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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Component Specification Issues ]

Brand Name and Generic Components

As is the case in almost every market, most PC components are available from a variety of different manufacturers. Some are well-known and popular brands, some are lesser known, and some are simply "unknown". At the grocery store you can buy food products made by That Company You've Heard Of Before or a generic "store brand" that looks about the same but isn't exactly the same. Similarly, PC components can be either brand name units or generics.

Speaking of grocery stores... have you ever wondered how it is that every large chain of grocery stores has thousands of different house-branded products available for sale? Obviously, they can't possibly make all these products, and they don't--they are made by food companies, often in the same factories that make the brand-name equivalents that sit on the shelves next to them. The products aren't always identical but they are usually very similar, and the store brands are of course cheaper. They are often a good deal.

The same applies to computer components. In most cases you have the choice of buying from a well-regarded name, or a generic with a name you've never heard of that costs less. The difference between the PC store and the grocery store is that if you buy store-brand crackers and don't like them, you're out a buck fifty and next time you just buy the name brand ones. If you buy a $200 video card and it stinks, you're stuck with it. So there's more on the line in making the decision when it comes to your system.

How much difference is there between brand-name and generic components? It seems to depend a great deal on the type of component, and the needs and wants of the buyer. In many cases generics do an acceptable job, especially for components that are relatively mundane, while saving money. For example, the brand name of the keyboard in a PC usually doesn't matter to most people, as long as it feels good to use and is solidly made. On the other hand, I strongly recommend against buying a generic motherboard, because this is a crucial component. I avoid generic monitors because they are usually of inferior quality.

I believe that in some cases generic components can do as good a job as name-brand ones. I still recommend that you proceed with caution before purchasing them. Why? TANSTAAFL. It's true that you often save money simply because you are not paying for "the name" on a brand-name product, and all the overhead that comes with it, especially advertising. At the same time, there are often real quality advantages to buying a name brand product. You have to find out the details on competing products to get the full story.

Perhaps more importantly though, name brand products are almost always superior to generics when it comes to support matters. I mentioned that generic motherboards are something to avoid: despite being so important, many PC systems come with generic "no name" motherboards. These are boards where the manufacturer cannot even be identified, much less contacted. The vendor provides warranty support on the PC, but what happens if you need a BIOS upgrade, or you have a technical question the vendor can't answer? You're out of luck.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record: always find out the details about every component you purchase. When you are specifying a PC, the only safe assumption you can make about the components inside the box is that if the vendor doesn't mention a specific brand name, they are probably using some sort of generic or lesser-known name. Ask for the brand, and if you don't like what you hear, ask if you can substitute a name brand you trust. If you can't then you need to decide if you should instead get a different system.

Next: Integrated Components

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