Listen. Computers are cool and all, they do a lot of amazing stuff and they changed the world and all that, but listen. I hate them. They’re awful, persnickety little things, and they hate me too. Always breaking and stuff, making my life harder than it needs to be. Hate ’em.
In truth, I just have some of the worst luck possible with computers. I might be cursed.
Come, sit for a while and allow me to share with you a collection of excerpts from my history with DIY computer builds, the trials and tribulations of my latest build, and why I believe I might be cursed. Alternatively, just scroll to the bottom because this post is also an excuse to post pictures of my latest build.
The First – Velox
Honestly, this was long enough ago that I neither have good pictures nor many memories, but here we go anyway. This is the first computer I built myself. This was 2014 at the latest, maybe late 2013.
It’s a Cooler Master Elite 130, and inside it was Intel 4770K cooled by some random Asetek based 120mm AIO, and an Nvidia GTX 780, non-Ti. I don’t remember if the motherboard was Z87 or Z97, but I’m pretty sure it was ASRock. There was no M.2 slot, whatever it was. I remember hating the UEFI, but not having any actual problems.
I don’t believe I ever overclocked this system, and I know it never ran too hot. This computer actually did pretty good compared to what came after it, because if I remember correctly, it never actually started to die on me, I just felt like I needed an upgrade. I think. Could be wrong.
However… what did happen soon after was a spider laid eggs inside the GPU cooler and died there, then the next time I turned the computer on, there was a pop and no more graphics signal. Fried spider eggs, fried GPU board. So that was cool. That’s what pushed me to upgrade sooner rather than later. How does that even happen, statistically?
The Second – Zensei
In 2016 I decided to build the ultimate computer, something I’d never need to upgrade again. That’s kind of stupid, I realize that now, but the truth is I would still be using this computer today without complaint if all went according to plan.
This is a Silverstone SG09, a case I still really like and would like to use again one day. Inside is an Intel i7-5960X @ 4.5 GHz cooled by a Noctua NH-D15 on an Asus X99-M WS motherboard with dual overclocked Strix GTX 1080’s (again, non-Ti) in SLI. The power supply is an EVGA something or other, and I think it was 1000W, probably 80+ gold.
There’s an M.2 SSD in there, along with four small 2.5 inch SSD’s in the back, below two 4TB HDD’s. One pair of the SSD’s were used in RAID0, and each of the others were used as read and write cache drives for the HDD’s. There was also 64GB of RAM in there, and half of it was also used as read and write caching for all drives in the system.
Space was tight, as you can see.
Despite there being only millimeters of unused space in here, I had no thermal problems. The worst it ever got was 86 degrees on the CPU (which was overclocked!) during a full load stress test… but that was before I flipped the top fan to function as exhaust instead of intake. Doing that cut the CPU temps down to 70 on the same test. It also cut down GPU temps significantly, and they were fine to begin with, never exceeding 70 on the hot card before flipping the fan. It wasn’t a particularly quiet system though… that was its biggest drawback.
Also, because I’m me, I didn’t just run Windows on this.
Don’t ask why I had both Mint and Debian on there though, I have no idea. All of these worked, including OSX. It was pretty cool, even if I just did it to say I did it. I spent almost all of my time in Windows 7, but every so often I would make sure everything else was still working.
So what went wrong with this computer then? Why did I stop using it?
Everything went wrong, and in only two years.
First, an SSD died. Then another. Then the RAID0 pair. I thought at first that it was my fault, that they overheated, but no, the temperatures were well within operating range. They just all died.
Then, the HDD’s slowed way down. They were constantly thrashing, no matter how small the data transfer was. They later began corrupting everything, so they were out too. All that was left was the M.2 drive, only 500GB, so I had to reformat it to reclaim some space by removing all the other operating systems.
Then, the computer stopped turning back on whenever I turned it off. Every time I wanted to turn it back on, I had to unplug it from the wall, hold the power button for 30 entire seconds, then plug it back in and turn it on. This was apparently a motherboard problem, specific to this particular Asus model.
Then, the power supply started making horrible static noise. It was scary, I thought it was going to fry everything, and I didn’t understand how it could happen since the computer was plugged into a UPS at all times. I even called a professional to help me figure it out… but he couldn’t hear the sound. Nobody I knew could hear it, only I could. It turned out that the problem was the UPS itself, because when I plugged it directly into the wall, the sound was gone. I still wonder if this is what caused all the other problems…
Then, the computer stopped booting again. This time, it turned out to be the CPU. The computer would no longer boot unless I locked the CPU to 2.5 GHz – slower than stock. This is when I finally gave up and decided I needed a new computer.
