It’s just like building Lego, they said. Enjoy the process, they said. You’ll have such a feeling of accomplishment when it’s finished. This is what friends and colleagues told me when I set out to build a PC. It did not quite go that way.
It seems more and more people are choosing to construct their own gaming machines rather than buying them already made. It’s cheaper (in theory), you get to choose the exact specifications, and it’s something to do while you’re stuck at home in lockdown. Even Superman actor Henry Cavill has been getting in on the act, making a video of himself constructing his new machine while wearing a really tight vest. I thought it would be a fun thing to do with my 13-year-old son as a sort of Easter holiday treat. We’re both nerds – what could go wrong?
The first part – choosing the components – really is fun, although it involves a long process of reading reviews on sites such as PC Gamer and TechRadar, comparing specs and looking forlornly at your bank balance. The basics are a central processor (CPU), a graphics card (GPU), a motherboard (MB), some RAM, some storage space (a hard drive or solid state drive or both), a power supply unit (PSU) and a cooling fan or two.
The key decision is whether you’re basing your build around an AMD or Intel CPU – everything else will flow from that. I went with an AMD Ryzen 5 5600x CPU and an AMD Radeon RX 5500 XT GPU because these are the fastest, most powerful processors in my price range, and I wanted the best gaming performance I could get without remortgaging my house. I also opted for an Asus Rog Strix B550-E motherboard, because Asus is known for its super-reliable components, and this board is designed with gaming in mind, with lots of fan and RGB headers for cooling and lighting, and two slots for modern M.2 SSDs, which are teeny, fast and offer huge capacity. Western Digital lent me its excellent WD Blue SN550 drive, which, with its 2TB capacity, meant I didn’t really need an accompanying HDD.
As for the case, you should choose a full or mid-size model for your first build and don’t scrimp. be quiet!, Corsair, Phanteks, Cooler Master and NZXT all make great, user-friendly cases, but I went with the be quiet! Pure Base 500DX, which has cool minimalistic styling, plenty of room inside, clever cable management and nice compartmented areas, as well as three built-in fans, which is enough for my build (the faster your CPU and GPU processors, the more heat management you need). I also used a be quiet! power unit because it’s a good, trustworthy model and I knew it would fit in the available space as it’s by the same manufacturer. It’s also 650W, which I knew would be enough for my build, though it’s worth checking an online power supply calculator to make sure your PSU can handle your rig’s power demands.
That was the easy part. Then came the construction. I watched a few YouTube tutorials (try this or this) and felt pretty confident. However, once we got everything semi-assembled and inside the case, things started to get fiddly. The motherboard sits right at the back of the case, so once it’s fitted, plugging in the various cables can be extremely fiddly. It’s like playing the old board game Operation, but with 2ft-long tweezers and no hilarious illuminated nose to tell you you’re getting it wrong.
It took all afternoon to assemble the parts, before at last I felt ready to connect the PC to a monitor and turn it on. People had joked: “Be prepared for when nothing happens!” I laughed along. But I can tell you when nothing actually happens, it’s not funny. This is where the pain begins. My motherboard has a little LED display for error messages, and mine was saying “0d”. When I looked this up in the manual, it said, “reserved for future AMI SEC error codes”, which was not exactly helpful. I checked the Asus site and there was nothing on there.
I asked Twitter for help.
This was the point that I realised it really isn’t like building Lego. Because I know a lot of computer programmers and assorted geeks, and there was no consensus on what to do. Before I started the build, everyone was telling me how much fun it would be, but now, as soon as I started tweeting my issues, I was flooded with similar tales of inexplicably non-functioning builds, of days spent intricately deconstructing PCs and testing every component and still having no luck. Where were these people earlier!
I emailed Asus customer support and they got back to me impressively quickly, suggesting that I might need to update the motherboard. I went through the lengthy process of finding the right download on another PC, using the app to change the file’s name so that my motherboard could read it, and getting it on to a USB thumb drive. I put the drive into the motherboard USB slot and powered up. Nothing. A small LED next to the USB slot is supposed to blink wildly. The LED stayed dead. I tried another USB stick. Nothing.
Unsure of what was causing the problem, I took the whole PC apart. All the fiddly wires I’d plugged in, all the cables I’d teased through holes and grates in the case – all stripped. What I had left was the motherboard plugged into the power supply unit, and connected to the monitor – the absolute skeletal basics. I switched it on. Nothing. I rehoused the CPU on the motherboard, just in case I’d placed it wrongly. Nothing.
I was about to give up, but game designer Alex Rose would not let me. He tweeted me several times imploring me to try the motherboard update one last time. So I bought a new USB stick, went through the download process again, plugged it into my motherboard, powered up, and … the little LED light came on. My PC was awake. I felt like a new parent, or some sort of minor god.
My new machine is now running games such as Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone and Grand Theft Auto V with no trouble, at gorgeous levels of visual detail. You can look in the glass panel and see all the LED lights twinkling. It’s lovely. But it took me almost three days to get here.
What’s the key takeaway? Simple. If you’re building a PC, get your motherboard, attach your CPU and PSU, then test that basic setup before you do anything else. Admittedly, a few YouTube tutorials had advised this, but being excitable and having faith in my shiny new components, as well as experience of the attention span of 13-year-olds, I bypassed that basic level of preparedness. Learn from my mistake.
As for being like building Lego? To be honest, even on a good day, that analogy works only if Lego required four different instruction manuals and all the parts were made by different manufacturers with a laissez-faire attitude to compatibility.
Thank goodness, then, for kind, knowledgable people. I am lucky that I work in a community of tech nerds and they helped me enormously, but I also posted on the subreddit BuildaPC and got lots of helpful responses and moral support. That’s the nice lesson from all of this: you never build a PC alone.