Guide:Hardware

From S.T.E.P. Project Wiki

Contents

A guide to aid users in selecting and configuring various PC components for a better Skyrim experience - by frihyland & S.T.E.P. Team

GUIDE FORUM THREAD


Info-Logo.png Notice: This guide is currently being revised and is a work in progress. Hardware data is still being compiled and added. At some point hardware configuration and optimization will be added as well.


Introduction

Purpose of the Guide

This hardware guide exists to help STEP enthusiasts decide what will provide the greatest performance boost within an approximate price range. This guide should also provide the reader knowledge and understanding of computer system components, their importance and relevance, and even general installation guidelines. It is not a guide of required hardware to run Skyrim; though, for reference, Skyrim's official system requirements are provided as applicable. General recommendations for running STEP in all its glory are also provided. This guide is written with the assumption that the reader has basic computer skills and general knowledge of relevant system components.

When reading this guide please keep in mind the official minimum system requirements will allow STEP:Core game-play ONLY. The official recommended system requirements will allow STEP:Extended to run with acceptable performance at (16:9) or (16:10) resolutions as long as the baselines are followed. To play Skyrim with a full performance or quality STEP installation, the STEP-recommended system requirements are necessary:

STEP:Core
Only Core mods installed; performance options wherever possible. These recommendations will not be much more that the official recommended system requirements.

STEP:Extended
Core and non-Core mods installed; performance/quality balanced. These recommendations will get up and running a full STEP setup with medium to high settings.

Beyond STEP
Core and non-Core mods installed plus other non-STEP mods; high-quality options installed for STEP mods that go beyond the baselines. These recommendations will get you running a personalized setup with a full STEP setup as its base. ENB Presets and high resolution mods in all their glory!

Disclaimer

All price ranges are given in US currency($). This information is kept as accurate as possible; however, depending on the time of our last review, it is possible for pricing of some components to be outdated. Furthermore, although all technical information is facttual, all recommendations from this guide are strictly the opinions of the STEP-Community-Wiki-editorial consensus. Ultimately, it is the individual's responsibility to check specific pricing and use his or her best judgement.

CPU

Skyrim Official CPU Requirements

Minimum
Intel Dual Core 2.0GHz or equivalent processor (AMD Sempron @ 2.4 GHz)
Recommended
Quad-core Intel or AMD CPU processor

STEP Recommendations

STEP:Core: Intel Dual-core processor or higher with 3GHZ or higher
STEP:Extended: Intel Quad-core processor or higher with 3GHz or higher
Beyond STEP: Intel Quad-core processor or higher with 3GHz or higher

Background

Skyrim is incredibly dependent on a fast processor; to such an extent that even with a great mid-grade processor, such as an Intel i5, you may still very often find it to be the limiting performance factor in the game. This is because Skyrim's use of DirectX 9.0. In Skyrim, DirectX calls are batched and passed to the CPU for processing and the GPU can not render a single scene until those calls are processed. Shadows and particle effects greatly add to these calls. For this reason, if you ever find the CPU being pushed to its limits while running the game try reducing the the shadow settings on the launcher or in the SkyrimPrefs.ini file until an optimal CPU performance achieved. Shadow draw distance can make a big performance impact on the CPU as well.

Info-Logo.png Notice: Patch 1.4 may have improved the performance of Skyrim to the extent that it is not so CPU intensive; however, a good CPU is still recommended. Supporting evidence is still being researched for this. As always, please use your own judgement when making a decision regarding a CPU purchase.

Since DirectX calls are offloaded to the CPU, multiple cores are a requirement! You must have at least a dual-core processor but a quad-core is recommended. Skyrim will often max out the first core with the remaining cores being utilized between 30% to 50%.

In order to accommodate a new processor, users often have to buy a new motherboard, unless their board was purchased within the last couple of years. The reason for this is because as new processors are released, they often come coupled with a new socket type; which may not match the motherboard currently in a system. However, a new motherboard can severely effect any budget; especially when the prices of CPUs usually aren't cheap.

The minimum recommendations for upgrading when purchasing AMD CPUs is the FX-Series (Zambezi); however, Intel is highly recommended over AMD for gaming. Intel processors perform better in nearly all gaming related benchmarks and tests. For Intel, a Core i5 or higher is best for gaming. Core i7s will not improve performance greatly strictly for gamer. They come with extra cores and hyper-threading which most games will not utilize, however; other CPU intensive programs such as video and photo editing software will benefit greatly from these extra features. The closer to 4Ghz the better, but keep in mind the higher the hertz, the higher the price climbs as well.

