The Build Argument
The technically challenged amongst us might balk at the idea of building a desktop -- "I could never do that!" In practice it's not that complex and a great exercise for those interested in learning more about computers. These days we have standardized connectors that only fit one way and many supportive online communities like our DesktopReview.com community forums full of users willing to share knowledge.
There are three primary arguments for building a desktop versus buying a pre-built configuration and the learning experience is the first. Enthusiasts are enthusiasts for a reason; they show a genuine interest in knowing the inner workings of the things they're, well, enthusiastic about -- computers in this case (pun intended). Those that build their desktops know exactly how each component connects and works together. It also provides insights into desktop design, airflow, circuit board layouts, wiring connections and electrical power transfer. It's one thing to open up a desktop and guesstimate how this all works; it's another to be responsible for making it work. It's a hobby.
The second argument for building a desktop is being able to fine-tune the desktop to specific needs. Big-name computer companies make assumptions when offering customizable desktops. For gaming purposes, you'll want a lot of everything ? graphics and processing power, RAM, and storage capacity. That being said, what if you weren't as interested in graphics processing power and instead prioritized CPU power and storage space? Now things are getting specialized; it's going to be more difficult to find such a configuration from a mainstream company. If you build it yourself, no problem!
Building onto the second argument (pun intended), consider that building it yourself means you'll have the ability to choose specific parts from specific companies. While mainstream companies may be able to equip you with an Nvidia graphics card, can they equip you with an Nvidia graphics card that has a specific heavy-duty cooling system installed? Probably not, and gamers could use that kind of hardware; instead, you'll be stuck with a reference board. And mainstream companies won't look too kindly on you adding that kind of thing yourself when it comes to the warranty.
These last two arguments revolve around cost. If you can find a company that offers a basic desktop configuration you're interested in, the price difference between it and building yourself (assuming reasonable component pricing on both sides) is likely to be within 10% - forgivable, in other words. However, more intense gaming requirements like a powerful graphics card might make it cheaper to build. Furthermore, consider re-using existing parts; do you know someone who's built a desktop before? Perhaps they have a case or power supply lying around they would part with for little to no money -- that shaves a lot off your build.
The Buy Argument
The biggest argument for buying a pre-built desktop is the fact that there's a warranty on the system as a whole; build-it-yourself desktops have individual part warranties only so that means you need to be savvy enough to troubleshoot issues on your own and figure out which part(s) are causing issues (and parts might not be the issue -- it could be software or a combination of both). It is undeniably convenient to be able to get support from a company that knows your desktop inside and out (they designed it, after all).
Another argument for buying pre-built is cost; this is especially true for less expensive desktops that aren't for gaming or demanding use; just basic tasks. But again, this is only the case for basic and low-end gaming machines; more powerful gaming rigs are a different story. The simple desktops are sheer commodities -- they fit a certain mold and there is little difference between offerings from various manufacturers. It's all about price down to the last penny. Mainstream companies are able to offer these desktops at such good prices because they sell a lot of them and therefore get great prices for components. It would be an exercise in futility to build your own basic desktop solely to save money -- even if you eBay or Craigslist everything, is it really worth all that time and effort to save $50 on $500? No; maybe if you're building out of curiosity but just for price, not a chance.
A big factor -- perhaps the biggest - when deciding whether to build or buy is the audience; is this desktop for you or someone else? As someone that has built numerous desktops, I'd be hard pressed to find a situation where I would consider building a desktop for someone else, especially someone I don't know well (or at all). Why? The other party may not understand that you aren't going to be providing technical support on said system. It's a hard line to draw and one I only drew once. If you start building desktops for others, sooner or later you'll realize you started a business that is hard to escape from; desktops can last a long time. Once it becomes a business, the enthusiast/hobby aspect is gone and is replaced by a liability.
The decision whether to build a gaming desktop or buy pre-built comes down to more than dollars and cents. The audience is number one: always buy pre-built if the desktop is for another party. It's not fun to provide technical support on a system (and possibly be liable) for problems and issues. Don't turn your hobby into a business.
Next there's the customization factor; more often than not a mainstream company will have a desktop configuration to suit your needs. In a situation where you're looking for certain components, you might be out of luck or faced with "lesser of two evils" choices -- or just build it yourself and get exactly what you want.
Lastly there's cost; this used to be a lot higher on the debate list. Sure, it's usually cheaper to get a desktop pre-built when you're looking at the commodity dime-a-dozen models. But you're unlikely to save money even on higher-end gaming configurations; the price difference between the two options will be less than ten percent.
In conclusion, building versus buying comes down to correctly evaluating the situation -- keep the factors we discussed in mind and the right choice should be more than obvious.
For more coverage, check out the rest of our Gaming Special Report.
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