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