Should you build or buy your end users' PCs?

Over the years, it's been an ongoing consideration to provide our end users with either custom built computers or brand name, off-the-shelf models. Up until about ten years ago, I worked with a small computer vendor to build our systems, somewhat to my own specifications, but also depending on his preferred flavor of the day (and probably on whatever he could get the best deal on). That was in the early 286, 386, and 486 days, when the intricacies of the inside of a computer were a mystery to more people than it is today.

When the industry evolved into the Pentium era, however, the inner-workings of a computer became less of a mystery (at least to me) and more of something understandable and manageable. That's about the time I decided to start building my own. Not only could I save the company some significant dollars in doing so, but I could be more consistent with the individual components and more precise in adhering to my own specifications. No longer was I willing to settle for the argument, "this will work just as well."

During the years I continued to build my own, but we would continually compare prices and performance to the more common brand name computers -- the Dells and HPs of the day, or whatever other vendor might give us a call. Without exception, I could always build a machine equal to theirs (or even better), but for around a thousand dollars less -- IF it was built to my specifications. And in a graphics intensive environment like ours, having one built to my specifications was vital. We simply couldn't settle for the latest $499 special advertised in the Sunday paper.

Fast forward to today, when I've evolved my specifications past the Pentium era, and into the newer duo core or quad core technology, and again, I revisit the same question. Should I build or buy? For the first time in years, I could actually buy a computer that met my specifications for less than it would cost to buy the individual components and build it myself. And also for the first time in years, I actually bought a couple of pre-built computers off the shelf of my favorite computer mega store. In this case, however, I simply didn't have the time to build them myself, which would have also involved tweaking and testing my various "specified" components -- after, of course, a little research to define them in the first place.

But there are downsides, to say the least. The first and most obvious is the absence of installation media for the operating system. These computers, like most others, came with the operating system preinstalled and did not include the Vista DVDs, but rather relied on their built-in recovery process. Personally speaking, I believe that if a computer becomes unstable enough to require recovery, it's justification for a total and full reinstall. Another downside was that it didn't give me the option to install the 64-bit version of Vista. Although the hardware is 64-bit compatible, I have to settle for the 32-bit operating system. (And yes, my applications are also 64-bit compatible.) It would have been nice to have had that option.

I also had to settle for an alternate graphics card, getting the NVidia instead of my preferred ATI brand. And I probably already voided the warranty on the machines by doing my own memory upgrade, taking them from the off-the-shelf 2 GB to my required 4 GB. But considering the sales representative has personally sold me tens of thousands of dollars worth of computer parts over the years, including the memory for this particular upgrade and the computers themselves, I could probably convince them to still honor a warranty should it become necessary.

Nonetheless, it makes me wonder which option better serves the needs of my end users. Over the years, I would always have compatible (or even identical) replacement parts on the shelf should one fail. And since I built the computers myself, I always had an intimate knowledge of what they were and how they worked. Contrast that to the situation one faces with a brand-name or an off-the-shelf model. "Sorry, end user, but we have to call ACME tech support so we don't void the warranty; there's nothing I can do right now except give you this loaner machine." In my current case, that's simply not an option. Warranty or not, those computers are mine to do whatever necessary and whatever I deem appropriate. I might even install my own 64-bit version of Vista once things settle down around here (especially since a particular user has enthusiastically agreed to be a guinea pig for such a thing).

Cost notwithstanding, it seems to me that computers built by a company for that company and supported by that company could support an end user better. The reason is responsibility. Who's responsible for this problem? If the buck could ever be passed to another, I believe it's time to reevaluate.