Building a PC isn’t that difficult

It’s rather odd how a site named “Motherboard” would write an article called “PC Gaming is Still Way Too Hard“. To quote Total Biscuit:

I bought my first computer in 1998. Let me tell you that things today are a HELL of a lot simpler than they were back then. You have many things so much easier today trying to build a system. In part this is due to the number of parts manufacturers being only a handful. You don’t have many different manufacturers all vying for your money.

And the value you get for your dollar today? Don’t even get me started.

Here’s Motherboard’s super simple guide to building your first gaming PC:

  • Step 1: Have an unreasonable amount of disposable income.
  • Step 2: Have an unreasonable amount of time to research, shop around, and assemble parts for your computer.
  • Step 3: Get used to the idea that this is something you’re going to have to keep investing time and money in as long as you want to stay at the cutting edge or recommended specifications range for new PC games.

This is only if you do things wrong. You can build a decent gaming system for under 1000 USD. It all depends on your expectations. If you’re wanting top notch performance, a system that will scream and keep screaming for years to come, then yes, you need a huge amount of disposable income and you need to keep upgrading.

Most people who build a gaming system aren’t going to do that. They want a system that will perform comfortably for several years before they need to worry about upgrading. And for that you don’t need a hellacious amount of money. Again, 1000 USD is a good target, but you can get away with building a decent system for less.

I’d say that the minimum you need to consider spending for a decent gaming system is 750 USD for what goes in the chassis. The introduction of the AMD RX 480 certainly makes this possible while being able to get good performance.

If it sounds like a bad deal, I agree, which is why the majority of people are better off with an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, despite why the awfully self-titled “PC Master Race” might tell you.

It’s called the “PC Master Race” because PCs have almost always had specifications far out-performing any console on the market. If you’re willing to spend the cash, you can build a system that will play any game on the shelf at Ultra HD 4K, with varying levels of frame rates. And for slightly less, you can at least get a system that’ll perform very well at 1440p.

But at the same time, technology is always moving, so you need to decide how well you’re willing to keep up.

And it starts with the processor. Invest in a good processor today and it’ll carry you for at least 5 years, and then all you’re upgrading is the graphics card, perhaps adding memory.

PC hardware companies like Intel and Nvidia are always in the process of introducing new chips while phasing out older ones, and doing enough research to say with authority that I got the right CPU at the right time is a full time job.

There really isn’t a such thing as “the right CPU at the right time”. There’s the CPU you have, and there’s ones that are better. They are always introducing new and better chips simply because that is what the market not only wants, but needs.

Remember what I said earlier about how you don’t need to spend a hellacious amount of money to build a good gaming system? The author of the Motherboard piece apparently never go that memo:

Let’s take for example the manual for my—brace yourself—”ASUS Republic of Gamers Maximus VIII Hero” motherboard. As you can tell by its ridiculous name, this thing is being marketed specifically to people who are building PCs to play games, but there’s no easy-to-find “quick setup guide.”

The ASUS RoG isn’t built for gamers. It’s built for enthusiast gamers. The people who not only build a system for gaming, but also for overclocking, for trying to squeeze every last bit of performance out of their hardware as possible. And it carries a price tag reflecting this.

If you’re not going to delve into the advanced features a motherboard has to offer, save your money and go with something a little lower-end. The RoG mainboards are expensive, and not for the faint-at-heart. And as he discovered with the manual, the board is intended for experienced enthusiast builders, not beginners.

The process of physically building a PC is filled with little frustrations like this, and mistakes can be costly and time consuming. I have big, dumb, sausage fingers, so mounting the motherboard into the case, and screwing in nine (!) tiny screws to keep it in place in a cramped space, in weird angles, where dropping the screwdriver can easily break something expensive—it’s just not what I’d call “consumer-friendly.”

Yes, nine screws. And trust me, I’ve built into tighter spaces than you’ll ever realize. When I said that building PCs today is significantly easier than when I first started, I wasn’t even close to joshing.

Beginning to end, the whole process of building the computer took me almost five hours, and I had to make two emergency calls to PC Gamer’s Fenlon during the process: once when I couldn’t figure out why the case fans weren’t spinning, and again when the computer didn’t recognize an ethernet cable. I was literally bleeding from a cut on my hand by the end of it, which my YouTube guides said was common. I bled for this fucking thing.

