Monday, 7 March 2011

Let's Build a Computer!

Note: This article has been hosted at The Yorker in two parts. This version is edited to be a full piece, and be less specific to the Societies and shops in York. This version has also been mirrored on the VG Resource's blog. Check it out!

Computers are complicated. For the most part, there's a general assumption that building your own computer, especially one designed for gaming, is a task that can only be performed by the Computer Science students with a huge budget (or those who don't mind spending their student loan). In a way, that's true – a lot of self-professed 'PC Gamers' spend a lot of money on their rig - but I knew that building my own machine would save me a lot of money compared to going to the nearest PC World or Currys and being given an overpriced machine with added bells and whistles that I neither wanted nor needed.
So with my Christmas, birthday, and part-time job money saved up, I took to the Internet to shop for parts. This was by far the most complicated part of the process. While I had an idea of what parts I needed (a motherboard would be obvious, a power supply unit incredibly necessary), what specifications and what brand gave a ridiculous number of options. Looking at the UK computer sales sites and, they had an uncanny knack of not letting me compare different items for cost or performance. Against all personal standards, I would have killed for a computer nerd equivalent of Go Compare.
In the end, I found a website dedicated to building computers that gave clear indicators of what items I would need to put together a cost effective machine. It didn't take long to search for those, and result in the following:

(In addition to this, necessary accessories like a monitor, a wireless adaptor, and a keyboard and mouse.)
Factoring in delivery costs, the total of it all came to £411.

Waiting eagerly over the weekend, the parts finally arrived in two separate deliveries. The disadvantage to shopping from multiple sites was my goods not all arriving at once. A bit skittish about going into building my computer entirely blind, I nagged my housemate doing a Computer Science degree to help me out.
As it turned out, there wasn't much that I couldn't do solo. While all the parts were from different companies, the instructions that came with them all were simple to understand, and didn't conflict with each other; everything fitting into place with screws, wires plugged in with satisfying clicks. Following each instruction correctly with no problems gives a slight feeling of pride and achievement; as if I was building an IKEA flat-pack bookshelf, but one I could play video games on.
About an hour later, I had finished. Hooking up the monitor and keyboard, it all turned on just fine. And then I realised.

I didn't buy a DVD drive! How on earth was I supposed to install my copy of Windows without one? My progress was put on hold as I made another trip to Scan:

The DVD drive arrived the next Tuesday, and I excitedly wired it up to my machine. Like before, plugging in all the cables was a snap, but another problem arose; it was just a few millimetres too big to fit into the computer case. This was less of an issue; once Windows was installed and my computer was up and running, I disconnected the DVD drive, and everything still ran smoothly.

The final step was to buy a graphics card. Without one, playing any recent games on my computer would be a huge struggle for the motherboard's weedy integrated graphics - definitely not what I'd want. The high-end Graphics Cards are incredibly expensive, the biggest and best going for almost £300 a pop and are as large as a DS Lite. That was definitely not the kind of money I was looking to spend; so I turned to second-hand sales. It didn't take me long to find an American selling his old PC parts:

The card arrived faster than expected, but there was one final issue. Computer monitors can use multiple types of connection plugs, the two common ones being the blue VGA, and the white DVI. The graphics card had a DVI socket, but my monitor had a VGA cable. Fortunately, this problem was both simple and inexpensive to fix – there are adaptors that can convert a plug from VGA to DVI. Currys was threatening to charge me £21 for this relatively simple lump of metal and plastic, but checking out an independent computer hardware store, I was able to get an adaptor for just £4.

Fitting in the graphics card and using the new monitor connection was the final step, and a huge relief. The computer searched for and installed the correct drivers with minimal fuss, and a little tinkering and testing to make sure everything was working the way it should, my £460-odd project was complete. The specifications were undemanding – not a patch on the really high-end gaming machines, but the ability to run Borderlands without the slowdown and choppy frame rate my laptop offered made me sigh with satisfaction. Mission complete.

Want to build your own PC? Here are a few hints:
  • Don't be put off by the technobabble. While all of the numbers and codes will be useful to some people, try and focus on the basics. If it's RAM or a Hard Drive, what's the memory size? Are the case and motherboard size compatible? Is your processor designed for your motherboard? All this information should be easy to find.
  • Look everywhere! I purchased most of my parts from big retailers, but looking on eBay, trading websites, or even asking your friends for their old PC they keep in the attic might yield useful bits and pieces.
  • Be Prepared to Build! While the actual building phase can be straightforward if you're good at following instructions; having a second pair of hands will make referring to instructions and getting the pieces ready a lot faster. Don't be a loner! It's also a good idea to have your own screwdrivers and cable ties to hand, the parts don't always come with them.
  • Measure, measure, measure! While most computer parts are built to a standard size, and should fit perfectly into your case, there's still a chance something might be build to an odd size. Double check the measurements just in case something might not fit snugly. You can make alterations by yourself if need be, but not recommended. If something snaps in half, don't say I didn't warn you.


  1. What happened to /v/ Radio, bro? :(

  2. Oh dude, I miss it too. But while I used to be on regular speaking terms with the dude who hosted them, I've never streamed music myself, and the dude who used to has vanished from the internet.

    I'd love to try it myself one day.