Windows

Building vs. buying your own computer, revisited


A couple of months ago, I posted an article discussing the merits of buying a prebuilt computer versus building my own. At the time, I wavered from my usual preference of building my own, and instead purchased a couple of off-the-shelf boxes. Now that things have settled down around here (since my Vista upgrade is complete and well behind me), and I'm faced with adding another client workstation, the question is again at the forefront.

The first thing I did was to come up with a new computer specification. We plan to add and/or upgrade quite a few workstations in the upcoming months, and I like consistency in my computers. So regardless of if I build or buy these future machines, they'll all have to meet or exceed these specifications. Having to support people in a graphics-extensive environment, and considering the fact that our application software is extremely demanding (and getting more demanding with every new release), I can't waver too much from these specifications. We'll simply need the computing power.

Here are my new computer specifications (or approved equals):

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo 3.0GHz processor, 1333 MHz FSB, 4 MB L2 Cache
  • Motherboard: ASUS P5N32-E SLI
  • RAM: 8GB - 4ea. 2GB DDR2 PC2 6400
  • Hard Drive: 500GB Seagate SATA with 16MB Cache
  • Graphics: PCI Express Nvidia GeForce 8500 GT with 512MB DDR2
  • CD/DVD: Pioneer DVR-2810 Internal 18x18 DVD/CD Read/Write
  • Floppy Drive: Internal 3-1/2" Floppy Disk Drive
  • Case: Antec Sonata II Quiet PC Case
  • Operating System: Vista Ultimate (see note)
  • Monitor: Viewsonic 19" VP930b digital LCD flat panel
  • Keyboard: Microsoft Media Pro keyboard
  • Mouse: Microsoft optical mouse
Note: I'm on the cusp of transiting from a 32-bit to the 64-bit system, as all of my applications and peripherals aren't fully 64-bit compatible at this time (particularly one peripheral, but I'm anticipating updated drivers). For this reason, I'll spend an extra $100 and buy the boxed Vista operating system instead of the cheaper OEM version; that way I'll have both the 32-bit and 64-bit DVDs, leaving open the option to install either one.

I've usually preferred an ATI graphics card, but the comparable ATI model with 512MB DDR2 is about $100 more than the Nvidia. I'm not sure brand-name preference is worth the extra dollars. Moreover, this particular ASUS motherboard has the Nvidia chip-set, so there might be some merit in using the Nvidia graphics card. I'm not certain about that, but the two together just might work more efficiently.

And speaking of the motherboard, I'll probably try to substitute what's on my list with a different ASUS model that has more RAM capability (for future upgrade considerations). This particular board has a maximum capacity of 8GB, and I'd hate to make a motherboard obsolete too fast simply because the maximum amount of RAM is already installed; and we can't always count on future BIOS upgrades to increase RAM capacity.

The Verdict:

Total cost to build my own: $1,850

Cost of a custom-built Dell: $4,480

When I received that quote from Dell, I just about fell out of my chair. I was expecting a price higher than building it myself, but not that much higher! Not only that, but I would have had to do a customer install of 4GB additional RAM and the 512MB graphics card (although Dell would have provided that additional hardware). Why they couldn't install it themselves, especially for that kind of price, is beyond me.

Well, I could shop around, I suppose, to try and find a better price than the Dell, but considering the huge difference in price, and considering the fact I want to keep as much control as possible in my own hands, I'm going back to building my own.

Two days later... now that I have this computer built and operational, I can certainly say that this is, without a doubt, the best computer in the office -- it's a real screamer!

