PC homebrewing and white-boxing: Dead or alive?

Moderated by Bill Detwiler | May 20, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (00:00 PDT)

Summary: To build, or not to build: Does it still make sense? Jason Perlow and Adrian Kingsley-Hughes debate the pros and cons of DIY.

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow




Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Best Argument: Dead


Audience Favored: Alive (90%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

It no longer makes sense

In 1969 the world-renowned Swiss psycholgist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, in her book "On Death and Dying" introduced a hypothesis on how humans handle grief in successive stages. There is Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance.
I was once an avid homebrewer. I grew up with a love of the user-serviceable PC, to be able to understand its inner workings, to be able to do my own repairs and upgrades, and also to save money. For over 20 years I built my own PCs for these very reasons. But now this no longer makes sense.
While there still exists a cottage industry for building "White Boxes" and supporting the homebrewed PC enthusiast, this industry is not a healthy one. The homebrewing and White Box industry is on the verge of extinction. 
This is because PC industry is now mature, and that a combination of factors including economies of scale in PC manufacturing by the large OEMs, a heavy consolidation of PC component vendors that has eliminated diversity and choice for the homebrewer, an industry movement towards integrated systems (such as APUs and SoCs) which reduce the overall components required to build a PC and also a shift towards notebooks and tablets as preferred computing devices has largely made homebrewing and white boxing an unnecessary anachronism.
Five years ago I went through the Denial stage. And then the Anger. And then Bargaining and Depression. I am now in full acceptance that building PCs for personal and business use no longer makes economic sense, and with the exception of certain edge and vertical scenarios, of which there is a declining few, that whiteboxing and homebrewing is dead.


Best choices for DIYers

While there's no doubt that big-box PC OEMs have driven computer prices into the dirt – so much so that it's hard for the OEMs themselves to cut a profit – there's still room in the market for DIYers who want to build their own PCs.

If you want to make a good meal then you need to make sure that you use the best ingredients and put them together carefully.

This is something Mr. Perlow knows all about.

Sure, there's nothing wrong with going out and pick up 'fast food' PC from the nearest greasy spoon, but you probably don't want to know what when into it, or how it was put together!

Also, a quality homebrew PCs doesn't have to cost the earth. You can put together a $300 or a $2000 system, and be sure that you know that you have a quality product that should last for years.


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  • What's The Target Market

    Home brewing different than whiteboxing. If you add the 'Internet of Things' and X86-based appliances into the white box or 'system builder' description, then it tips to ALIVE. If it's commodity PCs, then DEAD.

    So target market clarification helpful for your voters.

    Good debate.
    Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
  • Depends on your long-term goals

    Awhile back I was looking at setting up a home server. For $99 I bought a refurb Compaq at MicroCenter that came with a 40GB Western Digital IDE, 256 or 512MB DDR RAM (don't recall which), keyboard, mouse, Pentium 4 and XP Pro. My plan was to add an external USB with two 1TB drives. In fact, I replaced the 40GB with an EIGHT GB drive, since it would really need only the OS. As I have retired other 2005-era hardware I've bumped the RAM up to 2GB. I actually wound up not setting up the server. But the point is that THAT would have worked fine.

    If you just want "done and won't change", then buy a name brand. But if you will EVER upgrade the mobo, video or power supply you NEED to custom build. I try to keep individual upgrades to $100 max, which is very doable except when replacing an OLD mobo. (On 2 machines I went from 2005-era Asrock to 2009-era Asus, which, of course, required replacing mobo, CPU, CPU fan AND RAM, around $200 total per machine.)

    Pre-builts NORMALLY have non-replaceable mobos because the physical layout isn't standard. Name pre-builts come with CUSTOMIZED Windows. If you buy a Dell and try to replace the mobo with a non-Dell, the OS will refuse to boot. So what you save up front on the OS you'll wind up having to spend later on to buy an upgrade CD, e.g., Dell custom XP Pro upgrade to MS XP Pro.

    Also, pre-builts normally have underpowered power supplies for that specific hardware configuration. Want to upgrade the video? The P/S can't handle it. And the physical layout of the P/S is non-standard, so you can't just swap it out. Gotta buy from the PC manufacturer for WAY more than an off-the-shelf P/S would cost.
    Reply 3 Votes I'm Undecided
  • sometimes a custom solution is best-fit

    I had 6x400gb SATAII drives laying around and said "hey I want a fault-tolerant backup solution" so I went w/ freenas (since we all know how "fault tolerant" USB hdd's are lol).

