Building the best PC for WoW
- Graphics Settings
- Screen Resolution
- CPU and RAM
- Logical Increments Tiers Performance
Unplayable: <30 fps
Playable: 30-45 fps
Smooth: 45-55 fps
Very Smooth: >55 FPS
The table above is the result of our research, using the builds at Logical Increments. It tells you what level of PC hardware you need to play World of Warcraft. You can click on the table to go see what hardware is in each tier.
If you want buttery smooth gaming without lag or stuttering, choose at least the Tier that will run Very Smooth at your resolution.
Is WoW really that demanding?
World of Warcraft launched 9 years ago and is based on the Warcraft III engine, which itself was launched 11 years ago. It is quite an easy game to run, even with modest hardware. However, WoW has received many updates with its expansions, including a move to DX11. Maxing out WoW still requires a respectable machine, especially at high resolutions.
What about the Warlords of Draenor expansion?
WoD adds new areas with significantly higher graphical eye candy. You will need a more powerful computer to play on WoD with the same settings. Unfortunately, there are not enough WoD benchmarks available, so this guide uses the benchmarks from the MoP expansion. Once WoD is benchmarked, or perhaps when WoW is benchmarked again after Legion releases, this guide will be updated with the new data.
Which WoW settings are worth it?
Playing WoW on Low or Fair quality is not enjoyable. Since projected textures are turned off, it might not even be playable.
With all settings as low as possible, WoW looks down-right ugly.
Fair quality is slightly better, with better shadows, richer textures, and expanded vision range. Projected textures are still turned off though and we do not recommend playing on fair unless you turn them on. Playing on Fair is lowest setting that you should go for, and only on the weakest of weak machines.
The Good setting is our recommended minimum for any user building a new PC with $300 or more. The game looks nice enough to get you playing, but won’t win any beauty pageants.
The High quality setting is how WoW is meant to be played. Several settings are maxed out and the depth of Azeroth’s full-scale world really shines. If your PC cannot handle playing on Ultra, turning the settings down to High is not going to visually hurt your game much, but it can give you a framerate boost.
Ultra quality is the best WoW setting preset, with every option cranked up. The nice thing is that even on Ultra, a $600 machine at 1920x1080 pumps out 60+ FPS. Even the $400 machines can play WoW at 1680x1050 with ~40 FPS. If you can swing it, we recommend building a machine that can max out WoW at 1920x1080.
Higher resolution for better gaming
Resolution refers to the number of pixels on a screen. High resolution means more pixels and generally more space and detail, while low resolution means fewer pixels, and often less space. If you are using a typical (not high-end) laptop or an old screen, you likely have a low resolution. It is always better to get a higher resolution screen. The image below shows the difference in real estate between common resolutions.
If you have a sub-1680x1050 screen, it is time for an upgrade. The enormous increase in real estate will make your normal computing more pleasant, and it will definitely make your gaming much more enjoyable since you'll be able to see more. We still included the expected performance for sub-1680x1050 resolutions, for those stuck there.Here’s an inexpensive, good quality 22” 1080p monitor at Amazon.
This was the best bang for your buck resolution several years ago, but now a good option for those people with 1080p monitors who don't have powerful enough hardare to turn up the graphics all the way.
1920x1080 (1080P) and 1920x1200
The best thing about 1920x1080 is that the price has dropped tremendously. Once, such screens would cost tonnes, but now can be had for $130 easily (and as low as $100 for the cheapest models). An IPS screen with 1920x1080 can be had for just $160-$180. If you are buying a new screen, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you bought anything less than 1920x1080.
2560x1600 or 2560x1440
These screens are quite expensive and expansive, ranging in price from $500 to $1200. These are the highest resolutions available for normal consumers and the prices show it. These screens cost as much as a good PC and buyers with not-so-deep wallets are advised to look for something less costly. Steam’s hardware survey shows only about 1% of players have 2560x1600.
The effect of CPU and RAM on Performance
Graphics depends mostly on what GPU (graphics card) you have. In the vast majority of games, the GPU is the most important part of the gaming PC. However, the CPU, and sometimes the RAM, can gameplay as well. Before we look at the the tiers as a whole, we take a look at RAM and CPU.
One criteria to look for is that your CPU and RAM do not bottleneck your graphics card. Here, “bottleneck” means that your CPU or RAM will be holding your graphics card back from performing as well as it can.