98 comments
JCitizen
JCitizen

Sheese Joe where do you go to buy your cards? Everywhere I go the comparible ATI cards are HALF the cost of SLI capable Nvidia cards. Now about the time you go to by a crossfire ready motherboard THEN you find out why. They are hard to find and super expensive. So I'm not sure the cost doesn't about equal out in the end. (EDITED) I suppose you don't need ATI cards to begin with if you go with other brand that are crossfire ready. NewEgg has a slightly more crossfire ready boards for a cheaper price but I don't know the performance points.

ddbergen
ddbergen

Rather than buying a Dell or HP, the place I deal with (Memory Express, Calgary) will build a custom machine for you and has a number of prebuilt packages. I think they charge $50 to build it and $80 to build and install the OS. You can control exactly what goes into the machine for superior quality and speed. A high end machine will cost less than a similarly configured Dell. I think this option is better for service. Normally I laugh at the cost of these extended warranties, but they have an instant replacement one that is priced less than the wait 3 month ones that the big box stores have. For a small business that can't be without its computer, that probably makes sense. If your shop has as good service as Memory Express, you are laughing even if you didn't get the extended warranty. For a low end machine, it is more expensive than a dell or Acer, but some of that can be recovered by purchasing an OEM version of office.

cavlosnap
cavlosnap

So you saved how much you say? Did you really? Your time is worth nothing? I wonder how much you really need in the way of grunt power. Not that I doubt your integrity but there is sometimes a gap between need and desire. Run any really good benchmarks lately? Can Vista 32 bit, if that is what you are using, handle 8 GB? I don't know so I'm asking. Will you get as much performance out of 500GB on one spindle as 4 spindles of say 160GB? Again just asking. 19" screens you say? 22" is so much nicer and not much more. The build or buy argument has been going on since day one. The answer can be whichever way you want, especially if you're trying to sell it to less than knowledgeable managers. My guess is you like playing with tools. If I'm wrong I apologize. I'm retired after 40+ years in the IT arena mostly hardware and telecom. I think I've heard most of the arguements about the virtues of building. Most of them fail to answer the question of "what business are you in?". The argument about having the ability to handle "future upgrades" is a good one except that in most cases I've seen,it never really happens. By the time one gets around to it, the price of hardware has dropped, the chip specs have changed and it is a lot easier to start from scratch. Personally I've got a basement stash of gently used MBs and processors. I've saved the HDDs and maybe some of the other peripherals just to save data transfer time and problems but the expensive parts are just waiting to go to a third world site for meltdown. I build my own PCs just for the hell of it. At one time it used to give a much better box but now I'm not so sure. The down side to off-the-shelf boxes is that they usually have minimum expansion possibilities. On the other hand they're supposed to be out of the box and good to go. You have fun building. BTW I just bought my first off-the-shelf box, an ASUS eee $400. NO moving parts!

wrey
wrey

While it might cheaper to build a very powerfull customized Desktop, I think that is not the case if you are building the PC for your average worker. I think that building a PC for the average worker, that uses office, and some customized applications, and not graphics/video editing, its more expensive that buying directly from a mayor PC company. Who can build a PC standard PC for $700 or less? (that is the price of some HP desktops). The mother board along is going to cost you a couple of hundred dollars.

paul.kewitsch
paul.kewitsch

8GB RAM will yeild you 4.5GB unused overkill until you get to the 64-bit OS. Vista 32-bit can only address 4GB RAM total from all sources. Together with your 512MB video card means that only about 3.5GB of your 8GB RAM is physically addressable.

bkrateku
bkrateku

I built my first PC back in college based on the AMD K6 processor and it was a great machine. Had years of service out of it. However, near the end of its life, I had a PS blow in it...thankfully taking nothing along with it on the way out. Replaced the PS. Bought a PC a year later...Alienware at that...constant probs with the Intel board. After a year, gave up and built one. PS died 2 weeks later. Killed all three hard drives. Built yet another one. PS is dead and being repaired as we speak. All of these were name brand parts like PC Power and Cooling, Antec, Corsair RAM, etc. Handled them with the utmost care. Am I jinxed for life? lol

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

That is a big difference in price. Did you compare prices on what the average person at home would need for a computer? I would look at how much time was spent building the unit and gettting the OS installed. Multiply that by the per hour salary and add it to the cost. Unless you're a slow builder and/or you make $200+ an hour I'm sure it would still be cheaper. EMD

smattix
smattix

Just to give a comparison, HP has the following: xw4600 Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E6850 2 GB (2 x 1 GB) DDR2-800 ECC RAM; 250 GB SATA 3 Gb/s NCQ 7200 rpm; NVIDIA Quadro FX1700 512 MB PCIe ; 16X DVD+/- RW DL SuperMulti; No Floppy; PS/2 Standard Keyboard; USB Optical Scroll Mouse; Windows Vista Business (32-bit) RB429UT#ABA $2272 500GB SATA HDD PV943UT $349 24" Widescreen EF224A#ABA $479 Just add some RAM ($500) and a MS KB ($50)and you've got an equivalent machine. Total Cost: $3,650 RETAIL

unixwolf.edu
unixwolf.edu

The cost I find also depends on the number of systems bought per purchase; time to build (troubleshooting defective parts) and configure vs. time to configure (troubleshooting a pre-built system).

