Build your Own or Buy? To boldly go….where relatively few have gone before

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I had an email conversation with Graham Jones - President of the Vancouver Technology User Group around Build or Buy your own PC.  It's something that we as IT Professionals get asked by peers and by family members all the time.  I'm from the Build mindset myself, mainly because I like to tinker.  That being said - I recently went the BUY route, just because of lack of time and a good price on a Dell machine for my kids. What about you? Are you a build or buy kind of PC user?

I asked Graham to write up his thoughts and include a link to one of his book reviews on the subject of Repairing and building your own PC.

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If you are a home or SOHO PC user have you ever seriously considered building, upgrading, maintaining and repairing your own desktop PC’s? I suspect that most people believe that it is just too difficult and beyond their skills, or just not worth the effort. A few years ago it was much more of a challenge than it is today. With a few minor exceptions pretty much all connections/components are standardized and ‘idiot’ proofed. Is it worth learning the skills? Can I save any money? If you know how to choose the components, time it right and shop around for the best prices then you might save 10-15%. You are probably thinking that if that’s all I am going to save why would I want to invest the time? For the moment let’s set aside the possibility that you might just find a new interest along the way and look at the alternative.

When you buy from a name brand manufacturer, unless they specifically state “exactly” what they used to build the PC, you don’t really know what’s in the “box”! Margins are very tight in the PC world and therefore sourcing components on a large scale can be the difference between acceptable profits or possibly a loss. This is further complicated by the rapid changes in technology. To keep costs down name brand manufacturers typically buy OEM (original equipment manufacturer) components. They are made to the same specs as components purchased direct from a name brand supplier but are often considerably cheaper. Ever heard the saying, “you get what you pay for”? Quality is therefore an issue. But I have a warrantee, you say!

Well, you may and you may not, depending upon how upstanding the PC manufacturer is. The problem with OEM components is that they are often not warranted beyond 30 – 90 days, or possibly not at all, to the PC builder. So that leaves the PC builder with a problem. Do I pass the savings from the cheap and nasty OEM stuff (BTW not all OEM stuff is bad – you need to know how to be selective to save a dollar and still minimize the risk) onto the customer but risk a big hassle with returns, or pad the price to cover the system warrantee claims. I don’t want to get into brand names but some really cheap PC’s spend more time back at the repair shop than they do with the customer. So what use is a warrantee then? The other possibility is that you will discover that the warrantee only covers certain components plus the assembly. Make sure you read the fine print! In this case the PC manufacturer has largely opted to keep the price down to appear attractive, ie. they have passed on the savings from OEM components but those parts don’t have the full machine warrantee. You may even get a big variation from the same name brand manufacturer if they want to compete over a wide range of the PC market. They can afford to put better quality components into the higher end equipment.

Also, note that a big deal is made about invalidating the warrantee if you go into the “box” and tinker. Do they really think that you might break it? You might, but it is more likely that they don’t really want you to see the “wonderful” components that they gave you, until the warrantee runs out. But I can buy an extended warrantee from the store when I purchase the PC. And don’t they just love you to do that! It’s money in the bank! So just maybe it’s worth considering finding out enough to decide if you want, “To boldly go…where relatively few have gone before”. One thing is sure, that even if you don’t save much money, you will know exactly what’s in the “box” and likely get better quality components for the same money. Often only a few dollars separates the good components from the mediocre. Even if you choose not to build yourself, you can spec the components and then get a PC competently assembled and tested by the store that sold you the components for as little as $25 these days. Don’t be fooled into thinking that these people can do it so fast because they are experts. They just do it a lot. It took me 2 hours to assemble the hardware the first time and now I can do a typical desktop PC in 30 minutes or less. BTW I do mine on the kitchen table and the pros have specially setup shops.

