Let me start this post off with a simple question.
Are you happy with your current PC gaming experience?
I ask because before I dive into what is likely to be several thousand words about upgrading or buying a brand new computer, the biggest question you need to ask is that one. For me, it is almost against my character to ask – if there is new, bigger, better – well, I can probably talk myself into it somehow.
However, I write this post at this particular moment in time because it is both a very good and also not very good time to build a new PC. Before I dive into why it is good, let me explore why it isn’t and talk you down from an upgrade.
For people on both sides of this question, COVID-19 makes answering more complicated. If you don’t want to build, you might be watching with amusement as people try (and often fail) to get the parts they want, and if you want to build, well, trying to buy certain hot ticket PC components is an enormous pain in the ass.
Even as most of the manufacturing muscle of the industry in eastern Asia has found solutions to production during COVID-19 and produces a still-good number of silicon wafers and performs assembly to create finished components, supply chains for many key components remain at reduced capacity. Couple that with a surge in PC demand for work-from-home, learn-from-home, and general technological improvements to the home and in all sorts of facilities, and finished parts are hard to get your hands on. Even with maintained silicon manufacturing volume, if you can’t take a CPU die or GPU die and attach it to a substrate or PCB because the filtering capacitors remain in short supply, you can’t sell that part until supply of those little components becomes more readily available. Even if you can, shipping volumes are reduced for overseas boats and air cargo, sanitation and safety protocols mean longer processing times at ports of entry, and all of this adds up.
Reduced supply, increased demand, increased handling times – altogether the recipe for the current shortages we see. Look at the console launches, the RTX 3000 series launches, the Ryzen 5000 launch, and this week we’ll probably be able to add the Radeon RX 6000 series cards to the list too – all affected in various ways by this pandemic.
So that complicates things! Luckily, we can move forward to focus on the more localized and personal concerns with an upgrade and the core reason we asked that question above. Now let’s break out into bullet points to discuss further.
If you only play PC-first titles (MMOs, Most RTS Games, etc) and are happy with your current system: Don’t buy a new one. There, easy. Shadowlands for the WoW audience is out (well, the engine upgrades and system tweaks, at least) and if you’re playing pre-patch and happy with the visual fidelity and framerate you get, you’re set for two years at least. Likewise, FFXIV is going to be around another year of Shadowbringers, and while I suspect that the next expansion will include some added luster for PC players due to what I suspect is a likely native PS5 version of the game, FFXIV runs pretty well on a lot of hardware already as is. The PC-first market is dwindling as so many titles these days are built console-first and then optimized for PC, so if you play titles that are PC-only or target the PC as their primary home, you’re probably still good for a while, provided you currently don’t have any performance degradation or a desire to push higher settings or resolutions graphically.
If you play multi-platform titles on PC primarily because you prefer PC controls/settings/etc and are happy with your current system: Don’t buy a new one. New consoles did just launch, but we’re going to see another year or two of what I like to call the “last-gen leftovers” phase of console titles. Most titles launching with the first year of a new system usually started development on the prior-generation hardware, and given the length of your modern console generation, that means a baseline target that is 7 years old – an eternity even in the modern landscape of computing. Don’t get me wrong – the next-gen optimized versions of these titles will still be very sharp and can push a system, as will their PC ports, but they get there through a lot of optimization. On PC, this optimization isn’t always as good – it can often be kind of bad, in fact! – but if you’ve been playing mainstream titles like the Assassin’s Creed series, yearly sports titles, or your generic-y Call of Duty and Battlefield titles, those are still gonna run fine on your old hardware for a couple of years (well, Call of Duty might eat your hard drive and spit it out in pieces with its fucking absurd 200 GB patches, but that is neither here nor there).
