Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Building Your Own State-of-the-Art Computer Part 4 of 4

OK, I promised a moderately priced system this time around, so let's pick a system by pricepoint. With computers of this type, we often find that people want the best system they can get for X dollars, no matter how sh... er ... compromised the quality is.

One of our customers purchased quite a few low-end machines about a year and a half ago (not from us -- we do not sell computers), for which the 3 criteria were:

1) Buy them from a major vendor

2) Get a 1 year warranty

3) Buy it for less than $300 with no monitor, but including keyboard and mouse

Well, these machines, not all from the same vendor, were not very good. Power supplies failed, CD/DVD drives failed to open, systems just "died", network interfaces failed, and the like, mostly around the 1 year mark, but some after. The non-profit organization which purchased these systems ended up replacing something less than 1/2 of them, and of course, they are waiting anxiously for the rest to go belly up.

Disclaimer as to my opinion on quality: my evidence is anecdotal -- that is, not scientific, just a bunch of stories and experiences. That said ...

Dell has what I take to be a similar system for sale now, a Vostro 220 Mini Tower, for $309, which has an Intel 2.66 GHz Dual Core Processor, 1 GB RAM, a 250 GB hard disk, DVD+/-RW, Vista Basic, integrated video/audio and gigabit network.

I personally do not know how reliable a system this is, but it seems similar to other low-pricepoint systems.

It's just barely adequate for modern desktop tasks like web browsing, office software, basic publishing and so on.

MWAVE has an ASUS barebones mini-tower system for $278 with the same Intel 2.66 GHz Dual Core Processor and 2 GB dual channel 800 MHz RAM. Add a $20 Sony DVD+/-RW drive, and one of those extra XP licenses you have hanging around (you do have them don't you?) and you're good to go at $298, whoops, and a hard drive for $44, the very nice Western Digital 250 GB WD2500AAKS. We are at $342.

Sadly, you do take a hit if ou have to buy an OEM license for Vista Basic SP1 for $87, bringing the total price up to $429, including shipping of $26, $455.

Still the Dell would require a $20 upgrade to go to 2 DIMMS of dual channel RAM and 2 GB total bringing the total price to $329, including shipping of $35, $364.

Now the ASUS barebones system has what I believe to be better quality, longer lasting components, so you have to decide whether the $91 extra you pay for the ASUS system is worth it. I think it is.

Of course, if you do not need to buy the OS, and you have XP sitting around the office, you are at a wash pricewise.

How do you build this machine?

Well, just the same way you built the high-end system in Part 3, only you don't have to work so hard, but just add the CPU, the memory, and the hard drive. That's the nice thing about a bare system -- the motherboard and power supply are already together.

OK, you may or may not believe our low end system is cost effective ... but what about a slightly higher end system with a faster CPU, more RAM, a bigger Disk, and so on? We've already seen that a very high end self-built system does have a substantial, immediate price advantage, but what about something in the $900 range?

The same Dell Vostro, but with an Intel E8600 3.33 GHz Dual Core Processor, 4 GB of dual channel RAM, and Vista Business is $798, with Vista Ultimate, $847

What can we build for that price?

Well for $455 we can get a barebones ASUS 4 core AMD Phenom 2.5 GHz 4 GB system that will run rings around the Vostro E8600 when heavily loaded, 4 CPUs in one will do that, and offer comparable performance lightly loaded. We are adding the same hard disk and optical drive, but we are adding Windows Vista Ultimate for $179. Shipping cost is the same, $26. So our total delivered price is $724, a clear winner. We have a savings of $123 and a much nicer system.

It seems clear that, as the cost of the system goes up, the more advantageous it is to build your own computer. You get a cheaper (cost-wise) machine, or a better machine, and/or, both.

Now it's true that any piece of hardware can fail, and the computer you build can certainly fail, too. My personal experience in that respect has been good, that is to say, I haven't experienced many failures of systems I've built from parts like the ones I've mentioned here. And, anyway, should something die, hey, all of the components are off-the-shelf, and ... you can pop in a new one. And those parts have warranties, too, anywhere from 1 to 3 years in most cases.

At the very low end, you might argue the point, since the initial cost is higher, but our experience at that low end from major vendors has been poor enough to make us want to factor in a significant replacement or repair cost.

Coming soon: An Epilogue!

I'm going to talk about other aspects of building systems, testing, monitoring software, etc.

Stay tuned for Part 5 of 4 ... umm ... that is, the Epilogue.

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