How to buy a gaming PC in 2021: The best gaming PCs, GPUs, and more

Zoom / Our two practical gaming machines are the Lenovo Legion 5i (left, currently attached to the screen) and the HP Omen 30L (right).

Jim Salter

If you’re planning to build a new gaming hardware in 2021, we have bad news for you – it will be difficult or impossible, due to supply chain constraints imposed by COVID-19. But we also have good news: While you might not be able to build a gaming PC, you certainly can. Buy One.

Don’t get us wrong. If you have enough time and patience, you can still assemble all the parts to build your own custom rig from the ground up. But that could take weeks or even months at this point in 2021. So instead of outlining parts lists, our next system guide will focus on modern rigs from three major pre-built gaming PC vendors.

HP and Lenovo supplied us with the Omen 30L and Legion 5i tower, respectively. We also wanted to review the Alienware Aurora R11 – and while we weren’t able to get a review unit from Dell, Senior Trade Editor Jeff Dunn took some pictures and did some limited testing on his R11.

Even at large OEMs, the hardware currently available changes from week to week. But armed with component performance charts and a comprehensive review of these systems, you can make informed purchasing decisions on your own.

contenders

Product Picture of HP Omen 30L

HP Omen 30L

(Ars Technica may receive compensation for sales from links in this post through affiliate programs.)

The HP Omen 30L and Lenovo Legion Tower 5i are mid-tower systems, a little on the big side but nowhere near the bulk of a “full tower”. Each is a lot heavier than you’d expect from its size, but these machines are still way less than anything you’d want to put the “Team Lift Only” label on. The Omen is a bit larger, but the Legion unfortunately makes up for it with an unnecessary whale tail attached to the back end of the style. Each provides more than adequate cooling for the CPU and the chassis, and for each Technically Plenty of space to work inside. We’ll make more use of the weasel word “technically.”

The HP Omen 30L came to us with a liquid-cooled Intel i9-10900K CPU and a GeForce RTX 3080 GPU. The Lenovo Legion came with an air-cooled Intel i7-10700 and GeForce RTX 2070 Super processor. Both systems (along with Dell’s Aurora R10/R11) are at least theoretically configurable to whatever performance levels you want, but again, COVID-19-constrained supply and demand tends to limit your options unexpectedly from week to week.

Product Picture of Lenovo Legion Tower 5i

Lenovo Legion Tower 5i

(Ars Technica may receive compensation for sales from links in this post through affiliate programs.)

We would widely expect similar performance from a given combination of CPU and GPU coming from any given manufacturer. But there are a few other variables that affect performance – particularly cooling. However, in our experience, these rigs targeting players are unlikely to determine cooling. This means that the big things we’re looking at here are what the system looks like, how noisy it is, and what it’s like to work on it.

fan noise

The Legion Tower 5i is generally quieter than the Omen 30L, despite the Omen’s fluid cooler. Neither device plays loudly in normal operation, but Omen’s fans have a slight coarse tone. The Legion fan noise did a much better job of fading imperceptibly into the background—I actually pressed my ear to the chassis the first time I turned it on to make sure it was on.

Alienware Aurora R11 product image

Alienware Aurora R11

(Ars Technica may receive compensation for sales from links in this post through affiliate programs.)

Running a full Cinebench R20 turns well-behaved Lenovo and HP platforms into raging monsters that seem more likely to lift off the desk under massive fan pressure. But both machines stay quiet until the last third of a Cinebench run and return to — as one Ars reader described it — “wabbit-hunting quiet” after a few seconds, even while the single-threaded Cinebench is running. Neither device increased fan noise at all during our 3DMark Time Spy tests at 1440p, which is more demanding than most AAA games.

I didn’t have an Alienware Aurora R11 on hand, so I can’t compare it directly. Tom’s Guide described it as loud and hot, which I wouldn’t call Lenovo or HP machines. I asked Ars’ senior trade editor, Jeff Dunn, to run his own Aurora R11 tests on the i9-10900K/RTX 3090 during the same tests. During the Time Spy, Dunn said the R11’s fan speed has increased significantly. He described it as easily audible from four feet away without being “brutal.” He didn’t enter the kind of beast rampage mode that Omen and Legion did during Cinebench R20.

By spinning earlier and more aggressively than an Omen or Legion, the R11 is able to avoid enough heat buildup that would require high emergency speeds on the propellers later. With its smaller cooling capacity, it probably doesn’t have much choice in the matter. The Omen and Legion, at a much higher capacity, gamble that the extreme thermal altitudes wouldn’t last long enough to require increased fan speed and noise. The fact that they don’t spin until the end of a Cinebench run – and quickly return to idle afterwards – shows that they shout about that too.

Users who prefer to set the “more fans now, less fans later” pattern on the R11 can adjust the fan curves on any of the larger systems to suit – which would be a really good idea, if you plan on using your gaming system to get 100 percent CPU output Long term such as protein folding, hour-long assembly functions, etc.

bling

If bling is your thing, HP’s Omen 30L mid-tower is ready to be your go-to machine. HP didn’t miss the chance to glow any individual part of this system, and the result is a cheery, cheery discotheque that just needs to add some bass. HyperX RGB RAM softly glows its way through a rainbow on a ring, a chassis-pull fan and the Omen diamond logo on the front casts a pearlescent light into the room, the GPU announces itself with more LEDs, and even the radiator for the liquid-cooling system has LEDs rope wrapped around it.

This level of ostentation is not to my personal taste, but the overall effect is well done. The light from the different system elements blends well together, producing a soft, cool glow that feels great in science fiction movies.

Next to the Omen 30L, Lenovo’s Legion 5i looks very restrained. The Legion 5i has a yellow-tinted glass side panel, but the only lighting component inside is a custom GeForce RTX 2080 Super GPU cover. The large Legion logo appears on the front of the case in white and unlit – until the machine sleeps. With the 5i in sleep mode, the large Legion logo flashes bright blue in an approximately six-second on/off cycle, which I found useless and obnoxious.

I suspect there is a control component, somewhere, to change the behavior of the Legion logo illuminated by LEDs. But it didn’t reveal itself to an unofficial search for the Lenovo app pre-installed in the system tray, and I didn’t burn any more time searching for it.

The Alienware Aurora R11 is the simplest system in the bunch. The only light blinking on the R11 is a slim LED ring at the front and an “Alienware” tag on the right side; There is no side panel, the exterior is entirely plastic, and is available in “Dark Side of the Moon” (dark, charcoal gray) or “Lunar Light” (somewhere between pale gray and pearl) colors. It’s also the smallest internally — the R11 is a micro-ATX, while the other two are full-size ATX.