Gaming: Desktops vs Consoles

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The PC vs. console gaming debate has been raging for a long, long time. It’s the kind of thing that raises blood pressure so much you wonder why presidential candidates in the United States don’t include it in their political platform.

First of all, the most important thing you should know is this: no one is making you choose. Mega Man: Anniversary Collection doesn’t run on my PC and I’m okay with that. The fact is that having gaming hardware in your PC isn’t going to make your Playstation burst into flames any more than having an Xbox 360 reduces your PC to a quivering mass of internet access and word processing. You can own and enjoy both platforms and appreciate what each has to offer. My sister’s boyfriend would rather play Call of Duty 4 on his 360 and I respect that; I’d rather take aim using my mouse and keyboard, and in fairness he’s probably still a better player than I am.

My purpose here is a simpler one: to make it easy for you to get into the wide world of PC gaming if you’re so inclined. The fact is that while more and more games these days go cross-platform, there are still games isolated to the PC that you may be interested in partaking of. Some games, especially real-time strategy games and MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games for the uninitiated) are oftentimes better suited to the keyboard and mouse control a PC offers. Those of you uninterested in the console exclusive games but still wanting to play the more popular cross-platform titles have plenty of options, too. That in mind, let’s first dispel the biggest myth of PC gaming…

COST OF ENTRY

First of all, it bears mentioning that a large number of high definition console games still only run at 720p. If we take this to be our target resolution for a gaming experience on the desktop (where the most common screen resolution is slightly larger at 1280×1024), it gives us an idea of what performance we want to shoot for from our gaming hardware.

Beyond this, it’s important to keep in mind one major difference: just about all of us have a computer in the home, and a large number of those are desktop computers. The price of entry isn’t the entire computer, it’s mostly the video card. A quick jaunt to Best Buy’s website shows computers with perfectly reasonable processors and memory for under $400. If your desktop has a dual core processor and at least 2GB of memory, you’re probably already golden as far as those parts are concerned.

I need you to remember that we’re not interested in pursuing the extreme sort of machine that seems to have become synonymous with PC gaming, but also that powerful processors and memory have multiple other uses. My own desktop is certainly used for gaming, but I also edit high-definition video on it, and that largely justifies the expense. The cost to game in my desktop is closer to the $279 I paid for the video card; the other components would have been there anyhow. If you’re a Photoshop junkie you’re likely to be in a similar boat.

The cost of entry is almost entirely the video card. My video card is designed to be a demon that pushes the highest resolution monitors you can buy with all kinds of funky video voodoo applied to the image. This isn’t something you need. No, to just be able to game and enjoy gaming on your desktop, would you believe you’ll likely only need to drop about $40?

It’s true. If you just want to get the game to run playably, a low-end card like ATI’s Radeon HD 4350 is really all you’re going to need. It’ll run any modern game at low resolution and while the game won’t look nearly as good as it could, it’ll be plenty playable. If you’re looking for a more polished gaming experience, bumping up to a Radeon HD 4650 or HD 4670 (topping out at around $80) may be all you’ll need and indeed, may be the best choice to avoid taxing the weak power supplies modern factory-built PCs often ship with. If you’re wondering why I’m only pointing out ATI solutions and not Nvidia products as well, the answer is simple: at the time of this writing, this price segment is largely dominated by ATI’s hardware.

Of course, this is predicated on whether or not you have a PCI Express slot available in your desktop. If you bought it within the past couple of years, you should have one free, possibly even occupied by a weaker video card. Checking the product specifications for your model on the manufacturer’s support site will clear this up for you. If you’re on AGP or regular PCI (which is not compatible with PCI Express and is actually completely different), life is going to be more difficult for you, but there’s hardware available to meet your needs and a quick jaunt into our forums or even the comments on this article is likely to find you a good answer.

Outside of the video card, if you have less than 2GB of memory, now’s a great time to bump your machine up to that. This can cost $50 tops and in addition to making your computer better suited for gaming, it also improves the general responsiveness of your PC and aids in most any application you use.

