A noise like a freshly lit candle in no hurry to get out told me bad things were going on. Suddenly flames erupted from the side of the computer I had just helped my brother build. I yelled at him to unplug the plug. He removed it from the power supply. Acrid smoke filtered through the room and the dogs fled the stench. Eyes wide and breathless, the power cord still in his hands, my brother said, “This is what I was afraid of.” When you are building a PC, a lot of things can go wrong.
It was my brother’s first build, and I had teased him when he begged me to come and supervise him. “It’s like Legos,” I told him. “It’s not that hard.” Then his computer caught fire, because PC building isn’t just like Legos. As my brother quickly learned (and was reminded of), one bad part can destroy a PC version and lead to expensive repairs and replacements.
But right now, PC build is being sold to consumers as part of the PC gaming journey. It is becoming an extremely popular hobby. Movie stars like Henry Cavill broadcast their builds live, and people stand in line for hours, in the dead of winter, in a pandemic, just for the chance to buy key parts. Shortages of CPU, GPU, and RAM seem to have made PC building more appealing to newcomers, and Reddit’s / r / buildapc sub has earned more than one and a half million subscribers over the past year. NZXT, one of the biggest names in PC cases and components, has also noticed this growth. CEO Johnny Hou told me that there are still enthusiasts and hobbyists like me who enjoy tweaking the hardware and enjoying the act of building, but they are joined by “this new wave of PC gamers who are really interested in getting to The Faster PC Games. Companies like NZXT are trying to make PC building easier for newcomers, but parts of PC building are still more dependent on experience than objectively choosing the “best parts.”
“I hear people call it Adult Legos. To me, it’s more like building IKEA furniture, ”says Erin Maiorino. She is responsible for product marketing at AMD and a big part of her job is building PCs and talking to AMD fans about their versions and the games they play. She is realistic and says that building PCs takes trial and error. That’s why she loves the IKEA comparison so much. IKEA furniture can be notoriously difficult to put together the first time around, but on your third IKEA build you picked up dozens of little tricks that make putting this dresser or table together much faster and easier. She is not wrong. I had spent so much time telling my brother it was like Legos, but Legos have clear instructions and standardized parts. My brother had half of a build he made PC coin selector, and a few other fans and SSDs that I had in a box in my closet.
PCPartpicker and other services like BLD from NZXT, are designed for ease of construction. They allow you to choose all the parts you want and see if they will work together. BLD is even evaluating how certain games will perform on your potential future release. But both services still fuel that “grown-up Legos” mindset for PC building, and the problem with building a PC is that there are a lot of potential points of failure. If you go to a store and buy a pc and it dies, you just need to return it to the store for a new one. If you’re building your own PC and you have a bad stick of RAM, or an old SSD catches fire and sets off a disaster chain reaction, you need to do a lot more work to get things to work again. My brother’s PC, for example, started raising new issues and had little response. Unlike me, he doesn’t have a long history of tech or tech support jobs. The tricks I had learned about building PCs from college weren’t just tucked into his brain and ready to deploy like they were in mine. I would help her resolve issues when I could, but it can take a while and I was not always available.