    There is no pre-build solution outside of a super-expensive NAS chassis. For under $200 an AMD FM1 build very similar to Adrian's can be had with a case that supports 8x hdd and 2x 120mm fans to cool them, add a 2Gb USB stick to boot, done.

    I liked it so much I got 3 more of those FM1 combos for HTPC use, and ditched FIOS TV (a $70 per month savings), the whole backup / media streaming setup will be absolutely free in another year.
    Reply 1 Vote I'm for Alive
  • Things to consider

    Things to consider:

    -It's always been a hobby thing, at least as long as I can remember. Your average person has never really built their own system.

    -Gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry. I'm not sure how anybody gets insignificant or "niche" from that. They'd rather repeat what they've heard in the echo chamber of the internet than actually look at the facts.

    -NewEgg and TigerDirect are still in business, and they seem to be doing fine.

    -Building a system is the best way to tailor a system to your needs. If you have special computing needs of some sort, building your own system (or having somebody build it for you) may be your best option.

    Are hobbyists and gamers done building systems? Nah. I seriously doubt it. Sure, there's the "average joe" who doesn't need the power or flexibility of a custom system - but they never built systems in the first place, so they don't really count towards whether building is "alive" or "dead."

    So I'm gonna vote "alive." I'm still building my own systems, and unless both NewEgg and TigerDirect go out of business, I see no reason to stop building them.

    And oh, yeah: I consider "dead" to be a vastly overused term in the tech press. Microsoft was declared "dead" for 20+ years, and so many times I've seen perfectly profitable businesses declared "dead" that I wonder if it really has any meaning anymore.

    Frankly, "dead" for a business should be reserved for "it's disappeared from the planet because it went bankrupt with no chance of a restructuring fixing things."

    **NOBODY** outside of the tech press uses the the term "dead" as loosely as I've seen here. "Death" means it's over, it's final, it's gone, there's no chance of recovering.

    -It does *NOT* mean "I like a newer technology better."
    -It does *NOT* mean "they're a small niche market now."
    -It does *NOT* mean "it lost 95% of its market share, but is still turning a profit and will continue at a lower share in the future."
    -It does *NOT* mean "I hate them."
    -It does *NOT* mean "I want them to go away."

    None of that stuff makes something dead, sorry. I'm sick and tired of overuse of the term.

    Oh, and "dead" is not the same word as "dying" either. Something may be dying but not dead.
    Reply 11 Votes I'm for Alive
    • Buggy Whip Makers...

      ...Are still in business. The manufacture tack and carriage whips for those romantic park rides.

      Some of the firms that fabricated buggy wheel-bearings did the same and are doing the same today for car manufacturers.

      Niche or hobbyist markets maintain nicely or don't most of the readers here believe that home looms, glassblowing, and pottery lack modern adherents?

      JJ Brannon
      Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
      • Chicago voting?

        I voted for "I'm for Alive".

        That's not what was recorded.

        JJ Brannon
        Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
      • We can say the same about slide rules (have you ever seen one?)

        Skills were lost when the slide rule business dried up. Humans figured out how to get to, and land on, the Moon using slide rules but times change.

        In 1970, you could spend $100 for a high-end bamboo slide rule. Today, a free smartphone app can do the same calculations that put Humans on the Moon.

        In the end, even though there are still people making buggy whips and shoeing horses and making firearms by hand, these are, for all intents and purposes, DEAD industries.
        M Wagner
        Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
        • They're not dead.

          They may no longer be the size they once were but they are by no means dead.
          Reply 3 Votes I'm Undecided
        • I know many

          engineers who still use slide rules.

          I have also been inside a local Walmart when the power went out during a storm and the backup lights came on but the registers were not on that power supply. The store manager got calculators off the shelf for all the checkers to use. I already added my stuff up in my head before they could get the first calculator out of the packaging.

          The US sucks at math these days. Sad but true...
          Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
        • They are not

          Slide rules are not dead. Number of people using them have diminished, but dead they are not.
          Have you used calculator apps in scientific mode in smartphones? They are either confusing when trying to imitate physical calcs or full of useless functions.
          The number of people assembling computers or using home-built ones is smaller than 10 years ago, but dead? Not yet.
          Aristarco Palacios
          Reply 3 Votes I'm Undecided