Laptop users aren't out of luck here. Most laptops have upgradable CPUs; however, they are much more restricted in the variety of choices for upgrading and it's often not worth the cost. For both desktop and laptop users, check with your laptop/motherboard manufacturer for a list of supported processors before upgrading. Often BIOS updates are available to support newer CPUs and their features.

What to Buy

When it comes to gaming, benchmarking has shown that Intel outperforms AMD processors. An Intel i5-2500K 3.3GHz can outperform any AMD processor to date in any gaming benchmark test. Any Intel i-series with better stats than this is only improving upon the i5's performance. In Skyrim specifically, the i5 is around 30% faster than any AMD processor when measuring FPS and time spent to draw frames. Of course, not every one is going to need or be able to afford this performance right away. Below is the minimum requirements for running Skyrim with the individual STEP installs. To retain the most "upgrade-ability" use the LGA 1155 socket type.

STEP:Core

An Intel Core i3 Dual-core with at least 3GHz

STEP:Extended

An Intel Core i5 Quad-core with at least 3GHz

Beyond STEP:

An Intel Core i5 Quad-core with at least 3GHz
If you're only using your system for gaming, the i5s mentioned above are ideal. However, if you'll be using any type of game or program which benefits from hyper-threading or a more powerful processor (Crysis 3, video encoding software, Photoshop, etc) then an Intel Core i7 with 3GHz or higher is recommended.

Overclocking*

Overclocking is possible on most processors; however, some CPUs overclock better than others. The Intel models with "K" at the end of their model names (i5-3570K) will have better overclocking potential.
*Overclocking voids your warranties. Do so at your own risk.

Terminology

32-bit/64-bit Architecture
This refers to the architecture of the CPU, datapath widths, integer size, and memory addresses. 32-bit and 64-bit hardware are not interchangeable. 32-bit must be used with 32-bit. In most things, 64-bit is backwards compatible with 32-bit; however, you will benefit most by keeping 64-bit with 64-bit; not mixing the two.
Core
A core is the actual central processing unit. It receives and executes instructions.
DMI
The Direct Media Interface (DMI) is the connection between the northbidge and the southbridge on the motherboard. It is measured in gigabits per second (Gb/s) or gigatransfers per second (GT/s). This is for Intel CPUs only.
Frequency
Frequency (sometimes referred to as Operating Frequency) is the speed at which the CPU operates. This is measured in gigahertz (GHz). The higher the GHz the faster the CPU operates.
Hyper-threading
Hyper-threading uses processor resources more efficiently, enabling multiple threads to run on each core. As a performance feature, hyper-threading also increases processor throughput, improving overall performance on threaded software. (Intel only)
Mulit-core
A CPU which houses multiple cores is referred to as multi-core. A multi-core CPU can run multiple instructions at the same time, increasing overall speed. Multi-core CPUs come in 2-core, 3-core, 4-core, 6-core, and 8-core varieties.
Cache
CPUs utilize multi-level caches to reduce the average time to access memory. These caches are a smaller and localized memory on the CPU die that store copies of data from the most frequently used system RAM locations.
Socket
The CPU socket type is the type of connection the CPU uses to connect to the motherboard. The CPU and motherboard socket types must match in order to use a specific CPU with a specific motherboard.

Drives (HDD/SSD)

Skyrim Official Disk Space Requirements

Minimum
6GB of free disk space (SSD not required)*
Recommended
6GB of free disk space (SSD not required)*

*You need up to 6GB to install vanilla Skyrim with all patches. DLCs will require up to an additional 6GB.

STEP Recommendations

For all install paths, STEP recommends having up to at least 15-20GB of free disk space, depending on the DLCs and mods you install. A SSD is also recommended for best performance.

HDD

Hard Disk Drives (HDD) are still the most commonly used type of hard drive. This is because they are relatively inexpensive when compared to the newer solid-state drives (SSD). In comparison, users can purchase an one terabyte (TB/1024GB) HDD for the same price as a 64GB SSD. For the same price, users get approximately 16x more store space! However, HDDs are much slower than SSDs are. When purchasing a HDD, 7200RPM and 16MB of cache (larger drives have larger caches) is recommended. Faster, 10,000RPM drives are also available; however, keep in mind they are often noticeably noisy.

