Building a low-end PC: Just say no

Building a low-end PC: Just say no

Summary: It sounds like a good idea until you realize the level of effort isn't actually worth it.

TOPICS: PCs, Hardware

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is one of my favorite writers on ZDNet. I love how he researches all the latest PC components that have the best value and performance per dollar and then figures out how to save computer hobbyists money.


For the last several years, he's been writing seasonal posts that contains his best picks for matched components so that you can build a good performance low-cost PC yourself, instead of going to the Tier-1 OEMs, like HP, Dell, Acer and Lenovo.

If you're putting together a PC whose components cost you $300 to source, you are not shrewd. You are a schmuck.

I enjoy his posts immensely. I really do. I love PC components. I used to build PCs, usually once a year or so, sometimes more, for family and friends. I've built from scratch at least a hundred systems over the course of my professional involvement in the computer industry since the late 1980s. Perhaps even more, now that I think about it.

But now, unless you're an edge case, it doesn't make sense. I stopped building PCs a long time ago. 

If you want a "cheap and cheerful PC to handle some simple tasks" you shouldn't be surfing the web for parts and then blowing an entire Sunday afternoon putting it together thinking you've saved a hundred dollars and gotten oh-so-much-better-components for your hard-earned money.

Look, I'm going to be blunt. If you're putting together a PC whose components cost you $300 to source, you are not shrewd. You are a schmuck.

I didn't have to look very long to find very similar, fully-built PCs manufactured by Tier 1 vendors that cost approximately $300. A simple search of the usual suspects yielded these results:

Best Buy:



Microsoft Store:

Image: Microsoft Store

This is just a representative sample and I haven't scrounged the web for better deals, of which I am absolutely positive there are if you are willing to invest more time than the whole 10 minutes I put into it. And by the way, that ASUS VivoBook deal at the Microsoft Store? ZDNet's Ed Bott told me about it, and I'd jump on it quick if you need a new and inexpensive notebook system.

You could argue that Adrian's bill of materials is about 20 or 30 dollars cheaper than the systems above, and his components may be slightly higher speced, but I will add the following:

  • Every single one of these PCs comes with a Windows 8 license. Unless you're using Linux, or are re-using a valid retail, non-OEM Windows 7 license that isn't currently running on another computer, you'll need a copy of Windows for this PC.
  • Software piracy isn't cool. If you need a new Windows 8 license, you will need to buy the System Builder DVD, which I found on Amazon for $95.
  • Every single one of these PCs comes with a keyboard and mouse. That's worth about 20-30 bucks right there.
  • Every single one of these computers has 1-year warranty, and is sold by a online vendor with good customer service and return policies. This in and of itself is not insubstantial especially if you think you can cut corners with OEM bulk "Grey-box" system builder parts which do not have the same warranties of their retail boxed counterparts.

I've said a number of times in the past that PC building no longer makes sense for most people. I have gone into the reasons at length on various occasions, but the bottom line is that cost should not be a determining factor in being your own system builder.

Adrian is by and large addressing the hobbyist that actually enjoys putting computers together. The average end-user should not even consider going this route, no matter how much easier it has gotten to assemble a PC since 25 years ago when I first started doing this. 

I can understand to some extent, but am less than fully convinced that it may still make sense to build an extremely high-end system for an ever-shrinking demographic of extreme PC gaming folks and for engineering and graphical workstations, but for the average end-user that needs a basic system for the reasons Adrian has specified? Heck no.

When was the last time you actually built a PC? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: PCs, 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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  • cmon man

    cmon man!!! you know that building a PC from a scratch is not for the money!!! it is a thing of pure joy and excitement for me!!!

    and you should ask yourself how many "extreme PC gaming folks" is out there? i would say enough for the custom built PC's to remain around for a long,long time...pundits and "experts" are predicting a total failure of desktops since they become available...that was 30years ago...this planet is very,very big place...if there is a market for 100 milion euro yachts or 1 milion euro Bugatti, there is a market for "extreme PC gaming folks" extraordinary PC's...

    and for the end...i thought that DELL,ASUS,LENOVO or HP do not need this kind of product placement through articles on ZDNET because they are multi billion$ companies...lame man...lame...
    • I think his point is valid.

      With the obvious exception of hobbyists.

      Over in the original article I posted about my 400 quid rule that I apply to builds - under 400, you're building for the love of the build. Over 500 you're getting what you want and saving money.

      It's the buying power of OEM's - they are going to sell container ships of their £299 desktop bundle. They are going to sell a handful of gaming or rendering machines. At the absolute lowest price point you simply can't build a PC at the price they are selling a bundle for, and you have 10 suppliers to deal with and 10 warranties.

