Mark Pickavance discusses the various merits of buying a PC either in bits or pre-assembled
I’m come clean up front and admit that, with the obvious exception of laptop systems, I’ve built all my computers from scratch. My reasons for doing that are numerous, but given the job I’ve got, it would seem to fly in the face of logic to buy them pre-made, with all the parts in them chosen by someone else.
If I had to put a number on it, I’ve probably built somewhere between 50 and 100 machines, so I’ve got the exercise down to a fine art that I can complete rapidly and with a high degree of success.
However, some people are more comfortable with others doing that for them, and in the same way I don’t mess with what’s under the bonnet of my car, I can fully rationalise their position. For them, the only choice is a pre-built machine, though there are a number of businesses that will build a PC to exacting specifications. They effectively give you the choice that a self-build offers, but the actual assembly and testing is done for you. This option has a cost premium, and often a delay dimension, because the parts need to be sourced at the point of construction. And interestingly, that’s why I first got into making my own systems: because it was cheaper.
But is building cheaper now or do the bulk buying benefits that Dell, HP and others can swing these days undermine that argument?
In trying to answer that question, I’ve taken three computers that you can buy today, each at one of four performance levels and then worked out the cost to make the same thing from bits.
This isn’t exactly scientific because, for example, you can’t buy Dell desktop PC cases independently, but it should give us a better handle on what sort of deal a pre-built PC can be.
After each breakdown, I’ll talk about what options are available, and if they’re worth adding or not for that machine.
That’s important, because while the entrylevel spec for many machines comes at a very competitive price, once you’ve added a few important extras, it might not seem such a bargain.
What I’ve left out of this exercise are machines like Acer’s Aspire XC-704 Desktop (£199.99), because they don’t have socketed processors, and making something equivalent would be very challenging.
HP 280 G1 MT Desktop
As the cheapest PC, I wasn’t expecting much from this platform, but if your needs are modest, then it will probably suffice. It’s built around the Anniversary Pentium G3250 clocked at 3.2GHz, has 4GB RAM plus a 500GB hard drive, a DVD writer and comes with Windows 7 Pro 64-bit.
The full spec with what equivalent parts cost to buy is shown in the table above.
I was slightly shocked by this, because for various reasons I’d assumed that once I added in the cost of Windows that buying the parts to make an equivalent machine would be significantly more.
And you could get an OEM Windows 7 licence for £20 and make the self-build substantially cheaper. However, at this time, HP is doing a trade-in deal, where if you’re a business you can trade an old PC in and get £100 knocked off, driving the cost of the HP 280 G1 MT down to just £149.99 after the cashback.
At that level you could buy this machine, put it into your own case and you’d still be better off than building it yourself, though that would obviously invalidate your one-year warranty.
Time to move up to something with a higher performance and see if a clearer picture reveals itself.
Dell Inspiron Desktop (3650)
This represents the typical desktop PC that Dell makes these days, and in many respects it falls into many of the traps that this company seemingly can’t resist.
For a start, it uses a proprietary PSU design, so should yours fail, you won’t be easily replacing it with a standard ATX unit. And that by definition caps the size of GPU you can use, because the 240W one that Dell uses isn’t really up to the job of anything that needs a PCIe power line. For those reasons, and a few others, I’d avoid this machine even before you experience the numbers.
It’s an abject failure from the pre-built corner, because not only is the Dell poor value for money, it’s limited by its design team and their love affair with proprietary hardware.
The accessory selection is also dire. Dell wants a whopping £112.53 for a 1TB external hard drive for backing up, whereas the typical retail cost of that item is less than £50! And you don’t even get an optical drive as an option.
There’s plenty of power in the Hyper-Threading Core i3-6100T, but few ways to exploit it in this machine.
The Dell Inspiron 3650 is undoubtedly a poster-boy for the self-build PC community.
Acer Aspire TC-705 Desktop PC
For this sort of money, you might reasonably be thinking that you’d get a Skylake CPU, but actually this is a Haswell system that uses the old H81 chipset.
The processor on it is actually more expensive that its Skylake counterpart, so if you did build something equivalent,
I’d go with Skylake and get more power for less money.
What’s also weird is that Acer chose to put 12GB of RAM in it. On Z87/H87, this would really stuff the dual-channel memory mode by combining a 4GB and 8GB stick, but on H81 it only supports a single DIMM per channel, so it probably doesn’t matter.
