Personal computers

Why students built their own custom machines

Ayah Ali-Ahmad

This past year, as people have been confined to their homes and stuck to their screens, the interest in building custom PCs and buying gaming consoles has reached an all-time high. Gaming platforms have also seen an increase in activity — the largest PC gaming platform, Steam, has seen 50% more hours of games played and 21% more games sold in 2020 compared to 2019. And with the recent releases of next-generation computer parts, there has been a significant shortage of graphics cards (GPUs), the heart of the PC, as a result of their ability to sell out online in a matter of seconds.

Custom PC builds, as opposed to pre-built PCs or laptops, allow for consumers to personalize their machines for their intended usage, whether that is focusing on a strong GPU designed for machine learning like senior Andrew Yang, or creating a basic gaming PC under $1,000 like juniors Kyle Huang and Howard Peng.

Junior Howard Peng’s deck setup has a gaming chair, PC, keyboard mouse and dual monitors.

Junior Howard Peng

Peng built his custom PC after using a MacBook Pro for years, as he found the laptop to be slow and that building his own computer and determining its different components would be more beneficial than purchasing another laptop. 

“In every single way, the PC [is better than my old laptop],” Peng said. “Before, on my old laptop, I would open two tabs of Google Docs, and my computer would start to freeze. In pretty much every aspect of speed, graphics and everything, my new PC was significantly better. So I think it was hugely beneficial for productivity in the general usage experience. My main priority was getting a really good [computer processor], CPU.” 

Along with his PC, Peng also invested in his setup — his keyboard, mouse, monitors, chair and desk. 

“My friends kind of make fun of me for this, but my setup gives me everything I can to play games — I got a light-up RGB keyboard, light up mic [and] light up mouse — but all I do is watch YouTube,” Peng said.

While organizing his “PC parts list,” Peng said he was looking for a strong CPU rather than heavy graphics because he used his computer to set up servers and needed a PC that could run multiple virtual machines, rather than just a game. Peng also considered his choice of operating system. Peng prefers using Linux, as opposed to the more commonly used Microsoft Windows. 

“One of my biggest drawbacks with pre-built [computers] was the software because pretty much any of the pre-built computers that you buy come with Windows, it is already installed, and I hate Windows,” Peng said. “When you’re on Windows, if you open Task Manager, even idle, and if you don’t have anything open, you’re still running like 20% of your memory or like 10% of your CPU. When I’m on Linux, I have literally zero lag and have like 20 windows each with 100 tabs, and it’d be fine.”

Peng saw similar drawbacks with his old Mac, as he believes that MacBook computers have limited software customizability. On a Mac, he says there are barriers to running your own programs and with code signing, whereas on Linux, there are fewer limitations.

“The second thing I would say is a pro for Linux is customizability,” Peng said. “And this is a massive criticism of Mac, like the Mac ecosystems are kind of a walled garden — you don’t have a lot of options and you can’t really configure software. This is especially true in iOS; you have very limited control over your computer, and you’re basically renting out a sort of computer from Apple in a sense because you have such limited control over what you do.”

Another drawback for Peng when considering custom building a PC rather than buying one already built by a company is the stigma around buying a pre-built PC in the PC community. 

“I think your social status will drop if you get a pre-built,” Peng said. “In almost every single situation, building your own PC is cheaper and you get more freedom as to what to pick and stuff. I’ve had friends who wanted to build a PC but ended up not doing it because they thought they would mess it up. But honestly, building PCs is really easy. If I were to describe the process, it is kind of like Legos, but the stakes are kind of higher.” 

Senior Andrew Yang’s deck setup has one monitor, a mic, keyboard, mouse and PC.

Senior Andrew Yang

 When Yang needed a faster computer after entering high school, his dad helped him build his first custom PC. Yang’s main focus was to have a PC with a strong GPU, as his projects relate to machine learning and require a lot of computational GPU power. Because he was looking for specific specs (components), he says he opted out of buying a pre-built PC. 

“GPUs produce a lot of heat and … that’s one of the main reasons for why I got this computer, because with a prebuilt computer, specs usually aren’t as good, they run very loud and it’s just not the best bang for the buck,” Yang said. “So basically, I researched for a few weeks, and I just kept a tag on prices online. And I bought all the parts that I wanted when I felt that they were reasonably affordable to me.”

Yang is currently working on a project that requires machine learning with his friends and dad, in which they compile images of cancer in patients and compare them to doctors’ labeling of MRI images. He says that his “high spec” computer enables him to complete such work.

However, Yang says because he frequently plays games and edits photos, both computer-intensive tasks, his GPU and CPU cooling systems are often loud on his desk where his PC sits. Though his computer has helped him run more demanding programs and he is satisfied with his build, he has been slowly modifying parts overtime to reduce noise pollution in his room.

“To be honest, I have a pretty high spec computer, it’s too much for what I really need,” Yang said. “I have made some modifications over the years … I got more silent fans, because those offer better performance at lower decibel ratings. And that’s important because on my computer on my desk, so if it’s loud, it’s quite disturbing. Before, I had the Founder’s Edition cooler, which is the blower cooler that only has one fan and exhausts everything through a very narrow tube, but it was very loud and [now] I got an Arctic Accelero.”

Though he does not have a pre-built PC, Yang says he supports others who buy them — despite agreeing with Peng that they tend to be more expensive compared to building a PC with the same specs. 

“There are pre-builts for some people,” Yang said. “Some people, they don’t want to spend the time to research because time is money, and that is valuable to a lot of people … But personally, I chose to build myself because I thought it would be a really great experience and putting together a computer also helped me understand better what each part did, how each component matters in the operation of the computer and I just found that that was a really cool thing.”