Opinion Piece

The Joys Of Building A Gaming PC, And Why You Should Do It

 

 

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Just a few weeks ago I sat down to build a shiny new PC for a friend of my down in England. Over the course of three months he had sent me money from his wages, and I used it to purchase parts, slowly accumulating the components required to construct his beast. Once finished, I felt incredibly proud of my handiwork. This is far from the first computer I’ve built, but I’ve had the same feeling with all of them, regardless of whether they were mine or for someone else. A smile comes to my face every time he sends up a picture of it playing some game at the highest settings, or when he chats about how well it’s performing.

And that’s why I’m here, to try to persuade you that building your own gaming computer is a great experience, and one that’s not limited to small group of people who spend their lives devoted to it. It’s something any one can do. I’m by no means a professional when it comes to building computers, and so there’ll probably be people out there who do this for a living shaking their head, if only because the computer in the above picture is running Windows 8, but over the years I’ve built a fair few of them, and each one has been a brilliant experience.

Oh, and for the PC enthusiasts among you the PC I built was uses an AMD FX-8320 processor, R9 270x graphics card and 8GB of Ripjaws ram. The system came in at a total of £600, including a copy of Windows 8.1. Thus far its proven to be a beast, and more than capable of running most games at the highest settings. It was finished off with red LED lighting inside the case, giving it a soft red glow. You’ll see the pictures strewn throughout this ramble.

While we’re here, then, let’s address a couple of the most common myths surrounding building a PC. The biggest, of course, is that building a PC is incredibly hard, and should only be attempted by technologically minded people and professionals. There’s a hint of truth here, but actually building a computer is a breeze. There’s only one place that each major component can go, and provided you’re not heavy-handed and lacking in patience you’ll be fine. The idea that building a PC is like creating something out of Lego isn’t exactly accurate, but it’s not far off. The only truly fiddly bit is connecting all the wires, more specifically the smaller case ones that provide power to the USB slots and the button that turns the whole thing on, and then tidying them away, a process that can actually be largely ignored if you’re not too fussed about how the inside of your computer looks like. And yes, mine does indeed have wires just about everywhere, including places that wires probably shouldn’t even be able to reach. Now that I think about it I somehow managed to beautifully tidy away the cables on my friend’s PC, so why does the inside of mine look like a rhino went on a hormone induced rampage? I’ll blame the fact that it’s a cheap, awkward case.

Yeah, That’s why. Stupid case.

A pile of parts that will eventually form a working computer.

A pile of parts that will eventually form a working computer.

The best way to approach building a computer is just to give yourself plenty of time. Clear out a solid afternoon or evening  and ensure you’ve got plenty of open space to work in, and then just take your time as rushing will inevitably lead to problems. Common sense is your friend: while PC parts are actually quite durable, that doesn’t mean you should just be thumping them down on the table. Be careful with your processor, especially, as you don’t want to bend any of the pins. The motherboard also deserves a little care, so just keep it in the box and static bag until you’re ready to get building.

Ah yes, static electricity. Yes, it’s absolutely true that static electricity can damage computer components, which is why most of them come in a lovely little silver anti-static bag. However, don’t be overly concerned about this, as once again common sense is the answer. The big tip is simply don’t build your computer in an environment that generates static electricity easily, so don’t go wandering around in your socks across thick carpets and if you’re wearing a woolen sweater take it off. What you want is a nice table to work on, and preferably something like vinyl, stone or wooden flooring. In other words, a kitchen table is a good bet, and provides the significant other half/parents ample opportunity to yell at you for making a mess. If you don’t have an area free of carpet you can still build – don’t panic, you should be okay, just don’t go rubbing your socks on it or anything daft like that. And for God’s sake don’t grab a balloon and furiously scrub it against your hair, that’s a sure-fire way to damage parts. Not that I’m talking from experience. When it comes to actually building the computer, ground yourself by touching the case or something else metal. This discharges any static electricity you may have built up. Make sure you do this before picking up a new component.

