My first few months with the first PC I built for myself

(Image credit: Future)

Months ago, I sat down to build a gaming PC for the first time. I was far from alone: Bill Thomas, TechRadar’s US Computing editor, had volunteered to help me out in person - or at least that was the plan before Covid put us in lockdown. Not to be deterred, we decided to stick to the plan, though Bill would coach remotely via video chat as I wrestled with directions and manuals and parts and plugs. 

The build was a success, thanks primarily to Bill’s help (along with Future videographer Brandon Lengyel, himself a desktop-building aficionado), and I ended the long day with the first PC built by my own two hands – just in time for PC Gaming Week 2020.

The resulting machine is beautiful. The NZXT H510 case has a black matte base with windowed glass that lets me look into my creation. Thankfully, the tinted glass hides a few cables I couldn’t quite tuck away while allowing the RGB lights peppered through the build to shine through: atop the 16GB of HyperX Predator RGB RAM, on the edges of the included NZXT fans, in the 'GeForce GTX' logo on the side of my Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, and in parts of the Asus ROG STRIX B550-F gaming motherboard. While it's not RGB, it's super cool to see the circular LED display on the NZXT Kraken Z63 liquid CPU cooler show how hot my AMD Ryzen 5 3600 6-core CPU is getting.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti

(Image credit: Future)

(Sadly, the build's Samsung 860 Evo 1TB SSD and NZXT C 850W power supply don't have RGB.)

For the first time, I have a machine that can handle pretty much anything I can throw at it – a computer that plays all the previously-unplayable titles in my various gaming libraries, including the ones my friends log into nightly. Amid a national lockdown, it's helped me stay connected with my people...and boosted my framerates to kick their butts in PvP. 

After decades of console and laptop gaming, I feel I've finally become a True Gamer.

So what has that meant in the months since?

(Image credit: Future)

Opening the gates

In several obvious ways, a proper gaming rig has opened doors for me – two in particular. The first are to games my prior gaming setup, a 2017 Dell XPS 15, couldn’t even start on its best day. I tried to fire up Paradox’s 2018 title Battletech once and barely got through the first mission as my machine huffed and puffed through basic animations on the lowest graphical settings. It couldn’t even manage a turn-based strategy game.

But with my new gaming rig, I can finally access a sliver of my gaming library I’d foolishly thought my mid-range laptop could run – and can confidently pick up new titles I wouldn’t have even dreamed I’d be able to play.

The other door that’s opened is to games my XPS 15 could kind of play. Despite forking over more cash to pack in an Intel i7-7700HQ and discrete Nvidia GTX 1050 GPU, I was getting 40 FPS at best playing Apex Legends and Overwatch, but that routinely guttered down to 15 FPS mid-match – even after I expanded the 8GB RAM to the laptop’s 32GB max. I’d found the limit of the XPS 15’s capability, and at best, it led to being seconds behind inputs as my machine struggled to catch up to firefights.

The day after finishing the desktop build, I installed Windows and fired up Apex and Overwatch – and effortlessly kept up a steady 60 FPS (sadly the limit for my 24-inch QHD Acer monitor). I’m sure this is amusing to PC gaming veterans who expect this performance as a baseline – and I look forward to laughing at my own naivete in the years to come – but simply being able to play a multiplayer match with the least-demanding mainstream games of the day nearly brought me to tears. I was finally able to play online with friends across the country, and in the middle of a lockdown, this meant more to me than I can express.

Bump your head enough on the performance ceiling and you’ll have to work to believe it’s gone.

For the record, the first title I fired up to actually push graphical limits was the Witcher 3 – and given how my XPS 15 managed the game on low settings, I tentatively toggled them up to medium, and then to high, and then to ultra, not quite believing that the desktop could handle it. Bump your head enough on the performance ceiling and you’ll have to work to believe it’s gone.

These would be great revelations on their own, but going through the laborious process of constructing the rig step-by-step gives me, a humble phones reviewer and computing neophyte, respect for getting a build to work. Ambition, struggle, tragedy, and triumph – crafting each machine is a story that's just as captivating to watch as it is to build yourself. I got my share of congratulations from friends for building my first rig, along with jabs that I was rushing to copy Henry Cavill, who posted his PC build on the same day I constructed mine.

But I don't need to upstage the Witcher; my real reward is a much broader horizon for gaming.

(Image credit: Future)

A new era of gaming – for me, at least

Having a gaming PC feels less like a step up and more like an apotheosis, transcending what I thought was gaming into a new plane of expectations. It’s not just the ability to play games with higher performance requirements; it’s that having such power encourages the idea of a setup. Sure, I’d slowly bought things while I was playing on my XPS – a power strip, a powered USB hub, a monitor, a laptop cooling pad – to cobble together a haphazard gaming station. But having a tower has me buying ethernet cables and real speakers to augment my gaming experience.

I’m thinking in terms of place and stillness, rather than getting the most out of a laptop that I haul everywhere. The lockdown has helped, of course: I have the time to build my work-and-gaming nest in quiet isolation, without the need to commute in and out of the office. 

After building a tower for the first time – especially one I can look into, thanks to the big window on my NZXT case – I’m appreciating computing aesthetics. I’m not quite considering a zen rock garden in my rig, but I’m growing fonder of clean looks inside and around my PC (including, yes, a collection of plants). Owning an expandable rig filled with quality parts has opened me up to refining my space and tools in ways I didn’t expect. 

And obviously, that includes components. Like the old adage that getting your first tattoo awakens you to the need for more tattoos, I’m thinking about the next parts to improve my PC, and mentally budgeting for it. My 1TB SSD is already filling up with all the games that used to sit undownloaded in my Steam library, so I could use more space – but my SSD mounts are tucked in the back, and by god, I’ve fallen in love with the RGB twinkling in my see-through case – surely I can find a component that will brighten up my vibrant battlestation even further...

  • TechRadar’s PC Gaming Week 2020 is celebrating the most powerful gaming platform on Earth with articles, interviews and essential buying guides that showcase how diverse, imaginative, and remarkable PC games – and gamers – can be. Visit our PC Gaming Week 2020 page to see all our coverage in one place.
David Lumb

David is now a mobile reporter at Cnet. Formerly Mobile Editor, US for TechRadar, he covered phones, tablets, and wearables. He still thinks the iPhone 4 is the best-looking smartphone ever made. He's most interested in technology, gaming and culture – and where they overlap and change our lives. His current beat explores how our on-the-go existence is affected by new gadgets, carrier coverage expansions, and corporate strategy shifts.