Does It Still Pay to Do it Yourself?

After finally dumping my venerable IBM PC XT, throughout the 90s I built most of my computers myself. I still remember the thrill of putting together that first one, the difficulty of mounting the motherboard properly, the momentary confusion over a few of the less well-marked connectors, the feeling of relief when it actually booted up.

However, as our small business grew and my free time shrank, as computer hardware grew more diverse and complex, and as the prices of computers from major PC vendors dropped, I stopped "growing my own" and started buying systems from Dell, HP and Sony.

My mention of the lack of a second 16x PCI Express expansion slot on my current primary workstation, a Dell, resulted in a surprising number of responses from readers telling me that I should be building my own system instead of buying from Dell, so I could get the exact motherboard configuration I wanted and needed. And that's all well and good - except that at the time I bought this machine (about a year ago), I had no idea I'd be needing a second 16x PCIe slot, since the second and third video cards that I have installed in regular PCI slots worked fine with XP. It's only since installing Vista that I've felt the pain of not having more 16x PCIe slots.

But the whole thing made me think about how my computer acquisition habits have evolved, and I wondered if I should re-evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of building my own systems again. Here are the main reasons I quit:

Lack of patience: I no longer have the patience to spend troubleshooting and tweaking a system just to get it up and running. Of course, it may be that today's home-built systems require a lot less of that than they did back when I was building my own.

Need for on-going reliability: It's not that a Dell is necessarily less likely to have problems than a home-built system, but if I do have hardware problems, I can pick up the phone and someone else will come out and fix them (with the on-site warranty that we get when we purchase through the small business division). Meanwhile, I can continue to get my work done on one of our backup systems, rather than taking the time off to fix the broken system.

Simple economics: the time that I spent building a computer could be spent instead doing my "real work," which pays a good bit more than the going rates for computer hardware technician. The money that I would save by building a system (a few hundred dollars) is less than the money I would make spending the same number of hours writing an article or whitepaper.

For those who just need a basic computer to surf the web, send and receive email and do a little word processing, it would be hard to save any money at all by building your own. Dell and HP have entry level machines for under $300 now. The typical low end system includes 256MB of RAM, an 80GB hard disk and a CD ROM drive and comes pre-loaded with Windows XP Home Edition. You'd be hard pressed to buy the components and operating system for less than that, without even counting the value of your time spent assembling them.

For a high end machine, you might be able to save a few hundred bucks by doing it yourself. However, high end components are expensive in themselves (for example, an Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93 GHz processor costs around a thousand bucks for just the processor). When I'm spending that kind of money, I especially want a comprehensive warranty that covers everything.

So, does it ever make sense to build your own computer? Sure - for one thing, it's a great learning experience. You'll understand much more about how computers work after you've built a few of them from scratch. It also makes sense if you want a very specialized machine; for instance, a killer gaming machine or one that will support a nine-monitor "video wall." For a computer like that, you want to be able to pick and choose exactly the right components.

And if you're not ready to tackle building a system completely on your own from the ground up, but want the benefits of a custom machine, there are alternatives. Many computer shops will build a system to your specifications, or sell you a "bare bones" system that has the motherboard and processor already installed in the case; you add memory, drives, and expansion cards as desired.

All in all, building a computer can be a major headache, and it can be a lot of fun (sometimes both at the same time). If you're interested in doing it, there are lots of resources on the web to help you out. In fact, I just read an interesting ebook on the topic, written by a WXPnews reader. It's called Build your Next PC by Clarence Jones, and you can find out more about it here.