Should I buy or should I build?


May 12, 2003


The Bottom Line Hopefully this fits in this category. There isn't an advice section for Buy vs. Build.

Computer users are like snakes. As they grow, they shed their skin every so often to grow a new coat of skin. While they are in the process of shedding, they are at their most vulnerable. But if they survive, they are stronger and better for the wear.

Since I am pretty computer savvy compared to most of my friends, I'm often asked what type of computer I own. When I tell them that I build my own systems, it is usually met with wonder and amazement. They say, “I could never do that. That sounds way too complicated. I wouldn’t know where to start.” They often ask why I do this. I enjoy it, I tell them. The satisfaction of building something from the ground up is fun and invigorating. But at the same time it is nerve-racking and stressful. They always ask me what they should do. I usually tell them to do what they feel most comfortable with, which is usually to buy a complete system already made for them. But some aren’t sure what they should do. So I have decided to share some of my experience and insight into the question that I have phrased “Buy or Build?”

As I thought how I would do this, there were different angles I could take. I decided to try and point out some of the pros and cons of each option. I have seen the advantages from both sides as well as the problems that can arise in both cases. Without further ado, let’s look at buying a pre-made system first.

Why Buy?
While there aren’t as many as there used to be, there are plenty of companies that want to sell you a computer. The heavy hitters include Dell, Gateway, Sony, HP/Compaq, and IBM. There are also smaller “niche” companies such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest, MicronPC, and the local computer store that sells their “white-box special.” Deciding which company you will do business with is the first big step you’ll take.

Here is where a list of needs and wants will really help out. If you’re an average user who is looking to upgrade an older computer but doesn’t need top of the line equipment, both Dell and Gateway offer strong budget PCs for tasty low prices. Sony and HP/Compaq are coming out with some nifty multimedia computers looking to become your digital entertainment hub. If you a hardcore gamer, you can’t go wrong with the slick looking rigs you can snag from Alienware. As your processing and graphical demands increase, so will the price. To make the decision of what company to do business with, price is usually the overriding issue. Set yourself a limit, define some “must-haves” and some “I-can-live-withouts” and then start looking.

There are many places you could begin your search. There are a multitude of websites and print magazines that review desktops on a regular basis. PCWorld/PCWorld.com and PC Magazine are a couple of my favorites, along with C-net.com and others. Of course there are always the wonderful reviews to be found here at Epinions. Some of the most insightful reviews can be found here. Don’t shrug off a review that has been rated “Somewhat helpful” because those are usually people complaining about a certain design flaw in a system and are mad at the world. While they should probably be taken with a grain of salt, the can still be useful.

So to get back to the question at hand, why buy? There are obviously many reasons why you can go this route, I will try to touch on a few that I feel are the most important.

One of the reasons I tell my non-tech friends to buy a computer from a well-known seller is the warranty. No matter how smart or computer literate one is, things are going to go wrong. Disk drives go bad. Video cards can do weird things. Pieces sometimes just don’t work. A nice, fat three-year warranty from your computer manufacturer will save you heartache and prevent you from pulling your hair out. Most warranties cover parts and labor for at least a year, and you can always buy bigger warranties. When our Dell went out of commission at school, all I had to do was call Dell, tell them my problem, and replacement parts were on my desk the next day. They offered to walk me through the steps to make the repair, which I declined, but would have been helpful if I had never taken the case off a computer before.

Another perk that goes hand-in-hand with warranties is tech support. Again, just like the hardware mentioned earlier, software doesn’t always do what it’s supposed to do. Things get mixed up and stop working. A simple call to tech support is usually all it takes. At times these calls can be pull-out-your-hair frustrating after you’ve told four different levels of technicians the same frigging story, but in the end, if it gets fixed, it was worth it. Most companies offer some type of free support and are always willing (of course) to give you “express” tech support, for a nominal (yeah, right) fee. Twenty-four hour support would be nice, but that’s not always an option, so take warranty options into account when making your decision. Some tech support is better than others but most companies will be there for you in a pinch.

Most computer manufacturers use quality components that have been tested and proven in their systems. They don’t want to take tech support calls anymore than you want to make them so most of them use quality components. Since they get bulk pricing, you’d be hard pressed to build a computer yourself with the same components for a cheaper price. Along with the quality components comes quality support. Most systems come with software and manuals that can get many minor problems fixed relatively painlessly.