- You really need a dual core at least. Single core is a huge bottleneck.
- Going beyond a dual core on Intel makes little to no difference.
- Architecture plays a huge role: Major jump in FPS going from Nehalem to Sandy Bridge. Small difference going from Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge.
- Speed also plays a role, overclocking a CPU gives higher frame rates.
- A G620 ($65) can still play WoW at 80+ FPS on 1680x1050 on Ultra quality, provided the GPU is good enough.
- An i3 3220 ($125) is good. i5 3570K ($225) is best.
- On Phenoms and below, you need three or more cores. Since tri-cores do not get sold any more, you need a 955 or better to avoid a bottleneck.
- Architecture also plays a role here: Bulldozer and Phenom II are roughly on par, but Vishera is AMD's best.
- Speed also plays a role, overclocking a CPU gives higher frame rates.
- The 965 is roughly on par with earlier Pentiums in the guide. The 6300 is better than the 965, but not as good as the i3.
- 965/6300 can still get 80-90 FPS on Ultra quality, provided the GPU is good enough.
RAM (System Memory)
According to WoW's official system requirements, 2GB is minimum, and 4GB is recommended. I have personally ran WoW with 512MB without bottlenecking, and many people still run WoW with just 1GB. Since the minimum amount of RAM we recommend is 2GB anyway, RAM is not an issue on any tier. Google search shows that 4GB or 8GB make no difference to WoW. Speed also makes no noticeable difference, so get DDR3-1333 or 1600 and save your money for a better graphics card.
RAM and CPU conclusion
- Even the Destitute tier has more than enough RAM.
- For CPU, all our tiers are fine, except Destitute.
- AMD's CPUs give less FPS, but do not bottleneck the GPU until 80-90 FPS, which is above what most people consider fluid (60 FPS).
- The best CPU for WoW is the i5 3570K. Spending more money won’t give you noticeably more performance.
- Destitute tier is not recommended, unless you have a very low resolution screen.
Logical Increments tiers and how they fare
For our tiers, we follow the reviews in taking combinations of res and quality settings that make sense. If the tier is high, we go for high quality and resolution, and if the tier is low, we go for lower quality and resolution.
Let us start with the Destitute tier, as it is a special case. The 3300 is cheapest Llano CPU, and the 3500 is the cheapest Llano with a 6530D. The 6530D has double the shaders of the 6410D, but the performance is not doubled, it is roughly 50%-60% higher. While we did find a couple of benchmarks here and there, it was quite difficult to get a full set of benches at different resolutions and settings, so we had to improvise: We can compare the 6410D to an Nvidia GT 520 (though the 6410D might be a little slower), while the 6530D is slightly better than Intel's HD4000 by a little.
At the Destitute tier, playing WoW on Ultra quality is right out. Even at 1024x768, your FPS is going to be ~20 FPS, and at 1080p it drops to 10 FPS.
Your best option is to reduce your resolution to below 1680x1050, perhaps 1440x900 or 1366x768, and play on Good quality. At those resolutions, you should be getting a playable experience of between 30 FPS (6410D) to 40 FPS (6530D). If you turn up the resolution to 1680x1050, you can expect your FPS to fluctuate between barely playable (lower 30’s) and unplayable (upper 20’s), but if you up the settings to High quality, or your resolution to 1920x1080 then your FPS might drop the 20's. You can expect the 6530D to give you 10-15 more FPS than the 6410D.
Even though the Minimum tier is only some $60-$70 more expensive that the Destitute tier, the graphical performance is much higher. You will definitely be playing at Good quality (or High quality, if your resolution is very low). Playing at Good quality on 1680x1050 should get you a smooth frame rate of about 50 FPS, or about ~40FPS if you play at 1920x1080. If you take your graphical settings up to High quality on 1680x1050, your frame rate might drop to the ~30's, which is playable but not smooth. If you play at Ultra quality, then you will get an FPS of about 20-25 on 1680x1050. If you are buying the Minimum tier PC, we recommend the Good quality settings at 1680x1050 resolution, at which you should get smooth gameplay. If you are ok with lesser but playable frame rates, then play Good quality at 1920x1080, or High quality at 1680x1050. If you play with High quality at 1920x1080, then your FPS is going to be borderline playable, which may not be acceptable to everyone, so we do not recommend it.
