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The Pitfalls of Building Your Own Computer!

Written on May 21, 2004 by Jon Bach
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Introduction

One comment we see posted at forums quite often is, "Why buy from a custom built computer place when you can build your own?" It's a fair question. The most prominent reason people use in asking this question is that they are able to build a computer themselves for less money. Fair enough, but is it worth it? What are the downsides to building your own computer? Of course, I'm sure this article can be viewed as nothing more than a glorified advertisement for computer companies, but it is my true goal to objectively lay out the pros and cons of building your own computer system.

As such we will begin by addressing the statement "I can do it myself for less money." Generally, that is true, and that makes sense. With a company building a machine for you, you have to contribute to their staff paychecks, their rent payments, their taxes, all the way down to the grounds for their coffee machine! With this overhead, it certainly makes sense that you can do it yourself for cheaper. But don't forget that the parts store you go to has its own employees, rent, taxes and coffee as well. The only difference is that they have to do less work to fill your order -- they have to put the part in a box, and ship it out. They don't have to give you consulting time, assemble your computer, test it, install it, update it, or support it. So while they have their own overhead, you'll definitely save a buck or two. In the end, it comes down to who you buy from. There are some really great deals out there if you take the time to find them. Buy from the wrong place, and now you're not only building your own computer...but you're paying more than you would have as well!

The question is, if you do save some money by finding good deals and building yourself, is it worth it?

Of course, this article assumes that you have the knowledge necessary to actually build a computer. Although any intelligent person can figure out how to do it, it is common sense that your first build will be plagued with problems, delays and frustrations. That's true with just about anything! Remember the first time you tried to change your oil? Not quite the 10 minute task it should have been! It is the goal of this article to point out that even experienced computer people have troubles.

Finding the Deals

The first task of any building your own computer is to decide on what parts to use, then find a good source for those parts. The first computer I built, I used the cheapest parts I could find. Yeah...not a good idea. My motherboard actually caught on fire!! There was a short in the parallel port, which got the plastic hot enough to ignite. Imagine watching smoke pour out of your case, as you fumble to unscrew the case panel as fast as you can to blow it out! Believe it or not, my sister was still using that smoke stained computer until last week when it finally died for good. That's fine, it was a freakish computer that was never meant to be. Sure, that's the extreme example of poorly manufactured parts, but I don't think anyone will argue that cheap is not always the best way to go. So do your homework. Find out what is best, read the consumer reviews, research the benchmarks. Once you've decided on all your parts, then you can find the best deal for that part.

Instead of receiving a single shipment from a single vendor, you now are scavenging...finding a good deal on each part where you can. Shipping costs will be slightly higher, but time is the main factor here. If you're one of the unfortunate (or fortunate?!) ones to be without a job, then no problem! You've got the time to burn on searching the net for deals, placing your orders, tracking the shipments, and sitting at home every day waiting for the UPS trucks to roll in.

At this point, you've already spent countless hours on research, late night web searching marathons, and you can now recite your credit card number in your sleep. How much was that time worth? It's tough to place a value on time unless you're the insanely busy, "my time is worth $60 an hour" type executive work-aholic. How much is your time worth?

Delays

Invariably, there are problems with parts being out of stock. Trust me, I know. Whenever our suppliers are out of stock, it is my job to call around and find someone that does have it, so that our builds are not delayed. Having done this for years, I can usually get away with about half a dozen phone calls and an extra $50 for overnight shipping, and we're back on track. But if you don't do this every day like I do, it could be weeks before you realize the part isn't coming....then you wait another week while the vendor promises they'll ship "any day now." If you're in a hurry, it generally isn't a good idea to rely on 5 different suppliers working in harmony to provide you with your parts at the same time. If you're not in a hurry, this isn't necessarily a problem.

Unforeseen Problems

This is the biggest of all potential problems. This happens to the best of us -- something you didn't even think about ends up being a problem. Let's use some examples. Did you know...

  • A double wide GeForceFX 5950 Ultra video card will not fit in a Shuttle mini PC?
  • The Thermaltake LanFire spaces its fan mounts so close together that if you get LED case fans, they won't fit?
  • Supermicro motherboards will not accept OCZ memory?
  • Koolance video card water blocks will not mount correctly on Matrox video cards?
  • CoolerMaster only makes one model of Xeon fan that will clear all the capacitors on the Asus PC-DL motherboard?
  • There is no way to mount a Mitsumi flash reader in a Lian-Li PC6077 case without drilling your own mounting points?

