Friday, April 9, 2021

Building Your Own PC

Twitch streaming comes in many forms. Throughout these past entries, I’ve talked about how you can go live from your phone, directly from your console, or other portable devices like laptops and tablets. The one piece of equipment many Twitch streamers aspire to use however, is the PC. Using a PC, you’re not only given much more computing power than any of the other options, but you have more versatility in the graphics, effects and other aspects of your streams. And while I don’t think it’s necessary by any means to buy a PC just for streaming, I think it’ll be useful to give a few tips when it comes to pricing out and building your own computer, should you find yourself in the market for one. These lessons I’ve learned over the years can come in handy whether you’re assembling an entirely new machine, or you just want to add parts to an existing one. 

It should go without saying, but there’s no way this single entry could cover every possible topic and piece of equipment related to whatever specific buying decisions you’re making. Hopefully you’ll find this useful as more of a blueprint for where to look, and how to approach the process itself. With that said, let's put together a PC! 


Silent Hill 3? Now that's scary.

If you’ve never built your own PC before, it's probably a really intimidating process. And if the whole prospect makes you super uncomfortable, you can buy a pre-built machine. But these will cost you significantly more than assembling one yourself, and they don't have as much versatility when it comes to taking them apart and changing them. So in my opinion the service of putting a PC together isn’t worth the inflated price. Because when you get into it, you’ll realize there are only really a handful of important points to keep in mind, and the rest essentially what I call ‘adult LEGO building.’ Even in the last 15 years since I assembled my first machine, manufacturers have streamlined their parts so there’s nearly nothing to it but to plug the parts in and connect the cables, like you would with any piece of hardware in your home. 

The other big fear is buying the wrong parts. There are so many things to choose from that you probably don’t even know where to start, and you don’t want to buy something that doesn’t even fit in your rig. But in recent times, it’s actually become incredibly easy to find not only what works best for your price point, but ensure that the parts are compatible with each other. And it's all thanks to a few incredible resources that I swear by when buying parts for my own PC: Logical Increments and PC Parts Picker


Don’t know a good graphics card from a bad one? Don’t know what kind of CPU would work for you? Don’t even know what kinds of parts comprise a PC at all? Welcome to Logical Increments. This is a website that gives carefully curated parts recommendations for a huge range of price points in every category, from graphics cards and RAM to hard drives and the cases you put everything into. Possibly even more importantly, when you scroll down past their chart of parts (and links to the best places to buy), there are fields explaining what’s important about each piece of hardware you might look into. This makes it very easy to be informed when purchasing your parts. In fact, it’s so useful that for the past several years, I haven't kept up with any PC-related news at all. I never know what the latest series of card is, or even what brands are out there in general, until sitting down to make a purchase. Then, using this one website, I learn everything I need to know in a few minutes. That's right: if you use it correctly, this site will essentially turn you into the PC building equivalent of Neo from the Matrix learning kung-fu. 

You don't have to be Otacon to assemble a
computer these days.

When getting into a resource like this, it’s important to utilize restraint. You may be tempted to scroll all the way down to the most high-tech parts, but these are not only ruinously expensive, but also not that much better than the cheaper ones when playing games. PC equipment doesn’t operate like a linear graph- the next best graphics card might only be 1% better, not necessarily justifying the price difference. And it doesn’t take as much power as you think to match the visuals you might have gotten on consoles. Many new PC users get upset if they can’t crank everything to max settings in their new game, but they don’t realize that the console version typically runs at the PC’s equivalent of medium or low settings. Even if your PC isn’t top of the line, it’s still in the upper echelon of what’s possible graphically. So you don't need to worry quite so much. For reference, my machine is comprised wholly of parts that are over three years old, and would probably align roughly to what’s considered a ‘Fair’ or ‘Good’ build on the Logical Increments site (not even reaching the middle of the graph), but still can run most games between high and max settings at 60fps, without ever dropping a frame. And as you can see by checking the website, a machine like that doesn’t cost much more than a new game console. So don’t get carried away with the shiniest, newest parts- it’s not always necessary. 


Once you’ve gone through the Logical Increments site and you’ve decided on which parts to go with, write all the names down. You now want to double check that everything will work together without issues. This is where the System Builder tool from PC Parts Picker comes in. On this page, you select each piece of hardware you plan on buying for your PC. When these are all in place, the tool will warn you if there are any problems. It can estimate whether your power supply will provide enough watts to keep everything running, detect if you’re missing any necessary components, make sure the CPU you chose is compatible with the motherboard, and all sorts of other factors. It can’t find 100% of the possible issues of course, so it’s still useful to read the customer reviews for your parts to find any weird quirks, but I’m constantly surprised at how well this tool does work. This step is important no matter your skill level, and every veteran PC builder I know uses this website to make that final check before committing to a purchase. 


You can even use your favorite controllers
on the PC.

Okay, so you bought everything it’s all been showing up at your door for the past few days. It’s finally time to build your PC! There’s a really important step to keep in mind at this stage: do not expect to use your PC on the same day you start putting it together. This isn’t because the build process takes a long time- it’s because you should expect the unexpected. Maybe a part was dead or broken when it got to your house. Maybe there’s some incompatibility that somehow got past both you and the PC Parts Picker. It’s not necessary to know what will go wrong, but it’s useful not to get too upset when something goes wrong on that first attempt. I’ve never put together a PC that was I was able to use on the same day I started to assemble it. Luckily, Amazon and Newegg have great return and replacement policies if you need to send things back. For more about tempering your expectations, see the entry Tips for Setting Up Your Stream Equipment

When it comes to actually assembling things, this is where it becomes important to seek resources related to the specific hardware you bought. There’s no way I can tell you how to build your exact PC. But just about everything at this stage is plug-and-play. There are just a few key points to keep in mind that I wish I knew when starting, however: 
  1. Use bowls or dishes to keep all the various screws and small parts organized. You don’t want to lose them on your floor.
  2. Before screwing your motherboard onto your case, do not forget to attach the I/O port cover. This is a very common mistake for beginners (and even sometimes experts), and can take a lot of time to fix.
  3. Look up how to properly apply thermal paste to your CPU, install the CPU fan, and plug the CPU in, before attempting to handle this aspect of the process. This is probably the hardest part, though even this step is easy once you get the hang of it. 
  4. Don’t put everything away and perfectly set the PC up in your room before you find out if it can boot up. 
  5. Don't throw away the boxes or cash in any rebates before you know that everything has been working properly for several weeks. 

Those are five specific points I wish I knew before getting into the game. In addition, watching any YouTube tutorial on PC building can show any other techniques you need to know, and I’d of course recommend reading the instruction manuals of whichever parts you’re installing. Other than that, have fun! I’ve always found the process of building or tweaking a PC to be a very zen activity. It’s a good chance to just stretch out on your floor with a bunch of building blocks and make something really cool. And by taking a little bit of time to assemble your own machine, you’ll have a skill that can help you in so many ways going forward. Swapping out parts will be easy, and you’ll be saving a huge amount of money over the ensuing years by not paying for the labor. Hopefully you’ll find these insights from my journey useful, when building your own PC. 

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