What are all these components in a Custom Gaming PC?

Computer components

Building a PC can be rather daunting, especially for someone relatively new at it. It can get tough to keep all these acronyms, components, and model types straight.

There are a dizzying array of options on the market, and they're all clamoring for your money. I'll try to easy your stress with a dive into all this madness.

Beware....this is a long post.

Case/Chassis

This is fairly self-explanatory. The types however, require a bit more discussion. Sizes include Mini-ITX (Desktop, Tower), Micro-ATX (Slim, Desktop, Mini-Tower, Mid-Tower), ATX (Mini-Tower, Mid-Tower, Full-Tower, Super-Tower). These go in respective order of size, with ATX Mid-Towers dominating the market.

The designations "Mini-ITX, Micro-ATX, and ATX" relate to the relative size of the case, as well as the motherboard compatibility options.

Large cases are typically meant for bigger motherboards, and smaller cases will typically not fit larger motherboards. These names will be explained later in this blog. 

When a case is said to have a side window, it will typically have a clear acrylic window on the main side panel. This can range from a opening just big enough to fit a 120mm fan, to a full-size panel big enough to see inside the entire PC.

When a case is said to have 2.5"/3.5"/5.25" drive bays inside/outside, this is typically denoting whether or not the case has a certain size slot available on the interior (or exterior).

Higher-end cases that have a sheer aluminum/glass front panel do not have 5.25" (DVD Drive) bays on the front panel, and will typically only have a few 3.5" (HDD)/2.5" (SSD) bays on the inside (and are typically located underneath the main show area).

Any HDD bay can be converted to an SSD bay with a few adapter screws, and an adapter plate. 

Motherboard/System Board

This is the main component, the one that all the others connect to. The main phrases that trip people up relate to the form factor, the chipset, the socket, and if it supports SLI/Crossfire

Form Factor is related to cases (as we discussed earlier). The most widely used form factors of Custom PCs include Mini-ITX, Micro-ATX, ATX, EATX, XL-ATX, SSI CEB, and SSI EEB.

The first three are the most common in the Home Computer/Gaming world.

Mini-ITX is a very small size, with a single PCI-E slot, a few RAM slots, and a few ports for SATA devices. Mini-ITX does not typically have room for advanced overclocking support, as you are limited in what can be crammed onto the printed circuit board.

Micro-ATX is a step up, and typically includes two PCI-E slots, a full set of RAM slots, and even an m.2 SSD port. These boards are larger, and thus can fit more advanced features on the PCB.

ATX is our best friend, and incorporates another PCI-E slot, and even more SATA ports. These board are the most common, and can have very extensive overclocking support embedded in the PCB. These boards have a wide range of features, and can only be fully discussed in their own dedicated blog.

EATX and XL-ATX are much of the same as ATX, just bigger, and with more features. 

Chipset is the device that connects all the internal devices on the motherboard. More advanced chipsets (Z97, X79, Z170, X99, Z270) incorporate steadily more advanced features.

The Z170 chipset for example, is compatible with the Skylake CPU models, and allows for the full speed of high-end PCI SSDs to be unlocked. 

Socket is the term for the compatible model of CPU.

Sockets are updated every few years, though this does not always mean obsolete. If you think your socket is obsolete, and needs a refresh, please contact us. We'd be happy to assist you!

CPU/Central Processing Unit

Yep, it's that simple. The big dog. The big cheese.

The component that can significantly improve your overall system performance, all by itself. The CPU is one of the most important components, and thankfully, doesn't have that many terms to know. You'll see the following: clock speed, turbo speed, cores, threads, hyper-threading, TDP, socket, and integrated graphics.

Clock speed is fairly simple, it's the speed at which the device operates at. This is typically measured in Ghz (gigahertz) nowadays. Turbo speed is the speed at which the device operates while under "boost" mode. Most CPUs offer a dynamic turbo mode, in which they will run faster. This typically happens when the base clock is not enough to prevent a lag period.

"Overclocking" is when the user deliberately overrides the default turbo speed, and ventures out into the great unknown of clockspeeds. This should only be done if you know what you are doing, and understand the risks. More on that later.

Cores are simple. A single-core CPU will have 1 core. A quad-core CPU will have 4 cores. Isn't math fun! Threads come into play with a term called hyper-threading. Threads are the overall number of cores, both physical and virtual. Now you might think I've lost my mind...what in the world is a virtual CPU core?

