Extreme PCs and "Homebrewing": Rest in Peace

Extreme PCs and "Homebrewing": Rest in Peace

Summary: Will custom, home-brew systems go the way of the Dodo or the Duesenberg with the retreating economy?

TOPICS: Hardware

Being a technology writer in times like these can be difficult.

In the glory days, everyone had lots of disposable income, and those of us who called ourselves "PC Enthusiasts" thought nothing of doing complete hardware refreshes every six months to keep up with the technology. A new motherboard and processor (or two) here, a new graphics card there, a double or quadruple RAM upgrade another month... Bigger.. better.. faster... you get the picture.

A $16,000 custom "Extreme PC" built by Puget Systems.

Those of us who were of the "Extreme" hobbyist or PC homebrewer persuasion -- those of us who weren't content to buy systems in a box from a major PC vendor would read websites and publications like Tom's Hardware, ExtremeTech, AnandTech and until recently the mighty PC Magazine, which in late 2008 folded its magazine publication after 26 years in print and retreated like the rest of us to the web.

Maximum PCappears to be one of the last print bastions of PC hobbyism, although it's been a while since I analyzed its content for true homebrew-goodness.

It's been a long time since I myself have "built" a system from the ground up using OEM parts. Like I do with 12-packs of chicken breasts and cases of toilet paper, I now buy my computers from COSTCO in barebones configurations.

If I need to tweak the hardware for better performance,  I shop on the Internet for modest upgrades. While some of my friends are still hardcore system builders, I firmly believe that the build-your-own practice will become a lost art form, and that it will not survive the economy.

Oh, the white box Taiwanese OEMs will exist, such as ASUS, MSI and and TYAN, but they'll be making cheap consumer devices and netbooks, and acting as contract manufacturers for the big name PC manufacturers -- at least the big names that will still exist 2 or 3 years from now.

Also Read: Der Frankenputer, A Last Hurrah at System Building

I find it particularly obscene when PR agencies and independent systems vendors contact me about "Extreme" systems you can still buy. I'm not pointing fingers here, but one chap over at Puget Systems -- a respected custom systems builder -- wanted me to know about a $16,000 PC a private individual ordered from them and if it was something that would interest my readers.

I was not amused. I told this pleasant PR guy that "Extreme" PCs are no longer relevant. There's no market for them, and the "Extreme" publications that write about them are really no more useful or realistic than hardcore pornography.

The chances of your Average Paycheck Joe going out and buying a $5000 and up system is about as hopeful as a 400 pound dumpy-looking guy trying to find a date with a supermodel, or actually believing he can have relations with the women he sees pictures of in Hustler or Penthouse.

Now, don't get me wrong. I happen to think real pornography is healthy. This is something that addresses our base biological urges. "Extreme PC" publications? Not so much. And while I'm playing holier-than-thou, ZDNet is no exception -- our own Hardware 2.0 blogger's piece on a 1250 watt PC power supply struck me as equally retarded today. But I can't really blame Adrian, he has a hardware column to write about.

So where is this industry going? Just this week alone, two of my friends, both highly skilled systems integration professionals with large technology companies, as well as a close member of my family, a real estate attorney, lost their jobs.

I frequently wake up in the morning scratching my head wondering if anything I write about really matters when we have problems this huge affecting so many people. It almost seems that writing about technology at any level in this day in age that isn't related to how you can cut costs is no longer relevant. New processors? More cores? Faster graphics cards? Improved versions of Windows? Who gives a crap anymore.

So are the PC hobbyist sites dead? If they continue to publish the same fantasy porn and don't start putting out some practical advice, I think we'll soon be writing their epitaphs, just as we did for PC Magazine and other venerable print pubs for the PC industry that went before it.

The new "Extreme" will be "Miserly". What system gives you the best bang for the buck? What system components conserve the most amount of power? Who makes the cheapest and best netbook for the money? How can you best make do with what you have now? Where are the best places to dumpster dive? How do you get in on asset liquidations?

Extreme PCs and Homebrewing are dead. And with this proclamation, I really hope I'm wrong. Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topic: Hardware


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Feast for free with your old PC

    Luckily the software side is not gloomy at all: you can still write lots of blogs about pumping free steroids in that old PC.

