Games have historically been the driving force behind the rapid pace of consumer hardware development. For example, The 7th Guest and Myst helped drive the adoption of CD-ROMs. Intel and AMD both incorporated instruction sets such as MMX, 3DNow!, and Streaming SIMD Extensions into their processors to support the PC's growing role as a home entertainment device.
More recently, however, other types of applications have piqued the interest of computing enthusiasts. Scientific distributed computing tools such as Folding@home, GIMPS and SETI@home or other computationally intensive chores may also push CPUs and GPUs to their limits, and may also serve as a means of competition, such as tracking how many data sets a user has completed.
An enthusiast PC implies the early adoption of new hardware, which is sold at a premium price. As an example, the video card ATI Radeon 9700 Pro was released at US$399 in 2002. Many gaming PCs support the use of multiple video cards in SLI or CrossFire, making it possible to spend thousands of dollars in graphics cards alone.
It is worth noting that, beyond a certain level of performance, price increases dramatically while offering smaller increases in performance; this is a classic example of diminishing returns. For example, a user who purchased 4 Titan X graphics cards in 2015 would have spent over $4000, even though next year's high-end graphics card, the GTX 1080, in 3-way SLI would offer a significant increase in performance at less than half the price.
Enthusiast users who purchase high-end graphics cards will often upgrade as soon as new graphics cards are released.
Gaming PCs use hardware accelerated video cards which offer high-end rasterisation-based rendering/image quality. The graphics card is the most important part determining the capabilities of a gaming PC. Memory capacity on 3D cards is usually at least 256 MB to 12 GB. The amount of video RAM is more important while gaming in higher resolution or using high resolution textures, as it does not directly affect performance. The type of memory used, however, is an important factor. Modern graphics cards use the PCI Express expansion slot. Two or more graphics cards can be used simultaneously on motherboards supporting SLI or ATI CrossFire technology, for nVidia and AMD based cards respectively. Both technologies allow for between two and four graphics cards, although nvidia now only recommending two, of the same model to be used in unison to process and render an image.
It is worth noting that a high-end graphics card will also use more electricity, or have a higher power draw, than a lower-end cards. This power draw only increases as the number of graphics cards increases, adding another cost to a high-end "rig". However, as the number of graphics cards increases, the performance gains by adding another graphics card decreases significantly due to the complexity of more than two GPU's communicating to each other in an efficient way. This is another example of depreciating returns.
It is clear that a fast response time and high refresh rate is desired in order to display smooth motion. A framerate of 60 frames per second (FPS) is generally the minimum acceptable framerate in a video game for enthusiasts, with some enthusiasts preferring 144 FPS or even 165 FPS, to match the refresh rate of their monitor (144 Hz or 165 Hz, respectively). Some gaming monitors can be overclocked to achieve even higher refresh rates. Apart from the primary display, some enthusiasts choose to use a secondary display or more to their PC. Many players game using 3 monitors, which requires 3 times the graphics performance.
Some monitors are designed exclusively for gamers, featuring higher refresh rates and improved response times at the expense of a lower resolution. E-sports, or competitive gamers, often favor higher framerates at the expense of reduced color accuracy, preferring TN panels over IPS panels.
Gaming PCs are usually equipped with a dedicated sound card and speakers in a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound configuration. The speaker setup or a set of quality headphones is required to enjoy the advanced sound found in most modern computer games. Sound cards have hardware accelerated technologies, such as EAX. An example is Sound Blaster X-Fi, which the Fatal1ty editions have 64 MB of onboard RAM (unmatched for a sound card) and has gaming PCs as main target demographic with its dedicated "gaming mode".
While physics cards are now available, compatibility and performance increases are still debated. Some people have experienced performance downgrades in GRAW, one of few games currently available that take advantage of additional physics hardware. Graphics card manufacturers plan on including PPUs on their chipsets and also adding a slot for a third graphics card (in addition to the usual 2 slots for SLI or Crossfire setups) to act as a PPU. At the moment, the cards are expensive and neither widely used nor widely supported in games. Recently Nvidia cards support the physics calculations that dedicated physics cards were made for. Nvidia physics software is known as "Physx".