Hyper-threading is a technology that duplicates physical cores as virtual cores. You've seen it in action with the Intel i3 and i7 CPUs. An i3 will have 2 physical cores, and 2 virtual cores, for a total of 4 threads. An i7 will have 4 physical cores, and 4 virtual cores, for a total of 8 threads. The i5 CPU only has 4 physical cores, with hyper-threading disabled. Why we use hyper-threading...is a different blog.

TDP (thermal design power) and socket are fairly simple. TDP is the maximum amount of heat generated by the device in typical operation. A smartphone CPU might have a TDP of .5-1W, a mobile laptop CPU might have a TDP of 35W, a high-end gaming CPU might have a TDP of 95W, and a powerful GPU might have a TDP of 250W.

This doesn't mean the device will be putting out that much heat all the time, it simply means it has the ability to generate that much.

Socket is the same term we talked about earlier with motherboards, and it must match. You cannot fit an LGA1151 CPU onto an LGA1150 motherboard. If you somehow did, you have broken the contact pins (and probably voided the warranty). Please match up your sockets.

Integrated Graphics are fairly straight-forward. A CPU can have on-chip graphics, which allow the CPU to display visual content without the need for a dedicated GPU. However, a dedicated GPU has much more power, and is recommended if you are doing any sort of graphics-intensive work (especially PC Gaming).

Watching movies...does not count as graphics-intensive...no matter how crazy the explosions and car-crashes get.

RAM/Random Access Memory

RAM is one of the shorter terminology-intensive parts. You'll see type, speed, size, voltage, and latency.

Type refers to the pin-count on the part, which relates to if the RAM is DDR/DDR2/DDR3/DDR4. The DDR means "double data rate", and helps differentiate between generations of RAM.

DDR4 RAM is the newest type on the market, and allow for significant speed gains, capacity gains, and decreased power use over DDR3.

Speed is the clock speed of the RAM. This is the same speed as we talked about with CPUs, only it is less significant with RAM. Unless you are working with extremely intensive data, you won't see significant gains with a faster kit.

Size is the amount of memory in a kit/on a stick. There are wide ranges of memory sizes, though I recommend no lower than 8GB for modern use.

Voltage and latency are next. Voltage refers to the volts running through the card, and latency is time it takes data to run through the RAM itself.

Speed and latency are directly related, as high speed will have high latency, and low speed will have low latency. However, modern kits have become so advanced, and so fast, that latency is not much of an issue (unless you are operating an extremely intensive workload).

SSD/HDD. also known as Solid State Drive and Hard Disk Drive

These two characters are best buddies, although they get in fights very often. I've gone into detail about them before (as noted here), although there's still a few terms to know. SSD terms include type, capacity, interface, and form factor, and HDDs terms include type, capacity, interface, and buffer cache.

Type for SSDs really only means that the storage device is an SSD. Type for HDD can mean the storage device is either a hybrid drive, or a drive of varying RPMs (revolutions per minute). RPMs relate to the speed of the drive, and also relate to the cost. Faster RPM drives process data faster, and cost more. Very high RPM drives are on their way out, as the SSDs have nearly taken over. High RPM drives cost more to maintain, and are limited in their storage capacity. 

Capacity is self-explanatory. HDDs can hold much more than SSDs can...for now. High-capacity SSDs are also prohibitively expensive, but that will soon change.

Interface refers to how the device connects to the motherboard. There are far too many interface options to list here, so I will go in-depth on SSD/HDD interface options in a later blog.

Form Factor again relates to the physical size of the device. There is a single form factor (3.5") for HDDs, while there are several form factors (2.5", m.2-2242/2260/2280, mSATA, PCI-E) for SSDs.

Buffer cache only relates to HDDs. Buffer cache is a small form of internal memory for HDDs. More cache means the HDD will spend less time caching, as it can cache more items before maxing out. Cache is fairly irrelevant, as drive speed is more important.

GPU/Graphics Processing Unit/Video Card

The most important component in a Gaming PC, and it combines a fair amount of terms. GPU terms include VRAM, chipset, interface, SLI/Crossfire, core clock, boost clock, memory clock, slot width, length, and TDP.

