While moving house, I managed to inadvertently cover my hardy MacBook in water. Years of documents and movies swapped on USBs, all saved up in a hard drive that I'd soaked out of existence. All of a sudden, I needed a new computer.
Deciding on a new computer is a sucky thing we all have to go through at some point. A lot of numbers that don't seem to make any sense; a lot of tech blogs telling you to buy different things. I have a theory that most people buy MacBooks because it's easier than working out which PC is better. Something's certainly working out for Apple, anyway.
I resolved, though, that I was going to learn what these alien numbers meant. What does it matter how many Hzs I have? What is a Bit, anyway? And I would learn these things by starting from the bottom – I decided to build my own computer.
Building PCs is becoming more and more popular. There's a huge reddit section with people swapping builds, commenting on others and helping those with questions, and there's a whole other section for hardware rumours. Your DIY PC isn't a static device, it's ever changing and growing, with new parts always available to complement your own burgeoning expertise.
And with all this far-too-complicated information considered, I chucked my idea of building a PC in the bin and bought a nice new HP laptop instead. Otherwise I feared being overwhelmed. I was certain I would make a mistake in my build, and someone on the internet would laugh at me. So I got this great laptop instead, with a nice big screen and – get this – 16GB RAM, for under £500. I was pretty proud of myself – but for how long?
Ryan Marinelli is the technical specialist for pcpartpicker.com, a website dedicated to custom building your own PC. On it, people post completed and soon-to-be-attempted builds and their reviews, while a section of the site helps you plan out each piece you need and keep within a budget.
"Generally speaking, it's a better idea to build your own computer because you get much better price for performance out of your build," Ryan tells me. Bugger. "That way, you know every single component in your build and you have access to better warranty." I try to remember what my laptop's warranty is... Like, a year, maybe? "When you buy all your parts individually, you can go through manufacturers and some of them have two, five or ten-year warranties you can take advantage of, and some offer lifetime warranties."
Sure, sure. Maybe I missed out on great warranties by getting something that works out of the box – but really what I'm paying for is the comfort that my new computer's been put together by someone who knows what they're doing, something it would take me months to learn. Because building a computer is a difficult thing to do. It is difficult, right?
"I think it's a difficult thing to come to terms with," Ryan says. "It's not something you can just pick up and do right away. There's definitely a little bit of research that goes into it. But I want to say that 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. PC building is often referred to as LEGO for adults."
My new laptop's battery died almost immediately, so I had to swap it for another – clearly someone at its manufacturer's own LEGO-for-adults plant messed up. Which did make me question what it was, exactly, that I was paying for. But coming from a Mac background, I still couldn't get on board with Ryan's assertion that this homemade approach is a piece of cake. I needed to find a man of the people – or, at least, someone a bit more like me.
Joe Martin is the ex-games editor of bit-tech.net, and he's also the co-creator of the surprisingly hard indie game CryWankFace. He built his first computer while working as a games journalist, and he made his share of mistakes. "I remember killing a brand new, expensive motherboard and watching as the editor-in-chief looked it over, looked at me, and just sighed and chucked it in the bin. 'Be more careful with the screwdriver,' he said."
He's learned from the mistakes though, and has a new understanding of his PC. "I'm definitely a lot more confident with it now, yeah. And I have a lot more respect for all the little fiddly things that can go wrong, or cause a PC to overheat." So everyone should be building their own computer, right? This is clearly the best way to do things. "Everyone? Hell no. They're a pain in the ass to build from scratch, and a great way to lose money if you don't know what you're doing. That said, if you're up for a challenge and want to save a few hundred quid then it's worthwhile, purely from a geeky perspective."
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A few hundred quid? My stomach dropped as I stared despondently at the little (and now feeling increasingly expensive) HP logo under my screen. But still, Joe had help from colleagues around him, and probably had better knowledge to begin with. I'm just a 20-something who still kinda prefers his 360 to his PS4. I could never do this.
Jamie Edwards is a wheelchair racer who recently competed at the Typhoo National Junior Athletics Championships, and in his spare time he builds computers. He can do this, then. And he's only 15.
"I was lucky enough not to have any issues with building my PC," he tells me, "but I would say a few rookie mistakes would be: forgetting thermal compound; forgetting EPS power; forgetting PCI Express power for your graphics card; and using too small a power supply, or a cheap power supply, as they have a tendency to catch fire."
Has working on his own computers made Jamie see pre-built models differently? "Yes. Now, I see them as cheap plastic cons that are trying to scam your money for a machine with incredibly cheap motherboards, cases and power supplies. They also ramp up the clock speed of the CPU and the cores and sell it by saying, 'Faster clock speed equals a faster PC', 'more cores means a faster PC', and 'more RAM means a faster PC'. All of these things do increase speeds, but that can change depending on what architecture the CPU is, or what speed RAM you have, or even if the CPU could fully utilise all of that RAM."
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So if more RAM doesn't automatically mean better speed, what does that mean for the 16GB of the stuff I proudly told all my friends about. "For most people 8GB is fine," Marinelli tells me. "And if it's an office machine, most people can get by on 4GB." What's this sensation I'm experiencing? It's a lot like I've been mugged.
So it turns out that with a little bit of planning, and for significantly less money, I could have had a better machine. I could've become a member of this fabled "PC master race" that you read about on this internet, with my own kick-ass gaming rig. I could've joined the ranks of PC gamers. And yet, I'm still happy enough with my decision, given my own situation. You might spend "less money" making your own computer, but it'll still be a shitload, relatively speaking, if you want to get decent results and run today's new video games at their highest settings. But if you're ready to drop some serious cash, you might as well do it yourself. And you never know: maybe, one day, you too will create a game like CryWankFace.
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