Pre-Built vs Custom PCs (Assemble yourself or Plug & Play)?

CG Director Author Alex Glawionby Alex Glawion   /  Updated   /   5 comments
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Pre-Built vs Custom PCs (Assemble yourself or Plug & Play)?

The time to buy a new PC has come. So you open up Amazon and search for computers. Instantly, you’re bombarded with a wave of brands and colors and parts and all sorts of other confusing details.

I’m going to break some of that down in this article so that you make more of an informed decision when you go to buy a computer.

What Do You Need to Keep In Mind When Getting a New Computer?

The first and possibly most important question when it comes to picking out a new computer is: What type of computer do you even want to get?

No, I don’t necessarily mean “Are you going to buy an Alienware system or a Dell?” but rather “Are you going to buy a pre-built system or customize & assemble your own build?”

First off, the most common way people buy computers is to just buy a pre-built from a System Integrator like Maingear, Origin, Digital Storm, etc, or an OEM like Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc.

Types of Pre-Built PCs

These systems will ship to your door ready to go, with all the parts and the operating system installed. All you need to do is plug them in and start using them.

Sounds like the best way to go, right?

Not always. With a pre-built PC, you’re going to be limited to what the manufacturer has to offer.

If you want to change any components, you’re often much better off choosing a custom-built PC from a System Integrator like the ones we discussed before. These companies offer a huge number of part options, so you can get exactly the PC you want.

Ibuypower pre-built Systems

Image-Credit: Ibuypower

But there’s another option. You could buy the parts separately and build your own PC from scratch. This is the ultimate custom-build since you can do literally anything you want with it. At the same time, it requires a bit more expertise than the other options.

Let’s take a closer look and see which method is right for you.

As the terminology can be a bit confusing here’s a quick overview before we dive into it. In this article, we are comparing the following 3 PC types:

  1. A Pre-Built PC: An off-the-shelf PC that is shipped ready to be used. You won’t be able to customize anything here.
  2. A Custom-Built PC: A PC that is pre-assembled for you but where you can customize almost any aspect (Parts, Looks, Cooling, and more)
  3. A Self-Assembled PC: You buy all the parts individually, and once they are shipped to you, you assemble the PC yourself.

So, how do Pre-Built PCs, Custom-Built PCs, and Self-Assembled PCs compare to each other? Before we get into the details, here’s a quick overview for you:

AttributePre-BuiltCustom-BuiltSelf-Assembled
ConvenienceMore convenientMore convenientLess convenient
CustomizabilityLeastMoreMost
Can buy one quickly?YesNoNo
PC expertise requiredLeastMoreMost
Peripheral qualityPoorVariableYour choice
CostMore or less (Can you wait for a sale?)MoreLess
Warranty coverageYesYes (And better support)Yes (individual Parts)

Pre-Built vs. Custom-Built vs. Self-Assembled PC Comparison

Pre-Built PCs – Convenience

The main advantage of buying a pre-built PC is convenience.

You don’t need to know much about computers at all. Just choose the system you want, click the “buy” button on your screen, and it shows up at your front door a few days later!

HP Pavilion Gaming Desktop Computer Front

Image-Credit: HP

Even better, if you’re in a pickle and need a new PC right this second, you can run out to your local big-box store and buy one.

In this sense, if you’re stuck, a pre-built computer is your only option.

But you have to keep in mind the fact that pre-built manufacturers are generally cost-driven.

This means that the manufacturers are either getting bulk discounts, buying the cheapest available parts, or ordering custom, stripped-down parts for manufacturing.

Dell Alienware Desktop Inside

Image-Credit: Dell

If you’re buying a pre-built machine, chances are you’re typically going to get one of the cheaper versions with possibly sub-par cooling, bad upgrade-ability, and lower-tier parts that could break sooner.

On the other hand, all of this depends very much on your needs. If you’re just looking for a basic word processing & browsing machine, then you can easily buy a low-end model from Dell or HP and it will be everything you need.

Ordering a custom-built machine or assembling yourself will ensure that you get exactly the parts you want.

You can choose virtually any component, from a variety of brands, specifications, and even visual styles. No need to compromise between two different models that are almost right.

For example, suppose you’re building a gaming PC.

In proportion to the rest of your PC’s components, you’re going to want a great graphics card, but e.g. an onboard Sound Chip will be just fine.

