On PC homebrewing death and dying

On PC homebrewing death and dying

Summary: Five years ago I went through the "denial" stage. And then "anger." And onto "bargaining" and "depression." I am now in full "acceptance" that building PCs for personal and business use no longer makes economic or business sense.

TOPICS: PCs, Hardware

In 1969 the world-renowned Swiss psychologist 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.

Image: ZDNet

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 as well as a heavy consolidation of PC component vendors that has eliminated diversity and choice for the homebrewer.

Most importantly though, an industry movement towards integrated systems — such as accelerated processing units (APUs) and System-on-a-Chip (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.

Read this

PC homebrewing and white-boxing: Dead or alive?

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

There are very few advantages to building your own PC or having a reseller or integrator do this for you today. Ten years ago — more realistically 15 or 20 years — there was a healthy ecosystem of diverse component vendors as well as businesses that could competitively price systems built from scratch. They could also provide significant differentiation and value add with building systems. Part of what came along with this would be personalized support.

But that ecosystem is not healthy today, the component supply chain has become heavily consolidated, and the Tier-1 vendors can provide excellent on-site tech support contracts.

If you really prefer local, personalized tech support, there's always independent consultants who specialize in this. But many have largely ceased the practice of building and reselling systems due to the resale tax burden as well as being unable to compete with system margins sold in retail, brick and mortar retail or discount clubs, and with e-commerce direct to order.

There are also tangible risks associated with building your own PCs.

First there is the risk of a local IT firm or whiteboxer being unable to support your systems by the very real possibility of them closing up shop and you being stuck with non-retail, bulk OEM PC components with limited warrantees. While this sounded ludicrous 15 or 20 years ago, that's now a very real possibility today.

The second is being able to consistently source the same components and not being able to standardize installs and drivers. While this is not necessarily as much of an issue as it was, say, 10 years ago with the advent of componentized and scripted installs, as well as superior plug-and-play (PnP) technology in today's PC operating systems, it still adds to the support burden and it adds significantly to overall level of effort and time sink.

Why? Because you are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on system verification rather than unpacking OEM systems from boxes and turning them on, and pushing down a standardized image with all your apps on it. Time is money. Do you want your highly-paid IT staff wasting valuable time playing PC tech, or to focus their energies in support your line of business applications and infrastructure?

You should never consider building your own PC if you actually care about the dynamics of your business and require consistent support.

You aren't going to save money, your support options are not going to be better with white boxes than with an OEM certified system, because you can get a support plan from an OEM, and you can get local consultants to deal with break-fix on simple items if the machine comes out of warranty.

And in most cases, when a key component of the system dies, it's probably simpler and more cost effective to just replace it rather than repair it due to labor costs alone.

Read this

Extreme PCs and

Extreme PCs and "Homebrewing": Rest in Peace

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

One could argue that there are edge-case vertical industry scenarios where an end-user or a business needs a specialized graphics or PCI card, or an extreme high performance internal storage device, extremely high-speed networking, or what have you that isn't supported in an off-the-shelf PC configuration.

There may be also be legacy hardware and peripherals with software and drivers that still needs to be supported that cannot run on modern systems, but in cases like this the business should be considering migration to rid themselves of these high-risk devices that could severely impact their business if they fail.

Industries like computer graphics, engineering, and content creation have demanding requirements that may occasionally outstrip the capabilities of what many PC vendors might offer, even with their most high-end workstations. But these are extremely rare cases and more often than not there are practical workarounds, which don't require a custom build.

I've spent a good amount of time here talking about why businesses should not build PCs. But what about the consumer?

There are no advantages to doing this today. None. Zero. Zilch. Zippo. Nada. If we are talking about a typical consumer with a capital C (and not a Hobbyist, or a Gamer) someone who browses the web, engages in social networking, and uses productivity and typical multimedia applications, and plays games casually, then you should never consider building a PC.

First of all, a brand-new PC is going to come with a Windows 8 license. A white boxer or a PC hobbyist building a system from scratch will need to buy the OEM System Builder Kit, since there is no Retail license as with Windows 7, there are only Upgrade licenses for consumers.

That System Builder license of Windows 8 will run you about $95 on Amazon for the regular version and about $135.00 for the Pro version. That's going to negate a lot of the perceived cost savings of building a box right there.

Your old Windows 7 Retail license can be re-used if your old PC is discarded, but you cannot re-use the OEM copy that came with a OEM-built system without violating the Microsoft EULA. This counts for businesses as well, unless, they have volume licenses and EAs.

