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Feature Article
Buy it or Build it (Dell vs Home Built)

November 1, 2002
By Scott Lewis

Last month I took a look at what Dell had to offer as an offset to the Mac. In the end I came to the conclusion that the a Windows based PC is still the best choice if you are coming from the PC world. It is too expensive to switch to the Mac when ALL points are considered. Also, the Mac doesn't have enough going for it in features to make a compelling enough reason to switch when you consider its higher cost.

This month I want to compare Dell's prices to building a computer myself. I priced all the components to build two computers that match the Dell configurations, which in turn were designed to match the iMac and eMac computers from Apple. Please, it is important for you to remember as you read this article that I did all the research on prices for last month's and this month's articles in the very beginning of September. These prices have changed (well maybe not the Macs, but that's another reason to go with a PC). Since I was trying to duplicate all the configurations some of the components might seem odd. I was trying my best to compare apples to apples (no pun intended). Use the figures in this article for comparison only.

Here is a comparison of a home built PC compared to last month's Dell with a Flat panel display, which was to compare against the 17" iMac Widescreen:

Computer 
Monitor
Processor 
Memory
Hard Drive
Video
Network
Speakers
CD/DVD
Ports
Price
Tax
Firewire/USB 2
--------------------------
Total
Home Built
17" LCD
2.0 GHz P4
256 MB
80 GB
NVidia GeForce4 MX
10/100 Ethernet
3 Pc w/ Sub
DVD-R/DVD-RAM
Firewire/USB 2.0
$1752
$0
$0
---------------------------
$1754
PC Dell
17" LCD
2.0 GHz P4
256 MB
80 GB
NVidia GeForce4 MX
10/100 Ethernet
3 Pc w/ Sub
DVD+RW/+R
USB
$1888
$146
$76
----------------------------
$2110

Next I configured a system to compare to Dell's low end machine which was configured to match up with Apple's lowest eMac offering:

Computer 
Monitor
Processor 
Memory
Hard Drive
Video
Network
Speakers
CD/DVD
Ports
Price
Tax
Firewire/USB 2
--------------------------
Total
Home Built
17"
1.8 GHz P4
128 MB
40 GB
Intel Extreme 3D
10/100 Ethernet
3 Pc w/ Sub
Combo CD-RW/DVD
Firewire/USB 2.0
$854
$0
$0
---------------------------
$854
PC Dell
19" (free upgrade)
1.8 GHz P4
128 MB
40 GB
Intel Extreme 3D
10/100 Ethernet
3 Pc w/ Sub
32x CD-RW/DVD
USB
$897
$69
$76
----------------------------
$1042

Sales Tax

Last month I included sales tax to the systems. This month's comparison is why. I have built a few systems for friends and family members over the years, and I have never had to pay sales tax. I don't expect I will have to pay sales tax when I mail order all the parts if I build another computer. So sales tax is something that must be considered in the budget when buying from a name brand manufacturer.

USB & Firewire

In this article I added the cost of a combination FireWire/USB 2.0 card to the Dell. At the time of research I was unable to determine if the Dell's came with USB 2.0 or 1.1. Since USB 2.0 was a requirement of mine, and I am seriously considering getting an iPod which uses FireWire, I decided to level the field and added the FireWire/UBS 2.0 card to the Dell. I did not add tax for the card. Keep in mind that I could knock $76 off the home built machines if I just went with the USB built into their motherboards.

Now, let's look at these systems and go over their advantages and disadvantages.

Home Built System

Note: I could have put a 19" monitor on my low end system, but remember I was also trying to match up to the 17" CRT that comes with the eMac. I was able to find budget 19" monitor for about $50 more than the 17" monitors.

I have built a number of systems. For this article I checked www.buy.com for prices. I picked Buy.com because I have used them in the past, and they had enough stuff in stock to make the comparison valid. However, I did find that I could beat their prices on a number of items at www.computers4sure.com. If I was doing this for real (and I will in a few months) I will shop around and should be able to do a little better.

I was not able to beat the Dell by as much as I would have thought. Over $300 saved on an upper end system is nothing to sneeze at, but almost half of the savings came from the sales tax advantage. This is a testament to Dell's ability to keep there prices low. You need to consider that the home built systems are much more upgradeable than the Dells, especially the low end Dell. Also, the home built systems probably have better name brand components. Even though Dell deals with name brand vendors, they may be getting the lower end versions of the vendor's components. For example, I have noticed that Dell tends to use low end sound cards in their systems, even if they are from companies like Turtle Beach or Creative.

For this month's comparison Dell gets the advantage in software. It has some... including the operating system. The home built systems are capitalizing on all the software I already own (more later). That is one of the biggest advantages to building "second" computers. You just install all the software you already own. If I had to buy a copy of Windows for $100 it would not be worth it for the budget system. And it makes the high end system look less attractive. I am sure Dell does not pay the same $100 for Windows, but there is a certain amount of the price that goes to Microsoft. Good luck figuring out that amount. Microsoft now wants you to buy separate copies of Windows for every computer you own. Windows XP's activation tries to enforce this. But let's face it if Microsoft wants to come knocking on my door to see my two copies of Windows 98 they can. Good luck to them. I just assume do my part to protest against PCs that are controlled by someone else... but that is another article.