computerd}}
computerd}}

http://www.supermicro.com/products/ Get a quote from these guys, their systems are stable and have worked well in our environment for the past 8 years. Better than a Dell system and are in your price range of building it yourself.

Tech Warrior
Tech Warrior

Well if you want someone to do it for you our shop will do if for parts plus $100 build fee and we specialize in custom jobs like your for a better quote call or e-mail me Shop: 612-455-1144 Cell: 952-594-1531 E-mail: rod@alexpctech.net

magic8ball
magic8ball

Did you consider a 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad at all? Also unless there is a real need for it, why include a floppy drive anymore. I imagine in a highly intensive graphics application that not too much would fit on a floppy.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

With Business Machines they should be using Volume License it's much cheaper and far superior for the business unless they are buying Off The Shelf Computers that are preloaded with M$ product. Col

JCitizen
JCitizen

Maybe NewEgg but I can't remember.. Really nifty little unit; of course the cheaper model probably didn't have the goodies yours did; but it sure looked like a good candidate for the OLPC project! Could run good competition against Microsofts ClassmatePC also I would think.

JCitizen
JCitizen

other wise you'll never realize full advantage of the bus architecture.

dreece
dreece

Are you using a good, quality, powerstrip/surge protector, or a battery backup? If you have unreliable power that could be causing your PSU issues.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

the larger savings are to be had in building your own "high-end" machine then a low end machine. Computer builders mark up the "gamer" models higher then the "entry" models (many of which have costs subsidized with crapware), so the cost savings can be partly parts cost as well as build time.

Lamini
Lamini

Off the top of my head that is not even $1,400, including a decent case. for that price, it should include a pair of 10krpm raid 0 performance drives, and 1Tb of storage drives mail order the parts, honestly that shouldnt take 2 hours to put together from unpacking the case to filling and mailing out all the rebates, and starting some burn in software for stability

smogmonster
smogmonster

I manage a network of 700 pc's plus 7 servers pretty much on my own. There is no way I could afford the time to build my own pc's. We use a local supplier who gives 36 months warranty and on site support. A real good guy who knows his stuff. Maybe I've struck lucky but suppliers on this side of the pond seem to be a bit better!

TheVirtualOne
TheVirtualOne

There are several hundred of us who respect the fact that this is NOT a place to "work the room" to get referrals unless you use the "send a message feature". You really don't want to compete against the rest of us. You aren't that good and you just let us know where you live. We also believe in "the way of the security expert". If you give us an in... we'll exploit it.. you have just provided the low hanging fruit. and if you don't remove your contact information I'll tell mom.

dmstenhouse
dmstenhouse

Still need floppy drives to install RAID setups, so not completly dead just yet. Unless I'm missing the fact you can use USB drive instead now.

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

can boot from a USB floppy, it would seem best to just buy a couple of those to have in the office for the rare times they may be needed. Most of the time after years of sucking in dust the built-in ones quit working anyway.

magic8ball
magic8ball

I am still curious about the Core 2 Quad though. On newegg for the same price you can get a Core 2 Duo E6850 or a Core 2 Quad Q6600.

tkrl2
tkrl2

Really the only reason I still see a use for a floppy drive is to load RAID drivers, when loading XP... although I'm not sure how Vista loads RAID drivers yet, I haven't gone down that path yet.

