Building vs. Buying a PC

The advantages and disadvantages of building a custom PC

Since the earliest IBM PC computers, consumers have had the option to build a computer system from compatible components. This was often referred to as the clone market. In the earliest days, this offered significant savings for consumers who were willing to buy third-party parts from small manufacturers.

Things have changed since then, but there are still advantages to building a computer from parts rather than buying a pre-built system. We looked at the pros and cons of each to help you decide if you want to build a computer of your own or buy one off the shelf.

An illustration of someone building a PC and buying one.
Lifewire / Julie Bang

Overall Findings

Buying a PC
  • PC support is easier to obtain.

  • No problems with hardware compatibility.

  • Better warranties and accidental damage coverage.

  • Advanced skills aren't required.

Building a PC
  • Customize for your computing needs.

  • Nearly limitless choices for hardware.

  • Need technical knowledge of PCs.

  • Troubleshooting is easier due to familiarity with components.

  • Cheaper to build high-end systems.

All computer systems sold on the market are a collection of components that provide a functional computing system. Processors, memory, and drives are some of the parts that make up a computer and differentiate one system from another. As such, the performance and quality of a system are determined by the parts used in its construction.

So what is the difference between a store-bought system and a custom-built computer from parts? There could be almost no difference to a very significant difference based on the parts selected for the machine.

When purchasing a new PC, consider your skill level and budget. There are distinct pluses and minuses to either buying a PC or building one. Below, we go into detail on each advantage and disadvantage to help you make that crucial decision on a new computer.

Buying a PC Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • No issues with hardware and software compatibility.

  • Better warranties.

  • Single point of contact for support issues.

  • Some software is pre-loaded.

Disadvantages
  • Tends to be higher in cost.

  • Less customization.

  • Less familiarity with internal components.

Advantages of Buying

For some, building a PC may be too complicated to accomplish. There are some benefits to buying a pre-made system. One of the major advantages is compatibility. The PC manufacturer ensures that the parts in the PC work together stably. This means they make sure that components won't cause crashes or performance issues. These compatibility items should also include drivers and software for those components.

Another important advantage of buying a PC is the warranty and support for the system. You typically have options for an advanced warranty, with some manufacturers covering accidental damage. You also should have a single point of contact for any warranty or support issues. Most companies provide a phone number, a website, or a combination of both for computer problems you may have. Depending on the company, some may have 24-hour support.

Another significant fact about buying a pre-built PC is that you don't have to research individual components to ensure compatibility, quality, and other factors. The manufacturer should provide different configuration options to offer a flexible selection depending on your needs. Plus, you don't have to be a technology guru to configure a new PC. If you're unsure of the offerings, there's usually a phone number or email to ask questions.

Disadvantages of Buying

The major disadvantage of buying a pre-made PC is the cost. Generally, a pre-built PC costs more than the homemade variety as manufacturers tend to use non-OEM parts. Retails computer parts can be higher in price, driving the end cost of a pre-made PC up as well. An exception to this rule is when there are sales on pre-built PCs. Many companies have exclusive sales during the holidays, such as Black Friday, or clearance sales to make room for new models. But overall, pre-made PCs cost more.

If you like to know your PC intimately, purchasing a pre-made PC might not be the way to go. As the manufacturer decides the components, you probably won't do a ton of research to know each part in the system. With this, there will be less customization. So, if you want an in-depth knowledge of your computer and need to fine-tune it to your needs, a pre-made system probably won't serve you well.

Building a PC Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • Customize components for your needs.

  • Have deeper knowledge of the parts in the PC.

  • Can be cheaper than a pre-built PC.

  • Customize for greater performance.

Disadvantages
  • No single point of contact for support.

  • Requires considerable research.

  • High-end customization can be costly.

  • Novice users may struggle with building.

Advantages of Building

The most distinguishing advantage of building a computer from scratch is the selection of parts. Most computer systems come pre-built with the specifications and components selected for you. This often leads to consumers making compromises on features as a pre-built system may not have all that you want or may offer a subpar component. By building a computer from components, you can choose the parts that best match the computer system you desire. Some vendors do allow you to customize a computer system, but you are limited to their selection of parts.

Another thing to be aware of with pre-built systems is that two of the same model computer can have different parts. The reason for this is the suppliers, parts available at the time the system was built, and luck. For example, Dell might switch between multiple suppliers of memory because one is less expensive than the other. Similarly, they may swap hard drive brands if one has supply problems. Buying the parts yourself guarantees what parts you get on your PC.

One of the less tangible advantages to building a computer from scratch is knowledge. By building a computer from scratch, you'll learn and understand how the parts work together. This information becomes valuable when troubleshooting computer problems. Knowing what components control the different sub-systems of a computer means you can repair hardware problems without dealing with support groups or expensive repair bills.

Finally, there is the cost. The more powerful your intended desktop computer, the more likely you can save money by building your own. This is because many premium components carry high markups by the manufacturers as a means to boost profits. While many of the small companies that build high-end systems may build a PC from the exact parts that you want, they mark up the price to cover the costs for building it and supplier support after the purchase.

Disadvantages of Building

The biggest disadvantage of building a computer is the lack of a single support organization. Since each component comes from a different manufacturer or store, if a part has a problem, you'll deal with the appropriate company. With pre-built systems, you only have to deal with the manufacturer and their warranty service. This can also be an advantage in terms of building it yourself as a part failure is often quickly and easily resolved by replacing the part yourself rather than waiting for a large company to send out a technician or shipping the system back to them.

Choosing the parts to build a computer system can be a frustrating process. This is particularly true if you aren't familiar with the technology and are building your first computer. You have to consider sizes, compatible components, wattages, and more technical stuff. If you don't research things properly, you could end up with parts that don't work well together or don't fit into the case that you selected.

While cost is an advantage, it can also be a disadvantage. This is particularly true if you want to build a basic desktop computer system. Manufacturers get discounts because they buy parts in bulk. In addition to this, the budget market is competitive, which means it's often cheaper to buy a basic computer for web browsing and productivity software than it is to build one. The cost savings may not be huge, maybe $50 to $100. Conversely, you can save hundreds over buying a PC if you look at a high-performance desktop PC. Low-cost pre-built systems can also leave much to be desired in the quality department.

Final Verdict: Know Your Needs and Skills

If you don't need a computer for a specialized task or high-end computing, a pre-made system may be the way to go. Especially if you're not technically minded. Building a PC requires technical know-how and patience.

How to Build a Computer

If you're interested in building a desktop computer from parts, take the next steps. 

Previously users weren't able to build notebook computers. Even this is changing. Several companies sell base systems that are referred to as ​white box notebooks. These have the base components such as chassis, screen, and motherboard installed. Users can then select items such as memory, drives, processors, and graphics to finalize the laptop computer. These basic laptop chassis are often sold to PC companies to then badge as their own systems after finishing off the component installations.

If you are determined to build a PC from parts, research the parts. There's a range of components available. It's not possible for PC hardware and review sites to look at every one of these. These lists of items such as desktop CPUs, hard drives, solid state drives, DVDs, Blu-ray, and video cards are a good starting point.