If Dell is now Hell, is there a purgatory outside of build-it-yourself Heaven?
June 29, 2010 2:16 PM   Subscribe

If Dell has truly gone to Hell, where should one go for a new rig?

For the last couple of weeks I've been salivating over the thought of getting an Alienware ALX tower from Dell, under the impression it would be pretty painless experience. I haven't really had any bad experiences with the Dells I've had, more-or-less including my current laptop. I'm tired of having to run even old games on the lowest settings and lowest resolution.

My problem is I don't have the technical knowledge or especially the patience/motivation to build my own. I'd just wind up with a pile of parts in boxes. So are the Alienware systems just distributed by Dell, or are they also $#!+?

Or is putting a computer together much simpler that I think it is?
posted by Decimask to Technology (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard great things about System 76. Be aware that they only ship systems with Linux, so if you want Windows, you'll have to buy and install it on your own.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 2:18 PM on June 29, 2010

I don't have the space to build a PC, so I've been using prebuilt laptops for a few years. Due to a several-hundred-dollar-off deal I found on Lifehacker, I just bought an HP after wearing the hell out of a Dell beforehand. After my wireless crapped out the day I unpacked it (the system decided to pretend there was no wireless card installed,) I called customer support. I got a dude who a) listened to me in full before asking me questions and b) plainly grasped that I wasn't the type who didn't try restarting a few times before calling tech support. He patiently guided me through the process of updating the BIOS and I haven't had any problems since. Seriously, it was the best tech support I've ever received. I don't know if HPs are quality -- although they do know where to place a laptop's fan exhaust better than Dell do -- but the hardware has been running smooth and I know if I have a problem I can't fix, there's at least one really competent guy on their team.
posted by griphus at 2:26 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

The last computer I bought, I went with Puget Systems, and I definitely recommend them - a very strong customer service focus, and so far everything about their build has been completely reliable.

The knock on Alienware has always been that they're ludicrously overpriced, and that certainly hasn't changed since Dell bought them - not sure how much Dell's QC problems have affected them, but I'd always recommend going with a smaller systems integrator that can provide more personalized and responsive tech support and customer service regardless.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 2:29 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've gotten a bunch of good machines from Xi Computer, and their prices seem pretty reasonable. Their customer service is also pretty good and seems knowledgeable (we did have one machine with a bad Mobo that we sent back and had replaced and they were pretty good about it).
posted by pombe at 2:47 PM on June 29, 2010

Seconding Xi. I make a hash of ordering online and the nice guy called me up, asked me about what I was going to do with the computer and gave me a better one for 500 less then I was spending. If I was doing it again, though, I would call them from the first, rather then start with the web site.

There were some tech issues but tech support picks up the phone! In person! Usually on the first ring!

Only worth it if you want a high powered machine though.
posted by shothotbot at 2:51 PM on June 29, 2010

Besides the above-mentioned boutique vendors (which I have not personally used, but have a good reputation in my mind), there's Velocity Micro, which I've heard good things about.

I'd say that building a computer perhaps is simpler than you think, though. The time-consuming steps of hunting out components for a build are more or less done for you (Tom's Hardware offers one updated about every month, Ars Technica used to have such a list that seems to be relegated to the forums), and many sites offer step-by-step tutorials (Tom's again). If you're a fairly able computer user, then tech support and warranty falling on you shouldn't be too bad in my opinion. System assembly is now the tech equivalent of assembling IKEA furniture -- no fiddling with jumper settings like in the '90s.
posted by zer0render at 2:55 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

It really is probably easier to put a computer together than you think. Especially if you start with one of the bare-bones systems available on places like Newegg. (Note - Newegg lumps its standard-sized barebones systems together with their mini-sized ones, and the mini ones may be a little tricky to put together for a first timer.)

Advantages to building:
- You know that you're getting quality parts (cause you picked them out yourself)
- You'll learn a ton about what actually goes into a computer
- You'll save a substantial amount over a comparable prebuilt system

Disadvantages to building:
- It'll take time (to research, to put things together, to install your OS of choice and tweak it)
- It'll take patience, especially your first time through
- It'll take a little space to lay out your stuff (preferably not on the carpet), and a couple of tools (flat and Philips screwdrivers, mostly)
- You won't have a toll-free support line to call if it ever breaks

I've been building my own systems for years and it's very unlikely that I'll ever buy another desktop box for Windows or Linux. You can buy prebuilt systems for almost as cheap as you can build your own, and part of that is economies of scale, but part of that is also economies of using cheap planned-obsolescence-type parts.

