I’ve long felt the same way about personal computers that Matt Crawford feels about cars: it is important to build your own PC so that you can have more control over a technology that you use every day.
I have been building my own PCs since the mid-1990s, when I put together my first machine using a NexGen Intel-clone processor. Since then I have not bought a whole PC; when I want better performance, I simply add more memory, put in new hard disks, upgrade the graphics card, or swap out the motherboard and CPU.
Windows-based computers are not hard to build. You just buy the parts—motherboard, CPU, memory, disk storage, a case, monitor and graphics card, and plug them together. There are a number of little tricks you learn along the way, like properly seating the cooling fan on top of the microprocessor, or inserting the memory sticks into their sockets the right way. But PCs are highly modular and standardized, and the standards don’t shift that often—from SCSI connectors to SATA, or from DDR3 to DDR4, or DVI to DisplayPort to connect the monitor. You just need to keep straight what the current standards are, and buy accordingly.
Building your own machine has quite a number of advantages. You can customize them to exactly the uses you intend. Not everyone is a gamer who requires a humongous 16GB graphics card. You can get away with a rather modest machine if you’re just trying to create a home entertainment system. You can put your computer in a nice case that will fit easily on your desk. Recently I’ve taken to using a $50 Raspberry Pi-based computer to read the newspaper in the morning. In recent years AMD has pulled ahead of Intel in the CPU wars; why not shift over to their chips? Maintenance is much easier: computers, like human beings, seldom fail as complete systems; rather, an individual component goes on the fritz and needs to be replaced. Because something has failed on your motherboard does not mean you need to replace your keyboard, mouse, and monitor. If you have built your own machine, you can usually diagnose a problem down the road. For example, if you don’t hear the little “beep” when you turn it on, you know the machine has failed to post and that there’s something wrong with your BIOS. On the other hand, if it posts but hangs up when loading Windows, you suspect your copy of the operating system has been corrupted and needs to be reinstalled.
From the standpoint of someone who wants to maximize their technological autonomy, Apple computers are an absolute nightmare. Although I still own an Apple laptop, I seldom use it and definitely do not love my iPhone. Apple products were deliberately designed to prevent their users from modifying them, down to the use of proprietary fasteners that require special Apple-only tools. I tried to get into an old Mac laptop with my sons a few years ago; we ended up with a lot of useless bent metal trying to force our way in. Apple does not want you to be able to fix your own computer—rather, it wants you to visit the “Genius Bar” at the Apple Store and look over all the new products while you wait for someone to fix your machine in the back room. The “genius” refers not to you, the helpless customer, but to the marketing guy who thought up this system.
Apple is constantly making its users adopt proprietary connectors that you are forced to buy from them. An example is the “lightning” connector that was first introduced on the iPhone 7 and replaced the old 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple claims that this change was made to improve the user experience, but really they just want to force you to buy new headphones or adapters. They’ve similarly changed the plug on their power cords so often that you have to discard one from just a couple of years ago in favor of their most recent model. Landfills around the world are brimming with useless Apple power adapters.
Microsoft, as I well remember, tried to get away with something like this in the 1990s. The programming language Java had been created as a common, open standard that would operate across a variety of platforms—Macs, PCs, Linux, and so on. Microsoft then tried to “fork” the language and create a version that would only run on its own machines, which it could do because so many people used Windows PCs. This became part of the Justice Department’s decade-long antitrust suit against Microsoft, which in the end forced the latter to stand down.
You can only get away with this sort of behavior if you hold a near-monopolistic position in the marketplace, and the huge scale of tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon has become a major challenge for our democracy. Unfortunately, after the Microsoft case, the U.S. stopped trying to enforce antitrust laws against Big Tech. This is a pattern that has only recently been reversed.
So learning to build your own computer reduces your acquisition costs, keeps down operating expenses, means that you can fix your machine when it breaks down on a weekend, and otherwise gives you the satisfaction of knowing exactly what’s under the hood of your computer. You’ve clawed back a little bit of personal autonomy.
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