Customising computers: off the shelf or self-build?

Features James Hunt Dec 21, 2012

If you don’t want to build a PC, why not simply customise an existing one?

Building your own PC is a fun experience, one that allows you to choose the components you want and really get to know your PC. Some would argue that everyone should try it at least once.

But what if you don’t want to? Putting together a PC isn’t a small task by any stretch of the imagination. You have to learn about the parts, select them, and then put them together without making a mistake. Most of the time you’re juggling a mixture of fragile, expensive and complicated components, and one slip could send hundreds of pounds straight onto the scrapheap. It’s not a process for the faint-hearted and, indeed, you might be better off getting someone else to do it for you.

However, that doesn’t mean you’re also denied the ability to choose and customise the parts you want in it. It’s just that you do the fun bits and someone else does the hard bits - the bits where things have the potential to go spectacularly wrong. If you’d rather let a professional carry that burden, you’re in luck: online pc builders let you build the PC of your imagination, without then requiring you to put it together.

But why might you do this? What are the benefits? And conversely, what do you give up by doing so? Over the next few pages, we’ll look at what it means to buy a PC, whether you build it from scratch, choose parts for someone else to build or go straight for an off-the-shelf solution. That way, you can decide whether you want to take the plunge or let someone else do the tinkering for you.

Pre-build vs from self-build

When you’re buying a system online, you have two main options: order the parts and build it from scratch or customise an existing system.

There’s no doubt that building systems from scratch is something only the advanced user should attempt. These are people who know what they want in a system and have the time to put it together or who simple don’t trust anyone else to do it. Pulling a coherent system out of thin air requires you to know a lot about components - their requirements, compatibilities and capabilities - and that’s hard to learn simply by sitting down and doing research. It can take years to become experienced enough to know what graphics card complements which processor, and whether a case is appropriate for the system you’re building or not.

If you’re not part of the PC-building elite, you might be wondering what you can do instead. It’s an easy question to answer. Instead of trying to compose a system from nothing, start with a pre-build, off-the-shelf system, and then go to work on turning it into the system you want.

Virtually any company that sells PCs will give you the option to start with a pre-build base and customise it to your needs. They’re normally available in a range of budgets and can be used to guide the inexperienced user towards a working system. Think of it a bit like buying a car. You don’t have to choose the individual engine parts to construct a car, because someone else does that for you, but you can then decide what colour it is and whether the seats are fabric or leather. Either way, it does the basic job of getting you from A to B, but one is more personalised than the other.

Of course, it’s not just about skipping the difficult part. There are other reasons to get a pre-build that might factor into your decision. To highlight these factors, we’ve looked into the pros and cons of getting someone else to build your system against the alternative of building yourself so that we can answer the question: should you get a pre-build?

Pro: favourable economy

One of the good things about pre-builds is that the components inside them tend to be cheaper when bought as part of a bundle than if you were to buy them separately and build the same machine yourself. It’s mostly just economics at work; the builder needs to buy pre-build parts in bulk, so the wholesaler can offer them a discount, which can be partly passed on to the customer. The customer is then incentivised to buy bundles, which means they spend more money overall, so the builder gets a better deal than if the customer was to buy just a few parts. Microsoft even offers a rebate program that allows certified builders to claim money back on PCs they build.

For interested buyers, these factors combine to mean that pre-builds tend to be easier on the wallet. In theory, because you’re forced to buy everything from one source, it can mean that you end up paying more for some parts than you would from another supplier. However, component prices rarely differ by more than a few pounds, and once you factor in extra costs such as postage, the price of a pre-build is only very rarely higher than if you were to build your own machine out of the same parts bought from their cheapest source. Certainly, the cost on your time is much smaller as a result.

It’s not an immutable rule, of course. Discounts and sales could mean that some parts can be found significantly cheaper elsewhere, and if a supplier has limited availability, the price might stay higher than it should be. Do your research, though, and you’ll normally find that pre-builds are worth the money even after you consider the labour premium they involve.

Con: potentially limited customisability

As we’ve indicated, one of the best things about building your own PC is that you can decide what goes in it. With a pre-build, of course, you inevitably have to sacrifice some of that flexibility when compared to a fully bespoke system.

It can be component-level flexibility, such as being unable to choose a particular CPU due to restrictions on available motherboards, or it can be peripheral-level, such as a company not having the device you want in stock. Either way, if you want a pre-build, that’s a trade-off you’ll have to live with.

In fairness, many companies will give you the option to completely redesign a system even if you choose a pre-build as a base. Computer Planet, for example, compiles components and allows you almost unlimited free range in deciding the contents even on pre-builds, but Dell’s system has a much more limited set of choices depending on the model you select. Remember, though, to take care when you’re altering a pre-build’s specs that you aren’t losing out on discounts or perks as a result of doing so.

Choosing what goes into your PC is ultimately the best thing about buying one from a serious PC-builder rather than a production-line retail outlet, so don’t forget that you’re the one in charge. If you can’t find a system that has what you want, get on the phone and talk to someone. It’s likely those limited options won’t be quite as limited as they seem when a computer system’s doing the arbitration.

