Buying VS Building a 'Puter

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Here is another page in my series of rants and raves.  The opinion expressed below is mine.  You're welcome to disagree, and even to email me and tell me why you disagree.  Just no flames please.  Since this is opinion, not fact, I can say what I think and feel about various companies without getting into trouble (I hope).

I have bought 'puters from Compaq, Gateway, Dell, and Acer.  I have had 'puters built by a custom shop.  I have built 'puters myself from parts that I picked and ordered.  This is where I draw my experience from.

I have found that in almost every case that a custom or home built 'puter is better!  From the satisfaction of knowing what parts are in it, to the ease of finding drivers, to upgrading it in the future.  Below I'll tell you why...

First, let me tell you what I feel are the only good points of buying a 'puter from a brand name.

My background

I credit Acer for this website!  I bought my first 'puter from Acer.  It was a 486DX 2/50 with 4 megs of ram, no sound, no CD-ROM (a laptop).  I bought it to play games on.  It had DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.1 on it.

Acer had an 800 number that was 24/7.  Since I was a newbie I called them often with the typical silly newbie questions like... "How do I get more conventional memory?" Or, "Why do I get this blue screen all the time?", and "Why is this floppy bad?  It was working fine yesterday."

The problem came when I had more serious questions like, "Windows is crashing all the time, what do I do?" or "I lost my colors in Windows, now what do I do?".

Do you know what it's like to sit on hold for 30 to 90 minutes only to have the battery on your cordless phone die as they answered you?  Or how about talking to one guy who tells you to do something that doesn't fix the problem, only to call back and get a different tech who tells you the first tech didn't know what he was talking about?

A secret about tech support

Let me tell you a secret, most companies deny this, but if you think about it, it does make sense.  Picture this, a tech support department has many techs, some have been there for many years and really know their stuff.  Other techs are fairly new and don't know much.  Here's what happens when you call for help.  A level one tech takes your call (he's the newest dumbest tech they have), if he can't answer your question he's supposed to bump you to a level two tech, and so on up the ladder.  The reality is, if that level one tech bumps too many customers up the ladder he'll be fired!  Since he's not any good why keep him?  This means that (unless he's really dumb) if he doesn't know the answer he'll fake it to get you off the phone.  Either he'll make a guess (and not tell you he's guessing), or he'll tell you to try something that doesn't have a chance in hell of working and tell you to call back if that doesn't fix it.  Meanwhile he's praying that you'll get another tech when you call back!

This is a simple fact!  Only geeks who do nothing but mess with 'puters both on and off the job can be any good at their job!  Many of the techs I talk to don't play games and some hate 'puters so much they don't even have one at home.  How can they possibly stay current with all the changes and problems 'puters have if they only think about them during working hours?  They're too busy giving wrong answers at work to study!

Well, after having to learn how to reinstall Windows 3.1 due to mistakes made during tech calls I got so mad that I left that laptop at home for almost two months!  If I could have returned it I would have.  I then decided to learn how to solve my own problems so I wouldn't have to call... ahem... tech support any more.

Fast forward to today, I spend so much time learning, practicing, taking care of the website, and answering "helpme" emails that I rarely play games anymore!

Here's an example... When Win98 came out I bought it and started playing with it.  I bought Windows 98 Secrets by Brian Livingston (great book and series) and the Windows 98 Resource Kit from Microsoft.  The Secrets book has 1207 pages, and the Resource Kit has 1766 pages to it!  That's a lot of reading!  Now add the seven magazine subscriptions I had at that time, all the email newsletters I read, and don't forget the Listserv groups I belonged to that netted me 30-120 emails per day.  That's what I did to learn about Win98 and that doesn't count the multiple wipes and reinstalls I did for practice!  Now how can a tech who doesn't even have a 'puter at home hope to learn all of this well?

About hardware

When you buy a 'puter from Compaq, Dell, or Gateway you get a non-standard case, non-standard parts, and OEM (Original Equipment Manufactures) parts.  Read that as parts that are SPEC'ed lower than you'd buy in a store.  For instance a Nvidia TNT2 Ultra video card without an upgradeable BIOS on it.