If you’re editing high-quality audio, on the other hand, you’re going to need a high-end sound card, while you’ll be fine with a low-end graphics card.

One example of where custom-built PCs can provide a distinct advantage is when you need an exceptionally powerful machine for advanced use.

For example, let’s say you’re editing full-length video in 4K. You’re not going to be able to do that with any off-the-shelf PC.

Companies like Puget Systems and Boxx produce computers that are capable of handling these tasks. You can get computers with hundreds of gigabytes of RAM, 64-core processors or a bunch of high-end GPUs.

Multi GPU for Rendering

Needless to say, this is way more than you need for gaming, but for Video Editors or 3D Artists, this kind of performance is absolutely essential.

Price of Pre-Built PCs

When it comes to the cost of pre-built PCs, there are a few different things you need to consider. For example, major pre-built PC manufacturers buy their parts in bulk, which means they’re getting a discount you won’t have access to.

Of course, they’re also charging a profit margin on top of that, but still, there are cases when building your own PC isn’t necessarily the cheapest.

For a pre-built system, your best bet is to wait for an online sale or store discount.

Microcenter Deals

Image-Credit: Microcenter

For example, Black Friday is a great time to buy a new PC. And if you don’t need bleeding-edge performance, prices also tend to drop when a brand new top-line model gets rolled out.

On the other hand, you might not find a sale for the exact computer you need. But if you’re able to wait for a sale and willing to be flexible, a pre-built PC can be your most affordable option—even if it might not exactly be the best.

Custom-Built PCs – Convenience and Customization

Custom-built PCs can be seen as the middle option. Combing parts of both worlds.

They give you the customizability of handpicking and making your own PC—or you can just order whatever build they suggest as well—but gives you the convenience of not having to do any of the work to actually put together and tune your PC.

Though, if you plan on customizing, you will need some knowledge of computer hardware, but they will generally hold your hand and guide you to make sure you pick compatible parts.

Digital Storm Velox Side View

Image-Credit: Digital Storm

And speaking of parts, that’s another point in favor of custom-built PC manufacturers. They usually don’t use completely bargain bin hardware. Generally, if you’re buying a custom-built machine, you can usually expect to get good hardware that isn’t some proprietary mess.

Another cool thing about System Integrators is that they sometimes offer even more customization options than just hardware. You want to laser etch some cool images into your case? Some of them can do that for you!

Doing something so custom like that is not exactly an easy task even if you’re building your own PC.

Price of Custom-Built PCs

Custom-built PCs tend to have the highest costs.

This only makes sense, since you’re getting a custom, usually hand-built, non-assembly-line machine. Those companies will add extra labor charges for the manual assembly of your custom-picked components.

That can add anywhere from $100 – $500+ to the total cost of your computer.

Self-Assembled PCs – Customization and Fun

Finally, there’s the option of building your own PC.

Parts needed to build a PC - Title Image

This is a type of custom build, but you do it yourself instead of someone assembling the parts for you. On the one hand, this is very inconvenient, since you have to source all the parts yourself and do all the labor.

On the other hand, you can save a significant amount of money. Exactly how inconvenient this is will depend on your level of expertise, how flexible you are with specifications, and how soon you need your new PC.

There’s are a couple of things that you can only get from a PC you’ve built yourself:

  • A sense of pride and accomplishment at having made your own computer with your own two hands
  • The fun of picking out parts, sorting out compatibilities, being able to prioritize exactly what you want in your build instead of having to just take whatever the manufacturer gives you.
  • The ability to tinker and fiddle around during the build process, giving your PC your own little creative touch.
  • Knowledge and peace of mind that comes with knowing exactly what went into your PC, exactly how it was made, and the ability to troubleshoot any issues in the future because of your intimate understanding of the inner workings of your PC.

Every time you fire up your workstation or gaming rig, you’ll know that you have a truly unique system. When your friends visit, you’ll be able to brag that you built the entire thing from scratch.

RGB Heavy Custom Gaming Setup

A pre-built PC, or even a high-quality custom build, isn’t going to give you that same satisfaction. For many people, this isn’t relevant, but for some of us, the entire process of finding and assembling your own PC is almost more important than using the PC later on.

Compatibility Concerns

When you buy an off-the-shelf pre-built PC or even a custom-built PC, all the parts will be compatible with each other. These companies build computers for a living, and they have thoroughly tested their configurations and know which parts will work together.