Pro: you avoid build problems

Let’s face it, even though building a PC can be great fun, there are times when even the most dedicated system-builder has been reduced to tears of frustration by an unexpected problem. Sometimes there are inscrutable performance issues that defy explanation. Sometimes an unanticipated hardware fault might hold the process up for days while you wait for a replacement part. And sometimes you drop a screw behind the motherboard and have to take the entire machine to bits again just to retrieve it.

One of the main benefits of having someone else build a PC for you is that these problems, quite simply, are no longer yours to deal with. When a PC build goes well, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world, but for the same reasons, when a PC build goes badly you’ll find yourself wondering why you ever bothered to try. It’s worth remembering that the reason people buy systems off the shelf from big retailers like Dell and Currys is because they can get a computer without the hassle of having to build it. Should you be denied that convenience just because your needs are slightly more specific than the average user?

Experience, after all, is something you can’t shortcut your way to. A problem that might take you hours or even days of online investigation might be common enough that a system-builder can fix it within minutes. Letting someone else take care of the problem sure beats trawling through web pages, unsure where to go next, running into the same dead-end solutions, so don’t be too hasty to dismiss it.

Con: you’ll avoid learning about your system

The flip-side of this problem-avoiding convenience, however, is that you don’t actually learn anything as a result of getting another pair of hands to do the work. As we said, experience isn’t something you can shortcut your way to; it’s a quality you have to build. And if you’re letting another person put your system together, they’re the one getting the experience. If you don’t start learning now, when will you start?

Don’t get the wrong idea; we’re not suggesting that everyone should be forced to build their own PC, but if you’re interested in understanding the guts of a machine, the only way to do it is to stick your hands into them and find out what happens. As the sort of person who reads a computer magazine, you’ve probably been asked how it is that you know so much about how printers work, or fixing web browsers, or setting up network connections. The answer is the same every time: you do it and do it and eventually you understand enough to fix any problems you encounter or, at least, know where to look in search of a solution.

Admittedly, trying to build a system from scratch is something that probably happens a lot less in your day-to-day life than helping someone fix their broken wireless configuration. However, even if you think you understand computers, you really don’t until you’ve built one. The best time to learn is always now.

Pro: post-build obligations completed for you

One of the more tedious things about building a system is the process, once it’s complete, of testing the components, troubleshooting any issues, and then starting the even more unrewarding process of setting up your operating system and installing applications.

Conversely, if you get a system that has been constructed for you, you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that the system builder has already run the kind of benchmarks, stress-tests and troubleshooting procedures that you’d ordinarily have to take care of yourself. Duff memory modules will be weeded out, hard drives with bad sectors replaced, CPUs and graphics cards tested to their limits for stability - often using tools and standards that would be unavailable to the casual home user. CCL reportedly runs its pre-build systems for a full 24 hours and makes them pass a visual inspection afterwards before they’re allowed anywhere near the customers.

And then, to make things even more convenient, your system builder can even install your operating system and software suites, if that’s what you want. Unlike the big companies, they probably won’t have a generic ‘factory-default’ disk with an default image so that they can install everything in one go, and that means you’ll get a genuinely clean installation tailored to the contents of your system.

Again, you won’t learn anything by letting someone else take this step, which is arguably bad, but then again, if you’ve installed Windows once, there’s probably nothing else left for you to learn…

Pro: you get a longer warranty

The extended warranty is probably the biggest scam going in the electronics world. Overpriced and over-sold, the reason you know it’s a bad deal for you is because companies are practically rabid over the prospect of signing you up to one. Some retailers will even sell extended warranties on individual DVDs. The reflex of turning one down cannot be honed enough.

The regular, non-extended warranty, however, is a different matter entirely. Normally, you get anywhere from 12 to 36 months of cover for free, ensuring that should your hardware fail for no obvious reason, you can get a quick repair and/or replacement from your supplier without having to pay anything extra.

However, if you put a system together yourself, the best warranties will normally run out after 12 months, giving you less coverage and less peace of mind as a result. It’ll also involve an inconvenient return-to-manufacturer process, which, while it won’t mean surrendering your entire PC, could leave it as useless as if you had sent the whole thing back to the shop.

Some components, such as RAM, may come with a lifetime warranty, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. The numbers are clear: if you get a pre-build machine from your supplier, you’ll have a safety net beneath it for much longer than if you build one yourself.

Con: you can’t modify your system without voiding the warranty

Unfortunately, warranties (extended or otherwise) come with one significant drawback: if you want to keep that safety net in place, you can’t open your PC. This means no upgrades, no repairs, no peeking of any kind inside your case until your warranty runs out, unless you want to forfeit your chance of a free repair job.

The reasons for this make sense: if you’d built a PC to the proper, working specifications and it broke at some point in the future, you wouldn’t want to take the blame for it without some proof that your customer hadn’t been poking around, loosening cables or trying to prise the RAM out of its seating without following the proper procedures. You’re guaranteeing to replace faulty hardware, not give people free license to visit all manner of havoc on their machine, safe in the knowledge that there are no consequences.

