- PC enthusiasts have taken their computer setups to the next level, especially amid the pandemic.
- Builders interested in “modding” are paying thousands on LED lights and other rigs to deck them out.
- Vendors have also influenced the trend, despite the additions not adding to the PC’s function.
August marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of the IBM Personal Computer, or PC — and it’s not slowing down in middle age.
For the longest time, PCs were just a beige box that sat stowed away under a desk, out of sight and out of mind unless you needed to put a DVD in the drive. They had two lights, one for power and one for drive activity, and maybe three unseen fans for intake and exhaust.
Today’s PCs are a lot prettier to look at as is. But some gamers and PC enthusiasts have taken the aesthetic of their PC setups a step further — in an attempt to liven up the spaces they often spend 10 hours or more a day in, they’re investing in decked-out computers and desks surrounded by LED lights.
Ryan Schlecht, who operates PCBattlestations.com, a community where enthusiasts can share their computer and gaming setups and swap resources, as well as a YouTube channel with the same name, told Insider the PC community often judges one other’s “battlestations,” as they call them, on clean design as much as originality — sometimes harshly. PC builders take their work areas seriously, keeping them fastidiously clean with cables tucked out of the way and decorated with things like colored RGB lights and plants.
“The DIY community is a vibrant, vital, and veracious group of builders, experimenters, and enthusiasts that are kin to the hot-rod builders of yesterday and today. It’s not just about LED lights — the DIY hobbyists teach the PC OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] a thing or two about tastes, performance, and ambitions,” Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research, which follows the GPU and gaming markets, told Insider.
Peddie estimated the average investment made for a DIY computer rig is $2,000 and can get as high as $10,000 for some of the more elaborate and decorative units. YouTube has multiple videos of PC builds costing $25,000.
The influence of PC enthusiasts is felt beyond the niche community, too. Most Best Buy off-brand PCs are fairly underpowered and barely suitable for playing “Minecraft,” never mind “Call of Duty” in
resolution, but their cases will often sport a rainbow color of fans and tempered glass not unlike those spotted on PCBattlestations.com.
Systems DIYing makes it into the mainstream with the help of COVID-19
Two distinctive events reflect the growing mainstream awareness of system building, with very different results.
In late 2018, The Verge posted a video meant to be a how-to of DIY system building, but it became a how-to in brutal trolling, as the poor builder made mistake after mistake. Veteran builders on YouTube were absolutely merciless.
“I feel sorry for the guy,” Schlecht said. “The reason why they get roasted for it is because they are a big company with a big audience. And they’re telling people, this is how you do it. And the professionals were like, oh, no, no, no, that is not how you do that.”
Contrast that with a 2020 Instagram video from actor Henry Cavill building his own PC. The five-minute video shows Cavill carefully reading the directions, occasionally messing up but acknowledging his errors and correcting them — and was much better received.
“There was definitely more mainstream attention on the fact that he built a PC, and a lot of PC builders capitalized on the attention for sure,” Justin Robey, a system builder who runs popular YouTube channel Robeytech that focuses on high-end PC builds, told Insider. “Everyone was kind and it was positive for sure. It was a nice highlight for the community.”
Robey said he first noticed the trend several years ago.
“People have been doing it and doing custom mods way, way, way before that. But in terms of making it mainstream and really easy, it was actually probably in the last like five to seven years,” he said.
He added that it’s all about personalization. “PC gamers are about their rigs, and RGB becomes an expression of making that rig unique. And so I think anytime you add expression, which is I think what you’re talking about, then people are gonna run with it because it makes the PC their own,” he said. One of Robey’s most-viewed builds cost $10,000.
System builder, professional photographer, and owner of ModsByBen Ben Quintanilla told Insider he believes the whole PC modification, or “modding,” craze was kicked into high gear thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns. People were stuck at home but UPS still delivered, so parts were just a click away.
“A lot of people were just at home bored,” Quintanilla said. “People had machines, but most of the time they’re outdated, so people needed new machines.”
“It’s easy to get sucked into that rabbit hole when you start looking at other people’s setups,” Robey added. “I think people enjoy just taking pride and having something that is a nice desk that they can personalize.”
Modding is also vendor-driven
PC modding wouldn’t have been possible if vendors like Corsair and Lian Li hadn’t also started putting rainbow lighting in everything and motherboard makers hadn’t started putting LED plugs (also called headers) on their motherboards.
“Vendors influence it so much because they’re creating the product, and then they’re sending [it] out to reviewers, YouTubers, and Instagramers, so it’s becomes even more impactful because you see it everywhere now,” Quintanilla said.
In the old days of plain beige cases, the PC had two, maybe three fans. Now they have as many as 17, all illuminated.
Fans and DRAM with LED lights cost about $20 more than the non-LED version. Costs start to add up when you add in the case, keyboard, and cooler, especially if it’s a liquid CPU cooler.
Thomas Lombardi, technical marketing specialist with memory and storage manufacturer ADATA, also noticed the growing popularity of color in components around five years ago, even though there was no easy way to connect a light to the motherboard. ADATA first added LED lights to its XPG DRAM that could not be adjusted, but soon added an adjustable DRAM.
“Adjustable RGB is a big deal because the user could control and manipulate the lighting in a variety of ways. Every LED bulb could be tweaked individually,” Lombardi said.
For the first time, components like memory and fans along with keyboards started to come with lighting control software so the user could configure the lighting as they wanted it. This software, along with the LEDs themselves, add to the cost of the components.
“There’s obviously a lot of time and money spent in developing that software, which is free,” Robey said. “I don’t know directly how much more they’re making, but yes, it is more expensive.” He added that there’s zero impact from the lights on PC performance.
But despite all the work required for nothing other than flashiness, Corsair said it wouldn’t have it any other way. “The ROI is that when people enjoy the experience, they’ll be more likely to recommend us to friends, and when they decide to build their next PC in a few years, they’ll think of Corsair as well,” George Makris, director of marketing for DIY Demand Generation at Corsair, told Insider.
What’s next in modding
Perhaps because people went so overboard with lights, there’s been something of an antiRGB backlash brewing in the past year or so among gamers, who derisively refer to excess RGB as “unicorn puke.” Recent system builds advertised on YouTube are devoid of any light.
“I think that RGB has been heavily correlated with gaming, so I think things will tend to keep going in that direction. Getting everything liquid cooled used to be one of the big trends, and still is to some extent. We may start to see some people start to move away from big, showy PCs in the future and start to head back to smaller-form factor PCs that will be just as powerful,” ADATA’s Lombardi said.
Quintanilla has also seen gamers start to modify their consoles. “Why stop at PCs when you can actually water cool a PS5 or an Xbox?” he said.
Corsair’s Makris, however, thinks the PC modding trend will continue to accelerate. “With 3D printing taking off, resin printing, and ABS printing getting better, and all the cool Raspberry Pi-like projects that are out there, makers have more tools than ever before,” he said.
“I think customization started out of necessity — improving cooling, fitting larger components, etc. — and expanded quickly into aesthetics. I think that trend is only accelerating and we’re going to see a lot more customization in the next few years,” he added.