Friday, September 30, 2011

Volume 6, Number 13: Another Do-It-Yourself Win

For well over a decade, I have hated certain things about brand-name computers that you and I find at our favorite electronics and office supply stores.
  • They come with software loaded on it that I don't need.  Four years ago, I bought a Dell computer that had Microsoft Money and Microsoft Works loaded on it. Works is fine if you just need basic word processing or spreadsheet software, but for an experienced Word and Excel user like me, Works is like trying to eat dinner with a Swiss Army knife.  Microsoft Money is a finance software program that I just never had a use for.  I keep tabs on my budget with an Excel spreadsheet.  That's all I need.
  • They also come with hardware that you don't need.  Every new computer, it seems, absolutely has to come with a matching keyboard and mouse, when chances are, the keyboard and mouse on your current computer are working just fine.
  • Finally, there's the brand name.  In most cases, the brand can say a lot about the quality of the product and the company that made it that product, and it makes perfect sense for someone who doesn't take apart, fix or maintain anything to "go with a brand you trust."  But if you were to take apart a PC, you would find that the components inside it come from various companies.  The hard drive could be from Seagate or Western Digital.  The optical disc drive may be from Sony, Samsung or LG.  The motherboard may have been made by MSI, ASUS or Gigabyte.  And that's on top of the fact that the CPU chip--the brain of the computer--is from Intel or AMD.  The point is, when you buy a branded PC like HP or Compaq or Acer, you're buying a lie.  They didn't make most of the key components; all they did was put them together in a factory and slap their name on a stylish case.
I always wanted get a PC that had just what I needed (a better CPU, more memory, a bigger hard drive, etc.) without having to pay the extra costs listed above.

In 2007, I went to a local custom builder and asked him about building me a PC that re-used several components from the old PC I had been using (more details in this blog entry).  This project proved impossible due in part to the time factor--it would have taken that custom builder extra time to put one together a PC that matched my specs--and because computer industry standards had changed significantly enough that the components I wanted to re-use were obsolete anyway.  That's when he sold me that Dell I mentioned earlier.

Last Friday, I finally got my wish.  I ordered a "build-it-yourself" kit from Tiger Direct that met most of the specs I had in mind (most notably, an Intel Core i5 processor and 8 GB of memory) and successfully put it together, and it cost me much less than what I would have paid at Best Buy for any computer that had that processor and that much memory in it (around $350).  I didn't have to pay for any unneeded software or extra hardware.  And most importantly, I was able to put the kit (case, motherboard, CPU, memory, drives) together successfully on the first try.

What were the differences between last Friday and what happened in 2007 that led me to finally ditch the "Custom Building Blues"?

  1. I know computers a lot better.  Back in 1998, I dropped $700 on a computer that crashed a lot and became obsolete in fairly short order.  All I knew how to do with computers back then was things like put in modems or replace disk drives.  A year later, much better computers were on the market for lower prices.  In the past 13 or so years, a number of previous computer upgrade experiences helped prepare me for last week's project (a few successful memory upgrades, a successful CPU upgrade in 2009, a failed motherboard replacement attempt in 1999, a failed CPU upgrade attempt in 2001).
  2. PCs are much easier to build today.  Older computers were hard to build and easy to screw up; for example, it was easy for someone who didn't know what he was doing to get a critical cable on backwards (like the cord from the power supply to the motherboard).  Older motherboards had dipswitches and jumpers on them that were easy to mess up, too.  Today's computers have a lot of things that are "fool-proof," like SATA cables (which can't be put on backwards).  CPUs are easier to insert and remove (not to mention that they have notches and things built into them to make it easier for people to put them in correctly and prevent them from putting them in wrong).  (Note: Putting together a PC, like repairing a car, is not for everybody and is not something to be taken lightly.  You still have to read the manuals that come with each component, especially the manual for the motherboard, to make sure you're doing everything right.)
  3. Labor savings.  When you're buying a "ready-made," "off-the-shelf" PC at a store like Best Buy or OfficeMax, part of the price you pay goes towards the time and effort spent at the factory to put the computer together.  It works the same way with asking a "custom builder" to put one together--it takes time for him to put it together and he'll want to be paid for that time. Putting it together myself allowed me to keep those labor costs in my pocket.
I'm happy for another reason: Now that I have experience in successfully building a computer out of a "build-it-yourself" kit, it is very likely that when I get my next computer in 4 years or so, it, too, will be one I build myself.

So there you have it.  Past personal experiences with computers, coupled with the willingness of the computer industry to make PCs easier to build, have led me to build a very good computer for less than half of what I spent in 1998.

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