The conventional wisdom is that you can save a lot of money on a desktop computer by building your own computer. But at the moment, that’s not really true. A combination of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and massive cryptocurrency swings, means that it is much more expensive to buy high-quality parts, if you can find them at all.
So we are in a rare situation. It actually makes a lot more sense to buy a pre-built computer now, even if you have the know-how to choose your own parts and assemble them. This is especially true if you need a computer with a discrete graphics card for gaming or high-quality media production.
What the hell is going on?
So, what about the cracking of parts? There are a few different factors. First, the COVID-1
And because parts suppliers like Intel, Asus and MSI can get more profit from bulk orders, PC makers have priority over end users who buy one part at a time. It’s a big shift. In fact, PC sales are up significantly this year, reversing an eight-year trend since the emergence of smartphones and tablets.
We also see some dramatic increases in computing power. With Intel’s 10th Gen Core processor family and AMD’s rival Ryzen 5000 series, we are seeing significant increases in power and efficiency at most price points, meaning now would be a good time to get a new processor even without the pandemic . Ditto for GPUs: The NVIDIA RTX 3000 series graphics cards seem to have cleared the kinks of the previous generation, and AMD’s Radeon cards remain competitive.
If everything was normal it would be really exciting to be a PC gamer. And I think it still is … but only if you’re rich enough to afford all this new hardware. And even if it does, you may still have a hard time tracking it down, as there’s more to it: another boom in the cryptocurrency market.
Yes, the price of Bitcoin is on the rise again, which means more people are buying more and more powerful computers with which to ‘mine’ it and other currencies. Cryptocurrency is a complicated topic, but to sum it up to the gist, you can use a computer to convert electricity into digital ‘coins’ that are sold as commodities, such as stocks or bonds. The more powerful your computer, the more coins you can mine. Graphics cards are very efficient at this, so miners buy up as many cards as they can get their hands on and use them in extremely powerful mining computers.
It’s a frustrating situation if you’re a gamer or professional artist because all those sweet, sweet computer parts just sit there, almost literally crack numbers, and aren’t used to run Minecraft at 16K and 300 frames per second. Bitcoin and its brethren tend to rise and fall in waves, but there is no telling when this particular wave will break.
Scalpers on the hunt
With demand for all high-end computer components on the rise, but especially CPUs and GPUs, the secondary market is on fire. If you can get your hands on a new Ryzen 5000 processor or RTX 3000 card at a retail price, you can reliably flip it at a profit on eBay or Amazon. For the most powerful parts, that profit can double or triple the original investment.
In economic terms, that means blood in the water. The sharks in this metaphor are scalpers, buying new PC parts as soon as they become available and hoarding them to turn to those with enough disposable income to pay their exorbitant prices. We see the same thing happening with the new generation of Xbox and PlayStation consoles.
But scalpers don’t wait outside of Best Buy and Walmart, hoping for a proverbial worm for the early riser. They band together in loose pseudo-companies and use advanced software tools to mass order CPUs, graphics cards, game consoles and other in-demand electronics. Some of these sham companies have managed to stockpile thousands of individual units. This isn’t strictly illegal, it’s just rude and frustrating.
While manufacturers can’t make these advanced electronics fast enough to supply even a normal consumer market, scalpers pull the fairly benign forces of supply and demand to the breaking point. There have been some attempts to combat this: Newegg offers a ticket system that allows people to buy in-demand parts at retail price. Yet demand is still so high that your chances of getting one for the ‘real’ price are disappearing for the time being.
Time to buy Pre-assembled
Part of the market is getting CPUs, GPUs, and other parts for the best price – the companies that make computers and sell them as individual units. Parts suppliers are interested in nurturing those relationships, so companies like Dell, Acer, Lenovo, and even more boutique manufacturers like CyberPowerPC and Falcon Northwest will be faced with the limited supply of high-quality parts for the first time.
And because those companies want to sell computers, their prices for desktop PCs haven’t changed that much during the current crisis. This means that if you are thinking of building a new PC or even upgrading your existing build with a new CPU or graphics card, it makes more sense to buy pre-assembled now.
This is true for almost everything except ultra-low power builds – even mid-range builds without a dedicated graphics card. But if you’re going for a high-end machine with a next-generation processor and graphics card, it certainly is.
Give it a try
Here’s an experiment with PC Part Picker: I’ll create my ideal gaming desktop if I pick out parts for myself right now. With the latest generation Core i5 processor, 16 GB RAM, 1 TB M.2 storage, and the parts to connect them all together, I’m looking at around $ 950 before adding a graphics card. I would list an RTX 3070 … except there is none currently in stock in the PC Part Picker database!
So, how much are you paying for that graphics card, if you’re forced to go to the scalpers now? The cheapest I could find on Amazon is a teeth-grinding $ 1200, seven hundred dollars above the retail price.
I found one at the retail price on eBay … where the title told me to read the description. It goes like this, for a $ 500 card:
So yes, it is a huge hive of scum and villains.
The cheapest ad I could find in the United States claiming to sell a real card and not a photo or an empty box was $ 799. That puts the cost of my custom gaming desktop at $ 1,650. And that’s assuming that you ever get that graphics card, and don’t find yourself hassling PayPal for a refund. Assuming you go with Amazon, it will cost $ 2050.
Now let’s run our fingers to Dell. A custom gaming desktop with roughly the same specifications (same processor, GPU, RAM, M.2 SSD, in a standard enclosure) currently costs $ 1,829. If you include multi-store parts and load shipping, plus $ 100 for the Windows 10 license you should buy is about the same as Best Case … and much less than that Amazon purchase. You’ll still pay a premium of $ 150 over the retail price for that RTX 3070 card, but it’s a much better deal than trying to appease the scalpers.
Crucially, that Dell computer comes with a one-year warranty not only on the computer itself, but on all individual parts. And it can be on my doorstep within two weeks. There are ways to take advantage of the value too: if I went for Dell’s bottom RAM and SSD and used the savings to buy those from PCPartPicker, I could save $ 300 … and replace them with just $ 140 in extra-on parts. I could even make a few bucks selling the slower hard drive or keeping it for extra storage. And, of course, there are often ready-made configurations on sale.
Here’s the point of this thought experiment: you’ll almost certainly save time, money, and frustration by going for a pre-built desktop now, assuming you don’t go all out with the custom extras. This will remain the case until the current parts crisis is over.