Why PC Gaming Continues To Rule

Over the past few years (especially during the apex of the pandemic), I was often asked by parents: what’s the best choice for gaming for kids: PC or console? Debating which one is best is akin to arguing who has the best starting pitching in baseball. Definitive answers are tough to come by.

While there’s no simple answer for everyone, I think there are a few key reasons I tend to gravitate toward the PC as the preferred gaming platform, mainly if longevity and seriousness of gameplay are critical requirements. But there are other important questions: which one is the most affordable, has the best visuals, or is best optimized for highly competitive multiplayer competition?

Here are a few observations about the crucial questions you should ponder before you (or your child) make the plunge into gaming.

#1: The lowdown on affordability

Console gaming is often perceived as being significantly more affordable than buying a PC “rig” optimized for gaming. After all, both the Microsoft XBOX Series X and Sony’s PlayStation 5 have an MSRP of $499 (though both models continue to be in sporadic supply and have sharp markups, upwards of $900 online). $1,500 can generally get you a premium performance desktop PC or laptop. Expect to pay more if you configure that PC or laptop with the highest-end processor and graphics card, but $1,500 will secure you a very respectable gaming solution.

Like most consumers, PC and console gamers have a strong desire to get the most value for their dollar, but what that translates into an actual purchase and how its measured is distinctive for each faction. The “cost of ownership” for console gamers is usually limited to acquiring the console, possibly extra controllers, games and online multiplayer gaming subscriptions. For PC gamers, the sky is generally the limit, as there’s a large variety of options to pick from if you choose to build your own PC (though many of the top PC manufacturers make superb prebuilt systems at very affordable prices).

Because there are so many configuration permutations, it’s challenging to state that PCs are more cost-efficient than consoles. This ultimate decision indeed rests upon the individual. The degree of customization and performance one is looking for will quickly put guardrails around the size of the dollars you’ll need to spend to get the platform you want.

A few comments about performance: both the XBOX Series X and PlayStation use the same CPU: a 7nm AMD Zen 2 CPU with eight cores running a 3.8GHz. One CPU core is dedicated to the “under the hood” operating system. Both consoles leverage AMD’s RDNA 2 graphics architecture. While the overall performance of both consoles is undoubtedly impressive given their introduction of just a year ago, Intel has been making enviable headlines with its recently introduced 12th generation Alder Lake family of desktop and mobile processors. This point underscores the non-trivial downside of consoles: unlike a PC desktop platform, there is no processor upgradability with a console — — you’re stuck with AMD technology (capable as it currently is) in the XBOX Series X or PlayStation 5 until Microsoft and Sony refresh both consoles, which generally have 4–7 year lifecycles.

With PCs, upgrades can be significantly more extensive. Each hardware component (e.g., processor, graphics card, storage, memory, connectivity, etc.) is subject to getting replaced, along with cosmetic attributes like the system chassis.

#2: PC hardware customization is a huge benefit

While building your own PC is a hugely rewarding experience for many people, I usually suggest that “newbie” gamers buy a prebuilt custom config from Dell, HP or Lenovo. There’s tremendous value in a pre-built PC, especially from a product support standpoint, as you might not have the time and expertise needed to build and maintain a DIY (“Do-It-Yourself”) platform.

In addition to selecting a top-performing processor and storage and memory size, a state-of-the-art graphics card from AMD or Nvidia can help you obtain the most stunning resolution possible. The PC “graphics wars” are about to heat up, with Intel jumping into the fray with the highly anticipated introduction of its Arc portfolio of graphics solutions available for desktop and laptop form factors. Intel’s Deep Link technology promises to leverage the power of its CPUs and GPUs to maximize performance that has enormous potential. It should also be pointed out that consoles generally don’t offer multi-screen support (critical in competitive multi-player gameplay). At the same time, a PC equipped with a top-flight discrete graphics card can accommodate multiple displays.

One other point is important to consider: gaming PCs make great platforms for producing professional media content. While the hardware investment for a gaming PC may, at the onset, be higher than a console, I like to remind people that a well-configured gaming PC can be used as a highly competent platform for creating, editing and producing top-flight video, music and image content. That’s a huge benefit not afforded to consoles, and it could easily rationalize the incremental investment in a gaming PC for many people.

#3: Is Apple’s new M1 Ultra suitable for PC gaming?

Interestingly, I’ve been pinged by some folks about whether I believe Apple’s new M1 Ultra, which is essentially two conjoined M1 Max chips, changes the conversation for PC gamers given Apple’s claims about its performance, specifically in the graphics area.