If you play mainstream multi-platform titles on PC but aren’t happy with your current performance/visual fidelity…
…and you don’t care about keyboard/mouse control: A new console is the smart play here. Look, it almost pains me to say this, because I am a PC guy through and through. I love tinkering, adjusting settings, ultrawide monitors, and mods – but if you want to play and don’t want to fall down a $1,000+ rabbit hole of upgrades and new hardware, a PS5 or Xbox Series X is going to suit you well. Both systems offer excellent experiences and are crafted for gaming above all else. Any visual fidelity compromises you might nitpick out on them is often lost at normal living room distance from the display, and equivalent PC hardware will cost more than either system (in fact, likely more than both systems combined, at least today). To revisit the start of the post here, though – yes, today, buying a new console is hard, because demand far outstrips supply, to an even greater extent than the struggle of PC gamers trying to spend $700 on a new graphics card that might as well be a ghost. If you don’t currently own a PS4 or Xbox One, I might suggest looking into them – you can play the current crop of titles (for the most part) at a pretty solid level of fidelity and performance (30 FPS may bother you, but it is functional) and for many of those titles, you can bring them right over to your next-gen system and in many cases, get the next-gen version for free. Here is a list of PS5 titles from the launch window and which ones offer that functionality, and a similar list here for Xbox One to Series upgrades.
…and you do prefer PC platform features for your games: Well, this is where we start talking about upgrades or a full new system. In this post, I am not going to make too many specific part or build recommendations – instead, we’ll talk about why now is actually an ideal time to upgrade, but the next two years are going to be especially good for that. To do that, though, we need a new list! Let’s go!
Consoles Are Locked-In Specs as Lead Platforms, Which Makes Upgrading Simpler: At this point, we know that the next 7 or so years on console is locked in for both Sony and Microsoft, and the majority of the mainstream market of gaming with crossover to PC. This plays to our advantage for a big reason.
In the past, you may have heard a console fanboy with a platform allegiance talk about “lead platforms” for development. While modern middleware engines and tools allow game developers to simply start development with broad platform support, generally, they’ll target one of the consoles as the lead platform. All this means is this: features, performance, graphical fidelity, and all are built around the assumption of the lead platform’s hardware. Targeting either the Xbox or Playstation allows developers to optimize for the fixed hardware spec in play there, ensuring smooth performance for the majority of the gaming market, and then allowing for small tweaks to fidelity or performance on other platforms. Last generation, it would have made a lot of sense to really heavily push to lead for the Xbox One – as the weakest platform, it would take the most work to cut down to from a PS4 version, given the reduced GPU performance, sharp reduction in memory bandwidth to main memory, and need to optimize memory reads and writes around the SRAM cache designed to keep the main memory slowness from being an impediment, because you can then tweak things upwards for PS4 (less pop-in, larger textures, etc) and further up for PC. This generation, I don’t know if I can make the call on which platform needs heavier optimization – obviously the cut-down Xbox Series S needs it the most, but the intent is to develop Series X and then cut from that to reach the S target.
However, we don’t need to have that debate to know this – for the next 5-7 years, games are going to target 8 core, 16-thread CPU designs running in the mid-3 GHz range with AMD’s Zen 2 IPC level, they’re going to target an 8-12 TFLOPS GPU that roughly equates to a Geforce RTX 2080 Super or higher and has raytracing support along with DirectX 12 Ultimate feature set, and storage is going to be more important, with an NVME SSD eventually being the floor (I suspect this will take around 3 years to really start being the case on PC).
This helps us out in the conversation a ton, because we can go shopping for an 8-core, 16-thread CPU that either meets or exceeds AMD’s Zen 2 performance per cycle and has a 3.6 GHz clock speed or higher, and we can buy a Geforce RTX 2080 Super or better and enjoy the performance. Couple that with at least 16 GB of system RAM and some kind of SSD for game loading, and you’re pretty well set for the whole generation. Right? Oh, wait…
Consoles Use Purpose-Built Accelerators That Make Their Specs Tricky: On the surface, what I just said is accurate and fine – and right now, yes, if you build an 8-core SMT CPU gaming PC with a good graphics card, 16 GB of RAM, and SSD storage, it’s gonna play console ports wonderfully. However, what makes things vastly more complicated is that both the PS5 and Xbox Series consoles have custom, purpose-built hardware designed to take additional burden off the CPU, along with running slimmed-down operating systems and APIs that reduce their system burden. So sure, that hypothetical gaming PC is going to be okay enough for now, but it will fall behind the consoles as usage of the full spec of their hardware becomes more common.
