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

CG Director Author Alex Glawion  by Alex Glawion   ⋮ 
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Pre-Built vs Custom PCs (Assemble yourself or Plug & Play)?

When it’s time to buy a new PC, the first thing you need to do is decide what type of system you’re going to buy.

No, we 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, you could choose a pre-built system from a manufacturer like Dell or HP.

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 up any components, you’re often much better off choosing a custom-built PC from a company like iBUYPOWER or BLD. 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.

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. 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 (Pre-) 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 Parts individually and once they are shipped to you, you assemble your PC yourself.

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

So, how do pre-built, 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)

Convenience vs. Customization

Pre-Built off-the shelf 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!

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.

Custom-Built PCs – Convenience

Custom-built PCs can take days or weeks to ship. And if you’re assembling your own, you not only have to wait for the parts to arrive, you also need to go through the assembly process.

Parts needed to build a PC - Title Image

That said, 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.

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.

Meanwhile, if you’re buying a custom-built machine, you can usually get top of the line performance with the latest and greatest hardware.

This wasn’t always the case.

In earlier years, manufacturers like IBM used their own parts. But since Dell introduced their business model of buying and assembling parts from other manufacturers, HP and others have followed course.

Note that there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, Alienware (now owned by Dell) builds PCs with higher-end parts that are purpose-built for gaming.

Similarly, Corsair and MSI tend to use higher quality parts that are designed for gaming, content creation, and other demanding tasks.

Corsair Pre-Built PC

Image-Source: Corsair

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 components, 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 on-board 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 Vide Editors or 3D Artists, this kind of performance is absolutely essential.

Self-Assembled PCs – Convenience

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

This is a type of custom build, but instead of someone assembling the parts for you, you do it yourself. 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.

Compatibility Concerns

When you buy an off-the-shelf pre-built PC, or even a custom-built model, 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.

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 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, if 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.

Getting the Best Price

Pre-Built – Price

Usually you will be working with a specific budget when you’re buying a PC.

When it comes to cost, 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. 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.

Self-Assembled PC – Price

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, chance 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.

Custom-built PC – Price

Custom-built PCs tend to have the highest costs.

This only makes sense, since you’re getting a custom build, not an assembly-line machine and those companies will add extra labor charges for the manual assembly of your custom picked components.

Pride and Accomplishment

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

  • a sense of pride in your accomplishments
  • fun in picking out the parts
  • fun in tinkering with the assembly process
  • the knowledge you gain by doing so, and the ability to later fix any PC-Problems yourself

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.

Case Airflow

Image-Source: Corsair

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.

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.

Just to use one example, if you installed your heatsink incorrectly, you can end up frying your CPU weeks or months down the road.

In that case, 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. They also test everything at the factory before it ships, so you should have minimal problems.

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 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

If you want a more bespoke system, a custom build or a home build will also get you excellent gaming results. As long as you’re smart enough to choose the right parts, you’ll be pleased with your gaming PC.

For content creators, a custom-built or self-assembled system is generally 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 need 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 save some money and have lots of fun setting it up!

 

That’s about it from us. What kind of PC are you thinking of buying?

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

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