Recommended brands include:

  • Seagate
  • Barracuda models
  • Western Digital (WD)
  • Black models

SSD

Skyrim requires 6 GB of hard drive space un-modded, and can easily triple that with heavy modding. Skyrim also has a great many loading screens, and you can greatly diminish the time spent on these screens by installing Skyrim on a solid-state drive (SDD), as well as increasing overall performance of the game and your system. When Purchasing an SSD, SATA 6Gb/s is the fastest available; however, make sure the motherboard supports it natively through AHCI. Users can set SSDs up to use AHCI in BIOS and it must be done before OS installation, otherwise users will find their SSD running in emulated IDE mode with diminished speeds. If the motherboard doesn't support the 6Gb/s transfer speeds, 3Gb/s is the next best option.

Recommended brands include:

  • Corsair
  • Crucial
  • Intel
  • Samsung

Terminology

Access Time
The time it takes to access data on the drive.
Cache
Technically called the Disk Buffer, it is the embedded memory in a hard drive acting as a buffer between the rest of the computer and the disk platters that are used for storage. It is used for read-aheads, write acceleration, and speed matching among other things.
Capacity
Capacity is the amount of data the hard drive can store. It is measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB).
Form Factor
This refers to the physical size of the drive.
Interface
The interface is the type of connection the disk uses to connect to the motherboard. The most commonly used is Serial ATA (SATA). SATA is available in 1.5Gbit/s, 3Gbit/s, and 6Gbit/s transfer rates. 3Gbit drives can run on 6Gbit motherboards but not visa-versa. Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) interface is now obsolete.
RPM
Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) is the speed at which the disk platters spin. 5400, 7200, and 10,000 RPMs are the standard speeds.
Seek Time
A measure of how long it takes the head assembly to travel to the track of the disk that contains data.

Video Cards (GPU)

Skyrim Official Video Card Requirements

Minimum
Direct X 9.0c compliant video card with 512 MB of RAM
Recommended
DirectX 9.0c compatible NVIDIA or AMD ATI video card with 1GB of RAM: Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 or higher; ATI Radeon HD 4890 or higher

STEP Recommendations

STEP:Core DirectX 9.0c compatible NVIDIA or AMD video card with 1 GB of VRAM
STEP:Extended DirectX 9.0c compatible NVIDIA or AMD video card with at least 2 GB of GDDR5 VRAM
Beyond STEP DirectX 9.0c compatible NVIDIA or AMD video card with at least 4 GB of GDDR5 VRAM

Most cards are now DirectX 11. (more detailed and accurate information will follow as benchmark testing is completed)

GPU

Video card performance degrades as screen resolutions raise; thus, it is very important to choose a card which performs well at the desired screen resolution. Lower tier video cards may perform well at lower resolutions (1366x780); however, they will not perform well at the higher resolutions (1920x1080)! If using higher resolutions now or in the future, users will need to choose a higher tier video card now or plan to upgrade to one later on.

Before deciding on a video card, first check the current video card against the general recommended specs. If the current card closely matches the specs, then there is no reason to purchase a new card unless SLI/CrossFireFX is desired. If no upgrade is planned, it is highly recommended the current video card matches the VRAM recommendations below. If it doesn't, users may experience stuttering and less than desired performance.

The below cards will maintain an average of at least 60FPS at given resolutions with Ultra settings on an unmodded game. This is provided to give a sense of how resolutions effect performance. The higher the resolution, the more powerful a card you will need:

1600x900 / 1680x1050

AMD Radeon HD 6950 2GB
nVidia GeForce GTX 660 2GB

1920x1080 / 1920x1200

AMD Radeon HD 7850 2GB
nVidia GeForce GTX 660 2GB

2560x1600

AMD Radeon HD 7870 2GB
nVidia GeForce GTX 670 2GB

Use the above information to help determine the best video card needed, but remember that a modded game will need a little extra power than what is stated above.

Background

In Skyrim, the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is as equally important as the CPU. The GPU is the powerhouse of all the graphical rendering. It will determine at which resolutions and settings users be able to play Skyrim and any other game on their system. With Skyrim, users will need at least a DirectX 9.0C compatible card; however, this shouldn't be an issue as all new cards and the ones recommended below are DirectX 11 compatible.

