Build Or Buy? Five Sub-$500 Store-Bought Systems Compared

Have you ever claimed you could build a faster machine than top-tier vendors, but needed proof? We dig into five off-the-shelf sub-$500 configurations to figure out what they can and cannot do. The results probably won't surprise Tom's Hardware regulars.

Occasionally, someone asks us to recommend a desktop gaming system. A pre-built gaming system. That tends to catch us off-guard because it cuts against our natural instinct as enthusiasts who construct platforms piece by piece. We're always on the hunt for better performance, but that means we need the freedom to pick and choose parts that work well together. When you buy a pre-built system, you largely give up customization in favor of convenience (or, at the very least, a price premium).

To be fair, there are some benefits to buying a system built by someone else. There’s a certain attraction to not getting your hands dirty, and there's no arguing that the price tags you see at retail stores have been dropping in recent years. However, buying a system, even at today’s discounted prices, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the most out of your money. Cheap isn’t the same thing as value. A computer’s worth is just as much about performance as it is about cost.

March 2011 Gaming PCMarch 2011 Gaming PC

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to buy a pre-built machine. You only need two minutes, a credit card, and a device with Internet access. Building requires significantly more effort: time spent shopping for each part, plus you need to know which component combinations deliver the best experience. And then there's the build process itself. Generally that goes well, but we'll all had our share of run-ins with compatibility issues and hardware that lands dead on arrival.

Really, this is what separates the enthusiast willing to do some homework and his mom or dad, who oftentimes don't have the patience, time, or interest to learn what cards plug into what slots. There's an in-between approach, too. Buy a complete system for convenience's sake, and as it gets older add upgrades here and there to suit. Is that any more worthwhile for keeping a machine gaming-worthy?

Today we're pitting building against buying in the entry-level space in order to gauge the difference. We gave ourselves a $500 budget and bought five pre-configured desktop PCs in our quest for cheap performance. Using our recent $500 Gaming PC as a reference point, we're curious to see how five builders measure up to the configuration picked by Tom's Hardware writer Paul Henningsen.

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  • jeff77789
    the first paragraph got me........
  • jeff77789
    Also, on another note, the money that you have to pay just to get an operating system like Windows simply takes too much out of your budget if you are going for $500 as your max. i wouldn't suggest building unless your budget is >$550
  • JohnnyLucky
    Grandma's idea of gaming is a few rounds of Solitaire. The pre-builts will do for her.
  • cknobman
    hmmm what is up with the crappy big vendor choices only? If you ordered these online why not go with a "boutique" vendor.

    I just configured an iBuyPower rig for $489. It has Athlon X2 250, 4gb Ram, 500GB HDD, 500w Power Supply, Liquid cooling, Radeon 6570. For $24 more bucks I could get a 6670.

    I know its not a killer machine but it puts these big box vendors to shame.
  • sinfulpotato
    On a real budget I wouldn't get a 6850. Even more so if you are staying below 500 clams. There are power house GPUs that can be had for less then 100 dollars. My 4850 still runs strong and as shown by Tom's very own review a Athlon x4 will compete with the Phenom x4.

    Also if you already have windows OEM you can get it reactivated on a new PC if you get the right Microsoft rep, also lie about motherboard dieing and not replaceable... Some will choke up a code.
  • lordravage
    I have a real problem with this article. It isn't comparing a $500 prebuilt system to a $500 home build at all. It compares 5 computers from Best Buy that range from $299 to $409, versus a $500 machine that lacks an OS, mouse and keyboard. Factor everything in and the home build costs almost TWICE as much as the cheapest competitor.

    I know you mentioned the discrepancies in the article, but if you aren't going to try a little harder to make a good comparison you shouldn't even make the article. Shop around online at better retailers than Best Buy, find the very best systems you can that cost about $550, THEN compare those to your own system.

    I still expect the prebuilt systems to fall behind, but the article we have here isn't even a real comparison.
  • deadcold94
    constructive criticism but on i think its page 5 your adobe photoshop graph has a 1 instead of an 11. thanks for fixing it; when and if your do.


    If you're a serious FPS gamer, don't waste your money on a pre-build. Do the research and have a computer built for you or build it yourself. You'll spend the same price most likely and come out with a much better machine. The difference is the cost of the name brand.
  • vaughn2k
    I can build a better system for U$450.00
  • cmcghee358
    Why wasn't the $500 Homebuilt PC placed on the chart to show comparison?

