The death of the homebrew PC will be the death of the PC

The death of the homebrew PC will be the death of the PC

Summary: The PC is, at its heart, a gestalt of components that come together to serve a purpose. Lose the ability to choose what goes into a PC, then a PC becomes nothing more than a black box, like a DVD player or a games console. And that's not a PC.

TOPICS: Hardware

This week I went head-to-head against ZDNet's Tech Broiler guru Jason Perlow in a Great Debate. The question – PC homebrewing and white-boxing: Dead or alive?

It seems that while Mr. Perlow and I were at odds, readers saw sense when it came to the voting and unanimously agreed with me that the homebrew PC is alive and well, decimating Mr. Perlow.

I'm a huge fan of building PCs. 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!

Want to know why I'm such a huge supporter of DIY PCs? It's because I know that it's a system that works.

I've built dozens of PCs, and each one of these has outlasted any brand-name PC I've bought, and by a comfortable amount. After the initial build and testing I get 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 can't even begin to work out how much time and money I've saved from building and using quality PCs.

I've built my desktop PC systems for almost two decades, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future for the following reasons:

  • Price: I build quite high-end systems, and these are invariably cheaper than anything I can buy with a name-brand badge on it.
  • Quality: I like to make sure that my systems are built from quality products, and I can only do this by taking charge of every component that goes into the system.
  • Ease of repairs: If you built it, you can fix it. No having to wait for a technician.
  • Ease of upgrading: Again, I know what went into it, so I can upgrade it, and there are no warranty issues to worry about.
  • Warranty: All the parts I buy come with a warranty, usually a better one than a complete PC comes with, so I'm better covered when things do go wrong.

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?

The PC is, at its heart, a gestalt of components that come together to serve a purpose. The idea is that you can pick and choose the right parts for the job at hand. What OEMs have done over the years is boil down the PC into generic categories such as budget, mainstream, and high-end. These have less to do with picking the right hardware, and more to do with hitting an ever-decreasing price point.

While OEMs would love nothing more than to limit your choice of PCs to a few – think what Apple has done – this is not what a PC is to me. I like being able to pick the CPU, the motherboard, the amount and speed of RAM, the graphics capability, and storage. If we lose the ability to do this, then a PC becomes nothing more than a black box, like a DVD player or a games console. And that's not a PC.

Once we lose the ability to choose what goes into a PC, then it's no longer a PC. And that will be the end of the era of the PC.

Topic: Hardware

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  • Main benefit of building your own?

    Get to skip all the pre-installed vendor crapware! not to mention being able to chose which OS you want on your machine.
    • Not necessarily

      Windows certified PCs are not supposed to come with crapware, if I am not mistaken. Also, the only legitimate choices you have are Linux or Windows (not dogging Apple, just can't put legit OS X on a non-Apple system). While it isn't a topic I do much reading on, my understanding is that there are ways around the UEFI secure boot. I highly doubt a cheapo ready-made system is going to include in the first place... so we are back at having a choice if we build or buy.

      I'm completely with Adrian on this one for what it's worth.
      • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

        "...the only legitimate choices you have..."


        or Solaris

        or FreeBSD
        Henry 3 Dogg
        • more choices too

          and (Open)VMS, for those so inclined, using a TSR emulator that will boot it right up to the chevrons for you.
          And don't forget Xenix, perhaps with emulation.
          There's an emulator for almost anything, and if you have a good PC, it won't be to slow compared to the reason behind running special o/s.
          The "PC" is a cornucopia of freedom and choice. It will have to be there.
          I can imagine if someone like Stalin, who did not like choice and freedom, were alive today, all PCs ("Peoples' Computers") would be exactly alike, one o/s, soldered in memory, proprietary parts.
    • Just wish I could custom build my LAPTOP

      Buying a sealed, un-customiseable box? That's a phone, or an iPad. The closest you get to custom is buying a pretty carry-case, or (maybe) adding micro SD.
      If laptops were custom built like PCs, they could use that to stand out. Dell did something like this, once upon a time: they built it, but you had options about what was inside.
      • Laptops, tablets, phones ...