    Shock-and-awe your readers by diving into www.distrowatch.com ! Unleash the bits and bytes. :-)

    Have fun, Pjotr.
  • It was [b]lack of[/b] disposable income

    that helped kick start the homebrew industry, too.

    If you could not afford the 3000 dollar system 20 years ago, the 1000 dollar system started you off.

    As the money came in, so did the newer, better graphics cards, Hard Drives, sound cards, et cetera.

    My current system is "Homebrewed", but with the changes in card slots among others, It might make sense to just purchase a new PC with everything I need, as I cannot see something I can build that would be less expensive.
    • Margins

      It is ironic that the industry that caused the PC revolution to explode is now imploding.

      With margins on OEM parts so low, it's difficult to piece together a system using the "white box" method that would give me equivalent warranty and functionality that a value priced name brand Tier-1 system purchased from a discount store would give me, with a few extra parts here and there purchased 3rd party.
      • Well . . .

        I kinda disagree - for one thing, I don't think system builders are generally concerned with warranties anyways. After all, if you know how to build a system, you also know how to replace defective parts.

        I don't think many system builders are really in the resale business, either - they're usually doing it for themselves, not for other people. Sure, some do it for others, but I don't think they are the majority.
      • Hmmm

        I don't find it difficult at all. I have always designed custom builds for friends, co-workers and for myself. With a little research it's easy to build a reliable system tailored to specific needs and budget, using inexpensive, but compatible and reliable parts. Once upon a time I worked as a tech in a fair sized retail shop. The percentage of "problem child" brand systems that came back was considerably higher than that of the custom builds. I'd rather design a system where warranty and RMA policy aren't as significant and likely to be needed. I very rarely have to RMA anything I've built.
      • Except a home brew is more likely to work...

        Every time I bite the bullet and buy a name brand system, I get burned. They always run like crap. They crash. The bloatware bogs them down. They overheat. I try to replace faulty parts only to find they used non-standard parts which are no longer available. This has happened to me with Dell, Gateway, IBM, HP, and others over the years.

        In contrast, all of the PCs I've built myself are STILL running perfectly after many years. Some of them got handed down to friends and family years ago and are STILL running perfectly. The difference is I pick the parts from the Windows HCL, research each to make sure there are no common problems online, and install them very carefully with plenty of cooling.

        They will have to drag me kicking and screaming back to buying pre-built machines from online retailers again. I never plan to go back.

        • Except A Home Brew...

          What BillDem said, except he forgot that some warranties on parts might be longer than 12 months and that having the manuals on all of the various parts helps.
        • Except a home brew is more likely to work

        • Not my experience

          We switched our systems from beige box systems (with Asus, ATi, Intel, 3Com, etc parts) to Dell 9 years ago. Our service calls dropped dramatically on hardware failures. In 9 years, with 150 desktops, laptops & servers, we've probably had to replace 4 hard drives, and 1 DOA mainboard (a replacement was received in 1 day after 15 minutes on the phone with Dell business support).

          Uptime & response time to the rare failure are very important. Engineer's cost a lot of money to have them sitting around doing nothing.

          Home brew is great for, well, homes (and the SOHO), but we will never bring another beige-box into our infrastructure.
        • AMEN!!!

          Sorry Mr. Perlow. But this is one person who doesn't care about the minor price difference in home-brew compared to prebuilt systems.

          This system I'm on now, is 3 years old. At the time it was built with cutting edge parts. Such as PCI/E, dual core 3ghz Intel processor, USB 2.0 Hi-speed, a modular 500w power supply, 4g memory, SATA/Pata connections (I have 2 PATA drives and 2 SATA drives in it now.) and a nVidia 7300 video card. Encased within a Thermaltake case (That weight in at 18kg), w/7 cooling fans.

          I built it so that it'd last 3 - 5 years (baring something catastrophic). Within that time I went from Win2k, to XP, to Debian 5.2. It WMs Windows XP in Debian 5.2 when I need to use XP for a couple of programs. Know what? It still runs like a dream even today. Cost? Around $720 complete.

          In that time too, the office had a Dell that I serviced. WHAT A PIECE OF CRAP. For the same that I paid for my machine, we got a machine that should have been about - $250 or so. It was underpowered with a 150w power supply. 1 fan which did dual work as a system case fan, <I>and a CPU fan</I>, no power on/off switch on the power supply, no reset button on the front, and ug. That keyboard was a bigger joke than Bill Gates having to go to a Goodwill.