JCitizen
JCitizen

Perhaps I didn't read closely enough. The reason I like building is because each component is more likely to still be fully supported by the individual hardware company even after the unit is considered end of life. I get better driver support and sometimes the equipment manufacturers won't even list components made for Dell, Gateway, ect. I can't say as I blame them as those companies tout support as there biggest asset; so the OEMs let 'em at it. The equipment is priced lower to the big computer manufacturers precisely because the hardware manufacturers don't want to waste resources supporting someone else's brand name. I've had much better luck supporting OEM parts than any off the shelf company; although HP is less of a pain than some of the big makers. Bundling can save money here but I notice TigerDirect has a bad habit of putting junk they can't sell in their bundle packages. The licensing would make a huge difference as you pointed out; non-profit organizations are going to be buying preloaded machines as a must, to save on that budget.

bkrateku
bkrateku

Yeah, I've tried several things from good surge suppressors to battery backups and everything. Our power used to run a little high on the voltage side...about 122 to 123, but I wouldn't think that it would be high enough to cause that much trouble (maybe?).

M.A.S. Matrix
M.A.S. Matrix

Totally agree with you, that is WAY overpriced. I build mine with Vista Ultimate including 7.1 THX certified speakers, scanner, printer, Nvidia running SLI 4GB DDR and I didn't even pay $2k for all the parts. Much more cost effective to build your own.

daytech
daytech

The same can be found on this side of the pond as well. I have a local supplier who builds units to my specs, provides 36 month warranty and even provides me with spare parts to swap out myself when I am in a pinch for time. The price is a bit higher than Dell's standard offerings, but I am still using every single unit I have ever purchased from this supplier for the last six years!

JCitizen
JCitizen

I won't tell your mom. ;)

Lamini
Lamini

you can overclock your single or dual core processors, but you cant grow other processors. quad cores = bang for the buck, with a future. if youre buying for the now, dont buy for yesteryears. ive put a couple dozen of quad core systems together last couple months and only wish all the work computers were half as fast as the quads... at least for those that require a computer most of their day to do perform tasks other that require it or can greatly benefit raw cpu power, ie, not Word. The CPU is the heart of your system, I wouldnt take shortcuts around it. While there is not full multicore support from all applications, im sure they'll get on the bandwagon eventually, you cant buy single core systems anymore, even all laptops on stores now are at least dual cores.

M.A.S. Matrix
M.A.S. Matrix

I install floppies in of my systems for troubleshooting purposes. They are very inexpensive and don't take up that much room. There are times when the system will not make it past POST and you have to load some simple drivers from a floppy to gain access to figure the problem out. Also, there are some very good drive diagnostics that run from floppy if you have lost access ot your bootable drive.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

if you go through the gOS web site http://www.thinkgos.com/(the Linux distro it runs) they have a link to the Wal-Mart computer and a web site selling the mobo they use. Its not an actual micro-itx, its a mini itx, but its still a low power usage via C7, so if anything, the actual via boards should perform better then this one (in theory, ..okay.., in my head).

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

site, the $199 computer says " 512 MB of DDR2 system memory Offers good performance and is expandable to 2 GB" So I would assume it has 2 slots, each one able to hold a 1 GB stick. (see link below, this information is correct) Also, if you look at the motherboard in the box (got info from the gOS site) http://www.clubit.com/product_detail.cfm?itemno=A4842001# Its a mini ITX not a micro ITX, but still, I would bet the pico 120 power supply would work just fine with it. Its also half the price of any of the via micro ITX boards I have looked at.

JCitizen
JCitizen

On that mini-ITX motherboard; I'm not sure of the more capable model though. A guy would have to check the VIA site ahead of time to make sure, I suppose. The cheap one was non expandable; I believe.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

=( but they will have another in eventually, but for $100 you can get the same box with an extra 512 Mb ram (1Gb total) and vista home basic.... But I can get ram cheep and do not want Vista on it...

