Value Computer Dilemma: Build Cheap or Buy Used?

Over a decade ago a lot of the small “white box computer store” mom and pop shops closed up because they realized they could no longer build a computer cheaper than the big boys like Dell, Lenovo, HP, or Acer. In fact, they could no longer build a better computer for the same price. This was a shift from computers as a major purchase like an automobile or household appliance, to something more like a phone that you upgrade every few years.

If you are NOT a gamer, then you probably still need to upgrade your computer every once in a while. Generally this “once in a while” is when the user experience gets so bad that the PC is almost unusable, so at that point when you do need a “new” computer, is it better to assemble one, or buy a used computer?

Right now, without a doubt, the better buy is the used computer, for MOST people. Anyone in the business of using their computer for work purposes (graphic design, science/engineering, etc) is better off spending the money to get the best tool they can afford. Anyone who prefers their gear to be on warrantee with on call support is better off buying new, especially if they don’t have decent computer skills. But for people who just need to check email, surf the web, and maybe run Skype and a few games not maxed on resolution, the used PC market is where the value is. People who have enough time to troubleshoot a random driver error, used is great.

Right now the second through fourth generation iCore systems are on the used market, often for way less than 200 dollars with sofware license for Windows already part of the purchase cost. When you take say a 165 dollar Dell Optiplex (a random number I pulled for a random Dell Optiplex with third gen i5 processor today) and subtract the 120 dollar Win10 license fee, that’s a pretty good discount on the hardware. Even Newegg has a second gen core i7 laptop with good specs and activated windows 10 for just under two hundred bucks.

New computers, in the budget friendly realm start off cheap and go up in price to the multi thousand dollar Macs. If you fall into the category where new is the best for you, by all means buy a new computer, even one “customized” by the factory to your tastes.

So that leaves the builders. So when should you build? When you are looking for something other than a basic computer and you have enough computer skills to plug cables and turn a screwdriver. If you want a gaming system, you should build since you can still eke out a gaming system cheaper than buying a pre-built gaming system if you shop around for parts and don’t mind trading some of your time for cost savings. You should also build if you have a specific need where a particular processor is worth the added cost to you (for example you need to use hashcat a lot as part of your business helping clients recover lost passwords).

The other “when to build” answer is if you are more paranoid than not. Building is no guarantee that you won’t get system parts modified by some intelligence apparatus, but if you get components at Fry’s the odds of being targeted for surveillance by your purchase is much smaller.

I apologize if this advice is repetitive, but right now we exist in a state where even ten year old CPUs can run the latest version of Windows OS. Between 1990 and 2000 you had the difference between the 386 processor and the Pentium III, which was an amazing leap in performance. The next decade beyond that saw the rise of 64 bit x86 processors and then multi-core 64 bit processors. But now if you go back a decade, you are still looking at multi-core 64bit processors in the 2 to 3 gigahertz range, and while top end processors will tap out in the 4 gig range now, most mid/value oriented processors are still comfortably in the 3 gig range. What has changed is more efficient instructions per clock and specialized instruction sets on the CPU itself, but really processor speeds have significantly slowed in advances with most performance gains coming from more cores, increased efficiency in instructions per clock cycle (IPC) and more dedicated instruction set circuits built into the silicon. In short, processors are still getting better, amazingly so. But if you sit down at an eight year old workstation with a 3.2 gHz Xeon CPU and a new Core i7 and just surf the web and maybe watch some youtube videos, odds are really good you won’t be able to tell the difference. Newer is still better, but how much better is a very qualitative answer.

Comments are open.

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4 Responses to Value Computer Dilemma: Build Cheap or Buy Used?

  1. DW says:

    Pretty accurate assessment of the pros/cons of a build/buy used decision. Buying used is usually a better option assuming you know how to completely wipe the hard drive – especially the hardware vendor recovery partition ( and any other partitions ) prior to the O/S reinstall. I also suggest taking a hard look at the vendor default bios settings and set them according to what you are going to do with the pc.

    The only disagreement I have is why you are suggesting that Win10 is in any way an O/S for anyone wanting to run secure O/S to use. Microsoft (and all other major IT vendors) long ago lost any moral high-ground by conceding to Gov’t oversight/control. And while Microsoft has reluctantly made some concessions in regards to the security/privacy control features in Win10 – at this time there is no way to completely disable Microsoft’s intrusive privacy controls in Win10 unless you air gap it – but most folks need some level of internet functionality.

    With Win7 and Win8.1 there are ways to control the O/S – although it requires a very strict control over what security patches you install. Do a “startpage” search ( you are not using google I hope?) for “stop microsoft telemetry”. So I suggest anyone who values privacy stick with either of these two O/S’s.


    • rthtgnbs says:

      I understand your point, and can only answer that this post was really written with people who are on low or fixed incomes who want to skype with the grandkids. In my experience doing tech support, most users don’t worry at all about privacy, hell most users don’t worry at all about security, they want it to “just work” no matter what their paranoid security minded friends and tech support people tell them. Anyone who IS worried about privacy is going to be using something other than Win or Mac, essentially one of the more security oriented LInux distros like TAILS or Qubes.

      But, for those people, WIn10 is fine, sure Microsoft gets data, but it now part of the huge stream of data from users all over the planet. Since OSX is officially Apple hardware only, that leaves normal users with Microsoft, or the high learning curve of *nix, and my experience is that most users want nothing to do with *nix. And, if you really are the target of a nation state, you should definitely be in the “build” category or buying used, face to face, with some dude at a swap meet or something.


      • DW says:

        Sadly you are correct on how most people view or don’t care about security. Of course I would argue that is why vendors and gov’t get away with this crap and we need to educate folks, but it’s a lost cause I guess.


  2. Flash says:

    This is excellent advice. Having spent 40 years as what might be laughingly referred to as a ‘computer professional’ I’m often asked for friendly advice as to what is the ‘best’ computer for someone to buy. What you suggest is almost the same as what I propose.

    The only thing I add is that if they want a computer to just play with, or more likely for their STEM interested daughter or son to peek and poke around on ( obligatory reference to BASIC ), they may want to consider a very small SBC like a raspberry pi. Lots of fun and when things get messed up, and they should if your doing it right, reflashing the SD card is a no-brainer.


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