Over the last couple of years, I became interested in transitioning from console gaming and mobile computing to a desktop-based setup. I spent a great deal of time on Reddit and YouTube, learning everything I could. In the process, I became somewhat of an enthusiast. I now admin a modest-sized Facebook group where several professional PC builders and I help newcomers choose, buy, and build PCs for a range of usage scenarios.
However, despite the fabulous experience I have had in joining this community; there remain a range of misconceptions about it. Below, I will attempt to debunk some of these and provide a newcomer-friendly look into the community and suggest places to look for advice.
Probably the most common misconception about building a computer is that it is expensive. You will usually find people arguing this in the comments section of IGN Facebook posts and in articles by publications like Motherboard. It has even spawned a meme.
This misconception arises from the assumption that every PC builder, in particular gamers, has to have the best of the best. The truth is people buy what they can afford or what gets them the performance they desire. In the UK, you can build a capable tower using retail parts for around £650. If you desire better-than-console visuals and a PC that is great for home use and some light productivity, then you are looking at sub-£1,000 for the full package, including peripherals and software. This is achieved by buying into the mid or mainstream-tier products that are often ignored by journalists and comment-section trolls. The fact of the matter is, you can game at 1080p60fps and have a great home computing experience for less than Apple’s base MacBook model.
Better still, if you are particularly thrifty, you can buy many PC parts in a ‘like-new’ condition from enthusiasts and eBay, and save hundreds. Moreover, in the vein of being thrifty, don’t do what Kotaku writer Kirk Hamilton did and pay full whack for Windows. Today, we have a mechanism called digital entitlement, where you can activate a legitimate Windows 10 license using a Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 product code. This will save you a few quid and helps you avoid the temptation of gray market key-sellers such as G2A and Kinguin.
The main point here is, not every user needs the computational power of a £1,600 Intel i7 6950X Broadwell-E processor or £750 Nvidia GTX 1080Ti video card. Instead, most people are price sensitive and buy into the mid-range market. This can easily be seen through the Steam hardware survey, which shows that the top three most popular video cards among responders are one and two-generation old cards, with the GTX 970, the former price-to-performance king, still ruling in 2017 with a market share of 5.89%.
Above, I mentioned an article by Vice’s Motherboard publication, where one of their editors opined at length about his trials in building a high-end PC. He was, of course, met with ridicule by the community and by industry heavy-weights. One YouTuber and respected industry voice, Steve Burke of Gamers Nexus, dedicated an entire video to debunking the Motherboard piece, including a speed-build with off the shelf components.
Suffice to say, this is one of the most overblown assumptions about PC building. It stems from a misconception that the horror stories seen on some forums are common. From my personal experience and accounts of professionals I know and have heard from, it is very uncommon for users to experience serious issues so long as they are adequately prepared.
If you attempt to order a bunch of components from Amazon without checking compatibility and they try and throw them together after work with absolutely no knowledge, then, of course, you will have a difficult time. However, if you spend some time watching tutorials, check compatibility carefully, and take your time, it is rather similar to building a large Lego set. This exact advice is mirrored by Ryan Marinelli, the tech specialist at PC Part Picker, in a 2015 Vice article ‘Making Your Own Computer Can Be a Sad and Confusing Hell.’ Marinelli mentions that the process is not particularly difficult with some limited research, saying “PC building is often referred to as LEGO for adults.”
It’s easy to break things
Many people assume that because they have little knowledge of how electronics work, they will damage their components. This comes from the prominence of horror stories on advisory boards and a general lack of understanding of the industry. Most PC components are heavily resistant to static electricity, have strict quality assurance and compatibility standards, and have comprehensive instruction manuals.
Building a PC is much like assembling an Ikea bed or mounting a TV on a wall: it is designed for an average user to do at home, but many people end up getting scared and paying someone to do it. However, as I just said, PC building, like other DIY activities, is designed for normal people. Yes, some components have a limited tolerance for abuse, and yes, there is still the risk of static discharge damaging your components, but these concerns are easily remedied by taking precautions to ground yourself and handling things with care. You don’t throw your iPhone down on your desk (I hope), so don’t slam your video card into your PCI-e socket like it’s a whack-a-mole and you should be fine. As Marinelli from the Vice story says: “95 percent of the connections are all keyed, so you couldn’t plug something in wrong unless you really, really tried to; or if you broke it, or you cut parts that you weren’t supposed to. Sometimes it’s even colour-coded as well.”
Lastly, whenever the “it could break” crowd gets backed into a corner, they bring out the ‘overclocking’ play. However, overclocking is not mandatory, or necessary for most users, and really is not that dangerous or hard. It is simply the process of pushing hardware past its factory set specification (generally a refresh rate or clock speed measured in Hertz) to achieve more performance. Generally, if you were a gamer, you might overclock your video card (GPU and memory) and your processor (CPU), while enthusiasts may also overclock their DRAM (system memory) and monitor refresh rate. However, as we are using electronics, increasing performance often comes at the cost of increasing power and/or voltage, leading to greater heat emission. So you need to have sufficient cooling. However, if you just want to build your first PC, most motherboards will have an EZ overclock in their BIOS and nearly every good guide will at least mention that it is an option and suggest appropriate cooling.
The community is toxic
There is a widely held belief that PC gaming and building communities are cliquey and toxic. However, this, again, comes from a place of misunderstanding. As with many sub-cultures, the tropes, memes, and ways of communicating can seem nasty or non-inclusive from the outside, but this just isn’t the case. A prime example is the ‘Glorious PC Master Race’ meme. To someone with no knowledge of online video games culture, this could seem like a racist or classist slur. However, it is actually an in-joke that is often critiqued and laughed about on forums such as Reddit’s r/pcmasterrace. Instead, the core values of the community are sharing knowledge, fighting anti-consumer practices, and showcasing creativity. Yes, there is a malignant minority, who chose to belittle other gamers and fans of different hardware vendors, but they are often ignored or find themselves without a platform.
The biggest hiccup you are likely to experience through your build is your PC refusing to POST (Power-On Self-Test) or in the non-technical English—the computer doesn’t turn on or nothing shows on your display. If it POSTs, you are golden and can proceed to install the operating system of your choice, if not, there are a few simple steps to ascertain what ails your PC.
From my research, the biggest issues here are dead system memory (RAM DIMMs can often be faulty), incorrectly seated or faulty CPU cooler, power cables not connected, the display connected to the incorrect port, and general dead-on-arrival parts (video card, mainboard, RAM, processor.) In essence, many of the troubleshooting scenarios you are likely to come across can be solved by double checking things. To this end, there are certain best practices to observe when building.
- Check compatibility and specifications before ordering/buying (pcpartpicker.com is a great reference for quick checking but always double-check)
- Take some precaution to reduce static: this can involve standing on hardwood or tile floor and touching your case as you build, or buying anti-static mats, wrist straps etc.
- Making a temporary test bench out of your motherboard box and plugging everything in outside of the case (makes it easier to assemble and saves you time if you have a faulty part)
- Having a guide loaded on another screen or a friend reading the manuals to refer back to if you get stuck
- Handle everything with care: you may have paid quite a bit for a component, so why treat it differently from a smartphone or expensive knickknack
If you are interested in getting into PC building I suggest checking out r/buildapc on Reddit and Paul’s Hardware’s ‘Beginner’s Guide to Building a Gaming PC’ series on YouTube. Alternatively, you can get involved in my Facebook community ‘PC Builders – Beginners and Enthusiasts.’