THE PROS AND CONS

If you’re going to get into PC gaming – and I do highly recommend it – it’s certainly important for you to be aware that there are benefits to it and drawbacks. A lot of gamers prefer console gaming because you just put the disc in and play, no messy installs or patching or any of that, and no driver issues. This may have been true a generation ago, but modern console games outside of the Nintendo Wii are often this muddy; while they have no driver issues, there are certainly other bugs and problems.

That said, console games don’t drop a mountain of video options on you the way a PC game will. Some PC games are pretty minimal in this respect; one of my favorites, Mass Effect, has very little in the way of customization. Others, like Crysis or Call of Duty: World at War, are liable to deluge you in options. Mercifully, many games also offer presets you can use, so if you don’t want the granularity of tweaking the game to maximum visual quality, a preset is often going to do the job. While I personally love tweaking these things and feeling out what my video card’s strengths and weaknesses are, the person who just wants to play the game is likely to be much more lost in this respect. The key setting you really need to be aware of as a PC gamer is the resolution of the game. Most simply, if the game runs too slowly or too choppy, just reduce the resolution and if necessary, continue to do so until you find a good balance of visual quality and performance.

Another consideration is how rapidly video hardware improves and evolves. While the past two years haven’t seen a whole lot of evolution and indeed, this is something to be aware of. Your major video card, like everything else in your computer, will be outclassed within a couple of years. As game technology advances and the graphics in games become more complex over time, your video card may get more and more stressed. You’ll have to decide if you want to upgrade to improve the eye candy or are willing to let newer games run at lower settings.

I will say that at the time of this writing the high end of video hardware has seriously stagnated as graphics chips have gotten bigger and more power hungry. The Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX released in November 2006 can still often hang with ATI’s recent performance marvel, the Radeon HD 4850. While traditionally each new generation’s high end has doubled the performance of the last generation’s, this one isn’t as clear cut. People who dropped $600 on the 8800 GTX when it was released are seeing their investment largely rewarded, while the limited 512 MB of video memory on my recent Radeon HD 4870 may severely curtail its useful lifetime.

FINAL TIPS AND CONCLUSIONS

PC gaming is pretty awesome, but there are a couple last quick things you should know before you make the leap:

  • When you’re shopping for a video card, you need to understand that video memory size should not be your priority. Extremely low end video cards with high amounts of video memory may often perform slower than the same card with a lower amount, because the manufacturer will use slower, cheaper memory to pump up that number. More than that, if the graphics processor on the card isn’t necessarily fast enough, that extra memory will wind up being useless. If you’re spending under $100, 256MB of video memory will probably be fine. Any more than 512MB is only going to be useful on cards that cost in excess of $200, and even then only for people with extremely high resolution monitors (think 24″ and bigger).
  • Piracy is a major issue with PC gaming, and if you’re just going to hop on board for that free ride, forget it. We don’t need you here. While PC gaming is still healthy, massive amounts of piracy online have caused the production companies to employ extremely invasive and restrictive forms of Digital Rights Management in an effort to combat it. This is a situation where no one wins. If you like a game, just buy it. Most PC games eventually fall in the $20-$30 price range, and if you’re willing to pay that much for a Blu-ray or DVD, pay it for a game that’ll last you longer. If you’re not paying for those either, well, I’m not the guy to talk to.
  • Online distribution services – Steam in particular – add a lot of convenience to being a PC gamer. While modern consoles enjoy services that let you download small modern games or older games, PC gamers can legally download games on the day of release without leaving their home, oftentimes for the same as the retail price and sometimes even for less. PC gaming is always going to be ahead of the curve in regards to the potential for online services, connectivity, and interaction, and this is just one of those ways.

Personally, I’m a die hard PC gamer, and for me a first person shooter played with anything other than a keyboard and mouse isn’t being played properly. There’s a lot to love gaming on a PC, and the cost of entry is nowhere near as severe as a lot of people would lead you to believe. It certainly brings problems of its own that you may not have to deal with on consoles, but the benefits make it wholly worthwhile in my opinion and hopefully this article will help you along on that path.


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