The only major decision on GPU is the manufacturer; AMD (formally, ATi) or Nvidia. An internal debate among all gamers is, "which is better?" and that entirely depends on who is asked. However, it is a known fact, proven through benchmarking and driver testing, that Nvidia outperforms AMD when two cards of like specifications are compared specifically with Skyrim. This is only by a small margin though and AMD tends to be slightly less expensive. Both companies are still actively supporting Skyrim in their driver releases as of this writing. Ultimately, use best judgement when making a decision.

Video RAM (VRAM)

The video card should have at least 1GB of VRAM to run Skyrim efficiently. When modding this amount will increase depending on the mods installed. Of these, texture mods will have the biggest impact on VRAM usage. The higher the texture resolutions installed, the more VRAM the card will need. 1 - 1.5GB of VRAM will handle .5K (512MB) and 1K textures fairly well. For 2K textures and above, between 2GB and 4GB of VRAM will be required. The main cause of stuttering is running out of VRAM; forcing the game to rely on the much slower system RAM. Thus, be sure to choose the appropriate amount of VRAM compared to the resolution of texture mods that will be installed. STEP recommends 1 - 1.5GB for Core. For Extended installs, STEP recommends at least 2GB or above. If a 3 - 4GB video card is within budget, it is a highly recommended option!

SLI/CrossFireFX

Each GPU in a system has its own dedicated VRAM, which is not shareable. Additionally, in order for GPU's to work together, they need to have access to exactly the same resources. What this means is that for multi-gpu configurations (whether it is separate cards or multiple chips on a single card) all VRAM memory must be mirrored. To determine the functional dedicated VRAM for each card, add up the total VRAM and divide by the number of GPU's. This is the amount of VRAM that is dedicated to each card. So lets say there are 3x AMD HD 7970s in CrossFireFX with 3GBs of VRAM each, what users might expect is that the game will now have 9GB of VRAM available to them, in reality users are still limited to 3GBs. It's just that each card will used it's own 3GB each for rendering; therefore, the VRAM is not stacked. This is especially important to remember while setting up ENBoost.

Mobile GPUs

Mobile video cards are different than desktop cards. They aren't usually upgradable, not as powerful, and they typically have limited dedicated VRAM; rarely do you find a mobile with more than 1GB of VRAM. Since mobile users are usually stuck with what the laptop comes with in terms of video card, it is very important to purchase a laptop with a sufficient card to handle the intended gaming purposes and settings. Users can even find laptops with SLI/CrossFireFX setups, and there are companies which make laptops specific to gaming needs. Some of these companies include: Alienware (Dell), Asus, Eurocom, Falcon Northwest, Samsung, and there are many others. However, expect to pay no less than $1,500 and some can cost higher than $5,000. The price of being mobile isn't cheap!

The below cards will maintain an average of at least 60FPS at given resolutions with Ultra settings on an unmodded game. This is provided to give a sense of how resolutions effect performance. The higher the resolution, the more powerful a card you will need:

1366x768

AMD Radeon HD 7670M
nVidia GeForce GTX 580M

1920x1080

AMD Radeon HD 7970M
nVidia GeForce GTX 680M

Terminology

Core Clock
Core Clock is the speed at which the GPU operates. It is measured in megahertz (MHz).
DirectX
This is the version of DirectX the card is compatible with. DirectX is backwards compatible with previous versions.
GPU
The Graphics Processing Unit is the CPU for video cards. It handles all executions for the card.
HDCP
High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) is a form of protection for audio and video content originating from the card. It helps to ensure the content originating from the card isn't played on unauthorized devices. This normally works seamlessly in the background.
Interface
The interface is the type of connection the card uses to connect to the motherboard. PCI Express (PCI-E) is the most common of these.
Max Resolution
This will be the maximum screen resolution the card is capable of producing.
Memory Clock
This is the speed at which the the VRAM operates. It is measured in megahertz (MHz).
Memory Interface
This is the architecture of the VRAM. Measured in bits; most common are 128-bit and 256-bit.
Memory Size
Memory Size is the amount of dedicated VRAM the card has. It is measured in megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB).
OpenGL
This is the version of OpenGL the card is compatible with.
Ports
Listed will the be available out ports for the card. These are most often: D-sub (display port/analog), DVI (digital/preferred), HDMI (digital/preferred), DisplayPort (digital/preferred).
SLI/CrossFireX
Scalable Link Interface (SLI) allows you to connect two or more video cards together; providing improved performance. The performance increase is not additive (i.e., two cards does not confer even close to "double" the performance of one card). In fact, only processing efficiency is increased ... memory capacity does not increase. "SLI Ready" cards support SLI linking. CrossFireX is AMD's version of SLI and works pretty much the same way.
VRAM
Video RAM (VRAM or on-card memory) is the dedicated memory which only the video card uses. In terms of video processing, it is a great deal faster and more efficient than system RAM.

