NSFW: My son gets a PC, and I get a lesson in how to build it

NSFW is a weekly op-ed column in which I talk about whatever's on my mind. Sometimes it'll have something to do with the technology we cover here on iMore; sometimes it'll be whatever pops into my head. Your questions, comments and observations are welcome.

A lot of you wrote in to comment on my NSFW column from last week talking about my son's turn to the Dark Side, as I put it, by getting a PC. I'm following up with more info about what we did and what I learned.

Obviously, as you may have surmised based on my vocation, we're a Mac-using household. We are because I've made a living through my Macintosh acumen since I was a teenager; as a writer for iMore (and previously at Macworld) I'm now on my third Mac-related career, having previously done Mac IT and before that, tech support for companies that made hardware and software for the Mac. So when my kids got old enough to get their own computers, I got them Macs, because those are the machines I'm most comfortable supporting.

My 14 year old son is an avid gamer, and he's had a Windows Boot Camp partition on his Mac mini for about a year. It's worked out okay, but the four-year-old Mac was showing its age: Limited in the number of games that it could manage, and with its slower processor and integrated graphics, only capable of moderate frame rates and graphics quality. He came to me a few weeks ago and asked me if I'd help him put together a dedicated PC whose components he'd pay for himself using savings from his part-time job. I obliged him over last weekend.

Contrary to what a few posters thought, I'm not against Windows or PC gaming at all — I used hyperbolic language because that gets people to notice it, and to build a sense of drama — after all, I am a writer. This wasn't entirely untested territory for me: I'd put together my own gaming PC back in the 1990s, and supported PCs as part of my IT work. Even today I keep virtual machines with Windows (and Linux) on my work Mac to stay up to date with what's happening in user environments I don't depend on for my daily work.

But quite frankly it's been years since I've had to deal with daily exposure to Windows machines. I'm not an expert at all when it comes to putting together a PC, even though I can break down a Mac and reassemble it practically with my eyes closed.

Less difficult than I expected

Some of you asked for specs: My son's budget and physical space are limited, and he didn't want a big tower box, so we went with a mini ITX motherboard made by Gigabyte paired to an Intel I3 Haswell processor clocked at 3.6 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce 760GTX card, 1 TB hard drive and a Blu-ray drive, all in a Cooler Master Elite 130 chassis mated to a 500 watt power supply. It's a nice, compact system that doesn't produce a lot of noise and fits snugly on his desk, so it's not taking up a huge amount of space.

Once all the parts arrived, I set aside a few hours on Sunday to put it together with my son, who helped with screws, mounting and running cables. It was a lot easier with the two of us than it would have been on my own. After putting in the Blu-ray drive and mounting the hard drive, we seated the CPU, its cooling fan and the RAM, screwed the motherboard in place, wired everything together, put in the video card and hooked up the power supply wiring harness. It required two screwdrivers but that was about it; everything else came with the parts and accessories I needed to get the job done.

I was actually surprised at how smoothly everything went together, and I was a bit amazed that everything worked on the first try. After we had the box together, I hooked up a monitor, USB keyboard and mouse, popped in a Windows installation disc, and started it. Windows recognized the computer and started installing itself right away.

Getting all the motherboard components working right took a bit more finesse; I wasn't expecting to have to use all the driver discs that came with the various hardware components, assuming Windows could do much of that itself, but things like the Ethernet LAN port and some of the extended USB ports wanted those drivers to be fully operational, and Windows couldn't figure out what they were on its own. This was Windows 7, mind you.

We're sticking with Windows 7 now because that's what I happen to have a copy of, and it's what my son is comfortable using, but at some point we might bounce up to Windows 10, since it'll be a free upgrade, and this machine should be eminently capable of running it. I'll leave that to the boy to decide. For now, he's quite happy with what he has.

Feature-rich Mac software

Of course, it still remains to be seen how good this homegrown PC will work out for my son in the long run. Whether it'll prove to be as durable and reliable as the Mac is still anyone's guess. Because this was home-rolled, I don't have a lot in the way of after-sales support, and no extended warranty. I'll admit that makes me nervous, for reasons I'll get to in a bit.

His budget didn't include the original cost of the Windows 7 operating system, which we already owned — about $100. We also recycled his keyboard, mouse and display (ironically, the keyboard and display are both Apple products), so that trimmed another healthy chunk off the cost.

