Hard Choices: The Great DIY Vs Pre-built PC Debate, Part 2
To build or merely to buy, that is the question...
After last week's missive, the comments were alive with la passion PC. And it was all good. But the one critical aspect we didn't look at in detail was the value proposition. Do you really save a chunk of change with a DIY build? A matter of some simple sums, you say?
Would that it could be so. The reality is that the variables quickly get out of control. Much depends on your budget, how flexible you are on spec, what kind of warranty you want, even where you are in the world. There are no definitive answers, folks. However, what I can do is spec up my ideal PC via both separate components and a few of the usual suspects from the PC building industry here in Blighty. The upshot makes for some interesting observations that highlight the various pitfalls, pros and cons, hell even some of my own personal peccadilloes, when it comes to DIY vs pre-built PCs. So get comfortable. This is going to take a while.
First, let's reiterate that this is not meant to be definitive or even entirely fair. It's a bit of fantasy PC fun, a thought experiment that will make some of the core comparative issues a bit more tangible. For instance, what does compromising on spec with a pre-build mean in practice? If a warranty is the big attraction of a pre-build, what do the various warranty options look like?
Also, while I've some fairly specific things I want from a PC, there's no need to be absolutely anal about every single item. I'm not going to write off the pre-built option simply because I can't get exactly the model of water cooler I want. But I do want a water cooler and I don't want to pay massively over the odds for it.
Moreover, in some areas, say SSDs, I want to know what I'm buying, not simply click a checkbox for a generic drive at a given capacity. That kind of thing will attract demerits!
With that, here's my core-component spec list. This ain't gonna be a cheap PC, it's the sort of PC I can get really excited about. But it's not idiotic amounts of money, either. Here goes.
The Spec List
It all starts with Intel's new affordable six-core killer
Intel Core i7-5820K.
M'favourite CPU. Here's why.
Nvidia GeForce GTX 970.
There's no reference board for this model, so you'll want to look closely at the card in question - what's the cooling like, what are the clocks?
Intel X99 motherboard.
I'm going to break the rules a bit here and say I favour the MSI X99S SLI PLUS for overall bang for buck. I've played with one and it's exactly what I want from a value X99 board. I likey.
16GB of RAM.
To paraphrase the famously satirised James M. Kilts, fuck everything, I'm going straight to 16GB. Quad-channel config, of course.
A quality 600W-plus PSU.
That low-power GTX 970 board means I won't need a 1,000W beast and I don't do multi-GPU, anyway.
Several models are acceptable. But if it's any worse than a Crucial MX100, I'll be unhappy.
Probably a white one that looks like a stormtrooper's storage box. Just because. But, seriously, needs good support for water cooling.
A water cooler.
For the CPU. Of the closed-loop variety. Once you've gone water, you won't go back.
None. Pre-built or DIY, it make no odds. I'm going to plunder my existing rig for mass storage.
I'm also leaving off the operating system since most good system builders allow that while maintaining warranty cover for the hardware and lots of us will have various options, including existing licences, for not paying for an OS with a new PC or build. I'm also of the habit of making frequent reinstalls, so a factory OS install doesn't hold huge value for me.
First, then, I'll trot on over to a few of my go-to online outlets in the UK and snag some prices. I won't quote the source of each price for the DIY parts, this stuff changes so fast and you don't need my help to search online. But for the record, I pulled all these prices together along with those relating to the pre-built rigs on the same evening. Thus they can be fairly characterised as comparable at that moment in time!
My DIY build
Zotac's effort is the cheapest twin-cooled GTX 970 I could find...
Intel Core i7-5820K, £282.
Zotac GTX 970 4GB £263.
Looks like is has a decent dual-fan cooler. OK, I'm winging it a bit, I haven't tried this card.
MSI X99S SLI PLUS, £158.
See the main spec list above.
Crucial MX100 512GB, £144.
No fancy new M.2 drive? Nope. I'm not convinced the tech has matured sufficiently, so a plain SATA SSD like the MX100 is probably still the price/performance/capacity sweetspot.
16GB (4x 4GB) generic Crucial RAM, £150.
Corsair 600T White Graphite Series case, £146.
Because it's got a window and it's storm trooper white. Don't argue.
NZXT KRAKEN X31, £60.
It's peanuts compared to most of the components. I like it.
Corsair CS650M 650W Semi-Modular 80+ GOLD, £68.
Semi. Modular. And Gold. I rest my case. Or my PSU. Whatever.
The price of pre-built
Right, then, on to the pre-built options. The aim was to match my DIY list as closely as possible unless that meant a punitive price premium without a clear performance improvement proposition. Predictably enough, I'll start with one of Scan's rigs.
Scan 3XS X99 Carbon (www.scan.co.uk):
On paper, Scan offers some of the best warranties around...
All exactly as per my DIY list, except...
Intel Core i7-5820K overclocked to a guaranteed and warranted 4.4GHz.
Corsair H80 Hydro water cooler.
16GB (4x4GB) Corsair DDR4 Vengeance LPX Black.
Better than my poverty-spec Crucial memory, but I'm not bothered. Unfortunately, Scan doesn't offer a cheaper option with this rig.
EVGA GTX 970 SC ACX 2.0 4GB.
It's a GTX 970 with a couple of big fans. Meh.
550W Corsair RM, Modular, Silent, 80PLUS Gold.
Bit marginal, but probably good enough.
3yr warranty, 1yr on site, 2yrs return to base, parts 'n labour the lot.
Next up, PC Specialist (www.pcspecialist.co.uk).
Yep, PC Specialist has my case choice covered
PC Specialist Core i7-Extreme:
All as per my DIY list, except...
Asus X99-S motherboard.
