10 Long lasting, innovative, and important pieces of PC gaming hardware

As a PC gamer who has been building, tweaking, benchmarking, and gaming for a full 30 years now, I've certainly seen my fair share of new technologies that back the most consistent and most powerful platform for video games. I've built or worked on dozens of PCs for myself, friends, and family, and have bought a full range of components - some of which only moved us forward a bit at a time, while others proved to be massive duds, and still others revolutionized some element of PC gaming and/or were just so ahead of the curve, performance-wise, that they lasted for years and years in our PCs.

It's not just CPUs and video cards that have given PC gamers reasons to stick with such a sometimes-frustrating and fast-changing platform, even as it has sent us to fits with troubleshooting or cost us more money than we want to admit just to keep gaming. There are more utilitarian items like cases, sound cards, and even external peripherals that have driven PC gaming to where it is today. And while a high-speed internet connection today allows all platforms including consoles to go online, PC gaming survived and later thrived due to the many online experiences gamers could have long before consoles truly embraced it - and this happened both in the modem era and as high speed connections became prevalent. 

Here's a list of 10 influential technologies, in no particular order, that I found special throughout 3 decades of building PCs and playing everything from Wolfenstein 3D and Ultima Underworld to Cyberpunk 2077 and Star Citizen.

1. Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 - Sandwiched in between the amazing first-to-1GHz AMD Athlon CPU and Intel's incredibly long-lived Core 2 2500k CPU was the Core 2 Quad Q6600, the first mainstream CPU to offer quad core performance at a reasonable price. With this, our nightly sessions of the very demanding Supreme Commander (2007) flew at amazing speeds compared to basically everything else on the market, as benchmarked by bit-tech in this article. It would take a couple of years for a majority of new PC games to really take advantage of four CPU cores, but having that multitasking capability was still great for anyone who commonly swapped back and forth between games and their web browser or any other applications running, like I did. And yes, I'm aware that the i5-2500k was probably the better Intel CPU for most, and we'll get to that one later, but this is the one I remember feeling like a true leap in CPU performance. 

2. Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional - Our only all-software entry on this list is... a copy of Windows? Simply put, this was the first Windows that ran real games and wasn't an unstable pile of crashing garbage. Sure, Windows 2000 was considered more of a workstation OS, but with it running on MS' relatively new "NT" kernel, this was miles ahead of Windows 3.1, 95, and even 98 in the stability department. Blue screens of death were not completely eliminated, but you knew at that point you were looking at troubleshooting a hardware or driver issue when you saw one, and didn't have to accept losing everything with the three-finger salute just because some app and some game were refusing to play together nicely. 

3. Creative Labs Sound Blaster - I suppose it's fair to include the entire line of early digital waveform soundcards in this list including the SB Pro, SB16 and even the very hipster Gravis Ultrasound, but for me, my first experience with a sound card was the original Creative Labs Sound Blaster. And coming from the bleeps and bloops of PC Speaker sound, the Sound Blaster was simply amazing. Suddenly we got full speech, digital music, and a reason to hook up real headphones or speakers to our PCs. Due to the on-hardware acceleration of sound, slapping a new sound card into any PC equipped with a half-decent CPU and VGA graphics in the early 90s was a no-brainer, as there were no performance penalties. Sure, reconfiguring those autoexec.bat and config.sys files was a pain, but it was absolutely worth the jump in sound quality. 

4. ATI Radeon 9800 - There are only a couple of video cards on my main list and I wanted to stick to ones that made massive jumps in speed or rendering quality, and this is on that short list. The Radeon 9700 and 9800 series of cards were universally pretty beastly cards with differing performance but most were sold at reasonable prices, and their ability to do antialiasing and anisotropic filtering at much lower costs to frame rate was a revelation at the time - not so important now as these features are essentially seen as "free" on modern cards, but it wasn't always like that. Many of these models were released towards the end of 2003 and comfortably played the latest games for years. ATI was firing on all cylinders, with excellent drivers and solid performance all-around. For me, the Radeon 9800 fueled many late-night gaming sessions in Morrowind, Oblivion, Doom 3, Far Cry, and many more PC games. 