          I also service friends and family's systems and it's always the same as the Dell. Underpowered, cheaply thrown together, and stuffed to the gills with crapware.

          If they could build a system similar to mine, at about the same price, then I'd consider it. However, the one thing that you didn't mention is that yes you get Win7 and crapware on a pre-built system. But what if you need at least an OEM copy of W7 to reinstall, which you have too at times? Do you go out and pay $200 for a fresh copy? Or can you get lucky and find someone to give you a legal OEM copy? When you add the price of Windows, then the price of a pre-built machine is starting to look more like a home-brewed one.

          Home-brew will <I>not die completely</I> because not every person wants a pre-built for various reasons. Some may want a ultra-powered machine for games, others like me don't use windows, and doesn't want to pay $30 - 200 for a useless OS.

          I don't need something super special, so I don't need things like the magazines you mentioned. But I want one to last. I can't throw away $500 or so for a new system every six months especially <I>if the system is still working just fine</I> Heck, I still even use a IBM Thinkpad T22! With Debian 5.2, and Gnome or XFCE it runs just fine in 512 megs memory. The keyboard is far superior to anything out today, and it does everything my netbook does (Asus Eee 1000HA) on a 15" screen. (Yes I wasn't a bit happy having to buy XP but at the time it was an emergency purchase for collage.)
      • I don't really get it.

        I pass through several computer custom builder stores every month and they are always busy. As busy as before the recession? Well thats hard to say but like most businesses I doubt they are as busy as they were. But none the less, with the constant traffic through the stores and the line ups at the check out counter there is no question they are making money and the custom builder is alive and well.

        I don't really get where this notion of custom building going down the tubes is coming from. I am not going to argue whether there has been a modest drop in custom PC building or not; there may well be recent drops in custom building. But it is certainly not to a degree where the industry is anything near being on the verge of folding. From everything I have seen and hear computer sales are down generally and that too is likely a symptom of the recession. Lets not get all wacko about custom building going the way of the dinosaur.

        I also fail to see how most custom builders are worried much about warranties. Its never been a concern for me and I have never heard anyone who builds their own PC swear off building another one in the future due to not being able to get a comprehensive warranty. Generally speaking if you built it, theres no reason why you cannot replace a bad part. Further, the custom shops who sell the parts almost always have a faster turn around time doing repairs on PC's then the big manufacturers and big box stores. For most people getting the PC back ASAP is more important then saving the few additional dollars a complete warranty might save you.

        Lastly, there is really no replacement for having built your own PC to your own needs and budget. It's the only way to get what you really want for the money you have. Whats makes it even better is that when you build it yourself you usually have a very good idea what and how parts might be upgraded in the future. Working on OEM equipment can be a real pain in many cases and upgrading is not always as easy or practical is working on a custom build which often has features built right into the case design to facilitate easy upgrading of components.

        And as far as prices go, from what I have seen its still pretty easy to build a cheaper computer then to shell out the bucks for an off the shelf unit.

        All the reasons for custom building your own PC are still alive and well. I certainly don't see any drop in sales significantly askew from the drop in PC sales generally. I suspect that once the recession shakes itself out over the next year or so we will have a much better idea on how the PC custom building business is really going.
    • You can still save and get more if you build it yourself

      I've built 4 computers in the last four months, all for less than $400.00 ea. To buy a comprable off the shelf boxed computer with the same features would have cost $800.00 - $1200.00. Whereas, their not extreme, I built them for less than 1/2 the price I'd have paid Dell or HP.
      If I ever decide to build my own "Monster Machine" I am sure I can build it for less than $16,000.00. I bet if I had the specs on that $16000.00 machine I could find the parts for 1/2 or less.
      • Not Necessarily

        My local store sells parts and also puts together a range of standardized and customized systems. One day I added up the cost of parts sourced from the lowest cost stores, and it was exactly what they charged for a built system. Given that they can easily replace a faulty part while I need to RMA it and wait for weeks for its return, why should I bother building?