But as I was collecting parts, before I had the chance to get a new computer built, the RAM gave up. In memtest86, it threw over 700,000 errors before the first test finished. It was down for the count, and I was completely without a computer for a while.
The only parts of this computer that didn’t fail somehow were the GPUs, which was very good for me later.
The Third – Sanzu
In mid 2018, after some time without a computer at all, I finished collecting the parts for a new computer. Of course I didn’t simplify much. SLI was dead even when I was using it, so I happily went back to a single GPU, and I used fewer drives… but then I had to go and make the rest even more complicated by not only using an even smaller case, but going custom water cooling as well.
If you don’t already know how small this thing is, here’s my cat laying on top of it.
She is an incredibly small cat.
Like, really tiny.
Space was very tight.
This is an Ncase M1, and yes, I did in fact put an optical drive in it. Never used it, but I had it. Inside is an AMD Ryzen 7 2700X on an Asus Strix X470-I motherboard with an MSI Vega 64, powered by a Silverstone SX800-LTI. It had two M.2 drives, one 1TB and one 500GB, one 2TB 2.5 inch SSD, and one 5TB 2.5 inch HDD. The smaller M.2 drive was used as cache for the SATA drives.
The CPU was overclocked a little bit, and the GPU was overclocked big time. The Vega outperformed the GTX 1080 noticeably for me. It was pretty cool. Plus, the whole system was super quiet all the time. The cooling was done by two Hardware Labs Black Ice Nemesis 240GTS radiators, an EKWB block for the GPU, and a Swiftech Apogee Drive II on the CPU. The loop order was very bad and the radiator on the bottom literally had no effect on temperatures… it worked just fine, but lessons were learned for next time. Maybe I would have rebuilt this one to be better.
Something strange happened though. A couple times, the computer just randomly shut off. Not a graceful shutdown, just poof, nothing.
Turns out the reason for that was the power supply overheating due to the radiator on the side of the case blowing hot air directly into the back of it.
I solved that problem by using heat reflective tape from the auto parts store, or “astronaut tape” as my friend called it as he made fun of me for using it.
You may notice that this graphics card is air cooled, and looks awfully like a GTX 1080. What’s up with that, huh?
Something went horribly wrong in that loop. I still don’t understand what happened. It might look like there was a leak in those pictures, but I assure you, there was no leak. There were no traces of fluid anywhere in the system except what you see there. But despite that, somehow, the fluid level kept dropping over time, and this stuff was growing in it. When I opened the reservoir, it let out a really loud hiss as the pressure was released.
Because of that, I took out the whole loop. Unfortunately though, the box with the air cooler for the Vega was in storage somewhere, and I didn’t have a chance to get it any time soon, so I used one of the GTX 1080’s from the previous computer. Was glad I kept them. I ordered a Noctua NH-U9S for the CPU as well, which did a fine job.
Until, of course, the CPU suffered the same fate as the previous. The computer stopped working unless I locked the CPU frequency at something slower than stock, and I also had to run the RAM at stock settings despite there apparently being no issue with the RAM itself.
At this point, I’m furious. Genuinely baffled at how my luck with computers could be so consistently awful. Angry that I couldn’t RMA the parts that mattered, which I tried with the previous computer as well. It even happened after only two years again, for the third time in a row. Dejected, I start collecting new parts once more.
But it didn’t stop there, because then Windows started screwing things up. First, a forced Windows update failed during install and corrupted my whole boot drive. Not long after that, the HDD started to only be recognized when it felt like it, and the SATA SSD died completely. Then Windows update strikes again and suddenly my computer takes twice as long to boot, and it already took a frankly unacceptable 30 seconds to boot because of a funny little issue with this specific Asus motherboard.
From then on, every time the computer turned off, I wasn’t confident it would come back on. So I just left it on forever and forcibly disabled all Windows update services… but that didn’t stop them, because then it updated again and after fighting the computer back to life, several programs I used were no longer working properly, suddenly looking for data on a disk that never existed. Since then, the computer would randomly shut down, the HDD continued to get worse, and one of the M.2 drives died.
