As a web developer, I often tell people that I'm all about the software, not hardware. You have problems with your printer worse than a jam? I'm not the guy to fix it. Wi-Fi not working? Did you switch it off and on again? Yes? Then I can't help you anymore.
However, a recent desire which failed to realise the reality of my bank account, alongside a growing interest in Windows 10, empowered me to experiment with building my own PC. Building a PC is seen as a rite of passage in the tech community. If you want the latest hardware and the greatest specs, everyone knows you put it together yourself, not buy pre-built from a shop.
I was expectant and optimistic then, when I purchased my components in the early hours of a bank holiday Monday. Even more so when they were finally delivered. I had originally estimated the build would take up to two hours. Less than one hour into it, with many still to come, I was ready to give up.
Yes, this experiment almost blue-screened me.
Before we go any further, it's probably worth mentioning what parts I used to build my PC. I had a focus on gaming and intense programming whilst wanting to leave a little headroom for future video editing. Therefore, it was obvious I would need a lot of processing power, a decent graphics card and more than capable RAM. But the thing also had to look pretty, so LEDs and a sleek case to house it were all part of the bill. What I ended up with is not strictly "budget", but compared to something like a similarly specced iMac – in both cost and performance – it is certainly decent.
- Motherboard - MSI - B450 GAMING PRO CARBON AC ATX AM4 Motherboard: £116.64
- Processor - AMD Ryzen 7 2700 3.2GHz 8-Core Processor: £204.23
- RAM - Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB DDR4-2666 Memory: £79.64
- Graphics card - Asus GeForce GTX 1060 6GB ROG STRIX Video Card: £189.00
- Case - NZXT H500 ATX Mid Tower Case: £69.99
- Fans - Corsair CO-9050072-WW LL120 120mm RGB LED PWM Fan: £72.95 (funny story with these. I didn't realise I would need additional intake fans for the front of the case. These are used to achieve optimal airflow, but also to make the inside look like an 80s disco party.)
- Storage - Samsung 860 Evo 1TB 2.5” Solid State Drive: £136.97
- Power supply - Corsair TXM Gold 550W 80+ Gold Certified Semi-modular ATX Power Supply: £73.99
Total cost at time of purchase - £943.41*
Total including peripherals (Xbox One Controller + LED Keyboard) - £1067.96**
Comparable iMac, May 2019 - £2439.00***
A few things to bare in mind. Due to the fact that I only found out I would need additional fans after I had already purchased everything else, the total price of this build is a little more than what I was anticipating. Taking that into consideration, the build likely would’ve cost less to account for that additional expense. Also, the Ryzen 7 processor and power supply are both arguably overkill. But I wanted to create something that wouldn’t need to be upgraded for a while. Finally, I was building this in mind with replacing the MacBook Pro I currently own – which would fetch me just over £700.
So please don't hate me, mum.
For reasons which will become increasingly clear as you read on, I’m not going to detail everything you need to do when building a PC. I'll just be commenting on the lessons learnt. As is preferable when newbs try something new, please take the following comments with an entire truckload of salt. If you want real advice, there are videos linked further down which helped me tremendously with the whole process.
Also, I may refer to my PC as "Cactus". Don't be alarmed, that's just the name I've given it.
"It doesn't screw in..."
One thing I failed to take into consideration before assembling Cactus was my total lack of D.I.Y skills. I have either an incapability to read instructions properly or align screws correctly, possibly even both. This presented multiple issues with the build, in particular when it came to attaching the CPU cooler on top of the most expensive, sensitive part of Cactus – the CPU.
These issues were potentially devastating as failure to attach this cooler correctly, could lead to insufficient cooling, which would eventually cause the CPU to fry under the heat it'd be emitting. Amongst everything else, this was the most gruelling part of putting together my PC as I removed and replaced the cooler multiple times in order to get it attached properly. Oh and by the way, you're not supposed to do that! The cooler and the processor stick together with a layer of thermal paste in-between. Each time the cooler's removed, the integrity of the paste is damaged, leading to less effective cooling.
It was the spring screws needed for attachment that tripped me up here – that was a fun surprise. Even having watched multiple videos, I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. Tech YouTube made it all look so simple and nobody mentioned anything about a backplate (looking back, they did). The backplate features a set of holes and goes behind the motherboard. The CPU cooler is screwed into that backplate. The way I looked at it when it fell off the motherboard, it may as well have just been a nice little accessory:
"Look Dad, it comes with a random backplate!"
"Super! Well done son!"
It took the effort of three computer building novices and an overnight shipment of additional thermal paste to eventually get the CPU, its cooler and the backplate correctly attached to the motherboard. Needless to say by this point, I thought I'd made a huge, costly mistake.
