GeekTech: Can You Still Build a PC for Less?

Conventional wisdom once stated that building your own PC was more than just a way to create your perfect computer--it was also a lot cheaper than buying a finished system. However, in recent years economies of scale have overturned this truism, making it nearly impossible for the average individual PC builder to beat a big vendor's price when it comes to a basic desktop system.

Don't believe me? Just try building yourself a Pentium-4 based system for less than you'd pay for any basic Dell Dimension PC. See, every day Dell buys a gazillion hard drives, optical drives, motherboards, and so on, so it gets a better unit price for these components than you do for your single purchase. The fact is, without cannibalizing half of your current PC's parts, you can't touch Dell when it comes to building a cheap PC.

That said, I recently stumbled upon the satisfying realization that when it comes to high-end systems, there's still some wiggle room. Apparently this is the market where PC builders--both big and small--like to pad their margins a bit, so you can still save some bucks by doing it yourself.

When Shuttle recently announced its first dual-graphics-board system, I sat up and took notice. I'm a long-time fan of the company's small form factor bare-bones products and its fully finished systems, and with the XPC P 2600, Shuttle promised blazing desktop performance.

I requested and received a fully outfitted (and notably expensive) P 2600 review system to test for our January issue. And I have to say, Shuttle delivered big time. This is one serious, high-performance desktop PC. If speed is your need, this tiny terror will not disappoint.

Using NVidia's NForce 4 chip set and SLI technology, the P 2600's design is mighty impressive: The company fits two full-sized EVGA 7800GTX cards side by side in the 12.6- by 8.3- by 8.7-inch case. Also elegantly stowed inside: a Advanced Micro Devices X2 4800+ CPU, 2GB of memory, two 400GB hard drives, and a DVD burner.

In our tests the P 2600 put all that cutting-edge hardware to good use and notched a WorldBench score of 123, near the top achievers in our Power Desktop category. Predictably, the unit also scored very well in our graphics tests. But despite its high-performance pedigree--and its seven internal fans--the system remains remarkably quiet.

If the P 2600 has any weakness, it's a lack of expandability. There is no room to add parts to this machine: no open PCI or PCI Express slots, no unused bays to add hard drives, and no empty memory sockets. That means, for example, that you'll never be able to upgrade from the integrated audio.

And then there's the spare-no-expense price tag. The shipping system I tested--which included a 17-inch LCD, complete with carrying handle--sells for a whopping $4635.

Now, to be fair, I did ask Shuttle to load this system up with the latest and greatest hardware. And we all know bleeding-edge stuff is expensive. Plus, putting two NVidia 7800 GTX graphics boards in a PC is never going to be cheap.

But $4635? That seems awfully high. I was convinced I could build nearly the same system for less. A lot less, even. So I pointed my browser toward NewEgg.com and got to work.

Shuttle started off engineering and selling bare-bones systems exclusively; it only started selling fully configured desktops a few years ago. I was pretty sure I could find the exact same chassis and motherboard combination as that of the P 2600. I was right: It's the $559 XPC SN26.

From there I just worked my way down the P 2600's components list, most of which are standard-issue.

  • One AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+: $884
  • Two 400GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 SATA drives: $471
  • Two EVGA GeForce 7800 GTX boards: $918
  • One Shuttle XP17 monitor: $390
  • One copy of Windows XP Pro (OEM version): $149

For those parts I couldn't match precisely, I picked top-quality alternates that weren't always the most expensive, but weren't the cheapest either.

  • One Lite-On DVD Burner: $43
  • Two sticks of Corsair XMS DDR 400 memory (2GB total): $221
  • One Logitech mouse, keyboard, and headset: $110

By the end I'd pretty much re-created the spitting image of Shuttle's $4635 XPC P 2600 system in my shopping cart. Grand total: $3745.

Now, if I were a math wiz I'd be a famous architect and not a journalist. But I'm pretty sure that's a huge savings. (It's $890, to be precise.) True, the P 2600 comes with some additional software, a system warranty, and a QuickStart guide and disc-based manual. However, I noticed that none of these things were made of solid gold, so I still think the build-it-yourself deal is a better one.

I'm not here to give Shuttle a hard time for the price of its high-end system. The company deserves to make a profit, right?

Okay, maybe I am here to give Shuttle some grief. I mean, just how big a profit margin do you need?

In the end, I suppose the question for anybody who wants a system just like this is simple. Do you want to spend the time and effort to build it yourself and save some cash, or would you rather have it delivered to you ready to go?

I didn't actually build this system, but if I had I can't imagine it would have taken me more than a few hours, including the OS install. My time is valuable, but I'm pretty sure it's not that valuable.

For my money--or lack thereof--I'd build every time.

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