Years ago, I was having lunch with a friend. “You probably don’t save much money by building a PC. I know when I build a mountain bike, I end up spending more.” His logic makes sense. But it’s worth exploring. Is it cheaper to build a PC?
The cheapest way to get a PC
Strictly speaking, I can think of two cheaper ways to get a PC than building one. The first is to wait until Black Friday. You can almost always find some kind of a deal on a new PC between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It won’t be the best PC. But it will be cheap.
The better way to get a cheap PC is to buy an off-lease business PC. A recently-off-lease business PC sells for close to what a Black Friday PC does, but it’s much better quality. It will be faster and it won’t break anytime soon. Older off-lease business PCs sell for a lot less. I can get off-lease business PCs for $100 or less any time I need one, or someone I know needs one. A $100 business castoff won’t set the world on fire, but it’ll run with a Black Friday PC, and it won’t break as quickly. I used an example of this in my post about scrounging a $100 gaming PC.
It’s difficult to build a PC for $100. You can, but you’ll have to use used components to get there.
There was a time when I could build a PC for less than the cheapest PC I could find in the store, and it would be better than that cheap PC too. But margins are lower now, and the components I would leave out to save money don’t cost much of anything anymore. Today when you build a PC you’re likely to spend $500 or more.
Why build your own PC, then?
The main reason to build your own PC is to get exactly the PC you want. If I buy a computer, used or new, I probably don’t know who made the motherboard and other components. I know if I buy an Asus motherboard, I’ll get an overengineered enthusiast-grade part that will perform well and still work in a decade, whether I still need it in 10 years or not.
Similarly, I get to allocate where my dollars go. I’ll frequently pair up an entry-level CPU with an SSD and a large quantity of RAM. I find that combination performs well for me. I get better performance out of $50 worth of CPU with $125 worth of SSD and $125 worth of RAM than with $150 worth of CPU, $50 worth of hard drive, and $100 worth of RAM.
But a PC built Dave’s Way doesn’t sell well because of the wimpy CPU. Marketing always focused on CPUs, so that’s what people look for. I look at PCs like I’m putting together a team. And a lot of PCs, unless you buy a really expensive one, build you a team around an expensive and overrated CPU, then surround it with so-so parts. I’d rather build an All-Star team, then buy whatever CPU I can afford with what I have left. Since most computing tasks use the memory, video, and storage more heavily than the CPU, the approach works well.
And while building a PC used to be a rite of passage, it’s fairly easy today.
Building a performance PC
Building your own makes sense when you want a performance PC too. If you’re going to spend four figures on a computer, you might as well get really good components. A prebuilt $1,000 PC will probably be pretty good. But if you’re building your own, you can make sure it’s really good. You can research and buy the best-in-class motherboard, the best SSD, and the best-in-class video card. You can get more for your money that way.
An enthusiast will frequently build a high-end PC, get a high-end CPU and memory and video card, then swap out the video card a couple of times over the life of the machine. That expensive PC can last several years that way.
Taking a cue from the enthusiasts can help you save money on your PC in the long term.
How building your own PC can save you money
Building your own PC doesn’t save you money up front necessarily, but it can in the long term. For example, in 2013 I built a PC. It has 32 gigs of RAM, a 90 gig SSD, and… a Celeron processor. It’s not too outmoded, but sometimes the CPU shows its limits maybe. The thing is, for $50, I can swap out the Celeron processor for a Xeon. Yes, a Xeon. You know, the insane CPUs that normally show up in servers and workstations. Xeon CPUs from that era are less expensive now than even i7 CPUs, because they don’t work in as many machines. Xeon CPUs usually work without any problem in motherboards built for DIY systems though. There’s no reason not to make them work.
This PC is five years old. I can sink fifty more bucks into it for a better CPU and it’ll run with an enthusiast-type machine again. The SSD is a bit cramped, but I can get a better one for $50. And if the video card ever starts to feel outmoded, I can swap that too. I can put $100 into it and turn it into a new-feeling PC. I can put $200 in it and turn heads with it.
It’s certainly possible to upgrade a store-bought PC too, but a DIY PC will frequently have more options, and better options. I would have had to spend a lot more up front to get a machine that could take 32 gigs of RAM to start.
Building a PC can be fun
Some people would build their own PCs whether it’s cheaper to build your own PC or not. The reason is because they enjoy it. I’ll grant that it’s kind of like woodworking. I have friends who enjoy woodworking. For me, woodworking is a chore. But I like building PCs. Researching the components, figuring out what works together, acquiring all of the parts and putting them together is something I enjoy doing. For me, it’s a hobby.
If you enjoy it, there’s nothing wrong with spending a little more money to build a PC. Otherwise, you’d be doing something else with that time, and that something else you’d be doing would probably also cost money. Stay within your budget and enjoy it. Hobbies are good for you.
What to do if you need to save money on a PC
If your objective is saving money, find yourself a used Lenovo Thinkcentre, HP Pro, or Dell Optiplex PC. You should be able to find one with an i3 or i5 CPU and 8 megabytes of RAM for a reasonable price. It will be a better PC than a $300 PC from a big-box store, and if you put an SSD in it, it will be much better, both in terms of quality and performance.
You can take something of a blended approach: Buy a used PC, ideally in a minitower case, and add components to it to meet your needs.
By buying a PC that’s already depreciated, you save a lot. Supplies are up in the used market, since the demands on a PC don’t increase nearly as quickly as they did in the 90s. In the 90s, by the time a PC was three years old, it felt like it was beyond help. Today, a 10-year-old i5 still performs half as fast as a new one, which isn’t bad. CPU speeds used to double every three years. Since a 10-year-old PC is still useful to someone instead of being junk, that knocks down the prices of used hardware. Computers are more like large appliances now in terms of life expectancy. That’s a good thing for all of us.