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Pros and cons of pre-built desktop PCs (and why you might want to build your own)

Pros and cons of pre-built desktop PCs (and why you might want to build your own)
Pros and cons of pre-built desktop PCs (and why you might want to build your own)

There's an ongoing debate between those who build their own PCs and those who buy them pre-built. There's really nothing wrong with either option — both methods can and do deliver a satisfactory product — but they are not exactly the same. I've had plenty of time with custom and pre-built PCs, and I'm ready to offer some insight into both sides of the argument.

Benefits of buying a pre-built desktop PC

To clarify, I'm not talking about all-in-one (AiO) PCs here; I'm strictly sticking to towers and the hardware inside, which requires a separate display plugged in. If you are interested in AiO PCs, check out these links.

Pre-built PCs can be easy and cheap to buy

HP Pavilion Wave

Most major laptop manufacturers — ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc. — also have a focus on pre-built desktop PCs for those who don't have time to shop around for parts or those who just don't need to be hitting any benchmarks. Many people just need a budget desktop PC that can browse the internet or handle word processing, and many need it now.

Instead of waiting for sales on parts or for everything to finally arrive from different vendors, you can grab a pre-built budget PC from one place and promptly have it working for you. These budget PCs usually come in a few configurations and price points, making it somewhat possible to get close to what you want.

See the best pre-built desktop PCs

Pre-built PCs come with a warranty

Pre-built PCs come with a warranty

Most pre-built desktop PCs you buy new will come with a warranty, which means in the case of a faulty piece of hardware inside you can ship the entire thing away and not have to worry about diagnosing the problem yourself. This provides a bit of peace-of-mind for those who have no interest in tinkering with their PC, but there is a downside.

If you indeed do have to send your PC away for repair, you're without that PC for the duration. If you depend on that machine to get your work done, what might only have been a thirty-minute fix can turn into a week away being repaired. If you are inclined to attempt a fix yourself, you might not even be able to get inside the case lest you void the warranty.

Pre-built PCs come with technical support

There are thousands of legitimate online resources when it comes to getting help with your PC — including our own Windows Central forum — but dedicated technical support from a manufacturer can be the difference between a false diagnosis and getting back to work.

Sure, if there's a problem with hardware you'll likely be without a PC for a while as it's being repaired, but pretty much any other problems you have can be solved with the help of a support staff member, often in only a matter of minutes. If the idea of traversing the world of PC troubleshooting raises the hair on the back of your neck, the support that comes with a pre-built might be the deciding factor.

Downsides of buying a pre-built desktop PC

Now that I've explored the benefits of a pre-built desktop, let's take a look at why you might want to build a PC yourself the next time you're in the market for something new.

You often can't get the exact configuration you need

You often can't get the exact configuration you need

Having an idea in mind of what you're going to be using your PC for is a great way of sticking to your budget when shopping for something new. If you're going to be multi-tasking, you might need a bunch of RAM, but the desktop PC you're interested in only has a high-RAM configuration that also comes with a beefy graphics card (GPU) that you really won't utilize.

Sure, this is a single scenario, but overall you'll find it much harder to get exactly what you need if you decide to buy a pre-built PC. There are exceptions; Origin is known to offer some extensive configuration options (opens in new tab), but then again you're paying a premium for the convenience.

Pre-built PCs are often harder to upgrade

RAM (Image credit: Windows Central)

When buying a pre-built PC, it's never a bad idea to look to the future. How long do you want the PC to remain relevant? Are you prepared to buy something new when it becomes underpowered or no longer suits your needs?

Unfortunately, a lot of pre-built PCs are difficult — if not impossible — to upgrade down the road. Sure, you might be able to slip in another stick of RAM or a faster solid-state drive (SSD) depending on the PC, but overall you won't have the freedom to do as much as with something you build yourself. Likewise, due to the compact size of many pre-built PC towers, adding a best graphics card pick or a secondary storage drive, is not possible.

Why upgrading a budget PC yourself might not be worth it

One faulty part can bring down an entire pre-built PC

Install GPU

Those who build their own PCs usually have a pretty good idea of what a faulty part looks or sounds like. They might be able to diagnose an HDD that's on its way out just by the clicking it makes, or they might be able to pick up on symptoms of a faulty power supply unit (PSU) before it has a chance to do any serious damage to other hardware.

PSUs seem to have a bit of a bad reputation in pre-built PCs, and dealing with them often means you're sending away the entire unit to be repaired instead of just buying a new PSU and swapping it out. The same holds true for other hardware as well; it can be extremely frustrating knowing the source of your problem and wanting to fix it, only you can't because it would void a warranty.