      We build because we love to. Conversely I argue that if you are buying a performance desktop around a grand, you're a schmuck. Aside from having the exact components for your task rather than general purpose components, you save money and get something unique.

      Another reason to build is upgrade-ability. OEM's will usually use non-standard motherboards and sometimes power supplies that can end your dreams of re-using the case/upgrading the processor/adding a performance graphics card. You build it - you choose your form factor, and everything is standard. If you build, you build once, then upgrade as you go. Instead of chucking the whole thing out it evolves.

      To be honest I'd advise anyone with a bit of technical knowledge looking at a £299 desktop package to go on ebay. You won't get the warranty, you'll have to add a new hdd for piece of mind, but you'll get a whole lot more for a whole lot less.

      Buy quality, don't buy cheap... Just like every other market. If you build a windows PC, it is going to cost 400 starting from. Ask yourself therefor what corners are cut giving you a whole desktop package 100 quid less?
      • How much do you value your time and piece of mind?

        I used to build PCs until I realised I was wasting hours of my time in the build and the OS load and the testing and the occasional one that despite its high quality components, just refused to boot. Worse still, if I built it for someone, I was guaranteed a few more hours of free support at inconvenient times in the future.

        If it's a hobbyist's money sink like a hot-rod or interior decoration, then go for it, but if you value your time, a self-built PC is much more expensive than a tested and guaranteed commercial computer with an installed OS. The computer is now an appliance and while I'm sure you could build a toaster or a refrigerator by assembling the parts, it just doesn't make sense anymore.
        • you get what you pay for

          The bulk parts in most OEM PCs unfortunately go to the lowest bidder, and failure rates are much higher as a result. Unless you are going to say, prebuilt PCs don't have problems lol...

          It's why awesome services like the "geek squad" exists to help all those thifty shoppers.
          • But the same applies to bulk parts in most cards, too.

            Don't forget, short of Creative or ATI, or someone like that, these aftermarket video and audio card makers are competing in a dog eat dog business, too. I've seen audio and video cards for as little as $9-$25, so you know they likely aren't using high end manufacturing or components.
            William Farrel
          • more likely...

            Unless you order a system with a specific discrete video card, the system builders are probably utilizing video capability built into the motherboard/CPU to reduce the overall cost of the system. This is fine if you're doing basic office work or if a consumer don't use it much beyond lightweight work but more problematic if you like to game or do video/audio processing. Another consideration, what are the capabilities of the motherboard used in a retail system. Many times these are custom builds. Does the mobo used in your retail system allow for the addition of a discrete video card if you want to do more with your system. (Does it allow for the addition of ANY additional cards). Should you decide you want to add additional cards/hardware, is the PSU up to snuff to handle additional power requirements? If you plan to just replace a system with a new one when your needs/requirements change, then retail is ok. Otherwise, a well-thought-out custom build, while it may cost a little more, may give you better/longer service and in the long-term view cost less.
          • true, at least you have the choice

            So many names come to mind, pcchips and ecs for motherboards - so many models that focus on low price they do not last any longer than a dell refurb.

            Power supplies are really bad in this area, way to many poorly constructed units out there by deer / l&c, allied / supercase, apevia, youngyear...

            The best advantage of BYO, you pick and choose, and don't go too cheap. I do disagree w/ Adrian's rosewill case/psu combo because the PSU included is not the best unit. Nowadays, it *shoud* be 80+ rated at least, or nothing!
          • Well ...

            I have owned 10 PCs (four are still kicking, five retired healthy) and I have had to replace a $10.00 fan in one of them. (That system lasted me SEVEN years!) The only PC that ever died on me was a Compaq laptop which lasted only two years.

            In the end, my manufactured systems have served me very well.
            M Wagner
        • You may be retired

          From the business of building your own PCs but do not try to find an excuse about it that applies to everybody. The PCs I am building for myself are not “appliances”…and each build can cost up to $4000, for this amount of money I would not get anywhere the quality of components from any of these vendors.

          And as for the hot-rod analogy, no m8, more like a Ferrari, the only thing that these Vendors do better is the cable management. My systems are faster, more "balanced" overall and optimized for the tasks they meant to do.

          Also, I agree time is money, but knowledge gained from this experience is priceless to a developer like me.
          • So...

            You are the hobbyist he was talking about. Shrug...
          • Knowledge is power!

