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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Requirements Analysis | Buying, Building and Upgrading ]

Benefits Of Building A New PC

For many people, building a PC comes as a natural extension of upgrading. This was the case for myself; I started by doing small upgrades to an existing 486 machine back in the mid-1990s, and when I had exhausted that system's practical upgrade options, I built myself a new machine.

In fact, sometimes it's hard to draw a distinction between "upgrading a machine" and "building a PC using some existing components". If you take a system and replace its motherboard, CPU, memory, video card and hard disk (as I recently did to one of my PCs) is that an "upgrade"? Some would argue that replacing the entire heart of a system with new components is really a new build that just makes use of some existing components such as the power supply and case, floppy disk drive and so on. Fortunately, it doesn't really matter too much what you call it! :^)

Let's take a look at the advantages of building your own PC:

  • Customization and Custom "Balancing": You build exactly the machine you want; no more, no less. This is an advantage you can only get by designing and building your own machine from parts you select--you cannot get this by buying a machine (unless you're extraordinarily lucky!) Part of this flexibility is being able to balance the system precisely as you desire. If you need a very powerful video card but not a lot of memory, you can get it. If you need 200 GB of hard disk space but only a so-so processor, you can get that too. In contrast, it's much more difficult to get pre-built PCs that are very "high-end" in one area but "middle-of-the-road" in others.
  • Quality: Most home-built PCs use higher-quality components than those used by companies selling pre-made PCs. The most common reason for this is that homebuilders care more about the longevity and quality of their systems than big companies do; that's just common sense. (Although high quality does require that you pay attention when shopping for components, and be willing to shell out a few extra bucks!)
  • Upgradability and Expandability: Building your own PC makes it relatively easy to upgrade or expand. Since you know what is in the box, you know most of what you need to upgrade it. In addition, if you plan ahead for upgradeability you can buy components that will facilitate this. Finally, home-built PCs use industry-standard components, avoiding the pitfalls of proprietary designs.
  • Easier "Non-Standard" Operating System Use: Most regular PCs are designed under the assumption that they will run the latest Microsoft consumer operating system. They are usually only tested on that operating system. If you plan to go with Linux, or BeOS, or something else "out of the ordinary", being able to pick your own components can be very helpful. For example, most retail PCs are equipped with Winmodems, which won't work in a Linux environment. (Also, most technical support people at big computer companies have no clue about anything other than consumer-grade Windows installs.) See here for more.
  • Educational Value: Building your own system will force you to learn far more about PCs than buying a system will. Clearly, this would only be considered an advantage by some people! :^) There are distinct advantages, however, to being able to do your own technical support work. This education can also save you money down the road when you explore upgrade options. You'll also generally make better buying decisions, and tend to stay more "on top" of the latest technologies.
  • Freedom To Experiment: Build it, and it's your baby; you can do to it whatever you like. In contrast, some pre-made PCs come with very restrictive warranties. With certain brands, you can't even open the system case without voiding the warranty! Also, many retail PCs have most of their BIOS controls removed to prevent "tinkering", and other options for the adventurous disabled.

Notably absent from the list above: "cheaper". Once upon a time, lower expense was commonly given as an advantage of homebuilding, but today this subject is recognized to be very complex. In general, homebuilding is not done to save money. You may be able to get good deals online for your components, but you don't have the purchasing power of a Dell or Compaq, and so you can't really expect to compete with them on price terms.

Here are some additional issues to consider regarding whether or not building saves money:

  • Component Reuse: If you can reuse many of the components from an existing machine, or even better, leftovers that aren't part of a full PC, you can cut out some of the cost of building a system. Common low-performance-impact components that can be easily found from various sources include cases, keyboards, mice, cables, floppy disk drives, older network cards and CD-ROM drives.
  • Bundled Software: If you need the operating system, productivity applications and other software typically bundled into a new PC, you will pay hundreds of dollars to buy them when you build. In many cases this is the single biggest expense when building a PC! If you already have the software you need you may save money building; if you don't, it's almost certain that you won't.
  • Special Needs: Some people have special needs of their PCs such that most of the hardware and software in a typical PC bundle would go to waste; they can save money by building a system with only those features they require.
  • Component Quality: One of the biggest advantages of home-building is being able to get better-quality components. This advantage really comes to the fore-front if using good components. In contrast, if you are just looking to build "as cheap as possible", you may be better off just to get something made at a local store, where they can "go cheap" more easily due to volume.

As for the difficulty in building a PC, it's been largely overblown. It doesn't require a degree in computer engineering, and the Internet makes it a lot easier to resolve common problems than was the case when I started into hardware in 1995. At the same time, though, I must state clearly that this is not an option for everyone. It takes some time, patience and research to do the job properly, and a willingness to "be the technical support department" after the PC is done. If you are willing to make the investments in time and energy, they can pay off handsomely; if not, you should just buy a PC and save yourself some headaches. (See this procedure on building PCs if you are interested in what's involved.)

If you want most of the benefits of a custom-made system without building your own, get a system custom-built. I talk about this in detail in the last paragraph of the section on the benefits of buying a pre-made PC.

Next: Buying A "Barebones" PC

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