And yes, my Linux friends? Building a system doesn't help you either. You can buy perfectly good Linux certified systems from OEMs and virtually every OEM system out of box that runs Windows works fine with Linux anyway, and even with the cost of that OEM license built in, you'd be hard pressed to save time, money, and frustration from building your own box. I've done this, many times.

There still remains a group of people — ones who are in an extremely vocal minority — that identify themselves as PC builders.

These are prosumers and hobbyists which, for whatever reason, have had a history of building systems and are permanently fixated in a DIY worldview who can never be convinced to buy systems from OEMs due to whatever misguided or outdated ideologies about build costs or component quality they may still maintain.

But this is such a small and ever declining portion of the PC using population and is no foundation for a PC building industry to survive on.

The meat of the issue really has little to do with the desires of homebrewers. It has to do with the component manufacturers and a shift towards mobility.

Movement towards low-cost SoC-based and APU-based devices, whether they be Ultrabooks, tablets, smartphones, convergence devices and wearables shifts computational power and infrastructure from the desktop to the datacenter and Cloud and also software from a purchased or licensed to a subscription and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) model.

So building PCs will make far less sense than ever before.

Many of the component vendors who make PC parts are also moving their business models towards supporting and manufacturing the above mentioned systems and away from things like graphics cards, hard drives and mainboards, which will make building PCs that much more difficult.

We're moving towards a model where PCs are no longer going to be serviceable, whether it is a notebook computer with soldered-on everything or a PC mainboard that is simply a just a glorified SoC with onboard GPU, RAM and networking. I don't see how a PC building ecosystem can continue to be viable in that way.

And if you've walked into a typical enterprise lately, the tablet, laptop and notebook population far exceeds the desktop PC population. Let's face it, nobody is homebrewing or whiteboxing notebooks. And by the way, I consider "White Box" specialty notebook builders like Sager as pure OEMs, not whiteboxers.

I think we're also seeing a distinct movement toward touchscreen devices, whether they be on High-end Ultrabooks and Convertibles like the Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch, Asus's budget VivoBook X202E or all-in-ones like HP's TouchSmart line.

While the PC market as a whole is in decline, these form factors are actually showing very clear signs of adoptance.

If the industry trends and hard numbers are of any indication, consumers value mobility just as much if not more than the enterprise does. So the PC desktop, be it OEM or home-built, is long overdue for total extinction.

Then what are we as business owners and end-users to do?

We should be refocusing on supporting and building our line of business apps, and undergoing transformation processes that shift as much of our infrastructure to the datacenter and cloud as possible, and that includes moving desktops to VDI and DaaS. That may be very hard for some folks to accept but that is the path that has been laid for our industry going forward.

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 and business sense, and with the exception of certain edge and vertical scenarios, of which there is a declining few, that whiteboxing and homebrewing is dead.

Have you also gone though the PC building grief cycle? 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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • A Comletely Nonsensical Article

    This has to be the most ridiculous article on ZDNet which I've ever read. OEM's which offer up PC's 99% of the time don't use the same high-end components which I can purchase myself. You will end up paying a premium for crappier components. Has this tablet-toting blockhead ever heard of overhead? Can you get a system with highly specific water cooling kits, GFX cards, power supplies, etc., without paying a premium? And even then, is the OEM even going to have what the DIY person wants?

    This is just yet another attack article about the nonexistent death of the PC and erroneous bias against the DIY crowd. What a load of complete rubbish.
    • I Agree

      • +1

        Though maybe not the most rediculous...

        This is the third article I've seen about this in a fortnight..

        The point is simple. - building budget machines insn't economical - buying Pre-built power machines isn't economical.

        I have a MacBook Pro and an ipad mini - I wouldn't dream of buying an iMac - do you have any idea what I can build for 2 grand? And no pc's don't get off lightly either - Alienware is the same. By the time you get to performance, just build it!

        OEM's are for portable and budget devices - their buying power will outstrip you on budget hardware.
      • Me, too.

        You can make any statement factual if you limit the scope of who you are considering in your sample. By only considering people who do email, Facebook, and browsing, he is specifically selecting people who support his premise. It's like saying people who live in Austin, TX are Texans. People who buy cheap computers don't build their own. Amazing insight.