You can buy anti-static wristbands or even mats, but unless you’re building computers all the time they’re not worth the effort, although I suppose for the extra couple of quid you could always chuck a wristband in the cart when ordering parts. A wristband simply connects directly to the computer case via a metal clip, this keeping you grounded. Instead, just make sure you touch the metal of the case every now and then. If you’re really paranoid and want to be extra sure you’re not going to accidentally go all Electro, you can leave one hand constantly touching something metal, although you’ll probably struggle to put the parts in correctly. And you risk looking like an idiot.

A good tip is that the box your motherboard comes in creates a lovely little workbench. Simply place the motherboard on it, and the proceed to install the processor, heatsink and Ram, before placing the entire assembly into the case.  The box provides a nice surface for the board, and adding the processor and Ram to it at this stage is far easier than doing it when the motherboard is installed in the case. This is especially handy if you’re working in a small case where there’s not much room to move your hands.

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Motherboards just look awesome, for some reason.

So no, actually building a computer really isn’t that challenging, but it is incredibly rewarding. However, as I said there is some truth in the myth that constructing your own dream-machine is a challenge; building is easy, but choosing exactly what to put in it can be a tricky. We all want to get the best bang for our buck, but when confronted with the complex reams of numbers that seemingly adorn every processor and every graphics card the uninitiated can hardly be blamed for flinching, especially since one needs to ensure parts are compatible with each other before buying. Is a Radeon HD 6850 better or worse than an HD 7790? And are either of those better than a GTX 860? What makes one processor stronger than another, or this Ram greater than that one? Glance at the products on offer and you’d be forgiven for simply assuming that companies like AMD and Intel just want to confuse potential customers by presenting confusing names and statistics. On top of figuring out what’s best, you’ve got to find out if it will all work together as well.

Happily there’s a lot of forums out there filled with tech lovers who are usually more than happy to help out, offering sage advice. But it’s also worth learning yourself; you’d be surprised how easy it is to get a working knowledge of most of the major components and what you’re looking for, and whether they’ll all fit together. Sure, the strange wording and focus on obscure numbers seems baffling, but they’re easy to decode. And in this day and age it’s a handy thing to know. Plus you’ll seem like some sort of computer God to people who just bought theirs off the shelf and hoped for the best, and who doesn’t want to seem like a God?

One important thing to remember is that for gaming the graphics card is the most important component, as it handles most of the work, so put aside a good portion of your budget for that, probably around twice what you’re going to spend on a processor. The  exceptions to this rule are things like RTS games, which often need quite a bit of processing power in order to deal with the AI, and MMOs. While games these days are slowly starting to move toward using eight core processors, a quad-core is still perfectly fine and won’t leave your wallet looking like it got mugged unless you opt for top-op-the-line options, such as Intels i7 range. Generally speaking unless you’re planning on overclocking your computer, which is essentially pushing more current through components in order to achieve higher performance, then just about any motherboard will do the trick, so long as it will take your chosen processor. Try and find one with USB 3.0 support, though, as it’s handy for plugging in USB thumbdrives and the like. As for Ram, try to aim for 8gb as games are moving toward 4gb being the minimum, but 4gb will do if your budget can’t quite manage it. Another stick of Ram can always be added in at a later date.

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Graphics cards sure have changed a lot over the years.

If you’re able, I’d personally highly recommend the processor and graphics card I listed at the start of the article; an FX-8320 processor, or FX-8350 if you can stretch to it, and an AMD R9 270x graphics card. It’s a pricey combination, but can easily handle most games, and should be more than adequate for quite some time. We should see more games adopting eight-cores down the line, and so the FX-8320 or FX-8350 should set you up nicely for that, while not costing as much as Intel’s – admittedly more powerful – offerings.

Ultimately even if you find the process of choosing parts and putting them altogether to be a complete hassle and even downright boring, firing up your custom machine for the first time creates an immense sense of pride and satisfaction, a feeling that never goes away. There’s just something heart-warming about playing the latest games on a machine that you created. It’s like having a child, something to love and nurture, but without the screaming or pooping. It doesn’t even matter how good the actual machine is. Mine is a simple little thing, yet I love it, and still get a warm glow whenever I fire it out. Everything inside that metal case was put there by my hands after having been carefully selected from the vast amounts of parts available.