Intercompatibility between components is key

If you’re building your own, you’ll need to make sure that all the parts are compatible. Otherwise, you can end up with parts that don’t perform as well as they could or don’t even work at all.

PC Part Compatibility

Compatibility Checking in CGDirector’s PC-Builder Tool

The first of a long list of things you usually need to do is figure out is what type of processor you’re willing to pay for.

Why choose a processor first instead of a motherboard?

Because your choice of processor will determine what kind of motherboards you can use. This is because processors need specific sockets and chipsets.

And this is just the beginning in planning your own PC, regardless of whether you build it yourself or not.

To find the right parts and recommendations for all kinds of workloads, be sure to check our PC-Builder Tool which will get you started quickly.

Price of Self-Assembled PCs

That said, building your own PC is still the cheapest option under most circumstances.

To begin with, because you can customize anything, you won’t have to pay for a single part or feature that you don’t need.

If you’re building with a particular purpose in mind, you can tailor your PC to your exact needs. You can also buy individual parts that are discounted—even over a longer period of time.

For example, if you need 16GB of RAM, you’ll typically have dozens of options to choose from. If just one of those options is on sale, you’re in business.

Find lowest price for pc parts

Lowest Price comparison on PC Part Picker

And this is a big one: If you’re replacing an older PC, chances are you will be able to re-use some parts. The PC-Case or PSU, the Storage SSD, or even the Motherboard or CPU Cooler in some cases, can be reused without having to upgrade every component in your system.

Many just get a CPU+Motherboard+RAM Combo update and keep everything else as is.

Warranty Issues and Tech Support

Building your own PC requires some technical knowledge, but it’s not too difficult to do if you’re willing to spend some time and do some research.

However, what do you do if something goes wrong? Even if your computer boots up and runs the first time, you might end up with issues down the road.

For example, if you installed your CPU cooler incorrectly, you can end up frying your CPU weeks or months down the road—this is just an extreme example, modern components generally have a lot of protections in place that prevent total destruction even if something goes horribly wrong.

But still, in a situation like that, you’re not going to have any tech support number to help you out. Even if the part failed on its own and you have a warranty for the part, you’re still going to have to find out what caused the problem.

In most cases though, the knowledge you gained from Self-Assembly will help you a great deal in fixing your PC-Problems. If that is not enough, there are boundless online forums and subreddits that have a vast source of information.

On the other hand, pre-built and custom-built machines are assembled by professionals who follow strict procedures—for the most part. They also test everything at the factory before it ships, so you should have minimal problems—also for the most part. Some manufacturers are more reliable than others, I’m looking at you, Dell.

Pre-built computers generally come with a warranty that covers everything in the machine, both hardware and software. If you have any issues, you can call tech support, or even ship your PC back to the manufacturer for repair or replacement, but in most cases, this takes (a long) time.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, is it worthwhile to buy a custom-built PC or assemble one yourself over getting an off-the-shelf PC?

It really depends on what you need.

If you’re only going to use your PC for email and word processing, an off-the-shelf pre-built PC will do just fine.

Dell Inspiron Desktop

Image Credit: Dell, Run-of-the-mill Desktop PC

Just get yourself a Dell, HP, or other pre-built PC. And for those purposes, go ahead and choose a cheap model. You’re not going to need a strong GPU or loads of RAM for those workloads.

For gaming, you can go pre-built, custom-built, or build a PC yourself and get similar results. There are plenty of good pre-built gaming PCs, provided you’re willing to spend a bit more money or wait for a sale.

iBuyPower Custom Built PC

Image-Credit: iBuyPower

Though, I would generally suggest that you go with a more bespoke system if you’re planning on spending a lot of money on it for gaming/other resource-intensive work. As long as you’re smart enough to choose the right parts, you’ll be pleased with your PC.

But for content creators, a custom-built or self-assembled system is almost always the best option.

Mainly, because there aren’t many pre-built PCs with the power to handle tasks like Video-Editing or 3D-Rendering. On the other hand, there are plenty of pre-built PCs that can handle less demanding workloads, such as Graphic Design.

It depends on the demands you’re going to place on your system. If you think you might want to Self-Assemble and go the extra mile in picking out parts—this is still the best option for many. You can save some money and have lots of fun setting it up!

