Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Volume 2, Number 15: Custom Building Blues

(Note: This is a re-posting of an entry I made in late May 2007 on a Yahoo! GeoCities blog.)

I have a four-year old computer. It has served me well during that time, but lately has been showing signs that it needs replacing, so I have begun searching for a new one.

Still, as I search, there are several things about computer shopping that ticked me off a decade ago, and still tick me off today:

  • Many computers sold by retail outlets are pre-loaded with software I don't want and never use, like MS Money or the utterly useless MS Works.
  • Most computers also come with hardware I already have. I'd like to be able to take certain hardware components that don't need upgrading (my DVD drives, for example) and move them from my current computer to my old computer. And that's on top of the fact that every new computer comes with a mouse and a keyboard--two more things I already have--and sometimes speakers (which I also already have).
To some people, the solution might seem obvious: Screw the retailer and go with a "custom builder." You would think I'd be able to save money by not getting the unneeded software and not getting hardware I already have.

As it happens, such a "custom builder" lives down the street from me. I asked him how much it would cost to build me a computer that meets the following specifications:

  • Processor: Intel Pentium D model 820 (any dual core processor, really)
  • Memory: 1GB (expandable to 4GB)
  • Hard drive: 160GB SATA (7200 RPM)
  • Operating system: Windows Vista Home Premium
  • Video: 256MB or more video memory
  • Optical drives, keyboard, mouse, speakers, modem, FireWire Card: Reuse the ones from my current computer

He called back and offered me a Dell that met most of my specs for $500 (except that the hard drive would be 80GB, not 160GB, and it would come with a new keyboard and mouse). I asked him, "Hey, wait a minute, I thought you were a custom builder," and he said yes, he is, but that custom-building what I wanted would cost him more.

That's right: A computer with duplicated hardware and unwanted software (which I will call Computer A) generally costs less than one with exactly what I need, and nothing more (the hypothetical Computer B). On the surface, it defies common sense, but Computer A has one key advantage: It doesn't take as much time to put together because it has already been built, whereas Computer B would require some assembly. That assembly could take a few hours, and if the "custom builder" wants to make a profit, he has to raise his price to compensate for the time spent putting together Computer B and installing the operating system.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Let's suppose I tried to build Computer B myself, buying the components I need on eBay:

  • Case/power supply/motherboard (in other words, the "barebone" unit): $121
  • 2 x 512MB PC4200 RAM: $81
  • Pentium D model 820 CPU: $70
  • 160GB SATA 7200RPM hard drive: $40
  • And of course, the almighty operating system (Windows Vista Home Premium): $129

That's $450, and right now, you might think, "Wow, Mark, you're saving $50, why do you say it costs more?" Well, you would think that if you forgot the time factor. That $450 figure assumes that I install everything correctly AND that I don't charge a cent for the time spent installing everything. Thing is, it would take hours for me to put together a computer like that. The operating system alone takes a few hours to install nowadays. I'm better off spending the extra $50 and saving all that time.

I'm sure most "custom builders" would agree.

So right now, I'm resigned to buying the $500 Dell. The more I try to beat this deal, the more I figure that it's a very good one.

Still, I wish I could just tell those computer retailers to delete the excess hardware and software for credit, though. I just hate buying stuff I already have and/or don't need.

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