Some of these guys put the sound, video, or LAN on the mother board to save money.  Maybe you can disable the on board video so you can upgrade it and maybe you can't.  Shall we talk about Dell's subpar 200 watt power supplies?

We've all heard "You get what you pay for.", well it's true.  If you want a disposable 'puter that you can't upgrade at all then buy from one of the major brands.

If you're a gamer, unless you buy from Falcon Northwest or Alienware you're totally wasting your money!  My wife's Gateway had the same CPU, memory, sound, and video card as I had.  Sounds good right?  Then explain to me how she gets 10-15 frames per second less speed in Quake 3?  We're even using the same drivers!  And of course I've wiped, reinstalled, and tweaked her 'puter.  The only difference is the OEM hardware. I play at 1024 X768 at 16bit colors, she has to play at 800 X 600 at 16bit colors to get the same frame rates!

Believe it or not

Compaq has told me that unless you only use their restore CD it will void their warranty!  You can't upgrade to a new version of Windows and you can't wipe and install from scratch!  Getting drivers for a Compaq can be a nightmare.  They usually don't offer them unless there was a bug in the version on the restore CD.  They will not support you if you wipe and install from scratch!  What about the new 'puters that don't give you a copy of Windows?  I won't even go there!  Does anyone remember when Internet Explorer 4.0 came out, you'd break your Compaq if you installed it!  They (Compaq) had to put out a patch to fix it!  It wasn't Microsoft's fault, it was Compaq's fault!

Custom 'puters

When you go to a custom shop you can spec out what you want and what you don't want.  Yes, you can buy cheap parts or the cutting edge parts.  The choice is yours.  You'll get a real copy of Windows with your new 'puter.  Since these are "off the shelf" parts, getting updated drivers is a piece of cake.  When you call for tech support you'll probably talk to the guy who built your 'puter.  Real people who know you by name!  Sure, they're aren't open 24/7 and they may not have an 800 number either, but at least they know what they're talking about!  When you buy from Gateway, you're one of thousands of customers; when you buy from a custom shop you're one of hundreds.  Which one will care more if you're unhappy?

If you don't know what the good parts are, that's OK.  A custom shop wants you to be a happy customer, so they'll take the time to find out what you want and need and suggest a system based on that.  Gee, when was the last time you went to Best Buy and found a knowledgeable... err...kid?  The good custom shops are not on commission either.  Since they get paid salary they'll be happy to sell you a $699 special or a $4000 fire breathing monster... the choice is yours!

Build your own

While it takes time, it is really cool to build your own 'puter!  The satisfaction you get from a fast system that you put together is truly wonderful.  Do you go SCSI or IDE?  Do you get the latest and greatest of everything, or stay one or two steps behind?  It comes down to money VS. speed.  Again, your favorite custom shop is the place to go.  They'll be more than happy to sell you parts as well as answer your questions.  My favorite shop (Quality Computers 1-877-806-9530) will even put the CPU and memory on the motherboard for you if you want at no charge!  Ever see a P-III 800 fry cause the heatsink/fan was put on wrong?  I'm told it only takes about 10 seconds to kill it.

When it's time to upgrade the video card or sound card, add a hard drive, and so on, it won't be a problem.  You know what's in it, you know how many slots are free.  Whether you get my opinion, call your favorite 'puter shop or do the reading, you'll be able to upgrade how you want when you want to.  If you want to upgrade from a P-II to a P-III on a Dell, not only do you have to upgrade the motherboard, you'll have to buy a new case as well since Dell's motherboards are non-standard.

Are they all bad

So am I saying that you should never buy from one of the big guys?  Nope!  It all depends on what you want.  Sometimes it's best to get a name brand 'puter if it's a newbie's first 'puter.  The restore CD will come in handy :-)

Seriously, if you aren't concerned about the ability to upgrade, you don't play games, and speed is not that important, then buying a name brand will probably suit you best.  But if you are reading this page, chances are you don't fit the above description so you'd better start thinking about that new custom 'puter you're going to spec or build!

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Last Revised: 05/05/2001
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