What about gaming?

Phanteks P400 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Gaming PCs, both custom- and pre-built, are a bit of a different animal, though all the benefits and downsides mostly still apply. While budget and medium-range pre-built PCs can be had for a reasonable and often competitive price, once you start looking at performance hardware, prices can get a bit silly.

Windows Central Staff Reviewer (and gaming PC guru) Rich Edmonds has built plenty of custom gaming PCs, and has this to say on the subject:

When it comes to gaming PCs, it's all about performance. Performance is key to the overall system and is always at the forefront of any gamer's mind. While a new owner of a pre-built PC may not push an unlocked Intel Core-i3 processor to its limit, running intense games would, causing quite the bottleneck when paired with a capable GPU.This is where custom PCs are generally considered to be the better choice for PC gaming, allowing you to not only save money — though prices of pre-built systems have come down — but also retain the ability to choose exactly what parts you need and easily upgrade in future.

While Rich primarily uses a PC he built from the ground up, I've been using a pre-built gaming PC for about a year, which is a big change from my usual collection of towers and parts lying around. The pre-built desktop in question is the ASUS ROG G20 (opens in new tab), designed as an Oculus-ready PC right out of the box. In my experience, there have been minimal issues with the machine, other than some random PSU issues that likely have to do with powering its own hardware as well as the stuff required for VR.

ASUS ROG G20

While it's been a mostly worry-free experience, the size of the case doesn't allow for the upgrades needed to keep it relevant, and cooling seems to be a bit of an issue, with no option to add any extra fans. The price is also pretty high; this PC sits at about $1,800 (opens in new tab), whereas you could no doubt build something similar or superior for hundreds less.

You can indeed find pre-built gaming PCs that have plenty of customization options and lots of room for upgrades — Alienware's Aurora (opens in new tab) is a perfect example — but again you run into an issue of spending more money for the same hardware.

What does all this mean? Pre-built PCs are a suitable option if you don't need anything that will blow the roof off performance-wise, whereas building your own PC can save you money in the long run when it comes to gaming. If you'd like to tackle building your own PC, we have an extensive guide that can help you every step of the way.

More resources

Still looking for some great pre-built PCs or more information on the topic? These links have what you need.

Updated March 6, 2018: I've updated this article to ensure you're still getting relevant information when shopping for a new PC.

Cale Hunt
Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.