    All you did was compared the systems performance and then list the Custom-built specs at the end without any benchmark comparison.

    I was going to use this article for ALL of my friends to understand why they should build their own. But, since you guys compared the rainbow of feces available at Best Buy without showing the splendor that is home build, it's useless.

    Come on...
  • alikum
    cknobmanhmmm what is up with the crappy big vendor choices only? If you ordered these online why not go with a "boutique" vendor.I just configured an iBuyPower rig for $489. It has Athlon X2 250, 4gb Ram, 500GB HDD, 500w Power Supply, Liquid cooling, Radeon 6570. For $24 more bucks I could get a 6670.I know its not a killer machine but it puts these big box vendors to shame.

    iBuyPower is not globally available
  • rohitbaran

    I second that. If I hadn't bought it on steam, I would have sold it somewhere. It is bad compared to the first in terms of gameplay and even graphics. Yeah, Crytek are touting that they made a better looking game with lesser system requirements, but that is not true.
  • boletus
    I have been looking for an article along these lines for some time, and this one was informative at least. However, I do agree with some of the criticisms regarding the unfairness of the comparison.

    But here is a real challenge for Tom's that I would like to see: what can you build for $300-400 that includes what the pre-built's supply (keyboard and mouse, OS, etc)? Yes, I know the builder will have to receive therapy once it is over, but maybe you could let him throw it out a third-story window when the article is finished.

    Let's assume you can get the OS at the discounted rate Dell or HP gets, and you can even add $50 to your budget by pre-loading crapware if you want. I won't expect the labor cost to be added in, since the assumption is that someone is doing this on their own time.

    If you can beat the performance of those off-the-shelf pieces of carp, even by a little, I will be impressed (and happy to know it can be done). Now that is a real challenge: is anyone there strong enough to take it on?
  • drakepandor
    I found this article to be quite lacking. You say you looked for the best sub $500 pre-built to compare to your system (which was $525) and all you can find are sub $400? I just looked at bestbuy's site and found:

    That are right at the same price point as your built system, and that's not even figuring in the OS cost, which gets you in the range of:

    I don't disagree that you can build a better system for your specific use than what a pre-built can do for you at a given price point, but I don't think you did a good job of actually showing that with this shockingly one-sided article.
  • compton
    Well, I for one don't have a problem with the article. Even if you take all the caveats into the equation, you can still build a superior system with Win 7 and discrete graphics. If you had to build a new system (instead of using the SBM $500) configured to compare to off the shelf models, it really wouldn't change anything. The conclusion is still valid. If you have to include Win 7 in with the price, you're left with $430. It can still be done and will still be superior. Also, you'll have more parts to upgrade with over time -- for instance, the SBM $500 could easily accept a Phenom X6, or a Sandy Bridge setup, or whatever comes along in the future. The ram, hdd, psu, case, and gpu will all work for quite some time. That won't work with the store bought systems. If you change the mobo and cpu (you won't really be able to upgrade the processor anyway) in the Dell, you'll probably have to get a new copy of Windows too, not to mention the nonstandard cases.

    I'd kinda like to see what's available from the smaller systems makers of the world, and take that into account. I for one wouldn't want it any other way than to build my own. And if building budget systems themselves aren't that exciting, I enjoy the challenge of working in the budgetary constraints. So, keep up the good work -- I'd like to see more of this in the future.
  • chriskrum
    There are some serious flaws in this article. First, the only computer that should have been considered was the Dell--a little research should have eliminated the others because of the form factor which is unsuitable for adding a graphics card--a necessary upgrade.

    The Dell is 400 dollars. That includes everything: OS, keyboard, and even a warranty.

    The 500 dollar home-built costs quite a bit more than 500 dollars. It's actually closer to a 654 dollar build: 525 base + 99 for the OS (seriously, OEM copies of Windows 7 are 99 dollars) + 30 for mouse and keyboard (these are not negligible expenses for a true budget build).

    Does the home-built have an SD card reader? That's about another 20 dollars. So maybe it's a 674 dollar build

    So you are comparing a 654-674 dollar system to a 400 dollar one. The home-built computer is at least 60 percent more expensive than the Dell.