For users, the inconvenience can be high. If you want to upgrade your graphics card, you can’t do it by yourself. If you want to remove a drive to clone it… you can’t. If you want to clean the dust out because the vents are getting clogged… you can’t even do that. Security stickers on the case joins mean that if you want to get inside your system, anyone fulfilling the warranty will be aware that you’ve done it.

Some people will be okay with that, but others will wonder what good it is to buy a PC that can’t be upgraded for three years. It’s not a case of either position being inherently superior, but make sure you know what’s best for you so and then factor it into your decision.

Pro: you get the expert touch

Again, we’re back to experience. It takes a lot of time to become truly good at building PCs, and we’re not just talking about selecting components, but the physical act of assembling them.

If it’s your first go, you can expect all manner of problems. Poorly positioned backplates. Loosened screws. Cables dangling everywhere. Your motherboard might rattle, your case’s internal airflow might be obstructed, and your power cables tangled. You haven’t truly built a PC until you’ve sliced open your finger on an unaccountably jagged section of the case.

An expert builder, however, will leave the inside of your system looking like an IKEA show-room. Fans will be tastefully and efficiently positioned. Screws tightened to just the right amount. Cables will hug the side of your case like they’ve been glued down. It doesn’t just look great, it can actively improve performance!

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that pre-builds, no matter how basic or complicated they are, have been put together by professionals. You wouldn’t try to do your own plumbing; that’s what a plumber is for. By the same token, while it’s possible to build a PC yourself, don’t forget that the option to have a professional do it is there, and you shouldn’t feel any shame for taking it!

Common mistakes in system building

Using an online system builder is a great way to stop yourself running into problems, because hardware conflicts and incompatibilities should be taken into account for you by the experts building it, if not the system itself. There’s no danger of buying an AMD motherboard for your Intel CPU, the wrong size RAM, or an IDE hard drive if you only have SATA connections.
However, that doesn’t mean there are no mistakes to be made. Here, we suggest a few you might want to watch out for:

Forgetting the network capabilities

Most motherboards have built-in Ethernet, but what about a wireless connection? Although common in the home and a mainstay of portable computers, wi-fi is actually quite rare on motherboards. If you’re planning to run your PC on a wireless network, you may need to buy a separate wireless adaptor. Of course, the opposite is true as well. If your motherboard has wi-fi, you don’t need to buy a separate wireless card.

Failing to make correct RAM configurations

Remember that the way RAM can work in pairs means that it’s a better idea to buy two 4GB modules instead of buying one 8GB module. Even though they give you the same amount of RAM in total, you’ll get better performance with the latter, as well as a PC that’s more resistant to failures, and it sacrifices only a little component space in the process. Most system builders won’t stop you buying one 8GB module, because it’ll technically work fine, but be aware it is possible to get better performance by taking another route.

You should also take care not to fill up the RAM slots. A machine with all four memory banks full is harder to upgrade, because you have to take some out to put more in, meaning every step forward involves a partial step back. The rule of thumb: always fill two RAM slots when building a new PC.

Including unnecessary/unsuitable components

The problem with system builders is that they don’t tell you when to stop. And why should they? You’re the boss, after all.

The problem with that thinking is that a novice might not be aware that you don’t necessarily need three case fans and water-cooling if you’re building a Core i5 system, or that there’s no point buying a top-end graphics card with a low-end CPU. So before you put together your dream machine, look at similar ones that you might consider buying and ask yourself: are you spending extra money on components because you need them or because you think it’s somehow better to have them?

Tricks for lowering the price

The ability to customise machines before you buy them means that as well as adding capabilities, you also get the option to balance your budget. Indeed, if you’re actively trying to lower the price, there are some areas where you can spend less without having a drastic effect on a system. Here's some advice to help you save money.

Get a smaller hard drive

Here’s the thing. It sounds impressive, but a terabyte is a lot of space. Get one and it could take years to fill. Adding extra storage to a machine is a very simple procedure, and hard drive prices are dropping all the time. Save £30-£50 by getting a 500GB hard drive instead. By the time it’s full, you’ll be able to make up your PC up to 1TB (or even more), and probably at a lower cost. The golden rule applies: only buy what you need.

Get a slower processor… then overclock it.

If you like life on the edge, you can save money by buying a slower processor and better CPU cooler, then overclocking your chip it so that it gives performance resembling the one you downgraded from. This is a solution only recommended for experienced PC users and/or those who like a gamble, because an overclocked processor will have a shorter life-span and could burn out completely if you don’t take proper precautions when testing it. If you pull it off, though, you’ll have a faster CPU for less money than you would have had otherwise, and that makes it worth considering. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Remember to cannibalise your old PC

If you have an existing PC that you’re throwing out, don’t just chuck everything away. Some components are as good today as they were ten years ago. Okay, RAM, CPUs and graphics cards have probably moved on, and IDE hard drives have been replaced by SATA ones, but some internal components, like DVD writers, network cards and sound cards can all be easily reused without too much internal fiddling. Obviously it’s nice to get a clean slate of new hardware, but if it means you can save £50 by removing those parts from your new PC’s configuration and using your old ones, it might be worth the extra work - as long as you don’t also invalidate a warranty…