This question seems a bit odd to me from the onset. First, Macs have never been a plausible platform for PC gaming as macOS supports so few top-shelf titles (and the list is very short). In PC gaming, Windows havs always ruled supreme from a title availability standpoint, and that’s not likely to change. Of course, you could run Parallels and run Windows virtually. Still, the performance hit you’ll take for going down this path is likely to be less than desirable versus a reasonably configured PC running Windows natively.

Secondly, in the graphics area, Apple’s claims that the M1 Ultra outperforms the popular Nvidia RTX 3090 have been debunked by several credible publications. That’s not to say that M1 Ultra isn’t a high-performance solution for professional video and photography content creators. Still, the Mac Studio’s entry-level $3,999 MSRP (without a monitor) is not affordable for most people. As I’ve mentioned above, $1,500 will get you a superbly configured PC with extremely respectable performance.

In all fairness, Apple is not targeting the M1 Ultra (available only in its new Mac Studio form factor, which has no internal upgradeability) at gamers. However, Apple has an unfortunate penchant for messaging misleading processor performance claims (especially at big public announcements) where the company compares its products against the wrong chips. It’s unfortunate as Apple has introduced very competitive silicon solutions for its desktop and laptop products line, and the company doesn’t have to resort to this behavior.

One other huge problem that some people don’t consider about M1-enabled Macs (regardless of the model) as a gaming platform: macOS currently doesn’t support eGPU (External Graphics) on M1-based Mac desktops, Macbooks or even its budget-busting Mac Studio. Unlike legacy Intel-based Macs (which are being phased out), you had some investment protection insurance with the ability to use faster external graphics cards. Unlike Windows-based PCs, you won’t have that option with M1-based Macs.

A few closing thoughts

As you can tell, I’m a bit partial to the PC gaming market. And I’m not the only one: the online PC gaming market generated $43.4 billion in worldwide revenue in 2021, and it’s projected to grow to $46.7 billion by 2025. The size of the global console games market is larger, with reported revenues of $65.48 billion in 2021 that are expected to grow to $103.93 billion by 2026.

Regardless of market size numbers, it’s been my experience that “serious” gamers tend to embrace the PC platform given its upgradeability, broad title availability, performance, and configurability attributes that consoles don’t possess. This point is significant from a wireless connectivity standpoint, as competitive multiplayer gaming is the predominant usage model for gamers. Wi-Fi 6 is not available on the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, whereas that capability (with a suitable router) has been available on PCs for nearly two years. “Professional” gamers, on average, make between $12,000 and $60,000 per year, so exploiting the fastest wireless connectivity standards (with its reduced latency aspects) is a big deal.

To be sure, consoles offer easy “plug and play” benefits that many mainstream users enjoy. Console gaming can start just a few minutes after you remove the console from the box, and no excessive technical skills are needed before you can start having fun. The counterpoint to this is that Windows has become much more robust over the past ten years and is much more reliable as a sturdy gaming platform for most people with average technical abilities.

Admittedly, the topic that I’ve avoided in the blog is whether you should purchase a gaming desktop or laptop. That topic could be a separate blog in itself, but suffice it to say that it’s not an easy one to answer. The mobility element of a laptop is compelling, and the mobile iterations of Intel’s recent Alder Lake 12th gen processors are getting excellent reviews. Desktops, unlike laptops, have the virtue of broad upgradability for storage, memory and (especially) graphics. My rule of thumb: if mobility is not an essential requirement for you, a desktop PC will provide better long-term value.

Mark Vena is the CEO and Principal Analyst at SmartTech Research based in Silicon Valley. As a technology industry veteran for over 25 years, Mark covers many consumer tech topics, including PCs, smartphones, smart home, connected health, security, PC and console gaming, and streaming entertainment solutions. Mark has held senior marketing and business leadership positions at Compaq, Dell, Alienware, Synaptics, Sling Media and Neato Robotics. Mark has appeared on CNBC, NBC News, ABC News, Business Today, The Discovery Channel and other media outlets. Mark’s analysis and commentary have appeared on Forbes.com and other well-known business news and research sites. His comments about the consumer tech space have repeatedly appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, TechNewsWorld and other news publications.

SmartTech Research, like all research and tech industry analyst firms, provides or has provided paid services to technology companies. These services include research, analysis, advising, consulting, benchmarking, acquisition or speaking sponsorships. Companies mentioned in this article may have utilized these services.

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Mark Vena

Mark Vena

CEO and Principal Analyst at SmartTech Research…I write about disruptive technology