Designing and building custom PCs has been a popular hobby for decades, an activity that traces its roots to the very beginnings of personal computing in the mid-1970s. Like ham radio before it, PC building developed a natural community around itself comprised of self-trained individuals interested in experimenting with electronics and technology. The first consumer microcomputers—most notably the MITS Altair 8800— were sold as mail order kits that users assembled in rec rooms and basements.
Some of the biggest names in modern technology were born in the garages of this era. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak produced the Apple I design largely to impress other members of the Palo Alto-based Homebrew Computer Club. Around the same time, Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote the BASIC programming language with the same computer hobbyists in mind. This momentum eventually spurred a personal computing revolution that landed millions of pre-built computers onto the desks of consumers, businesses, and organizations of all stripes.
The niche PC building community matured and refined itself alongside the growing popularity of desktop computing. From the very beginning, the availability of standardized PC components allowed enthusiasts to experiment with customized designs that out-performed pre-built models sold in retail stores. It also allowed for the rise of so-called white box PC manufacturers and commercial build-to-order services.
Modern custom PC building: For enthusiasts by enthusiasts
Some voices in technology media have hailed the end of the DIY PC era, positing that building your own PC no longer makes economic sense, and questioning whether it did at any point in the first place. Whether or not that is true, the enthusiast PC building community is stronger than ever. This is evidenced in online discussion boards. Reddit’s BuildaPC subgroup has over 300,000 active subscribers and thousands of new posts and comments daily; Tom’s Hardware forum has nearly 2 million registered members, many of which are concerned with computer building.
Naturally the tone of the community gravitates towards building gaming rigs and high performance computers for CGI, 3D animation and graphics rendering. While many in the community are building for personal fulfillment, there is still a viable PC building industry assembling custom machines for performance-minded gamers, digital creatives, architects, and engineers. As it was in the beginning, custom PC design is largely a business that is for enthusiasts by enthusiasts.
“Back in the early ‘90s, PC gaming was an almost underground hobby,” says Kelt Reeves, President of Falcon Northwest, a long-standing custom PC building company. “No one else thought that was a worthwhile market, so we were doing it for four years before our first gaming-focused competitor appeared.” Reeves started the company as a one man operation while an undergraduate aeronautical student, doing custom builds for his friends so they could run Microsoft Flight Simulator and early PC gaming programs.
Wallace Santos, CEO for custom PC builder MAINGEAR, entered the business ten years after Reeves, and it was then still very much a niche market. Santos built his business on gaming builds and a clever marketing campaign that leveraged a common pain point for buyers of inexpensive OEM computers. “I took notice on how first tier OEMs would always ship brand new PCs with bloatware, which provided a very poor experience to the end user,” Santos says. “This is when we launched the ‘No Bloatware’ campaign.”
Both Reeves and Santos started their business building for family and friends—something not uncommon for hobbyist builders—and taking the business to the next level requires entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. For Reeves, he pioneered using workstation RAID cards made for data safety for striping hard drives in RAID 0 for better storage performance—something thought of as dangerous back then, he says.
The most important part about staying in business as a PC builder is to never stop learning, because the enthusiast market is always hungry for what is new. “With new technologies like VR and 4K we are even more excited to see what is on the horizon,” Santos says. “Never stop learning.”
PC industry on the decline—except for gaming and performance builds
As a whole, the market for desktop PCs is viewed as a sinking ship. Slumping year-over-year sales figures have become the norm for much of the last decade, and when it seems like it could not get any worse, it does—in July, worldwide PC shipments reported the biggest drop in two years. Mainstream users do not need upgraded systems for Windows 10, so there is no apparent relief in sight.
With the PC gaming market accounting for $21.5 billion in hardware sales last year, major players in the pre-built PC industry are starting to look at gamers as a saving grace. Acer, Asus, and Lenovo have brought to market designer gaming rigs hoping to cash in on the enthusiast segment. The advantage of purchasing a “Lambo” pre-built gaming computer is the convenience of it—whether or not that will translate to enthusiasts seeking a customized rig with good performance to price ratio is probably unlikely.
“Every couple of years the press declares the PC industry is dying, which I’ve always found amusingly ignorant of the enthusiast market,” Reeves says. “What has kept us in business for 24 years is the relentless need for PC power— every year the graphics get better, the screens higher resolution, and the storage and memory increase—and applications always need more power. It is a relentless pursuit of perfection.”
Santos echoes this sentiment applying it to the popularity of high-end gaming: “Today PC gaming competitions are selling out stadiums,” he says. “With this our customer base has greatly expanded, and we now sell to a much broader range of consumers.”
Should Enthusiasts Build PCs for a Living?
The general consensus among PC builders for enthusiasts looking to jump the gap between hobbyist and professional is they should study as much business as they do technology. Custom PC building is an entrepreneur’s game. If you plan on earning a solid income from purely building or modding computers, running your own operation is a necessity. Income figures for computer assembly average around $50,000 per year—significantly less ($34,000) according to other sources.
Additionally, understand that the custom PC business is just as much about customer support as it is about hardware. People skills are required.
If you are passionate about computer hardware, there are several related career paths to consider.
- IT – Working for a company, fixing, building and maintaining computers and networks with a focus on hardware and software expertise.
- Repair shop – Working in a retail or small business setting fixing broken computers for consumers.
- Engineering – Pursuing a degree in electrical engineering or computer engineering technology (CET) opens the door for designing and programming hardware—CPU, GPU, NAND, embedded systems, etc.
- Computer science – Limited PC building/hardware scope; most appropriate if you are interested in programming or developing
- Marketing / content production – Linus Sebastian parlayed his passion for PC building and hardware into Linus Tech Tips, a lucrative YouTube channel. Content production is a viable option for those with the right combination of personality and know-how.
Is custom PC building a viable career path? You bet it is. Just like anything else, parlaying your passion into your career is a process that should be calculated and well-thought out. Understand that there are several career paths that let you work with hardware. Your best bet is to never stop learning.