The GPU isn’t a retail option, mostly because few in their right mind would run to choose an Nvidia GTX745, with its abysmal DDR3 memory bandwidth and paltry 384 CUDA cores. The GT-740 I’ve chosen as a replacement might only have 2GB of memory, but at least it’s GDDR5! For those interested in making your own comparison, the system is coded PCDT. SXPEK.001.
Now, let’s turn to the table at the bottom of this page. If you work for Acer, look away now.
The GPU on my choice is much better than Acer’s, as are the motherboard and the optical drive.
I’m seeing a trend here: the higher spec the PC becomes, the less value it represents in general. Unless I’ve missed something wonderful in the specification of this machine, then you could build something identical or better performance for roughly £100 less than Acer is asking.
I’ve also seen a few people moaning about the TC design, in that Acer chose to put the two USB 3.0 ports it has on the front and none on the back.
HP EliteDesk 800 G1 TWR Desktop
In this penultimate comparison, I’m going to take a different tack, because this is a highend machine. Instead of choosing the very cheapest options for the self-built version, I’ll push the boat out a bit.
But that wasn’t too difficult, because other than the CPU, there isn’t anything in this that’s remotely special. Why HP put a single 4GB stick of RAM in it I’ve no idea, because with two 4GB sticks you get substantially better dual-channel performance with the Core i7 CPU.
Even before I worked the numbers, this machine had the air of ‘business-people-will-buy-anything’ about it.
Initially I tried just improving modestly on what HP put in this computer, and I came nowhere near the asking price.
The notion that an i7 class processor (and an old one too) justifies this high price is patently ridiculous, and you could build a system to HP’s spec for less than £550 easily.
So I loaded the self-build option with a gorgeous Fractal Design case, a much better motherboard, better mouse and keyboard, bigger PSU and quadruple the memory. I even swapped out the 500GB hard drive for a 500GB SSD, boosting drive performance by at least three times or more in the process.
It was all to no avail, because I was still £220 short of what HP is asking for this machine, admittedly with a three-year warranty. That’s the price of a PowerColor R9 380X Myst Edition 4GB video card, if you wanted to trick this rig out for some very serious gaming.
This is an extreme example, but expensive pre-built is rarely worth anywhere near what the parts would cost, even at retail pricing and with the very highest quality parts.
Apple Mac Pro Tower Desktop
Before the letters page overflows with people pointing out that you can’t build Apple Macs, I included this for a bit of fun. The point here is to break down the Mac Pro and see what building an equivalent PC would cost you. And since many Macs also run Windows these days alongside OS X, this seems a valid exercise.
Since Apple hasn’t refreshed the Mac Pro since 2013, and maybe it never will, most of the equipment in its weird cylindrical case is pretty old. It uses the original LGA 2011 socket, the X79 chipset and DDR3 memory.
It isn’t easy to get some of those parts for the PC, so I switched out the X79 to the current X99 platform and that dictated switching from DDR3 for DDR4, along with an LGA 2011v3 class Xeon.
Where making a copy gets really challenging is in respect of the video cards, because they’re not standard, and their exact specs aren’t transparent. It’s been generally assessed that the AMD FirePro D500 is somewhere between the FirePro W7000 and W8000 in terms of performance, both of which have been replaced by the W7100 and W8100 respectively. I’ve included a couple of W8100s, because they’ve got more bandwidth, though they’re probably overkill.
Once you include those cards in the price, the Mac Pro doesn’t look quite as outrageous as it first appears. However, if your interest is gaming and not workstation graphics, then you could use a pair of AMD Fury X cards, save yourself nearly a grand and have even more bandwidth and performance.
And before someone writes in to tell me that FirePro are tuned for workstation graphics, I don’t care how tuned a W8100 is, it can’t compete on bandwidth and gigaflops with the monster Fury X or the upcoming Artic Islands hardware.
There’s an obvious question there about ‘Workstation’ graphics and what really people get for their money, which we’ll leave for another time.
However you slice and dice it, you can build something substantially more powerful than a Mac Pro with a £3339.99 budget, almost regardless of how crazy you want to go on spec.
While the evidence I’ve presented does seem to suggest that pre-built isn’t a good choice financially, there are other points that you should consider, some of which you don’t get with the self-constructed option.
Warranty: The most obvious advantage is the cover against failure, because all preassembled computers are guaranteed to work for at least a year – and business ones for more than that.
While components do have some warranty coverage, you have to find out what’s bust yourself, and then return it for a replacement. With a pre-built machine, the company will usually send a courier to collect it, and it will then return with either a replacement or fixed system.