    Take the 255 dollar difference and use it to upgrade the power supply and the video card in the Dell (I could get a 6870 and a Corsair PSU in that Dell for 255 dollars). Then do your comparison.
  • kingnoobe
    This is a fair article.. I think you all aren't really thinking things through. The prebuilts couldn't run any games at all! The other one could. Yes it doesn't take in the price of the OS/keyboard/mouse .. Only one of those things matter the OS (not to mention if somebody needed a mouse/keyboard and i liked them I just give them one of mine I don't use). As it can be somewhat costly..

    You just seen what it takes to make a prebuilt play games, and that's the cost give/take a few dollars of buying an OS. And that's if you only have to buy a graphics card.

    Also heres another way to look at it. Since prebuilt can't play games, pop a linux OS onto the other one, and bam takes that out of the equation. Although you would be able to find certain games that do run on a linux OS. And there are other ways to get an OS (although lets not get into the debate about that.)

    So look a little deeper, and it's clearly obvious how/why when you build yourself you get more bang for the buck.
  • haplo602
    where do you get Win 7 so cheap ? OEM version? I was looking for something I can run in VMs. MS licensing and naming scheme is so confusing. I came to Win 7 Professinal for 258 euro as the only viable choice (to either not violate any EULA/licensing or have all the features). I scraped the project. HW was less expensive thant that (Tyan 2927-E, 8GB DDR-2 ECC ram, 2x opteron 2220 for a total of 230e from ebay).

    Btw I'd realy like to see a guide to windows versions and licensing. I am lost there ...
  • allomancer
    For those who say you can't build an under $500 system that beats those, I wanted to take a stab at it, so here goes.

    Case + PSU: IN WIN BK623.BN300BL 0.6mm SECC Steel MicroATX Desktop Computer Case 300W Power Supply - $61.99
    Motherboard: Foxconn M61PMP-K AM3 NVIDIA MCP61P Micro ATX AMD Motherboard - $44.99
    CPU: AMD Athlon II X2 255 Regor 3.1GHz 2 x 1MB L2 Cache Socket AM3 65W Dual-Core Desktop Processor - $57.99
    RAM: G.SKILL NS 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) - $39.99
    Video Card:HIS H567FO1G Radeon HD 5670 1GB - $59.99
    Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda ST3500413AS 500GB 7200 RPM 16MB Cache SATA 6.0Gb/s 3.5" Internal Hard Drive - $39.99
    Optical Drive: LG Black 22X SATA CD/DVD Burner - $19.99
    Keyboard: Rosewill RK-101 Keyboard - $5.99
    Mouse: Rosewill RM-C2U 3 Buttons 1 x Wheel USB Optical 800 dpi Mouse - $5.99
    OS: Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 64-bit English 1-Pack - OEM $99.99

    Total: $436.90

    It's got the same CPU and hard drive space, more RAM, and vastly superior graphics as all those pre-builts for well under $500. Obviously I can't vouch for the quality of those components, but they're not going to be worse than what's in those budget boxes from Best Buy in any case. Oh, and I even checked on shipping, and it's under $30, so that's about what you would pay in tax anyway if you bought a PC at the store. I did find it a little ironic that the OS was the single most expensive item in that build.
  • WR2
    A useful article to recommend when we find someone thinking about a low cost gaming rig built on an OEM budget system.
  • icemunk
    Yeah, its quite simple to build a gaming rig for $400-450 range these days. you can piece together a nice AMD X4, 4GB RAM, 500GB HD, Radeon 5770 (or Nvidia 460 if you want), 500W Powersupply, and a coolmaster case for under $450.
  • icemunk
    Yeah, its quite simple to build a gaming rig for $400-450 range these days. you can piece together a nice AMD X4, 4GB RAM, 500GB HD, Radeon 5770 (or Nvidia 460 if you want), 500W Powersupply, and a coolmaster case for under $450.
  • kikireeki
    I can't see the point of buying a desktop with such poor performance, You can do way better by buying a notebook in the same price range and save yourself the cost of a monitor!
  • WR2
    @ kikireeki;
    A lot of people agree with you. The desktop share of the PC market has been shrinking for years. I think it went under 50% four or five years ago.
    I've seen estimates that in another four or five years it might drop to around 20% with the notebooks, netbooks and tablets/pads sharing the remaining 80% of the market.

    Here's the source I'd seen. It's a steeper and sooner change than I'd remembered.
    There is the caveat of "consumer PCs" which might leave out business needs. But I think the trend is similar there and, of course, very little need for gaming systems in that segment anyway.