How to build a PC: A comedy of system errors

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The misadventures of building a PC, one static shock at a time.

How to build a PC is a weekly three-part series chronicling editor-at-large Chris Plante's misguided attempt to build a PC. This week, what drives a person to PC gaming?

My computer won't turn on.

At some point in the four days after I built it - days spent out of town on Labor Day vacation - something must have happened in my apartment because now the computer is signaling for me to give it last rites. Each press of the power button triggers a blink of the case's LED "On" light and a single rotation of its internal fan. One blink, one spin, and another sigh from me.

My very confused wife wakes up, and asks what I am doing. It's five in the morning. She must realize this is an uncomfortable moment between man and computer, because before I say anything she is back asleep.

Look at me, building a PC when I can barely change the batteries in my remote control without sparking an electric fire. Here I am at the crack of dawn, one hand deep inside the guts of a computer case, the other clinched to its metal side, sitting on the hardwood floor in my underwear, praying I don't collect enough static charge to screw up anything else.

What am I doing wrong?

I have a problem

My name is Chris Plante, and I've been PC sober for 13 years.

In 1999, my freshly unwrapped copy of Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption locked up during a software update. I pulled the computer loose from the socket, asked my dad to help carry it across the street, and sold my then three-year-old Christmas present to a friend known for hosting neighborhood LAN parties, bidding adieu to that PC and all PCs forever. I used the cash to buy a Sega Dreamcast, five or six games, two memory units, and a fishing controller.

I LONG FELT QUITTING PC WAS ONE OF YOUNG ME'S HEALTHIEST CHOICES.

I long felt quitting PC was one of young me's healthiest choices. I didn't like something so I cut it loose. If I could take any part of the decision back, it would be the fishing controller. That was one of young me's worst choices. I digress.

Being PC-free was a boon. During freshman year of college, I saved cash and stayed out of my dorm room. I brought an Xbox, but it served a social purpose, hosting split-screen Halo and pick-up games of Madden. A close friend who played World of Warcraft became a hermit sophomore year, missing class and ordering take-out from the aptly named chicken wing joint Pluck-U. I patted myself on the back.

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Redemption
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A lot changed after college. My hobby became my job, and my job became my life. I returned to single-player console gaming, wiped the dust off my Dreamcast and Xbox, and caught up on an exhaustive backlog. I fell hard for iOS. And my friend from college balanced out his life, playing a little less WoW and eating a lot less Pluck-U.

PC gaming, which I had shunned with a snobbish pride, began to feel like an embarrassing blind spot.

At the Game Developers Conference this February, Epic vice president Mark Rein talked me through a tour of Unreal Engine 4.0 and the Kepler technology that he said would be the next big leap forward in computer graphics. Rein is a consummate salesman, one of the best in the industry. I often describe him as a man who was born with a business card in one hand and a vacuum cleaner in the other, so I say knowingly that I may have bit hook, line, and sinker when I decided then and there I needed to own a PC. The graphics, the potential, and the hardware - named after my favorite pre-modern science philosopher - made the nerdy synapses in my brain vibrate in ecstasy.

I needed it for work, I told myself, already justifying the cost.

Conversations with skeptical colleagues and the stomach-churning price tag of a high-end readymade computer nearly extinguished the fire, but this summer, a number of games fanned the embers back to life, coaxing the flame into a fire. There was the popularity of DayZ, the open world zombie apocalypse simulation; the latest NVIDIA graphics cards, with the aforementioned Kepler tech; a group of indie games includingThey Bleed Pixels, Thirty Flights of Loving, and Slender Man; and a set of high profile exclusives like Orcs Must Die 2 and Guild Wars 2. An MMO. The genre I'd casually dismissed.

If I was going to do this, though, I decided that I wanted the "true PC experience:" to build my own rig. I can't recall why I decided this. Probably I was influenced by years of boasting from PC-loving friends, or maybe I wanted to save some money, because that, I am told breathlessly, is the "number one reason" to build and not buy a PC.

While skimming Amazon, not knowing my GPU from my CPU, I became overwhelmed by the absurdity of choices and began to wonder if I was making a very expensive mistake. I turned to friends, colleagues, the internet, and anyone at all who would respond to my gobs of questions.

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The unusual transformation of the people you know

Warning:

If you decide to build a PC, the computer-loving people in your life affect an alternate personality. They aren't unique personalities, but rather broad theatrical types, and while I suspect I haven't met them all, I believe I have met enough to assemble a rogues gallery. These were the seven PC gamers I most often came in contact with. These were the people my friends, family, and forummates transformed into, like a help-spewing Rick Baker monster.

JARGONHEAD

"Just make sure you get a solid PSU, because you'll need lots of watts if you ever want to SLI the GPUs. That's assuming you grab a decent mobo. Speaking of, make sure the CPU and mobo play nice. RAM!"

The parts of the computer have long, dull names, and on a forum made exclusively of an in-the-know community, they are both practical and ubiquitous. They also are a subconsciously insulating barrier. Deciphering PC gaming acronyms is easy enough for those wanting to learn the basics, but the average builder will never be able to communicate with a true jargonhead. For the hardcore, every computer part can be whittled to a handful of letters, every turn of phrase into a password granting access to the club.

In the PC gaming world, the jargonhead is the 'tween girl, texting in cutesy code to an inclusive gang of likeminded friends, none of whom notice you sitting at the cafeteria table.

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MS. FUTURIST

"You could buy now, but if you wait two months, the PC will be so much better," says Ms. Futurist.