It needs to be clearly understood that any data on the PC is unlikely to still be on there when it comes back, so having a retrievable backup on an external drive or another machine is a necessity.
Reliability: While this isn’t always the case, the likes of Dell and Acer would soon go out of business if they had a large number of returns. Therefore they make great efforts to put together systems that aren’t inherently unstable and which have a high degree of hardware reliability.
When you pick the parts you might, as I have in the past, stumble on a combination that doesn’t work well. The QA systems of large-volume PC makers, in contrast, would generally discover this mismatch before it was distributed widely.
I’ve also seen enough failed computers to realise that some user attempts to build them are better than others, and every pre-built PC is usually assembled by someone with experience in doing that job.
A common experience: Often pre-built PCs are shipped in the tens of thousands or even greater numbers, so there’s a very good chance that many people have the same hardware. That’s a useful resource to draw on should you have problems even beyond warranty periods. Most makers have forums, and they’re an excellent place to find out if your system has a common problem and an appropriate workaround.
Along with the satisfaction of assembling a working system yourself, there are also a number of significant pluses to taking this route.
Specificity: Plainly put, you can have exactly what you want, regardless of how appropriate that is. Big system builders tend to try to funnel most of their customers into a narrow channel where they make the most profit. Because of that, they rarely offer even half the processors and a tiny percentage of the GPUs on offer.
If you really want a PC made to your needs, then it’s certainly better to build it yourself.
Inside knowledge: If you build a system, then you’re fully aware what’s inside it and how it’s put together. A pre-built solution might be a complete mystery, until it goes wrong and you open it up to discover what that might be.
Zero proprietary parts: The beauty of a modern PC design is that you can source many components from entirely different companies and usually they’ll work when assembled into a PC. Many large PC makers, like Dell, use proprietary parts that you can’t easily replace. Their thinking is that when the proprietary PSU, for example, breaks you’ll buy a new PC and not a replacement PSU.
The proprietary card is one that some machine makers have played far too often, and it’s a major reason for building machines yourself from entirely non-proprietary parts.
Greater choice: While PC makers have a range of systems and often options on what CPU, memory and storage they include, there are often combinations they don’t include. A self-built system can have any crazy combination in it tailored to a specific purpose that you just couldn’t get a branded PC to address.
While there are some companies that will build whatever you ask, the cost of their hardware isn’t going to be as cheap as buying the parts and making it yourself.
Higher-quality parts: A system from Dell or HP is made to a price, so it won’t include anything that they consider superfluous. Prebuilt motherboards are stark compared to their retail brothers, and the RAM on them is usually unbranded and only rated for the minimum speed. These aren’t the parts you’d choose if you built it yourself, which would usually be better.
Newer hardware: System builders are usually offering last season’s processors and chipset on their budget hardware and sometimes even older. If you want something really current, make it yourself.
Price: You can get some amazing deals on pre-built equipment, so this isn’t always the case. However, what a pre-built system allows you to do is focus on exactly where you want to spend and cost-cut on less important aspects. Most people can also reduce the costs by reusing some parts from their prior system, ideally.
I’m really glad that I did this exercise, because it confirmed for me some thoughts I’ve had about the state of the PC industry and how these companies are doing financially.
If we look at the breakdowns overall, with the exception of the cheapest machine, there are relatively few advantages to buying prebuilt, because the price isn’t as competitive as it once was.
If you’re not convinced, it isn’t a big job to open up the spec sheet on a machine you can buy and then go and find the prices for equivalent parts to make a copy.
Once you’ve put those numbers into a spreadsheet, you’ll know what a self-built solution would cost and how much of a bargain that the pre-built system represents. I’ve concluded, based on the figures I obtained writing this, that Intel in particular is keeping the cost of its processors artificially high.
While that might make it feel warm and fuzzy about its ability to manipulate the channel, it doesn’t actually help it sell any more chips in the final analysis.
But the biggest challenge facing it is that modern computers are so powerful that unless you’re doing something radical, like 4K gaming, then the computer most people need is the one they already own.
In that respect, upgrading from a hard drive to SSD or putting a better GPU in an existing machine is the most cost effective way to revamp your experience, not buying or building a completely new PC.
This is a new reality that neither Intel nor Microsoft seems to have accepted, even if they’re both feeling the effect of a shrinking PC market.
If the PC market is to see a resurgence, then the most expensive parts will need to get cheaper for both big system builders and home assemblers. And they’ll need to come with technological advantages that aren’t just an increased clock speed or a socket that didn’t exist a year previously.