I recently reviewed a book called “Repairing and Upgrading your PC” for O’Reilly and I have included the review here. Although the title implies that you already have a PC, this book would be a great place to start to learn about PC hardware and maintenance. It is exceptionally readable and moderately priced. Even if you decide not, “To boldly go…”, it is still worth a read; maybe your local library has a copy. You will know a heck of a lot more when you go to the store to buy your PC to either avoid being bamboozled by the salesperson or to get exactly want you need! Further, you will know the TLC that is needed to keep it in tip top shape after you take “baby” home. Don’t underestimate this part, either in time or importance. Routine cleaning, for example, is essential. Incidentally, I once asked a PC manufacturer’s rep how I could keep my PC clean and therefore in good running order, if going into the “box” would invalidate the warrantee. I am still waiting for the answer!! Incidentally, if you want a great place to keep track of the PC hardware world try Tom’s Hardware.

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Repairing and Upgrading your PC
Authors: Robert Bruce Thompson & Barbara Fritchman Thompson
Publisher: O’Reilly (http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/repairpc)

Having read other books by the Thompson’s (PC Hardware in a Nutshell http://www.oreillynet.com/catalog/pchardnut3/ and Building the Perfect PC http://www.oreillynet.com/catalog/buildpc/) I had very high expectations before I opened the cover on this book, their latest offering. I have to say that they have outdone themselves, which is no mean feat.

The book is an absolute mind of useful information. It covers just about every device or piece of hardware that one would ever reasonably want to install in or connect to a PC, pretty much every physical connection and great advice on assembly techniques. Although the book is principally about PC hardware, the book also contains much useful debugging tips, including references to free software downloads. When they say that they are going to tell you how to do something step by step, they really do mean it. Other books that I have read make the same promises but often make assumptions about your level of knowledge. Accordingly this truly is a book for all levels from beginner to professional. What’s more they have succeeded in presenting the material in a way that is easy for the beginner but not necessarily annoyingly simple for the more experienced amateur or professional. The book is very readable both from a prose and layout standpoint. The illustrations are well thought out to complement the prose and are clear and understandable. There is something for everyone in this book!

Their advice is very sound and reasoned. We benefit from the 20 years of experimentation and experience (40 person years in reality) that they have. I was pleased to see that they have now moved to offering less specific vendor recommendations (some is good) and moved more towards what component characteristics we should be looking for. There is nothing wrong with vendor recommendations but sometimes people are apt to read that and not absorb the more important educational content. Besides, people often tend to have their own favourites.

The material is quite current and comprehensive, in so far as anything can be in the rapidly changing computer world. Knowing where to draw the line must always be difficult. However, I think that their timing is good since what they have covered is likely to be around for some time having now moved into the era of dual core processors and the increasing popularity of SATA HD’s, for example. It is clear that they used some material from Building the Perfect PC, which I guess gave them a good base to probably get the book out quickly enough to remain current and they have clearly learned from their other previous publications.

My one disappointment, which admittedly comes with an apology from them, is the rather sparse section on Wireless Networking (Chapter 14). Their explanation was one of space constraints. I believe this to be a sufficiently important topic today for the home and SOHO user that this somehow should have been accommodated. There is supposed to be a pdf download on the O’Reilly site with additional information but so far I have been unable to locate it. This must be incorporated into any future Editions.

As a reasonably experienced home PC user/builder, if I could only have one practical, easily readable, objective book on PC repair and maintenance for reference when I needed advice or help, this would be it! If someone wishing to get started with their own PC work, asked me for a recommendation I would also have no hesitation in suggesting this book. In fact this book could easily be called, “Building, Repairing, Upgrading & Maintaining Your PC” and still fit the bill. I give it an enthusiastic 5 stars.

Cheers

Graham J.

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  • Thanks for the kind words. We hope you enjoyed reading the book as much as we enjoyed writing it.

    As to the bonus material about installing, configuring, and securing a wireless network, we agree completely that it's very important. That's one of the major reasons we and O'Reilly decided to post it as a free download--so that even those who haven't bought the book can read and use it.

    You're absolutely right that the link for the free download was hard to find originally. I had problems finding it myself, and I *knew* it was there somwhere.

    In response to your comments, O'Reilly changed the page for the book to make the bonus chapter link much easier to find. It's now located at <http://examples.oreilly.com/repairpc>.

    Once again, thanks for reviewing the book.

    Best regards.

    Bob