System RAM

Skyrim Official RAM Requirements

Minimum
2GB of system RAM
Recommended
4GB of system RAM

STEP Recommendations

STEP:Core: at least 4GB of system RAM or higher
STEP:Extended: at least 8GB of system RAM or higher
Beyond STEP: at least 8GB of system RAM or higher

Background

As for system memory 4GB is the required minimum for STEP:Core and 8GB for STEP:Extended installations If the system runs out of VRAM it resorts to using the system memory which is slower and is the main cause of stuttering. ENBoost helps to elevate this issue. If users plan on installing mods with high texture resolutions make sure to have at least 8GB to be safe and at least 2GB of VRAM to keep the game-play smooth.

If users have less than 4GB of system RAM, move it to the top of an upgrade list. System RAM is inexpensive so it won't break any budgets. If users plan on upgrading it is recommended to buy a dual-channel kit, which is simply a package with two identical memory modules, if the motherboard supports it. Dual-channel is faster and more efficient than running single modules. Consult the motherboard's list of supported models before purchase, which will often limit the choices. If the motherboard doesn't support at least DDR2 modules, users might consider upgrading the board to support the newer, faster architectures like DDR2 but even more preferable, DDR3.

For laptop users, all the information above applies as well. The only difference is, mobile users can't upgrade the motherboard to support faster RAM architectures. Also, the cost of being mobile isn't cheap, unfortunately. Expect to pay 40 - 60% more for laptop RAM over desktop RAM.

Info-Logo.png      Notice:Please note that a 64 bit OS is required to make use of more than 4GB of system RAM. Users on a 32bit system will not be able to use more than 4GBs of RAM.

Recommended brands include:

  • Corsair
  • Crucial
  • G.Skill
  • Kingston
  • Mushkin
  • Patriot

Terminology

Capacity
Capacity is the size of the RAM measured in gigabytes (GB).
CAS Latency
Column Address Strobe (CAS) latency, is the delay time between the moment a memory controller tells the a module to access a particular memory column on a RAM module, and the moment the data from the given array location is available on the module's output pins. The lower the CAS latency, the better.
Dual-Channel
Dual-channel requires a dual-channel-capable motherboard and two or more memory modules. Dual-channel uses two channels which allow the memory controller access to each memory module simultaneously, increasing throughput bandwidth.
Speed
This is the speed at which the RAM operates. There are far too many speeds to discuss here. An example would be, DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600).
Timing
Timing measures the performance of RAM using four parameters; they are commonly written as four numbers separated with dashes (7-8-8-24). These parameters specify the latencies that affect speed. Lower numbers usually mean faster performance.
Type
Type most often refers to the pins and architecture of the RAM. Such as 240-pin DDR3 SDRAM.
Voltage
Voltage refers to the voltage the RAM uses. This can be different depending on the type and manufacturer.

Motherboard

The selection of a correct and high quality motherboard is crucial to the overall system performance. It's the motherboard which will define the components users can install both today and in the future when upgrading becomes a consideration. There are a couple questions to ask when selecting a motherboard.