And I’ve bled as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cut myself working on the inside of a computer. It’s one of the hazards with working in tight spaces with sharp corners and pins. But 5 hours for building a PC isn’t uncommon. It is a day-long effort, so if you expected to buy parts and sit down and get everything put together in an hour or two, it has never been like that. At least not if you want to do it right.

Also, it seems the people at the forefront of PC gaming and who spend the most money on it are totally fine with the status quo.

No we’re not fine with the status quo. Never have been.

Back when I was first building a system, finding a chassis that allowed for tool-less installation of parts was a godsend. Most good chassis today use thumbscrews for the add-in cards, but you still need a screwdriver for the mainboard screws. And depending on your chassis you may need to install the power supply first and pull the CPU cable before installing the mainboard or it’ll be hell trying to pull it through later — my Zalman Z12 Plus is like that.

18 years ago, modular power supplies didn’t exist. They weren’t even semi-modular. You couldn’t buy custom cable kits to get the exact connectors you needed. And they certainly weren’t sleeved. That’s one way things are much easier.

Cable management is also much, much easier in chassis today. I still have chassis that I bought 10+ years ago, and another chassis my father bought me while I was still in college. You had to get creative with cable management to keep your system from overheating due to lack of airflow since chassis back then also didn’t have room for several 120mm fans. The standard was only 80mm. Compare building a system in those to the latest chassis by Corsair, NZXT, and other makers today and that’ll show you how easy things really are.

The fact that chassis designs are changing constantly with new ideas coming up all the time shows that we’re not fine with the status quo. You just have no idea the current state of affairs and how they compare over the last three decades. Innovation takes time. Be glad you’re not having to hand-solder chips onto PCBs anymore to build your system. My father’s done that.

It’s hard to put all these PC parts together because they’re made by different companies, but there isn’t even pressure from consumers to come up with better, universal standards that will make the whole experience easier.

And this is what I mean by the fact you have no idea the state of affairs.

ATX is a standard. PCI-Express is a standard. PCI is a standard. SATA. USB. M.2. These are all standards. All of the power connectors inside the chassis follow particular standards. All the data cable connectors follow another standard.

Seriously, if a site named “Motherboard” allowed one of its writers to post this ignorant tripe, I’m very concerned about the rest of their content.

However, this also makes PC gaming insular. Accessibility isn’t a priority for the most enthusiastic users, so there’s no reason to make the experience of getting into PC games easier.

Since when? Sure in the early days things were like that, where you were spending two or three grand on a computer. It was exclusive and insular only because it had a large barrier to entry. But it’s a load of crap to say that accessibility isn’t a priority. It absolutely is a priority. Because when building PCs is easier on the end user, everyone wins. Trust me when I say that things have gotten a lot easier over the years as well. You just haven’t seen it because you haven’t been building and upgrading systems for 18 years.

But bear in mind as well that there are only so many ways you can make it easier.

The only reason it’s hard is because of poor design, and the design continues to be poor after all these years because they’re willing to put up with it.

The ATX standard is over 20 years old now. That standard defines numerous things that actually allow you to have choice. The other standards also allow you to have choice.

This isn’t to say that new standards aren’t possible. They absolutely are. AT was the previous mainboard/computer standard. For add-in cards, we’ve had ISA, E-ISA, VESA, PCI, PCI-64, AGP (graphics only), and now PCI-Express.

Here’s something to bear in mind: that the overall design of a computer hasn’t changed much compared to before I was born shows that we’re actually doing something right, and you’re just complaining because building your computer wasn’t what you’d consider easy. Well there are plenty of things that most don’t consider easy. I’d love to have great woodworking skills. Instead what I can do is trade an afternoon’s time building a computer for a woodworker in exchange for him spending an afternoon building me a cabinet or desk.

The design of a computer and the standards involved are with flexibility in mind. Making a design flexible means that some convenience is traded for choice. And personally I’d rather have a lot of choice and some inconvenience than being able to buy a computer with the click of a mouse but having very limited choice in the process — e.g. Apple.

And with a lot of things in life, I think that’s true for most everyone.

Sadly, most players will never make the switch [to PC] because they rightly assume that it’s too much of a headache. I can tell you with some authority, it is.

And that’s why people like me are around, who are willing to build computers for friends and family at no cost. Hell on one of my recent projects, Desert Sapphire, I took a thousand dollar LOSS building that system, and another loss of probably close to 500 USD delivering it to him. But it was worth it because I love building computers.

Seriously was there no one you could call who’d build the system for you and save you the trouble?