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Hard Choices: The Great DIY Vs Pre-built PC Debate, Part 1

Build it and they will come

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To build or to buy. That is the fundamental philosophical, cultural, hell maybe even epistemological, question for we PC lovers. Some of you will already know the cut of your own jib. You’ll either gag at the thought of paying through the nose for an oily work-experience tick to inexpertly cobble your PC together using whatever bits the system seller bought cheap that week. Or you’ll wonder why anyone imagines the marginal savings of self build are worth the risk of bork.

I reckon a lot of us are floating voters on this issue. Is DIY a false economy? Is buying pre-built just paying the man? Let’s pick apart the pros and cons and have a proper powwow in the comments below. For part one, we’ll cover off the theoretical bases, the theories, assumptions and practical pros and cons. In part two, I’ll wheel out some examples from both sides of the equation and get forensic with the cost comparison. Here we go.

First, some the rules of engagement. We’re talking about full-function PCs built either from components or supplied as turn-key systems ready to roll. Re the latter, the assumption is that we’re dealing with systems sold by outfits that at least pretend to understand what enthusiasts and gamers want and need (on that note, suggestions of one or two Stateside purveyors and sensibly priced, intelligently specced prebuilts would be appreciated). Finally, there is no absolute right or wrong here. This is all about making informed decisions, not scoring points.

Inevitably, then, most of the nuance in this debate involves the intricacies of buying and knocking up a home-built rig. Pulling the trigger on something pre-built is rather more straight forward.

Looks pretty. Price is painful.

A DIY build offers two obvious advantages, one somewhat supposed, the other undeniable. Without doubt, self-build gives you greater control over spec. You can be as specific as you want about each component and set the whole thing up however you fancy. Getting the CPU you want will be easy enough whichever way you go. But if, say, there’s a very specific case, motherboard, water cooler or whatever, you’re after, well, the more detailed your demands, the more likely a system builder will fail to absolutely nail them.

The cost comparison is more complicated and we’ll look at that, along with the notion of sourcing used parts for at least some of your components and reusing existing bits in part two. But self build offers at least the potential for big savings.

On the pre-built side of the argument is firstly the confidence and support you get with a fully-built, warranted rig and secondly the fact that you need little to no technical or PC-building nous.

If that much is fairly uncontentious, what I suspect will be a bit of a bone are the risks and challenges involved with self build. I remember building my very first PC. This was a long time ago. A Pentium II flickers faintly in my dessicated mind, but we’re definitely talking about a cartridge CPU for the Slot 1 socket. Just think, both a CPU and a socket that was extremely hard to damage. Good times.

The good old days: Intel’s Slot 1 CPUs

But my overriding memory is being scared shitless of bricking everything and anything via static electricity and the mere laying of hands. Years of rough-housing review samples I haven’t actually paid for has taught me this almost never happens. But it’s awfully easy for me to say that. Accidents will happen and bits do break, sometimes for no godly reason. And sometimes nothing is broken but the bloody thing still won’t work. Thus we come to the big downside of the self-build. What happens next if you complete the physical build, attempt to spool her up and either nothing happens or the wrong thing happens?

This is neither the time nor the place for a dissertation on failure-to-boot diagnosis. But what I will say is that having a cupboard or desk brimming with spare components makes fault isolation far, far easier. If you have more than one of everything, working out what’s causing the problem is usually doable.

Having spares can also help, for instance, if you’ve been sent a motherboard with an old BIOS version that needs flashing before it will wake up with your shiny new CPU. With a spare CPU to hand, that’s easy enough. If all you’ve got is the chip that won’t boot, it’s a nightmare.

Indeed, support is broadly much more problematic with a self-built rig. You’ll have to diagnose problems, isolate the faulty component and then RMA it (return it to the manufacturer or supplier) separately. Again, having spare components that can be used in the meantime is, I reckon, critical.

For the love of God, don’t poke those pins

Not that getting full PCs sorted under warranty is always a painless experience. But you do at least have someone to go to. As for typical problems you might suffer, LGA sockets with bent pins and motherboards or CPUs bricked courtesy of borked memory channels are the hardware faults I encounter most commonly. Intel’s current LGA sockets and their scarily fragile arrays of exposed pins are pretty much the bane of my life. It’s very easy to bend the pins on AMD CPUs, too, though I’m often surprised at just how many you can snap off with seemingly no ill effects.

Intel’s LGA CPUs are themselves pretty robust, ditto pretty much all graphics cards, SSDs and sticks of RAM. Just be sure that the retaining clips at the end of the memory DIMM slots aren’t sticking out when you slap in that GPU. They can catch on the tiny components on the rear of a 3D card and pop them off, which might just be terminal. Don’t ask me how I know.

How are your anti cable-clutter skills?

Admittedly, being part of the product review circus provides plenty of opportunities to generate terminal bork. Boards put through the wringer by multiple publications, photographers poke things with clumsy paws, motherboards routinely go back into boxes without the socket protectors in place, it was even the case for a while that AMD’s UK PR company sent chips out in envelopes protected only by a few laps of bubble wrap. Unbelievable. But even proceeding with care, accidents do happen. And there’s undeniably much more opportunity for self harm with a self build.

If that’s the hardware equation covered, there’s the software side of the argument. For the record, I roll with a boot / operating system SSD and then a few big, dumb magnetic drives. And I nuke my Windows installation from orbit regularly rather than worrying too much about infections and malware.

I use Chrome as my primary browser, back up profiles for things like my FTP client and have all my bulk storage like video and games on the magnetic drive. Moreover, I install the OS from a USB stick and the whole thing just flies onto the SSD. What I’m getting at is that software setup is routine if you do it regularly. But if you’ve never installed or set up a PC before, it will all be a bit daunting.

Don’t forget to price in that pesky Windows OS

The question of how much you should pay for an OS is a tricky one. If you already have a licence for a version of Windows with which you’re happy, you may be able to tick that box for free. Then there’s the legally dubious but perfectly practical option of simply running a non-activated copy of Windows. Likewise, some PC builders will do you a rig with no OS. But we’ll price all that in next time round.

With all that in mind, the allure of a pre-built box is very easy to understand. Especially if it comes from a manufacturer that knows what it’s doing. A beautifully-built factory rig, cables and connectors all professionally managed, can be a beautiful thing. Add in a system-wide warranty for a year or three and I for one would certainly want to the self-build option to be not just marginally cheaper, but substantially cheaper.

As for exactly how much cheaper DIY really is, we’ll find out next time…

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Jeremy Laird

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