In particular, Sony calls out their custom compression blocks and coherency hardware as taking a tremendous load off the CPU, and while Microsoft hasn’t fully quantified the benefit they have from custom hardware, the whole branding of “Velocity Architecture” touches on some secret sauce that means that both systems are more than simple PCs in hiding. So that brings us to the next point!
Actually Matching the Hardware Power of the Consoles in a PC Today is Expensive: If you want to make up the burden of SSD management and OS management that the consoles offload to custom hardware, you probably need a faster CPU than either system. A really fast 8-core could maybe do it, but you really want something with threads for headroom – 10+ cores, probably 12. 16 GB of system RAM is probably fine, especially since the GPU in the consoles shares that pool of memory, but my system is using 6.4 GB of RAM right now just to have Chrome with 8 tabs in two windows, EVGA Precision X1, NZXT CAM, and Discord open (it’s probably mostly Chrome’s fault). Would 10 GB be fine for games? Probably, but considering 16 GB is the sweet spot today for games made for last-gen systems which only had 8 GB of total memory, you probably would want more, and with dual-channel as a must, the easiest way to fix that is to jump to 32 GB.
Now let’s talk graphics cards. Sure, on paper, a Geforce RTX 2080 Super can match or sometimes exceed the consoles of the new generation, but it has 8 GB of VRAM that runs slower than the Xbox Series X’s fast pool, and if you’re trying to match the 4k experience, that 8 GB might fill up faster than you’d expect. TechPowerUp has excellent performance reviews of Godfall, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Watch Dogs Legion on PC, and they use between 6-9 GB of VRAM on maxed settings at 4k. That is for two titles designed and developed first for last-gen consoles, and one that is a PS5 exclusive at launch! Yikes. Now, without testing methodology discussed, it is possible those figures are VRAM allocated rather than actually used, and if it is just allocation, that might not be so bad. However, if the games are allocating this much memory at the start of the generation, a 2080 Super is already going to feel anemic to start off, and will only feel worse as the generation moves on.
This leads me to my core point here – if you are building to even just match the consoles now, it isn’t as simple as grabbing a Ryzen 7 3700x, 16 GB of DDR4, a B550 motherboard, a 2080 Super, and all the trimmings, hitting add to cart and slapping it all together. That system will do fairly well for today, and will likely play these games fantastically well for now. However, as the console generation creeps onward, that hardware is going to hit some walls quickly. If you can’t use DirectStorage on that combination of hardware, loading times are going to get worse, and even with a good SATA SSD you might begin to see pop-in or other bad artifacts. The CPU will struggle to keep up with the weight of Windows 10 and these newer games, and the GPU will hit a VRAM wall and struggle to maintain as the generation goes on. Now, if you aren’t playing at 4k, does this matter as much? No, not nearly as much. If you use a 1440p monitor or remain on a 1080p full HD monitor, you’ll probably still be fine. So that leads me to my recommendations…
If You Want to Beat the Consoles Today at 4k Resolution, It’s Doable: Plan for a Core i9-10900k or a Ryzen 9 5900x at minimum for your CPU, 32 GB of DDR4-3200 or faster memory, a fast NVME SSD, and either an RTX 3070 or higher or a Radeon RX 6800 or higher. This hardware gives you extra CPU cores and threads for SSD compression and decompression via DirectStorage when that launches next year, a fast SSD to use for that storage, enough RAM to ensure Windows can run, other gaming apps you might need like Discord can run, and still ensure enough RAM for the game itself. Lastly, the GPU choice here is only based on currently-announced cards (for reasons we’ll get into momentarily) but the RTX 3070 exceeds the performance of the 2080 Super by a fair amount, albeit with the same 8 GB of VRAM – so a 3080 on the Nvidia side is likely a better long-term buy. However, on the AMD side, the RX 6800 baseline card has 16 GB of VRAM, the same GPU architecture as the consoles with a higher CU count than either console and higher clock speed than the PS5, and higher base memory bandwidth than the PS5 with the Infinity Cache on-die making up the gap to the faster pool of 10 GB on the Xbox Series X. The problem with this build is that it runs on the spendy side – assuming a fully paid license of Windows 10, a $200 motherboard, and current hardware costs, it is just shy of $2,000 in the US! Sure, yes, you can now beat the consoles and play at 4k in whatever way you want, and that is cool! However…
If You Wait About A Year, The Situation Improves A Lot: The smartest play, assuming you are happy with your current system enough to wait and want to play the mainstream games of your choice on PC, is to wait until next year to build. There are some pretty big reasons why – improvements to supply of key hardware is one, but also, the cost of better performance hardware should come down and even more performant hardware should be available. On the AMD side, I would look forward to a midrange RDNA 2 GPU like a theoretical RX 6700 XT – which would likely have 40 CUs, right in the middle of both consoles, but with a likely 16 GB of VRAM (maybe 12 based on some rumors) and a clock speed matching the PS5 at top boost. Infinity Cache would help such a part match the Xbox Series X when coupled with the higher clock speeds, and it would natively exceed the performance of the PS5, while being cheaper at a likely $400 price tag or thereabouts. Similarly, Nvidia is rumored to be back in the kitchen (perhaps literally CEO Jensen Huang’s kitchen) working on higher VRAM midrange cards in the Ampere lineup, with the going rumor that at least one 3060 family variant will have 12 GB of VRAM, and a Ti refresh to the 3070 and 3080 would bring improved performance through more CUDA cores and potentially more VRAM as well.
