Moving expensive desktop PC without a car?
June 26, 2012 8:17 AM   Subscribe

How can I take my expensive desktop computer with me to move when I am flying? If I were driving, I'd just put the desktop tower in my car.

I have a pretty nice new custom-built desktop computer (it has an i7 processor, top of the line) that I love, but I am moving to Chicago on Thursday for about five months. I really want to have this computer there. The case is massive and I had enough trouble carrying it in and out of my latest apartments. It's too heavy and I broke the wheels so I think I need to get a smaller, lighter case for it anyway. (I'm a petite girl and it's really heavy.)

Should I ship myself the components? Bring them on a plane? Other ideas? I figure, either way, I am going to have to re-build it. I don't see how I could get it there in tact. I considered taking a train, but how am I going to keep track of like three heavy bags by myself on a train? I feel like that won't work. I am wondering what the safest way to get these components to Chicago is. As I said, I have an i7 and all the components (CPU, graphics card, motherboard, power supply, RAM) are probably worth $1000.
posted by AppleTurnover to Computers & Internet (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Use the box your computer case came in and bring it with you on the plane. If it's over 100 pounds and the airline won't take it (then your computer is too big), ship it freight. There's nothing special about this and it'll get there fine. After all, this is essentially how 95% of boutique custom builders ship their systems. If you don't have the original box, just find one bigger than the case and fill it with shipping foam around the case. You will likely find that an independent shipping company or a UPS store can do this for you for a small fee.
posted by saeculorum at 8:21 AM on June 26, 2012

I had this problem years ago when moving from NJ->MI for school and then back over the summer. Ultimately, I had the machine shipped both ways in a big padded box, but both times I had to disassemble the whole thing and re-seat all of the components afterwards.
posted by Oktober at 8:22 AM on June 26, 2012

I've shipped computers four times in the past year. I used UPS every time and one computer came out with the case dented, but that was my own fault for packing it myself (UPS did a good packing job on the ones I didn't pack). All in all I'd say it was a great way to get them across the country. Just be sure to get insurance!
posted by Circumstands at 8:23 AM on June 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: My case is seriously massive: I think I need to take all this stuff out of it no matter what I do. Should I put it in a smaller case and transport? Or just transport the components in boxes?
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:28 AM on June 26, 2012

I would use a courier.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 8:31 AM on June 26, 2012

It's unclear to me what your concern is here. Other than some massively oversized graphics cards and CPU heatsinks, there isn't much in your computer that can be damaged by shipping installed in a chassis. You will probably find that a card or a stick of RAM becomes partially unseated during transit and will have to reseat it when you get to Chicago. Other than that, computers and computer components are designed to be transported - after all, how do you think assembled systems are shipped?

If you really want to be careful, take off the heatsink from the CPU and take out the graphics card and ship those separately. Everything else will be fine. If you want to use a smaller case, do so for your own convenience rather than shipping reasons. To be quite honest, I think there is a higher chance of damaging the components due to the unassembly/reassembly process you're suggesting due to ESD or clumsiness rather than due to shipping.
posted by saeculorum at 8:39 AM on June 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Chicago is a pretty common destination. I know you don't have much time, but consider finding someone driving that way on Craigslist and having them take it in their car. Pay them when it arrives safe and sound. This worked well for my brother.
posted by Madamina at 8:48 AM on June 26, 2012

Yeah, take it to UPS and have them pack it and ship it. Don't forget to insure it, and get certified/signature delivery, etc.

If you're worried about the internals getting banged around, take them out and pack them in a smaller box within the larger box (don't ship two boxes, it would suck to lose half your PC).

You could also open the case and fill the inside firmly with styrofoam peanuts to help support things, then have UPS pack the case in a box.
posted by jpeacock at 8:51 AM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's unclear to me what your concern is here. Other than some massively oversized graphics cards and CPU heatsinks, there isn't much in your computer that can be damaged by shipping installed in a chassis.