The CPU is mainly responsible for computing physics, AI and central game processes. Modern gaming PCs use high-end processors. With the rise of multi-threaded games, multi-core processor setups have become more imperative than ever. Furthermore, an ample amount of L2 Cache within the CPU, generally 4 MB or more, is recommended to reap the benefits of even faster game performance. In addition, a gaming processor should be capable of running at least the SSE3 instruction set extension, which is available in all modern CPUs.
Random access memory, or RAM, acts as a cache for non-graphical resources that games use. Enthusiasts will often purchase the fastest RAM, which has a lower latency, thus offering negligble performance increases in most cases. For gaming, a higher frequency of memory than would be necessary for an average computer user can offer some benefits. This has led to certain motherboards supporting RAM overclocking, with the new XMP standard. As RAM frequency is increased, however, the stability of the system decreases, increasing the risk of random computer shutdowns.
8 GB is usually the recommended amount of memory for gaming computers, as some 64-bit games can use over 4 GB of RAM.
RAM capacity is also an issue with gaming PCs, and usually at least 4 GB or more, depending on how many RAM slots the board can hold, and whether it supports 4 or 8 GB modules. The current maximum amount supported ( for quad-channel configuration )on consumer hardware is 128 GB, with 8 slots on some LGA 2011 motherboards, each slot supporting up to a 16 GB DIMM.
In gaming PCs, fast hard drives are very desirable. Having a faster hard drive will result in shorter loading times in games. For this reason, some gaming PCs use certain RAID setups to lower latency and increase throughput to mass storage. Since the space taken up by games is nominal compared to the total availability on modern hard drives, speed is preferred over capacity.
Recently, solid-state drives have become popular, which offer significantly higher speeds than magnetic hard drives. Though originally more expensive, the price has significantly dropped. The performance of SSD's is now considered a minimum in a "rig," and some even consider them necessary even in budget pc's.
Currently M.2 drives have become the newest form of "affordable" fast storage. These drives connect straight into the motherboard, allowing for extremely fast data read & write speed. These drives are very fast and most M.2 drives easily pass the speed of normal SSD's.
While typical computers, including high-end systems, tend to use wireless connections to connect to other computers as well as a router, gaming PCs often use Ethernet cables for the fastest and most reliable connection possible. Also, some companies sell dedicated network cards to reduce lag and increase the performance of multiplayer. A dial-up Internet connection is not an acceptable solution due to the very high latency (~400ms is common). Mobile broadband connections can also cause the same undesirable effects as dial-up connections, but can be considered less substantial, with latencies ranging 150ms and upwards (Less than 100 is recommended for a first-person shooter).
There are many hardware interfaces designed specifically for gaming and while sometimes used with less powerful PCs, they are most often observed with gaming PCs. Such interfaces include keyboards and mice built for gaming (these typically include additional keys or buttons for game-related functions as well as LCD-screens, higher sensitivity (mouse), better aderency (keyboard/mouse) and less/more friction depending on the user's needs), joysticks, gamepads, steering wheels, PC-compatible airplane gauges and panels, etc. A keyboard and mouse is the preferred method for most games, giving the best speed and accuracy. It should be noted that touch screens are rarely used for PC gaming at this point. "Haptic feedback" commonly known as force feedback, allows for greater immersion into the games played. While there are no keyboards that support haptic feedback, some mice and most forms of game controllers do.
As well as the computing components themselves, case and related accessories often form a target for enthusiast attention, for functional and aesthetic reasons.
Computer power supplies may be selected for very high quality electrical stability and performance, so that the high speed electronics reliant on them will not suffer from irregularities or disruption, and so that high power processors and graphics cards can be properly supplied with the often high levels of current needed. Power supply reviews for enthusiasts may, for example, take apart the item to identify the exact manufacturers of components, the types and sources of capacitors or power regulation circuitry involved, the quality of PCB soldering, and the calibre of any wiring.
