How to Build Your Own Do-Anything 4K-Capable Desktop
While it's a bit early to say that 4K has officially "landed," it's not far off. The benefits are tangible, especially if you have 4K-capable gear. That's right: There's more to a 4K PC than a display packed with pixels. Here's what you need—and need to know—to build a 4K desktop that handles anything you throw at it.
How to Tell If 4K Is Right for You
If you love screen real estate, keep several windows open at once, and can use every spare pixel you can muster, 4K is great. If you love full-screen gaming and have a system that can power a 4K display, even better. But beyond a never-ending love of bigger screens and more pixels, who is 4K really for at this point? After all, even though we're seeing more 4K displays and TVs on store shelves doesn't mean they're practical. Let's take a look at who can benefit from 4K:
Video and audio editors: Video editors can use the extra space to see video tracks the way they were shot. Anyone who's used After Effects or Final Cut will definitely appreciate the working space a 4K display has to offer. You'll easily be able to view multiple tracks and other media files all in the same window, simultaneously, without each one being the size of a postage stamp. If you're editing 4K video, you'll appreciate the benefits even more.
High-end PC gamers: If you play all of your favorite games with the settings turned all the way up, and your favorite games are the ones with the highest system requirements, you'll love 4K. A number of developers have already said they plan to embrace 4K, so you have a lot to look forward to, and many games scale up well right now.
That said, 4K displays have dropped in price even in the the past few months. More displays have hit the street, and 4K gaming has started to take off. So what would it take if you wanted to embrace a 4K display for gaming and for productivity? Let's take a look.
What It Takes to Make a PC 4K-Capable
Pushing all of those pixels is no easy task. Ideally a 4K-capable computer will be able to support what you want to do at the panel's native resolution. (3840 x 2160) Before you buy a 4K display on sale and put it on your desk, take a look at these components and make sure they're up to the task:
The display itself: Obviously your first concern is the display, and whether it'll suit your needs. If you're going 4K because you want an awesome 3D gaming experience, the budget-friendly Seiki displays mentioned earlier won't appeal to you. They're limited to 30Hz. However, for a developer, writer, or anyone else who doesn't need 60Hz to work, it's fine and the price point (usually around $400) is appealing. Adding 60Hz and 3D gaming to the mix will, as is often the case, require more power (and more money). Luckily, it's not much more.
Your graphics card(s): To get the best all-around performance on your 4K display, you need a graphics card (or two) that can push those pixels, even better if it's at 60Hz. That card will have to connect to the display via DisplayPort on the PC or Thunderbolt 2 on the Mac (or HDMI 2.0, but few graphics cards support it yet). Long story short, if you plan on gaming, you're looking at high-end cards. The card you have in your PC right now probably won't cut it, unless you've built your PC very recently and went top of the line when you did. You do have options though—flagship cards from both AMD and NVIDIA both support 4K, as do their most recent drivers.
Your processor: Your processor doesn't play a direct role in whether your computer can handle a 4K display, although it (and your RAM) do govern how many applications you can have open at once without bringing your machine to its knees. The bigger issue is that your CPU should be on-par with your graphics card, especially if gaming is one of your priorities. You don't want to cheap out on the CPU and create a bottleneck .
There's a balance here. You'll probably spend more on a 4K display and graphics card (or cards) than budget system builders would spend on an entire PC build . That puts it out of reach for a lot of people. However, if you are willing to put some money into it, the bleeding edge can be pretty nice.
Our 4K-Capable, Do-Anything Build
To see what a modern, 4K-capable PC would look like, we priced one out on PCPartPicker. (Note that prices will likely change, as many of these components are high-end right now, and will only get cheaper as time progresses.) Obviously, if you have a sufficiently powerful PC, you may only need a few upgrades rather than a whole new rig, and we'll get to that in a bit. For now, you can see our full parts list in the image below, and check out the build at PCPartPicker here.
Our high-end 4K PC it came up to about $3000, including a Samsung 60Hz 4K monitor and the dual AMD Radeon R9 290X graphics cards:
Of course, we made some assumptions about what a "do-anything" PC would look like. For example, we picked an Intel i7 processor because he goal is for this machine to really do anything—and that includes video editing, audio editing, transcoding, and more, not just gaming. If you're gaming, you could just as easily get an i5.
We even tacked on a Cooler Master TPC 812 after-market cooling unit, just to keep your processor temps down, in case you want to overclock. Prefer AMD? Go for it—there's no reason a high end AMD FX processor won't work with a 4K build—that's what Forbes did earlier this year. Just make sure the one you choose is sufficiently powerful for the GPU you pick. The same applies to the other basic components—the case, memory, motherboard—all of those components are a matter of taste here.
At the end of the day, though, this is just an example—most of the parts are up to you. Here are the two parts that actually matter, and why we picked them:
One thing is clear: You'll definitely pay a price premium to be on the cutting edge here. It's clearly out of reach for a lot of people, and the nice thing about all of this high-end gear is that it'll only get more affordable as time progresses. The displays will get cheaper, the graphics cards will come down in price, and new, mid-range cards will appear that support 4K natively. If you're on a budget, it might still be better to wait. However, if you have money to burn and are building a new system, this is what you'll need to enjoy the benefits right now.