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 and is sold without retail packaging to other companies for use in assembly and integration during some other product's lifecycle. Typically, OEM products sell in large lots as part of a wholesale or bulk purchase.

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

OEM vs Retail

Like hardware, software can be purchased as OEM. OEM software is identical to the full retail versions of the software but it lacks any 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 will allow 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 also purchased with some form of core computer system hardware. In either case, there must be some additional purchase of hardware to go along with the OEM software.

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

Overall Differences Between OEM and Retail

OEM
  • Cheaper.

  • Limited warranties and service/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're looking to save some money, OEM could be the way to go. That is, unless you need additional support or warranties. If so, retail hardware and software may be the 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 major price advantage over a retail product. The reduced items and packaging can drastically 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 any warranty or very limited warranty.

  • Some OEM products are establishing warranties.

Retail
  • Provides the longest and best in terms of warranties.

  • Most have better return policies.

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

While retail hardware typically has better warranties and support, OEM hardware isn't that far behind both in the quality of 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 out there, if you know where to look.

Packaging: Retail is King

OEM
  • Does not usually come in retail packaging.

  • Typically, no manual included.

Retail
  • All available packaging and extras.

  • Comes with manuals both printed and digital, if available.

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

Technical Support: Retail Much More Robust

OEM
  • Very little support provided.

  • May have to rely on internet searching for help.

Retail
  • Many have 24\7 support via phone, email, or the web.

  • Better chance of replacement of damaged or faulty parts.

Related to warranties, getting any type of support (via phone, email, or 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 any support for your OEM parts.

Determining OEM or Retail

Most reputable retailers will list the product as either OEM or bare drive in the product description. Items such as packaging and warranty can 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, it is possible that retailers on the results page could be offering either version. Some pricing engines will list OEM next to the price, but others may not. Always read the product description if you are not sure.

With OEM software, you may take more significant risks. The biggest issue is, of course, whether the software is a legitimate copy or a pirated one. You may have a more difficult time returning OEM software as most shops will only credit your account, at best. If you do have any issues with the software, support tends to be more difficult as well. With a bit of research online, you might be able to find a forum for help from fellow users, but official support, just 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 are comfortable with the terms of the OEM product compared to the retail version, then it is 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 they provide.