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

Build Or Buy? Hunting For Cheap Performance

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 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.

  • 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...