GEEKNOTE: One size does not necessarily fit all. There are a quite a few products where there are alternatives to just going out and purchasing whatever happens to be in some big box store.
Want new kitchen cabinets? You can go to Home Depot and pick the one you like or you can visit with a small cabinet shop that can offer you a variety of major brands or even custom build your cabinets and give you exactly what you want.
In the market for a motorcycle? Before the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce started holding an annual bike fest in New Port Richey, I never realized how many custom bike shops are out there. They can build the bike of your dreams.
My dreams tend toward the pedal powered type of bike, but custom and boutique builders abound in this field too. It is not difficult to spend $10,000 on a bicycle. One of my partners, Tim, bought a frame and then built up his dream bike one piece at a time. I may do this the next time around too.
Cars are the same way, but you will likely need to hit the lotto before you go shopping for a one off car.
Personal computers also have a much wider variety than you might first expect. Even back in the mid-70s there were a variety of small companies building personal computers in small numbers. Most of them are now long gone, but some (Apple) remain.
Things really took off in 1981 when IBM decided to build a personal computer. In a fateful decision, based on their estimate that the total world wide demand for personal computers was something under 200,000, IBM licensed a not quite ready operating system from a very small company named "Microsoft" and they published specs for the new IBM PC so that other companies could build add-ons and accessories.
In the 80s, a young fellow in Texas started building PC clones in his dorm room. When his business started growing, he decided to drop out. He reportedly had a rather heated discussion about the value of staying in college with his folks. His folks finally agreed to let him sit out a term to get this computer thing out of his system. Michael Dell never went back to college.
Also in the mid-80s, Pasco Hernando Community College offered a class called "Hardware Fault Analysis". I'm not quite sure if the fancy name was to slip the class by the college administration, but it might as well have been called "Build Your Own PC". I took the class. Where most of my classmates were going out and buying the various parts they needed and then building themselves a new computer, I took the opposite approach and disassembled my IBM PC and then put it back together. It still worked after I finished, so I built my next PC.
As with any new market, some of the early gear was pretty rough. Motherboards and other parts of uncertain parentage might or might now work as promised. Fortunately, things have changed for the better and you have to work to find new stuff that is total junk.
You can still go out and purchase a mass produced computer. If one of these machines meets your needs, that is wonderful.
There are a number of small companies like mine that build custom systems. We can build you a "standard" configuration or vary that configuration to meet your specific requirements.
If you decide to go the custom route, why might you want to have someone that builds system do it rather than just doing it yourself? In a word, experience. There are a lot of options and some things just don't play well with others. We've learned the hard way what works and what doesn't.
Computer cases a prime example. There are lots of cases out there. Some are well built, with rolled edges, and some with fillet your hands on sharp edges while you are working on them. I'm partial to the ones with rolled edges.
Likewise, there are a wide variety of power supplies on the market. Some of them are qualitatively better than others. We've mostly settled on Antec power supplies. They aren't the cheapest out there, but I also don't see many of them fail.
There are also performance differences with some components. I'm partial to Western Digital hard drives because of how few of them I have to RMA. They come in four groups: Green, Blue, Black and Velociraptor. The Green drives excel in power use. The Blue drives are "mainstream" drives that emphasise performance and reliabilty. The Black drives are performance oriented. The Velociraptor drives are ultra high performance drives.
Most of our customers are going to be happy with Green or Blue drives. Our most demanding customers are candidates for the Black drives. I recently replaced a dead notebook drive with a Black drive for one of my customers. With its five year warranty, the new drive will likely outlast the rest of the notebook. My next workstation will have a Velociraptor drive because they run at 10,000 rpm as compared to the 7200 rpm speed of lesser drives.
Using a solid state drive is another option that you get with a custom system. These can also be retrofit into brand name systems. We did that with Tim's Lenovo notebook. The extra speed starting up when he is on a service call is worth the trade off of a somewhat smaller size.
Even processors come in an amazing range of performance levels. Intel has six processor families, the i3, the i5, the i7, the Atom, the Pentium and the Celeron, each available in a dizzying array of speeds.
The Pentium and the Celeron are older processors and it has been ages since the last time we sold a new system with one of them. If you want an absolutely rock bottom system, you can find one of them powering a system in one of the big box stores.
The Atom is a low power system generally found in netbooks and certain specialized systems. They also make for really inexpensive desktops if all you want is to surf the web and read your email.
The i3 family of processors are solid dual core performers suitable for most basic systems. The i5 family adds some management features making them ideal in larger business settings. Most of the i5 processors are "quad core" (four processor cores). The i7 family of processors are aimed at the performance market and may have as many is six processor cores.
Some of these processors have video circuitry built into them and some do not. Knowing which is which can prevent making an expensive mistake while building a new system.
Motherboards also come in a wide array of sizes and features. Keeping up on which ones and which brands work best is an ongoing process.
With some very rare exceptions, we tend to be an Intel shop. We've got a strong relationship with Intel and can get overnight replacement of bad hardware, something we've had issues with when dealing with other manufacturers. Other small computer builders use AMD processors and any number of motherboard manufacturers. There is nothing wrong with AMD, it simply boils down to your preference.
When you have a custom system builder create your next machine, you get the benefit of their experience and advice to make sure you are getting exactly what you need without spending extra for stuff you won't use and without buying a machine that you are going to outgrow in a year. You also avoid the frustration of trying to figure out what isn't working if the new system doesn't fire right up when you build it yourself.
The other benefit to using a custom system builder create your next machine is that you won't get a whole bunch of "crapware" installed on your machine. The major system manufacturers get paid to install demo and trial programs on the computers they sell. All of these programs get loaded on boot and make the machines run slower than they would otherwise.
Does buying a custom system cost more than buying a brand name system? Not necessarily. The low end is dominated by brand name systems that are competing strictly on price. That is okay with me. The individual that will buy that $158 Dell at Walmart is just NOT our market.
Some of the local system builders can probably put you into something comparable at a very low price. Don't expect to get too excited about the performance. I've found the compromises necessary to compete for bottom feeders is just not worth the effort.
As you go up the performance range to nice desktops, we tend to be competitive and as you get into high end systems like servers, the differences can be stunning, with us having a major price advantage, often in excess of $1000. One of my favorite activities is to offer to custom order a Dell server for a customer who balks at the price I quote them for a new server. Apples to Apples, we win, every time.
The other advantage the custom shops have over the brand names is support. We handle our own support and we aren't big enough to have sent all of our telephone support overseas. When you call a local shop, you get someone who speaks English and you generally can connect a face with the voice on the other end of the phone. We work hard to keep our customers happy. As the expression goes, "They know where we live."
Finally, when you buy from a small custom system builder, you are keeping money in your local community.
Feel free to drop me a note or leave a comment here if you have any questions about your computer or your office network.
Rob Marlowe, Senior Geek, Gulfcoast Networking, Inc.
(Rob also serves as deputy mayor of the City of New Port Richey. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of the city.)