        You can still but custom built laptops from people like Cyberpower, but what I'd really like to do is buy components and build/upgrade my own. Same with tablets and phones. Jailbreaking your phone or tablet at least allows you to install your own OS, but I'd love to be able to open it up. I realize that probably means that it's not quite so small and sleek.
        • Upgraded laptop parts

          To a lesser degree, I found I could upgrade my Lenovo laptop. I was able to upgrade memory from 2GB to 4, upgraded the HDD to a larger size, but the biggie...I studied up and found my laptop CPU could be upgraded form a single core to a dual core processor. I did quite a bit of research and found the recommended CPU which was dirt cheap. I bought the original laptop for $350 new, added the new parts, and now have a fast laptop. Yes, I could buy the same laptop with the new specs for $350 but hey, I bought mine back two or three years ago so I was just glad to be able to upgrade it for $100 instead of dropping out another $350. I was a little hesitant at first but worked carefully and it turned out to be fairly simple (at least on that Lenovo!).
      • Whitebox laptop

        MSI makes kits, that have the case,system board,LCD, Sometimes optical drive,and wifi. I built one with a Core 2 duo a few years ago, had an Nvidia 9600 GT And came with the DVD drive. I added a WD black hdd,Corsair 4 GB memory, And the CPU (P8600). It worked great for the last 3 years, and I was still able to sell it for a good amount, to invest in the I-7 that replaced it. And if I hadn't found an Asus with An SSD, and a standard HDD with an Nvidia 460 GTX for 650.00 shipped, I would have built my latest from another MSI kit. Check out frosty computers, or RK computers, they still the kits, and components to build it out.
  • Too true

    I've been building PCs since 2002 for all the reasons you mention plus the pride of accomplishment, although I have to admit it's much easier than it used to be. You make a good point about the OEMs building to hit price points as opposed to DIYs which are built to suit the purpose of the user. I mean we have budgets, but if I need a graphics work station then I build that with the parts best suited to the task.
  • Building since the early 80's

    I've been a build it myself type since well before Windows came on the scene, and in fact built a Macintosh SE using the Computer Shopper article on how to build a Mac Plus (completely different I discovered). For years, I simply tossed a MOBO, processor, and ram in an existing system, maybe a new HD,or formatted the one I had. My current primary system supports 4 27" monitors, and including monitors I have approximately $1800 in it, all new components including Windows 7 & SUSE. Try to buy that off the shelf!!
  • Thanks!

    The only PC that I bought was my first one - a clone of IBM PC with either 8086 or 8088, I cannot remember which one. Each of my next PCs was home built. For many years my components were coming exclusively from the monthly Hardware 2.0's "Best of..." monthly posts.
    Save for one hard drive failure I had no issues with any of my machines and saved a lot of money on the way. Thanks for helping me out with hardware tips!
  • Homebuilt is the only quality PC left available

    Don't want crappy low end graphics? Don't want a cheap low end power supply with 15 more watts of capacity than the supplied components use (non upgradable due to insufficient power). Don't want cheap capacitors that pop/burn out (Dell). Want a quality, fast HDD or SSD and not a cheap off-brand/low end device? Want to select components for quality/speed/compatibility/etc and not just price? The only way to get all this is home made.

    Sadly, homebuilt is going away. Went to TigerDirect yesterday and their selection of components was 1/2 of what it was a year ago. I asked and was told that they can't afford to stock more options because of weak demand.

    I don't think homebuilt will go away completely but it will be come niche
    • It always has been niche

      Building your own machine has always been niche. Its just becoming almost extinct now. There is only one quality PC left, its called a Mac. :-)
      • Tiggster79...that post shows just how little you really know

        about the world of building a quality PC. Anything I build will run circles around the best of anything called Mac and at half the price..............
        Over and Out
      • It always has been niche

        Fanboy much?

        I am sure if Apple had it's way, everyone would be required to purchase $1000-$3000 Macbook and Macbook Pro's.