The Entry is also a major jump in graphical power over Minimum (the jumps are quite significant in the cheapest 5-6 tiers). You should be able to get above 60 FPS on the Good quality setting, even at 1920x1080. We recommend playing on High quality instead. With High quality at 1920x1080, you should get about 40 FPS, which is respectable. If you keep the 1920x1080 resolution and switch to Ultra quality, your FPS would drop to the lower 30's. If you insist on playing on Ultra quality, then drop the resolution to 1680x1050, at which you can maintain the ~40 FPS. Thus, for the Entry tier, you can get 40 FPS if you game at High quality on 1920x1080, or Ultra quality at 1680x1050.
The Modest tier is the first tier in which we recommend the Ultra quality setting at the 1680x1050 resolution, since you can expect a smooth 50 FPS. All tiers above this tier should be able to get very smooth framerates at the Ultra quality/1680x1050. For Modest tier, if you up your resolution to 1920x1080, you will get a frame rate of about 50 FPS on High quality, or 40 FPS on Ultra quality. Depending on your preference, you may opt for the smoother gameplay or the better visuals.
For the Fair tier, playing at 1920x1080 on Ultra should get about 45 FPS on average, which is smooth. All tiers from Fair and above should play WoW at 1920x1080 on Ultra quality, and expect a smooth gameplay. If you drop the resolution to 1680x1050 or lower the quality to High quality, you can expect a very smooth FPS.
The 7850 in the Good tier is a very powerful card for the price ($170-$180 at the time of writing). It is slightly weaker than the 480, a top-of-the-line card that cost USD$500 when it was released. With this card, you should be able to get above 60 FPS at 1920x1080 with the Ultra quality settings. The nice thing is that the Good tier is still relatively cheap at $600 total. If you play on 2560x1600, the 7850 can still give you a mostly smooth frame rate of 45 FPS on Ultra quality.
Do we go beyond the Good tier? If you play on 2560x1600, Great or Superb tiers will give 50 FPS on Ultra quality, while Excellent tier should get you about 60 FPS. Obviously, these tiers are overkill for World of Warcraft on 1920x1080, but the increased graphical power would come in handy if you play more demanding games. Some people have 120 Hz screens, which can take proper advantage of frame rates much higher than 60 FPS. According to Steam's hardware survey, about 99% of all screens are 1920x1200 or below, and (according to personal experience) the majority of these are 60 Hz screens. If you are in that top 1%, you should take a look at something above the Good tier, even for World of Warcraft.
NOTE: Officially, WoW does NOT utilize CF/SLI. We ignore all tiers above "Exceptional."
World of Warcraft is not a graphically demanding game, so you can max it out on most common resolutions, even with a $600 machine, but only if you buy a balanced gaming PC. Do not make the mistake of buying a $1500 prebuilt with a very weak graphics card, since it may not be able to perform as well as a balanced $600 PC.
- If you are playing WoW on 1680x1050, we recommend building the Fair tier (~$530), or above.
- If you are playing WoW on 1920x1080, we recommend building the Good tier (~$590), or above.
- If you are playing WoW on 2560x1600, we recommend building the Excellent tier (~$1050), or above.
I played vanilla (and a little BC) in my university days. After leaving uni, I had no internet connection at home for roughly 4 years, so I missed out. Once I got internet, I got a new account, and played for a month or two. Unfortunately, with 400-500 ping, frequent disconnects, and limited data quota, I have given up until I can afford a better connection. On my current account, I play a blood elf shadow priest and a gnome frost mage on Caelstrasz. I hope to get a better connection soon, so I can try MoP, maybe.
I watched one of my roommates drop out of university from playing too much WoW, so I avoided it after that because I knew I would get addicted. Does that make me a coward? Maybe. I finally installed it to take some screenshots, and we’ll see what happens now. ;)
For understanding how FPS can impact the “smoothness” of your gameplay, this short but informative article is very good:
We would like to thank Techpowerup for its excellent, in-depth and comprehensive articles. The following Techpowerup’s articles gave us most of the data that we needed:
For a thorough investigation of WoW settings, as well as good testing of WoW’s performance, Tom’s Hardware has several great articles:
Anandtech’s articles are a really good source of information, particularly CPU performance:
For general information regarding World of Warcraft:
Steam’s hardware survey is very helpful to find out what hardware typical gamers have:
We want thank user Gierkej from /r/WoW for letting us use the images they took:
We want to thank user KatMoster from /r/WoW for letting us use this image:
Finally, an excellent helper, Mr. Google: