Server FaultIs building your own computer still cost effective?
[+30] [24] Rob Z
[2009-05-14 14:52:47]
[ hardware oem ]

Hopefully this isn't too broad of a question but I seem to recall that a couple years ago it tended to be slightly more affordable to build your own computer than to buy one and I'm curious as to if this is still true. Also, does it matter what you are building for (e.g. basic web browsing, gaming, workstation)?

Is your value proposition based on a single machine or all the other machines that you're going to make during the life of those component parts? - Bob Cross
Personally I look at the values proposition based upon how long I expect to be able to use the parts out of the system for. For example, a quality computer case should last a long time, likewise, a decent DVD-ROM drive isn't going to lose its usefulness either. - Rob Z
[+28] [2009-05-14 15:28:40] Simurr [ACCEPTED]

Low end machines just for web browsing, word processing, email, anything that isn't graphics intensive and doesn't require a fast cpu will be cheaper to buy from a manufacturer.

Building your own is much cheaper when you get into the mid range machines. Once you get into the territory of video editing, gaming, high quality video playback, basically anything that requires a better video card and some additional cpu power, building your own is cheaper.

This, of course, always depends on the current deals available from manufacturers vs. component deals.

Basically, the more powerful the machine the cheaper it is to build your own.

I focused too much on 'cheaper' instead of 'cost effective' in the above answer.

Only YOU, the consumer, can determine whether it is cost effective. Is it worth YOUR time to build your own? Do you have the technical knowledge and desire to build your own?

...does it matter what you are building for...

Yes, very much so.

Low end hardware is cheaper from manufacturers like Dell/HP/Asus. It is appropriate for the basics - email, web, text, basic spreadsheets. Barebones systems and the cheap hardware you might find to build a cheaper machine then these will more than likely fail sooner and have short and very limited warranties. Not cost effective to build your own.

Mid - High end hardware will be cheaper and the quality will be better if you build your own. Parts will generally be under warranty if they die. Usually easy to carry parts on from your old machine to a new build (video card, media drive and HD especially) which can lower the cost of that machine even more. To determine cost effectiveness you would need to put a price on your or your tech department/guys time and add that on top of the parts price tag.
When you get into very high end parts it can be cheaper to get the parts and have someone else put it together for you then it is to buy a high end, off the shelf (or custom order) machine.

Whether you go low, mid or high end depends on what and who the machine is being built for. Who is usually more important than what.

For a home machine whether you build or buy one of these is greatly determined by desire and knowledge. If you don't have the time or the desire then you probably won't want to fix your DIY machine if it breaks anyway, which makes those manufacturer parts and labor warranties look really nice.

For a business the parts and labor warranties (on site or otherwise) is a big concern. Do you pay extra for someone else to fix/replace your hardware or do you pay your tech department overtime in addition to emergency parts purchases. Do you even have a tech department?

Building your own machine gets cheaper as the computing power increases. Whether it's cost effective is determined by personal and/or business situation.

[+14] [2009-05-14 16:06:35] JFV

The nice thing about buying from Dell, HP, etc is that you get a fairly inexpensive system. The flip-side of this is that you also get inexpensive (or cheaper) parts.

Building your own system ensures that you are using quality parts because you won't just spend your money on no-name brands (would you?). DIY and you can spend more or less, but at least you know that the parts you purchased are quality parts and will last longer than the no-name brands in most off-the-shelf or online systems you can buy.


Nice answer, sums up all the other answers in a clear and concise manner. You got my vote! - Lee
(1) Actually to my surprise, HP media center I've bought few years back has an ASUS mobo. So that's not exactly cheap crap. - vartec
(1) @vartec: What does HP computers have in them now? I've noticed that the quality of parts in Dell and HP (just as examples) have steadily gone down. They have been using more no-name brands to bring inexpensive systems to the market. - JFV
(1) On a technical note, a lot of systems have Asus motherboards (they are by far the biggest supplier in the world). The difference is that an entry level Dell will have a super cheap Asus motherboard that Asus won't even put it's brand name on (or that Dell has asked to have their name written). It's just like house brand groceries - they're usually from a name brand company, just made to a lower standard and packaged under a different label. - David
Perhaps a better way to say it is that Dell, HP, etc. build down to a price. They are selling parts that earn them a profit margin, after all. - Bob Cross
[+14] [2009-05-14 20:07:14] trent

In my experience I no longer build my own PC's. For a couple of reasons

  1. I don't want to spend the time to research every component and make sure they are 100 % compatible with one another
  2. I don't want to spend the time talking to 5 vendors/suppliers when something breaks .. I want 1 point of contact and I want them to fix it
  3. I don't want to deal with trying to keep track of the warranty for every part I purchased. Again I want one point of contact.
  4. If the machine isn't for me directly I don't want to be responsible for it ... I don't want my mom/grandma/neighbor calling me every weekend asking me how to fix XYZ ... let them call Dell or HP or (Insert your favorite vendor here)

Over all I find the time and hassle that goes into building my own isn't worth it. As some have said if you need a machine for a very specific reason then it may merit building your own. But 99% of the time it is cheaper in the long run to buy something on the market.

