Ask LH: Is Building A PC Really Cheaper Than Buying One?

Image: Kotaku

Dear Lifehacker, I'm in the market for a new computer. My friend says it's cheaper to build one myself, but it looks like I can get a cheaper computer from Dell or Asus. I'm not afraid of building, but I'd rather not spend extra if I don't have to. Which will actually save me money? Sincerely, Broke Builder

Title image remixed from Jonathan Zander, WikiImages, ekwo.

Dear Broke,

This is a common misconception about computer-building, and it's a bit more complicated than "building is cheaper than buying" or vice versa.

For Basic, Lower-End Computers: Buy

Is Building a PC Really Cheaper than Buying One?

A lot of computer enthusiasts don't like to admit it, but PC manufacturers have the power of buying in bulk that you'll never have. Even with their markups, you can often get them cheaper than building your own, especially on the lower end of things. If you don't have a lot of specific needs -- that is, if you just need a simple computer for web browsing, Microsoft Office and other low-powered tasks -- you'll probably get a cheaper system by buying one, and you won't notice a big difference between it and something you build yourself.

Keep this in mind as well: often, when you buy a pre-built machine, it comes with a copy of Windows, a mouse, keyboard, and often even a monitor or speakers. If you build yourself, you'll have to buy those things separately, and the price can add up fast.

Also, this should go without saying, but if you need a laptop, buy one. Building a laptop is a whole separate ridiculous can of worms.

For Gaming, Overclocking and Other More Focused Needs: Build

Is Building a PC Really Cheaper than Buying One?

Once you get into higher price points and more specialised needs though, the game shifts a little bit. Many gaming-focused desktops, like Alienware machines, are actually very overpriced. You can build a comparable computer yourself for significantly less.

Plus, if you're building a more enthusiast PC, chances are you have more specific needs, which means you can build the perfect PC for you. If you're gaming, you can skip the hyperthreaded CPU and put more money toward a better video card. If you want to get more bang for your buck through overclocking, you can pick a motherboard that lets you do so, rather than buy a locked-down, pre-built PC.

Lastly, when you build, you can upgrade more of the components and re-use certain components in your next computer (like the case and power supply) -- that isn't always possible with a pre-built machine as they sometimes use proprietary parts. So, over time, you may save some money depending on how often you upgrade and which parts you can save. This varies from person to person.

The Bottom Line: It Isn't So Black and White

The truth is -- despite what some people may claim -- there is no hard and fast rule. It depends on what you want to use your computer for. The above guidelines should help, but even they aren't set in stone. The best way to find out? Actually price out the parts yourself. See how much it would cost to build a PC for your specific needs, and see if there are any equivalent pre-built machines out there. It's a little apples-to-oranges, but it's a good way to get an idea.

Of course, there are other reasons to build over buy and vice versa. Getting support is easier for pre-built machines, but upgrading is easier on a computer you've built yourself. Plus, it's just an empowering experience -- and kind of addictive. When it comes to cost though, it isn't cut and dried, so as with any big purchase, we recommend you research first to see what's best for you. If you do end up building your own, be sure to check out our guide on how to save as much money as possible. Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    Also check out what's on eBay from time to time. If you're patient, a good deal will come along. I'm talking about people selling used machines for legitimate reasons - not people that use eBay as a store front to sell a "gaming" PC for $1,200 and then charge extra for a discrete graphics card.

    I've bought two refurbished laptops and two second-hand desktop PCs for a fraction of the cost of buying new, and all four are still working well.

    For me it generally comes down to the cost of Windows. I can save a couple of hundred sourcing parts myself, but the retail cost of a copy of that ends up eating away at those savings.

    If you're able to scavenge parts from an old machine (eg case, PSU, SSD, RAM) it works more in your favor, but when you need a totally new machine the OEM savings of the store versus the retail cost to you ends up being the difference.

    Having said that, building your own machine means you can cut some corners at the start, and flesh things out later, meaning short term savings. By that I mean scrimping on things like RAM and HDD space, then adding those in later.

    Put 16 Gb of RAM in when you build instead of 32 Gb to save $100 up front (or 8 instead of 16 for a $50 saving) or using a 250 Gb SSD for a month before adding a SATA HDD. Doing it that way muddies the water that little more overall, but can see your build being cheaper at the start than a store built rig.

      The price of Windows was the single greatest reason I had to write off two computers last week and tell grandparents to buy refurbished machines that have Windows on them.

        Wow, you're a cheapskate. If I were your grandparents, I'd be ashamed. Or I'd have asked for linux.

          grandparents and linux. What could possibly go wrong?

      I buy my copies of Windows from Kinguin.net normally runs about $35 AUD for a 64 bit copy of Win 10 Pro. I've bought 3 licenses from there now for Windows 10. Haven't run into any issues and i've been running 2 of those for almost a year now.

        Good to know. Thats not bad.

        If you look at it from the angle of who this story is targetting, they probably wont be savvy on those sources, so the price ends up more likely to be RRP which was $150 last time I went through the process.

        Its not always the case, on todays lists I priced a $1200 MSY prebuilt rig at $900 in parts but most times in the last 10 years I just couldnt do it significantly cheaper. And it usually came down to the cost of Windows.

