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. Last week, he learned about the people you meet when building your own PC. This week, he struggles to make room and time for his needy new machine.
Why build a computer? Before my first build, I presumed the answer had something to do with pride, an inner desire to impress people like you. I had guessed other, practical reasons, like the freedom to customize your machine, the opportunity to save some money. Sure, those factor in.
But now, having built a PC, I know the answer is because we need to create. Creation is like a teeter-totter. On one side we feel divine; on the other like a dunce. We bounce between them. High highs. Low lows.
The result is a machine that, though not living, is intelligent. The parts we choose represent who we are: practical, prideful, or thrifty. It's like a parenthood safety test.
Read to the end
I'll never forget my final assignment from the fifth grade.
The tardy bell was still ringing when Mrs. Carter, wearing a smile the size of the Goodyear blimp, plopped a manila folder onto each of our desks. Inside we found a dozen pages of detailed instructions accompanied by a list of supplies: five popsicle sticks, one Elmer's glue bottle, 20 sheets of construction paper, and a bag of macaroni. Our final test was an arts-and-crafts project.
The most vocal kids whined about the infantilizing busy work, while the goodie-goodies got cracking on step one, collecting the materials from a bin on the front desk. A few of us stayed in our seats and read through the instructions in disbelief. Buried near the bottom of the last page we found a surprise:
BEFORE BEGINNING A PROJECT, READ THE INSTRUCTIONS. ALL OF THEM. EVERY WORD. RIGHT TO THE END.
"If you are reading this sentence, you have finished the 5th grade. Please collect your backpack and leave the classroom without talking to your fellow students."
Before beginning a project, read the instructions. All of them. Every word. Right to the end.
It's a practical lesson, one that's saved me innumerable headaches from that last day of fifth grade onward. And yet, when the time came to build my PC, the memory of Mrs. Carter's final exam vanished from my brain cavity. Headaches, I got 'em.
Building a PC in the YouTube age
Going into the build I knew I needed guidance, but I also knew my tolerance for written jargon was at an all-time low. A layman's instructional video sounded perfect.
I zipped through The Verge's video, which was a tremendous primer, but being a total newcomer I needed something that would hold my hand through the simplest of steps. Newegg offers a free comprehensive three-part "How to Build a PC" video series, each segment over 30 minutes long. I skipped part one and skimmed part two, and figured I'd gleaned the basics. Unwrap part, connect part to other part, and eventually tah-dah, I'd have a computer. Like LEGOs. Expensive, temperamental LEGOs.
TURNS OUT THERE'S A LOT MORE TO AN HOUR-AND-A-HALF-LONG VIDEO SERIES THAN A COUPLE MINUTES RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE.
It's astonishing how quickly we nerds can go from clueless to cocky.
My subconscious must have wised up, because around midnight the day before the build, I reloaded the Newegg videos to see what I might have missed from my cursory viewing. Turns out there's a lot more to an hour-and-a-half-long video series than a couple minutes right in the middle. For example, while the main steps of computer building are in fact like building with LEGOs, they're preceded by lots of wiring, requiring the tiny fingers and steady hands of a two-year-old sniper.
After that, there's the software, like Windows 7, which if installed correctly, is followed by the drivers, antivirus software, and system updates. The videos kept going. By two in the morning, I'd both watched the entire tutorial and become paralyzed with anxiety. Everything hurt, from my stomach to my back. I laid perfectly still and stared out the window. At sunrise, I took some Aleve and went for a walk.
Around 10 a.m., my co-worker Russ Frushtick was buzzing my apartment. He'd built a PC back in college, and I figured he could provide on-the-fly advice, but really I just needed someone to spot me and to keep me company.
By noon, the parts were laid out on my office table like Frankenstein's appendages. It was time to make a monster.
AN INDEX OF THINGS I NEVER KNEW I HATED:
- Static shock: Static shock - the electricity one accumulates on their body and releases on ear tips of unsuspecting siblings - is powerful enough to destroy a motherboard. To reduce the risk, I removed all the rugs from my room, took off my shoes, and latched onto the metal side of the computer like I'd float away if I let go. It was overkill, perhaps. PC building is a battle between person and paranoia.
- Space: You can't get enough of it. I thought my dining-room-table-sized workspace would provide plenty of room to build a computer, but within minutes everything became a shelf: the table, the floor, the bed, the exercise bike, the bathroom sink, the folding chairs I hauled down from our storage loft - all surfaces in service of the grand machine.