        He's also incorrect about it always being cheaper to buy than build. The high end workstation I'm using would have cost me $20,000 if I bought it from Dell or HP. I saved thousands and tailored it specifically to my needs by building it myself. I will continue too build my own systems for as long as parts are available to do it and the HCL to check driver compatibility.
    • Agree and good point

      Microsoft would rather have you deal with OEMs and Retailers than build your own custom PC and install what ever OS you want on it. I remember when you could buy a PC with no OS installed but MS leaned hard on OEMs to put an end to that. They said selling a PC with no OS was aiding piracy. This must be an extension of that campaign but they will have to convince business managers and individuals to not build there own systems. I don't think they have the clout needed to do that.

      It's funny that MS got there start competing with IBM and built there empire on the backs of custom PC makers who were mostly mom and pop shops. Now they seem to have become the new Old IBM, even using the term “Blue” quite a bit these days.
      • DancesWithTrolls

        MS got there because IBM asked Bill Gates to make an OS for their thing called a Personal Computer.
        After a while cunning Bill managed to outmanuver IBM and his version of the OS became dominant.
        It's a long story but you might find it interesting if you go investigate.

        Basiclly- Bullshit seems to be the way to success.
    • He's right

      sorry but you represent a very very very small minority of people. While homebrewers have always been a small percentage anyways that percentage gets smaller every day. That's just reality.
      • RE:

        Is your lack of correct punctuation a result of you typing on your tablet?
        • Maybe you should purchase a better keyboard...

          from your comment, the first in the bunch, quote
          "A Comletely Nonsensical Article"

          Just had to point out your error since you pulled the punctuation trigger on another.
          • RE:

            Not my fault ZDNet doesn't allow editing of posts, or private messaging between users. Plus, it was a joke.
      • but how did manage to count them?

        or you just have a gut feeling?
    • I see where your coming from but I disagree.

      For my systems, I still build them myself because I like to customize them and it's cheaper because of the components that I use.
      But, for anyone else that wants me to build them a system, normally I will tell them to go get one from Dell or HP. For what they would use it for, I would have to charge them more than what they could get it from Dell or HP. I will help them finding the best deal from Dell or HP, but that’s all the help I can offer them.
      The last computers I purchased for my wife and son were built computers from Dell. That was because it was cheaper to purchase standard computers for them because I knew they wouldn’t use them more than a bit of word processing, simple online games, and internet surfing.
      I will continue to build my own computers and customize them, but I know that small time building computers isn't profitable anymore, unless you are building high end systems.
    • You missed the point.

      Did you even read the article? He said he's not talking about the extremely small population of hardcore, DIY, (mostly) gamers. He's talking about the 99.99% of computer users in companies and home. None of these people need or want specific (or any) water cooling kits. There will always be some DIY folks but they are in such a minority that there's no point in business putting any focus on them. It doesn't make economic sense.

      Most people want to buy a computer, plug it in, and use it. I know I don't miss the days back in the '90s of setting interrupts and trying to get multiple serial port cards to work together. Even then, when it was cheaper to build my own computer and select components, I'd still buy a whitebox system from some local mom-and-pop computer store. It was definitely worth a little extra money to have them put it all together - and fix it if there was a problem.

      I already spend way too much time keeping all my family's computers working and backed up and updated. Great for you if you actually have the free time to spend putting together systems. But, the point is that it's a hobby, not a business. With Haswell, and future CPUs, mainstream computers will have more and more power and even graphics horsepower that will shrink the DIY and gamer-system-builder communities smaller and smaller. And, as the market gets smaller, the price for any special / add-on components will keep going up, accelerating this even more.

      I don't like this since I have always pushed computers in non-mainstream ways (not a gamer, but for audio and/or I/O control). Also, I hate that integration - especially bad with all-in-ones and pretty much everything Apple sells now - means there's nothing user-fixable and it costs a fortune to have the manufacturer fix it. Just last year, I got ripped off fixing an iMac. A $5 (if that) chip died that controlled the LCD backlight. They would only replace the whole $700 screen assembly! And the LCD panel (and the actual backlight) was fine. So, most people just buy a new computer and we end up with more waste (some toxic) in dumps.

      Anyway, the bottom line is that this is how the market is going since it makes money for the companies and is fine for virtually all consumers. You, in at least an economic sense, don't matter...
      • RE:

        Yeah, I did read the article, and it's wrong. He says: "There are very few advantages to building your own PC or having a reseller or integrator do this for you today."

