Published: January 14, 2020
PC building is great once more. Starting around mid last year, it's been a nice return to form for the DIY PC community following the gloomy hardware market of the past couple years prior to that where we saw some horribly high pricing. But is it still a good time to build a PC in early 2020? If so, why? Let's discuss, but first a real-quick trip down memory lane and why last year turned out to be somewhat of a little golden age for the hardware market. Oh, and in BGC style, new memes, with a side serving of more new memes (because.. memes).
If you're planning a new build or upgrade in 2020, and are perhaps just getting back up to speed with what's gone down in the hardware world after having happily gamed away for the past few years in ignorant bliss, to say things got ugly for those building PCs in 2017 and 2018 would be an understatement. In those two years we witnessed some of the worst PC component prices in history; things got so bad that in many situations you were actually better off buying a prebuilt gaming PC as building your own just wasn't worth it. Yeah, that pretty much sums it up, and so does this:
Thankfully, last year (mainly the last half) finally saw a strong resurgence in the PC building scene thanks to a combination of falling pricing across the board of components, along with the rise of significantly stronger competition between underdogs AMD and big boys Intel and NVidia in both the CPU and GPU markets. We saw GPU prices finally normalize after a long dark age of despair caused by the well-documented mass GPU shortage caused by the cryptocurrency mining boom, and the CPU market got a whole lot more interesting thanks to AMD solidifying their own new golden age with the very successful Ryzen 3000 processor series launch that actually lived up to the massive hype, shaking Intel's stranglehold on the desktop CPU market to the core (and bringing prices down all-round).
But the good news for PC builders didn't stop at much better CPU and GPU pricing last year, as we also saw SSD prices continue to slide to the point where they are now a complete and utter no-brainer when it comes to building a new PC. The icing on the custom builder's cake was RAM prices not only dropping too, but literally reaching historic lows mid last year and staying thereabouts through Q4 (more on that in a sec). So, if you missed out on the juicy action last year where we saw some of the best conditions for building a PC in a long time - have you missed the boat? The short answer is no, and here's why.
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The battle between Intel and AMD really heated up big time last year thanks to the Ryzen 3000 series launch that turned out so well for team red that they now currently dominate the desktop CPU market as I write this. This strong whack to the whale that is Intel was enough to force them to lower prices on their own CPUs in order to remain competitive. AMD is oh so hot right now and have brought the fight to team blue in a way we've not seen for many years, meaning some pretty awesome CPU pricing right now in practically all price tiers (translation: faster PC builds for less).
A fairly dramatic example that really illustrates just how much the CPU game has changed over the past year is the extreme HEDT (High-End Desktop) CPU market. A segment that's usually supremely overpriced due to lack of competition, Intel recently released their latest flagship creator chip, the i9-10980XE, for literally half the price of its predecessor (i9-9980XE) due to intense pressure from AMD and their super-impressive yet very-competitively priced Ryzen 9 3950X (and new Threadripper chips).
When choosing a CPU these days you really are spoiled for choice, and you get a lot more for your money than in previous years. That's especially the case if you don't need the latest cutting-edge tech and you opt for the previous 2nd-generation Ryzen processors, where you can get a fast and nicely future-proofed 6-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 1600 AF (1st generation name but actually a 2nd generation chip as it's a refresh) for under $100. If you've been keeping tabs on hardware for long enough, you'll know that's an objectively insane value proposition right there. The slightly faster Ryzen 5 2600 is still also an excellent buy at its attractive sub $120 price point.
But even the current 3rd generation Ryzen (3000 series) could be considered "good value" right now too. Since Intel has such a strong brand with the gaming masses, many people will still just opt for Intel over AMD despite the latter now offering roughly equal pure gaming performance (for the most part) not to mention superior upgrade-flexibility, core, and thread counts for the price. That means AMD can't get lazy and charge a premium just because they're winning the desktop CPU game as a whole right now, and their great 3rd-gen chips are nicely priced right now too (and good bang for buck).
