With entry-level PCs selling for less than $500 and fully equipped mainstream PCs for $1,200, you might wonder why anyone would bother to build a PC. After all, you can’t save any money building one, can you? Well actually, you can. In fact, there are many good reasons to build your own PC.
PC makers aren’t in business for charitable reasons. They need to make a profit, so they need to sell computers for more than they pay for the components and the labor to assemble them. Significantly more, in fact, because they also need to support such expensive operations as research and development departments, toll-free support numbers, and so on.
But PC manufacturers get big price breaks because they buy components in huge volume, right? Not really. The market for PC components is extremely efficient, with razor-thin margins whether you buy one unit or 100,000. A volume purchaser gets a price break, certainly, but it’s a lot smaller than most people think.
Mass-market PCs are inexpensive not because the makers get huge price breaks on quality components, but because they generally use the cheapest components possible. Cost-cutting is a fact of life in mass-market, consumer-grade PCs. If mass-market PC makers can save a few bucks on the case or the power supply, they do it every time, even though spending a few dollars more (or even a few cents more) would have allowed them to build a noticeably better system. If you compare apples to apples—a home-built system versus, say, an equivalent business-class IBM PC—you’ll find you can build it yourself for less, sometimes a lot less. Our rule of thumb is that, on average and all other things being equal, you can build a midrange PC yourself for about 75% to 85% of what a major manufacturer charges for an equivalent top-quality system.
Cheaper by the Dozen?
As an example, when Intel announces price reductions or a faster new version of the Pentium 4, the news stories often report “Quantity 1000” pricing for the OEM or “tray” versions. This is what a computer maker who buys processors 1,000 at a time pays; a maker who buys 100,000 at a time may pay a few dollars less. If you buy just one OEM processor, you’ll typically pay a couple bucks more than the Quantity 1000 pricing. But you may end up paying even less, because PC makers often order more processors than they need to take advantage of price breaks on larger quantities, and then sell the unneeded processors at a slight loss to distributors who then sell them to retailers.
When you buy a PC, you get a cookie-cutter computer. You can choose such options as a larger hard drive, more memory, or a better monitor, but basically you get what the vendor decides to give you. If you want something that few people ask for, like a better power supply or quieter cooling fans or a motherboard with more features, you’re out of luck. Those aren’t options.
And what you do get is a matter of chance. High-volume direct vendors like Gateway and Dell often use multiple sources for components. Two supposedly identical systems ordered on the same day may contain significantly different components, including such important variations as different motherboards or monitors with the same model number but made by different manufacturers. When you build a PC, you decide exactly what goes into it.
One of the best things about building your own PC is that you can optimize its design to focus on what is important to you and ignore what isn’t. An off-the-shelf commercial PC is by nature a jack of all trades and master of none. System vendors have to strike a happy medium that is adequate, if not optimum, for the mythical “average” user.
Want a small, quiet PC for your home theater system? There are three options. You can use a standard PC despite its large size and high noise level; you can pay big bucks for a system from a specialty builder that does just what you want; or you can build your own. Need a system with a ton of redundant hard disk storage for editing video or a professional audio workstation? Good luck finding a commercial system that fits your requirements, at least at a reasonable price. When you build your own PC, you spend your money on things that matter to you, and ignore the things that don’t.
Better component quality
Most computer vendors cut costs by using cheaper OEM versions of popular components if they’re “visible” and no-name components if they’re not. By “visible” we mean a component that people might seek out by brand name even in a prebuilt PC, such as an ATi or nVIDIA video adapter. Invisible components are ones that buyers seldom ask about or notice, such as motherboards, optical and hard drives, power supplies, and so on.
