PC Builders Are Like Gear Heads, Here’s Why

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Feb 11, 2023
The glowing innards of a custom PC

On the face of it, PC building culture and car culture are two vastly different things. One group can actually fix things with a hammer, while the other only reaches for the hammer when they’ve finally given up. But scratch the surface, and it’s all actually remarkably similar.

Although stereotypes spring to mind, the people involved in both hobbies also come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some people may even indulge in both PC building and motoring enthusiasm, which means they get to bankrupt themselves on two fronts. Real life racers are expensive enough without you dropping hundreds of dollars on parts for a virtual racing rig too. Even if you are only involved in one of the pastimes, the similarities between the two are very plain to see.

Table of Contents

They Both Spend Heavily to Crank up the Power
You Have the Same Extreme Level of Customization
There are Shows, and There’s a Competition Element
We All Spend Too Much Time and Money on Our Pride and Joy
Something is Going to Break
So What’s the Point in All of This?

They Both Spend Heavily to Crank up the Power

An exposed hot rod engine

Performance is a major aspect of both car culture and PC culture. One group might drop a new engine in their vehicle to improve their 0-60 times; the other spends a month’s wages on a new GPU so they can blow past 60 FPS while wandering around in Assassin’s Creed. And the best part is, it’s all a lot more complicated than that.

In terms of budget and effort, enthusiasts tend to take things to the extreme. Yes, you can buy the best CPU and GPU on the market, but all your friends have those too. So to go one better, you design a complex water cooling system and overclock those components to Hades and back. There is also a vehicle equivalent of this, and that’s engine tuning. Just as you can excessively fiddle with your clock speeds to find the balance between peak performance and your hardware either performing strangely or just straight frying itself — you can fiddle with things like the ignition timing and on naturally aspirated engines, the air/fuel mixture.

In extreme cases, nitrogen can be used to bump everything beyond its usual limits. Overclockers have used liquid nitrogen to cool a CPU while ramping its clock speed beyond what was previously possible. NOS boosts engine efficiency by both cooling the cylinder, which means denser, more oxygen-rich air can make its way in, and directly supplying oxygen when the gas itself breaks down from the heat of combustion. In both cases, there’s a huge performance boost for those who want to splash out on specialist equipment.

Beyond that, there are challenges and boundaries people can impose on themselves and their rigs. Curiously enough, these also overlap. Want to see how far you can go with an air-cooled PC? Congratulations, you’re working on the computer equivalent of a naturally aspirated engine*. Both of those can perform very well if you have the budget to buy a high-end cooling system.

*Yes, the actual direct equivalent would be an air-cooled engine like you used to see in certain Volkswagens and Porsches. However, in terms of its impact on performance, I’d argue air cooling is to liquid cooling what the carburetor is to the turbocharger.

You Have the Same Extreme Level of Customization

The inside of a PC showing an extensive water cooling system

Just as a stripe on the side won’t make a car go faster, RGB lighting doesn’t help PC performance — as much as it hurts to hear that. Still, people like their rigs, and their cars, to look good. And looking good can cost a pretty penny.

Again, it’s a cultural thing. A custom paint job and some bodywork offer absolutely nothing beyond visual appeal but can end up costing a lot more than a full engine replacement. Equally, RBG lighting, for the most part, makes a PC look migraine-inducingly hideous — and can use up cash that could have gone on performance. People like decorating the things they take pride in, and half the time, they waste a small fortune and just end up with something absolutely hideous.

The customization also goes beyond the heart of the machine itself. Want to throw bucket seats in your car and trade comfort for that racing driver feeling? Well, PC builders can also pretend to be a professional by dropping thousands of dollars on a specialist gaming chair. Is a normal mouse not good enough? Enjoy an overly complicated custom mouse, which draws parallels with a custom gear shift.

Some gamers even take things further and build entire racing rigs. This is where there’s real overlap, as people who enjoy racing games to that point also virtually tune their machines. You might even be able to hold a conversation about complex subjects like injector angle timing with someone that tunes real-life engines. Or, at the very least, talk about steering wheel preferences.