Same with my life experience. Except now i get the store to assemble the DIY components instead of performing that task myself when I choose to obtain a customised machine. - icelava
(2) Point #1 here is really important to me, but not just for compatibility reasons. Last time I built a system, I spend masses of time researching the 'best' parts (in my price-range) for the best prices. I must have spent at least a week deliberating. If I were a full-time hardware geek, I would have probably been aware of all the accepted current favourites, but I wasn't and so it took ages doing the research. And I find you can't just go on brand trust either - the brands keep leapfrogging each other! - Charles Roper
+1 for compatibility problems; I've lost track of this. - pjc50
+1 for compatibility problems. I would rather spend my time and money on doing things with my computer than researching quirky side affects of hardware combinations. - ObligatoryMoniker
[+7] [2009-05-14 17:01:05] SQLMenace

time = money so in my opinion no, unless your time is worthless of course

(6) Especially as the years fly by, I find myself far more attached to my free time than to a few extra bucks. - Kara Marfia
DIY does not necessary mean, that you're actually going to be one assembling that. In my case it rather choosing components on the web of local PC store. They take care of assembling, testing and installing OS. - vartec
(15) Of course, this assumes that you do not find the system-building experience itself pleasurable, which many people do. - phenry
Of course DIY seems to be easier and easier all the time. Replacing a harddrive used to be work - disassembling the case, removing tiny screws, fighting to get IDE cables routed, and getting the damn molex connector unplugged from the previous drive. Now I can pop off a few thumbscrews, lift the drive straight out, and the SATA power+data is one easy to remove and plug in connector. Oh, and no sharp edges like in the old days. - David
(1) Funnily enough, this equation causes the opposite reaction for me: I really like building machines. Hobby time building machine + machine that I actually want = PROFIT! - Bob Cross
[+5] [2009-05-14 21:57:25] Wedge

It can be. More so the more you want out of a computer and the more tech savvy you are.

Always keep in mind, cost effectiveness has two terms:

Cost Effectiveness = Value / Cost

At the low end, you're unlikely to be able to reduce system cost beyond what the big pre-fab companies are able to do (you can't save money by buying parts at wholesale, for example). You can reduce cost a little by taking advantage of some lower cost parts, especially if you need to customize from a standard baseline system. Often, larger hard drives and more RAM are cheaper through retail than through the customization fees on pre-fab systems, for example. An even more important aspect of lowering cost is the ability to get ONLY the parts that you want and NONE of the parts you don't want. Don't need an optical drive because you can scavenge one from another system? Don't need Vista because you plan on putting XP or Win7 RC or Ubuntu on it? Dell won't give you these options.

Building Your Own System is About Increasing Value

This is the reason you build your own systems. Not to save money, but to get exactly what you want. No PC vendor out there will give you as much control over the components of your system as you have when you build it yourself. Want a monster system with an overclocked Core-i7 proc, 12GB ram, 3-way nVidia gtx 280 SLI, your OS on 2 Velociraptors in a raid stripe and everything else on an 8TB RAID-5 array? You can get exactly that. Want a tiny home theater PC in a case that looks like your other AV equipment, uses onboard video with HDMI output, has eSATA and USB 2.0 ports for additional storage, and can be controlled via an IR remote? You can get exactly that too.

There are even more value opportunities as you start thinking about how to can reconfigure your monster workstation to become the kids new game / homework computer. Move some drives, swap in a mainstream graphics card, whatever strikes your fancy. - Bob Cross
[+4] [2009-05-14 15:28:05] Bernard Dy

As ever, it depends. Not sure I agree that you can always beat the retail systems in price. If you're making a Windows machine, that $175 OS cost is going to make it hard to beat the entry-level systems prices you'll find from OEMs.

I know some people hate buying from retail shops, but I see some of the specs, and we're talking dual-core CPUs and 3GB of RAM for sometimes less than $400. That beats the crap out of my home-built system from 2005, and costs about a third less.

However, as others have said, if you want full control over the component brands or want to emphasize one feature over another (memory vs. hard drive space vs. CPU vs. video card) then you have a lot more control doing it yourself.

And if you want to learn about building PCs...well, there's nothing better than doing it yourself. It's a lot easier these days too, as BIOS and motherboard setup utilities are much more robust.

