If you build it, will it run?

When Jim Desmond needed a new PC a few years ago, he figured that he could save a few bucks by building it himself. He was right— but the adventure wasn’t without other costs.

“I spent at least one entire week of evenings just doing research, before I even started building,” says Desmond, manager of information protection at a large financial institution. Since that first try, Desmond has built a dozen more systems for himself and others, and he says that the process has gotten easier each time as he’s gained experience and as parts have become less difficult to assemble. “It used to be sort of like building a car,” says the Cleveland native. “These days it’s more like putting together a cabinet.”

Once a hobby of supergeeks, PC building is going mainstream. Stores like Best Buy and CompUSA are playing up their selection of motherboards, and companies like Memorex are selling products to customize PCs and cases.

The option of rolling your own PC can be attractive: If everything goes according to plan, you end up with exactly the system you want and maybe save some dough in the process. But of course, things don’t always go according to plan, even for technically savvy users. If you’re on the fence, ask yourself these questions:

Will this project be a pleasure or a pain? If you truly enjoy tinkering with tech toys and chasing down the cause of mysterious error messages, you won’t mind (too much) if a particularly stubborn problem crops up. If you don’t, you could end up with nothing more than an impressive collection of parts, an inflated credit card bill, and a migraine headache.

Are you doing it because you’re a cheapskate? If so, be careful. Building a system from parts can certainly save you some cash, but mostly on midlevel to high-end, highly customized systems. Though you may be able to cobble together a basic system for a couple hundred bucks, you may also find yourself replacing those cheesy components in a few months.

If you’re just looking for an inexpensive, reliable machine, you can buy a ready-made one — with a warranty — from many reputable vendors for US$500 or less.

Do you have plenty of spare time? Like most do-it-yourself projects, building a computer will probably take at least twice as long as you expect. Experts say that first-timers should plan on at least two weeks to properly research, order parts, and build a computer. If you need to be up and running quickly, or if you have other demands on your time (such as a job, a family, or a houseplant) building might not make sense for you.

Do you mind being your own tech support department? If the prospect of an inexplicable hardware failure in the middle of the night makes you feel like the mission commander in 2001: A Space Odyssey after HAL went haywire, think long and hard before you commit to building. Most component manufacturers do offer warranty coverage for their parts, but you may not be able to tell whether a particular problem is due to a faulty part or some other incompatibility. And keeping track of the individual warranties for each component can be a headache.

Before you build

If you’ve decided you were born to build, great. But before you start pricing motherboards, consider the following tips, which I’ve culled from a handful of self-builders who’ve been there, done that, and learned from their mistakes. They might just save you some ibuprofen.

Know what you want. Before you order a single component, decide exactly the system you want, just as you would if you were buying a vendor-built machine. Once you’ve figured out what you’ll be using the computer for, you can focus on finding parts that will best fit the bill.

Do your homework. Plenty of books, articles, and Web sites out there can help you navigate your way to PC perfection.

Rob Williams, a software developer and computer game designer in Longwood, Fla., started his own Web site, www.MySuperPC.com, after constructing his first PC from scratch. The site offers a cornucopia of advice on everything from choosing components and vendors to avoiding typical newbie problems. Another helpful site is HardwareCentral, which includes pages of easy-to-follow information about all things hardware.

And ask friends, family, and coworkers for their two cents; you may be surprised at how many closet PC builders are out there.

Build a budget. And stick to it. After all, one of the reasons to build your own is to save money, right? Shane Rau, a technology industry analyst and build-it-yourself veteran in Palo Alto, Calif., recommends that builders set a budget based on the cost of buying their ideal PC from a commercial PC maker. “Overspending is a common pitfall for first-time builders,” says Rau. “If you go into the project with an idea of what the retail price would be, you’ll be a lot less likely to buy overpriced or unnecessary components.”

Buy the good stuff. Snapping up a US$50 motherboard or US$20 hard drive to beat the budget may be tempting, but you’ll probably regret it if you do. MySuperPC.com’s Williams considers purchasing bargain-basement components the biggest mistake a new computer builder can make. “I don’t know how many times builders who bought cheap components have asked me why their system won’t work,” says Williams. “I tell them to ask the outfit they bought it from.”

Protect yourself. Check the warranty details on every part you get, and test each component before its warranty expires. “Make sure everything you buy is returnable,” advises PC builder Desmond.

Should you attempt to build your own PC? If you’re prepared to do a lot of work and to deal with some potential frustration, you just might be rewarded with the system of your dreams — along with the satisfaction and knowledge that you’ll gain from having done it yourself.

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