Buckle up, because this is going to be a long ride.
UPDATE: Given the recent happenings in the PC building space, the following post may not be relevant anymore. I may revisit this idea again another day, but it is not that day.
That said, this post still holds some relevance when considering the practices of the various companies which sell pre-built systems.
For the uninitiated, a system integrator is a company that assembles systems from disparate parts. In the computer gaming realm, that means companies that make PCs and sell them.
Let’s get one thing out of the way before I begin. Budget-wise, system integrators (or SIs) cannot compete with building a PC from parts purchased in a store or online. Sure, there are ways to overspend on parts you purchase on your own, but part-for-part, it’s just more expensive to buy a pre-built system. Let me be clear, the purpose of this project I’ve been working on isn’t to convince people to stop buying from these companies. Instead, my goal is to make the PC buying process far more transparent to make it easier for people to decide which SI to purchase from. There are merits to purchasing a PC instead of building, which I’m not going to address here.
However, some SIs are far more open with what they’re offering than others. While in the past I had a bone to pick with iBUYPOWER (but mostly Best Buy) in particular, I mostly just had a problem with a particular pre-built PC that was purchasable from Best Buy specifically. It was a bad buy, and I stand by that opinion, but I digress. This is the culmination of about three weeks of work, so let me know what you think. But first, let’s look at how I came up with the results.
I first began by creating parts lists, which became the Custom categories. Essentially, the idea was to use the parts lists as a control to see what sort of PC could be put together based on a budget, but also as a way to create a template for PC configurations when trying to compare the various SIs against one another. Parts were chosen based off of a general assumption of quality and availability, as well as how “future-proof” they are. This meant not picking power supplies that meet the bare minimum requirements, and only choosing motherboards that would support upgrades as time passed.
There are two different methods I used to obtain my results. I established a Budget Constraint, and a Component Constraint.
The Budget Constraint is to see how far your money can be stretched, or how much it would cost for you to buy a specific system. It’s pretty simple; I set four budgets:
The idea behind this is to look at how far you can stretch your dollar at specific levels, and I’ve found that the spread of budgets allows for great differentiation of the power of a system that can be bought. The actual budget itself was rather flexible to allow for more systems to be configured in order to avoid handicapping any particular SI’s entry simply because it was slightly over budget.
Alternatively, I also came up with a few component templates to see what it would cost to buy a system with specific components, including both Intel and AMD Ryzen CPUs, as well as Nvidia GTX/RTX and AMD Radeon GPUs:
- “Low”-End Intel+Nvidia
- “Low”-End Ryzen+Radeon
- Mid-Range Intel+Nvidia
- Mid-Range Ryzen+Radeon
- High-End Intel+Nvidia
- High-End Ryzen+Nvidia
The purpose of the Component Constraint is to highlight not only the differences in pricing for the same or similarly priced components, but also to help establish a control of sorts for the comparison of SIs against each other. This became a bit of a problem when I was customizing the various systems on each company’s website, as some companies choose not to list the actual components they use to build their system. However, I’ve taken steps to account for any differences, and the notes I’ve taken while researching this will be available to view for transparency’s sake.
This is perhaps where it gets a bit more nuanced, so here’s a summary of how I chose components:
You’ll have to forgive me for choosing “Low”-End as the designator for this category, as these systems hardly are on the low end of capability. It’s the best I could come up with at the time, but rest assured that these systems aren’t really “low” in any way. In fact, the parts lists I chose would likely be more than capable of playing most games at high settings in 1080p, or even 1440p, with a respectable framerate too.
