There was a time when every geek seemed to build their own PC. While the masses bought eMachines and Compaqs, geeks built their own more powerful and reliable desktop machines for cheaper. But does this still make sense?
Building your own PC still offers as much flexibility in component choice as it ever did, but prebuilt computers are available at extremely competitive prices. Building your own PC will no longer save you money in most cases.
The Rise of Laptops
It’s impossible to look at the decline of geeks building their own PCs without considering the rise of laptops. There was a time when everyone seemed to use desktops — laptops were more expensive and significantly slower in day-to-day tasks.
With the diminishing importance of computing power — nearly every modern computer has more than enough power to surf the web and use typical programs like Microsoft Office without any trouble — and the rise of laptop availability at nearly every price point, most people are buying laptops instead of desktops. And, if you’re buying a laptop, you can’t really build your own. You can’t just buy a laptop case and start plugging components into it — even if you could, you would end up with an extremely bulky device.
Ultimately, to consider building your own desktop PC, you have to actually want a desktop PC. Most people are better served by laptops.
Benefits to PC Building
The two main reasons to build your own PC have been component choice and saving money. Building your own PC allows you to choose all the specific components you want rather than have them chosen for you. You get to choose everything, including the PC’s case and cooling system. Want a huge case with room for a fancy water-cooling system? You probably want to build your own PC.
In the past, this often allowed you to save money — you could get better deals by buying the components yourself and combining them, avoiding the PC manufacturer markup. You’d often even end up with better components — you could pick up a more powerful CPU that was easier to overclock and choose more reliable components so you wouldn’t have to put up with an unstable eMachine that crashed every day.
PCs you build yourself are also likely more upgradable — a prebuilt PC may have a sealed case and be constructed in such a way to discourage you from tampering with the insides, while swapping components in and out is generally easier with a computer you’ve built on your own. If you want to upgrade your CPU or replace your graphics card, it’s a definite benefit.
Downsides to Building Your Own PC
It’s important to remember there are downsides to building your own PC, too. For one thing, it’s just more work — sure, if you know what you’re doing, building your own PC isn’t that hard. Even for a geek, researching the best components, price-matching, waiting for them all to arrive, and building the PC just takes longer.
Warranty is a more pernicious problem. If you buy a prebuilt PC and it starts malfunctioning, you can contact the computer’s manufacturer and have them deal with it. You don’t need to worry about what’s wrong.
If you build your own PC and it starts malfunctioning, you have to diagnose the problem yourself. What’s malfunctioning, the motherboard, CPU, RAM, graphics card, or power supply? Each component has a separate warranty through its manufacturer, so you’ll have to determine which component is malfunctioning before you can send it off for replacement.
Should You Still Build Your Own PC?
Let’s say you do want a desktop and are willing to consider building your own PC. First, bear in mind that PC manufacturers are buying in bulk and getting a better deal on each component. They also have to pay much less for a Windows license than the $120 or so it would cost you to to buy your own Windows license. This is all going to wipe out the cost savings you’ll see — with everything all told, you’ll probably spend more money building your own average desktop PC than you would picking one up from Amazon or the local electronics store. If you’re an average PC user that uses your desktop for the typical things, there’s no money to be saved from building your own PC.
But maybe you’re looking for something higher end. Perhaps you want a high-end gaming PC with the fastest graphics card and CPU available. Perhaps you want to pick out each individual component and choose the exact components for your gaming rig. In this case, building your own PC may be a good option.
As you start to look at more expensive, high-end PCs, you may start to see a price gap — but you may not. Let’s say you wanted to blow thousands of dollars on a gaming PC. If you’re looking at spending this kind of money, it would be worth comparing the cost of individual components versus a prebuilt gaming system. Still, the actual prices may surprise you. For example, if you wanted to upgrade Dell’s $2293 Alienware Aurora to include a second NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 graphics card, you’d pay an additional $600 on Alienware’s website. The same graphics card costs $650 on Amazon or Newegg, so you’d be spending more money building the system yourself. Why? Dell’s Alienware gets bulk discounts you can’t get — and this is Alienware, which was once regarded as selling ridiculously overpriced gaming PCs to people who wouldn’t build their own.
Building your own PC still allows you to get the most freedom when choosing and combining components, but this is only valuable to a small niche of gamers and professional users — most people, even average gamers, would be fine going with a prebuilt system.
If you’re an average person or even an average gamer, you’ll likely find that it’s cheaper to purchase a prebuilt PC rather than assemble your own. Even at the very high end, components may be more expensive separately than they are in a prebuilt PC.
Enthusiasts who want to choose all the individual components for their dream gaming PC and want maximum flexibility may want to build their own PCs. Even then, building your own PC these days is more about flexibility and component choice than it is about saving money.
In summary, you probably shouldn’t build your own PC. If you’re an enthusiast, you may want to — but only a small minority of people would actually benefit from building their own systems. Feel free to compare prices, but you may be surprised which is cheaper.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 10/16/13