          Yeah very true. It's why I try and get my friends to come to someone like me where we can price something out and i'd put it together for them and get the best for their money.

    I'm calling shenanigans on people complaining about the cost of windows. Windows 10 isn't that expensive and when you buy parts from MSY or Umart or the like, you can easily get a cheaper OEM version instead of the retail boxed version (which is about $180).

      Go through every pre-built rig here (http://www.msy.com.au/viconline/content/35-asus-gaming), and its $140 on top of the machine for Windows 10 OEM.

      Given every one of those are brand new, complete machines, that doesnt sound like much of a bargain. So you can declare shenanigans as much as you want, people shouldnt be rushing to get their brooms.

    paying for software lol

    Anyway, Dell/ HP etc have extremely good deals in the clearance or outlet sales, more so for laptops then desktops but they can occasionally crop up. Need to take into consideration warranty as well.

    It's harder to build a small form factor PC, a PC you build yourself is best to be midsized or larger and you can swap components later when new stuff comes out.
    If you are interested, you might enjoy the challenge to build your own SFF for use as a media machine in the lounge.
    Many manufactorers build down to a price and use proprietary parts. In my own situation, I found it frustrating not to be able to swap parts of a proprietary machine. The motherboards can be specially made and cannot be researched.
    It's not just gaming, you can study RAID drives for example.
    Strange thing in my own experience, I went through four power supplies of different brands in my box. Power supplies are convenient to replace and it odd that they just stop working, I don't buy cheap ones nor overload them so it's a puzzle.
    Proprieary parts are harder to replace years later, they are generally designed to be thrown away.

    10 years ago I would of definitively said 'yes' but with some of the deals places like PCCG and Mwave are doing on pre-built systems are well worth the price, not everyone wants to build a gaming PC but just want to enjoy the gaming experience.
    When building systems for friends back in the day, it was generally a 20%+ excess on pre-built systems compared to DIY but that margin is much tighter now

      +1 to this. Depends on how much you value your time, how much you enjoy putting a PC together, how stingy you are and how confident you are that you're not going to damage anything. As @cesario says, deals on sites like PCCG mean that you're paying $50-100 to have someone else assemble your $1800 gaming PC - for the time saved and the piece of mind that comes with someone else doing it, that's a price I was happy to pay. I assembled my own at age 14 because $500 of parts was achievable and $750-800 for a PC was not.

        100% agree
        I reckon i was about 14 when I started building my own systems too but that was mainly because I was 14 and poor :P Had to cut as much cost as possible which included learning how the system works so I didnt have to pay for tech support if required.

        These days its just an addiction I have to feed, often spending 5+ hours meticulously building systems with perfect cable and tube runs for max style points (borderline OCD lol)

    I've never been a fan of what most of those prebuilt systems from someone like HP, Acer etc offer in terms of system specs. You get very average peripherals, sometimes (I know with Dell) like to use proprietary motherboards & cases so you can't just swap out a motherboard if it dies into the same case. Also some of the "cheap" options 900-1300 range boast they're for gaming but offer something pathetic like a GT 720 or GT 740 or whatever the AMD equivalent is & they can barely run basic games well.

    I guess there is the ultra high end like the Predator stuff from Acer, but who wants to drop 4 grand on a $2500 system.

    Which is why I think custom built is the way to go. If you're not into building a PC but want something a bit better than whats on offer or want specific parts that are only available in a custom build PC, you can still go the route of a "prebuilt" but totally custom in choice. Places like Umart & MWave have services where they will build you a computer to what you want & even stress test it for 24 hours. It's the best of both worlds, someone else builds it for you but you get to pick & choose what you want in it.

    Recently I had a few people at work ask me what it would cost them for me to put together a PC for them for basic web browsing (facebook, etc) & downloading music/movies/tv shows & watching Netflix. I was able to price something up for around $550 with Windows 10 & shipping for the all the parts and it had a 120gb SSD, 8gb ram, 2TB hdd, wifi card, 80+ rated PSU & a nice-ish case. For another $150 add a 1080P monitor, mouse & keyboard. That was a dual core Skylake CPU. Now i'd probably go AM4 with a Ryzen 3 quad core CPU (well when R3 CPU's launch that is). That would probably tag on another $100 though. Also memory has about doubled since I priced that up late last year.

    Besides getting exactly what you want ...
    If I have someone ask me if I can build them a computer I tell them I will help them pick the parts and watch them build it. Before you know it they are doing the same for their friends.

    The payback comes way down the line when they decide the computer is a bit slow. Upgrade a component.

    My computers last for typically a decade, but are transformed in that period. Eventually a new motherboard begs for new generation RAM etc, or a bigger PS is required. Often though the upgrades such as SSD's when they were not standard mean my old machines outperform basic new machines.

    Building your own is a real confidence builder. Upgrading means rarely ever having to buy windows. Its just another way to go.

    Haven't bought a pre-built computer yet that hasn't given me problems, or was obsolete not long after. Put my own together three years ago and it's been great. A great pleasure picking, buying & putting together all the bits & still a pleasure using it all. It's not just about the upfront cost for one computer - I wish I'd started with a self-built in the first place - probably could have saved a lot of money over the years! Oh, & I use Linux but paid for all those windows licenses over the years...

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