22 Comments
  • "Due to the compact size of many pre-built PC towers, adding extra parts, like a bigger GPU or a secondary storage drive, is not possible" That's a really good point. We have a pre-built PC we bought about 5 years ago. Since then I have swapped out or upgraded pretty much everything except for the motherboard, CPU, fans, and the case itself. Put in a better PSU that takes up a lot more space. More RAM that takes up space. GPU about 8 times the size of the original one. Extra hard drive. Extra network card after the motherboard's default one had some issues. It is now extremely crowded any time I need to open it up, ends up a fairly delicate shoving everything back in enough to close it without blocking fans or accidentally bumping a cable out again.
  • We're in the same boat. We'd love to upgrade our pre-built computers but it's pretty cramped and we'd have to upgrade the PSU in addition to getting a new GPU and then get around Lenovo's built-in efforts to sabotage anyone who wants to upgrade the PC.
  • For me, the biggest advantage to building your own is being able to find really great hardware on Craigslist and other used markets. If you are patient, you can build a high end machine on a very tight budget. Sometimes I can even use a component for a year or two and sell it for a similar price or even a profit (thanks cryptocurrency!) When I am ready to upgrade. There is some risk with having no warranty. You have to be a bit careful, but I haven't had any issues with buying defective components.
  • I got the ASUS ROG G20 a couple weeks back on a sale that had it down around $1,200 from the $1,800 price.  It's been good for me so far.  
  • The only reason I would build my own PC is if I was building a gaming rig. It's simply too expensive to buy them off the shelf. You save hundreds self-building, IME. Since moving all of my gaming to consoles, I don't see a point in going through the trouble, and honestly I'd get an Apple laptop because the screens and sound are consistently good in the, and the OS requires literally no maintenance (IME). Windows ecosystem requires too much "review hunting" to the point that it is no longer worth the effort for me to purchase in that market. I prefer to just walk into the Apple store, say "I'll take that one" and be done with it. This is also why I moved my desktop to Mac. It took 5 minutes to decide on which machine I wanted, rather than 2 months or review hunting and second guessing...
  • Nothing more satisfying, gratifying than hitting that power button and it booting into the windows installer. It's legos for adults, it's a hobby, and it's not necessary, but it's so fun and you enter a whole new level of nerd with a custom built pc that cannot be denied.
  • Exactly this, nothing better than the satisfaction of building a pc to your own exact specs and budget
  • The only prebuilt i am buying is a gaming laptop, not alien ware but more humanly priced machines, desktop, if i aint building i aint doing it. have gone through 3 enterprise machines swapping out parts in the last 6 or so years, finally made enough money to build my own, just waiting for the parts to arrive. problem with swapping out parts is compatibility with aftermarket hardware, dell for instance had this ridiculous idea of an 8pin psu mobo connector and thus i had to flog a pretty good machine because i could not get a good psu or add a gpu to fit in without a million adapters. so custom it is.
  • There is also a middle way. Pre-Configured PC. In Germany we have a bunch of companies doing that (one.de is the one trust). They are (of cause) more expensive than buying components by yourself, but it just saves you time for builing and testing. And since you get the hardware you want (e.g. there was no PC with an i5-6600 and a GTX1070 with a decent cooling solution), they are cheaper for your needs than the mass products.
  • We have a something similar in the UK called PCSpecialist. My laptop is from there. They do their own prebuilt and preconfigured PCs. Both desktop, laptop, and all in one. Pretty good value too.
  • Most local PC shops will do similar things. They'll offer a range of unbranded PC's, but you can customise it completely if you want. I did it some time ago for some office PC's and they offered good suggestions & alternatives without me having to research everything. Having everything built for me was nice for a change...
  • "It's legos for adults" That's the most astute observation I've ever seen about do-it-yourself rigs. It truly is Lego for adults. You don't build your own PC to save money or because it's more configurable. You build it because it's Lego. The risk of do-it-yourself is that you fry the mobo or connect something wrong before you even get it up and running. I've seen ESD (electrostatic discharge) happen more than once over the years to a home built rig. And, you also often have the issue of mismatched PSU and mobo requirements--either too little or too much. Overkill is not always good! Plus, the bane of nearly every do-it-yourself rig is compatibility. Pre-configured OEM machines come with predictable hardware that has been pre-selected for compatibility by experienced engineers. Your home-built rig is the antithesis of that. No matter how much R&D you do you're only one person with a very small sample size. Dell has hundreds of thousands of samples. They know what hardware fails and when. Mere mortals don't have access to that information. My last home built rig was built based off a well documented set of components collated by experienced do-it-yourselfers. I've run into considerable (though not insurmountable) problems with Windows 10 instability due to component incompatibility. I build my rigs for fun and to learn. For me it's Lego so fixing the problem is as much fun sometimes as using the computer anyway! But, if you're doing it to save money you might be getting less than you bargained for. In Dutch there's the saying "Goedkoop is duurkoop" which sums up the pitfalls of do-it-yourself. A cheap buy may, in the end, cost you more. I recently spoke to someone who dropped $2.5K on an "at cost" rig for their son. On paper the components were stunning. In practice, the computer is so riddled with problems that it's effectively dead ($2.5K down the drain). Had they dropped $2.5K on an off-the-shelf desktop it may have been slightly less stunning, but, it would've come with warranty (which would get it past the initial hurdles) and there wouldn't be problems with incompatibilities or dead components (I don't doubt that the intial build did cost that much). For that matter, $2.5 K would've bought you a pretty fancy Mac which would retain its resale value for years to come. Oh well. tl;dr. If you're into Lego, definitely build your own. If you're not, accept that you need to spend a little more to save money in the long run.