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

well this was a good one =) I have been looking at the Via C7's for about 4 or 5 months now, my father wants a small, quiet, energy conscious system to use in his bedroom for watching movies etc. the C7's are about as low wattage as you will get, run fairly cool (passive cooling on the < 1.5Ghz) and have mpeg video playback support built into the video. The included support on board for many common encryption schemes is just a big plus (ssl, sha, etc). The problem has been that the "perfect" setup would run me just over $800. And I just could not justify spending that kind of money on a concept box. I have no doubt it will work, but my questions are: how fast will it really run, and will video be jerky; how quiet is the fan on the processor, and can I get by with out it; and how difficult is it to install Linux on a via based system, is the unichrome video fully supported? A $200 investment at wal-mart I can justify, especially if I can then reuse the hard drive and motherboard in a smaller enclosure. So once again J, thanks =)

JCitizen
JCitizen

I am pleased I FINALLY got to do something for you for once!! Hopefully I will continue to do such :)

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

Thanks for the pointer to the Wal-Mart Via box. I have been looking at building a micro-atx box based around the C7 for a while now, but haven't been able to fork out the $800 to build what I like, but a $200 investment to see what level of performance I can get is well worth it. At the very least, it can be a file/media server.

JCitizen
JCitizen

As near as I can see anyway. Even going to discount places like TigerDirect, I see less choice every day. Laptops and high mobility are definitely here to stay. I need to do more research to keep up with this rapidly developing market. I watch with great interest the emergence of the compact portables, for lack of a better term. Like the eee, XO project, ClassmatePC, ect. Their may be a rapid downsizing and OS stripping trend here. One of the strangest entrys on the market is that cheap($199.00)desktop that Wally World is selling. Runs a Linux distro. It has no expandablility and everything is embedded in a Via chipset motherboard mini-ITX motherboard that looks like it would have been better suited for a compact laptop actually. If Everex could have found a cheap laptop housing to install it in; they would probably have done just that.

cavlosnap
cavlosnap

You are correct about the PC builders being to blame. The buyer is contracting with them, not the parts manufacturer.This being said parts makers have a reputation to protect too. If they sell too much junk their market dries up. It also has to be remembered that computers are commodities and one is pretty much the same as the net in a given class. despite the manufacturers attempting to convince the buyer otherwise. I recently read an article claiming that the so called off brand manufacturers were about to go down the dumper simply because of the small margins. Only time will tell. As to do-it-yourself laptops I understand the main problem is the availability of motherboards. I can't see desktops being in the picture too long for the average users though power users may require them for the foreseeable future.

JCitizen
JCitizen

for selling lower grade parts to the PC OEMs. The people that go that route don't blame quality issues on the OEM hardware they blame it on the OEM PC builder. They are generally ingnorant of the origin of the parts. They just blame it on Dell, HP, Lenovo, ect. And who can blame them? They expect the PC builder to select components that are the best for the price; and, rightfully so, blame them when they go bad. The PC builder makes those decisions and shoulders the blame for failure. When I build for SMBs I do the building because it is my rep on the line. When I contract for non-profits I have no control over the bean counters - they make the licensing and hardware decisions. I have always recommended one brand to them because I have had the best experience with that brand. Inevitably they are already using that brand and I don't have any convincing to do. If I am not mistaken there is already a cottage build industry for laptops but I haven't gone there yet, as SMBs in this local are still married to the desttop/workstation.

cavlosnap
cavlosnap

Not that there is anything wrong with your defense of DIY computers but you have to ask yourself what business you're in. If you are a hardware type it would be really strange if you did not go for do-it-yourself. If you're an IT manager then the bottom line becomes the issue. As far as hardware goes most maintenance consists of swap till it works. Defective parts or systems don't get fixed they get tossed. Keeping old (3- 4 yrs) stuff running is unlikely to be productive especially if user demand for performance is growing as it usually does. As to manufacturers selling for less to large scale buyers to get rid of junk , how do you justify that statement? Every sale has a marketing overhead. Selling a million widgets doesn't cost a million times what it costs to sell one so part of the marketing savings goes to the customer. Hardware manufacturers don't want to get tagged with a reputation for making crap. Getting new customers is a lot more expensive than keeping old ones. Have you considered what is going to happen to your build rather than buy now that the trend is toward notebooks? There are very few sources of notebook parts and the prices are dropping to the point that when it is out of warranty if it breaks scrap it. I just bought a ASUS eee laptop for $400. It weighs less than a kilo and has most of the software the typical road warrior needs. It even comes with stripped down Windows for those who need that flavour. I doubt the price will drop but the performance will increase for the same $$. Can you compete by building your own I wonder? Lots of luck

