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PC Tech 101: The Gamer's Guide to PC Tech

PC gaming can be a scary place for a beginner – especially if you happen to speak to an enthusiast. Ask these guys anything, and the reply will invariably include a terrifying jumble of acronyms and obscure nomenclature, punctuated by the odd reference to 'tessellation'. It's enough to make the average gamer stick to consoles for life.

But don't let these guys put you off. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to have a degree in computer engineering to build your own gaming rig. In fact, you don't even need to be particularly handy with a screwdriver. These days, PC components are almost like Lego blocks (albeit with more fiddly bits you used to get your dad to help with). A decent set of PC components can inject a game's graphics with the sort of photorealism that the Xbox 360 and PS3 can only dream of.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be taking you through the essential PC gaming basics, starting with the processor, motherboard and memory. If these concepts are alien you to, don't panic – all will be explained in due course. By the end of our three-part seminar, you'll be ready to graduate to PC gaming in style, ready to build your first D.I.Y. PC. 



The brains of the PC - the CPU.
Central processing unit (CPU)
The central processing unit (or CPU) is the 'brain' of your gaming rig. It is responsible for processing the information needed to complete the majority of the tasks that you ask of your PC. Almost all electronics include some form of CPU, including video game consoles and arcade machines.

Much like a dinosaur's think-box, the CPU is tiny in relation to the PC it's housed in -- but don't let its size fool you. These bad boys are capable of calculating millions of complex computations per second. Without the CPU, you wouldn't be able to boot up your PC, much less play Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Subsequently, choosing the right CPU is one of the most important decisions you need to make, and is the first part in the holy trinity of PC gaming components (with the memory and Video Card being the other two parts. Get all three parts right and you're guaranteed to have silky smooth gaming in True HD.

The major players in CPU manufacturing are Intel and AMD. As a general rule, AMD tends to offer better bang-for-buck, while Intel offers better bang, period. Most hardcore PC gamers stick to Intel for their processing prowess, but if you're not too fussed about maxed-out settings, a mid-range AMD CPU will get the job done. (of course, the decision will also depend on the motherboard you're using, which we'll get to in a moment.)

CPUs come in a dizzying array of different types and speeds. This used to be very confusing, but the industry recently introduced a simplified naming scheme to make life easier for non-enthusiasts. Intel's extensive range of CPUs now falls into three distinct families: i3, i5 and i7. i3 processors are the lower-end offerings, i5 targets the mid-range and i7 are the current top dogs for gaming. AMD, meanwhile, divides its processors into the Athlon and Phenom series (for gaming, stick to Phenom, preferably in the 'x4' product range or above).

Regardless of which manufacturer you choose, the important thing to look for is the CPU clock speed. This will usually be measured in Gigahertz (GHz), and you'll need to do a bit of Googling to find out what each CPU's clock speed is. Basically, the higher the clock speed, the better the CPU will perform and the faster your games will run. Simply type the name of the processor into Google, along with the term "clock speed". Bear in mind that most CPUs run at two speeds; idle speed is slower, and used for power saving, while the load speed is the top speed that it runs at while playing a game. A CPU that has a load speed of 3GHz is plenty fast enough for most games, but the faster you can get, the better. Most modern CPUs also come with multiple cores, which are basically separate CPUs all put into the one chip. A quad core CPU is the equivalent of four single CPUs, and is thus faster than a dual-core CPU. At the very least, you should be looking for a dual core processor, though quad core seems to be the standard for most average gaming rigs. Right now we recommend the Intel i5 2600k or AMD Phenom II AM3 965 Black Edition as the best gaming CPUs that won't cost you an arm and a leg.

The skeleton of the PC - the Motherboard.
Motherboards
If the CPU is the brain of your PC, then the motherboard is the skeleton. This is the core PC component that everything else is connected to. Choosing a motherboard, or 'mobo', as it is affectionately known, is one of the first decisions you need to make. It will effect what type of components you can use, particularly when it comes to the CPU.

For example, an AMD-certified motherboard won't work with an Intel CPU, no matter how hard you try to jam it in. Similarly, older motherboards won't be compatible with the latest batch of processers - even if they're badged with the same brand name. It's therefore vitally important to check the specifications of your motherboard to see what processor interface it supports. Look for the Socket type, as this refers to the type of CPU design that it can handle. Intel's most recent CPUs are Socket LGA1155, while AMD's best gaming CPUs use Socket AM3.

Another thing to look out for is the number of PCI-Express slots a motherboard has. These are the long slots that your graphics card(s) will plug into, and are therefore an essential part of any gaming PC. At the very least, your mobo should have two PCIe slots, so that you can upgrade to two video cards in the future.

When buying a motherboard, it's a good idea to go with a leading brand name, such as Asus, MSI, Intel, EVGA or Gigabyte. These guys might be a bit more expensive, but they enjoy a solid reputation for a reason. Also, keep an eye out for gaming-specific motherboards, such as Asus' Republic of Gamers series. These boards come with features specific to PC gamers and are generally geared towards the best CPUs on the market. However, don't expect the motherboard to have much of an impact on the performance of your games, as game performance is reliant upon the holy trinity of PC hardware (CPU, Memory and Video Card). So if you need to save some bucks, go for a cheaper motherboard.

The short term memory of the PC - the Memory/RAM
Memory/RAM
Okay, so we've talked about how the CPU is your computer's brain and the motherboard is its skeleton. To torture the analogy further, RAM can be viewed as your brain's short term memory. Whenever you run a game, it's loaded into the memory; if you don't have enough memory the CPU will need to access the computer's hard drive instead, which is much slower. When it does this your game can stutter and slow down.

There are currently two types of RAM on the market -- DDR2 and DDR3. As their names imply, DDR2 (AKA Double Data Rate 2) is an older type of RAM which is being gradually superseded by DDR3. DDR3 is faster, making it a better bet for gaming. If you can afford the extra expenditure, go for DDR3 RAM, but again it all comes down to your motherboard. A motherboard that supports DDR2 won't run DDR3, and vice versa. You want to load your PC with 4GB worth of RAM, but you can install more if you're going to be editing HD videos or running lots of Photoshop. Be aware that memory runs at different speeds - all you need for good gaming performance is DDR3 1600MHz. Anything more will cost you a load more, for just a tiny performance boost.

Phew, that wasn't so bad was it? There's only a couple more bits and pieces to explain, so check back soon to learn all about Graphics cards. If you've got any questions, please post them in the comments section and we'll be happy to help you out.