Factory-Built vs. Custom PCs
Over the years, we've moved away from buying computers as a collection of modular pieces to be assembled at home. It's now common to have a functional device right out of the box before you've even had to plug it in. This side-effect of miniaturization certainly made computer ownership much more accessible. With that said, some modularity remains, and Desktop PCs are so modular, that it's still not uncommon to get one custom-built to your specific needs.
But with plenty of desktop PCs already built by well-known manufacturers and ready to go at your local electronics store, why not get one of those, especially since they're sometimes more affordable than the custom stuff?
Let's go over the differences between factory-built and custom-built PC and see when you should opt for one over the other.
The Upsides of Factory-Built Systems
There are a few advantages to buying a mass-produced good, even when a local alternative exists.
Plentiful and Subject to Sales
Big-brand PCs are easy to find; they're not only sold in computer stores but also in less specialized establishments like electronics or big retail stores. They also get distributed in such numbers that they get discounted just like most mass-produced goods.
Mass-produced PCs get tested quite extensively, reducing the likeliness of compatibility issues between the different components of your PC. It's not that locally-assembled units get no testing, but it's more efficient for mass-producers to spent a lot of money on testing rather than dealing with callbacks.
Still Modular to a Degree
First of all, unless miniaturized to the extreme, computers are mostly built from the same parts no matter who made them. Factory-Built PCs are usually upgradable to a degree, and this feature becomes even more prevalent with high-end gaming or enterprise-grade models.
The Downsides of Factory-Built Systems
Factory-built systems are engineered to a price in almost every case while custom-built PC are often designed to meet desired performances. The more affordable a product is, the easier it will be to spot the sacrifices made to reach the target cost once we open the lid.
Where Skimping's Most Likely to go Unnoticed
The most drastic cost-cutting measures often affect components which, regardless of how critical they are, will not be listed in the visible specs, for instance:
While shopping, you are very likely to pay attention to the amount of memory present on the system, but most manufacturers do not divulge how they reached that total.
To make a long story short, when one 8GB RAM module is used instead of two 4GB modules, it results in the same amount of memory, accessible at half the speed.
Cost-Efficient Power Supply
The Power Supply is likely one of the least appealing components of any computer while being one of the most vital. As a result, most factory-built PCs settle for the bare minimum in that regard.
While there are examples of this cost-cutting measure holding computers performance back, in most cases, manufacturers don't go quite that far. It's more common to have no noticeable ill-effects at first.
As time goes on, however, a taxed power supply heats up and ages faster. The result is a progressively noisier PC prone to slowdowns and failures of all kinds.
Smaller circuit boards are cheaper to produce, and it's not uncommon, even for full-sized PCs, to come together with a tiny motherboard at its core.
There are no immediate issues with that approach, but it sacrifices future-proofing to a degree; potentially making upgrades a bit more complicated and costly down the road.
Setting up a new PC always includes system updates nowadays, but mass-produced models can spend a long time in warehouses and on store shelves. As a result, they could be pretty far behind the curve by the time you buy one on sale and turn it on for the first time.
Be ready for a lengthy system update followed by a few additional prompts in the following days.
Most factory-built PCs come with unnecessary software pre-installed. Those range from minor inconveniences only wasting disk space to proper malware, compromising your security online.
As a result, one of your first tasks with a brand-new mass-produced PC should be to inspect its content and get rid of each installed program you don't want. Thankfully, Microsoft supplies a tool to help you start with a fresh Windows 10 Installation.
It can be comforting to know you can bring your troublesome computer back to the person who built it if the need arises. That's simply out of the question with factory-built systems.
Some manufacturers have commendable support programs when you buy directly from them. Unspecialized retailers tend to do well with quick replacements or refunds when issues crop up early on. If you need help later down the road, however, my experiences and the stories I've heard haven't been positive so far.
Why Buy Factory-Built PCs
I think it's safe to assume most computer purchases for the foreseeable future will be of the "factory-built" variety. Their convenience makes them an obvious choice, and for those of us who would rather replace than maintain and upgrade, they're likely to be the most affordable.
Why Buy Custom-Built PCs
If you think of your computer as a long-term investment, custom-built PCs should be high on your list of considerations. They would also be my recommendation if you recognize yourself in any of the following:
- Your needs differ from the norm, e.g. you need a powerful PC, but not for gaming or visual media.
- You want easy access to people who know your PC inside-out if something goes wrong.
- You're interested in the inner workings of your PC
- You can't afford the PC you need yet, but you want to build it up to the performance level you require in stages.
- You play PC Games or work with demanding Graphical Programs and want as much control as possible over how much you spend and how fast you follow tech trends as they crop up.
- You want to save money by buying the computer based on your current needs and make it last by upgrading components as your needs evolve.
I hope this article helped identify which option is best for you. Even if you don't plan on doing the tinkering yourself, I recommend paying attention to a device's maintenance options before buying.
That is one of the many aspects I try to cover whenever I can when listing products on this site. It's summarized in the Repair / Upgrade Options section, under Specs.