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Five Things

I Learned by Building

My Own Computer

A little over a month ago, I decided to build a computer. “It’ll be fun,” I said, “a real learning experience.” I come to you now, through the blood, sweat, and frustration, to tell you about the hard learned lessons of someone who expected to build a computer in a day and spent nearly a week troubleshooting a jumble of problems. 



5. Static Electricity: The Scariest Thing on Earth


One of the things few people tell you before you begin building a computer is how fragile some of the internal components can be. I’m not talking about the physical construction, either. Most parts are built to be very solid; to last a good long while. No, the real enemy is actually electricity, which might seem counter-intuitive since all these parts are designed to have electricity going through them. It turns out that sending a jolt of electricity through a motherboard, a CPU, or a graphics card can render it into a completely inert hunk of circuitry. It also so happens that the human body can generate such a jolt of electricity and transfer it with a light touch. Static electricity is the silent computer killer.


I don’t recommend building a computer on cloth surface while wearing socks and a wool sweater on a carpeted floor during a particularly dry day. That will only end in tragedy. Even under ideal conditions, expect to be incredibly nervous about accidentally zapping a crucial part.


If you look for a way to deal with this online, you’ll find dozens of answers. Some people will tell you that you should pick up one of the cheap wrist straps that are supposed to help ground your body and prevent shocks. Others will tell you that the straps don’t do anything and are really just for peace of mind. The most recurrent piece of advice was to make sure you touch the metal part of your case every so often while working with the guts of your computer. That should help properly ground you and avoid electrostatic discharge.



4. The Mess Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better


It can be easy to think of a computer as a single, compact object. If you’re like me, you’ll forget that a lot of the internal parts will ship separately. If you are building a computer from the ground up, be prepared for a massive mess. Dozens of parts will be arriving in shipping boxes and will be contained within even more boxes and packaging. By the time you are through, you will have enough twisty ties to build yourself a throne. Don’t let this dismay you. Before you’re done and able to clean up it is pretty much inevitable that your workspace will be cluttered with discarded boxes, packaging shrapnel, and unused parts.


Oh, yeah, don’t be alarmed if you have dozens of screws, metal fittings, and wires left over when you finish building your monstrosity. Most cases, motherboards, and CPU coolers ship with a variety of fastenings to accommodate whatever setup for which they might be used.


There’s really not much more to say about this. It is going to be a mess.



3. Always, Always, Always Double Check Your Connections


I can’t stress enough the importance of this seemingly banal piece of advice. Incorrectly plugging components into the motherboard or into the power supply will only result in bad things like broken parts or developing a recurring eye twitch. You don’t want to break anything, so firmly plug all of your wires in as best you can, and then double-check them before you close up your case. Not only that, but make sure your graphics card is plugged in as well. There are usually little plastic sliders that help accommodate graphics cards of slightly varying sizes. Check to make sure that they aren’t preventing you from plugging it all the way into its slot on the motherboard.


Beyond that, make sure you have the bare minimum of USB devices plugged in when you start up your computer for the first time and begin installing drivers. Leaving them all plugged in can result in all USB devices being unrecognized by the computer and necessitating a reinstall of your operating system and possibly a reset of your motherboard’s built-in operating system.



2. It Will Take a Long Time


If you have never put together a computer, you need to understand that you will screw it up. Then you’ll need to retrace your steps and figure out where you screwed up. Repeat until computer works. Some people can do it in a day or two if they’re lucky. For most people building and installing software will take three to four days. Experienced builders will be faster, of course, easily managing to build a computer in a day. But for a newbie? That mass of wires and circuitry and junk will take some time to acclimate to and understand.


Don’t lose hope if you find yourself cursing the universe under your breath as you struggle with the Lovecraftian mass of wires and electronics that will one day be your computer. You can do it! In fact…



1. Anyone Can Do It


For real! Anyone can do it. The things I said above might seem scary, and some of them are, but there are so many helpful resources available on the internet that anyone can build their own gaming rig or workstation. Don’t know where you’d even start to look for computer parts? PCPartpicker will help you organize your parts list in the most cost-efficient manner while also making sure all your components are compatible. Not sure how to go about actually screwing everything in? Newegg has a great tutorial on how to go about putting everything together and getting your mass of parts to work. If you aren’t satisfied with Newegg’s tutorial, Google is only a couple clicks away and you can easily track down other computer experts for help.

It took me a long time to get my computer up and running. I encountered setbacks and endured hours of frustration. However, it was certainly a learning experience. Building a computer yourself will teach you exactly what a motherboard is, how all of the parts inside a computer interact, and a buttload of smart-sounding terminology. You’ll be able to follow conversations that touch on mobos, BIOS, GPUs, SATA cables, and PSUs. Perhaps more than anything, the satisfaction of bringing a mishmash of metal together in just the right way to make it come alive and knowing that you did it with your own hands, well, that feels pretty great.  

Feature originally appeared on 03/04/15

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