The price of RAM dropped quite dramatically mid last year after a significant price surge that started 1-2 years prior. That return to normalcy, along with GPU prices finally stabalizing following the cryptocurrency boom of doom (doom for gamers at least) were big reasons last year turned out to be a very good time to build a PC. But the great news is that right now in early 2020, RAM prices are still excellent in the grand scheme of things.
You can get two 8GB sticks of fast DDR4 3000 or 3200MHz memory (16GB) right now for under $75, something unheard of a year or two ago. In fact, memory prices these past few months have literally been at their lowest cost per gigabyte since as long any of us can really remember, as if I'm not mistaken RAM hasn't been as affordable for over a decade. A quick look over memory trend graphs from PCPartPicker shows how prices have seemed to have bottomed-out:
RAM prices have bottomed-out and may increase in 2020 (Image Source: PCPartPicker)
But what goes up must (usually) come down, and what goes down... you know the rest. It'll be interesting to see if RAM prices remain so good by the end of 2020, but that's looking unlikely IMO. Industry-beloved Tech Jesus has recently put out a video explaining there's a good chance RAM prices (and SSDs) will increase this year, so if you're due for a memory upgrade then I can comfortably stick my neck out and say it's a good time to pull the trigger as they can't really get any lower until DDR5 hits the scene (but that's not for quite some time).
There was a time not so long ago where some of us who work within the DIY field really wondered whether "graphics card prices" and "normal" could ever be combined in a logical sentence again. The Great GPU Shortage of Doom between 2017 and 2018 saw GPU prices spike, spike, and spike some more to ludicrous-levels of insanity as cryptocurrency (especially Ethereum) miners bought up every last card in sight to beef up their hunt for digital gold.
With inflated SSD and RAM prices to boot, it was a dark time for the DIY market, and in hindsight it was one of the worst times in absolute history to be buying PC components and building computers. People even questioned PC gaming at large, and how badly it would be effected:
Fast forward to the much more pleasant present, and graphics card pricing is back to normal with lots of good value options in most price tiers. PC gaming in general is also booming like never before, with a big reason being the continual rise and rise of eSports as a significant cultural phenomenon (and well and truly reaching the radar of mainstream consciousness such as ESPN and celebrity culture is only the beginning).
But what's also helped the GPU market recently is AMD trading blows with NVidia in the mainstream mid-range of late, with their older RX 570 and 580 cards still doing really well last year and providing better overall value than NVidia's offerings (though NVidia did counter well recently with their 1650 Super). It's also a similar story with their newer RX 5000 series which released last year, which has turned out to be the best overall bang for buck set of cards in the upper mid-range tier when it comes to pure gaming performance in most titles.
Yep, AMD really has been killing it of late; not just in the CPU game. I mean, I never doubted them to do so well, but I think everyone's a little blown away by just how much they've lived up to expectation, especially with their latest CPUs. Past history has unfortunately shown AMD falling a little short in really taking on Goliath and holding their own over long stretches of time, but Ryzen has proven again and again to be the real deal and won't be going anywhere fast.
But what hasn't changed when it comes to graphics cards is the top end of the market, where the status quo lives on; still a whitewash of domination for NVidia with nothing yet coming close their RTX 2080 range. But over recent months prices have thankfully eased up in that area as well, as not that long ago cards like the RTX 2080 Ti were supremely overpriced (still are a little, but it's been better).
It's not in my logical nature to be a fan of sweeping one-size-fits-all quotes like "bad things come in threes". But that's precisely what happened a couple years ago. It wasn't just sky-high video card prices AND ridiculous RAM prices in 2018 - a flash memory shortage meant SSD prices were quite undesirable as well. But ever since, SSDs have thankfully shown a nice and consistent downward trajectory, to the point where they're now more affordable than ever.
