One of the most enduring images from The Matrix is that shot of Neo dodging Agent Smith's bullets. After upgrading my PC recently, I think I know how Neo feels. I managed to dodge just about every bullet a PC upgrade has to throw at you despite having upgraded the most crucial parts of a desktop computer.
A few weeks ago, my computer started to bluescreen at random. It was a bit annoying to diagnose because it started happening around the same time that the latest big update for Windows 10 hit. I'm quick to update my Windows installation because I'd rather get the security patches and new stuff than risk leaving my computer anymore open than it absolutely has to be. It had to happen eventually – something went wrong. Following the update, I could no longer load up Microsoft Edge. That wasn't the biggest problem, because I use Chrome 99% of the time, but I like to use it for testing occasionally, so it wasn't totally without frustration.
And that's when the blue-screen problem started, too. So I assumed it was an update problem. I let it slide for a while because the bluescreens were intermittent, but when I lost one of my articles for this beautiful website you're reading right now, along with photo edits on some headphones, I'd had enough. I reinstalled Windows as soon as I could, and crossed my fingers.
So I ran MemTest, an app you install to a USB drive and run to test your memory, and almost immediately saw errors.
The computer I was running on up until this upgrade was an Intel Core i5-4590S with 16GB of DDR3 RAM on a Gigabyte H97 motherboard. If you don't follow Intel's release schedule, that's a four-year-old CPU running on memory tech that's a full decade old. After four years of always-on abuse along with moves, video-card upgrades, the memory had taken a beating and had to go. I considered just finding some new memory and throwing that in there, and it would've likely held me for a while longer, but in a computer that old, with DDR3 being so outdated as it is, I was risking throwing money at an old problem. I can likely repurpose the hardware, so it's not money wasted, either.
But this sort of upgrade is tantamount to an engine swap in a car. You're pulling out the most crucial parts of the system, even if a lot of what's in there is staying intact. There are a lot of hurdles for an upgrade like this that you can run into, and I got pretty lucky, dodging almost all of them over the course of the upgrade.
I had the right tools
Going into an upgrade like this, the list of tools you'll need is pretty short. A magnetic Phillips screwdriver, a magnet, pliers, a nail clipper, tons of zip ties and screws, and a flashlight. Thankfully, these are pretty common tools, but I still keep a toolbox dedicated just to PC building.
My screwdriver comes from my iFixit repair kit, which I've used to pry open and tinker with everything from my Xbox controller to my car's dashboard. Whether or not the magnet will be handy is going to depend on how tight your computer case is. The nail clipper – or a good pair of snippers – is for any zip ties you might have in your case. Trust me, a pair of scissors doesn't cut it. I'm going to leave that pun there, and I'm not going to apologize for it.
Again, it's not a very big toolkit, but these kinds of problems can snowball and you can find yourself spending a lot more time on some pretty irritating stuff if you don't prepare.
I had all the right cables
Because I was building into an already-finished PC, chances were good that I would have all the cabling needed to make the build work, but I was also switching from "team blue" to "team red" – Intel to AMD. I hadn't run an AMD processor in my main computer in about 15 years at this point, but things are pretty universal between the two chipmakers, and as long as you're not doing anything particularly different, like going from a stock CPU to overclocking, this generally shouldn't come up.
While my old system was Intel, I decided to go AMD for a pretty simple reason: cost. For my needs – gaming, photoshop, and writing – an AMD chip provides plenty of performance for a more appealing price tag. There are certainly going to be advantages to going with Intel over AMD for certain tasks, but for my needs, AMD processors provide the performance I need and save me money in the process. Once I'd decided on a CPU that narrowed down my choice of motherboards, and I eventually went for MSI's X470 Gaming Pro motherboard. It's neither the most decked out nor the most slimmed-down motherboard out there, but it hits a good price-feature ratio. I wanted room for expansions later on – additional RAM, at least one M.2 SSD – as well as a good set of rear ports. I'd gone minimalist for my previous board, and often found myself hurting for USB ports. A few extra dollars got me a much more attractive motherboard that I wouldn't mind putting on display. I have a plan to do a second stage of upgrades, including color-coordinated cables, a fancy RGB cooler, and a computer case with one of those big tempered glass panels. The motherboard will be the hardest part to swap later, so I wanted to spend a little extra to get that right.