5. Antec Nine Hundred case - Today, when you look at high performance PC cases, you see a big focus on airflow with mesh fronts, big panels for fans on the front and top, maybe even spaces for fans and AIO coolers next to the motherboard's on the side panel. In the 2000s, DIY-built PCs didn't generate nearly as much heat as they do today, but there was still some, and the solid front panels and very little airflow on most DIY PC cases often did make cooling even yesteryear's modest hardware difficult. In 2006, though, Antec got ahead of the game - learning a lesson that many gaming PC OEMs like Dell/Alienware and HP still struggle with today - and with the Nine Hundred case, they delivered an airflow-based design that was many years ahead of its time. With a massive 200mm top exhaust fan, respectable 120mm rear exhaust, and a fully configurable front panel that could split between drive bays (yes, we still had drives to put in there back then!) and deliver good airflow for one or two full-size 120mm fans, the Antec Nine Hundred wasn't small, and it wasn't quiet, but it was the coolest case out there. If someone forced me to take all of my current gaming PC's components and move them into any case from the 2000s (for some wacky reason), this is the one I'd choose.  

6. Anyone's first Solid State Drive - The first SSD I got was actually pretty pathetic. It was a budget Kingston SSDNOW model with a whopping 40GB of storage, which was low even for when it was released. SSD technology, from a storage size perspective, still hasn't caught up to "spinning rust" hard drives (even today), especially when looking at number of gigabytes per dollar. But what early SSDs lacked in their meager amount of storage, the access times and transfer speeds were off the charts - literally, as in charts in reviews had to be redone in order to show the speed differences between SSDs vs hard drives - and that meant less time spent loading and more time playing. After that initial installation, simply booting Windows and loading into a game from an SSD that first time made it feel like you just installed futuristic alien technology into your machine. PC games are a write-once, read-many type of software, so they benefit greatly from SSDs and while it's been a very slowly improving and iterating technology, even the early ones were a massive improvement in read speeds for loading your OS or games.

7. Cable Modem (or high speed internet in general) - Most PC gamers today don't even know what gaming on the older land-line modem technology was like, but if you're wondering, it starts with this: ~330ms ping at minimum. Yes, that's the best you could get on basically any modem - bandwidth differed but the latency was always terrible. Never mind that downloading anything even at max 56k speeds was still painfully slow, but action games ran terribly on modems. While living off-campus in mid-to-late-90s college meant I never got to experience fast dorm-based ethernet connections, we did get to feel that speed shortly afterwards in 1997 or so with Cox cable modems. And it was amazing - roommates could all be doing stuff on one connection, you could download from the massively growing internet archive of... things... and gaming was amazing with pings at 30ms or less. For anyone addicted to the internet already, moving to a cable modem was a true revelation.

8. CD Burner - Before the days of thumb drives and SD cards, storing your own files and moving them around was a nightmare. Back in the mid-90s we were still fiddling with floppy disks and Zip drives, and while games had started to ship on CDs, making our own was out of reach until CD burner drives and recordable, blank CDs became affordable. And then it was on - piracy was everywhere back then and while movies on the internet weren't too big a thing for a while still, data hoarders could go on massive sprees of burning off copies of albums, games, and ... other files that would boggle the mind of someone just a few years prior. For a while there, one spindle of burned discs could store many times the data you could fit on mid-size hard drives of the time. 

9. AMD Athlon 1GHz CPU - Intel was the performance king for PC gamers for a very long time, with CPUs by AMD and Cyrix always working only as budget parts or in specific corner cases. While the AMD K5 and K6 CPUs competed fairly well with those Pentium I and II chips, it was the Athlon CPUs that really put AMD on top for a while. Yes, AMD was the first CPU manufacturer to break the 1GHz barrier for a consumer chip, and this was the first CPU that was just better than Intel's offerings all-around, and included no asterisks ("for the price", "if you're only running this type of application or game", etc) - it was just better in every way. Obviously Intel took that crown back shortly after and held it for, oh, nearly a good two decades, but for a while there, AMD had the best CPU in the world. 