JCitizen
JCitizen

If you have an unruly power company around; line conditioning is practically mandatory. I always pick a UPS that recreates a true sine wave as square wave current can be detrimental to digital equipment of all kinds. This can lead to shortened service life at least.

mtalley887
mtalley887

Check your neutral to ground connections which should be zero volts. I had a similar problem while out at a Boeing site which turned out to be corrosive connectors back at the circuit breakers themselves.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I don't know too many HPs that take dual GPU SLI vidio cards. The ones that do are price prohibitive I would think.

JCitizen
JCitizen

Especially with the 700 unit scenario; I would think this would complicate things - cost wise - unless your getting very inexpensive (like $40 or less)OEM for each unit.

cricket4b
cricket4b

We do the same thing and receive also a 3 year warranty. One of the benefits we have in our local supplier built PC's is that when their support people come, they set up and transfer all the files, Outlook, my docs, etc., install adobe. Things that take considerable amount of time and unless you write them down are easily forgotten.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

if and only if the cores ran at the same or faster speed. And were the same generation processor. I would not take a 3.2 Ghz Pentium D over a 2.6 Quad for example. The staging and process queing improvements Intel has made are very, very sweet.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I always wondered why a lot of techs like to create small FAT 32 partitions at the root of their boot drives. Now I wonder it they were putting trouble shooting software in that partition and then booting to the command prompt on F8, to initiate the batch file. My foggy memory tells me that trying that through the recovery console doesn't work for DOS utilities. And yes, it seems that Nero is the best software I've used to burn ISO images. I would think most trouble shooting utilities would fit on a cheap $7.00 flash stick however; for those folks with the Bios capablility. Seems like a computer new enough NOT to have a floppy would be bios capable of booting to USB at least.

cavlosnap
cavlosnap

Some BIOS's are now able to load from USB flash. I don't have that type of box yet but I use use a flash stick for storing really confidential stuff that I don't want to leave where it can be found. Its also good for quick and dirty data transfers. On the other hand the cost of a 4GB stick is around $40, the price of a DVD with slightly more capacity is what 60 cents? The nice thing about DVD is they are unalterable if burned properly and fairly robust. The whole memory scenario is a pending nightmare. Some people still have records on 5.25 floppies but how many people have drives? I do but it is in a bag in the basement. It worked when I put it away 3 yrs ago but will it work now I wonder? Burning ISO images is no big deal. There's lots of free point and shoot software around. The main problem seems to be making sure the image is not corrupted in the burning process. Unfortunately boot loaders aren't as forgiving as the human ear when it comes to dropouts.

JCitizen
JCitizen

As floppy substitutes. I've never tried it as there always seem to be alternative methods; some that don't require burning a ISO image.

PrinceGaz
PrinceGaz

If you are able to get the system to boot from a floppy, you will be able to get it to boot from a CD if it is less than five or six years old. A CD can fit a lot more diagnostic and recovery software on than a floppy can, making it an essential part of any engineers toolkit (and a lot more useful than a boot floppy). The article author wouldn't have much use for RAID drivers as he was only installing a single 500GB hard-drive. I do seem to remember reading somewhere a while back that it is possible to flash the motherboard BIOS from a boot floppy even if the system is not otherwise able to POST successfully (it is some kind of last-ditch fall-back option programmed into the BIOS if all else fails, and requires a very specifically prepared floppy to work). Whether there is any truth in that or not I am unsure of; I've never been in a position where I might need to test it.

waley
waley

I installed a floppy for the mentioned reasons, but it also includes a 6-in-1 Flash Media Reader/Writer. Takes up same space - multi function. Quicker than finding the various camera and MP3 cables to move data.

magic8ball
magic8ball

If needed you can use a usb floppy but personally I haven't used a floppy in about three years. All the tools I regularly use are either on bootable CD or USB flash drive or run within the GUI (assuming you can get there of course). Other than the oddball driver I really don't have much use for them and don't miss them one bit.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

but that is just a preference. And yes, I agree, they are handy, even still.