  • Sorry, can't agree that your fancy Mac would retain its value for years to come. It may depreciate more slowly, but depreciate it surely will. Plus, you paint a very pessimistic view of self built PCs. I've been building mine for 15 years now and have no plans to stop. I stuck a new one together just a few months ago to replace one which had served me well for over 4 years. I then sold the old components on Ebay. As with everything though, it's horses for courses. Earlier this year I bought a prebuilt for my mother. It was simpler and saved any issues with fine tuning a new build. Clearly self builds are for enthusiasts who have with the time, energy and knowledge to see a project through and then maintain it.
  • You've basically agreed with me while claiming to disagree. I'm impressed :). It feels like you've essentially wholeheartedly agreed with my thesis: "You don't build your own PC to save money or because it's more configurable. You build it because it's Lego." The only reason you can justify building a machine to "save money" is because you don't perceive your own time as having monetary value. I spend a lot of time to sell items on eBay, far more than I get back from the time investment. My children are only a few years away from wanting an income stream. When that happens I'm going to off-load the job of selling/disposing of old tech onto them. There really isn't much value in me selling a $50 CPU on eBay when you consider the time that I have to devote to posting the item, responding to inquiries, wrapping the item and then shipping it. I get paid considerably more than that on a pro-rated hourly basis at my day job and can earn much more than that on an hourly basis doing "mundane" extra work on the side if I felt so motivated. I haven't bothered selling old components because the extra $20 simply isn't worth my time investment (it's not like they take up a lot of space ;). But, despite that I still build my own computers and fiddling with existing ones--because, to me, my computers are Lego :). I'm confused about the disconnect between "[I] can't agree that your fancy Mac would retain its value for years to come" and "it may depreciate more slowly". That's the whole point. Macs depreciate slowly, much more slowly than their pre-built Windows counter-parts. They depreciate even more slowly than a custom built project. For example, a Mac mini from 2010 sells for between 50% and 66% of its 2010 purchase price in 2017. The Mac mini from 2010 fetched--at the time--maybe a 20-30% premium over a comparably spec'd Wintel machine (based on CPU and memory alone... and the Wintel machines were much bigger) and it was considerably cheaper than a comparable build-quality machine of the same size (for that matter, you likely couldn't buy a machine that size with that build qualtiy). You'd have a hard time giving away a Wintel machine from 2010, let alone selling it for 50% of what you paid for it now. That's SEVEN YEAR OLD HARDWARE! (the reason I pick the Mac mini is because I recently looked at the numbers).
  • You really make it seem harder than it is. My brother and I have been building our own PCs and upgrading them since 2001. I have never come across incompatibility or buggy issues that I can remember except problems recovering from Windows sleep mode with certain motherboards. Parts are pretty well standardized, so we often buy whatever is on a deep discount that week, we don't do this extensive research on forums. edit: just look at reviews on Newegg/Amazon for failure rates and you are good
  • Why I might want to build my own PC? Because Customization is dope.
  • Myself, I build my own to keep up my career skills. As for performance, that's optional. I'm playing a game right now at 60fps on an i3 with a tolerable video card and I'm having fun. Did you hear that internet? I'm having fun. Saying that PC gaming is about performance is what keeps people out of the PC gaming market when we want more people in the PC gaming market. You can have lots of fun with a modest build if you accept less than the best. Most games have lots of wiggle room. PC gaming is a fun hobby where getting performance from your computer is a fun but optional part of the hobby, just like case-modding, retro-gaming, and hardware salvaging are fun but optional parts of the hobby. There's lots of room for everyone on every budget.
  • Reason i always buy Pre Built systems is i'm terrible at building systems, tried back in 2000, and 2001, both times the machine did not boot afterwards,  Plus with Pre Built warranty for repairs or issues, 24/7 support for the entire system,  just bought a newer Pre built in September 2017,  Asus G11CD Gaming Desktop, my first ever Intel based system since 2003,  Previously used only AMD based systems.    Performance is great, video card i know i can upgrade later on as been reviews on youtube of folks upgrading the video card in this prebuilt.     Maybe someday in the way way way future i'll be able to build my own successfully, but at this point and time don't t hink i am capable of doing that    
  • I started in 2001 as well and I also remember those nervous initial non-POST boots, but they were usually something like RAM in the wrong slot (the numbering was reversed etc.). But let me tell you things are FAR easier now. Compatibility is pretty much a non-issue, and Newegg/Amazon reviews show which components have a high failure rate. Give it a try next time :)
  • Yeah will give it a try next time when i got the funds to afford components, and hopefully goes well.  Did just upgrade the Power supply on my Asus G11CD system, now just to wait for video card prices to go down, and hopefully not pain in the rear upgrading video card on this Pre Built, shall see when the time comes  
  • Pre-built PCs often come with OEM components that are not supported by the component manufacturer so that you are reliant on the assembler of the system for any driver updates and solving problems. Mine could not be updated to windows 8 because of a lack of a driver. Dell used to be the worst but have apparently improved. They can also have older versions of components. I want to get a new laptop but many of the pre-built ones come with ancient Bluetooth chips. I'm therefore reconsidering and may get a cheaper laptop and build my own desktop. Oh how I wish it were possible to custom build a laptop.
  • I have a forewarning for any PC enthusiast or any PC building newb. Be weary of long graphics cards that have heavy custom (OEM) coolers. On some motherboards, these cards will slowly pull out parts of the pci express socket out - the further the gpu goes from the i/o ports on the card - the greater the pull on the pci-express socket. Because that is what's happening to my PC and the motherboard is dying on me.