the 80s.

Prototype for next year's gaming PCs.

They don’t look sleek and futuristic to me in the slightest. Still, they always manage to sneak the blinky lights in somewhere and I think there’s some blinky disco fans or something in my case somewhere.

The best part of my new case is that it has a slogan: “Battle for Your Oath.” After a lot of careful reflection and consideration, I don’t know what those words mean when they’re put together in that combination. I prefer to think of it as a typo, and the slogan for my new PC will henceforth be “Battle for Your Oats.”

Anyway I should have most of the parts by this weekend, so I’ll assemble it then.

Accessories

I’ve been using the same mouse since 2014: A Razer Naga. I thought it was older than that, but apparently not. It’s a great mouse. Except for all those thumb buttons which seemed like a great idea at the time, but in actual practice I never use intentionally and constantly trigger them accidentally. I also have to lower the mouse sensitivity slider setting in every single game almost all the way to the left side. Oh, and sometimes it just stops working in the middle of a game for no reason. Other than those things, it’s great. :)

I decided to buy a Razer DeathAdder V2. Not the Pro, because I want a wired mouse. Always, always, always wired mice. I tried a wireless mouse for gaming exactly one time in the 90s with Quake and I won’t ever consider it again. Anyway, hopefully Razer still has the same build quality. This one has a much more reasonable two thumb buttons.

I’m also buying a mechanical keyboard. I haven’t used a mechanical keyboard since my last one died and/or the PS/2 ports became obsolete, somewhere in the late 90s or early 00s. (Back then, they were just called “keyboards.” They were all mechanical.) Oh, no, not PS/2 ports. Those old white clacky IBM mechanical keyboards I used throughout the 90s used 5-pin DIN connectors. PS/2 ports were the new ones back then.

However, I absolutely positively don’t want a loud clacky keyboard again, so I bought a black Cherry MX “Silent” keyboard. For some reason, I couldn’t find any non-Cherry branded keyboards that used the Cherry MX Silent key technology, so I just went to the source. Like all mechanical keyboards, it’s expensive. I splurged. We’ll see just how quiet it actually is. It’s kind of an annoying crap shoot buying keyboards these days, you never know what you’re going to get because you can’t test them beforehand. Therefore I’m loathe to spend a lot of money on them.

Incidentally, I found a YouTube video that helped decide which mechanical keyboard switches were quietest:

This will hopefully replace a Corsair K55 keyboard, which I will never pass up an opportunity to say is a terrible keyboard for the $50 price tag. I don’t know about the rest of their product line, but based on this experience, I can’t imagine ever buying another Corsair keyboard again.

I also just discovered there are mouse pads that are more like keyboard-and-mouse pads. They are big enough that you can sit your keyboard on it, and it extends out to the side so you can also set your mouse on it. Where was that back when I was playing Quake? What a great idea! Especially lately when playing The Surge 2, where you have to do mouse gestures to parry attacks, my mouse pad is constantly sliding all over the place on my desk. So I got one of those too.

You know you’re spending extravagantly when you buy a mouse pad. I can’t even remember the last time I intentionally purchased a mouse pad. That Razer Naga I bought came with a free mouse pad, which I’ve been using since 2014. It’s the one that slides all over my desk. Before that, I’m sure I was using some free mouse pad that came with something else. Way back in the 90s, back when I was into gaming enough to fall for these sorts of gimmicks, I vaguely remember buying a handful of textured “precision gaming mouse pads” for Quake, which were designed to work with roller mice. I threw them away at some point.

Only One Problem

The one thing I’m not getting in my new gaming PC is a graphics card. You simply can’t buy them right now. Unless you have Russian mafia connections or something.

I haven’t quite decided whether to get a 3070 or a 3080. They’re both going to be a ridiculously expensive luxury, so why not get the better one for a little more? On the other hand, I’ve had amply good performance from the more budget-friendly 1070 for the past five years, so why waste money? Scientifically, according to benchmarks, the 3080 is about 12% better performance than the 3070, and according to current skyrocketing prices, it’s about 40% more expensive. A 12% reduction in rendering speed from 60 fps is about 53 fps, which isn’t terrible, even if I might prefer 60 fps. (Those ratios are exactly why I got the 1070 back in 2016 instead of a 1080, because the price/performance metrics were pretty similar.) To complicate matters, MSI also makes three different models of each GPU, with more minor variations in specs and major variations in price. It’s never simple in the graphics card buying biz.

In any case until all you dumb cryptocurrency miners out there quit driving the prices up and/or until China quits hoarding their chips, I’ll have to put my old 1070 in the new PC for the foreseeable future. Or maybe just use the integrated graphics on the processor and see if you can actually play anything with it.

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to remember to go to a web site every day to see if there’s a lottery available for a graphics card. Or there’s always eBay!

Such a deal!

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