  • Will it work with the desired processor? Do the socket types match?
  • Will it work with the remaining components that have been selected?
  • Does it have all the external ports needed?
  • Is it compatible with all of the current standards?
  • Is it made by a company with a respectable reputation and history of quality?
"Will it work with the desired processor?"
The motherboard and CPU socket type must match! This has been stated in other sections but it's worth repeating. Socket types are not compatible with one another. The current Intel socket types are LGA 1155 and LGA 2011. The current AMD socket types are FM1, FM2, AM3, AM3+.
"Will it work with the remaining components that have selected?"
Making sure the motherboard matches up to the rest of the desire components is just as important. Be sure the board supports the selected architectures for RAM (DDR2/DDR3), hard drives (SATA 3GB/s, SATA 6GB/s), video cards (PCIe 2.1/3.0), etc.
"Does it have all the external ports needed?"
The motherboard will need to support all the external peripherals which will be plugged into it. Is an older PS/2 port for the keyboard and/or mouse needed? Are there enough USB slots? The newest USB standard, USB 3.0, is also on the market and it's super fast! What about Ethernet? Most include gigabit Ethernet, but some don't so if the network that the system will be connected it is a gigabit one, be sure the motherboard has gigabit Ethernet connections. Don't forget about the sound! Realtek provides great HD, surround sound audio drivers, but there are many solutions available on the market.
"Is it compatible with all of the current standards?"
This question is more important for the future than now. It will determine the "upgrade-ability" of the system when upgrading becomes a consideration. Right now users may only be planning to purchase DDR2 memory or a PCIe 2.1 video card; however, in the future users may want to upgrade those to current standards which are DDR3 and PCIe 3.0. A good strategy is to plan the purchase of a motherboard that will sustain upgrading needs for the next three to five years.
"Is it made by a company with a respectable reputation and history of quality?"
Finally, the manufacture of the motherboard matters almost as much as the rest of the questions listed above. Just purchasing a motherboard from a company that isn't well known because it's cheaper compared to a similar motherboard from a top-tier company such as ASUS shouldn't even be in question. In many situations in life, this might be acceptable as many times you're simply paying for the branding of the name. However, with motherboards this isn't the case. Motherboards built by less known companies are often built on the cheap using substandard manufacturing processes and materials. It's fair safer to purchase a motherboard from a well known manufacturer which has earned a respected name for quality products and wouldn't cut corners just to shave a few dollars off the final price tag. Bottom line...do your research before purchasing!

The two other areas to take note of are chipsets and form factors. Intel has merged a lot of the chipset functions into their processors, and AMD chipsets are still mainly on the motherboard. At the time of this writing, the Intel Z87 chipset is the best for the buck. The Z97 exists but the extra features aren't worth the extra price. For AMD, the 9xx series are currently the best. Form factor is the second area and this refers to the physical size of the motherboard. It's important to match the form factor of the motherboard up to the desired case. The case chosen must support the form factor of the motherboard in order to properly install it.

Recommended brands include:

  • ASUS
  • Gigabyte
  • MSI

Terminology

Audio
The majority of motherboard have embedded audio. In most cases, there is no need for a sound card as most embedded audios support up to 7.1 surround sound and are of high quality.
CPU Type
Here will be listed the types of CPUs the motherboard is compatible with. AMD and Intel boards are not interchangeable.
Expansion Slots
Expansion slots "expand" the capabilities of the motherboard. These slots are where you install your video and sound cards, modems, network cards, etc. It is also where you'll find the information needed to choose compatible cards listed.
Form Factor
The most that is needed to know about Form Factor is it directly relates to the physical size of the motherboard. ATX is the most common standard followed my micro-ATX which is smaller (mirco-ATX is quickly becoming the new standard).
I/O Connectors
Input/Output (I/O) connectors are connector that on internal on the motherboard. These provide places to connect your system fans, power switch, case ports, etc.
Memory
Here will be listed the information needed to choose compatible memory. Some items listed include: number of slots, pin type, standard supported (DDR2/DDR3/etc), channels supported, and maximum amount supported.
Northbridge
The northbridge is one part of the chipset which handles communications among the CPU, sometimes RAM, PCI Express video cards, and the southbridge. More modern CPUs have many of the northbridge's functions built-in.
Onboard LAN
This refers to the embedded local area network (LAN) connections on the motherboard. In most cases, no additional NIC card is needed as the onboard LAN is more than efficient. 10/100/1000Mbps is the most common.
Rear Panel Ports
The rear panel of the motherboard is where all your external connections are connected to the motherboard such as mouse, keyboard, LAN, etc.
SATA
Serial ATA (SATA) is used for your storage devices. (most motherboard no longer have IDE)
Socket Type
This refers to the socket type the CPU uses to connect to the motherboard. The CPU and motherboard socket types must match.

Operating System

Skyrim Official OS Requirements

Minimum
Windows 8/7/Vista/XP (32 or 64-bit)
Recommended
Windows 8/7/Vista/XP (32 or 64-bit)

STEP Recommendations

Windows 7 64-bit is the recommended operating system for all STEP installations.