- Cookies: Not digital cookie files, but actual cookies. My wife brought them as a salve for my nerves, mistakenly offering the plate over the PC's open abdomen. As Frushtick clamped his fingers around one, I could see crumbs blasting into the air. They were so small, I couldn't see where they flew, but I have a feeling they are still hiding somewhere deep within the computer, waiting patiently to ruin everything.
- Wires: I've never liked wires, but I can't say I ever hated them with an all-consuming rage until now. Wires come in three sizes: small, very small, and that-can't-be-a-wire-can-it? The latter are plugged into equally microscopic slots labeled with vague acronyms written in a font so small, I imagine it requires those pens artists use to paint portraits on grains of rice.
- Fingers: They are unreliable tools, apt to produce moisture, shed tiny hairs, and deliver deadly shocks.
The ecstasy of your first boot
After three and half hours of plugging, wiring, and screwing, my computer booted. Honestly, the process was easier than I'd expected. I stuck to the tutorial video.
The first boot of a hand-built computer elicits a strong euphoric sense comparable to a runner's high or any other sense of overwhelming joy that follows a prolonged mentally or physically taxing experience. I'm sure completion of crossword puzzles falls into this same category. Sure, I didn't actually make the computer, but I built an intelligent machine that previously did not exist. I made this. This is my robot child!
A LIST OF THINGS I INSTALLED DURING MY FIRST DAY AS A PC USER:
The motherboard drivers
The graphics card drivers
Eight rounds of system updates
A LIST OF THINGS I UNINSTALLED DURING MY FIRST DAY AS A PC USER:
Zynga games hub
Hours after setting up the PC, I took a plane to Kansas City for Labor Day weekend. It was tough leaving behind Chris Jr.-Bot, but the tickets had been bought months ago.Crysis would have to wait.
When I travel I always unplug the electronics in my house, because my firefighter father peppered my childhood conversations about Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic tater tots with seemingly innocuous side-comments like, "Where fires can start, fires will start." Every socket is a sleeping dragon, ready to spew sparks the second I lock my front door. So, to be safe, I had turned off the computer and unplugged the power strip.
You probably know where this is going. I didn't.
When I returned from the trip on Labor Day, I was too tired to think about computers. I woke up Tuesday, traveled the three feet from bed to desk, pressed the power button, and for a moment - a millisecond - everything went as expected. The blue LED lit up and the interior fan puffed, but then nothing. Light off, fan off. Nothing.
THE BLUE LED LIT UP AND THE INTERIOR FAN PUFFED, BUT THEN NOTHING. LIGHT OFF, FAN OFF. NOTHING.
I pressed the button again, and again saw a flicker of the LED and heard the wheeze of the fan. Each following press got the same half-hearted reaction from the computer, despite the growing insistence of my index finger. My computer was dead. OK, not dead - I was being dramatic - but to me, at that moment, my Robot Baby was on its deathbed, coughing its last breaths, the sparkle fading from its robo-eyes.
My instinct was to call someone, but who? When my Xbox wouldn't turn on years ago, I called the Microsoft support line printed on the back of the console's box. I looked at the dozen empty boxes next to my bed. I considered choosing one at random, though my subconscious knew whomever I called wouldn't be particularly helpful since I couldn't describe what was wrong to begin with. Calling NVIDIA because my computer won't start is like going to the ER because I have trouble waking up in the morning. NVIDIA could help with a specific graphics problem, but for me, everything seemed to be broken.
TO ME, AT THAT MOMENT, MY ROBOT BABY WAS ON ITS DEATHBED, COUGHING ITS LAST BREATHS, THE SPARKLE FADING FROM ITS ROBO-EYES.
You can't tell what's wrong with a PC, not at first. You have to tinker. You have to play doctor, gauging the symptoms to trim the list of potential diagnoses. Then you test a number of remedies, hoping one works. There's no panacea. You can't drop the entire system in a cardboard box at UPS and wait for Microsoft or Sony to send you a replacement in a couple weeks.
Fortunately I had a support group in my eager-to-help co-workers at Polygon, the experienced members of our forums, and experts like Sean Hollister and Vlad Savov at sister site The Verge. Everyone was very confident their fix would solve the problem, and most everyone had an entirely different fix in mind. My motherboard was screwed in too tight. A loose screw was shorting the system. My graphics card was loose. Or my RAM. Or I needed to switch my two sticks of RAM. Or remove one and keep the other.
