DIY Rig vs. Bou­tique Builder vs. Big-Brand OEM

Maximum PC - - QUICKSTART - BY JEREMY LAIRD

Do it your­self or pay the man? For some, build­ing your own rig is an es­sen­tial part of the PCown­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Only by build­ing your own PC can you truly know it. For oth­ers, a sys­tem en­gi­neered by a big OEM can bring tech­nol­ogy and fea­tures un­avail­able else­where. And what about bou­tique spe­cial­ists? Don’t they of­fer a cer­tain at­ten­tion to de­tail, and fo­cus on the stuff that ac­tu­ally mat­ters, and hard­core en­thu­si­asts par­tic­u­larly ap­pre­ci­ate? Game on.

ROUND 1

Value

Be­fore the com­modi­ti­za­tion of the PC and its com­po­nents, the num­ber one rea­son to build your own PC was to save money. To­day? Not so much. Price up a pre-built rig, and com­pare it to the com­bined cost of buy­ing its in­di­vid­ual com­po­nents, and the gap is of­ten slim to none. What’s more, that com­par­i­son usu­ally doesn’t take into ac­count “ex­tras,” such as an OS and a war­ranty that cov­ers the whole sys­tem.

Of course, home builders may be able to trans­fer an ex­ist­ing Win­dows li­cense, or might have a drawer full of spare bits, or be a crack­er­jack fault-fin­der. It’s also true that if you’re pa­tient, and pick up all your com­po­nents on sale, you can still build some­thing that sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­cuts both bou­tique and big-brand pre-built PCs. You can, of course, also source used parts. In ex­tremis, the best value op­por­tu­ni­ties re­main in the DIY arena.

Speak­ing of pre-built op­tions, the value propo­si­tion de­pends on your pref­er­ences and us­age. For ex­am­ple, ex­treme over­clocked sys­tems are prob­a­bly bet­ter bought from a bou­tique out­fit, while the big boys tend to be bet­ter at shav­ing the last few pen­nies off low-end and mid-range sys­tems. Win­ner:

DIY

ROUND 2

Re­li­a­bil­ity and Sup­port

If value used to be the main­stay of the DIY op­tion, re­li­a­bil­ity and sup­port are the pay­off. For starters, even if you buy all brand-new bits, you’re only cov­ered for in­di­vid­ual items. If you know what’s bro­ken, that may be tol­er­a­ble, but ef­fec­tive fault find­ing usu­ally re­quires a box full of spare com­po­nents for swap­ping in and iso­lat­ing is­sues.

Like­wise, what if one com­po­nent fails and dam­ages an­other? And what about cross com­pat­i­bil­ity of com­po­nents? What if your CPU doesn’t like the look of that fancy high­fre­quency RAM you found on spe­cial?

In re­al­ity, of course, com­po­nent fail­ure and in­com­pat­i­bil­i­ties are pretty rare these days. But you can’t beat the abil­ity to sim­ply ring a num­ber or raise a sup­port ticket, and have your PC re­placed or re­paired in short or­der. With that in mind, the com­par­i­son be­tween bou­tique and big OEMs when it comes to sup­port is com­pli­cated. If you have a well-rec­og­nized fault, the big boys are usu­ally very fast and ef­fi­cient. If it’s some­thing a lit­tle harder to di­ag­nose, the abil­ity to speak with a sen­tient hu­man be­ing at a bou­tique out­fit will be a blessed re­lief.

Win­ner: Bou­tique and big OEM—it

de­pends on the fault

ROUND 3

Fea­tures and Tech­nol­ogy

This one re­ally does de­pend on what you want. There are cer­tain fea­tures and tech­nolo­gies only avail­able to each of the three cat­e­gories. Take any given PC builder, big or small, and you’ll be able to find fea­tures they don’t of­fer. Only a DIY rig gives you to­tal con­trol over com­po­nent choice and fea­tures.

