Using OEM vs. Retail Parts for Your PC

The packaging and warranty, not the component, is what differs

An Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) product sources from the manufacturer that designed it. It's sold without retail packaging to other companies for assembly and integration during another product's life cycle. Typically, OEM products sell in large lots as part of a wholesale or bulk purchase.

A good example of these differences can be seen when comparing an OEM and a retail hard drive. The retail version is often referred to as a kit because it includes the drive cables, installation instructions, warranty cards, and software packages that configure or run the drive. The OEM version of the drive only includes the hard drive in a sealed anti-static bag with no other materials. Sometimes it's referred to as a bare drive.

OEM vs. Retail

Like hardware, software can be purchased as OEM. OEM software is identical to the retail versions of the software, but it lacks packaging. Typically, you'll see the difference with software items such as operating systems and office suites. Unlike OEM hardware, there are more restrictions on what allows the software to be sold by a retailer to a consumer.

OEM software typically can only be purchased with a complete computer system. Some retailers allow the purchase of the software if it is purchased with some form of core computer system hardware. In either case, there must be an additional purchase of hardware to go along with the OEM software.

Several unscrupulous retailers and individuals sell OEM software that is pirated software, so check the retailer before purchasing.

Overall Differences Between OEM and Retail

OEM
  • Cheaper.

  • Limited warranties, service, and support.

  • Lacks retail packaging.

  • OEM software typically comes with a PC.

  • Software has a higher tendency to be pirated.

Retail
  • Better warranty terms.

  • Longer and more reliable warranties and support.

  • Higher priced.

If you want to save money, OEM could be the way to go, unless you need additional support or warranties. If so, retail hardware and software may be safer options. See some other major differences below.

Cost: OEM for the Budget-Minded

OEM
  • Tends to be cheaper.

Retail
  • Pricier.

  • May have more sale prices.

OEM products offer a price advantage over retail products. The reduced items and packaging can reduce the cost of a computer component over a retail version. However, another major (and countervailing) difference between a retail and OEM product is how warranties and returns are handled.

Warranties: Retail Nudges Ahead

OEM
  • Rarely comes with a warranty or has a limited warranty.

  • Some OEM products are establishing warranties.

Retail
  • Provides the longest and best warranties.

  • Most have better return policies.

Most retail products come with well-defined terms for service and support. On the other hand, OEM products generally offer different warranties and limited support because the OEM product is sold as part of a package through a retailer. Therefore, service and support for the system component should be handled by the retailer if sold in a complete system. The warranty differences are becoming less defined now, though. In some cases, an OEM drive may have a longer warranty than the retail version.

While retail hardware typically has better warranties and support, OEM hardware isn't that far behind in the quality of the warranty and tech support. As more people use this cheaper solution for their computing needs, support for these products should continue to improve. Or as many have found, there are usually forums for different OEM products, if you know where to look.

Packaging: Retail Is King

OEM
  • Doesn't usually come in retail packaging.

  • Typically, a manual isn't included.

Retail
  • All available packaging and extras.

  • Comes with printed and digital manuals, if available.

When you build or upgrade a computer system, the retail version may be more helpful. If you are unfamiliar with what is required to install the component into the computer system, the manufacturer instructions can be useful, as are the cables that you may not have from other components for the PC.

Technical Support: Retail Is More Robust

OEM
  • Very little support provided.

  • May have to rely on internet searching for help.

Retail
  • Many have 24/7 support by phone, email, or the web.

  • Better chance of replacement of damaged or faulty parts.

Related to warranties, getting any type of support (by phone, email, or a website) can be tricky with OEM parts and software. While retail normally has a variety of support offerings, you may have to rely on customer forums to get support for OEM parts.

Determining OEM or Retail

Most reputable retailers list the product as either OEM or bare drive in the product description. Items such as packaging and warranty provide clues as to whether it is an OEM version.

The biggest problem comes with the various pricing engines on the web. If a manufacturer uses the same product designation for an OEM and retail product, retailers on the results page may offer either version. Some pricing engines list OEM next to the price, and others may not. Always read the product description if you're not sure.

With OEM software, there may be significant risks. The biggest issue is whether the software is legitimate or pirated. You may have a difficult time returning OEM software as most shops only credit your account, at best. If you have issues with the software, support tends to be more difficult. With a bit of research online, you might find a forum with help from fellow users. However, official support, like with OEM hardware, may not be the most reliable.

Final Verdict: OEM Products Are Generally Worth the Risk

There should be no physical difference in a component if it is sold as OEM or in retail. The difference is the extras that are provided with the retail version. If you're comfortable with the terms of the OEM product compared to the retail version, it's generally better to buy the OEM product for the reduced cost. If items such as product warranties matter to you, purchase the retail versions for the peace of mind these provide.