There are Shows, and There’s a Competition Element

A line of classic cars at a carshow

While most of this article involves me drawing comparisons between building and maintaining vehicles and computers, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Where you really see similarities is in the cultures that have sprung up around both hobbies.

You can own a car without being a “car guy,” and you can have a computer without being a “computer guy.” When the actual enthusiasm kicks in, both areas have a lot of overlap. Visit any forum, meetup, or even overhear two people chatting about either subject in a café, and you’ll be treated to what is basically the same conversation. Phones will come out, and photos will be shown. Specs will be discussed and doubted. Each participant’s dream unit will be described, along with their future plans regarding their current pride and joy.

Things can also get more serious. You’re aware of car shows, but computer aficionados also get plenty of opportunities to show off their personal rigs or building prowess. Organizations like TeamGroup host competitions to see who can design the best rig. There are Facebook groups and Discord servers centered around people showing off their hardware. There is also the overclocking community, which takes great pride in working out how to push processors and GPUs well beyond their limits without causing a fire.

We All Spend Too Much Time and Money on Our Pride and Joy

There’s an argument that building a PC is an economical option. You can skimp on the parts you don’t really need and put the savings towards the bits that you do or just reduce overall costs. The problem is, it’s difficult to do that. You’re in a situation where you can get a whole lot more for an extra $20 in some cases. The extra few dollars here and there eventually add up when you want to get a “whole lot more” from a number of components.

When your massively over-budget build is complete, things don’t really end there. There are tweaks and upgrades you can make. No one is ever truly happy with their fan settings, so maybe you need some new fans, a new configuration, or a fancy controller to balance performance with noise levels. Skimped on the case during the initial build? You may find yourself eyeing up a new one on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or one of those sales Amazon announces every other week.

Cars are no different, really. A restoration job could require years of hard labor, with the reward being a beautiful machine you can enjoy warm summer days with. But when it’s all finished, you realize you actually enjoy the suffering and keep tinkering with it. You find new parts you couldn’t initially afford, you needlessly polish components repeatedly, and you go through maintenance routines more often than you should. We’re built to suffer.

Something is Going to Break

Be it a car or a computer, we all know what starting it for the first time feels like. No matter how experienced you are, something working from the get-go creates a special feeling. But there is always a chance it will simply refuse to spring into life, and you’ll be doomed to recheck every connection and component to work out which silly, trivial thing you’d overlooked.

Then when it is working, there’s a chance something will break somewhere along the line, and you’ll have to spend even more time working on it. With classics, it’s usually down to the design of the vehicle itself. Manufacturing methods weren’t as good back in the day, and you will probably spend a fair amount of time sitting at the roadside in a six-cylinder steam bath. PCs are somewhat different. If it boots and nothing goes catastrophically wrong in the first few minutes, it’s probably a very stable machine, at least in terms of components.

The chances of a quality part fresh from the factory developing issues are very slim and usually covered by a guarantee. The only way you’ll really run into problems is if you take a gamble on a used graphics card or really skimp out on something like a power supply unit. Most of the problems you’ll run into with a PC are software related, and fixing them can be as much of a pain as skinning your knuckles in an engine bay.

So What’s the Point in All of This?

On the surface, they may seem like two vastly different hobbies enjoyed by two widely different groups of people, but pull back a bit, and it turns out they aren’t. There are a lot of the same motives, goals, frustrations, and crippling financial costs involved. And there are similar communities behind both cultures, even if one group ends up with industrial dermatitis while the other simply develop an irrational fear of static electricity.

The overarching point, as anyone with a fake psychology degree will tell you, is that humans are basically all the same, and we just paint things different colors to try and look a little unique. So next time someone starts chatting to you about upgrading to a 4090 or why they need new shocks in their racing banger — keep the conversation going. Tell them how it’s a bit like your favorite hobby.

Maybe you’ll make a new friend who’ll pass you some precision screwdrivers on a Monday if you agree to lob some wrenches their way on a Thursday.

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