Make or Buy a PC?

WinXPNews (April 28, 2009) In past editorials, we've addressed the question of whether 'tis nobler (or at least more effective) to buy a computer from a vendor or build it yourself. Each time I've admitted that my last few systems have been Dells, some readers have chided me for "wasting" money by not making it a DIY project. Another topic we've covered here involved whether to buy electronics online or from local bricks and mortar stores. Each time I mention getting something from Fry's, I inevitably get a few responses pointing out that I could have gotten better prices from various online outlets and saved the time and gasoline required to drive to the store.

All of that's very true, but there's another side to the story. Last week, I was reminded of one of the reasons I stopped building my own computers, and at the same time I remembered why I often pay a little extra to buy from a local store. I ordered all the parts from NewEgg to build a fast Nehalem-based machine for my son: Lian Li case, Asus P6T motherboard, Core i7 processor, 6 GB DDR3 RAM, Intel Solid State Drive, Western Digital 1 TB SATA drive. When the boxes arrived, he was excited about putting it together. The first disappointment came when we discovered that the SATA drive was missing. We checked to be sure it wasn't shipped separately; nope, it was supposed to be in this box, but it was nowhere to be found.

I fired off a message to NewEgg's customer service address, but he didn't want to have to wait around for another one to be sent, so he went to Fry's and picked up one there, for about $20 more than the NewEgg price. I told NewEgg to go ahead and send the one we'd paid for, as we can always use more hard drive space. The extra twenty bucks was worth it to my son, to be able to get his new computer up and running sooner.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. When he got back with the hard drive and got it all put together, there was a problem. It didn't work. He's built many systems and he tried every troubleshooting technique possible, but from all indications, the motherboard was just dead. We started reading reviews and discovered that although the board had received many five-egg reviews, there were also a significant number of reviewers who reported that the board arrived DOA and had to be replaced. Ouch.

So we started the RMA process and shipped it back (having to pay $9.95 for the shipping), and he's still waiting for the replacement. If he'd bought the board at Fry's, it would have cost $10 more - but wait, we had to pay $10 to ship back the defective board. More importantly, he could have taken it back and gotten a replacement the same day.

Meanwhile, NewEgg had promptly shipped a new SATA hard drive - except that instead of shipping it to the shipping address of the original order, they shipped it to another address that was associated with my account, that of a friend of mine for whom I'd bought a hard drive as a gift a few months before. Not a huge big deal, but the bottom line is that, a week later, we still don't have the motherboard or the new hard drive.

Now I'm not ragging on NewEgg here. Mistakes happen. Products are sometimes defective. They seem to be trying to make things right. Buying a fully assembled computer from a major hardware vendor carries no guarantees; sometimes those don't work, either. But the two times that's happened with one of our Dells, they've had someone out here the next day to fix it. Still, you definitely pay a premium for that. I checked out a Dell with specs that were roughly equivalent to those of the computer that my son is building, and the price was over $1000 more. Whether it's worth it depends on a lot of things, including how much your time is worth.

The bad news is that, based on anecdotal evidence I'm hearing from readers and friends, the instance of failures for both pre-built machines and individual components seems to be increasing - and customer service on all fronts seems to be going downhill. What has your experience been on that front? Is it worth it to you to pay a little more and buy parts locally so you can get a quick turnaround if something doesn't work? Is it worth a lot more to skip the DIY and buy systems that come with a warranty from a major manufacturer? Which retailers - online or local - have provided you with the best service? Any nightmares to share?

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