I’ve been building PCs for 20 years — now I’d just buy a gaming laptop instead

Desktop gaming vs laptop gaming
(Image credit: Future)

Update: Since writing this article I've started testing the ROG Zephyrus G14, a laptop I absolutely adore. Desktop PCs can be great, but I'm probably not going to be using my custom-built rig while I'm in possession of Asus' beast of a machine. 

PCs were a mistake. Wait, let me backtrack a bit. Gaming PCs were a mistake. No hold up, that’s not entirely true. Spending two decades of my life building (occasionally functioning) gaming rigs. Now that was the error to end all errors.

At the time of writing, I’m in a bad way. I may own one of the best gaming PCs, but I’ve barely slept since yet another calamity struck my homemade desktop. To make matters worse, I’ve just discovered there’s thermal CPU compound encrusted under my nails. 

Yes, I am quite the catch. 

I built my first gaming PC back in 2004, in what now seems like truly simpler times. Sure, my Radeon 9200SE GPU could barely get Far Cry to run above 15 fps, but that didn’t matter.

What really mattered was the weird thrill of assembling disparate parts, then seeing them join in unison to create a functioning computer.

Editor’s note: We have changed the headline of this story to reflect that this is about one person’s experience. PC gaming, especially on DIY rigs, is a varied and personal journey, so your desktop or laptop gaming experience could be very different from Dave's. 

What a disaster

Honestly, that first build made me feel like a nerdy superhero. Being able to install a CPU is definitely as impressive as X-ray vision, right?

Fast forward 19 years, and if you showed Teenage Me what was to become of his burgeoning hobby, he would have probably gone back to playing his PS2 for the rest of time. Turns out, putting together your own PC can end in disaster.

When things are running smoothly, my setup should look like this…

RTX 4090 in PC case

(Image credit: Future)

And when things are slightly less smooth? Brace yourself…

RTX 4090 PC

(Image credit: Future)

Recently, I tried (and failed) to install the 13th Gen Intel Core i9-13900K CPU. Due to my motherboard’s outdated BIOS, I sadly couldn’t get the world’s fastest gaming processor to boot. With tail firmly between legs, I decided to go back to my trusty i5-12600K, because yes, I actually use my Nvidia GeForce RTX 4090 powered rig for work. Overkill, I know.

Somewhere along the line, sh*t went south, as you can clearly see above. While I’ve at least gotten my PC to boot again since taking that shot, I’m now hobbled by Windows 11’s dreaded Blue Screen of Death. My error message: ‘Inaccessible Boot Device’.

Reading this message again and again after at least a dozen failed launch attempts has made me want to boot my PC, alright… boot it directly into the sea.

I want to boot my PC... directly into the sea

I’ve Googled the problem, but amazingly, a host of passive aggressive Reddit suggestions haven’t been overly helpful. I ‘think’ I may have accidentally dislodged my main NVMe SSD while fiddling with my PC’s innards, though I’m not entirely sure. To my eyes, my drive looks correctly installed, yet my gaming rig has now been out of commission for several days. At this point I’d probably shed actual tears when (and if) it ever turns on again.

I’m not quite at the stage where I’m willing to reinstall Windows 11 — like a moron, I haven’t backed my main drive up in months. Alas, I am beginning to accept the fact I may lose a shedload of documents, handy PhotoShop templates and about 14,000 Steam screenshots of the best PC games I’ve never once looked at.

Laptop of honor

Asus Zenbook 14X OLED

(Image credit: Future)

At least this SSD-ruining experience has taught me one thing: laptop gaming rules. 

I’ve been lucky enough to test some of the best gaming laptops in 2023 since I started on Tom’s Guide, and it’s been an absolute pleasure for the most part.

Aside from the odd overly noisy fan, the handful of laptops I’ve tested have just worked. Having such an enjoyable experience using the likes of the Asus Zenbook 14X OLED (and falling hard for its incredible screen) has reminded me why I love hassle-free gaming. Sometimes, ‘just’ working is the most important thing in the world. 

My inner fps snob may occasionally wince when it comes time to drop the odd graphics setting from high to medium, but it’s something I’ve quickly stopped sweating over. After putting my 4K-ready beast of a gaming rig on temporary life support, I’m all too happy to play games on pre-built laptops that function without fuss. 

Oh, and playing games from the comfort of my sofa, rather than a spine-pummelling office chair? Bliss.

As for gaming laptops I'd currently recommend, you can't go wrong with the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14, the MSI Cyborg 15 or the Alienware m18.

Update: if you're looking for an excellent counterpount to everything I've just written, check out our friends at Tom's Hardware, who make a great case for why building your own PC is still a smart move

After putting my 4K-ready beast of a gaming rig on temporary life support, I’m all too happy to play games on pre-built laptops

Which obviously isn’t to say buying one of the best laptops or a custom-built gaming PC can’t come with its own pitfalls. For one thing, you usually pay a steep premium by letting a company assemble components you could probably put together yourself with a little research.