One of the drawbacks of buying a complete desktop system is that down the road, upgrading can be difficult. Cracking open the case to insert a new sound card or video card can cause problems that aren’t easily remedied. Often, you will receive no sympathy from tech support if your new card suddenly caused everything to go haywire. Warranties may even be voided if you do something you aren’t supposed to do.

Build it and it will work!
Making the decision to build your own system has its perks and pitfalls, as well. Before you decide to barrel head-first into a building a new system, I would suggest you start slowly, perhaps by installing a new video card or hard drive in your existing computer. Once you are confident with your skills, the sky is the limit.

So why would you want to build a computer? I do it for a couple of reasons. To me, it’s a challenge to get all of these highly technical and complex components to work together. I also get a sense of accomplishment, looking at a finished product that I made. I recently put the finishing touches on my new system, and it feels great to have all this new found speed and power. I still can’t fathom how I’ll ever fill a 120 GB hard drive, but I'm sure I’ll figure it out.

The biggest draw to building your own is control over every facet of the system. Customization is the name of the game when it comes to building your own. Mechanics and car buffs have their 㣝 Chevy’s and Porsche 911’s and computer geeks have there AMD Athlon XP 3000 ’s and modified computer cases. Everything can be selected to fit the user’s personal needs. Most people who build their own systems fall into a few select groups that have their own needs and demands. There are the hard-core over-clockers who squeeze every single MHz they can out of their systems. There is another small, but influential, group of computer users that basically drive the hardware market. I'm referring to hard-core gamers. People who want Quake III Arena to run at 350 fps. They make up the largest group of do-it-yourselfers. Finally there are people who are more than just casual users, looking for a cheap way to upgrade their hardware. Everyone has a reason, but the end result is the same.

There are definitely more things to consider when building your own system. The biggest drawback in my opinion is the lack of room for error. If the technician building a system at Gateway cracks the processor as he installs the heatsink, he just grabs another one off the shelf and off he goes. If you do that, you are pretty much out a couple hundred bucks. Extreme care has to be taken every step of the way. Dropping a hard drive on the floor will usually render it useless. While most people don’t have an anti-static mat on their workbench, there are many things you can do to ensure you have an appropriate work space to build your systems. Having the right tools helps, too.

Software is another issue that must be considered, especially the operating system. Most people will want to run Windows XP and if you’re not upgrading your system, you’ll need to buy another copy for the new system. The cost of the operating system is included when you buy a new computer from Sony but it’s something you have to factor into your budget if you’re building a new system.

Putting together a new system is more than just a new motherboard, processor and memory. You have to think about you’re the right type of case, a spacious hard drive, any optical drives you want the services of, and I/O devices such as a mouse, keyboard and monitor. Speakers, printers and scanners are also things that must be thoughtfully considered. Bringing it all together is no small feat.

Most people are overwhelmed by the vast amounts of knowledge there is out there when they start doing their research for components for their new rigs. Places like tomshardware.com and anandtech.com are great places to get reviews and up-to-date information. There are also countless forums where people talk (and brag) about their systems. These are also great places to get ideas for what can be done when problem arise.

Building your own system is a big step in the life a computer user. You step out of the realm of solely being a consumer and become a creator, a craftsman. It’s a great feeling.

It’s your hard earned money, it’s your decision.
Hopefully I've outlined a few issues that should be considered before you make your next computer purchase. I will probably always build my own systems, but I rarely do it for other people. There are too many things that can go wrong and I can’t be available to fix everything. I always tell them they are better off getting a system from an established computer company. While my success rate so far is 100%, that’s only because I'm 5 for 5 with the systems I've built.

I made the decision to do a major overhaul on my system recently and I did everything myself. I will be writing another article about what choices I made when I chose my components, how I saved money and how everything came together. It will be a sort of how-to for upgrading or building a new computer, since pretty much everything in my new system is new. It was exhilarating and equally frustrating as things cropped up that slowed me down, but in the end, it was another fun ride. I hope you’ll stay tuned for my upcoming reviews of my components and how everything works together, like a finely-tuned machine.

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