Q: How do (custom-built computer) systems differ from the (name-brand) computer biggies? Are they better? How do they compare on price? -Tom

A: With Windows Vista on the horizon (Jan. 30th), many folks are starting the mental process of buying a new computer. With so many options for your next computer, understanding the differences in vendors is the best place to start.

The first thing to understand about Windows-based systems is that no one is “manufacturing” computers; everyone assembles common parts to create a “computer system.” In other words, when you buy a brand, you are simply buying from a company that put together components manufactured by many other companies.

When you look at the inside of any name-brand or custom built computer, for the most part, you will find the same basic parts: Seagate or Maxtor HD, Intel or AMD processor, etc.

So the difference is not what is inside as much as who decided what to put inside (quality of the components, exact models, etc.) and more important, what happens after the sale (service).

Name brand computers that sit on a store shelf are generally pre-designated configurations that are a “take it or leave it” proposition. If the system comes with a low quality video card, you don’t have the option of changing that one component; you must go to the next model up. This approach of trying to put everyone into specific computer configurations is what allows national companies to drive down production costs on a per unit basis.

The primary focus for the national “biggies” is price. If they can reduce the price by going with a lesser component, they will do whatever they can to “hit a price point.”

Mass produced computers have another lesser discussed issue; by the time the computer goes through the production, distribution, chain distribution and store stocking cycle, it could be over six to eight months old. (Be especially careful with “closeout” specials!)

While this doesn’t sound like very long, many things will change in that period of time, especially in the area of security updates (Windows patches, virus protection, spyware protection, etc.)

A new computer missing critical security updates requires the new user to immediately update all of the security software from behind a hardware firewall (this could take hours for a novice) or they are open to multiple attacks as soon as they connect to the Internet.

In addition, processor speeds, video card improvements, amount of memory and a host of other hardware specification can change dramatically in those 6 to 8 months.

Custom-built computers reduce the exposure to these time related issues, give you more control over the exact configuration and are typically associated with companies that have a better “service after the sale” program, but they typically cost more (10-20%).

If all you care about is price and you can manage all of your own computer problems, then mass-produced, price-driven companies will offer you the best value.

If you’re not a computer whiz and know you are going to need assistance after you buy the computer, you need to understand what your on-going service options are before you make the purchase.

Can you take your system back to the place that you bought it and show someone the problem that you are experiencing, or do you have to explain everything over the phone? Do you (or they) have to ship the computer to a service center in the event of hardware failure? Do you know how long it will take to get your computer back from a warranty service process? What is your time worth? Are you willing to pay more for local service?

The bottom line is not what brand of computer you buy, but who you are buying it from. The mark of a great company becomes evident when it has to resolve a problem, so do your best to understand that process before you make any buying decisions.

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services
Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show
Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers

[tags]ken colburn, data doctors, custom built computer, off the shelf computer, name brand[/tags]