5 minute read

Many people are quite surprised when I tell them that my primary computer is a custom-built desktop PC, that I assembled myself. After all, desktops have been going out of fashion for over a decade and most people these days use laptops or even tablets as their primary (work) devices. The only big users of the desktop PCs today seem to be gamers, but they rarely assemble their rigs from scratch.1 I’m definitely not a (big) gamer. Customs-built PCs require some degree of maintenance (at the very least you have to get them working) and are prone to some subtle issues (e.g. the RAM not playing well with the MB, some drivers being a mess, etc). So, why bother with all of this in 2022?

Well, I certainly don’t do it for practical reasons. I definitely think that desktop computers still have a lot of value for many people:

  • They force you to work on desk, therefore they have better ergonomics.
  • They are usually upgradeable to some extent.
  • They never (rarely) overheat.
  • They don’t run out of battery.
  • They are usually more powerful than laptops.
  • They usually have better value than laptops. E.g. I built my desktop for almost half the money I paid for my M2 MacBook Air.

Obviously the desktop computers are not particularly portable, but I’ve always favored the combination of a thin and light laptop, that’s great for travel, and a powerful desktop computer for when I’m at the office/home. I despise carrying around the so called “portable workstations” that are 16 inch and weight 2.5-3kg.

Of course, I could have just gotten some pre-built desktop like the Mac Studio or a custom pre-built PC. Neither did I need to bother with the assembly. So, it’s still not clear why I decided to go all the way with this.

The answer is rather simple - I’m very quaint (boringly old-fashioned) person and I’m always curious to understand how everything works. I grew up in the day and age where it was extremely common to build your own PC and I’ve always had a lot of love for tinkering with my hardware and doing small tweaks/upgrades here and there. For over 15 years I was selecting the parts for the computers of many friends and family members and I was helping them assemble/upgrade them. Then suddenly this type of computers grew out of fashion and almost everyone embraced laptops in the past decade. Computers became disposable commodities that you can buy from pretty much every electronics store, not to mention numerous online outlets. People embraced the new way as better - after all it meant less upfront your for you and less maintenance work down the road. If you can’t upgrade anything than you have nothing to think about, right? Even I fell victim to modern way of thinking and I spent something like 8 years (between 2012 and 2020) without a custom-built PC. For a few years a had a Mac Mini Server and afterwards I was using my MacBook Pro as my only computer.2

While this definitely got the job done, I was always missing tending to a computer a considered truly my own. It felt almost like some romantic notion with little practical merit. Okay, perhaps the practical merit is that if you maintain your own PC you’re definitely more up-to-date with what’s happening in the hardware world. Not a bad thing in my book, but probably something that’s not important at all to most people.

So, perhaps I bother with custom desktops just because of nostalgia. Perhaps the tinkerer in me demands in. One thing is certain - that’s something that brings me a lot of joy and that is what matters most in the end of the day. We can’t be practical all the time - that’d be so boring!

I can also draw a few parallels to Emacs - Emacs is all about building your own editor that’s uniquely attuned to you. I usually think of Linux (especially distros like Gentoo and Arch) the same way - building material for your operating system. Obviously the way to get a computer that’s attuned to you is to build it yourself. That’s certainly not for everyone and that’s perfectly fine. Emacs and Gentoo are not for everyone either.

By the way, I never mentioned what exactly is my rig, so here it is:

CPU AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
CPU Cooler Arctic Freezer A35
GPU ASUS Dual Radeon RX 5500 XT EVO OC 8G
Motherboard AORUS X570 ULTRA
SSD 960GB M.2 2280 Corsair Force Series MP510
RAM 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4 3200MHz Corsair Vengeance LPX
Case Fractal Design Define 7
PSU Fractal Design Ion+ 660W Platinum

Nothing fancy, but exactly what I needed for my use-cases. I got it in July 2020, while I had some extra time to kill during the COVID-19 lockdowns. I paid for it about 1600 EUR, which seemed like a great value to me given that a decently spec-ed high-end laptop (e.g. a MacBook Pro) costs closer to 3000 EUR.

I really care about power efficiency and silent operation and that’s reflected in my selection of parts - a 65W CPU, a semi-passively cooled PSU and GPU, and really silent CPU and case fans. I also really hate RGBs that lit your rig like a Christmas tree. The minimalist in me has always disliked everything that’s not really needed.

While I had some issues along the way3, overall my experience with the machine has been great and I don’t regret any of the time I had to dedicate to it. If anything - I regret not having done this earlier! It’s holding up remarkably well and I can imagine it going strong for at least 2-3 years more without any significant upgrades. After all I can easily outfit it with a 16 core Ryzen 5950X and 32GB memory more, which would certainly add a lot of punch.4 That’s the beauty of upgradable hardware - it can evolve to suit your current needs.

Custom-built desktops are not very practical, but they are very cool. They are a reflection of yourself. And they are so much fun to play with!

That’s all I have for you today. Keep hacking!

  1. And they mostly (only?) care about their GPUs. 

  2. I did use it docked and with an external display most of the time, though. 

  3. E.g. the GPU not playing well with Linux and the recent CPU cooler upgrade drama

  4. Knowing me - by then I’d probably be really eager to try out Meteor Lake and some Intel Arc GPU. As I said before - I’m not very practical when it comes to computers!