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 Pitfalls of buying off-the-shelf 

Off-the-shelf computers almost invariably come with a recovery disk or rely on the new owner knowing how to make their own from a hidden partition on the hard disk drive (that is, storage space you have paid for but are unable to use for normal activities).  Custom built computers, however, come with CDs or DVDs that hold the complete genuine Microsoft Windows operating system and the drivers for your motherboard. Why is this important ?  Because there are some problems from which recovery is just not possible with just a manufacturer's recovery disk.  Common examples are: 

  • a virus attack, hardware fault or failed software installation that corrupts operating system files or registry entries.  This is because recovery disk sets usually do not allow a repair installation of the operating system. 

  • if the motherboard or hard disk drive has to be replaced. These are usually the first components to fail, especially in modestly priced computers.  The problem is that a replacement component requires a new HAL to be laid down, and this is not possible without the full Windows installation disk.

So when your computer fails a complete operating system disk will allow a repair to be done that usually retains all of your photos, music, e-mail, contacts and documents.  Recovery disks are usually limited to restoring the system to the way it was the day you bought it, requiring a reinstallation of all programs.  If you happen to have a recent backup copy of your files taken immediately before the catastrophe befalls your system, then with a lot of work it should be possible to get the computer back to the state it was in; but that is usually not practicable in real life.  1ComputerCare is happy to do this for you, but the extra time will cost more than the price of the replacement operating system CD - such as those supplied with all computers sold through 1ComputerCare ! 

The cost of a custom build is usually similar to off-the-shelf PCs initially, but when the additional costs of maintenance are considered, a long term benefit of the custom build PC is the much lower cost per year of useful service.

One way high volume sellers maintain profit levels is to order so many of each component that they are able to dictate  the precise specifications to the manufacturer.  This allows two 'benefits':

  • They may specify cheap sub-components of questionable quality with a limited expected life span

  • They may dictate that connectors use proprietary or non-standard layouts.  For example, motherboards that only fit in the power supply unit or case wiring loom sold by the original equipment manufacturer.  BIOS options that do not cater for upgrades or enhancements.

This provides a revenue stream long after the PC has been sold as buyers are compelled to buy replacements form a single source.  Custom built PCs come with universally standard non-proprietary fittings and each component's quality can be considered at design time.

Another reason that off-the-shelf computers' recovery disks can cause problems lies with the licensing of the software.  The type of licence sold with almost all new computers is an Original Equipment Manufacturers one.  When the licence relates to the operating system software, the manufacturer is able to take the original Microsoft programs and add their own so as to limit the functionality.  Why would they do that ?  Because if they limit functionality such that the only hardware that Windows can be installed on is their own, they can generate another stream of revenue from the sale of the replacement components when something fails, to add to the income form the sale of the initial software.  This is called BIOS locking - the irrevocable linking of the software to a particular piece of hardware.  The effect of BIOS locking is that if the failed component is hardware, only an identical item can be used as a replacement, and if available, that is only available from the original supplier - at a price they choose.  
 Is all the software bundled in with the system the full retail versions ? Two month trials or limited functionality products are often used.  And do you actually need all the 'free' software that comes with the PC ?  The cost has to be recovered somewhere, and unused programs may just choke up a system that would otherwise perform better.  Also, it may conflict with the programs you want to run.
Be wary of advertisements that only have space to list the eye catching features at the expense of the infrastructure they rely on.  Computers are only as fast as the slowest component.
The initial cost saving of having sound, video, network, USB ports and many other components integrated on the motherboard will probably be wiped out when the first one fails and the entire motherboard has to be replaced.
Beware of memory sharing is the advertised memory all available to Windows ?
Are there hidden partitions on the disk ? This is a common place to hold recovery files, but they may occupy up to 20% of the disk space you pay for, and can not be removed without buying a new copy of the operating system.  And what happens if the component that fails is the disk on which the recovery files are stored ?
Standardized computers are designed to suit most people most of the time.  PCs that are designed for the individual can avoid the cost of over specifying components that would not be used much, and incorporate components of higher than normal quality where the owner would benefit.  For example, some game players and audiophiles benefit from a top notch sound card, while others don't listen to music and could very well do without any sound card.
A standard 'recovery' disk will usually only allow reinstallation of the initial software on identical hardware.  So if a component fails it is not possible to replace it with one bought at market prices.  Not possible to replace the disk with a larger one.  Also, licensing limitations prohibit some applications from loading as they may not be made available for download from the manufacturer's website.


Still thinking of buying a mass produced computer ?  Read Stephen's Story or Debbie's Story