Likewise, the introduction of Intel’s Rocket Lake 11th-generation Core CPUs is going to bring the company’s first IPC increase since 2015 on desktop, and some rumors show lower clock speeds but enough performance improvement to just match or barely exceed the Ryzen 5000 parts. While that will cap out at 8-core/16-thread, the improvements to IPC and clock speeds over the consoles should help there. AMD will also be drawing closer to Zen 4 desktop CPUs, and while the rumor is that those don’t launch until early 2022, those will likely bring the best of all worlds – an IPC improvement, improved clock speeds on TSMC 5nm silicon manufacturing process, and more cores – likely with 12-core chiplets allowing for 24-core mainstream desktop CPUs and also making the 12-core Ryzen offering more mainstream. Intel is also supposedly launching a big.LITTLE design (that casing is the ARM standard for the design, not a typo!) which would have 8 of their standard, high performance cores, and then likely 8 lower-power Atom CPU cores. Of them, only the main performance cores would have Hyper-Threading, making for an oddball 16-core, 24-thread CPU. That design would serve our gaming purpose well, however, as the little cores could be dispatched to the helper work on SSD management and the like, while the 8 performance cores would handle games with ease.
Then there is the NVME SSD situation. Currently, only two models on PC can even match the raw uncompressed performance of the PS5 (the Western Digital SN850 and the Samsung 980 Pro) and there currently is no compression/decompression solution that gets close to the total performance of the PS5. I expect that with PCIE Gen 4 in Intel systems starting with Rocket Lake, we’ll see more such NVME drives take the market, and as has happened with PCIE Gen 3 drives, the mass availability of platforms supporting them should drive up performance while driving down prices, especially when coupled with the overproduction of NAND flash memory expected to cause sharp price drops through 2021. When Microsoft launches DirectStorage API for Windows 10 in 2021, such a drive should be able to easily exceed the Xbox Series X performance, and drives like the WD SN850 and Samsung 980 Pro should be able to tag the PS5 with ease.
So to close, let’s put this into a neat and tidy decision path.
If you like your current system and don’t play mainstream games: stick with it
If you like your current system in general: stick with it
If you want to play mainstream games and don’t think your PC can handle it at a level you’d be satisfied with: upgrade (likely a GPU upgrade alone would be good) or buy a console
If you want to build a new system to beat the consoles at 4k resolution today: you’ll need a budget of $2,000 or more, in all likelihood
If you want to meet or exceed the console performance but are otherwise happy with your system today: Winter 2021 is going to be an ideal time to upgrade
For me? Well, if all goes to plan, this week I can start getting parts in for my new system, an event which I have been planning, adjusting, and readjusting pricing and part lists for! However, I know that I am a niche of a niche – I love PC gaming and all the included adjustments, tweaks, responsibility over the experience, snags, mods, and control options, and I am foolish enough to charge into the market as it is today and try to fight to get the parts I want to really give me an experience that will last for the next 3-5 years with ease. As that happens, I’ll be sure to document that journey and the final decisions I’ve made!
Should you make that same journey, though?
Eh, probably not.