FAQ

Are pre-built PCs better than custom-built PCs?

Generally, no.

Pre-builts are mass-produced and have a tendency to use lower quality parts, proprietary parts that you can’t upgrade, and just generally is a hassle to work with.

Some higher-end pre-builts are better at this, but still. Buying from a company that makes bespoke custom-built PCs will almost always net you a better end product. Or better yet, building it yourself.

Are custom-built/self-assembled PCs cheaper than pre-built?

Custom-built PCs are generally more expensive than pre-builts, but that’s because of the labor costs and because they need to create a profit like any business.

Building a PC yourself cuts out the middle man, meaning that you’ll save money on labor and whatnot.

There are some scenarios where self-assembled PCs can be more expensive, but generally, building a PC yourself is cheaper if you can get the parts for stable prices.

Are custom-built/self-assembled computers better?

Generally, yes.

Custom-built PCs are usually hand-made by someone that is knowledgeable with PC building and is tested on-site to make sure everything works.

This results in better-made computers, but some custom-built computers can still have issues. Whereas with self-assembled PCs, it completely depends on your skill level. If you know literally nothing about building PCs and did no research at all, you will obviously have a worse system than a custom-built/pre-built one.

But with the slightest amount of research, you could potentially build a better computer than most pre-built PCs and could potentially be better than a custom-built PC even, depending on what you want.

Why are pre-built PCs bad?

Mostly because the manufacturers want to pump out as many PCs as possible for as low a cost as possible to gain higher profit margins.

Because of this, they tend to use bargain bin hardware and create proprietary solutions that are cheaply made and are hard to work with.

Pre-built manufacturers are known for skimping on the power supplies (big no-no unless you want a burnt-down house) or skimping on cooling for lower quality coolers and fans.

Are pre-builds/custom-builds cheaper than self-assembled PCs?

They certainly can be. Current global situations have wreaked havoc on a large part of the technology world, and PCs aren’t exempt from that.

If you’re tech-savvy, know how to time purchases well, know how to get second-hand deals, I say you can still make a good PC for cheaper than a pre-built/custom-built one.

But if you don’t want to bother with that, some pre-builts/custom-builts are cheaper than building your own custom PC in 2021.

Are gaming laptops even worth it?

They sure can be. They will never give you desktop-class performance, but they can come pretty close.

And considering the availability issues we’re facing right now, high-powered laptops can even be cheaper than buying a custom-built PC or creating your own PC.

You can take a look at our laptop articles to find a laptop that suits your needs.

Can you upgrade pre-built PCs?

You can generally upgrade certain parts of pre-built systems, but it’s usually not a pleasant experience.

Is building a PC hard?

It’s as hard as you make it. If you take the time to do some research, you’ll find out it’s not all that harder than building something with Lego.

But if you decide to just go in blind with no preparation, you’re going to have a rough time. But for the most part, PC building can be summed up as plugging one thing into another thing and then screwing some stuff in. It’s as simple as that.

That’s about it from us. What kind of PC are you thinking of buying? Did that answer all your questions about different types of PCs? Got any other questions? Ask us in the comments or our forum!

Find a new friend on the CGDirector Forum! Expert Advice & PC-Build Planning with a warm and friendly Community! :)

Alex Glawion - post author

Hi, I’m Alex, a Freelance 3D Generalist, Motion Designer and Compositor.

I’ve built a multitude of Computers, Workstations and Renderfarms and love to optimize them as much as possible.

Feel free to comment and ask for suggestions on your PC-Build or 3D-related Problem, I’ll do my best to help out!

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Also check out our Forum for feedback from our Expert Community.

Armand DIAMVINZA

Hi Alex Great article. I have been reading through your website. I finally saved up for my next workstation. I will mostly be using Cinema 4D, Vray, Corona, Unreal Engine and Houdini for architecture. The issue I am facing right now is building my own is way more expensive than buying a pre-built. I live in France. Any recommendations on how to build a powerful system between 1500 – 2000 euros?

Willy

Hi Alex,

Great article!

I was wondering if there is a link that explains how to assembly your own PC?

Kindly, thanks.

Willy

Willy

Alright, i found it here. No need ^^

Alex Glawion
Alex GlawionCGDIRECTOR

Glad you found it! 🙂 Let us know if you have any other questions.

Cheers,
Alex