Deja vu. My arm was deep inside the PC case, hoping my fingers would intuitively tremble their way towards the solution.
FIXING A COMPUTER IS A GREAT WAY TO LEARN HOW TO BUILD IT.
Fixing a computer is a great way to learn how to build it. Each potential fix has to be tested one at a time, by turning off the power, unplugging the cord, making a single change, re-plugging in the cord, and turning on the power. Lather, rinse, repeat. After two hours, I had plugged, unplugged, tightened, removed, and replaced every part of the computer. During the build, I was paranoid and cautious, coddling the rig. Now, I was whipping my hands from one component to the next, spinning the screwdriver like a top, manhandling it - because in my mind the computer was already broken. This was my revenge: torture by Phillips head.
I accepted reality: the motherboard, the power supply unit, or both had either been fried or were busted to begin with. Because replacing a power supply unit sounded easier and cheaper, I high-stepped to J&R Electronics in southern Manhattan on my lunch break and grabbed a replacement.
The power supplies took about five minutes to swap, but I spent another 10 minutes praying to whichever saint is responsible for computers, gurgling superstitious chants, crossing my fingers, rubbing horseshoes, hanging garlic, anything really to boost my Luck attribute. I pressed the computer and...
Voila. Simple as that.
And the gross thing, the really sick truth of this misadventure, is that I got that PC building high again. This machine was dead and I brought it back to life. Sort of. I fixed it. Me, the powerful, benevolent Dr. Chris Frankenstein. The fear and anxiety were gone instantly, and they left without saying goodbye.
A LIST OF THINGS I DON'T KNOW HOW TO MAKE GO AWAY AFTER TWO WEEKS OF BEING A PC USER:
This floating coffee cup graphic on my desktop
Making room for Robot Baby
The PC took up more space than I'd expected.
My New York City apartment, which I share with my wife, is divided into two spaces. Downstairs, a thin, long corridor that serves as living room, kitchen, guest bedroom, and seasonal storage; and upstairs, a thin, and slightly shorter square that serves as bedroom, dressing room, closet, bathroom, and office. My bed is so close to my office chair that I have to lower the seat and push it beneath the desk, lest I bump into it when I fumble towards the bathroom at 2 in the morning.
I sincerely thought a PC would be an unobtrusive addition to our environment. Despite having measured out space for the large case prior to completing the order online, I had no realistic understanding of the computer's size. For starters, a PC means more than a computer. It means another monitor, another keyboard, another mouse. I need a place to keep both headphones and an assortment of wireless USB dongles. And on top of that, the wires.
WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO MOVE A PC, I ASKED. "TO NOT MOVE IT," THEY SAID.
We've occasionally used my worktable as an impromptu buffet when we've had parties. I'd simply unplug the iMac and move it into our closet space. That's no longer an option. A PC is also incredibly heavy and finicky. When my computer wouldn't turn on, the first question most people asked was: Did you move it? Carrying a PC across the room might wiggle loose the graphics card or bump a piece of rogue metal against the motherboard.What's the best way to move a PC, I asked. "To not move it," they said.
I FIGURE I CAN BEGIN THROWING THESE BOXES AWAY AFTER THE COMPUTER'S BEEN STABLE FOR TWO WEEKS.
And then there are the boxes, boxes upon boxes with boxes inside of the boxes inside of the boxes. Each part of the computer arrives in a large, sturdy cardboard shipping box, containing the part's glossy box, which itself is densely layered with boxes of protective cardboard and Styrofoam. My instinct was to scrap them as I went; then I remembered the return policy: parts must be shipped back with original packing material.
Here's what I have hidden on my side of the bed: all of the aforementioned boxes. (One of the boxes is actually hidden under my dirty clothes, while another has been moved to the coat closet. I know I am mistaken to think my wife won't notice.)
I figure I can begin throwing these boxes away after the computer's been stable for two weeks. Or maybe three weeks. Or maybe a month or so. My wife has been patient. This morning, to test Steam Big Picture Mode, I taped 50 feet of HDMI cable from the upstairs computer to the downstairs television. She hasn't seen it yet.
PCs truly are like babies. You bring them into the world, and immediately they require all of your time, attention, and money. They can fill you with joy and pride, but not without sleepless nights and a messy house.