This computer eventually deteriorated so much that I lost all audio output and the performance otherwise was degraded to the point that this once high end machine was reduced to nothing more than a web browser and word processor.
I was stuck with that for over six months.
The Fourth – Enma
This time, I was sick of everything. I looked back at my previous computers and did some major things differently, hoping to eliminate my bad juju.
Small motherboards? Gone, this time it’s EATX. Asus? Absolutely never again, this time it’s Gigabyte, and it’s the best they offered, an X570 Aorus Xtreme. Absolutely unnecessary, but it was the only fanless option at the time and that’s how I justified it to myself. SATA drives? Gone, only M.2 this time since I have a NAS now anyway… at least that was the plan, then I remembered the weird problems I’ve had with OBS recording to the same drive it’s installed on, so I got one small SATA SSD and stuck it in there with velcro. If it dies from my luck, so be it, it was cheap.
Then of course, as if to mock me, the great GPU shortage happened… right when I needed one. I had everything but that, collected over the course of a little more than a year. So I was stuck for a while. I spent all of that time planning extensively how I would build the system and customize it, joking with my friends about how I was hoping to appease the computer gods enough that they would dispel my curse.
Miraculously, I was hit with the best luck I’ve ever had. I caught the AMD store just in time as they restocked, and I placed my order fast enough that it was accepted before stock ran out again. Finally, my suffering would be over! I had a 6800 XT on the way! Except… I received a 6900 XT instead. I wasn’t charged for the difference. I was confused, but wasn’t about to ask questions either, not in that market. Surely, this was a sign that the curse is broken!
We’ll get there. For now, it was time to build.
First order of business, vinyl wrap the case, a Cerberus X. I may have moved to an EATX motherboard this time around, but I’m still not giving up that SFF life.
While doing that, I had an idea. I got made fun of for using gold tape in my previous computer… and I still had a lot left. I didn’t actually need it this time, but of course I overused it anyway just for fun.
Out of an abundance of caution, I tested the parts on air cooling before assembling the system fully, and this time I ordered an air cooler from the start so I’d have it right away if I ever needed it again. It’s a Scythe Big Shuriken 3, and it did shockingly well with this Ryzen 9 5950X.
Everything worked perfectly. A weight off my shoulders.
Next step, take it all out and drill a huge hole in the bottom of the case.
Why? For the drain port of course! The previous computer didn’t have a drain port, I learned my lesson. I was putting a radiator on the bottom of the case again, so I couldn’t just put it on the reservoir or something. So I used Alphacool radiators that have ports on both sides, drilled the hole in the case so a fitting could pass through it, and turned the bottom radiator into the drain port.
I used a slightly different color of vinyl on the parts inside the case too.
Next came installing the GPU waterblock. Something that shouldn’t be stressful, but was extremely stressful considering the circumstances. Fortunately, it went flawlessly.
Then came the loop itself… I collected a mass of fittings. Last time, I used Alphacool fittings and bad things happened, so this time I went with Primochill. Plus, they’re purple! Matches nicely.
One of the challenges I had to deal with was the fittings in the top of the front radiator, because the head of the screw holding the reservoir there stuck out quite a distance, so I got a special offset fitting.
…except I didn’t need it. It was fine without it. A sign of things to come.
An honest mistake, I thought. So I continued. I installed the CPU block, pre-ran and managed as many cables as I could, and installed the GPU and PSU. Things were looking good.
Then I realized that I had the wrong fittings for the GPU. I had 45 degree fittings, thinking they would fit, not realizing just how little space there truly was in this case with my reservoir. So I had to order some 90 degree fittings instead… now my confidence was dropping.
The reservoir, by the way, was an extremely tight fit in general. Look at how much space there is between the pump and the RAM.
But I kept going. Next came the rest of the loop, which is quite something to behold.
That’s a lot of cables, because of course I went with all RGB components to appease the computer gods. You can’t even see them, I have solid panels, but I did this to myself anyway. I wanted Lian Li Uni fans for this reason, but they’re never in stock, so I dealt with this instead… and surprisingly, it wasn’t too hard to manage.
The front radiator plus its fans are about the same thickness as the gap between the end of the motherboard and the front panel, so I ran all the cables through that gap. If it wasn’t for the temperature sensor cable being a bit too short, you wouldn’t even know the cables were there by looking.