Still, there’s a lot to be said for firing up a laptop actual professionals have made, then losing yourself in the intoxicating delights of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City. And all without having to worry about whether you’ve upset your NVMe drive’s heatsink or not.

Will I fix my monster of a gaming rig at some point? Obviously. Will I gunk up my fingers and shred my wits putting together future builds for 'fun', though? Probably not. There just comes a time in life where you have to say farewell to thermal paste.

More from Tom's Guide

Dave Meikleham
UK Computing Editor

Dave is a computing editor at Tom’s Guide and covers everything from cutting edge laptops to ultrawide monitors. When he’s not worrying about dead pixels, Dave enjoys regularly rebuilding his PC for absolutely no reason at all. In a previous life, he worked as a video game journalist for 15 years, with bylines across GamesRadar+, PC Gamer and TechRadar. Despite owning a graphics card that costs roughly the same as your average used car, he still enjoys gaming on the go and is regularly glued to his Switch. Away from tech, most of Dave’s time is taken up by walking his husky, buying new TVs at an embarrassing rate and obsessing over his beloved Arsenal. 

  • Raistlin81
    I'm almost in the same boat...a few years difference, decided at my 40th two years ago to ditch the desktop as gaming laptops have sufficient performance to really replace the desktop now. The premium does also come from built in screen and battery backup (wouldn't try to game off the battery....) They are also getting better with driver support, the one thing that laptops have always suffered from is needing your vendor to update drivers rather than being able to use AMD or NVIDIA generic drivers. When I am ready for the next upgrade will probably get something that supports an egpu using oculink or xg mobile.
  • russell_john
    All you probably need to do is go into your BIOS and point it at the boot drive again. It likely got messed up because you tried to install a CPU it had no clue existed because you didn't update the BIOS before hand something you should always do before install a new CPU. Then after you get it to boot up again go grab the latest BIOS, flash it and then install your new CPU. You may even have a motherboard where you don't even need a CPU installed to flash a new BIOS. The manual should tell you if it has that feature.

    If you don't understand any of the above then yeah you should just stick to laptops and pre-builts
  • AG2
    I feel sorry for you. Not everyone is capable to build functional PCs. That is sad truth. You should stop long ago. There are thousands thinks I can do at the level could be called OK, but I can build PCs well and for much longer then you. And different types, mostly not purely games oriented. I think your suggestion is wrong and misleading. If you are serious gamer go with consoles, period. If your game is not available on consoles and you still badly want to play, seek help of professional that help you select correct specs, parts and put them together so it works well. Just my 2cc based on 45 years in IT and 35 years in building PCs.
  • realkuko
    If youre "sick" of such a basic thing, something that is 100% your own fault as well, you should really just stick to Prebuilts, Consoles or Laptops. Laptops are heavily overpriced and once you have a hardware problem, you cant fix it yourself anymore (or with great difficulty and cost-inefficiency).

    Laptops have no use other than office work and being portable in situations when its not possible to stay in one place. Gaming on a Laptop will forever stay an expensive Scam.
  • moobear
    , I sadly couldn’t get the world’s fastest gaming processor to boot. It s not the fastest gaming cpu that is common knowledge.
  • reneb86
    Been building my PCs nearly as long. I recognize the pitfalls, but I don't recognize stepping into them over and over again.

    Because the price of a core component is such a significant chunk of my monthly pay, I am extra diligent in choosing and matching my parts. I go high-end, but I don't assume every combination just works. There is a slight risk of course that I misread or misunderstood something. But 9 out of 10 times it just works. I'm drawn to the hobby because I feel that my diligence and accuracy pays off in cost efficient quality. Which is not a bad thing to feel good about. My cost efficiency takes a dip whenever I dabble in new things to try; like custom waterloops or custom hardtubing. But it's still fun to me.

    Sorry that the author feels this way. I suppose it is not a hobby for everyone.
  • mhinman2
    What are you going to do if there is an issue with your "gaming" laptop??
  • J17
    I think the thesis here is a far leap. Missing a BIOS update hardly makes the hobby ineffective. Custom or OEM box, backup, backup, backup. And don't forget that backup... And never take your mission critical system down without a DR plan. Laptops trade efficiency for portability they have a use case, but will never be equivalent to a good custom build PC.
  • Kevenmac
    I ran a Twitch gaming channel on a 2022 gaming laptop with three displays, two cameras, and associated audio equipment. Rarely could it not handle streaming and maintain frame rates. When I travel I just pull it out of the setup and take it on the road. If you have an inherent bias against gaming laptops based on the past, you should take a look again.
  • Keng Yuan
    I tried to believe that in the past 20 years too, but spending twice as much for half the performance... Nah...