It used to be a commonly held belief that if you wanted the best bang for your buck in a PC, then you had to build your own. But times change.
PC prices have plummeted and people have started buying laptops as appliances, using them for up to four years before buying replacements.
So does that mean there’s no value in building your own PC anymore? Or is still possible to get a high-value system for less money? If there are savings, are they enough to be worth the effort? Let’s take a look at some prices to find out.
What the Average PC Needs
Before we start pricing parts, let’s do a quick check of everything we need. Note: We won’t go into the details of which exact parts to get or how to fit them together. Check out our comprehensive guide to building your own PC for that.
The CPU is the brain of your system and is the first component you should choose (unless you’re building a gaming PC, in which case you might want to start with the graphics card).
There’s a mind-boggling number of processor options available, but for most users, the choice usually boils down to either the Intel Core i3 (entry-level), i5 (mid-range) and i7 (high-end) processors.
Typical Price for CPU: $100-$500
The motherboard is the backbone of your system and the part to which all your other components attach. It also contains USB ports and other ports, and possibly Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. You need to ensure that your motherboard is compatible with all of your chosen parts and that it fits in your computer case.
Typical Price for Motherboard: $50-$200
You might also consider the Mini-ITX form factor for building your PC.
RAM is one of the areas that PC manufacturers are notorious for skimping on, which is sad because it’s one of the most effective and most affordable upgrades you can make to your PC. If you want extra RAM in a pre-built machine, it’s almost a given that you will pay way over market value.
Typical Price for Memory: $60-$90 (8GB)
Depending on the type of system you’re building, the graphics card may be optional.
If you’re building a gaming PC, then you should pick a good graphics card first so that you can build the rest of your system around it. For non-gaming PCs, modern Intel and AMD CPUs have integrated graphics support and will suffice. Most low-end to mid-range PCs make do with this.
Typical Price for GPU: $60-$500
For storage your choices are between a traditional hard disk drive (HDD) — cheaper, much higher capacity, slower — and a solid state drive (SSD) — smaller, lower capacity, much faster.
Some higher end systems make use of both, with the operating system stored on the SSD for best performance and data stored on the larger but slower HDD. For the average user, it’s enough to get one. Whether you should pick HDD or SSD will depend on your personal preference.
Typical Price for Storage: $30-$300
The power supply is another area where it’s easy to cut costs. The benefits of paying more include getting a modular unit (which improves airflow within the case) and greater energy efficiency, which may save you come money in the long term. Most importantly, you need to have the correct wattage for your hardware.
If you’re looking for recommendations in this area, take a look our our list of the best PSUs for PC builders.
Typical Price for Power Supply: $40-$200
You may or may not need extra fans to help keep your system cool. Most computer cases come with at least one fan, and most processors and graphics cards and power supplies each have dedicated fans as well.
If your computer case ends up being too poor at circulating air, you can always install more fans at a later time.
Typical Price for Fans: $20-$100
There are a huge array of case sizes. The most important thing is that it fits your motherboard and all the components attached to it. Here are the best PC cases we recommend.
Typical Price for Case: $50-$300
Extras and Optionals
On top of the basics, you may need to add a few additional items. These could include a wireless card (if your motherboard doesn’t have one built in) and an optical drive (e.g. a DVD drive) but only if you need one.
We’re going to assume you already have a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, but if you don’t then you’ll have to factor in the price of those, too.
When pricing up your custom-built PC, you mustn’t forget to include the cost of an operating system to power it. You can run a Linux distro like Ubuntu for free, but if you want Windows you’ll need to pay retail prices for it — and retail Windows isn’t exactly cheap.
Windows 10 Home costs around $100 for consumers. In comparison, PC makers were thought to pay between $15 and $50 for a Windows 8.1 licence. A big discount, but not so big that it forces you to decide one way or another.
Typical Price for OS: $100
How Much to Build Your Own?
So, you know what you need to buy and roughly how much each part costs. Let’s now take a look at three actual systems and see how much it would cost you to build an equivalent machine.
We’ll get our pre-built PCs from Best Buy and compare them to individual component prices listed at PCPartPicker.com, which also checks for compatibility issues. Check out our look at the PC Part Picker site for more details.
Entry-Level System: $449 vs. $503
The Dell Inspiron Desktop (model I3847-6162BK) is one of the top-selling entry-level PCs at Best Buy. It has an Intel Core i3 processor at 3.7GHz, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive storage, and integrated graphics. The normal price is $449.
We were able to price up an equivalent self-built PC for $503, not including the keyboard and mouse that Dell PCs include.
Performance System: $729 vs. $679
Next, the HP Envy desktop (model 750-114) which is for sale at Best Buy for $729.99.
Here are the prices for the key parts:
- CPU: Intel Core i5 3.2GHz — $175.88
- RAM: 12GB 1600MHz — $69.99
- Storage: 2TB 7200rpm — $67.89
- Graphics: Integrated — $0
- OS: Windows 10 — $93.89
- Case: Mid-tower — $68.69
Add in a CPU cooler, motherboard, optical drive, mouse, and keyboard and we’re able to put together an equivalent system for $679.34. That’s a $50 savings, and if you choose Linux over Windows it’s closer to $150.
Gaming System: $1299 vs. $1023
Finally, a gaming system. The Asus model G20AJ-B11 has an i7 processor, GeForce GTX 960 graphics card, and 16GB RAM. The regular price on Best Buy is $1299.99.
Here’s what we get for individual parts:
- CPU: Intel Core i7 4.0GHz — $317.99
- RAM: 16GB 1600MHz — $74.99
- Storage: 2TB 7200rpm — $67.89
- Graphics: GeForce GTX 960 — $209.99
- OS: Windows 8.1 — $86.89
With the other parts, including motherboard, power supply, case, and so on, we were able to get the price to $1023.63. This savings of $276 would enable us to double the RAM or upgrade the graphics card to one even stronger.
If we opted to build a Steam Machine for gaming instead of using Windows, we’d be able to get the price well below $1000.
Our Recommendation Is…
The pattern seems clear. At the budget end of the market, the margins are so low that it’s difficult to undercut the price of a pre-built PC, and any savings you can make on the hardware will likely be cancelled out by the $100 price of a copy of Windows 10.
When you move toward the mid-range, savings become possible. It may not be enough to warrant the extra effort involved in building your own PC, but it’s certainly worth exploring.
It’s at the top end of the market where the benefits of building your own PC become pronounced. Not only are you able to make savings on equivalently-specced machines, but you also get to tailor the specs to your exact needs. Broadly speaking, the more niche your PC requirements, the better off you’ll be building your own.
Of course, this is all based on you starting from scratch. The real beauty of a custom-built PC is that you can easily build in future upgrade paths. This enables you to update individual components as needed and keep your PC running for longer than a store-bought model ever could.
For other tools you may not think of when assembling your PC, check out our list of things every PC builder needs.
Image credits: setting a video card by Mny-Jhee via Shutterstock, Intel Core i7 via intel.com, Motherboard via MATSUOKA Kohei, RAM via crucial.com, GTX 970 via nvidia.com, Hard drive via William Warby, Power supply via corsair.com, Fan via Laineema, PC case via corsair.com, DVD drive via yoppy, Build a PC via StooMathiesen