Computers: Custom Built vs. Store Bought

Some people talk about the war in Iraq. Others talk about public policy and social security. The rest of us, the young at heart, talk about the politics of overclocking processors and video cards. With the falling prices of prebuilt boxes, by stores like Fry’s Electronics, even the hardcore hardware enthusiast is looking for a reason not to buy a prebuilt box. If you have never looked inside the box, what are you waiting for?

Hardware, that is what I love. I built my first computer, piece by piece, about ten years ago. I went out and bought an AMD K6 processor and an Iwill motherboard. over the course of a couple months I got ram, an 8 gig hard drive and SLI voodoo2 cards by 3Dfx and Monster. I had built an awsome gaming machine for a few hundred dollars. The same thing from a major name brand would have cost me about $2,000 and would have come with a bunch of stuff I didn’t want.

A lot has changed since then but a lot has stayed the same. I would never have considered buying a prebuilt in those days. Now, the prices are getting so low, in some cases it’s cheaper to buy a name brand. But what kind of satisfaction is there in that? For the die hard build it yourself guy, this is a good time to consider going half way. Some stores offer skeleton systems that have the bare necesseties but even those aren’t perfect. You will probably still get a 56k modem, NIC, and built in sound card… but no ram or hard drive.

For the beginner, the best way to get started on building your own computer, one you can put your own label on, is to start with a skeleton system. You can buy an AMD 2200+ or an Intel box for about $150. It will have some form of Linux on it but its pre-installed and working. With a $150 monitor you have a working system. To make it a gaming machine, you can buy a video card and some ram for about $150. You now have a working computer that can do anything a name brand computer can do for $450.

An important thing to know is where to spend the money. The most expensive part of your computer is usually the monitor, and with good reason. It will save your eyes, produce your graphics and videos, and is the medium through which most information travels. Next depends on your needs. Some would buy a video card to play games, others would spend it on a sound system, and others would buy storage devices or networking. It is a personal choice after that.

Installing cards like video, sound, etc is pretty safe and easy as long as you ground yourself. Most people don’t realize that the cables and cards only fit in their assigned slots and are color coded when needed. Usually you will know if you are puting them in the wrong place because they wont fit. It’s that easy.

For the advanced builder, you will want to design every aspect from the ground up. There are many factors that present themselves when building. To start with, the ability to upgrade your system at will, is key. You will need a case that fits many drive bays, not only for future expanding, but for new technology when it does come out. You will need a motherboard that fits, not only a lot of cards, but multiple processors as well. You will need a Dremel tool for cutting various parts of your case. A good collection of computer screws and cables is good to have too. Access to websites like or a local computer fair is essential. Here in CA we have Fry’s Electronics and the local computer fair circuit (

If you don’t want to open the case and do your own work, there are now prebuilt gaming machines that are cheaper than you can make yourself, and actually look like a custom rig. Companies like AlienWare have already done the overclocking and testing for you so you don’t have to worry about frying your boards. They have modded cases with built in neon lights, cooling systems, graphics, glass, etc. It’s not a custom built rig… but it looks like one.

The gap between building your own and buying pre-fab is closing but for the Build Your Own computer guy, it can be satisfying and can give you bragging rights over your buddies. Things like finding the right drivers and the old USB compatability issues are gone for the most part. Now, hardware comes with working drivers for most OSes, in case windows doesn’t find and install them for you. You can even get valuable information for free from your local computer geek just by asking a simple question like, “what’s the best video card out there?”

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