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Is it too hard to build a gaming PC?

I built my first PC from scratch in the summer of 1997. I’d been upgrading various systems for several years before that, starting with an original SoundBlaster card and progressing on to memory and graphics upgrades (the term “GPU” literally hadn’t been coined yet). Since then, I’ve built, upgraded, repaired, and modded more systems than I can remember. It’s been a long time since I thought about how difficult the process was, though it still takes some hours to mount, tie off, and properly assemble a machine.

Over at Vice, writer Emanuel Maiberg recently took on building a machine for the first time and, while ultimately successful, didn’t come away enthused about the process.

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…

Eventually, I got it working, and the PC is awesome…But getting there was a nightmare. It is by far the most difficult product I’ve ever bought and put together.

Maiberg notes that while the PC is clearly the best place to play games, he doesn’t think most people will bother, simply because of how hard it is to actually build a system. After giving the topic some consideration, I think he’s really got a point.

One point I want to make, which Maiberg acknowledges, is that building a PC really has gotten easier over the past 20 years. I’ve compiled a rough list of hoops would-be PC enthusiasts used to have to jump through in no particular order.

But past the physical installation of hardware, there’s so much more bullshit we used to have to deal with that doesn’t exist anymore. VIA’s 686b southbridge could cause permanent data corruption if you installed a SoundBlaster PCI card while using the onboard RAID array. Some motherboards had hidden issues between various PCI slots that prevented them from being used at the same time. I once had an MSI motherboard that could only run certain memory if I installed it in the furthest slot from the CPU. RAM incompatibility was common, you had to install AGP drivers for decent graphics performance, and even installing Windows required manual intervention to load third party storage drivers much of the time. Long after floppy drives were vanishing from Apple systems, I had to keep them handy for flashing BIOSes to support new CPUs, because the ability to read data files from USB drives wasn’t something enthusiasts could take for granted.

These issues weren’t limited solely to Taiwanese chipsets, either. Intel’s i820 was such a disaster the company had to recall it. The i810 lacked an AGP slot and its integrated graphics delivered a mediocre 2D image that left even a high-end monitor looking like a thin film of grease had been smeared across the screen. The i815 follow-up added an AGP port but couldn’t address more than 512MB of RAM. Enthusiasts often bought 440BX boards because these could handle 133MHz buses through an unofficial setting, though this meant you needed an AGP card that could handle a 35% overclock. Athlon and Athlon XP cores of the day were easy to chip. The first time I bought a 32MB Radeon card, I wound up having to cobble together a driver out of bits and pieces of other drivers, none of which worked individually and some of which would permanently hose a Windows 98 installation if you attempted to uninstall them using the official ATI uninstaller.

The less said about USB 1.0, the better — but I remember hooking up a USB mouse for the very first time, only to discover that the mouse pointer would pause every time the CPU was under significant load.

Just because things used to be a hell of a lot worse — and they really were in non-trivial ways — doesn’t mean they couldn’t be better than they are. Some of the issues that Maiberg raises could be more easily communicated. The first time you lever down a ZIF socket, it may sound as if you’re doing things wrong, especially since that lever doesn’t go down without some force applied.

Others, like the dizzying array of available hardware, are more difficult to address. Motherboard and graphics manufacturers each divide their product families into addressable segments, then sell boards according to the value-added features they pack in at any given price point. This inevitably leads to customer confusion. If Intel releases five chipsets for Skylake and eight manufacturers release an average of five boards per chipset, that’s 200 motherboards for one CPU platform. Add in sockets for previous-generation parts and suddenly you’re drowning in hardware. Now multiply that times power supplies, graphics cards, CPUs, cases, RAM, and CPU coolers. Maiberg isn’t wrong when he says that getting a handle on all this is a heavy lift. One of the reasons why PC-build guides are often written as general discussions rather to extreme specificity is because there’s no way for the author to know which of potentially millions of combinations of hardware you’ll be attempting to assemble.

One could even argue that this state of affairs results in fewer people getting involved with PC gaming, which leads to lower amounts of revenue than would be the case if all the involved companies agreed to launch fewer products and hewed more closely to common standards.

There’s one point Maiberg makes that needs to be called out, however.

It’s true that Apple offers a streamlined, attractive website and a much simpler interface for product selection. I’ve written in the past about how awful laptop shopping is and how poorly most PC OEMs compare against Apple. But — and this is critical — when you buy a system from Apple as opposed to building one yourself, you’re paying for the effort Apple put into building that system. (We’ll ignore the fact that Apple generally ignores gaming and GPU performance and can’t be bothered to use a version of OpenGL that’s less than six years old.) Boutique builders could do a much better job of guiding and helping would-be PC buyers pick hardware, but virtually all of them offer pre-built boxes with standard component with the option to upgrade one particular item — the GPU, for instance. They also have phone numbers, chat services, and email addresses — and companies that don’t respond to customer questions don’t stay in business very long. Alienware’s new Aurora family starts with a GTX 950 at $800 and offers a GTX 1080 at $2K. That’s not far off from what the author spent.

PC gamers generally recommend buying over building because it’s the best way to optimize your cost per dollar, not because there’s no other way to go — many of the desktops sold by the likes of Dell and HP can be turned into gaming rigs by adding a GPU. It can take a little bit of work to check which models offer an appropriate power supply, but you don’t need a 750W behemoth to run an RX 480 or GTX 970. The reason most hardware review sites also review boutique systems is because we recognize that being a gaming enthusiast and wanting to build your own rig from scratch aren’t always the same thing — and people who want to be PC gamers but don’t have time to build desktops (or prefer a gaming laptop) deserve to know which companies are building better or worse systems.

Ultimately, I think Maiberg actually makes a lot of good points about how difficult it is to get into PC gaming and there may well be an unmet need for a gaming box that solves some of the issues he ran into. I’ve recommended Noctua coolers in the past because the company publishes some amazing documentation and instructions (and offers free lifetime hardware upgrades). PC gaming is an amazing hobby — it’d be to everyone’s advantage if getting into it was easier.

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