On the other hand I buy Apple laptops, because the time and effort for me to put together a laptop like that is not at all worth it, and for my laptops I don't want to play around inside of it - I just want it to work. At the end of
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 2:55 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

grr. At the end of the day (I was saying) it comes down to whether you're going to want to invest a little time to do the requisite research on what to buy and where to buy it. Actually plugging stuff in together is pretty much a no-brainer, once you've got all the parts. But you maybe just want a box that comes to your door and which you can open up, pull out a computer, plug it in and forget about it, and if that's you, building your own may be overkill.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 2:57 PM on June 29, 2010

I was happy with Cybersource PC, which offers the same configure-to-order service as Puget and Xi (but with an extra garish website).
posted by mullacc at 3:10 PM on June 29, 2010

Or is putting a computer together much simpler that I think it is?

I was shocked at how easy it is.

Picking parts is pretty easy; mostly just go with one of the suggested systems on anandtech or techreport or whatever and maybe make a few changes if you want. And picking parts means that you can pick whatever case you want... there are about a zillion different cases available on newegg, available to meet almost any taste. Bigger cases are easier to work in.

Assembling is easy. About the only part that might be tricky is the CPU cooler. Unless things have changed on the new sockets, the stock coolers use this pushpin thing where it can be hard to tell if you've attached the damn thing all the way. I'd just go with a cooler that screws onto the motherboard (probably with a backing plate on the other side) just because those are easy to know when you're done.

Putting together an exact analog to that Dell system might be trickier as it has liquid cooling. But you don't need liquid cooling.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:21 PM on June 29, 2010

Building a PC is a snap, as many of the contributors above note.

But what about a go to supplier for laptops?
posted by notyou at 3:33 PM on June 29, 2010

I mentioned this in that Dell thread, but I've been really happy with my computer from Maingear. I have one they briefly offered that is optimized for music production (called the Remix) and I love it, but they offer custom gaming systems as well as a few other designs. Customer service has been great when I've needed it, but I haven't needed it for any technical problems since none have come up. They provide excellent documentation with the computer and the whole package is great, no complaints.
posted by wondermouse at 4:36 PM on June 29, 2010

I have built every desktop I've owned, since middle school.

My dad, who can't type and doesn't use computers at all, has built several computers.

I don't think you save money over the bottom-of-the-barrel eMachines or whatever, but you definitely save compared to machines of comparable quality. Plus it's easier to upgrade over time.

Just be sure you get a big enough power supply, I think I messed that up on my last build....

As for laptops: even expensive laptops break all the time, and parts are expensive and hard to find. Get a cheap laptop and a really, really good onsite warranty for the entire time you plan to have the machine.
posted by miyabo at 6:26 PM on June 29, 2010

I see you're from the same city as I am. I bought my computer at PC Cyber, and I've been quite pleased with it. They put it together for you, and if you buy an OS they can also install it. I'm sure that if you go there and chat with one of the salesmen, they would be glad to walk you through what you'd need. Also, no headaches with shipping if there are any problems with the computer.
posted by Simon Barclay at 7:40 PM on June 29, 2010

Building a PC is relatively easy, but I don't personally think it's worth it. The Dells and HPs of the world have razor thin margins and it may well cost you more than getting a built PC with a warranty (such as it is)
posted by meta_eli at 9:00 PM on June 29, 2010

Definitely give some serious consideration to building your own PC. This forum was very helpful to me when I built my PC. Not long before I built mine, I was clueless about the idea of people even building their own PCs. But when I started looking for suggestions for a new PC, I came across a lot of people insisting that it's well worth it and not nearly as hard as you might think to build your own. It really did end up being a pretty fun and easy experience for me.

Just find a couple good online tutorials for PC building, and carefully read through the manuals that come with your parts; a more comprehensive guide generally comes with the motherboard. If you run into any problems along the way, the people on the forum I listed above should be more than happy to help you.
posted by Ryogen at 9:00 PM on June 29, 2010

Just want to say again that building a computer yourself has gotten much easier over the years. The difficulty level is comparable to building an IKEA wardrobe - you just need a screwdriver and the ability to read english.

The main advantage to building your own computer out of part is that you know EXACTLY what you're getting.

For example, say you buy those SSD drives from Dell. You probably don't know what brand they are, what level firmware, etc. Do they support TRIM? The fastest SSD drives are 3x to 4x faster than the slowest ones on the market, so it definitely DOES matter what kind of drives you are getting.