Ms. Futurist has an unusual mix of obsessive compulsions and good intentions. She genuinely wants you to have only the best, but her ticker tape connection to tech news is too up to the minute. She lives in the unobtainable future thanks to conference coverage and thorough hands-on previews. Sure, every so often the next great thing truly is waiting behind the curtain, but isn't building a PC a lesson in what connects where, a masterclass in how to upgrade?

This breed of ultra cautious, forward looking PC gamer has played a key role in keeping me away from PC gaming this long. Numerous times I was prepared to dive back into PC gaming, only to be convinced the best hardware is two months away, and then two months after that, and "no really just wait a couple more weeks. It will be worth it, promise!"

DETAILS-MAN

"What parts did you use? How many terabytes? Is that this year's or last year's model? What's the product number? TX or RX? What do you mean you don't know?!"

Details-man is like a cagey superhero. He has this superhuman ability to recall the most minor details of every PC part ever fabricated. When it comes to buying a computer, he can be a passionate ally, finding the exact model or tool that will save extra money. He can also drive you mad.

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MR. SPENDYOURMONEYFORYOU

"You know the price difference between a graphics card and an overclocked graphics card? 20 bucks. And get this, for $40 more, you could get some extra RAM. You never know when you'll want to burn Blu-rays, and considering a writable player's only a smidge more expensive, why not spend extra if only for the peace of mind?"

This is the logic of the Mr. Spendyourmoneyforyou. He has your PC on the end of a fishing line, using greed to tease the string. See: News editor, friend, bad influence,Brian Crecente.

TRADE MERCHANT

"You could buy that Dell monitor for $1,100. Or you could go through this guy I know to get a Korean model for half price. No dead pixels. Good as anything you'd find at Best Buy. Better even. You have a universal power adapter, right?"

The trade merchant is my favorite PC gaming personality. For now, at least. That may change in two years when my jerry-rigged monitor explodes, shredding my eyes with its cheap-yet-beautiful glass screen.

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CONSOLE EVANGELIST

Console evangelists have the best defense for not buying a PC. PCs are considerably more expensive than consoles. PCs require more TLC.

Consoles, while certainly not error proof, are considerably more reliable than handbuilt PCs. Consoles have no blue screens, no viruses, and few updates.

When consoles break, you generally know the cause. When PCs break, it's a nauseating game of guess and check. Consoles break and you call the warranty line. PCs break and you call that uncle who does IT.

And console evangelists will remind you of all this many times over.

PC EVANGELIST

The pro-console argument can be so overwhelming that you forget the advantages of PCs, the areas consoles fall short and will probably continue to fall short due to the very things people love about them: their limitations from low cost and ease of use.

Modding, upgrading, and overall tinkering are out the door. Digital distribution on consoles is a walled garden in which one company controls each market. PCs offer many choices on where to buy games, which leads to competition and lower prices. And these digital markets offer one more advantage for classic gamers: downloadable out-of-print games from the last three decades.

The PC evangelist is proud of their hobby, and wants you to know why. They want to recruit you.

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Converted

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And so, with the support of my oddball friends, I set out to build the PC.

The first thing you learn is the jargon because you have no other choice. Everyone in PC gaming is a jargonist; it's a matter of to what degree.

Google helped with the basics. A GPU makes the pretty graphics. A PSU provides the power. A mobo is a motherboard, and a motherboard is like the dining room table on which the other parts are served. I found it easier to think about the parts as familiar metaphors rather than what they actually are: expensive and delicate hunks of metal and silicon that, so far as I can tell, perform magic or make deals with the devil to conjure images onto my screen. My ignorance about these things is humiliating, and now more than ever, I wonder why my public school didn't offer classes like "How to PC."

A number of places online, The Verge included, do a tremendous job educating newcomers like myself, providing a list of parts for a decent build, telling readers where they might want to deviate from the course if they want something better or cheaper. These writers also do an exceptional job of making the process look smooth, easy even. The videos trim out the boring parts, like spending evenings online hoping to find a cheaper power supply unit, grinding your teeth deciding whether to buy costly extended warranties. In the world of build videos, every part is available, carefully unpacked in a static proof space with a large table, the right tools, and plenty of elbow room.

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These videos aren't support networks; they're broad examples of jobs done right. I needed specific, nitty gritty details, and sure, some horror stories. I figured if experts could screw up, well, then a debacle could happen to the best of us. A sick way of building up my confidence, really.

I turned to the forums here on The Verge. Users Mr. Bucket, Salias, Benderrodriguez, and many others caught me up on what was good, what was bad, and where to shop. DocSeuss organized a list of the components I would end up buying on NewEgg - the retailer of choice, I learned, for many PC gamers. I felt like a sociologist. "Behold, NewEgg, a strip of the online savannah where real life PC gamers migrate for their annual upgrades."

Within two weeks, I had a bedroom full boxes and a vague sense of the hell I was going on. Within three weeks, I had my hand wiggling around the case. The tips, the jargon, the forums, the videos; I couldn't turn to them. I couldn't turn at all. I was stuck on the floor, and then I heard it - I think I heard it. A pop.

In next week's chapter of How to build a PC: Chris builds a PC, learns about static discharge, and gleans why so many people put up with this madness. But does he play Crysis?

Read part two.

Read part three.

Image credits

Gordon McAlpin, Russ Frushtick, Ken Plante, Activision, Sega, Microsoft, Spooky Squid Games, Dean Hall

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