[+3] [2009-05-14 14:59:37] ConcernedOfTunbridgeWells

On a mainstream PC this is probably more trouble than it's worth unless you have some specific requirements like (say) an ultra-quiet design or O/S compatibility restrictions on the hardware. There are also plenty of white-box outfits selling prebuilt gaming PC's. On professional workstation applications such as CAD or animation the software is usually the dominant cost so penny pinching on the hardware may not make much difference.

If you want to save money consider buying a secondhand PC off ebay. You can get ex-lease machines for £50-100 and can upgrade to adequate RAM configuration for a few tens more.

If you want to build a really high spec machine you might get a return on DIY, but workstatsion systems of the sort discussed here on Stackoverflow [1] can be puchased off Ebay for fairly reasonable prices.


[+3] [2009-05-15 01:22:04] Tim Howland

I was able to build an 8 core box with 8 gigs of ram for a little more than 2 grand. This machine is absolutely worthless for 99% of the people out there- there's no reason for Dell, HP, or Apple to build a box like this. But for my particular niche and the development I'm doing, I couldn't find any other way to get a box like this commercially for less than 4K.

If you're buying a box for the marketing weasels, get them a cheap HP or Dell; almost every user (and most sysadmins) doesn't need anything special. But if you need an unusual rig, there's really no other cost-effective way to go.

[+2] [2009-05-14 15:02:36] avstrallen

In my experience (I used to have a nice little sideline building systems for friends/family etc), these days, for a light-duty home-type email/browsing/admin machine, there are almost always retail deals available (for example, here in the UK at PC World) that make it almost impossible to make a worthwhile saving (or margin if you're selling) on a one-off build. But, if you (or someone) wants a hardcore graphics/video workstation, heavy duty custom server or insanely powerful gaming box, i.e. the sort of thing that can't really be bought 'off the peg' anyway, there is still money/savings to be made.

I recommend eBuyer [1] for parts... [EDIT: Though that won't help @Rob, cos his profile says he's in the USA and I don't think they operate there anymore.]


[+2] [2009-05-14 15:51:48] user2278

Where I feel I save money on buildng my own is that I can do it incrementally - I can upgrade my motherboard without shelling out for a new case, or buy a second video card as the cost goes down. It's often harder to do that with a retail case because of the way the big vendors customize the layout.

I also find it more emotionally satisfying - having a custom box and being able to say "I did that" is much more fun than an off-the shelf setup that everyone and their granny has under their desk.

[+1] [2009-05-14 15:53:22] Michael Kohne

To answer this, you need to know some things:

Are you counting your time in the cost? Dell does charge you for the time their employees spend building your system.

Are you counting the ability (necessity) of installing the OS as a plus or a minus? The box you get from Dell is pre-installed, but tends to have a lot of garbage along with your OS.

Do you like shopping for parts? Because that's what you are signing up to do.

Do you have a special need that isn't fulfilled by a retail system?

The thing is that for the stuff they sell at retail, the retailers have generally worked VERY hard to cost-reduce those systems and bring them to you pretty cheaply. If they have what you want, then it's probably hard to beat their prices, even when you add in the time needed to uninstall the crap that came with them.

On th other hand, if you have a need or desire for special configurations (extra memory, bigger HD, performance video), then the retail configurations would have to be upgraded. If the retailer even supports doing so, they will charge an arm and a leg, and you are better off just buying the thing piecewise on your own.

[+1] [2009-05-14 19:29:33] vartec

There's no obvious answer to this. I was trying to figure out how much would I have to pay for DIY gaming PC, comparable with Dell Studio XPS. Basically it resulted, that DIY computer with exactly same configuration would cost some 10-20% more.

Now difference comes from upgrade options, like adding second HDD or more memory. This is a lot cheaper in case of DIY. So really pimped-up DIY PC will cost lot less then pimped-up Dell.

Other thing is, I'd like to use nVidia, but Dell Studio XPS comes with Radeons. No option to change it.

Now, if you're considering one of Acer's brands (eMachines, Gateway), there is absolutely no way of making decent DIY for their price. But then again, these aren't exactly top quality.

[+1] [2009-05-14 21:02:05] phenry

If you plan on upgrading components over the life of the system, you may find it worthwhile to build your own. Apart from the fun of voiding the warranty, systems from Dell/HP/other manufacturers often have odd configurations inside that make it difficult or impossible to perform upgrades beyond simple RAM upgrades. You may crack open your case to install a second hard drive and find there's no bracket for one and no obvious way to install one, for example. Building your own system makes it a lot easier to plan and execute future upgrades.

[+1] [2009-05-14 15:24:23] Gromer

For the initial cost, you cannot beat building your own system. Only thing that can cost more is software and any warranty stuff.

[+1] [2009-05-15 07:19:07] Mr Shark

I have started to use "build your own kits" where someone have put to gather a set of hardware that you get to put together your self, perhaps exchanging some parts or adding something.

