Adventures In PC Building

There are a number of adjectives I could use to describe the computer I’m using to type this post. In particular, ancient comes to mind and maybe venerable, if we’re feeling generous. My current computer started out life as a pre-built HP Pavilion, I think was the model? Let me put it to you another way; I left all the little stickers on the front of the case from when I first got it. Here’s what those look like:


ATI Radeon and Intel i7 . . . okay, sure, fine whatever. Windows Vista, okay, wait, what?

That is correct, friends. This particular computer started life as a Vista machine. To be fair, I think I purchased it about a month before Windows 7 launched because I remember it came with a free upgrade to 7, which I immediately pounced on and was happy to do so.

That i7, by the way? That’s an i7-920. If you haven’t kept abreast of what’s current in CPUs, most of them are in the 8000-9000 range now.

Over the years, various components died out, as will happen. A friend replaced the original video card for me. I remember thinking he had some sort of mystical knowledge, being willing to open the case and actually move components around. It seemed supernatural. Let’s keep this feeling in mind. We’ll be coming back to it shortly.

I don’t even remember how much RAM it started with and I’ve lost track of how many times new RAM got stuck in there. Currently, it’s at 8 GB and I believe the motherboard maxes out at 10 GB, which I remember thinking was a magical number in 2009.

I’d played around with the with idea of doing my own PC build for years, but I never really committed. It seemed like I was always able to squeeze just a little more life out of this machine.

I think it was last year that the hard drive died. I didn’t know that’s what died, only that one day it didn’t turn out. I took it to a repair shop and they inspected it and told me the hard drive was toast. “We could rebuild it,” the guy said, “for about $2,000.”

I looked at him. I looked at the computer, which, even when it was brand new, out of the box, was worth maybe half that price.

“It’s just the hard drive?”

“Yeah, it’s totally dead.”

“Okay, then.”

I took my machine home and now, having decided there was nothing to lose by playing around inside it, cracked open the case and taught myself how to replace a hard drive.

Turns out? It’s super fucking easy. The hardest part was remembering which screws held all this shit together.

I popped out the hard drive, popped in a new one that I’d gotten for like $30 bucks, installed Windows 10 on it, and just like that, my computer was back. Then I copied all my data from my backup drive which I judiciously keep and everything was back to normal, and GFY repair guy and your $2,000.

That shop was also terrible because both times when I went there, nobody bothered to come to the desk and I had to walk into the back area to get any service, because the guy was playing video games. In retrospect, that should have been a sign. Also, they marked up the inside of my case with a sharpie and I’m still grumpy about that, too.

By the way, I know it’s the data equivalent of your dentist telling you to floss more, but for the love of God, get an extra drive and run regular backups!

Since then, I realized that a lot of what I thought was some sort of mystical knowledge was actually just more of the same thing we’ve been doing all along when it came to the Internet or blogs or whatever else. You just start playing around with stuff and see what happens.

For me, though, I needed the permission to fail that was only granted by the fact that without attempting anything, the computer was going to be dead anyway. For many, many years, I never wanted to try to get inside the hardware, because what if I screwed something up? What if I shorted out a component? The fact that I’d been able to buy this computer at all had stretched my finances back then and without a backup or the funds to replace something, it was too scary to imagine something going wrong.

But once the pressure was off, once it was a matter of “well, it can’t get any more not-working, so why not?” An entire world opened up to me. All of a sudden, it was okay to disconnect the power supply, which holy shit I really should have been doing more often because the design of this particular computer has this one corner that escaped all my regular cleanings over the years and when I took it apart and cleaned it, I came away from the experience looking like a coal miner, I’m not even kidding.

The mystery was gone. I realized what others have said; that for as cool as it sounds to “build your own PC,” it’s basically just LEGO for grown ups.

That’s when I slowly began to accumulate parts and pieces here at there. Nothing crazy. A friend gave me a spare case. I’d gotten a video card for cheap after prices finally stabilized after the Bitcoin boom. I actually tried to stick it into my HP, just to see if there was anything left I could squeeze out of this old rig, but the 2009 power supply just didn’t have the right connectors. I think by then, we were just down the the PSU, the mobo, and the CPU as the original stock components.

So, with that in mind, I finally put the final touches on my build and ordered the rest of the parts yesterday. My needs are pretty simple. This will be a budget build, although compared to trying to play games on a 2009 relic, the difference is going to be pretty cool. Getting a realistic understanding of my needs was one of the final hurdles; I’d do some research on different parts, tell myself that I needed the biggest and the best and suddenly holy shit, my list of parts is up to $2,000.

But what’s most striking to me about this experience is where I am now with regards to the resources and attitude towards this project.

I don’t want to say I was ever poor. I don’t think that would be accurate. But for much of my adult life, I was financially insecure. If something broke, it had the potential to be a catastrophe. I once had to leave a Subway without my food because my credit card was maxed out and my debit card was empty and I wasn’t going to get paid for a few more days.

Having the ability to recover from potential mistakes gives me the freedom to experiment, which helped me learn and grow.

Join us next week, when I try to put all of this together and probably do something really dumb, like short out my mobo because I didn’t clear the static electricity or something, and we’ll see how fucking sanguine I am then.

But that’s the thing, right? Because no matter how much it might be a frustration if something goes wrong with this project, there’s no scenario where it becomes a catastrophe. There’s something deeply satisfying about knowing that.