            I agree, the knowledge that results from building your own system is priceless. That is, if you have a problem with your system, you're going to have a better understanding how to fix it rather than to have to turn to a questionable "expert" to fix the problem (while charging a high fee to do so). So many people I've talked with about building my own system think there is a high knowledge-curve to building a system or replacing parts. They have no idea just how few components are actually involved in building a desktop system. If I can build it, I can repair it should the need arise (which is rare indeed).
        • People are building low-end PCs to save money?

          When was that a thing? Sure building PCs could save you a couple of bucks, but no low-ed PCs. You can't save money over bulk-purchased, lowest bidder, budget OEM crap. But was that really the reason people did it?

          I build my own PCs for one very simple reason. OEM crap-ware and cheap components are warranted for a year, and they don't often last much longer (hardware, software failures, under-performing, etc).

          Meanwhile, I'm typing this on a PC I built myself in 2008, for just over $1400. It's still rock-solid and performs more than well enough for anything but serious high-end gaming. I use it for development, it runs multiple VMs all the time, I do image manipulation, and yeah, I even play some current games on it.

          You build a PC yourself to get quality components without needing a personal loan, And to make sure that your PC will still be worth using well after the warranty expires.

      • wouldn't buy another computer off ebay.

        I have bought computers or components on ebay a few times and have yet to have a good experience with either. Generally something or another is already burned out. That includes new in box items. I'd say Walmart is a good starting point for cheap computers.
        • Not surprised

          I'm not surprised that you're not having a good experience ordering computer parts on eBay. If they're not new-in-box, then you're gambling that the part being sold is actually in working order, or how long it was used before being sold. I think the old caveat 'buyer beware' has to be in the forefront of your mind when buying computer parts off of eBay. In the end you do much better at Newegg or one of the other major parts suppliers online. You may pay a little more but at least there is a return policy!
        • Low price...

          Also Staples sales. Check on-line flyers. Also-I've found H-P printers cheaper at the H-P site than at retailers. Can't say if that's true for computers.
          Hans Schmidt
      • Solid State Drives

        Customers in my PC shop for whom we do data backups rarely have even 10GB of user data, and few after that have over 50GB of it. SSDs make a ton of sense for the average user, yet you won't find a single OEM that will sell you a computer with an SSD without paying through the nose. I've looked. They don't exist. We sell a ton of desktop builds on the promises of SSD speed alone. For the one customer who ran out of disk space due to the kid installing Steam (which was NOT something we were told would be run on it) we added a traditional hard drive and moved all the games off to that, but that was the only exception.
      • The real reason for this article

        Most OEM PC's come with... you guessed it Windows which counts towards Windows 8 sales. I went through a round of OEM machines, mainly DELLs after years of building my own white box PC's. I went back to building my own becasue OEM machines are not cheaper when you consdier the about of add on parts you need to get them to function like you want them too. If people are techincally competent i say build away and leave OEM PC's to the geek squad.
    • Don't forget

      that it has been a long time now since Microsoft has leaned on OEMs to not offer a PC with no OS. Only a few vendors still offer no OS PCs and barebone kits. Instead of buying a PC from an OEM retailer with the choice of one OS (Windows) I like the freedom of either an assembled NO OS system or a barebones kit.

      Why would I want to buy a PC with Windows per-installed when it will just get removed from the in the Linux install process? I can assemble a barebones kit and install Mint, Ubuntu or both on it in less time than it takes to setup a new Windows system out of the box and install some basic software on it, not to mention that I would have to remove all the OEM installed crap-ware.
      • When it works for you...

        I agree, Linux is probably a lot quicker to install fresh on a new system. When you get the OS and a software library on a disk (or thumb drive, or download) it's going to be a lot quicker to install than Windows where your software choices are separate downloads. I have worked with Linux a bit and do like it. However, the software I use, none of it runs on Linux outside an emulator environment. I hear that there are plenty of Linux ports that are just as good as Windows software and in a lot of cases, that is true...except for two pieces of software I use constantly for which there is not anything nearly on par in the Linux environment. Many may like using Windows software in a virtual environment but I'm not one of them so I stick with Windows for now.
        • I don't know about that!

          I've installed both Linux Ubuntu and Mint, Cinnamon as well as Win 7 and 8 in the last 6 months and I couldn't see much difference in any on them.
          All pretty much went trouble free including drivers and such.

          The only real problem I had is with Ubuntu and Mint and it was 1 the Nivdia drivers causing the GUI not to start up, pretty simple to fix with the command line and of course making sure you have DVD playback in Ubuntu, no installed as standard!

          Linux printer drivers can some times be a pain as well, particularly canon lazer printers.