This kits are usually prized somewhat cheaper then the individual components and you have a single contact if something don't work.

Concerning the time spent on building the box I think its dwarfed by the time spent installing OS and other software which you need to do anyway (especially if your running Linux like me).

[0] [2009-05-15 16:12:13] community_owned

When I'm looking for something different than a low-end desktop from Dell or HP, I turn to a knowledgeable local builder (mine is and I can call him and discuss everything, from component compatibility to the kind of cables I prefer. Best of both worlds; keep control and keep my free time!

[0] [2009-05-17 16:35:44] Jordie

Building PCs gets old after about the third.

[0] [2009-05-23 06:17:49] carlito

It's not cost effective if you can avoid it at all.

If you have the skills to build your own successfully, your time is valuable enough that it makes sense to buy the system pre-built.

Just the time spent researching components would exceed the extra cost of buying a pre-built system.

Just the time troubleshooting small problems would exceed the extra cost of buying a pre-built system.

If you're not troubleshooting it full-time, the cost of using a partially working system for months is significant. Or your hardware depreciates while it goes unused.

To build a system you need a certain economy of scale. I can't pick an arbitrary number offhand, but it is certainly greater than one system. If you are building dozens to hundreds, the interoperability research and troubleshooting will start to pay off. But by that point, discounts from vendors become relevant.

You can buy a high quality system. You just have to remember that the extra cost is indeed going somewhere legitimate.

I still build home systems. But it's an economic failure every time.

[0] [2009-08-19 17:42:03] Ernie

This guy seems to think so:


[0] [2009-05-14 15:50:04] Ivan

I regret building my own Media Center PC a while back... PC builders know a lot more about compatibility between components, and also test them very thoroughly.

What I'd do is just purchase a bare-bones CPU with a very powerful processor, with the minimal amount of RAM, and the cheapest hard disk and graphics card (integrated if possible). Then I'd upgrade those myself, because specially with RAM, you can get far cheaper prices that way.

The last computer I built was actual a Windows based HTPC and I didn't run into any compatibility issues, where did you run into problems? - Rob Z
I don't remember. The one I do have now sometimes locks up, sometimes doesn't boot and I have to restart it, and some other odd behaviors. Also, I made a mistake with the power supply. I purchased a more or less high-end quiet model, but when it gets too hot, the fan kicks up making a very annoying mosquito-like sound... - Ivan
[0] [2009-05-14 15:04:06] Dani

Of course it is more affordable (in case you don't include your time's worth)

You can get exactly what you want (no Dell/HP crap included; no dodgy RAM from the lowest bidder)

The downside is the time lost building it, which is approx. one hour if you're modestly familiar with it, and the damaged hardware and nerves when you're doing something wrong

(8) You haven't lived until you've sliced your hand on a poorly cut PC case frame. - Bernard Dy
I've done that (not real badly), and I can safely say that I had in fact lived before I ripped up my hand on the case of the PC. - Michael Kohne
I get cut every time I work on a machine. It's almost a requirement. Just doesn't feel like your done till you bleed. - Simurr
(1) Extra points if you have to explain to a friend/family member why there's a dab of blood on the inside... - Lee
(1) It's foolish to buy a cutting-edge PC. Spend the money, save your hands. - joeforker
[0] [2009-05-14 14:59:34] Thoreau

I still build my own. I take a look at the spec of an HP or Dell then see if I can get the same "stuff" for less. Which more often than not I can.

This is only talking about the cost of the hardware, this does not take into account the cost of the hour or two I spend putting it together and running everything up.

The other factor in building your own, is that you know what parts are going into it, so you don't get stuck with Joe's branded RAM.

[0] [2009-05-14 21:58:42] Electrons_Ahoy

In my experience, it's still cost effective. Even taking into account my time, I can still beat Dell or any other OEM by a significant margin. Also you get the satisfaction of knowing what parts are in there.

[-2] [2009-05-14 14:57:42] Thomaschaaf

Building your own may be stupid if you are creating a hardcore gaming machine since you may do some bad cableing and get the air flow messed up. If your time is either not worth anything or like me you just find it fun to actually do some hardware stuff too then building your own is the way to go. If you need it to be exchangable and need support f.e. a company then you should probably go with some manufacturer. I wanted to get my hands dirty and built really quiet machines for our office and got them to be sub 600€ if I would have bought them online I would have probably paid double.. up to 5 pcs I think I will always do it myself but in the future the servers will be bought not built on my own any more ;)

Getting it right comes with experience, too. If you don't build PC's that often, then it'll take a few tries to get everything cabled properly and arranged right. - Lee
(1) But the first time will pretty much not be the best result. - Thomaschaaf