Quiet computing is a specialist aspect of enthusiast activity, whereby the user aims to ensure the computer runs very quietly, with the goal of enjoyable ambience. Fans, hard drives, and any other noisy components may be selected for their acoustic properties, and then mounted in ways that dampen vibration and provide acoustic isolation.
Cooling systems may received careful attention, both to ensure high quality airflow and reduced operating temperatures under heavy workloads or intense activity, to support overclocking, and as part of quiet computing as well.
Computer cases, especially of gaming computers, are often selected with care, for their aesthetic and functional value. Functionally, the case must be able to provide cooling for high-end, possibly overclocked components, and have room for expansion and customization. Aesthetically, case modding usually includes features that show off the creator's intent: clear sides to reveal the internal components and layout, which may be adorned with LEDs, images on the graphics cards or power supply units.
Liquid Cooling, in which a liquid is used to cool a part of the computer, is becoming cheaper and more available. While much more expensive than an ordinary fan, it does transfer heat much better and is generally quieter. As building a computer becomes more of an enthusiast activity, due to the rise of tablets, laptops, and cell phones, more and more cases appeal to watercooling setups.
As a general guideline, enthusiast PCs must achieve high scores on 3D benchmarks such as 3DMark when it is first built or upgraded. Enthusiasts who know how to overclock sometimes do so to prolong the usefulness of their hardware. The highest results are always and by far achieved by overclocking.
However, synthetic benchmark results rarely equate to real application performance, as measured by framerate. The framerate is measured in frames per second, which refers to the number of times the video card recalculates the image shown on screen. While frame rates above 60 FPS (standard NTSC framerate) become increasingly difficult to distinguish with the human eye, enthusiast PCs with a multi-video card setup often boast framerates in excess of 100 FPS. To maintain a challenge, the standard for comparison is constantly refreshed with new games and higher detail settings.
Overclocking is used by enthusiasts to achieve component or system performance that exceeds the manufacturer's stated or "official" specification. Overclocking is such a big part of enthusiast culture that popular and widely respected websites such as Anandtech and Tom's Hardware often include overclocking as part of a review. Hardware manufacturers release high-end components that facilitate overclocking. Examples include CPUs with unlocked multipliers, oversized heatsinks or water cooling, and motherboards with user-configurable voltages and incremental bus speeds. "Professional" overclock commonly overclock only one core of processors, typically older amd cpu's, to obtain extreme numbers like 7MHz.
Some system builders and part manufacturers now offer factory overclocking, which is covered under warranty. Alternatively a manufacturer or user may seek individual components that overclock, in order to buy a cheaper product that will prove to run to a higher quality product's standard.
There are significant hazards to be aware of, when overclocking a computer. At a mundane level some components will not work under too high a demand, and the computer will not work then until the overclocked demands are reduced or mitigated. More seriously, some components are capable of being damaged or destroyed by increased heat or voltages which routinely form part of overclocking, if the user is reckless or uninformed, and therefore caution and some level of prior understanding is needed.
In particular, overclocked CPUs (central processing units) generally run hotter than normal, and components such as CPUs, memory controllers, graphics cards and RAM may require higher voltages to produce higher performance. The higher voltage is given out as increased heat, and can stress the electrical channels of the components as well, and this can cause damage, degradation, or fatal failure. In response to this problem, heat sink manufacturers have implemented innovative solutions in air-cooling primarily based on the incorporation of heat pipe technologies coupled with large-finned tower heat sinks. Alternatively many gaming PCs utilize watercooling as a means of dissipating additional heat from overclocked components. Going even farther some pc's use liquid nitrogen as a temporary means of obtaining the most absurd overclocking numbers at the risk of destroying a pc.
Watercooling is able to provide heat dissipation that is superior to air-cooled heatsinks. The watercooling system can be configured to be either far superior to air-cooling but at the cost of being as noisy, or even more noisy than high-end air cooling (due to large, fast, loud fans used on the radiator); or it can be configured to be about as effective, or even a bit more effective than high-end air-cooling, but far less noisy (usually by utilizing large radiators coupled with slow and quiet 120 mm fans, and quiet, yet powerful pumps.)