OEM components may be identical to retail models, differing only in packaging. But even if the parts are the same, there are often significant differences. Component vendors usually do not support OEM versions directly, for example, instead referring you to the system vendor. If that system vendor goes out of business, you’re out of luck, because the component maker provides no warranty to end users. Even if the maker does support OEM products, the warranty is usually much shorter on OEM parts, often as little as 30 to 90 days. The products themselves may also differ significantly between OEM and retail-boxed versions. Major PC vendors often use downgraded versions of popular products, for example, an OEM video adapter that has the same or a very similar name as the retail-boxed product but that runs at a lower clock rate. This allows PC makers to pay less for components and still gain the cachet from using the name-brand product.
It’s worse when it comes to “invisible” components. We’ve popped the lid on scores of consumer-grade PCs over the years, and it never ceases to surprise us just how cheaply they’re built. Not a one of them had a power supply that we’d even consider using in one of our own systems, for example. They’re packed with no-name motherboards, generic memory, the cheapest optical drives available, and so on. Even the cables are often shoddy. After all, why pay a buck more for a decent cable? In terms of reliability, we consider a consumer-grade PC a disaster waiting to happen.
Not all commercial PCs are poorly built. Most “business-class” systems from IBM and other high-end vendors are well engineered with top-quality components and high build quality. Of course, a business-class system costs a lot more than a consumer-grade system.
No bundled software
Most purchased PCs include Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, or other bundled software. If you don’t need or want this software, building a PC allows you to avoid paying the “Microsoft tax.”
If you do want commercial software, you can buy OEM versions at a bargain price when you buy your hardware components. Buying a hard drive or a motherboard entitles you to buy full OEM versions of the software you need at a large discount. OEM software includes a full license rather than an upgrade license, so you needn’t own the product already to benefit from OEM software pricing. OEM software is one of the best-kept secrets in the retail channel. If you need Windows or Office, ask your vendor if they have OEM versions of the titles you want when you order components. OEM versions of Windows and Microsoft applications are “For sale only with a new PC,” but Microsoft takes a liberal view of what constitutes a new PC. Buying a hard drive, motherboard, or processor entitles you to buy OEM software.
OEM Software Pricing
OEM software prices are striking. For example, when we priced motherboards for a new system in mid-2004, we could have bought full OEM versions of Windows XP Home for $82, Windows XP Pro for $133, Office Basic 2003 for $145, or Office Pro 2003 for $220 with the purchase of the motherboard. Full OEM versions generally sell for about two-thirds the price of retail upgrade-only versions and for less than half the price of retail full versions, so if you need the software this is a cheap way to get it. Of course, Microsoft doesn’t support OEM versions, which is the main reason for the low price.
The retail-boxed components you’ll use to build your own PC include full manufacturer warranties that may run from one to five years or more, depending on the component. PC makers use OEM components, which often include no manufacturer warranty to the end user; if something breaks, you’re at the mercy of the PC maker to repair or replace it. We’ve heard from readers who bought PCs from makers who went out of business shortly thereafter. When a hard drive or video card failed six months later, they contacted the maker of the item, only to find that they had OEM components that were not under manufacturer warranty.
Keep receipts together with the “retain this portion” of warranty cards, and put them someplace they can be found if required for future warranty service. This goes for software, too.
If you buy a computer, your experience with it consists of taking it out of the box and connecting the cables. If you build a computer, you know exactly what went into it, and you’re in a much better position to resolve any problems that may occur.
If you design and build your own PC, you can upgrade it later using industry-standard components. That’s sometimes not the case with commercial systems, some of which are intentionally designed to be incompatible with industry-standard components. PC makers do this because they want to force you to buy upgrade and replacement components from them, at whatever price they want to charge.
These designed-in incompatibilities may be as trivial as nonstandard screw sizes, or as profound as components that are electrically incompatible with standard components. For example, some Dell PCs use motherboards and power supplies with standard connectors but nonstandard pin connections. If you replace a failed Dell power supply with a standard ATX power supply—or if you connect the nonstandard Dell power supply to a standard motherboard—both the power supply and motherboard will be destroyed the moment you apply power to the system.
This chapter is from Building the Perfect PC by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson (O'Reilly, 2004, ISBN: 0596006632). Check it out at your favorite bookstore today. Buy this book now.
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