For a first time computer buyer there probably isn't enough money to be saved by building your own computer. At the low end of the price scale you will even have a tough time justifying it. You should consider a name brand machine that is good enough if you are buying for the first time. Keep in mind that now-a-days PCs don't come with discs, so you won't be able to install that software on another computer down the road. Again, this gives me an advantage because I have all the discs to install my software. My investment is already made.

One last advantage to a home built system... customization. Yes, Dell lets you customize their systems, but how much? I could not upgrade the video or sound cards on the lower end system. I could easily get a motherboard that had the slots for a video and sound card in place of the Intel board I picked for my low end system. It would cost a little more overall, but I would have infinite choice in the components I want to use. I can also pick any hard drive I want, any keyboard, any mouse, etc. I also don't have to buy stuff I don't want... such as a 56 K modem that is included with the Dells.

Dell

Dell seems like a pretty good deal. Especially when you consider that each of my home built systems above include NO SOFTWARE. If you are buying your first system, then it pays to get some things with the PC, such as the Operating System. Yes, you can buy an OS, or even get one free. MANY LINUX distributions are available as a free download. For the average person that is not a viable alternative, especially for a new computer that you have to get running BEFORE you can download a Linux distribution. The Dells, and last month's Macs, are viable alternatives for the average user.

The Dells get expensive if you start playing around with options. For example, Dell was charging $50 dollars to go from 128 to 256 MB of memory. I was able to price that out at a difference of $40 at the time I looked up the price of memory. When you build your own computer you can capitalize on price drops better than the big boys. In this case it's another $10 dollars to Dell for nothing. Dell was charging $70 to go from 40 GB to 80 GB on the hard drive. In my search I was able to price an 80 GB drive for only $27 more than the 40 GB drive. That's another $43 to Dell. These little differences start adding up quickly when you go up in performance and options, and it can become very attractive to build your own system... if you have the software.

Dell's low end system uses a custom "slim line" case, while I used a 7 bay mid-tower case. Forget upgrading the Dell (or Compaq, or HP, or whatever) with a slim style case. This may not matter to many people, especially those that never upgrade a computer. You need to decide this for yourself. Personally I would get the slim case design if I thought it would suit my needs. Who WANTS a big, ugly box if they DON'T NEED it. Not me. With USB 2.0 you should be able to add as many peripherals to a computer as you want without any need to open up the case.

My systems have far more expandability then Dell is providing. But this will only matter to those that actually expand or upgrade their computer. Many people do not. When you can buy a good computer for under $1,000 you probably don't need to worry about upgrading a 2 year old computer. Just buy a new one every couple of years. I don't hold the super slim case against Dell... in fact I consider it an advantage today. If they sold those style cases for the do-it-yourself guys I would consider it.

Price & Configuration

O.K. I was able to beat Dell on the computers. The low end system would probably be a wash if I had to buy Windows. So it is difficult to recommend anyone building their own first computer if you have to buy the operating system, especially on a tight budget.

However, my systems were configured to match the Dells, which in turn were configured to match the Macs from last month. I am going to be "getting" a new computer in the Feb/Mar time frame. I decided to forget the Mac/Dell configuration for a moment and price out a configuration that I really want... with a reasonable budget in mind. I quickly configured a system that I would really want. It went something like this: 1.8 GHz Pentium 4, 512 MB DDR Memory, 40 GB - 7200 RPM Hard Drive, 19" Monitor, ATI All-in-Wonder Radeon 7500 64 MB DDR Video Card, 40X/12X/48X External USB 2.0 CD-RW, 3 Piece Speaker set with Subwoofer, and Wireless Keyboard and Wireless Optical Mouse. I went with the All-in-Wonder card because it has PVR (Personal Video Recorder) capabilities with free programming updates for the life of the card. This is a lot cheaper than a TiVo with the exception that I have to watch TV from my study. I could run a cable from the study to the living room to send the video there. The All-in-Wonder card comes with a RF remote. If the range is long enough then it would be worth the wiring exercise. I really want an external CD-RW. Mixed with the wireless keyboard and mouse it will make for a very clean desktop, since the BOX will be completely hidden behind my desk.

This truly custom configuration priced out at $1,115. That's just a couple of dollars more than the 17" eMac's price of $1,099 from last month. And that's without the tax issue. (Remember, I did ALL the price research in early September. I know prices have fallen since then and could get a faster CPU for less money.) For my custom system I am only paying for what I WANT... not what Apple or Dell Corporate Winnies THINK I want. For $1,227 I can have the above system with 5.1 sound complete with speakers. This may happen, I don't know. But it is an easy upgrade I can make later if I decide I really want it. For about $50 I can add a DVD drive if I want to watch movies on my computer, but with a 65" Widescreen TV that is not going to happen anytime soon. But that's another benefit of building a system yourself... adding or changing components at a later time.

Conclusion

Here are a couple of articles that compare bought vs. built systems:

Build or Buy (High End)
Build or Buy ($1200 Budget)

My personal opinion is that at anything above $1000 is worth it for ME to build my own system. I built my in-laws a computer last year for $775. It is getting harder to justify that for a super budget system anymore. At that level I just assume buy one that I can just plug in and go.

Should you buy or build? Answer these three questions:

  • Do you have the software (with the discs)?
  • Are you remotely handy with a screwdriver?
  • Are you planning to spend more than $1000 for a computer?

If you answered yes to all of those questions then by all means you should build a computer yourself. It is fun... and that is something you can't put a price on. Remember, you CAN save some money... for having fun. Think of it like getting paid to have fun.

That's for me.

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