Whether you get a budget SATA SSD, or shell out for a super-fast high-end NVMe model, it's a good time to buy an SSD. Even more so because some industry insiders are unfortunately predicting not only RAM prices to increase soon, but SSDs too. Here's what TechPowerUp recently said:
"According to the sources over at DigiTimes, NAND flash prices are set to rise by up to 40% in 2020. This report is coming from sources over at memory chipmakers, presumably some of the biggest players like SK Hynix, Micron, and Samsung. If the prediction realizes, consumers will see a significant price jump for products based on NAND flash memory like most of today's solid-state drives."
Here's another interesting article about it: Here's Why SSD Pricing Could Skyrocket in 2020
Hopefully these sources are wrong, but it's hard to ignore as a very real possibility, especially considering how good SSD prices have been lately. So, as with RAM, if you're due for an SSD upgrade this year then Q1 2020 is probably a good time to do it if you want to leave nothing to chance and avoid paying extra later in the year.
But while these are rumors, once thing is definitely for certain. If you build a PC in 2020 WITHOUT an SSD as your main system drive (no matter what type of build), don't ever admit such a calamity on Reddit or a forum unless you enjoy getting roasted alive and made a meme of. But seriously, do yourself a favor and always get an SSD for a new build, no matter how big or small (you can always easily add secondary storage later should you need it). It really does help boot and load times, and makes your system very snappy overall compared to having an ancient HDD as your main drive.
Ok, ok, the previous 4 reasons why it's a good time to build a PC are pure objective facts based on studying past history, but this one's only part "fact" and part subjective opinion that the recently announced new full-length VR AAA shooter will likely be one of THE biggest game launches of ALL time, and a pivotal moment in gaming history we may look back on in 10 years as the point in time when VR really hit its straps and finally reached mainstream gaming consciousness.
As Chris Rock would say - yeah I said it! But I'm far from alone in my supremely optimistic outlook on how this game will change VR gaming (and gaming in general) as we know it, as it doesn't take a genoius to see the signs based on Valve's impeccable high standards and past glory.
I, and the many others who are foretelling it being a smashing success based on Valve's perfect past history could be wrong, and VR gaming could very well still be a niche within gaming at large as it currently is right now.
But, it's SUPER tough imagining Valve letting us down.
Half Life 1? Shook the gaming scene hard with innovation and advancements on multiple levels, and changed PC gaming forever.
Half Life 2? Quite amazingly did the exact same; a rare accomplishment and putting Valve in Rare company (see what I did there...where's my fellow N64 gamers at).
All signs point to Valve delivering yet again with numero troi, with Half Life Alyx having been designed from the ground-up for VR. From everything we've seen of it so far, it looks incredible, and just might be the first full-length AAA VR game the VR scene has been waiting oh so long for.
Unless you're an aspiring eSports pro who needs a gazillion FPS in a specific game like CSGO to be happy, you typically don't go out of your way to build a new PC just to be able to play a certain single game. But if there's any exception to that rule, an untouchable gaming franchise like Half Life gets a pass. Come March 2020, if your PC can't handle VR and you're a Half Life fan (how could you not be) you don't want to be left in the dark this year if the game does turn out a winner and miss out on the best VR game ever released.
But the good news is that contrary to popular opinion, you don't need to spend a fortune to build a VR-ready gaming PC. While getting a high-end or extreme setup is going to guarantee you never have to compromise on your VR experience, the truth is a decent mid-range gaming PC with the right VR-ready graphics card can go a long way and be capable of playing most VR games nice and smoothly.
In fact, while these are only the minimum system requirements, if you check the requirements for HL Alyx on Steam they're obviously higher than your average non-VR game but nothing too crazy (GTX 1060 or RX 580 as minimum GPUs). But yeah, of course you'll want to aim for the recommended specs as your actual minimum if at all possible, which if I had to take a wild guesstimate right now will be a RTX 2060/RX 5700 (or RTX 2070 even) once Valve publishes them closer to release.
Anyway, based on current CPU, GPU, RAM and SSD prices, the new year is so far so good for building a PC and getting excellent return on your money. Let's hope it stays that way for those who perhaps can't/won't be building early 2020 and who are holding out until later in the year.