I made re-formatting easy on myself
One of the most frustrating things about a big upgrade is dealing with your files both before and after. All the different versions of your resume, all the extremely good photoshops you did of Shrek back in the day, all the MP3s you downloaded off Napster (kids, ask your parents) – all of that stuff has to go somewhere. If you're well-prepared, this isn't a problem – most of your important data should be on a secondary hard drive. The stuff that can't be stored in easy-to-find places – your Documents and Pictures folders – are there in Windows for a reason. I end up having to back up 3-4 folders at most. I can go from working to being ready to re-format in half an hour without feeling like I'm risking productivity.
The biggest part is copying Doom off to another hard drive. I keep that danged game installed because the second I uninstall the 70GB directory, I find myself downloading it again, and that's a substantial download. Back that stuff up out of your Steam, GOG, and Origin directories and you'll save yourself a big headache.
I did hit a couple of hurdles, though.
The Motherboard I/O Shield
I do this almost every time. Once you have your motherboard loaded up with your CPU and memory, you have to put it into the case, and an I/O shield snaps into the rectangular outline on the back of the case. The shield has outlines that match the ports on your motherboard, making it easier to find the ports and making sure they're all labeled. It keeps dust out, too. But around the outline of each port, there are little metal tabs that help push ports into place and move the shield out of the way to keep ports fully exposed. Each and every time, I manage to slip one of these into a USB or Ethernet port on the motherboard. Check this before you put the case back together.
That Windows Key
This is something Mac users don't really have to deal with, because you're probably not installing Mac OS onto a computer you built from parts. That's not what Mac owners are generally looking for. And Linux users are in a whole different category by this point.
If you're a Windows user, though, you have a Windows key. Once I got Windows installed this time, though, I realized that my Windows hadn't activated. I was getting an error – invalid key. I'd used the key to activate Windows a couple weeks earlier when I thought the issue was with my Windows installation. After some troubleshooting, I ended up having to dial up Microsoft support, and discovered that this key – which I'd used a few times – was no longer valid. Because I'd upgraded from Windows 7 during the free upgrade period (which y'all should have by this point!), though, I was able to use my Windows 7 Pro key, which I keep in the pocket notebook that sits in the aforementioned PC toolbox. If your current copy of Windows is attached to a computer you bought from Dell, HP, or something like that, you may need to buy a new Windows key.
Dealing with this was by far the biggest headache of the whole experience, and for that, I'm pretty lucky.
Here are some of the things I didn't have to deal with.
Going to MicroCenter just before close
If you live on the west coast, you'd be going to Fry's instead. This is an almost inevitable part of building a computer. You're missing cables. Your old power supply isn't compatible with your new video card. You need to remove that useless optical drive to make room for another hard drive but realize you've long-since thrown out the optical drive cover. This is something I build time for into any PC build I do, whether it's for myself or someone else. Even good planning can almost never avoid one of these trips.
Surprise! Your component is outdated
Speaking of trips to the store, I also didn't find out last minute that none of my components were wildly out of date. This is another one of those things you can mitigate with research, but it's also easy to go in with a new part and some serious hubris and find out 2 hours in that you've chosen the wrong speed for your RAM or that your power supply is missing a power cable.
Go in with some good research and a little bit of luck and, once in a while, an upgrade doesn't end up being a huge headache. You might even boot up on the first try, if you remember to hit the power switch on the PSU.
Sometime in the next year, we're switching to a new case, a new color scheme, new cables – and maybe even a case mod.