Dave Builds a PC

Zen and the Art of PC Maintenance

December 16, 2016

While waiting for the updated specs on the laptop I said I was going to buy in the #davegoeswindows finale, I put it together that I could build a custom PC “gaming rig” with VR capabilities and buy a VR headset for considerably less money than the laptop + core combo. Once I realized this, I started getting very excited about the idea of building my own PC.

Custom building a PC for the first time

The last PC I bought was in 1999; a Gateway 133Mhz Pentium with 16MB of RAM. I did a few upgrades, but back then the peak of customization was an ethernet card and a 32X CD writer. My new desktop computer is a water-cooled, quadcore 4GHz Core i7-6700K, 32GB RAM, an MSI Armor GTX 1070 graphics card, sitting in a matte white NZXT S340 Elite case with a large tempered glass window. It’s beautiful and fast. Though it’s a very minor piece, the chrome heatsink piping on the graphics card reminds me of a Shelby Cobra and I love it. Ugh. So nice.

Under the tutelage of my friends Zach, Danh, and countless hours of YouTube videos1 I began wrapping my head around how to build a PC. Trying to stick to an arbitrary budget of ~$1600 I used PCPartPicker to build my PC parts list before purchasing. It wasn’t long until boxes of computer parts started stacking in my office and were ready to be assembled.

Assembly didn’t go perfectly smooth. Following the instruction manual I mounted the motherboard to the case before attaching the CPU and cooler. This is not how the pros do it. They attach everything before mounting. SO that meant I didn’t attach the cooling block perfectly. And I accicentally used the wrong screws and stripped the threading on the radiator. And I didn’t plug in one of the RAM sticks all the way. And every time I’ve seen someone holding a CPU, they were in a white room with a hazmat suit on, yet based on the instructions I’m supposed to use my cheetoe fingers? Am I doing this right?

But that wasn’t even the hard or confusing part. Once you get all the parts in the case it’s time to wire up all the connections. The directions here are cryptographic technobabble. There are dozens of cables and you need to consult the motherboard manual like a Rosetta Stone to decipher where to attach them. It’ll be easier next time around, but it definitely wasn’t intuitive or clear.

Eventually everything appeared to be plugged in to the correct place, I attached the beatiful glass window to the case and pushed the power button…

Powering it up for the first time

There’s an immense sense of accomplishment seeing your computer boot to BIOS for the first time. The lights come on and it beeps and boops. It comes to life! You built a computer. From there it only took a few minutes to install Windows 10 from a thumbdrive.

With Windows installed the first thing you need to do is update drivers for your motherboard and graphics card. This is great except you don’t have Wi-Fi enabled yet! Once you figure how to get on the internet to the computer, you have to guess which zip file to download from not-great websites. This isn’t fun but it’s okay. Still riding that initial high.

Over a half-hour and few reboots, I got all the drivers updated for my motherboard, GPU, and the onboard-WiFi working which meant I could move on to the next step and install games. It wasn’t long until problems started manifesting.

Problem #1: Loud Fans

Now that my computer was up and running, the fans were whirring at a loud hum. I started to worry that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on work or podcast on this machine and that I had made a huge mistake.

My motherboard lets me control the fans but no matter what I did they kept whirring away. Upon further inspection, my case fans weren’t actually attached to my motherboard! Ah-ha, my first mistake! They were plugged into a molex connector straight into the power supply. I opened up my computer and attached the case fans to the CHA_FAN (“chassis fan”) inputs on my motherboard. Now my motherboard automatically scales up fan speeds. At idle, the only fans running are my radiator fans that cool my CPU. They produce a small whir, but it’s not offensive.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

Problem #2: Blue Screens of Death

With that solved I figured it’d be a good time to take the new graphics card out for a spin. I downloaded some games I’ve been waiting to play2. I had tried some of these games on the Surface Pro 3, but they ran at ~10FPS and were unenjoyable. This system should have no problems playings games on “Ultra” settings… or so I thought…

On my maiden gaming voyage, after about 20 minutes I got an infamous Blue Screen of Death. It was a bummer, but not unheard of. So I tried re-updating drivers. More Blue Screens. After three days of somewhat random blue screens I started getting dismayed.

Like any engineer, I knew I needed to isolate the problem by finding a way to trigger the crash. Each of the components I installed could be malfunctioning. I started with the CPU, ran a few benchmarks to try and trigger a crash; nothing.

I moved on to the GPU. I downloaded 3D Mark Firestrike and ran the GPU benchmark which successfully triggered a crash after ~8 minutes. I peered through the window on my computer at the graphics card looking for answers. Looking closely I noticed one of the 2-pin connectors connected to the graphics card was ever-so-slightly poking up. I didn’t plug it in right! So I opened the case, plugged in everything again, found a couple more un-sturdy plugs, and went ahead and fixed the crooked post on my cooler mount. I turned the computer back on, re-ran Firestrike… it ran even better and didn’t crash!

Phew. It was fixed. I’m now enjoying games at ~70FPS on Ultra with no crashing.

The ups and downs of bespoke computing

Building a PC wasn’t instantly gratifying. I’d almost descibe it as teeth-clenching. That said, I really like my new computer. I definitely think it’s worth it to build your own PC if you’re at all interested. It has a craftsmanship feeling like woodworking or fixing your own car.

I hate myself for this comparison, but here goes. Computer manufacturers (like Apple and Dell) are like front-end development frameworks; smart defaults that serve the majority of people. That’s just fine. But as a technolgist and a software developer, I want something custom tailored to my specific needs. This balances my aethetics, my technolust, and my budget without paying a “tax” to companies to do that for me. The modular nature of the computer means I can piecemeal upgrade the components as necessary. I’m not beholden to an entire new product cycle.

The consequence of rolling-my-own system is that all the repsonsibility is on me. Most of my problems were my own damn fault for not plugging or screwing things in well. If I run into endless Blue Screens of Death, I have to solve that. There’s no genius bar to bail me out.

We’ll see where I’m at two years from now, but it’s possible I have the pieces in place for a computer that I’ll use for the next 10+ years replacing parts along the way. With a modest budget of $300~400/yr in computer parts, I could stay at the cutting edge of performance indefinitely. In fact, I already have my next $200 worth of stuff planned out (SPOILER: It’s LED lights, custom cables, and another solid state drive).

I like this new style of computing. I’ll probably pick up a new laptop to replace the Surface Pro 3 eventually, but it’ll likely be an underpowered ultralight. The failures when building a PC were deflating, but I’m happy to have picked up a new hobby, some new games, and the possibility to explore some new realities along the way.