Those are just a few off the top of my head that we've encountered in the last few months. I could go on and on. All those issues above are not correctable -- you'll have to go out and buy another part to fix it. They are also all things that are incredibly difficult to find out beforehand, no matter how much research you do. With any computer build, these are problems that are just going to happen. They happen to us all the time as we build our custom machines. The difference is that if you build yourself, it's your problem. If we build it...it's our problem! We usually end up giving upgrades to our customers to make up for it. If we have to order in different parts, then *we* are the ones stuck with the parts that didn't work, not you. This is the single largest reason not to build yourself.

Defective Parts

Assuming everything physically works, you are also relying on the parts you receive being in good working order. A defective part can be *very * difficult to identify if you don't have a lot of resources available. What do you do if you build your entire computer, and hit the power button and nothing happens? Hit the power button again, of course! Then what?

You need to have confirmed working parts on hand to be able to troubleshoot. In the example I just gave, I would first check the wiring, it sounds to me like there's a short somewhere. It could also be the power supply. If it is the power supply, you're never going to know until you try another power supply. What if you buy another power supply, and it turns out that you just didn't have one with enough wattage? Now you need to buy a third. What if you buy all three, and find out that it was a wiring problem all along? The power plug to your floppy drive was just offset by one pin. How frustrating!

Compatibility Problems

The next biggest problems in building your own computer are the compatibility problems. This is very similar to the "unforeseen problems," but can be much more tricky to diagnose. Let me give a few examples again. Did you know...

  • Asus motherboards will not post in an Enlight 7237 case when the PCI cards are screwed in?
  • The Asus A7N8X-VM motherboard gives memory errors with OCZ memory in the second slot?
  • Sound Blaster sound cards will cause hard drive corruption in Windows XP when in the first PCI slot of an Asus motherboard?
  • The Asus PC-DL motherboard will only POST with a Mitsumi flash reader when it is updated to BIOS revision 1004?
  • MemTest86 3.0 will not run on 64 bit systems (it makes you think there is a memory problem when there isn't)?
  • Windows XP will not boot properly with a revision 1 Radeon 7000 video card unless you use another card and install the drivers first?

Again, these are all things that are virtually impossible to predict. Just like the other problems, if you build it, these are all things you'd have to figure out and fix.

Support Issues

Lastly, once the computer is up and running, there is still one last issue -- support. If you have a problem, most manufacturers will tell you to ask your computer company for help....but if you built it yourself, there is no company! You can ask the geeky guy down the hall at work for help, but eventually he starts locking his door when he sees you coming. That's OK. There's another geeky guy on the 2nd floor somewhere, you've seen him.

Upsides

Of course, there are definitely upsides to building your own computer as well. We've already covered that you can save some money that way, as long as you don't try to assign a monetary value to the time you'll be spending on the project, and the problems you're likely to encounter. There is another aspect that we haven't discussed -- the fun of it all! For many people, building computers is a hobby they really enjoy. If you try it, you might really enjoy it to. From the problems, I guarantee you will learn a lot from your experience. If you're looking to learn more about computers, there is no better way to do so than to build your own. Sure, it can be frustrating, but it was frustrating to cram for your finals in college too, wasn't it? That's just how we learn!

Choosing a Company

If you do decide to have a computer company build for you, then you really need to make sure to pick the right one.

  • Is the company reputable?

    A few months ago, we posted information about companies that were copying our content. Take a look at our "Too Good to be True?" page. It is very easy on the internet to put up a good image. Use places like ResellerRatings.com and BizRate.com to see what customers who ordered from the company are saying about their experience. Look up the company with the BBB. Be cautious!

  • How fast will the computer be built?

    How long will it take the company to build your computer? Many people don't realize that the industry average is 2-3 weeks for a computer build. If you're in a hurry, this is something you need to know.

  • What does the company do to help prevent shipping damage?

    At the very least, make sure that all your packages are fully insured. If there is damage, will the company take care of it, or do you have to arm wrestle the money from UPS? I've dealt with UPS many times, it is extremely extremely difficult to get any money out of them. When you can, it takes about four weeks. If the computer company will fix the shipping damage for you even if it's not their fault, that's a big deal.

  • What is the company's return policy?

    If you don't like the computer, do you have the option of sending it back? Is there a restocking fee? With all the vendors I've dealt with, I can tell you that a vendor with a poor return policy is no good to you, they might as well not even have a policy at all!

  • What is the company's warranty policy?

    If you have a part that fails on you, how long are you covered under the company warranty, and what loops do you have to jump through to get the part replaced? Who pays for shipping?

Conclusion

Do your homework! Building your own computer can be very educational and also very frustrating - especially the first time around. Be prepared to spend a lot of time doing research, ordering parts, installing parts, and probably even returning parts. If you do not have the time or patience to do it yourself, that's where the custom computer companies come in. You still have to do the research to find the company right for you, but the right company can make the process a pleasure!
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