If you’ve ever built a desktop PC—and if you haven’t, you should give it a try — then you’ve probably had at least one (or possibly a number) of mishaps. It happens.
Computers are still a little complex, whether you’re building a basic rig or cooling your system with scary, parts-destroying liquids.
With more than two decades’ worth of PC-building experience, I have plenty of stories of my own building failures. Most involve nicking my finger on the sharp edges of a CPU cooler and not noticing that I’m dripping blood on my motherboard until it’s too late.
However, there was that one time I plugged an IDE power cable upside-down into my hard drive, causing the wire to catch fire and shoot smoke all around my case. And, of course, those “oh god is it leaking yes it’s leaking” moments from my many adventures in water-cooling.
Tragic as some of these instances might be, they’re always great learning opportunities. With that in mind, I recently stumbled across a great “let’s talk about all the times we screwed something up” thread from the mighty /r/buildapc community—one of my favourite subreddits.
I recommend reading the entire thread, since the others’ failings could help keep you from making a costly mistake the next time you go tinkering around with the insides of your desktop PC. If you’re looking for a few quick hits, here are a few of my favourite stories of woe:
Always check your cables. Always.
“I disconnected my SSD to do some cable management. Reconnected it and couldn’t boot into Windows anymore. Tried to disconnect/reconnect it many times. Nada. Figured the SSD just died.
Ordered a new SSD. I connect it and then figured I never reconnected sata power to the old SSD, only data.
Never told my wife I changed that SSD for nothing.
Few weeks ago my Z170 mobo died. She asked if it died, or if it “died”. She’s onto me...”
Redditor’s jgodin03 story is a familiar one. As I mentioned, I once accidentally inserted a HDD power cable backwards, but didn’t realise at the time that the fried cable was what caused a bit of smoke and stink to emanate from my chassis.
What I did notice, however, was that my primary hard drive wasn’t turning on. And when I looked at the cabling and assumed everything was correctly plugged in, I started fretting about the possibility of my (not backed up at the time) hard drive being toast.
Again, this an issue that got a bit out of hand as a result of my anxiety at the time (move-in day for my freshman year of college) and my lack of general troubleshooting know-how. As the Reddit poster no doubt learned, it’s a lot easier to test, test, and retest cables than to buy a brand-new drive, replace it, and dab away the tears from all the data you assumed you lost.
One of the first “major” steps of troubleshooting I typically try is unplugging and reconnecting everything in my desktop system—you never know when the cable you thought you plugged in actually didn’t connect. If that doesn’t work, I try other cables, break out a second power supply, etc. The less I have to remove and replace actual hardware, the better.
Can you remember the last time you cleaned your desktop PC? I don't mean wiping some guacamole off the the side of the case during a burrito binge. I'm talking about going in there and really getting all the accumulated dust out of your expensive parts (and fans). Spring cleaning your system isn't hard to do, but it's critical to your system's longevity — and helps your computer look a lot less gross.
Don’t forget that switch
“The classic not turning on the psu and wondering my pc won’t boot”
I haven’t made mrwillard95's mistake myself, but it’s a classic one that could ensnare any inexperienced PC builder. Remember, most power supplies have a switch on the rear that you need to turn on before you can use the switch on your PC to turn everything on. Ignore the switch, and your plugged-in PSU won’t do anything—nor will your PC turn on.
(This is also handy to know if you’re ever jumping into your case to mess with your system. Not only should it be off—of course—but you’ll want to either unplug the PSU entirely or flick that switch to ensure that no power can go to your motherboard or your system’s other components.)
There are plenty of reasons to run a virtual machine. The first, and most compelling, is that you want to play: Maybe there are some other operating system you want to dabble with (cough Linux cough), but you don’t want to deal with installing another hard drive, partitioning your existing drive, or setting up your system a different way.
Don’t forget that IO shield, either
“Spent a few hours meticulously building my PC making sure to do everything correctly. Get it all installed and find out the IO plate goes on the inside of the case and dose not snap on from the outside.”
I am ashamed to admit that I’ve repeated Cantstandyuh’s issue many, many times. So much so, that I now make an effort to place my motherboard’s IO shield in a can’t-miss-it location before I attach my motherboard to its tray.
It’s so easy to miss this step in all the excitement of a new PC build, but it’s one that will cost you precious time later, as you’ll probably have to pop out your graphics card, disconnect a few cables, and unscrew your motherboard in order to free up enough space to squeeze your IO shield into place.
Sure, your system will work fine without one, but an IO shield helps keep dust out of your system (at minimum) and makes the back of your case look great.
In this week’s edition of Tech 911 — the column that addresses any and all technological troubles or questions you have — a Lifehacker reader is dealing with one of the more annoying problems you can face after building your brand-new desktop system: something not working right.
What the what
“I decided to sell my Ryzen 1600x for a 2700x when the 2xxx series released. Removed the 1600x to ship out after it went on eBay, realised I needed it to update the bios for my 2700x.