16GB Kingston Hyper-X Predator DDR4.
No cheaper option.
Unspecified GTX 970.
Would quite like to know what it is.
Samsung 840 Evo 500GB.
Fine and dandy.
Corsair H60 Hydro.
Not a problem.
3yr RTB warranty.
Fine, but cost £135 extra.
That was a bit of a shock and, I thought, perhaps not playing to PC Specialist's strengths, which has a decent rep for value-oriented systems. So, I thought I'd see what happens when you relax a bit on some of the specifics.
PC Specialist Core i7-Extreme, second time around:
As per first time around, but...
Downgrade to 16GB (2x 8GB) Crucial DDR4. There was no cheap quad-channel option.
Downgrade to Kingston V300 480GB SSD. Bit yucky.
Downgrade to Cosair 550W VS PSU. It'll get the job done.
Downgrade to 3yr standard warranty (1 month collect and return, 1yr parts, 3yrs labour). Pretty unappealing given support is one of the big benefits of pre-built.
Finally, Yoyotech (www.yoyotech.co.uk).
Yoyotech's default case is the beastly XFX Bravo
Yoyotech BlackBox DB2 Gaming
All as per my DIY list, except...
Palit GTX 970.
Corsair 780T Graphite Series White.
Corsair H80i Hydro Series.
Unspecified 480GB SSD.
Not happy. What is it?
Unspecified 2TB 7,800rpm HDD.
Not happy, can't remove it from the build sheet.
620W Seasonic Evo Bronze PSU.
16GB (4x 4GB) generic DDR4.
Fine by me.
3yr warranty (1 month collect and return, 1yr parts and labour RTB, yrs 2 and 3 labour only RTB).
The pros and cons of pre-built
Overall, I was pretty pleased by how close I could get to my perfect DIY spec with a pre-build. Even my silly Star Wars-esque Corsair case was widely available. However, some builders have a much better range of optional components than others and it was interesting to note that inflexibility didn't necessarily translate into cheaper prices and vice versa.
I'm also surprised that some system builders are still doing dumb things like not allowing you to delete the HDD and / or not offering sensible RAM configurations across the board. If you're going to offer cheap DDR4, why omit arguably the sweet-spot 16GB in 4x 4GB configuration? This kind of thing was common a decade ago and I'd assumed things would have progressed. Not in some cases, it seems.
I noted, too, that the old ruse of upgrade prices for certain components being in line with the typical retail price of said components sometimes remains. That sounds fine until you remember that's an upgrade price. In other words, to 'upgrade' from a 128GB SSD to the 500GB option, you're paying the full price of a 500GB drive and not getting any discount for the 128GB drive that has been dropped.
Likewise, it was a bit of an eyebrow curler to find just how much the terms of the warranties varied, too. The idea of just a single, miserable month of free RTB support and a mere year on the hardware pretty much pulls the rug out from under the whole pre-built proposition. I'd want three years RTB parts and labour cover, for sure. I reckon that kind of cover is crucial to the appeal of a pre-built rig.
Having said all that, no doubt you could probably beat the pre-built pricing above, and perhaps pretty handsomely. Good deals can sometime be had on pre-configured machines, for instance. I'm not even claiming that I've chosen absolutely the right base rig to achieve my preferred configuration in each case. What's more, I reckon pre-built gaming PCs priced in the £700-800 mid-range will almost definitely close the price delta to a mid-range DIY rig.
But what I can say for sure is that you're going to have to put in some serious leg work to find out which outfit will give you the best deal. I'd put aside several long evenings, that's for sure.
Part-build and second hand
As if that wasn't complicated enough, factor in the option to buy used PC parts or a partial home build where you only upgrade a limited number of key components and the variables become rather moderately mind blowing. If your motherboard offers a decent upgrade path, for instance, then a new CPU, GPU and SSD can leave you with something that feels like a completely new box for the fraction of the price.
As for buying used parts, well, where do we begin? Clearly, this is a far riskier route to a fast PC. A quick perusal of ebay using the AMD Radeon R9 290X as a metric shows reference cards selling for £180 and up with custom cooled versions around £200 and up. I'm talking used cards on ebay, not those sold as new.
Slightly O/T, but beware AMD's reference card coolers, they're a bit crap
Meanwhile, I can find a new 290X from a well-known retailer on special offer for £233. Personally, I rate the risk associated with second hand parts pretty severely. To reflect that, I'd want something approaching 50% off the new price. Generally, I don't think the second hand market prices in the risk sufficiently. But that doesn't mean you can't find bargains.
The final reckoning
I haven't had a proper look at all this for a few years, so it's been a fun process digging into the whole DIY vs pre-built problem. More than anything, I love the fact that we have the choice. I love that the PC has at least the option of home build. I love that you then have something that's both very technical but also quite personal. And guess what? It will usually work.
But I also totally get the downsides, the worries, the challenges of attempting that with limited support. All of this is amplified if you don't have drawers full of spare components to help identify and narrow down faults. If you don't routinely knock PCs together and you've spent a lot of your own money on the components, a home build can be genuinely horrifying if anything goes wrong. No question, the alternative of cracking open the pre-built shipping box to find a neatly assembled PC with lovely cable management that simply works when you plug and hit the power is extremely attractive.
What, then, is the overall message? I certainly want to encourage people to at least consider home build. Don't just pile into it if you're not experienced. Do the research, ask questions on forums. Most of the time it's not hard. Most of the time it's fun. Most of the time it's satisfying. And most of the time it's good value.
If that's not your bag, that's fine too. There are some great system builders out there who understand what matters in a gaming rig. But if you do go pre-built, don't skimp on the warranty. Good luck and have fun with your next PC, whoever knocked it together.