The gaming PC upgrade cycle is a myth. here is why

By | December 1, 2022

A gaming PC with LED lighting.
Alberto Garcia Guillen/

PC gaming is often criticized for being expensive, and part of that is the idea of ​​updating frequently to “keep up” in some way. In reality, upgrading PCs is optional and much less frequent than most people think.

The consoles are the benchmark

A black Xbox Series X next to a white Xbox Series S
studio ALDECA/

Cross-platform games released on both PC and console are designed to work on the lowest common denominator device the title is released on. Consoles have some advantages in efficiency and reduced system overhead. However, suppose you have a PC only slightly more powerful than the weakest system of the current generation. If so, you can be confident that your PC will run games with similar configurations and performance during the console generation.

Take the Xbox Series S as an example. This console has a GPU that is approximately 20% less powerful than an NVIDIA GTX 1660, so you’d expect a computer with that graphics card and a comparable CPU to match or surpass what the Series S can do.

The main caveat is that console versions of games often have settings tuned for that specific hardware platform. Some settings on the console version of a game may also be lower than the lowest possible settings on the PC version, making exact matching difficult. Then again, PC games can often be modded with custom settings, so there might be a solution anyway.

Finally, there’s the specter of low-quality, unoptimized PC ports. This is not the problem it has been in the past, as current generation consoles like the Xbox Series X|S are essentially custom Windows computers running DirectX. However, there are still cases of bad conversions of PC games from consoles.

PC games are scalable

Doom Eternal graphics settings on a Windows PC.
A video game settings page for DOOM Eternal (PC)

Speaking of settings in PC games, it’s normal for PC games to offer a wide range of scalable options. This allows you to optimize the game’s appearance and performance to match the hardware you have. A game released in 2022 will run on hardware five years older or even older, but at lower settings than more modern PC hardware.

These games are supposed to look as good and work as well as the games that were new when your PC was new, they just don’t compare to the best PC hardware that can run higher settings. However, these are two different questions.

If it’s playable and looks good it’s different from if it looks as good as it can be! Whether the older computer runs the game to your satisfaction is subjective, which is one reason why updating isn’t mandatory as often as the myth suggests.

The psychology of video game preset inflation

PC gamers may feel pressured or even compelled to upgrade because PC gaming presets experience inflation. Today’s “high” preset is tomorrow’s “low” preset.

This creates a situation where an older PC can only run games at lower and lower presets annually, which can create the feeling that the computer is getting worse.

However, the games you’re playing on low today look just as good or better than the games you played on high when the PC was new. Your PC hasn’t gotten worse, it’s stayed the same, but the existence of unattainably higher settings creates an incentive to upgrade.

It’s better to look at what current games look like on your existing computer in isolation and decide if it’s good enough for you, rather than looking at the graphics of high-end systems and feeling like your system is now worthless.

New Techniques Extend Gaming PC Lifespan

A comparison of computer game footage using FSR 2 and FSR 2.1
AMD – A comparison of two versions of graphics upscaling technology.

There are two ways to make a game look great and perform well. One is to use the system’s brute force processing power to achieve your goals, and the other is to use efficiency tricks to get more of the processing power you have.

Consoles are a great example of the second scenario, as the hardware in a console is fixed and cannot be upgraded. However, we see more complex and better looking games coming to consoles throughout the generation. Typically, the best looking games are some of the last to be released for the system.

As game developers learn to work smarter with what they have, they’re keeping the platform alive, and those same methods find their way into PC gaming. A great example is DRS (Dynamic Resolution Scaling). Here, a game scaled to the resolution of each frame is rendered towards a certain target frame rate. This helps maintain a stable frame rate; often, the player doesn’t even notice if some frames aren’t as sharp as others.

Newer game engines often run better on the same hardware compared to older versions of those engines and take advantage of new rendering techniques that do more with less. These types of advancements can keep an older computer relevant longer.

Upgrade for the right reasons

The ability to upgrade a PC is one of the platform’s strengths. Still, it might also create an incentive to keep spending money on hardware for extra fidelity and performance that might not make much of a difference to your gaming experience.

A subset of PC gaming enthusiasts can’t play games on anything but high-end hardware, but that’s not what PC gaming is about and it shouldn’t be the dominant narrative. The idea that PC gaming is a never-ending money pit to upgrade is likely to keep gamers away from the hobby when they could enjoy the platform’s other benefits on more modest systems as long as a games console remains viable for new game releases.

The best time to upgrade is when a new game you want to play has minimum requirements that go beyond your current computer’s specs. More often than not, this means that the computer is now so old that it makes more sense to build a new system than to upgrade the old one.

If you’re looking to upgrade your CPU, GPU, or other component that affects game performance, think carefully whether the money you spend will result in a gaming experience worth the cost and effort. If you’re upgrading due to peer pressure, it’s probably a recipe for dissatisfaction.

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