That original two hour estimate looked like a dot compared to where we were now.
"It doesn't look great..."
With so many components going into a PC, you're going to require a significant number of cables to ensure that everything is receiving power and handling data appropriately. Mistakes here are likely the first place to look when your PC doesn't switch on (which we're getting to, by the way).
Cable management is also important to ensure the longevity of your components. It's best to keep your wires straight and unfurled where possible. I know this now because that's exactly what I didn't do. With the atrocity that was installing the CPU cooler, I was desperate to complete the rest of the build in as little amount of time as possible. So from that point, everything else was rushed. The back of my case is currently a mess of untidy cables, protruding with a small yet noticeable bump. No doubt, this is going to make future upgrades that extra bit annoying. Of course, this could have been avoided had I taken my time to connect everything properly, rather than rushing all the way through. Lesson learnt.
"It doesn't switch on..."
Yes, once all my parts were assembled, cables professionally tangled and I switched on the plug on the wall, nothing happened. Well, my heart broke into a thousand pieces (one for every £1 wasted) but that was about it.
I scoured Cactus for loose cables and janky connections but saw nothing. I unplugged and re-plugged the mains several times – each time resulting in disappointment as life was clearly devoid of this machine. It had taken four days (not four straight days, mind you) to reach this point and I simply couldn't believe that after all that sweaty effort, the result was a blank monitor.
Then, I switched on the power button on the case... 🙄
With the complexities of hardware no longer an issue, the next thing to do was install Windows 10. Being able to switch on Cactus was just one thing. The real test to see if everything was working together nicely would be installing the operating system.
Back in my comfortable software ends, this process was reassuringly smooth. I blazed through the install with ease, impressed with just how well the system was running. Inputs were responsive, component temperatures were cool and the Wi-Fi game was strong.
This was the most satisfying part of it all and the part I was most looking forward to. Actually witnessing the fruits of my labour in action – accompanied with a rainbow vomit light show courtesy of some blindingly bright LED fans – made all the pain worth it. I guess that’s the major life lesson I can take from building this PC. There may be certain things in life that don’t necessarily go to plan, but don’t let those things stop you from completing what has already cost you over £1000. Unless you actually want your parents to kill you.
Alas, we weren't out of the woods just yet. A few minor issues persisted in the early sprouting days. My RAM speed is clocked at 2666MHz. However, for the first few days of use it was being clocked by Cactus at 2133MHz instead. This was simple enough to resolve – just had to update a value in the BIOS. Something a little more sinister, were the occasional freezes that would render the computer completely unusable until restarted. I’d be using the computer and then suddenly the mouse and keyboard would stop working. At first I thought it was a Bluetooth issue, but the clock in the bottom right also stopped ticking. Surprisingly, it appears that problem might have fixed itself. It may have been down to the fact that I was downloading a large game from Steam (80GB) and this caused memory issues? Or perhaps an update needed to be installed – of which there have been several. Unless said issue ever pops up again, we’ll never really know for sure.
Which I'm perfectly happy with.
And there we have it! One PC capable of playing games and developing apps, with headroom to do so much more. To be using something daily which you built yourself, is an incredibly rewarding experience. Although personally, I don't think I'll be trading web development for PC building any time soon. However, with that said, I would recommend building a PC to anybody. Just take your time. A lot of my issues could've been avoided had I not rushed. Truly, if I can do it, you can too.
The following videos helped me out tremendously when planting Cactus. I've also included the PCPartPicker list of my components for all you fellow tech aficionados to scrutinise.
Austin Evans: How to Build a Gaming PC (2019)
Joey Delgado: Best $750 Gaming PC Build Guide
Science Studio: Building in the NZXT H500
*I did want to minimise delivery hassles, so opted to buy only from three places: Box, Amazon and PC World. This build no doubt would’ve been cheaper had I not been so pedantic about shipping and bought the items from the cheapest vendors.
**Prices correct as of May 5th 2019, also includes delivery charges.
***https://www.apple.com/uk/shop/buy-mac/imac/21.5-inch-3.0ghz-6-core-processor-with-turbo-boost-up-to-4.1ghz-1tb#Specification - 3.2GHz 6-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB 2666MHz DDR4 RAM, Radeon Pro 560X 4GB memory graphics card, 1TB SSD storage. Okay, so you get a 4K display and a mouse and keyboard with it, but even with that added, Cactus would still cost just over half of that £2400 iMac. That's a lot of cacti.
****Even then I could only update it to 2400MHz. Turns out some of my components don't support RAM clocked at 2666MHz, but 2667MHz instead. It might sound ridiculous, but I’m too scared to cross that little 1MHz barrier. In my mind, if I do that, the world ends.