I figured I would just drop the 1600x back in, lay the case on its side and use gravity to hold the cpu cooler (not plugged in) on top as a heatsink so I wouldn’t have to waste time/thermal paste.
After I installed the new bios, I turned off my monitor, grabbed the cpu cooler off the top of my cpu, promptly forgot my desktop was still running, and flipped the pin to release the cpu while grabbing it to remove it.
Ended up both electrocuting and burning my fingertips as well as throwing the cpu against the wall when I jerked away by reflex. By some miracle nothing broke.”
This sordid tale from Kasilim is a great reminder that cutting corners might sound like a great idea on paper, but it can sometimes lead to near-disastrous results.
We’ve all been there, though — mounting a graphics card without screwing it into the case, “jumping” your system on by poking the motherboard’s front-panel headers with a screwdriver, assuming that your liquid-cooling setup is perfect and doesn’t need a leak test before you install it in your case, et cetera.
I’m glad this mistake didn’t result in a total catastrophe, but it doesn’t hurt to spend those extra few minutes of work to ensure you don’t accidentally destroy your expensive components.
Nvidia’s new GeForce RTX 20-series graphics cards are the talk of geektown lately. And while we have yet to really see how they perform in real-world benchmarks — at least, beyond those provided by Nvidia itself — you can at least figure out whether it’s time to upgrade your own ageing graphics card by testing its capabilities.
Cooling is, and will forever be, important
“Removed my CPU Cooler when trying to troubleshoot my first build when it wasn’t booting. Forgot to replace it and a few boot attempts later wondered why I could see a bit of smoke and smell burning.
If it wasn’t broken before, it sure it was then!”
Remember, your computer’s natural tendency is to get hot. While Neilshh’s system should have powered off before it reached a critical temperature, you don’t want to be putting your pricey electronics in that kind of a predicament.
Make sure your fans are always secured and working—both your case’s fans, as well as the fans cooling your CPU and GPU. And don’t forget to clean all those intake vents so you can get great airflow, too.
I always like knowing what’s going on with my PC, but I tend to only focus on its cooling capabilities, since that directly affects whether my system sounds like a purring kitten or a jet engine while I’m working (or gaming). However, I’ve always been curious to know how much power my system draws, since I tend to leave it on longer than I probably need to throughout the day.
PC parts can be a little sharp
“During my A+ test in school we had to take apart a PC and put it back together and it had to work to pass the test. Easy enough I did this often. Well the test computer cases were cheap and I cut open my finger and was bleeding pretty bad.
I wrapped my finger in some notebook paper and finished the build, praying it would boot after I got blood on the MB and other parts. To my amazement it booted, I passed the test and went straight to urgent care to get some butterfly bandages.”
Been there, done that, Oshien. I usually slice my fingers on the metal fins of the bulky aftermarket coolers. It doesn’t sting, so I don’t tend even notice something happened until I see a red splot on my motherboard. Then I make a quick trip to the bathroom for some rubbing alcohol (for the mobo) and a band-aid (for me).
Always use the standoffs
“I may have screwed a motherboard directly into a case without the risers this one time... ????”
Standoffs come in your motherboard’s bag of screws for a reason. Use them, and avoid IM_the_Mark’s big mistake. Yes, you should use the ones that come with your motherboard; don’t try to swap in your own substitutions.
Your CPU is very delicate
“I once had to RMA a reallllyy expensive TR (thread ripper) board. I picked up the cpu and dropped it right in the socket. Every single contact and pin on the lower half of the chipset bent at a 90° angle. Thanks to msi though for fixing it a fair price of 300usd.”
Those little pins on the bottom of your processor are precious. Treat them gently. Do not get thermal paste all over them. Do not bend them. Do everything you can to ensure that they don’t get bent when you’re doing anything involving the CPU, because one tiny drop at an unfortunate angle could cause a world of expensive hurt. Right, D3M0N2?
Make sure you know what you’re connecting
My worst mistake, which thankfully was benign, was plugging in the front panel connectors to a spare USB 2 header.
The motherboard was kinda dense in the area the power header was on, so they put the silkscreen for the panel header next to the USB 2 header with a little light line over to the power header, which I “overlooked.”
It got to the point where we tore down my son’s old PC to harvest the power supply (it was a build for him) because I was sure I had gotten a bunk one, and I realised my mistake as I was reconnecting the front panel.
He still tells me to make sure and plug in the right connections whenever I build stuff now. I don’t think I’m ever going to live that one down, lol.
Thankfully it was none the worse for wear since the header was never powered.
While some parts of your motherboard should look pretty familiar to experienced PC builders, Short_Bus_Driver shows why it never hurts to pull out the manual and triple-check that you’re connecting your cables correctly.
There might be some alternative use for a connection you don’t know about, or you might need to check your BIOS and enable the connection before it actually does anything—things like that.
Take some time to fully understand your motherboard’s options the first time you build your system, and you’ll probably be set (as long as you aren’t forgetful) the next time you make an upgrade or fiddle with your system’s wiring.