But that sense of con­trol can be an il­lu­sion. If you hap­pen to like the styling and fea­tures of, say, Alien­ware’s lat­est “triad” de­sign Area-51 chas­sis, good luck “choos­ing” that for a home build. Alien­ware doesn’t sell it sep­a­rately. The big boys cer­tainly bring un­matched re­sources and en­gi­neer­ing clout that oc­ca­sion­ally trans­lates into some­thing spe­cial, which can’t be had else­where. Sim­i­larly, the big brands some­times have early or ex­clu­sive ac­cess to the lat­est and hottest com­po­nents.

On the other hand, bou­tique brands are typ­i­cally more ag­gres­sive when it comes to ex­treme per­for­mance or adopt­ing items such as the lat­est cool­ing in­no­va­tions. They’re hap­pier op­er­at­ing at the ragged edge with over­clocked rigs, while big OEMs are more in­clined to cover their be­hinds in trip­li­cate, and go with proven and more con­ser­va­tive tech­nol­ogy and set­tings.

Win­ner: Three-way tie

ROUND 4

Per­for­mance

How hot are your mod­ding skills? Are you happy hand-tun­ing CAS la­ten­cies? Ques­tions like these de­ter­mine the per­for­mance of a home-built rig. You need to know what you’re do­ing to not only suc­cess­fully mix and match com­po­nents and con­ceive the de­sign of your rig, but also fine-tune the end re­sult. You can match or even ex­ceed the per­for­mance of any pre-built PC with your DIY rig, but it’s down to you.

You’d think the big OEMs would have an ad­van­tage. Af­ter all, they surely have ac­cess to all the best tech­nol­ogy and com­po­nents, and the en­gi­neer­ing clout and re­sources to com­bine them in ways that even the best bou­tiques can’t. In prac­tice, how­ever, they are usu­ally if not al­ways quite con­ser­va­tive. They tend to build in rel­a­tively big vol­umes, and are risk averse when it comes to re­li­a­bil­ity and li­a­bil­ity. They sim­i­larly aren’t usu­ally set up to hand­tune re­tail sys­tems, so need to pur­sue more generic con­fig­u­ra­tions.

Bou­tique out­fits are bet­ter placed to have an ex­pe­ri­enced en­gi­neer hand-tune a re­tail rig, en­abling them to push the en­ve­lope harder, while en­sur­ing each rig is re­li­able.

Win­ner: Bou­tique builds, un­less you

re­ally are an ex­pert

ROUND 5

Up­grade­abil­ity

If you’ve suc­cess­fully built your own box, adding fu­ture up­grades isn’t go­ing to be a prob­lem. What’s more, you don’t have to worry about void­ing the war­ranty. In those senses, a DIY rig has ob­vi­ous ad­van­tages over pre­built PCs. But there’s more. When DIYing, you have full con­trol over the con­fig­u­ra­tion, en­abling you to spec­ify cer­tain com­po­nents, such as the PSU, with a view to sup­port­ing fu­ture up­grades. The same is ar­guably true of a good bou­tique build. The best have fu­ture-proof­ing in mind, and good bou­tique out­fits of­fer suf­fi­cient op­tions to en­sure plenty of head­room. Some may even be flex­i­ble when it comes to war­ranty claims, pro­vided any fault isn’t as­so­ci­ated with an up­grade.

As for the big OEMs, they’re dead last in this cat­e­gory. They’re more likely to have cus­tom en­gi­neer­ing, be­spoke moth­er­boards and PSUs, or other de­sign el­e­ments that make up­grades dif­fi­cult. They’re also sig­nif­i­cantly less likely to be ac­com­mo­dat­ing with re­gard to war­ranty claims on sys­tems that you’ve up­graded. That’s not to say up­grad­ing a big-brand PC isn’t pos­si­ble, but if up­grades are a pri­mary con­cern, they’re not the best op­tion. Win­ner:

DIY

From left to right: Max­i­mumPC has form when it comes to DIY builds; bou­tique brands do some fab­u­lous builds; big­brand en­gi­neer­ing is not without charm.

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