        Obviously, if you had read my comment, you would have seen the points which I laid out which refute this spurious article. And, what does talking about interrupts and serial cards of the 90's have to do with today's motherboards? Are you trying to make the case that since motherboards were hard to tinker with in the 90's that it makes no sense to mess with motherboards 20 years later? Your argument is weak.
        • Unfortunately, the points you used to "refute this spurious article"

          only serve to illustrate the reasons why our DIY culture is on the wane. How many of us are there in relation to the population as a whole? We're fewer and fewer. Joe Q doesn't need a water-cooled kit, and just about any off-the-shelf PC will service a typical family for many years. I've built my own systems as well, but about 5 years ago, I bought a little Dell Inspiron 531S on special...it is still going. Personal computers entered the consumer appliance space some 8 or 9 years ago and since then the ROI for building your own has been decreasing.
          If you think otherwise, put your money where your fingers are on your keyboard, invest in a business building custom systems, and let us know if you can earn a living.
          • RE:

            You're missing the point. The author makes the case that there is no advantage to the consumer to buy a custom built rig. It's true that for less money, you can get a system with better components in it. If you really want to get into reasons why the DIY culture is on the wane, one big one is that IQ's are dropping year by year. Many people are just not capable anymore of doing anything but sending tweets out and playing with instagram. Plus, why would people of today's culture spend the time making calls or learning how to build a PC, when that actually takes effort?
          • IQs are not dropping

            they've always been low. To paraphrase a Pekar cartoon: "average is stupid". That's why that politician you dislike got elected, or alternatively, why so many people hate that politician that got elected and did that stuff. What accounts for the stupid use of computers these days is that there are more computer users these days. But neither that, nor the unchanging IQs of today vs yesterday, explains a drop in DIY. So if we are to dismiss the article's theory, another needs to take its place. Either that, or the very idea that there is a drop in DIY needs to be dismissed.
          • My theory

            While DIY is becoming a smaller percentage, perhaps the actual number is staying steady. It's just that many people have more than one computer, while 10 years a much smaller percentage of people even had a PC (how many people had grandparents with computers 10 years ago? Not mine).

            So while the market is remaining steady, the actual percentage of DIY shrinks as every non-technically capable person (I'm talking people who don't know what a web browser is) has one or more PC.

            By the way this is completely speculation with no sources/statistics to back me up. I just wanted to throw in a theory since you asked.

            Also my opinion is if you're going to spend over $1,000 on a PC a DIY build will be much more cost effective (and get better components) but anything less than that just get an OEM PC. Anything OEMs are selling for over a grand is just a rip-off.

            Final point "We're moving towards a model where PCs are no longer going to be serviceable" isn't this just making the case for DIY since DIY will always be serviceable (the definition of DIY kinda implies that there will always be separate components)? So you think everyone should move towards a $1,000 un-serviceable system which is basically disposable as soon as a single component breaks instead of a $1,000 highly serviceable system?

            "...or a PC mainboard that is simply a just a glorified SoC with onboard GPU, RAM and networking." Say what? Are you referring to Intel's next gen socket which they already confirmed will have a socket where the CPU isn't soldered on? Or are you just speculating that this is the future based on some kind of magical intuition? When Intel or AMD announce that they are moving toward 100% soldered components let me know.
            Koopa Troopa
          • No, IQs are definitely dropping...

            They certainly are. Our young people can work a computer, but they have no idea how it works. You would not believe in the number of people I meet, young & old, who know nothing at all about technology. Not only that, I meet way too many people who have no skills with which to conduct an intelligent conversation. All these people do is tweet, facebook & text. And the really young ones have themselves so marked up with ink that the tats become the focal point rather than the person. But that's a story for another day...

            Yes, the number of DIYers is dwindling, due to many factors - a shift toward mobility, all-in-ones, lack of technical knowledge, etc. I, for one, am not a hobbyist or a gamer, but I do believe I get the better bang-for-my-buck as far as QUALITY components go, & I really enjoy building my custom, mid-range, do-what-I-need systems. And, my (young) kids will grow up knowing how to build their own machines. I teach them every time I take one apart for cleaning or component replacement. Just my $.02...
          • NO !

            I don't know how many you've built but I've built hundreds for a mom-pop retailer. I haven't built a PC since mid '06 and am only now contemplating my last build for old-time's sake. I could buy a perfectly adequate PC from HP via online retailer. Don't care if the power supply isn't 1000W, dual-rail wonder. Don't even need a dedicated PCIEx-16 video.

            And my IQ hasn't declined....