What Hardware Do You Need to Play Games at 4K?
There are three resolutions that most come to mind when thinking about PC gaming; 1080p, 1440p, and 4K.
1080p is short for 1920x1080, which is 1920 pixels long and 1080 pixels high, with a widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9. 1440p is short for 2560x1440, which is 2560 pixels long and 1440 pixels high, with a widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9. 4K is short for 3840x2160 (technically, Cinema 4K is 4096x2160, but we’re not going there), which is 3840 pixels long and 2160 pixels high, with a widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9.
4K is the least common resolution in the gaming environment, due to the high hardware requirement to game smoothly at decent quality. Maxing out smoothly at 4K is even more difficult, and will be covered in another article.
What hardware you need really depends on what games you’ll be playing, at what visual quality, and the desired framerate. Rocket League at low/medium settings at 45fps is incredibly easy to run, while The Witcher 3 at max settings at 60fps is a whole different scenario. For now, we’ll try to give you a detailed general understanding of what you need for 60fps at high settings at 4K. If you need more help, please contact us, and we’d be happy to help.
This article will also assume that you are not streaming your game while playing it, and just simply playing it. Streaming while gaming requires more CPU horsepower, which can affect other things down the line.
Starting with the CPU, you want a decently powerful CPU, ideally with an unlocked multiplier. Any 2013+ quad-core CPU should be fine, though we recommend something newer than 2015. Of course, there are older CPUs that also do the trick, but they’re older, lack new features, run hotter, draw more power, and have no real upgrade path (this will be the same across all the parts covered in this article).
As far as specific models, you’d be good with an Intel i5-7600K or i5-8600K. These CPUs provide a healthy amount of single-core performance and have a fair price point. 4K still has a fair amount of processing on the CPU, so you’ll want a decently powerful one (but remember, a $1000 CPU won’t do you any good, as games typically don’t use more than 4 threads). If you want more headroom, an Intel i7-7700K or i7-8700K will provide plenty of extra ponies.
The CPU Cooler
Moving to the CPU cooler, you should be looking at a mid-grade to high-end model, around $50-$80 for air, and $80-$130 for liquid cooling. However, AIOs (all-in-ones) do have more parts that can fail and lack the passive cooling ability of a standard heatsink (in case the pump fails). Beefier coolers (air or water) result in lower CPU temps, lower system noise, and longer CPU life. That being said, don’t go spend $300 on a water cooled solution for a $100 CPU. The CPU simply won’t generate enough heat to warrant the cost.
Moving to the motherboard, this can get a bit more complicated, but we’re going to assume a few constants. For a general-use 4K build, with room for upgrades down the road, we still recommend the same decent quality ATX motherboard with 4 DIMM slots and a handful of storage options. We typically recommend spending about $120-$150 on a motherboard, from either Asus, MSI, EVGA, or Gigabyte. Motherboards don’t really provide an increase in framerate (unless you want to overclock heavily), but you do want a solid platform to build on.
If your CPU is unlocked, make sure your motherboard has the ability to overclock. We aren’t saying overclock your CPU...but if you’ve bought an i5-7600K, and get a B250 motherboard, you lose the ability to overclock in the future. This generally results in taking your computer completely apart later on simply to swap out the B250 board for a Z270. While the B250 board may be $30-$40 cheaper, you’ll have to spend another $140 to get the Z270 board, which are becoming rare now, and cost more. Plus there’s the part about taking your computer apart, and putting it back together (fun for us, but you might think otherwise).
Going to the memory now, this is a relatively short topic. Gaming on a PC has a minimum of 8GB with Windows 10 (4GB is no longer enough), and we recommend 16GB as soon as possible. While 8GB will give your OS plenty of room, as well as other programs, and your games, it quickly becomes a bottleneck. Having 10 tabs up in Chrome, with Skype, and then launching Arkham Knight, will quickly put you above 70% RAM used. While you still have 30% available, you will see big-time slowdowns once you run out of memory.
Storage is next and is also a relatively easy topic. There are two main types of storage these days, SSD and HDD. SSD stands for Solid State Drive, and HDD is Hard Disk Drive. Ignoring the deeper technical details, SSDs are much faster (up to 5x) than HDDs, though they have lower storage capacities.
Gaming at 4K doesn’t require a more expensive storage array than either 1080p or 1440p though. A baseline gaming computer might have a single 1TB HDD, a slightly upgraded model might have a 120/250GB SSD and 1TB HDD (SSD for OS and some software like Chrome), and a higher-end computer might have a 500GB SSD and a 1/2TB HDD (SSD for OS, Chrome, and some games).
Games are typically loaded onto the bigger drive unless you have enough free space on your SSD. We typically spec a $100 240GB SSD and $45 1TB HDD for gaming computers, as the increased speed of the SSD only impacts loading times, not framerates.
On to the most important part, the video card! For gaming at 4K in high quality, something like a GTX 1080 will do very well. You could go down to a GTX 1070, or up to a GTX 1080Ti, depending on quality settings/framerate desired/monitor refresh rate, but we’ll stick with 4K resolution at high settings at 60hz. Unless the price is too good to pass up, you should not go lower than a GTX 1070, and dual 1080Tis is meant for maxing out everything in 4K.
A GTX 1080 will have plenty of CUDA cores for the image processing, and more than enough VRAM for 4K use. If budget is a concern for you, dropping to a GTX 1070 won’t impact you much. You’ll need to turn down texture quality a bit and lower a few more settings, but nothing too major.
Moving to the case, this is really up to your visual preferences. Make sure it has proper airflow, for both intake and exhaust. Make sure it has fan filters (or slots for them). Having proper room for cable management is a huge benefit as well. We highly recommend something like the Phanteks ECLIPSE P400S Tempered Glass Edition, for its airflow, low noise profile, clean design, hidden PSU bay, ample cable management room, and price.
Lastly, the power supply, which is arguably one of the most important components. If you’ve specced your computer pretty close to what we’ve listed so far, you’ll have approximately a 300W load. If you want your PSU to be efficient and not lose too much energy as heat, you’ll want an 80+ unit, and we recommend at least a Gold rating. That being said, we recommend getting at least 100W of extra power, and you won’t really find a reputable 80+ Gold unit that puts out 400W. We typically spec at least 500W of power either semi-modular or fully-modular.
Modularity relates to how many cables are pre-attached to the PSU. Semi-modular has the CPU and motherboard cables already attached, where fully-modular has no cables attached. If you’re thinking about getting some nicer cables at some point, go ahead and get the fully-modular version, you’ll save some money. As to what brands, we recommend EVGA, Corsair, and SeaSonic.
That about wraps it up! There are other things like additional case fans, and while those certainly help improve airflow, lower temperatures, and extend part life, they aren’t truly necessary for a general 4K gaming computer. That being said, if you want to know what case fans to use in your setup, feel free to contact us!
Congratulations! If you’ve used these points as reference, you should have a pretty good 4K gaming computer. Make sure to keep it nice and clean, both physically and software-based. Many professional computer shops in Raleigh have services available to make sure that your system is running at peak potential.