Another common idea is that PC gaming is very expensive. There’s nuggets of truth here: PC gaming absolutely can be extremely expensive, but only if you’re aiming to play ever game at the highest settings and on very high resolutions. It’s also very easy to get caught up in the thrill of upgrading your computer with new parts in order to constantly be achieving the highest settings in every new release. In reality, gaming on a PC is as expensive as you want it to be, and you have the benefit of being able to upgrade the machine as time goes on and money permits. The more you’re willing to spend the better overall performance you can achieve, but even on a tight budget you can craft a computer capable of delivering a great experience. My own PC was built on a tight budget, and while it can’t handle the latest games at the highest settings it can run almost anything released before the start of 2014 on medium or  higher at a steady framerate.

The myth that building a PC will break your bank account stems from the die-hard elitists of the PC community, people who seem to firmly believe that if you don’t spend at least  £1000 building your machine then you won’t be able to start a game, let alone play it. And that’s total bullshit. They also tend to have a believe that nothing but ultra settings and 60fps will do, but again that’s crap.

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It’s actually glowing red, but a mixture of bad lighting and my own inability to use a camera shows otherwise.

Having said all that, while the machine itself can be quite cheap there’s other costs to consider; a copy of Windows can be anywhere between £60 to £120, and you’ll need a monitor to run it all on, a decent one of which can set you back over another £100. A cheap mouse and keyboard will do, but that’s still  £40 or so gone, and then you’ll need speakers unless you want to use earphones all the time. Of course if you already own a PC, and I’m assuming that you do, then you can simply keep the screen, mouse, keyboard and speakers you’re already using.  You may even have a retail edition of Windows around that you can install on your new PC.

Also, if you have a HDTV then you can simply plug it directly into your PC using a HDMI cable, which allows you to use the in-built speakers in the TV as well. Even better you can plug an Xbox 360 controller into the PC and use it to play the vast majority of games available on Steam. Package your computer into a small case and you’ve essentially built yourself a more robust console.

One must also consider that while the initial cost of getting a PC setup could be relatively high, depending on your situation, the savings do make up for it. PC games are, on average, cheaper than consoles, even for the very latest releases. Take the newly released Wolfenstein: The New Order, it’s on Amazon for £30, which is £10 less than the Xbox 360 an Xbox One versions. It’s not a huge saving, but over time they mount up. There’s also an extensive back-catalogue of brilliant titles to be bought for next to nothing, and constant sales on Steam which throw up amazing games at low prices. Just recently I got the Director’s Cut of Deus Ex: Human Revolution for £3. You’ll also have access to a vast selection of Indie games and interesting exclusives.

There’s also the advantage of being able to upgrade your PC whenever money allows. You can start with a relatively cheap machine, and over time grow it into something vastly more powerful at a pace that suits your bank account. A stick of Ram here, a new graphics card there, and voila, you’ve upped the performance.

Consoles are wonderful, wonderful things and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate them, but don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the fanboy wars and become blind to the benefits of building a custom computer, nor should you fall victim to the many myths that surround it. The biggest advantage consoles used to have over the PC was that they were simpler, allowing users to just plug them in and get playing but they’ve largely lost that advantage these days through stupidity, while PC gaming has become easier than ever thanks to things like Steam.

Picking out the parts and putting them together might be a chore or it might be one of the most enjoyable experiences you’ve ever had, but either way waiting at the end is a powerful sense of satisfaction. It’s the same feeling you get if you build your own piece of furniture or even completely renovate your house by yourself. The feeling that your own effort went into the creation of the computer that’s now happily running Watch Dogs makes the entire experience infinitely better.

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4 replies »

  1. You get such a sense of achievement from building a pc, Ive built nearly all mine apart from the very first one i owned all the way back in 1997! Can be very daunting for people if its there first time but as you say, Theres plenty of help out there and to a vast degree things are fairly self explanatory. 2009 was my last build, other than a few new gfx cards and ram i havent changed anything about my rig but im itching to give it some new guts.

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