The last time I had it done, the internal drive bay assembly got severely bent in shipping to the point where it was difficult to get the installed drives to slide out and nearly impossible to fit new drives into the ones that had been empty. Your mileage may vary but there's definitely things that can go wrong.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:53 AM on June 26, 2012

I have that case! I don't see what's wrong with putting it back in its box and packing the foam around it? If you haven't got the box still, see saeculorum's comment. If your concern is that it might get lost or stolen on the flight, though:

Could you take out the valuable components and pack them (very very carefully) in your carryon? CPU, graphics card, motherboard & ram aren't actually that big and won't take up too much space. Then put the case (if you want to take it at all, I wasn't clear on that) in your suitcase and fill with clothes etc (which you are obviously packing anyway). Clean well upon arrival.
posted by AmandaA at 8:55 AM on June 26, 2012

If you really want to get a smaller case for it anyway, why not move all the parts into the new small case, get it all working in preparation for your trip (that way it's all done, yay!) and then decide whether you think you can take it as carry on or if you want to courier it? I think I'd want to take the hard drive as carry-on either way, to be safe, unless someone can point out any reason why you shouldn't.
posted by springbound at 9:00 AM on June 26, 2012

You can actually send freight via Amtrak (and don't need to take the train yourself).

You'll have to call to get the rates, but I've been told that it's one of the most cost-effective ways to schlep heavy(ish) stuff across the country.

Of course, if you do ride the train to Chicago, Amtrak also does checked baggage between some cities, just like an airline. You'll probably need a friend on either end to help you out though (maybe the redcaps can also help you for a fee?).
posted by schmod at 9:11 AM on June 26, 2012

I've shipped a couple of desktop PCs across the country via UPS before. I insured them, but nothing bad happened to either one.
posted by asciident at 9:49 AM on June 26, 2012

You could also open the case and fill the inside firmly with styrofoam peanuts to help support things, then have UPS pack the case in a box.


No. No. A thousand times, NO.

1. You'd have to find anti-static peanuts and even those are not guaranteed.

2. You'd be picking broken peanut parts, assuming you didn't zap something, out of the unit for a good long time. I've had to pick peanuts out of electronics. It's not fun. (I don't recall if the unit survived, but I do know it was not the only unit I handled with the peanuts-inside-problem).

3. Don't. Really. Don't.

Take it to a UPS store, have them package it in a way that qualifies for their guarantee. Have a copy of the receipts for the package and the original components handy. Hand-carry your hard drives on the plane.
posted by tilde at 10:27 AM on June 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: People keep telling me to put the case back in its box and ship it, but I don't have the original box. Can I just bring the whole unit to UPS and tell them to ship it without breaking anything and let them handle it?

Also, should I be using anti-static bags or anything? Like I said, these are very expensive components.

Maybe I could bring some as carry-ons for my flight if people think that is a better idea. I don't think I want to bring all the guys (see: power supply) as a carry on though.

Thanks all.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:28 AM on June 26, 2012

As part of my business, I sometimes travel with rack-mount computers that my company manufactures. All of them contain a video card that makes up half the parts cost, roughly.

Our manufacturing department uses hot glue and zip-ties to secure things in place, and they work very well. they use little stick-on brackets to zip tie the wires in place, which isn't as big a deal, but the PCI-E video board is hot-glued into its socket and it doesn't budge. Any part that might get a little motion going in transit is zip-tied to something else using existing holes in the PCB-- they don't drill anything, and they don't tie on to capacitors or whatnot.

That said, hot glue bond turns wonderfully brittle when exposed to rubbing alcohol (use a cotton-swab to apply the alcohol) so you can undo anything. However, our machines run just fine with these hot-glue bonds in place.

Now, all this is packed into a 1-Rack-Unit chassis, so there's not much room in there for real movement. If you fear the empty space, try some airbags. And attach the power cable to the inside of your case so you aren't likely to be tempted to run the PC before emptying it out. If you're worried about static electrons on the airbag, layer the components with antistatic bags (cut them open and use them as sheets). If you have an especially big CPU cooler, consider pinning that in place with something more physical. And don't count on the plastic side-door to carry a large load when it comes to holding something in place.

Finally, mark it FRAGILE-- the airlines will respect this, and the baggage handlers (who work for the airport) may or may not.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:42 AM on June 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can have UPS ship the whole thing or just about the whole thing. They'll probably (if they're smart) put it in a box that will allow them to give it a firm foam padding at least six inches all the way around. Bonus is that if you modify it later to have a tough handle, you have a box to ship it somewhere/carry it somewhere next time.

Antistatic is somewhat important when handling individual components. Discharge the static from your body before working on the unit (taking out the hard drives). The other items should be stable enough to survive being shipped, computers are shipped all the time. If you pull the hard drives, put them in anti-static bags (I always save them sorry! maybe you can call computer shops and grab some from their toss pile). I like a lot of what Sunburnt said - I dealt in more durable hardware than computers. This guy (I skimmed it, sound down) looks good - but heed the wrap in ANTISTATIC plastic ....

