Despite working with computers (supposedly) professionally, I don't often build PCs or upgrade PC hardware. A few years ago, I learned a few lessons from building a PC.
Over the 2020 Christmas holidays, I was upgrading someone's PC for them, so here are my lessons I've thought about in 2021.
Buying PC parts is not easy
In the UK at least, the latest processors (CPUs) and graphics cards (GPUs) were out of stock at the time of buying. That is probably due to some or all of:
- COVID-19 related supply chain issues;
- releases of hardware in the run up to the holiday period;
- the current trend for people to buy coveted, in-demand trinkets (fashion, new generation video game consoles, hand sanitiser) and resell at higher than retail price;
- demand from people stuck at home and spending money on PC hardware instead of other things.
Adding to all that, the 2021 changes in UK trade due to Brexit may not help either. However, the fundamental issue of shortages applies globally from what I've read.
Pent-up demand then drove up prices of older kit. By chance, I managed to spot AMD's new Ryzen 5 5600x CPUs available just before Christmas from a retailer at slightly higher than the billed retail price. Somehow I also managed to order while holding my nose at the inflated cost. I wasn't actually intending to buy the latest CPU, but the previous generation Ryzen 5 3600x was being priced at around 75-80% of the cost of the newer kit anyway.
This might all resolve itself in time. I could do with a new desktop build myself, but not really inclined to do so right now. Reading around, it seems like stock shortages, particularly for GPUs, will continuing well into 2021.
Buying from a retailer with good returns policies can save time
Here's a long and dull story; feel free to skip to the lessons below. As part of the same build, and after a lot of research, I ordered a mainboard that was on offer, as researching it showed it to be a good buy. As lots of mainboards are, it seemed to be one with lots of RGB LEDs — nice if you want that, but unnecessary to me — and I figured you could disable the LEDs easily.
Shortly after ordering, I discovered that you couldn't simply toggle the LEDs off in the BIOS. Instead, you had to have the mainboard's manufacturer's clunky software — nice if you want that, but unnecessary to me — running constantly on Windows to control the LEDs.
I tried to cancel the board order. The order hadn't yet moved to the stage of being prepared for shipping and was temporarily out of stock anyway. So I sent a message via the website and hoped they would cancel on the next working day. This was almost out of office hours, and I figured that everything would be OK.
About an hour later, I got another email saying the order was dispatched. From there, things became more of a mess. The next morning, the courier shipping the order sent me a message with delivery options including delaying the delivery. I delayed it, the courier still arrived with the parcel and I explained that I'd deferred delivery.
After a phone call to the company I ordered from, confirming I could refuse delivery and they would create an returns number, I waited a week, and heard nothing at all. There was no repeat delivery and I assumed the parcel was in limbo somewhere.
In the end, it took over a week for the company to get the parcel back from the courier, it then took a further two written requests to customer support to finally receive my money back.
I told you it was a long and dull story. No refunds.
A long and dull story with two lessons learned
- Ordering from a company that has an automated online system for cancelling orders is useful for sudden onset of buyer's remorse.
- Ordering from a company that has a good and simple returns process is useful if you find the hardware isn't right after you've received it.
There is one obvious market-leading online retailer that has these attributes, but may not be everyone's first choice for various reasons. Nonetheless, on customer service, these attributes are fantastic from a buyer's perspective.
I don't frequently make regrettable purchases. But you can do all the reading of specifications, manuals, reviews and opinions that you like, and still find two PC components just will not get along for whatever reason.
Having no-fuss returns can save you a lot of time and frustration chasing up customer support. In the UK, there is substantial current legislation regarding consumer rights. However, it's far simpler as a customer if the vendor already provides better than the minimum customer service.
Selling PC parts is easy…
After the upgrade, we advertised the old removed parts online. They all sold within a week, and the proceeds could be spent on a new graphics card, if you could buy one (see above). I was surprised at both how quickly these old components sold and for what we sold them for. Some parts sold for not much less than they cost at retail. It's possible that people are looking for budget builds, or upgrading/repairing existing builds.
…but make sure you upgrade any firmware before selling
After the mainboard sold, the buyer asked about what CPU was used with it; it wasn't working for them and they were trying to diagnose it. When they booted up the PC, nothing happened.
Between the details the buyer gave and reading around the BIOS release notes for the mainboard, we concluded that it was probably a combination of the mainboard BIOS never being updated, and the buyer using a newer CPU than had previously been installed.
It was lucky that there was a route to flashing the BIOS without a CPU via one of the USB ports. Decent mainboards often feature this recovery option. That meant the buyer could solve this problem without borrowing or buying another CPU to upgrade the BIOS, or, worse for us, returning the item.
The wise thing to do is to upgrade the firmware, if there is any, before removing components.
What tedious CPU cooler installations should tell hardware manufacturers about marketing
Two very disparate ideas in the heading there; let's see if there's anything like a cohesive argument here.
Last time I wrote about building a PC, I had lots of fun installing Intel's push pins. This time I had fun with fitting a cooler to an AMD setup. It didn't use screws. Instead the cooler used long metal tweezer-like clips to fit over the tabs on the AM4 socket on the mainboard.
How this all was assembled to secure the cooler was not obvious at all. The lack of clear instructions did not help one bit. The text basically said "build the thing and look at the diagram". The diagram wasn't clear.
Nor were there many decent YouTube tutorials on this. Eventually I managed to piece together what to do from looking collectively at several installation videos in several different languages. Even then, it was a delicate task to keep the assembly together, while placing the cooler contact directly on the CPU package and not smudging thermal paste everywhere.
As an esteemed non-influencer, hardware manufacturers are doing whatever the opposite is of queuing up to ask me what I think. But if there ever did suddenly appear an itinerant queue of manufacturers on my doorstep, what I'd advise them is:
- Instead of relying on buyers of the hardware to provide tutorials, manufacturers should create or commission their own videos.
- Make sure these videos have appropriate metadata (title and description) to make them easy to find by those who need them.
- Provide videos in multiple languages, whether by audio, subtitles or both.
- Show less obvious steps from multiple angles.
It's probably justifiable to spend a relatively small portion of a marketing and/or support budget to ensure that there is a decent installation video available. This is marketing and brand awareness: you're demonstrating, hopefully, that your kit is easy to use, and, importantly, providing support for users.
I think it's a wider lesson for anyone selling anything — whether hardware or software — that might require some tricky user installation. Whether a prospective buyer seeing how to install something and deciding to buy based on that, or an actual buyer not complaining online or requesting a refund, there's a benefit for the vendor too.