Being home-rolled, the PC doesn't come with the same suite of productivity software or useful utilities that Apple includes with each and every Mac (many off-the-shelf PCs don't either, and many of those that do either include inferior products, time-limited products that need to be paid for to be fully used, or "crapware" that helps to subsidize the cost of the system but can get in the way).

Still, my son can make do. His school prefers its students to use Google Docs and OpenOffice for their projects, both of which are free to use, and both of which work well on Windows and the Mac. Even when he used the Mac for schoolwork, he'd gotten away from using the software that came with it in favor of the workflow his school preferred.

Better gaming bang for the buck

I can't dispute the cost/benefit improvement over the Mac when it comes to gaming, at least: My 14 year old has gotten a lot more bang for his gaming buck from his new PC than he could have gotten from an equivalent Mac, equipped with Boot Camp.

As it stands now, my son's invested about the same money in his PC — including taxes and delivery charges — that he would have spent just on a mid-range Mac mini with an external SuperDrive. He could have spent even less, but he felt more comfortable spending a bit more to get well-reviewed parts from reputable vendors who could deliver the stuff quickly and cheaply.

His PC may have a CPU that's somewhat limited compared to the Mac mini's, but it has a honkin' fast discrete graphics card, and a faster hard drive, and a rewritable Blu-ray Disc drive — something you can't get on the Mac from the factory at any price.

He's still optimizing, but my son's initial experience is that the games he likes to play are running at faster frame rates at higher resolutions, with much higher graphics quality than he could have managed on the Mac mini. He's also happier with the computer's overall boot speed and performance. And he's been able to load new games that simply wouldn't have worked on the old Mac. So it's been a rousing success.

Mac or PC?

For my part, I'm still quite content to be a Mac user and to primarily support Macs in my house: My 14 year old's older brother and sister both use Macs, and so does my wife (though she uses a Windows laptop at work). That homogeneity makes software distribution and system management a lot easier.

Also, most of our gear is still covered under AppleCare, Apple's extended warranty coverage, which provides not only an additional two years of warranty, but outstanding toll-free tech support that I still use from time to time. Even though I work in an Apple-authorized computer store and don't pay for our technician's time if my stuff breaks down, I still pay for parts — so having AppleCare if and when I need it can be (and has been) a big money-saver.

I like the security and peace of mind afforded by AppleCare, and I'll admit that this is a real sore point for me on the PC, having put it together ourselves. My son insisted we do it this way, though I had made a case for buying a pre-built PC that comes with a warranty for this very reason. So I hope nothing goes wrong, because if it does, we'll be wrestling with individual part manufacturer's warranties and return policies. Obviously the upside is we'll be able to just swap out whichever part fails instead of sending the whole thing back.

Food for thought

Mac detractors — even those posting comments to last week's editorial — are quick to dismiss the Mac as overpriced. One poster spoke disparagingly of Macs as "designer computers," implying the people who buy them value their look over their actual performance. I think that's very unfair. Macs offer a fantastically tight, integrated experience that PCs most typically can't match unless you spend close to or even more than you'll spend on a Mac.

Even though Macs can run Windows thanks to Boot Camp and virtualization software, trying to do a one-to-one comparison based on machine specs is rather pointless. I realize now that it's not a question of what sort of framerates your Mac gets in the latest Far Cry game or Call of Duty. Putting a Boot Camp partition on my son's Mac mini was a means to an end, but it wasn't a great solution.

Running Windows is something Macs can do coincidentally since they share common parts with PCs, but it's not what Macs are good at, it's not what they're for. And it's also not what the vast majority of Mac users do with them — including the millions of Windows switchers who have come to the Mac platform precisely to get away from that experience. One more thing: If it comes to pass, as I suspect it will some day, that Apple builds Macs using its own ARM chips, it'll be a moot point, because Macs won't run Windows anymore.

Obviously there's a place at the table for Macs and PCs to coexist side by side, and I think we can all agree that they can get along just fine. In the end I'll readily admit that putting together my son's PC wasn't as traumatic an experience as I expected it to be. It's definitely made me think more openly about building other PCs in the future. It's a lot different than the last time I tried it, and my success with this project has actually made feel like it's fun. There are a lot of online resources to help motivated builders find the best value and parts for the money. If you've been thinking about it, now may be a good time. And if you have any questions, let me know.