        I was curious about Mac so I put Mac OS 10.8.2 triple booting on an eVGA Classified 3 motherboard and a 4GHz Xeon along with Windows 8 and XP. I must say they make a pretty smooth user interface. It's not the easiest thing in the world to get the Mac OS to run on non apple hardware but I admit I could not justify $3k for one of their Mac Pro towers just to kick the tires. Coming from the even older DOS and Windows camp, it was a bit painful getting used to the Apple way of things.

        Mac to me seems a little less "Personal" as they pretty much dictate both the hardware and software that can be used. I guess I am free to think exactly like Apple if I choose to right?
    • Tiger Direct?

      There are many quality vendors try Newegg.
      • I should add that...

        NewEgg even has DIY combos with discounts. I plan on perusing those when I finally have enough saved up. With the trouble it takes to replace a stock power supply(all those cords!) to run a better graphics card, I figure I might as well go the full route. Plus I won't have bought a power supply I won't use.
        Garrett Williams
    • ridiculous

      Every so often I'll buy one off the shelf and every time I do I find the components are substandard, cooling lacking, slow HD's (SATA II on a STAT III controller to save a few bucks), and they are generally designed to fail in a short a time as possible (but out of warranty of course).

      They may work for many, but not for me or any of the other developers on our team. We all build our systems because there are no manufacturers that build suitable machines with the performance we need to be productive.

      Try running a few hyper-V or VMWare instances on any commercially available PC, it's a joke.
    • TigerD

      I never found TigerDirect to have as good a selection of computer parts as Newegg and prices were generally not competitive with the Egg. Now, I did get some great deals on stereo equipment and a laptop there but as for parts, I rarely used them. I'm really not surprised that their parts business is declining but I think it's more their selection and price as it is that fewer people are building/upgrading systems.
    • Homebuilt is the only quality PC left available

      I confess, I did use TigerDirect (they were CompUSA for a while) in Durham NC. There is a Raleigh NC store but it's a 45min drive. Our Durham store shut down 2 months ago. The parts selection kept getting worse and worse there before they folded. They were also in a shopping mall that has been declining. It seemed they just could not get the hang of keeping a good stock of the bread and butter items such as RAM, Hard drives, CPU's, Motherboard and basic DIY components. It always looked like they had been robbed when I went there. They would have a lot of items that overlapped in specification and entirely miss whole other categories. The last high end item I purchase from them was a eVGA Classified 3 X58 motherboard about 3 years ago. I seldom use TigerDirect anymore because it is such a pain to spend $20 on gas and drive 90minutes to pick up an $80 hard drive or $50 memory chip for an upgrade or repair.

      Most of the components I buy for personal use are still in service. I never start with a clean slate and replace my main rig all at once. At most I might do a motherboard/CPU/RAM like I did last November with my x79 Rampage IV extreme build. The point is, every hardware sector does not progress its advancements at the same time or rate. From end to end my main rig probably cost in excess of $5k to build but it was built over a period of 3 years in it's current state. It is of course a very very small percentage of systems at that level. I have other systems throughout the house here that are built from hand me down components. Nothing ever is wasted. I have a couple media servers(primary and backup). The primary is a newish i3-3220, nothing fancy, it just tosses 35tb of TV shows, music and movies to the rest of the house. The backup server is an old eVGA SLI mobo with an intel quad 6600 CPU that was purchased in 2007 I believe. I buy higher end parts because they last longer because of quality and their higher performance at time of purchase.

      The way we use computers is changing. The sales of desktop PC's are dropping as many exchange their desktops for laptops, tablets and even smartphones. I do not believe we are at the level with new devices where they are desktop replacements for some sectors and may never be. I personally have become accustomed to working at 4.5GHz on triple 27 inch LED's. There just is no replacement for my desktop yet that can handle a couple dozen daily tasks running for weeks on end without so much as a restart. But of course we are talking about a market economy though. Without demand these components cease be profitable to make. I pray there will be sufficient component demand to keep build it yourself viable for some time to come.