Pitfalls of buying off-the-shelf

Many times clients ask me which  new computer I recommend.  Almost invariably I recommend a custom built (aka bespoke) computer but am anxious to point out that not only do I not benefit by selling such computers myself, but I expect to get less income from maintenance and repair work as a result of someone heeding my advice.  This is perhaps contrary to initial thoughts, so here I list my reasons for giving such advice.  Note that I am including any mass produced computer in the phrase 'off-the-shelf' whether from a brick and mortar shop, catalogue or web site (even those with self configuration options).
  • With an off-the-shelf PC you will either be given 'recovery' CDs or invited to create your own from a hidden partition.  My experience is that many people in the second category often do not burn their own CDs but postpone it for another day until such time as it is forgotten about.  If you do create your own or get 'recovery' CDs with the computer (and you can find them when you need them a few years later), you will find that many enable you to simply restore the computer to exactly the same state it was in when you first took it out of the box.  Any of your documents, photos, music, address books, e-mail messages etc. that you have not recently and successfully been backed up will be lost.  All updates to Windows and program installations will need to be repeated.

    With the full version of Windows that comes with custom built PC an overlay installation is possible.  So in the situation where Windows has become corrupted (as often happens as a result of viruses, user actions, power disruptions, hardware failures and bad downloads) Windows can be installed 'over the top' of itself so that no documents are lost, no programs have to be reinstalled, no program activation keys reentered and settings remain intact.  This is the key factor that makes custom computers cheaper in the long term.
  • Some manufacturers (Dell for example) are so large that they can order many thousands of a particular component to their own specification.  When that component fails you are tied to the manufacturer for a replacement.  This may cost many times the cost of a generic component and if the computer is more than a few years old the component will just not be available.
  • When your hard disk drive fails (it is by far the component that fails most frequently as it contains delicate moving parts) you may like the opportunity of replacing the broken disk and installing the latest version of Windows.  With a custom PC this is possible as the device drivers for all hardware components are available on CDs you hold or the manufacturers' websites.  With an off-the-shelf PC this is usually not possible as device drivers have to come from the PC seller's website and there is no reason for them to publish drivers for any version of Windows they do not sell with the original PC.
  • If you buy an off-the-shelf computer that runs out of disk space you may want to replace it with a larger disk drive.  I have experience of a (Sony) laptop where this was not possible as the drivers that the manufacturer made available would only work on the disk they supplied with the PC or an identical one.  This is similar to another limitation whereby some off-the-shelf PCs are BIOS locked - that is, created in such a way as to preclude use of hardware not identical to that supplied in the original PC.
  • A custom PC will have just the programs you want installed.  Off-the-shelf computers usually have numerous extras (bloatware) that most people in my experience do not want and anyway can get better elsewhere.  These extra programs all take your computer's resources to run in competition with what you are trying to do.  As a result, the computer will appear slower that an identically specified custom PC. Much so called 'free' software like this is time limited or reduced functionality versions of the paid for products.
  • Standardized computers are designed to suit most people most of the time. PCs that are designed for the individual can avoid the cost of over specifying components that would not be used much, and incorporate components of higher than normal quality where the owner would benefit. For example, some game players and audiophiles benefit from a top notch sound card, while others don't listen to music and could very well do without any sepearate sound card.
  • Individual components often carry a longer warranty period than the system as a whole, this can only be taken advantage of though if you bought the component separately.

Please note that despite all the above points, there is normally no price premium to be paid for a bespoke computer.

Still thinking of buying a mass produced computer ? Read Stephen's Story or Debbie's Story

For example, I am currently working on Ian's Dell XPS 8000 tower computer bought three years ago.  One of the memory modules has failed (a Hynix 2GB DDR3) which, like most mainstream memory, carries a lifetime warranty.  Unfortunately as it was sold via Dell my client's warranty is with Dell and that expired last year.  Hynix will not deal directly with anyone other than their customer, Dell. 

For example, I had Ronnie's old HP tower on my workbench with a failed motherboard.  All other components are fine so he really wants just the motherboard replaced.  But the connectors on the chassis are special to this model of HP tower so what would otherwise be a 40 + labour repair turns out to be a report that the computer is not economically reparable and a new computer will be over 400.

Please let me know how this page could be improved.