I just took a second look at your original question and Amtrak. Check your baggage except for a carryon bag and the computer - get help with the computer and tip heavily. Mark the box FRAGILE and explain about the computer contents.
posted by tilde at 10:48 AM on June 26, 2012

Can I just bring the whole unit to UPS and tell them to ship it without breaking anything and let them handle it?

Well, I've done this with other electronics (a television). I didn't have the box either, and UPS charged me a lot extra, but they did do a good job packing it, and it arrived intact. I don't know if I'd ask them to muck about with the components inside the case, though. They seemed experienced in packing fragile things, but not specifically with computers.

I'd call ahead to see if they will do it for you. Make sure you get insurance on it just in case.
posted by bluefly at 10:52 AM on June 26, 2012

One other possibility: Go buy a smaller case this week and swap the components into that [or have a friend do so; I'd do this for just about anyone if asked]. That particular one [which happens to be the one I have at home] would cut the case weight by 20 lbs. Take the smaller case in its brand new box to Chicago. Check it marked as fragile or ship it insured for the full value.

When you come back to wherever you are now you can swap it all back into that massive case.
posted by chazlarson at 11:06 AM on June 26, 2012

Response by poster: I think maybe I will go ahead and move it all into a smaller case and then ship the entire thing in tact. What, if any components, will I want to carry with me on the plane though? The hard drive in an anti-static bag, packing carefully with bubble wrap etc.? Anything else?
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:24 AM on June 26, 2012

If you've got a high-zoot expensive video card, I'd strongly consider pulling it and packing it separately. They're very heavy compared to most other things in the case, very valuable and not that well secured compared to almost everything else---there's a pretty long lever arm and a comparatively large amount of mass on that connector to the mother board.

Get an anti-static bag from a local PC store---they're a grey plastic bag that can safely store the card. Alternatively, take it to a local shop and get them to package it for you. They may well have extra cardboard shipping boxes to fit your case too.
posted by bonehead at 11:37 AM on June 26, 2012

I think Amtrak lets you check bags so you don't have to be the one keeping track of them. If that's so, well, a nice long train ride is one of my great pleasures and I highly recommend it.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:05 PM on June 26, 2012

Ask if Amtrak has any rules about the contents of checked baggage before doing that, and make sure your station does provide checked baggage service (not all do). But, yeah, everyone should try a cross-country train trip once, and Chicago is a good destination for that....
posted by bfields at 8:18 PM on June 26, 2012

Response by poster: I'm not gonna do the train. I think I have settled on flying myself and shipping my computer, with hard drive in carry on. If anyone has suggestions for other components I should carry on, I'm heading to UPS in the morning. Should cost about $130 to ship. Thanks all!
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:09 PM on June 26, 2012

Hm. I'm not sure if you're more likely to damage the hard drive during shipping, or on the plane...

Remember that the hard drive was shipped in a box at some point too, and that HP, Dell, and the like ship millions of fully-assembled systems every year.

If you've got a behemoth of a video card, you might want to ship that separately, since PCI slots really weren't designed to support the weight of a high-end gaming card.
posted by schmod at 11:50 AM on June 27, 2012

You're going to back up that hard drive before removing it and carrying it on the plane, right?
posted by chazlarson at 12:39 PM on June 27, 2012

Response by poster: I did a Windows backup and copied all my work/music/whatever files to a portable hard drive. Internal hard drive coming on the plane with me. Guaranteed two-day air shipping was $250. Likely two-day ground was $150. I recommend anyone doing this plan ahead or make the PC as light as possible. I was lazy and didn't want to move everything into a smaller case, so I paid the $250. We'll see how things go on Friday when I get it!
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:27 AM on June 28, 2012

Response by poster: Well, I got my computer today. I also got my first-ever Blue Screen of Death with my computer today, so, yay? I also noticed it was running a little slower than usual. Decided to open it up and see if components needed to be re-seated. In the process, I noticed my CPU heatsink fan was legitimately loose. Oh goodie. It won't snap into place for some reason. They little legs will not go into the holes and latch. Guess I need to buy a new heatsink fan tomorrow and try that. But at what point do I hold UPS liable and ask for money back? Annoying.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:28 PM on June 29, 2012

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