That made me happy for a while, until I realized that there was a clearance issue between the bottom radiator fitting and the 92mm fan I wanted to install on the expansion slots… so I needed to order a new, smaller 90 degree fitting. Another honest mistake, but man, I was tired of mistakes.
Also I had another super short run of tubing to deal with, which was a pain.
At least it all looked good.
It was at this point that I ran into two new problems.
First, the hole I drilled was off… by an entire eighth of an inch. I still don’t know how I got that so wrong, but it was a huge hit to my mood and confidence. But, I grabbed the dremel and embiggened the hole, it wasn’t that big of a mistake even if it felt like one. After that, the 90 degree fitting would actually fit through and connect to the radiator.
Then the second mistake made itself clear… the drain fitting I chose was too big to fit in the gap between the bottom of the case and the surface it stood on, even with the significantly taller case feet. So I needed another new fitting, and drain fittings are particularly expensive. That one hurt.
Notice that the fittings have changed in this picture compared to the last one. That’s right, once again there was a mistake in planning and I had to use new fittings for the top of the front radiator. Fortunately, I needed two 45 degree fittings, which I already had since they were originally planned for the GPU.
But that wasn’t even the end of it! I don’t have a picture, but it turns out both of my 45 degree fittings leaked at the rotaries, so I had to order new ones anyway!
I was so done at this point, I just wanted it all to be over, I just wanted to use the computer.
Unfortunately for me…
There was another leak.
I tested everything. Took the loop apart multiple times, inspected the O ring in the fitting and found no problem, inspected its threads along with the threads on the radiator and found no problem, tried using a bunch of plumber’s tape to see what would happen… nothing helped, and I couldn’t see the problem.
It was the radiator itself. The welding (or soldering?) around where the port was had a pinhole invisible to the naked eye that was leaking. I needed a new radiator. At least this was through no fault of my own, but after so many setbacks I was gutted.
So I drained the loop, got the new radiator, filled the loop again… and then I saw this.
Despite all my effort thoroughly flushing the radiators, even using a radiator treatment solution, it turns out they were still full of crap, and it went through the loop. As far as I could tell, the GPU block caught all the crap, so at least I managed to clean it all out without totally dismantling the system again… but by now, there have been so many setbacks that I feel dead inside. I haven’t even talked about half of them, and I don’t want to.
Even after I finally worked through them all and got the system finished and filled for the final time, I wasn’t happy.
But it was finally done. For the final hardware change I made, my last computer had some weird gross mishap with the coolant, which was EK premix. This time, I used a 20/80 mixture of OAT antifreeze and distilled water. Does it cool as efficiently as other coolants or pure water? No, and I don’t care, it’s within a couple degrees and that’s more than worth trading for its theoretical lifespan. Plus, it’s purple! Matches nicely. You can’t tell though so you’ll have to take my word for it.
Finally, I could get to work on the software side. Before anything, since I still had my temporary Windows installation, I spent some time overclocking the system. What I ended up with was basically no performance improvement beyond what enabling XMP already gave me, but I did manage to maintain that level of performance while lowering power draw thanks to PBO2.
After finishing with that, I wiped the drive. Windows was never going to stay, it made me mad far too many times over the past couple years (but especially recently), so I chose not to use it. Instead, I decided to install Manjaro as my one and only operating system… and had great difficulty with it for some reason, so then I gave up and installed EndeavourOS instead, which is great. Plus, it’s purple! I especially like BTRFS, snapshots are awesome and so is the compression.
As much as I’d like to say I had no troubles with setting up linux, that would be a lie. I had a lot of trouble. But personally, I kind of enjoy the challenge of this and very much enjoy learning the ins and outs of this ecosystem, so I was having fun even through the trouble… mostly. Most of my trouble was a long stream of very minor issues though, so a lot of it I don’t remember and the rest I don’t think is worth talking about.
Now, almost six months after finishing the build, I’ve worked out nearly all of my problems and inconveniences, all of what I need is working, and I can honestly say that it’s a better experience than Windows for me. The key there is for me. Even though I like it and think it’s nice, linux is absolutely still not ready for prime time and most people would probably hate it. It’s still slowly getting better though, and with the Steam Deck being as cool as it is, I hope to see linux become more user friendly and subsequently widely adopted.
Unfortunately, whether or not my curse is broken still remains to be seen… but I’ve already had to RMA a part once. We’ll see if this computer is still alive and well in another year and a half.
If this one dies too I’m going to eat the whole thing and become a forest hermit.