Many parents wonder what’s so special about a gaming computer. My daughter recently asked me the same question, because my grandson wanted one for his birthday. This is what I told her.
Most computers are generalists - all-round machines comfortable with everyday tasks like web browsing and emailing, playing small games and downloading files.
Compared to these, gaming computers (often called 'rigs' by gamers) are specialists. They’re built with the same parts as any other computer, but it's their GPU's (Graphics processing units, or graphics cards) that make them stand out from the crowd.
The GPU renders (creates and displays) still and moving images on the screen. Depending on the system, they're either onboard (fixed into the computer's main board), or they can be separate components in their own right. Onboard GPUs are sometimes called 'integrated' graphics because they use the computer's RAM as video memory.
Many desktop computers use onboard graphics, especially budget to mid-range systems. This helps to keep manufacturing costs down, but it can carry a different price - performance. In contrast, gaming PCs almost always use a separate graphics card.
Laptops are slightly different. Their graphics cards are always on the main board due to space limitations, but that doesn't mean they're 'integrated'. Specialist gaming laptops usually include an onboard high-performance GPU with dedicated RAM, just like their desktop cousins, for the best possible experience.
To most computer users, it isn’t - it’s just the bit that makes the display work. To gamers, it’s the beating heart of their rig.
Graphics video performance is usually assessed in two main ways - 'screen resolution' and 'framerate'. The resolution is the size of the image (measured in pixels), and framerate tells you how often the picture changes on screen in FPS (frames per second). The higher each of those numbers are, the harder the graphics card has to work to render images and video on screen.
Computers with onboard graphics work fine most of the time, but can struggle with 3D graphics and virtual reality apps. They use some of the computer's system memory (typically 10-15% of the system RAM) to render images, instead of having their own. This can limit their performance if they can't do it quickly enough, making gameplay difficult on all but the least graphics-intensive games.
Standalone graphics cards have their own memory, so aren’t dependent on the computer, and they’ll also have higher-spec GPUs than onboard ones. You'll often see fans and heatsinks attached to help keep them cool too - they won't work well if they overheat.
Most computers are designed to offer adequate performance for the average user doing everyday tasks. Gaming PCs are anything but adequate or average. They're built to deliver high performance for lengthy periods (often several hours at a time), and so have greater demands placed on them. It's a bit like comparing a family saloon to a racing car. They both have four wheels, an engine, seats and brakes, but the family saloon will find it difficult to keep up with the racing car on a track.
As games become more demanding, the hardware needed to run them has to improve to keep pace. The good news is that desktop gaming PCs are usually quite easy to upgrade. Swapping out the graphics card or adding more memory can enhance performance and extend its life to several years, so it's sometimes worth spending a little extra to get a faster CPU than you might need at the start. It's an investment in the whole-life cost of the machine, and helps to future-proof it too.
Another way to keep costs down (as well as learning something new) could be to build one yourself, or you could make it part of the present and build it together. Home builders can typically save 25-30% compared to buying a comparable pre-built machine, as well as picking the exact specification you want from a wide range of components.
The GPU is the hardest working component in a gaming PC, but the CPU (central processing unit) and RAM (random access memory) play their part too. They run things like AI (artificial intelligence) for game characters as well as keeping Windows and other apps running in the background.
Dual-core processor systems will play older games, but newer games might not be as smooth to play. Quad-core systems are good enough to play the latest titles, but top end systems often have octo-core CPUs. Think of an increase here as future-proofing your system, the processor isn't as easy to upgrade as some of the other components.
Having enough RAM is also important, and it's one of the cheaper areas to upgrade in. On a quad-core system, 8GB should be enough to play games on their own but if you like to have other apps open as well, go for 16GB. Using more than that would let you multitask to your heart's content, but won't give you much of an edge for gaming.