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%)

Closing Statements

The thrill is gone

Jason Perlow

If you have the love of the build, then by all means, build PCs. However, this is a pure economics and business discussion and romance and love for PCs has nothing to do with it, and I implore the moderator to think practically and not as a kindred spirit of someone who has always loved hardware, of which I include myself as well.
As someone who has built systems hundreds of times as a former independent consultant and reseller and who has watched our industry consolidate and our margins disappear, my feelings regarding PC building and repair as they stand now are purely clinical. 
Once you separate yourself from the emotional aspects of playing around with hardware, the cold, unpleasant facts remain. PC building is now a business for OEMs and large Asian contract manufacturing firms which now control the entire component chain and are operating on razor-thin margins that would be perilous for any commodity white boxer to survive in. 
PC building is a chapter that I am sad that has closed in our industry, but it is what it is, and we should get on with the day to day operations of running our businesses and as end-users, enjoying and using our apps.

It works

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

I make no apologies for being a hardcore supporter of building PCs. Want to take that away from me? You can pry the #2 Phillips from my cold, dead hands!
I'm such a rabid supporter of DIY PCs because I know that it's a system that works. I've built dozens of PCs, and each one of them has outlasted any brand-name PC I've bought, and by a comfortable margin. After the initial building and testing, I've got several years of happy computing out of the system before it's time to repair or upgrade something. 
That's an excellent track record, and it makes me more and more determined that taking the built route is the right idea.
I look at the difference between a PC I build myself and one I buy from a big box OEM as the difference between building (or buying) a gourmet burger made with care and the best ingredients, and picking one up something thrown together from a McBurger and throwing it down my neck. Sure, they both accomplish the same thing, and sometimes you just want a quick, bulk-buy burger, but it's unlikely to be a product of quality. 
Same is true of PCs. There are times when an off-the-shelf PC is the best options, both in terms of price and convenience, as long as you're aware that you've traded quality for price and convenience. 
That burger's only going to be around for a few minutes, after which you'll never see it again – hopefully! – but your PC is going to be staring you in the face for months, if not years, to come. 

Don't you want to make the right choice from the start, and make sure you have a quality product made from the finest possible ingredients? And whether I'm spending $300 on a cheap PC for the study, or a $2,000 video rendering rig, I want the best possible PC for the money. 

Dead for all but the hardcore PC enthusiasts

Bill Detwiler

As an IT pro, gamer, and someone who's built PCs for both business and personal use, I was really excited to moderate this Great Debate.
Before I render my decision, it's important to provide a bit more clarity on this Great Debate's topic. Our debaters were arguing the pros and cons of building vs. buying desktop PCs. They weren't addressing custom-built network and datacenter hardware, such as Google's Pluto Switch, or open networking technology, such as Facebook's Open Compute Project (OCP) or Google OpenFlow protocol. That kind of "whitebox" hardware is a topic for another debate.
So does it still make sense for businesses or individuals to build their own PCs? Most debate voters and forum participants certainly think so. And Andrian made an impassioned argument that homebrewing is still practical--but only in a few narrow business situations and for the PC enthusiast.
"First off," Adrian wrote, "while I'm a huge DIY PC advocate, I'm not suggesting that business build every PC they need." Adrian also acknowledges that off-the-shelf PCs are less expensive, writing that "if you want a bunch of cheap PCs for regular desktop usage, then it's always going to be quicker and cheaper to buy these off–the-shelf than it is to build them."
Along with price, other trends are pushing the homebrew market further into obscurity. PC sales are declining. Hardware manufacturers are slowly, but surely moving away from discrete components. And consumers are migrating en masse to mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) and laptops.
This doesn't mean the homebrew market will disappear tomorrow. As Jason noted, there are individuals who are "permanently fixated in a DIY worldview who can never be convinced to buy systems from OEMs." But this group of PC builders is a "small and ever declining portion of the PC using population."

For all intents and purposes, the homebrew PC is dead within the business and dying (albeit slowly) within the consumer market. I side with Jason.


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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