Buy or Build – That is the Question

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Which is Cheaper – Retail or Homebuilt?

In the PC world, the age-old question seems to be “Should I buy a retail system, or should I build my own”. There are many reasons for building your own system, but the most common one is price. Experienced do-it-yourselfers will say you can build one cheaper than you can buy one, but this is not necessarily true. It may be true for them, because they have the experience. I’m not going to try to tell you how to build a good system, because I don’t believe this is something that can be learned from an article, or even a book.

Building a good system requires a fair amount of time and experience. You have to do the research, sometimes get professional advice and then dive in and make the mistakes. It is important to recognize that a store salesman is not a professional. Professionals are paid to provide advice without necessarily selling anything else. Newsgroup ‘experts’, and friends are not professionals either, because they are not accountable for any bad advice they might give. This could be extended to hardware reviewers as well – it isn’t their fault you chose the wrong part based on their review and recommendation! For those who don’t want to make a hobby of it, building a system likely will not be cheaper than buying one.

While one may be able to add up a list of parts and show that the total is less than a comparable retail system costs, the fact is that there are costs involved beyond the hardware itself. Some may consider their time to be ‘free’, while others believe it to be limited and therefore precious. An experienced builder may be able to put together a system and have it running burn-in tests within an hour or two after all components are available, but for a first-timer it may require several evenings. There are potential problems with defective or incompatible parts that must be tested and/ or returned. This generally ends up costing even more time troubleshooting and waiting, as well as additional money in either gasoline or postage. Finally, the frustration of not knowing how to determine the nature of one or more problems encountered may completely negate the temporary sweet feeling of saving money.

Perils and Pitfalls

One aspect of building a system that is extremely difficult for a novice user is identifying what is necessary and what is not. Should the processor be an Intel or an AMD? Should it be high-end or low-end? What about the video card? Which motherboard manufacturer is best, and what features should be considered necessary? How much memory should be installed? What size and speed hard drive? Is a DVD necessary, or only a CD? What about CD-R or CD-RW? Which manufacturers are best for all of these? Should the sound be integrated, or would a separate sound card be better? What about video? Is a LAN card necessary, or is built-in LAN sufficient? While these questions may seem simple to an experienced hobbyist, they can be overwhelming for someone who has never had to think about them before. Sure, you can ask friends, or check out websites and newsgroups – but there are so many different opinions, all based on some set of assumptions that usually don’t apply to any specific situation.

Once all of the components have been identified, the next critical task is to determine where to purchase them. Should they all come from the same vendor, or should they be purchased from whoever has the lowest price? Buying all from the same vendor has the advantage of potentially saving on shipping costs and having things more likely to be compatible, but will usually be more expensive than ‘shopping around’ for each component. Then there is the issue of warranty – if it takes more than a couple of weeks to get all of the parts together and assemble the system, the vendor(s) may not be willing to perform any warranty service (30 days seems standard these days). Dealing with the manufacturer is generally a nightmare, at best, and very few manufacturers or vendors will take responsibility for compatibility issues, as they figure it is the buyer’s responsibility to know what he/she is doing.

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