VRAM is also known as Video RAM. Modern VRAM is generally seen as GDDR5 (graphics double data rate 5), which is a special type of memory that is much faster than system RAM, and is also much smaller in capacity (unless you pay an exorbitant price).

A nice modern GPU will have 4GB of GDDR5 on it. VRAM is important when using especially high-resolution monitors, and when playing games with high-resolution texture packs. 

Chipset is one of the most important terms for GPUs, and is also the term I will talk least about. Not because I don't want to, but because that blog could easily be as long as this entire post.

GPU chipsets vary tremendously, and are nothing like the "chipset" you read about for CPUs. GPU chipsets can range from $40 to $1000 for consumer-grade hardware, and even more for professional-grade hardware. 

Interface is a term used to describe the PCI slot that the GPU connects to on the motherboard. The faster GPUs will use the x16 slot, where the older cards will use x8 slots. The Interface Generation "PCI-Express x16 Gen. 3.0" denotes the 3rd generation x16 slot, which is much faster than the Gen 2.0 slot.

Core Clock and Boost Clock work on much of the same level as the Core Clock and Turbo Clock on CPUs. You will see lower overall clockspeeds on GPUs, because you will see drastically more cores (and a much higher TDP).

Memory Clock on GPUs is much of the same as the Clock Speed on RAM, except on a much higher scale. Some GPUs have their memory clocking at 10,000Mhz by factory settings, where the fastest RAM kits are factory-clocked at 4400mhz. 

GPU Slot Width correlates to how many PCI-E slots the card will take up on the motherboard.

If your motherboard has 2 slots, and your GPU is a 3-slot card, you will only be able to install 1 GPU.

If the GPU is a 2-slot card, you will be able to install 2 GPUs.

If the GPU is a 1-slot card, you will still only be able to install 2 GPUs, they will just breathe easier.

For reference, large air-coolers for GPUs can take up an extra slot or two, so keep that in mind. 

GPU Length is easy to understand, and only comes into play if you are using a case that might have clearance issues.

If you are thinking about getting a short-length case, keep your desired GPU in mind, as you mind run into clearance tolerances.

GPU TDP is the same as CPU TDP.

PSU/Power Supply Unit

Finally, the PSU. The PSU has a few terms to keep in mind as well. They include wattage, type, modular, efficiency, and fanless.

Wattage is very important. Adding up the overall power draws of all of your components, and then adding on about 100 watts, will give you an idea of what PSUs to start looking at. Giving  yourself an extra 100W will give you room to overclock some components, as desired.

There is no such thing as too much wattage, however, there is such a thing as too little. If you don't have enough watts, you risk losing power during a high-use session (like right in the middle of a game). PSUs do not come with battery backups, so a loss of power will be immediate, and could be harmful to the PC.

Battery backups are available, at extra cost.

Type regards the size and power abilites of the unit. ATX PSUs are the most common, however, there are also ATX/EPS, Micro-ATX, Mini-ITX, and SFX. Unless you are using a high-powered motherboard and CPU like an X99+LGA2011v3 system, you will most likely be fine with an ATX PSU.

Modular refers to how the big cables are connected. A non-modular PSU will have all of the cables bundled together in a shroud. While this can be fun to swing around, it makes cable managment very difficult, and also makes it not possible to implement custom power cables. Semi-Modular PSUs will only have the main ATX power, and CPU power cables bundled together. Fully-Modular units will have no cables pre-attached, leaving the user to connect only the cables that they need. Fully-Modular units also allow for the use of custom power cables, which are cables with sleek braids, and custom color schemes. These special cables make cable management very easy and low-stress. Not to mention, they significantly improve the visual appeal of the system.

Efficiency is where much of the tuning comes into play. Efficiency in PSUs relates to how much power is lost between the wall socket, and the cables going into the PC itself. These include 80+, 80+Bronze/Silver/Gold/Platinum/Titanium. I recommend a Gold rated unit, as the first two lose too much power, and the final two really only prove their power at higher wattage levels.

Some PSUs are fanless, meaning they do not have a fan installed on them. They use passive cooling to dissipate the heat, and thus are not as powerful as their fan-enabled brothers.

There are plenty of phrases/terms/acronyms in the Custom PC world, and I try to ease the stress of those interested in a Custom PC.

If there is a phrase I have not covered, please email me at chris@topflightpc.com, and I will discuss it in a later blog.