10. 3Dfx Voodoo graphics card - You didn't think I was going to finish out this list without mentioning the Voodoo, did you? Before 3D accelerator cards, all you could do when rendering a 3D game was use what we called a "software renderer", which asked the CPU to do all the rendering calculations and send it to your "2D" video card. And while 3Dfx wasn't the first company to make a 3D accelerator card for PC games, they were the first ones to do it well, offering generally 40-60fps in most games at 640x480 resolution with fancy features like bilinear filtering - and all for an affordable price. These cards blew away the competition in 3D accelerators for quite a while, until ATI and Nvidia came in that is, but for a while they were king. No matter what, these cards were vastly superior in nearly every way to running software mode, and while the Voodoo cards improved over the next two generations and iterated on the formula significantly, that first experience with the original card was everything for me. 

I wanna bring out a few special mentions that are relevant or need further discussion:

US Robotics modems - Sure, I just trashed modems earlier in this article, but when it was all you had, you at least needed something reliable that wouldn't drop the connection constantly. For me, the Courier and Speedster models from US Robotics were the best and most reliable models of modem you could get. The speeds moved up over the years from 2400 baud when I was first introduced to modems, all the way to 56k (24x the transfer speed) several years later, but no matter the speed, you always knew that the US Robotics hardware was likely going to be the most reliable you could find.

Valve Steam Deck - I say this as someone who still hasn't gotten my hands on a Steam Deck yet, but portable PC gaming is one of those revolutions many PC gamers don't even know is happening. What started with unique handhelds from boutique Chinese companies like GPD, AYA and OneNetbook (of which I own a few) has opened into its own niche industry of PC gaming handhelds - and then Valve walked in and splashed the pot with a hugely impressive, reasonably-priced handheld running Linux that purports to play (nearly) all of your favorite PC games at reasonable speeds right in the palm of your hands. Valve now has their first truly successful piece of hardware on their hands and while the Steam Deck will almost certainly have new versions of the Deck with better hardware, the important thing here is that with a rabid community helping improve all aspects of handheld PC gaming and mainstream adoption from Valve, this niche sub-industry is now here to stay. 

LCD Monitors - Look, there's a reason I'm putting LCD monitors down here and not in the main list. Frankly, LCD monitors only offered one advantage over a good CRT when they first came out, which was that they were much easier to put on your desk - even those nice, sharp pixels weren't really considered a plus early on. And that was about it, as any self-respecting PC gamer ran high refresh rates and resolutions on a CRT, and the response times on the old tube technology were nearly instantaneous. LCDs have obviously come a long way since then although some of the issues with them never got fully solved, just minimized down to the point they're not really a visible problem anymore, but still - LCD monitors initially lost on nearly every metric against CRTs to trade for some removed bulk and added convenience, and it took years of improvements to LCD monitors to really start to beat CRTs, not the least of which was the introduction of widescreen modes. And while, yes, there are many people who still swear by CRTs, very few are doing this on their PCs - instead it's the console gamers using high-quality CRT TVs from the 90s for arcade machines and those classic 8- and 16-bit games. 

Intel Core i5-2500k CPU - I did want to mention this CPU as one of the most impressive and longest-lasting CPUs ever made. Running Intel's latest "Core" architecture at the time and truly bring quad-core computing into the mainstream, for nearly an entire decade after this thing's release, you could throw basically any game at this hunk of silicon and get a playable frame rate. And let's face it - very little technology, especially one wired up with zillions of transistors, could last a decade and still be reasonably usable throughout. The i5-2500k, with its 4 cores clocked to fairly high speeds, was one example of that. 

NVIDIA GeForce 8800GTX - Back in 2006, NVIDIA launched the 8800GTX with an eye-watering price tag of US $599, which seemed absurdly high considering the prices of their previous cards. But those who bought in at that time were able to enjoy many years of gaming at great frame rates, including with big-budget games with serious system requirements like Crysis. While NVIDIA has always skirted the line on price and has shown they will only give PC gamers a good deal when there's competition that has similar performance, it's clear that at least occasionally they have made some truly beastly graphics cards that outlived their expected retirement dates by huge margins. The only reason this card doesn't get a true mention is because no one I know had one at launch - it was just too rich for our blood. Most waited and choose more reasonably priced cards, which unfortunately also meant that we had to replace them substantially sooner than those who bought the 8800GTX.