I: The beginning, should you build it yourself?

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I still remember the first time I bought a desktop computer, I was around 15 and everything was very exciting. It was an Intel Pentium II, 300 MHz with 64 MB’s of RAM that ran windows 98. Everything was incredible until things went wrong and I realized that I couldn’t fix the computer myself because it was locked down. Two stickers prevented you to touch anything inside. That was the first and also the last time I’ve ever bought a pre-built desktop computer.

For me, and probably for you, if you are reading this, there is a fundamental problem when you buy a pre-built PC: you may be thinking that what you are buying is a computer with some components with screen, mouse and keyboard, etc. However, what you are really buying is a closed box that you should not open or modify, usually because of warranty issues. So forget about upgrading or messing with the internal components.

Hey, but what about when warranty expires? You don’t expect to upgrade your computer just after I buy it.

That’s correct, the problem is that computer companies tend to use proprietary parts that are made just for their computers. And because you can’t really know how the insides of your computer look like, you may find later that the expansion you want to install has not place in your motherboard because there are not free expansion slots.

But building a computer is difficult! What if you do something wrong?

Building a computer is not really difficult, it just takes time the first time and some care. In fact, for modern computer components the building is pretty straightforward because almost every component can only fix in one way and in one place (if it can fit in two or more, usually is because it doesn’t matter). You just have to expend time before you buy anything to be sure, not only about the compatibility of your components, but also about how well all of them will work together. And these days internet can do this for you.

The special case: What if you want a laptop?.

Don’t build a laptop, buy a laptop. Building a laptop is a ridiculous nightmare to achieve nothing else than a pretty standard computer. This guide is only intended for desktop computers.

So, the solution for a desktop computer is building your own computer, right?

Well, not so fast. My personal preference will be always to build my own PC because I like to build things and I have fun with it in the first place. There is not a hard and fast rule and it depends on many factors. The main factors in order of importance (highest to lowest) are in my opinion: your budget, your needs, the time you are willing to commit and your technical knowledge. Let’s see them one by one to help you make a decision:

  • Your budget

Sadly, money will be the most important factor in your decision to build a computer. It is usually said that building a computer is cheaper that buying it, although this is not always true. Any company that builds computers has a capability that neither you or me have: buying in bulk. A pre-built machine comes with all the necessary parts including a Windows license, which is usually around 100€, that you otherwise have to buy yourself. If you are looking to use Linux you won’t have this problem but for windows users, this is a fixed cost that has a strong impact in the budget when building low-end computers. Also, a cheap computer will be in any case a low-end building so the difference in performance will be negligible between building and buying. I don’t mean that you have to buy a computer if you can’t expend money. I still think that is nice to learn how computers work and how to build one, you just cannot expect the result to be better or cheaper than a pre-built computer.

On the other hand, if you can afford to expend money to get a medium or high-end computer, you probably want to build it yourself. These computers in their pre-built version are usually overpriced and you can get the same or better performance for less money. However, don’t fall into the “I’ll build it because it will be cheaper” fallacy. This may be technically true but what usually happens is that you will include extra things that will increase how much you are going to expend. This is a good thing because you are selecting all the parts you want and building the computer you want, and even if at the end you expend the same (or even more) money that for a similar pre-built computer, your computer is now customize for your personal taste, something a pre-built system cannot achieve.

Let’s put a quick example to illustrate this: Imagine that you are looking for a computer and you like a pre-built computer that costs 1000€/$. You check the specifications, look online components and find that you can get the same performance buying all the individual components for 800€/$ and building it yourself. However, when looking to buy the components you realize that you can buy a more expensive but beautiful case for 50€/$ more, add liquid cooling for 100€/$ and several fans with LEDs that look really good in your new case for another 50€/$. You cans see that at the end you are going to expend the same amount for a computer with similar characteristics if we speak about performance. However, the second computer is a computer designed by you and customize to your own taste.

  • Your needs

If you are not in a tight budget, now you have to think about what you are going to do with the computer. If you are going to play PC games for example, you should build it, period. If you plan to do demanding tasks as video editing, photography or any other task that works with high amounts of data, you probably will be better if you build the computer because you can focus in improving memory (for example) to get better performance. In the last case, if you are planning to just browse the web, do common office task (use of Word, Excel or PowerPoint) or watch movies, you really don’t need to worry about building a computer. Any pre-built computer will handle your tasks although, if you build it, you can focus on improve certain parts as for example, adding a sound card to improve the experience of watching movies. As a rule of thumb, as more demanding of computer power your tasks are, is better to build a computer than buy a pre-built one.

  • The time you are willing to commit

As I said before, I believe that building your own computer is worthy because I enjoy it, so I am willing to put some time and effort into it. Yet, if you don’t want to use any of your time on the research of components and in the building, just buy one. Building a computer is in my opinion lots of fun, but it takes a certain amount of time that you might not want to commit. In general, to build a computer you need to look for the case, a power supply, a motherboard, the RAM memory, a hard disk, the microprocessor, a graphic card, a cooling system and personally I will add a sound card. And for every item in the list (plus others you may want to include) you will have several options that can be picked. There is no other secret to compare between them than spending time on it and looking for a good deal, if possible. I will give you resources to help you in your search (and to make it quicker) but you will have to expend some time to select all of your computer parts in any case.

  • Your technical knowledge

This is the less important factor in my opinion: Have you heard about a couple of websites called google and youtube? Well, there is where the knowledge you lack lies in the shadow to be found with a quick search. For any question you have, for sure there is at least 100 pages and videos you can check. Also, do not be afraid: some years ago, the installation of different computer components was more difficult because the connectors sometimes were identical. Nowadays every one is different and can only be connected in one way, is like trying to plug your mobile phone charger in the headphones connection of your mobile phone, it just doesn’t fit. And if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it. That’s all you need to know at the beginning, and then you will be learning step by step. Of course, if you don’t want to participate in any learning process, you should buy a pre-built computer then.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, if you can afford a medium or high-end pre-built computer and you plan to use it for gaming or a high demanding task, building your own computer is probably the best way to go. It is easy, fun and rewarding. On the other hand, if you want the cheapest possible computer or you don’t want to expend any time with the process, you should buy a pre-built computer.

As a note, there is the possibility of getting customized computers. This is a good way of getting your computer as you would like it without expending the time building it, but it usually comes with a cost.

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