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 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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