Then for the CPU, you're better off getting an AMD than an Intel because it beats Intel on a price / performance ratio. Intel spend a boatload of dollars on marketing, consumers trust Intel, and so brand name computer manufacturers like Dell have to sell Intel chips. I'd rather those marketing dollars be given to me in the form of cheaper prices, which is what AMD is doing.

Building your own PC also allows you to plan upgrade paths over the next 3-5 years. There's a few different strategies depending on the product cycle you're in - you can buy the top of line component right now and just stick with it over the lifespan - or you could buy a mid-low end component now with the aim of upgrading it 2-3 years in. You could buy one graphics card now, and buy an identical one in the future and cross-fire it. You could buy a high end soundcard and keep it for years by swapping it into new computers whenever you get a new one.
posted by xdvesper at 9:14 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Building a computer isn't hard but can be frustrating when you turn it on and something doesn't work. I've wasted hours sometimes and wished I'd just bought.

Building a computer is never cheaper than buying an off the shelf product. More flexible yes and easier to tweek the quality of various components to fit your needs (eg. have a more expensive graphics card at the expense of CPU) but you'll simply never be able to beat the volume discounts that Dell et al get.
posted by mr_silver at 2:29 AM on June 30, 2010

Custom computer without the built it yourself headache:
Go to a respected local shop, tell them what you'd like and they'll put it together for you.
It may be a little mor expensive, but you may also be more likely to get what you need.

A big plus: if something does go wrong you don't have to ship things off and wait for weeks hoping the issue replicates itself to someone you've never met. Pack things up and demonstrate your issue to someone face to face!
posted by csmason at 6:27 AM on June 30, 2010

Nthing the "PC assembly is easier than you think" suggestion. I would agree with ROU_Xenophobe about getting an aftermarket CPU cooler. The Intel stock coolers are noisy as hell. Also nthing the idea of starting with a barebone system and building up from there. It's a little less intimidating when you only have to few things vs. starting from nothing.

You might want to check into the MAKE book, Building the Perfect PC, 2nd Ed. if you don't feel comfortably using on-line resources only to get a feel for what is required. Another idea would be to ask your friends if any of them have built or upgraded computers to see if they can advise you. Having someone else who's worked on stuff to shoulder surf while you're learning can ease anxiety. How old is your computer? Maybe you just need a few upgrades to get it back to something reasonably respectable? Switching from IDE to SATA, a new graphics card and/or more RAM can breath a lot of life into a system.

@notyou: Apple (you can even run just Windows on it if you want, though you'd have to purchase your own copy and install it), Lenovo, or HP. Avoid Fujitsu, they never update their drivers or BIOS. Dells are junk, as far as I've seen, ditto, Compaq. On every Windows laptop I've seen that hasn't been re-imaged by an enterprise team, there is usually a lot of junk software you don't need--virus scanner (MS has a free one, why spend money on 3rd party), wireless network "manager" (again, it's in the OS, why do you need something else), etc.
posted by unixgeek at 10:23 AM on June 30, 2010

My problem is I don't have the technical knowledge or especially the patience/motivation to build my own.

Then don't let the other commenters talk you into it! Since you claim to not know what you're doing, building your own (or buying from a mom&pop store) leaves you up a creek without a paddle if anything ever goes wrong.

Similarly, if you're a Windows user, don't get a Mac and install Windows on it. Sure, the hardware is high quality, but you'll get no support from Apple for the software.

Instead, here's how you get an inexpensive but quality computer from any of the major manufacturers, even Dell!
  1. Buy from their small business brands instead of their home brands. Computer companies do not respect home users, AT ALL, and it shows. The business computers get better hardware, better software, better configuration, and better support.
  2. Get lots of RAM. More is better. How much is enough? It's never enough.
  3. After RAM, get the fastest hard drive offered, measured in RPM. If that means a smaller drive, so be it. Later on, you can always buy a second cheap, slow, large drive for movies and music that wouldn't benefit from the fast drive.
  4. Your interest in Alienware implies that you play games; if so, get the second best video card offered. The best card will be overpriced and won't be much better. (FWIW I like nVidia cards more than AMD/ATI cards, because nVidia's drivers are usually more stable.)
  5. If you play games, get the middle-of-the-road CPU. If you don't, then get the cheapest CPU offered.
  6. You can skimp on everything else. If you're wondering whether you need the fancy sound card, BluRay burner, or printer, then you definitely don't need them.

posted by LightStruk at 3:24 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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