Monday, December 22, 2008

"Custom Built Computers Scare Me"

Part 1. Custom-built Computers are "scary"

That's what I read in an email from one of my customers to Dell last week. I spent some time responding and addressed some topics we talk about a lot in our store. I thought some of this information would be relevant to this blog.

Dell, HP, etc. use components from the same companies that sell OEM parts we use to build our custom computers. However, Dell, HP, etc. strip off components to save themselves money and prevent you from upgrading or repairing the computer. They have proprietary connectors installed (Dell is the worst about this) for your case controls, fans, power supplies, and even sensors for heatsinks that break or fall-off and prevent you from buying replacements. The "name brand" vendors are going to get their parts from the lowest bidder. It's a gamble that I'm not willing to take. One of the quotes from Dell included a "Pentium Dual Core". This is a three generation old processor! I could sell Dell, HP, etc. I choose not to.

That said, there are a *lot* of really bad custom computer vendors out there. Don't immediately distrust someone out of their home, and don't immediately trust a place with a retail store front either. There are a lot of really cheap, really bad OEM hardware vendors and manufacturers out there too. Don't buy OEM or barebones, and don't let your local computer support provider use them either, unless they have full manufacturer warranties that stay in effect even if the local vendor goes away. Many OEM and barebones are limited to 30days, and that is not a gamble worth taking.

We aren't 100% anti-name brand in our store. We do sell (almost exclusively) Lenovo Thinkpad laptops. We're authorized to do service work on them too. (IBM sold the laptop division to Lenovo who has been building their laptops for years. IBM still manages the sales and support, however).

Of course, don't forget we work on all brands, and we do have some engineered work-arounds for the proprietary problems that Dell, Gateway, and others use as necessary. :-)

Part 2. Getting the hardware you really need.

Hardware changes yearly. We aren't really seeing the 10x faster development each year like we used to though. Now it is more about efficiency and specialty applications. This means you have to consider more than speed and capacity when you're picking your new computer.

Small businesses, independents, and serious home users (hobbyists, artists, etc.) need to determine if they are making the best choice for data reliability. Mirrored hard drives are a must if you aren't great at backing up your data, aren't given original CD installation media for applications, or cannot afford for a computer to be unavailable in the event of a hard drive failure.

Home users wanting to buy a laptop that will last a long time shouldn't be fooled by "spend more now, and it will last longer". Usually the more expensive laptop will have multi-media parts for computer gaming (blow-em-up-shoot-em-up kind of games, not solitaire) that will run hotter and die FASTER than their cheaper counterparts.

Quad-core is the big marketing speak right now. The speed of each core on a quad will be slower than a similarly priced (or cheaper) dual-core. If you aren't running threaded applications, you may be doing yourself a disservice by buying into the quad-core market.

I'll probably post more dedicated blogs about these (and more) topics at some point. In short, when people ask us about buying a computer we don't ask "how much do you want to spend" we ask "what do you want to do with it" because the price is irrelevant. Often, the customer's expected budget exceeds what is really in their best interest.

Part 3. Pre-installed software and system installation

In an email from the Dell salesrep that I was given, the Dell person said "I would be weary of anyone trying to sell installation for desktops. Reason for this is that if systems are put together properly, the install is as simple as pulling them out of the box and plugging in the cables. All of our systems will have their software pre-installed and will not require installation".

I must say that pre-installed IMAGES from HP, Dell, etc. do not include network setup, printer setup, ISP setup, network security, email configuration, server configuration, file transfers, software registration, updates, etc. etc. etc. Have you ever opened the box of a Dell, HP, etc. and NOT sat for an hour while Windows configured itself, then had to register everything? Did it ever not require you to set up software or peripherals? I have *never* seen any pre-built system just plug-in and work. They all require setup and I'm very upset that a salesrep would misrepresent their product in this way. Grrrr...

Part 4. Local Business Support

I tell customers I shouldn't be so hard on the brand name companies since I get so much repair work for them. I don't think we ever have fewer than a dozen Dell branded computers in at one time.

However, these companies have a far greater marketing department than I do. It's these marketing companies and finance offers that hurt small businesses like mine. Our margins are small, but every decision that goes to a big-box vendor or the Internet instead of a local business of your choice impacts that company's ability to support jobs in your local community. The customer I'm trying to help that led to this post is discussing computers for his small office. Every 2 computers he could purchase from me would essentially sponsor 1 employee's payroll for a week. He could make a choice to provide employment for 2 and a half of my technicians this week. I hope he does :-)