        I do it for servers as it can provide major savings. But that is not the same as extreme PCs. In fact I wonder what you would want with an extreme PC nowadays. Lower cost machines can run the best of games from what I hear. Maybe video compression would benefit from a fast machine, if you need to do it a lot.
        • depends

          If you build you can get exactly what you want rather then what someone else thought was a good idea.
      • Nope

        I doubt you could come close to buying sub-assemblies for anywhere close to what people who are buying 10,000 qty's are able to purchase them for.
        • Wrong

          Cost isn't simply about how much you paid up front. A $200 Dell sh*t box may be ~real~ cheap up front...but when you wind up having to replace it every two years because it was slapped together by near slave labor in some foreign country using factory thirds sh*tware...yeah...not so much saving you money in the long run. Not to mention your system will be completely unstable and will constantly crash and lock up due to said sh*t grade hardware. And then of course there's the cost of your time, having a computer that's custom tailored to your specific needs and wants will increase your productivity greatly.
          • It is the SAME hardware

            Fly out to China or Taiwan and actually watch what goes on in an ISO-9000 certified manufacturing plant. I have. The same hardware which goes into your "Quality" retail boxed parts for your custom rig goes down a different line that ships directly to the OEMs who build systems.
          • You Really Are Clueless

            Even if it's the same make and model of hardware it's not all created equal. If you had any idea at all as to how manufacturing works (in any industry) then you would know that there are specific "grades" of quality. Normally, if a company says they want 10,000 of something and they want them uber cheap...well that means they put their machines into over drive, and the faster the machines run, the more screwups they make. And because they're often on a tight deadline they don't bother to correct a lot of obvious screwups, after all, if 5% of a 10,000 unit order doesn't work, well, whose really gonna notice until after the systems are already sold?

            And as far as the grading, the highest grade components sell for the highest prices and the lowest grade sell for the cheapest, which is why you see such a variety of prices on different vendor sites, despite the fact that it's all the "same" hardware.

            Component costs and sources are another HUGE factor. I remember at one time, back around 1999, when E-machines was having a huge rate of returns on their systems because it turned out that the company who was supplying their power supplies had switched to another, cheaper source for their capacitors, and, well, they were cheap for a reason, and caused the machines to produce this incredibly high pitched squealing sound.

            I'm presuming you're a tweenager (or younger), which is why you don't understand this, as any educated adult clearly understands how the manufacturing process works. And of course they recognize that hardware is not just magically farted out by the technology fairy, it's assembled, with individual parts and components coming from a whole variety of often variable sources.

            If a company says they want 10,000 of something and they want them uber cheap, well that means the company making them is likely going to go with cheaper distributors for their components, as well as over running their machines and ignoring screwups to meet deadlines.
          • Do not presume or assume

            [b]I'm presuming you're a tweenager [/b]

            Try 40.


          • These aren't the pieces I purchase.

            If I build up a system I go for top end processors and graphics. The "big boys" don't make large purchases of parts that would make high priced computers for a very small market. The small margin they run on means they can't afford to purchase 10,000 of the latest top end graphics cards at $400 to $500 each even if they get them for $200 to $300. It's too much money in inventory.
            I pay about the same price for parts as the local custom shop. Typically I can assemble a high end machine for notably less than what they sell them for. OTOH If I were selling them I'd have to charge as much or than they do.

            However when it comes to entry level or even mid level there is no way an individual or small builder can match the price and include any kind of warranty. That works only with the very top end and pricey machines where the market is small enough that carrying those parts in stock is unwise. They cost too much, you have to pay property tax on inventory, and the biggie, they are outdated in a short time by newer technology that is faster, more capable for the same price or even less.

            As for market, the average end use, or even industry for that matter isn't going to use water cooling (although it would make offices quieter), they aren't going to spend $200 or more just for the heavy duty case, and they aren't going to be using top end video cards except for that small few that do graphics on high end work stations. Even then, most mid price range assembly line computers can handle the task.

            I think there will always be that element that wants the fastest and most powerful system available and when they economy comes back (eventually) they will be purchasing again. But don't hold your breath, only the government and brokers trying to sell you something are convinced the worst is over. How can it be when the number of employed workers is still going down. They see the rate at which it is going down as a sign of recovery when it shows we haven't hit bottom yet. When employment figures start climbing THEN we can look forward to the return of the SUPER machines.