Background

The operating system isn't going to make or break Skyrim or most other games; however, some options are better than others. If one piece of knowledge is taken from this section, it should be to stay clear of Windows Vista! Vista was Microsoft's experiment of attempting to bring the Windows OS into the 21st century and as such they nearly completely rewrote much of the OS. Compared to its predecessor, Windows XP, Vista is slow, doesn't handle hardware well, and has some compatibility issues. If upgrading from Windows XP, it is highly recommended to go straight to Windows 7 or 8 and skip Vista altogether. If Windows Vista is already running on the system, consider upgrading if it's the budget allows.

Windows 7 is the official recommendation for STEP users for its speed and stability. Windows 7 is Microsoft's Windows Vista done right. It's responsiveness and speed is on par with Windows XP and leaves Vista in the dust! It includes improved UAC and Windows Explorer, graphic card issues from Vista are no more, the boot process is faster, better control over notifications, consolidated security messages, HomeGroup is introduced for simplified network sharing, DirectX 11 support, and a ton of other features. Be sure to choose at least the Home Premium version or higher when purchasing Windows 7.

Windows 8 is Microsoft's newest operating system. It is on par with Windows 7 as far as performance with some tweaks; however, it still has a few kinks that need to be ironed out before it can be officially recommended. Kinks such as proper embedded network adapter handling. A few of the advantages are an incredibly fast boot process that takes only a few second with an SSD, cloud integration with OneDrive (previously known as SkyDrive), better multiple monitor support, improvements for better multitasking, and DirectX 11 support among other things. Some disadvantage users might find are the removal the the Start Button in favor of the Start Screen (previously known as MetroUI), the Charms Bar and Searching features which makes users learn a new way of browsing their systems, and system administration is a bit more complex (mainly due to new navigation methods). If Windows 8 is chosen, users will have to learn a few new Windows shortcuts for fast and proper navigation. The Professional version is recommended for any users deciding on this OS.

While not necessary, Windows 64-bit will allow users to add more than 4GB of system RAM which will increase stability in games and it is the recommended architecture for STEP. However, Windows XP 64-bit is not recommended as it is fairly buggy. Windows XP is no longer actively supported by Microsoft as it has reached it End-of-Life cycle. An upgrade is highly recommended for any XP users.

Terminology

Architecture
The architecture is either 32-bit or 64-bit and relates to the bandwidth of data-movement capacity (higher numbers are better).
Version
This refers to the version of the operating system. Common versions are Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate.

FAQs

When is upgrading system RAM applicable?
For gaming users only need to upgrade if they have less than 4GB of RAM on a 64bit OS. 8GBs is the current recommendation. Normal users will rarely need more than that for gaming purposes. Dual-channel is always recommended when applicable.
Is the only bottleneck the GPU?
The CPU can also be a bottleneck if it's not up for the task at hand. However, the main bottle in most systems will be the hard disk drive (HDD) in term over overall system performance. Installing a solid state drive (SSD) can remedy this. In terms of gaming performance, the bottleneck is going to be either the CPU, GPU, and in rarer cases the motherboard. This depends on the hardware in use, what the hardware is used for, and the build quality of the components.
What GPU upgrade makes the most sense for someone running an AMD HD 46xx or a nVidia GT 3xx and a Duo-core processor?
In Skyrim dual-cores perform on pare with quad-cores because Skyrim only uses 2 cores efficiently. The GPU upgrade depends on the desired screen resolution, game settings, and whether or not a post-processor which as ENBSeries will be used or not. A reasonable answer can not be given without knowing those things. The Video Card tab has some information on resolutions on Ultra settings for Skyrim.
Who benefits from PCI-e 3.0?
No one really benefits from the 3.0 cards...yet. Support for 3.0 is now mainstream, but the bandwidth limits for that architecture has yet to be reach and many cards are still performing at 2.1 bandwidths.
Who benefits from CrossfireX/SLI?
The gamers who benefit the most from CorssfireX/SLi are those running at very high resolutions, very high game settings, using multiple monitors or any combination of these situations. Keep in mind that getting either of these to work properly in Skyrim can be a hassle and a headache.

Additional Resources

The below resources were not written by STEP; thus we can not make any guarantees for any of them. They are provided strictly for additional informational resources.

Pricewatch

Newegg

Logical Increments PC Buying Guide