I Tried to Beat The Postal Service, Now My PC Is Dead

Several computer components in a shipping box
DAMRONG RATTANAPONG / Shutterstock.com

Some things don’t mix. Desktop PCs and travel are two of them. Desktops tend to be large, heavy, and fragile—three traits that typically make transport difficult. But being me, I thought it could be done cheaply, put my plan into action, and now my PC is dead.

To complicate things further, my PC wasn’t just going to another street or another town; it had a whole ocean to cross. Which ups the disaster, and potentially any expense, considerably.

I could have just mailed the thing—but as mentioned, it’s large, heavy, and fragile. Meaning it would cost a small fortune to ship from New York to Britain and back if I wanted to use it during my two-month stay. And despite the option of paying extra for insurance, there are no guarantees your PC will arrive in working order and even fewer guarantees any payout will cover the damage.

Leaving it at home and just taking a laptop is also an option. But I’m a Virtual Reality evangelical and wanted to show a full-fat version of the digital universe to my friends and family. My laptop is pathetic, so I needed the extra oomph my desktop could provide—lest we be limited to my library of standalone Quest games.

So rather than leave my rig at home like a sensible person, or spend upwards of $400 on shipping, I decided to fly it over with me… Here’s how that happened.

Why It Should Have Worked

PC parts packaged in anti-static bags
Dave McQuilling

My seemingly ingenious plan to beat the system involved taking the guts out of my PC and flying them back to England with the rest of my luggage. PC cases are part of why desktops are as large as they are and part of the reason they are heavy. Many modern PC cases, including my own, also contain fragile glass panels because computers are supposed to be sexy now or something. As I just wanted the power, not the appearance, I opted to buy a case in Britain, have it shipped to the place I was staying, and reassemble my PC when I landed.

The key objective was saving money, so I didn’t buy any extra luggage space. Everything would either go on my carry-on if I needed to look after it—or in my one standard checked bag if it could take a knock. Packaging and a few parts have to be purchased, but I aimed to, and succeeded in, keeping extra costs under $100. Expenses amounted to a new case, alcohol wipes, and fresh thermal paste for the CPU.

The fragile bit on a desktop is the motherboard, especially when it has a large, heavy, Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) connected to it. The GPU is not as fragile but is still something you want to protect as a mid to high-end one can cost as much as the rest of the rig combined—especially at current prices. A hard drive is also something you shouldn’t let bounce around, but I don’t have an HDD, having just opted for a couple of SSDs on this build.

I removed the motherboard and GPU, placed them in individual anti-static bags, and mummified both of them in bubble wrap, and placed them in my carry-on bag. You can take all the precautions you want, but airport baggage handlers cause me more anxiety than USPS workers. These two components did almost fill the backpack I put them in completely, though there was room for a soft dog toy which I just saw as a bit of extra padding. There was also room for my laptop, which has a dedicated compartment.

Things like the power supply unit (PSU), solid-state drives (SSD), ram, and cables can all take a punch. The SSDs and Ram are small and weigh nothing, so they can go in either—but the rest should survive in your hold luggage. The PSU is also heavy or should be if you bought a decent one, so the carry-on bag isn’t an option. Because of the potential for damage, I also coated the less fragile parts in a layer of bubble wrap before placing them in a cocoon of clothes. They aren’t as delicate or expensive as the other parts, but they aren’t indestructible either.

Will the TSA take an interest in the taped-up circuit boards you’re bringing onto the plane with you? Possibly. They were fine with me, though. I took them out of the bag to be x-rayed, went through the checkpoint, packed them back up, and was away.

The bottom line is, I was being extra careful with the parts you want to avoid breaking; it should have all been fine. It wasn’t.

Mistakes Were Made

A very low quality PC case

I’m not 100% sure and probably won’t be for a while. But let’s start with the build. If you decide to roll the dice with this, I made one mistake you could learn from—don’t cheap out on the case. I could’ve bought the exact case I have in the US, but I opted for a different one to save £10 (approximately $13). What I received was the worst case I’ve ever seen. The manufacturer used some of the flimsiest sheet metal I’ve ever encountered; it didn’t contain enough room to fit the PSU properly, cable management was impossible. The list goes on.

I should have returned it but decided to modify it with a pair of pliers (I had to bend the HDD bracket to have any hope of fitting the PSU in) instead. The build took far longer than it should have and was an unpleasant experience because of the case. Either way, better to stick with something you know when it comes to your other case. It was also the case being awful that gave me a glimmer of hope.

Where did it all go wrong?

My dead GPU
Dave McQuilling

When my pc was finally together, the thing wouldn’t POST. The subsequent beeps and two minutes with the manual led me to deduce it was an issue with the GPU. So the most expensive part—one that now costs more than the entire build cost me in 2020—has potentially failed. I removed and refitted it a couple of times with no luck. Because the case was so bad and led to the build being a bit stressful, I was hoping that something was shorting the motherboard, but a careful strip down and rebuild revealed that wasn’t the case.

I was as careful as I could be with the packaging and transport. Neither the GPU nor motherboard show any signs of damage, so I’m going to have to get back to the US and sit down with someone who has a test rig to see exactly what the issue is. It’s difficult to sum up how I’m feeling with more than four letters, but half of it is disappointment in myself for essentially spending cash on breaking my PC. Doubly so as we’re living during a time where GPUs are difficult to replace for a reasonable price. Thanks, Bitcoin.

This Was a Very Bad Idea

Dave's PC when it worked
RIP my beautiful, functioning PC.

As for the exact moment, it all went wrong; I can’t place that either. As you would expect, I was very gentle with the bag that had the GPU in it. The only times I didn’t have a hand on it were when I sent it through an x-ray machine and when it was in an overhead locker on the flight. There was a bit of turbulence, but surely not enough to smash a graphics card. If the turbulence had been that bad, the motherboard would be in a worse state, right? The rig was also in perfect working order before the trip; I had used it the night before it was disassembled and packed with no issues at all.

Instead of saving money, I basically spent $100 and expended a bunch of effort to break what is probably the single most expensive electrical component I own. So, what did I learn? If you want to take your games across the ocean, buy a decent laptop. Leave the desktop at home where it belongs.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »

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