Two weeks ago I set out to build a gaming PC, and let’s just say it wasn’t quite a smooth process. I’d watched all the recommended tutorials on YouTube, read several seemingly exhaustive “how to” guides, who humorously assured me that it would be like making a Lego model.
But as things started to go wrong, BIOS updates refused to download, and components didn’t fit in the right places, I started to feel like I was slightly induced into error. So, before you embark on your first PC building project, here are 10 things guides don’t tell you about tools, technology, and life in general.
1. The choice of components is difficult
There are so many options for every part of your build. Are you going with the best CPU you can afford and a cheaper GPU – or the other way around? Is Corsair RAM better than Western Digital RAM, and if so, how? Do you need a modular or semi-modular power supply? Is the cheap motherboard you bought on eBay PCI 3.0 or PCIe 4.0? Will your giant, super-powerful graphics card really fit in the tiny micro NZXT 210i case you covet?
There are so many choices and so many compatibilities to consider. You can certainly make things easier by checking all of your desired components on a site like PCPartPicker, which will highlight potential conflicts. There are also online calculators to determine the power capacity you need. Be ready to do many to study. I never realized I would become an expert on DDR4 RAM data rates or the read speeds of various M.2 SSDs, but God help me, here we are. If you’re looking for reliable storage options, check out our best SSD for gaming guide.
2. But overspending is easy
Every guide tells you to set a budget and stick to it, but they don’t tell you how hard it is. There’s always going to be a better component that doesn’t top your $50 spending plans, but those extra additions add up. It’s a very good idea to narrow down your options by honestly thinking about what you’re going to run on the machine; if it’s mostly indie games and weird Fortnite skirmishes, you don’t need to spend £500 on the latest monster map.
At the same time, if you’re going to overclock the absolute crap Metro Exodus – Enhanced Edition, you need to spend a good chunk of your budget on heat management. It’s not sexy, but neither is a melted GPU.
3. You can take a shortcut
If you’re nervous about getting the right combination of base ingredients, don’t worry. Decent PC vendors like Scan and CCL sell pre-assembled and fully tested sets of motherboards, CPUs, and GPUs, with all firmware updated and tested. It may sound like cheating, but believe me, even with these components sorted, you still have plenty of challenges to overcome.
4. Everything is extremely rare
You might already know this if you hang out on PC build sites or read a lot of gaming news, but GPUs and CPUs are very hard to come by right now. Covid has had a huge effect on silicon chip manufacturing and shipping, affecting all tech industries from PCs to cars.
On top of that, there is a massive additional demand for GPUs through cryptocurrency mining, and in the UK we also have to deal with Brexit. It took me several weeks to assemble the parts for my build, so you may have to be patient (restocks are due in the spring) or risk paying a lot more than the odds.
We’ve put together a few guides to the latest places to go. to try to buy an RTX 3080 or find stock RTX 3070. Or you might have better luck with something older on our best graphics card guide.
Most guides will tell you that the only tool you need to build your PC is a simple screwdriver. This is both true and also a giant lie. Of course, you can go through it, but unless you’re super confident and skilled, it’s going to be tough. This is the hard mode of PC building. What you really need is a size 2 Phillips screwdriver with a shaft at least 10 cm long (to be able to access the motherboard once installed), and a magnetic head to help you place screws in awkward positions…and to grab them when you inevitably drop one inside the case.
I’d also make sure you have a small set of precision screwdrivers and a pair of long nose pliers – they’re incredibly handy for plugging cables into the MB when you’re tight on space and for loosening thumbscrews.
6. You have to be orderly
One thing that PC build guides definitely don’t specify is the number of different cables, screws, and attachments that come with PC components. Manufacturers should provide enough to ensure compatibility with a range of versions and requirements, but it can be daunting to be presented with so many bits. Everything looks the same too – until you make a mistake.
The screws you need to fix in a hard drive can be 2mm longer than those to fix the MB, and using the wrong type could damage the threads. So when you open boxes, put any screws you remove in separate labeled jars so you know exactly where they came from. Also, don’t empty all the cables from all the component boxes and leave them in a single pile on your table. Keep them separate. Record everything.
7. Nothing is ever completely compatible
Although the ATX standard and other modular approaches to PC design have made things much better, you’re going to run into situations where the parts don’t really want to fit. Your hard drive or power supply might not fit snugly in its predetermined compartment, for example, or your case’s backplate might have convenient slots in the wrong places. The one thing I learned very quickly was to be adaptable and ready to improvise. How to thread the cables differently? Can you seat the hard drive any other way? Think of it as a role-playing adventure. In reality…
8. Plan ahead
You should treat this process like some sort of tech camping trip or Destiny raid. Plan first. Visualize where your motherboard will go, where the power supply is, and where the cables should be. Draw a map. This will save you a lot of tears later when everything is in place and you realize you can’t access that USB port anymore because it’s hidden behind a giant power cable from the motherboard.
You can even do some basic building outside of the case first. Connect your CPU, RAM, and PSU to the motherboard, plug it into one of the best gaming monitors you can find, and turn it on. You should see the familiar American Megatrends BIOS page. If nothing happens, you know something is wrong before you put everything back in the case. It could be that your RAM isn’t tweaked enough, for example, or your MB needs a firmware update – now’s the time to find out those things. The instruction manuals supplied with the components are not always excellent (this is another one they don’t tell you), but don’t be afraid to ask for help. The BuildAPC subreddit is full of friendly, patient people who answered all of my incredibly stupid questions without a single use of the word “noob”.
9. Let there be (a lot of) light
You need light. So much light. You have no idea how dark the inside of a PC case is. A head-mounted torch is a good idea if you can stomach such a silly look, or a right-angle lamp that shines into the cavity. If I could have lit up my kitchen, I would have done it in a heartbeat.
10. Once you’re done, you’ll want to build another
Building a PC, and running it, truly gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment. The hermetically sealed architectures of modern smartphones, televisions and game consoles have largely cut us off from the technical process, but building a PC makes you realize why your grandparents spent so much time tinkering with cars, building vast model railroads and sew their own. clothes. Being competent and creative is extremely addictive.
In short, this won’t be your last release; it probably won’t even be your last build this year. You’ll want to update this machine, while starting another for a friend, and another with a different set of specs. It will be expensive. You will transform the guest room into a workshop. You’ll start buying broken tech gadgets on eBay, confident that you now have the technical expertise to fix them. This is the main thing the guides don’t tell you. You’re not building a PC, you’re starting your weird new life as a master builder. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
To find out more, see the best gaming pcs to inspire your building, and be sure to pair your new platform with a lovely display from our best 4k monitor for gaming guide.