- Z390 or X570 motherboards (between $110 and $150)
- Six-Core CPUs (Intel i5-9600K or AMD Ryzen 5 3600)
- A roughly $25 CPU air cooler or stock cooler for Ryzen
- A 16GB 3000MHz RAM kit
- Either an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660Ti or AMD Radeon RX 5600XT
- A 500GB NVMe SSD
- A 2TB 7200RPM HDD
- A case priced below $80
- A 600W 80+ Bronze power supply
- Z390 or X570 motherboards (between $160 and $200)
- Eight-Core CPUs (Intel i7-9700K or AMD Ryzen 7 3700X)
- A roughly $40 CPU air cooler or stock cooler for Ryzen
- A 16GB 3200MHz RAM kit for Intel, 16GB 3600MHz RAM kit for Ryzen
- Either an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super or AMD Radeon RX 5700XT
- A 1TB NVMe SSD
- A 2TB 7200RPM HDD
- A case priced between $80 and $100
- A 750W 80+ Gold power supply
- Z390 or X570 motherboards (between $250 and $400)
- Eight-Core/Twelve-Core CPUs (Intel i9-9900K or AMD Ryzen 9 3900X respectively)
- A roughly $130 CPU liquid cooler
- A 16GB 3200MHz RAM kit for Intel, 16GB 3600MHz RAM kit for Ryzen
- Either an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super
- A 2TB NVMe SSD
- A 4TB 7200RPM HDD
- A case priced between $150 and $200
- A 750W 80+ Platinum power supply
While, component prices obviously fluctuate over time, I’ve deliberately chosen to round up on parts prices for the lists used as a reference point, and all promotions, sales, or rebates were factored out, and shipping was factored in. When it was necessary to find an equivalent part due to lack of availability, a suitably comparable part was used within the price range noted above. All approximate prices are listed in the linked notes. Furthermore, none of the system configurations from the various SIs are compared against the parts lists totals, only each other.
So without any ado, let’s take a look at the results.
The results of the research are shown below in table form, and available in the linked workbook.
I used a simple color formatting to show a range from highest to lowest for each category. The Custom prices denote the cost it would incur to purchase components individually, then assembled by the customer into a PC. It’s worth noting that the cost of a Windows 10 license was not included in the Custom prices (you can use Windows 10 as long as you don’t mind never activating it, and SIs get keys for Windows for miniscule amounts of money).
For the Budget Constraint, red indicates that the cost of the PC has gone above the budget, and green indicates that the cost is below the budget. White or lighter shades of green or red indicate that the system is within a reasonable margin of the budget.
- Dell, Alienware, iBUYPOWER, Xidax, and DigitalStorm were able to stay below budget
- CyberPowerPC, Omen, XoticPC, and AVA Direct were slightly over budget (<10%)
- Maingear’s cheapest PC was $120.00 over budget; NZXT’s cheapest PC was $238.91 over budget
- Origin’s cheapest PC was $658.00 over budget, putting it in the next budget bracket, therefore disqualifying it from consideration
- DigitalStorm gets Slideshow award for being the only $800 budget system to not include a dedicated GPU
- Alienware, CyberPowerPC, Xidax, NZXT, XoticPC, and DigitalStorm get the Painfully Slow award for not having SSD options in this price range
- Dell, Alienware, iBUYPOWER, CyberPowerPC, XoticPC, Digital Storm, and AVA Direct were able to stay below budget
- Xidax, Maingear, NZXT, and Omen were only slightly over budget (<10%)
- Origin’s cheapest PC was $158.00 over budget
- Alienware gets the Flex award for somehow including a 2070 Super
- DigitalStorm gets Slideshow award for only being able to fit in a GTX 1650
- Dell, iBUYPOWER, CyberPowerPC, Xidax, Maingear, NZXT, Omen, XoticPC, DigitalStorm, and AVA Direct were able to stay below budget
- Alienware and Origin were only slightly over budget (<10%)
- Maingear gets the Weaksauce award for being the SI that the most limited system overall in this price range (brought down by only having 1TB of available storage, a 2060 Super, and a 500W 80+ Bronze PSU)
- Origin, iBUYPOWER, CyberPowerPC, NZXT, Omen, and DigitalStorm were able to stay below budget
- Dell, Alienware, Xidax, Maingear, XoticPC, and AVA Direct were only slightly over budget (<10%)
- Dell gets the Deep Pockets award for somehow being the most expensive PC
- Origin gets the Weaksauce award for being the least capable PC (hampered by offering less than 2TB of available storage, and only a Ryzen 7 3700X)
For the Component Constraint, red indicates how much higher the respective system is priced in comparison to the average system price in its specific category. Green indicates how much lower the respective system is priced in comparison to the average system price in its specific category.
Dell and Alienware do not carry AMD processors to install in their systems, while Omen simply doesn’t carry the Ryzen 9 3900X, which is why those system categories do not have an entry.
Overall Component Constraint Results
Low-End Intel + Nvidia
Lowest Price: $1,159.99 (Dell)
Highest Price: $1,679.99 (Alienware)
Average Price: $1,427.99
Low-End AMD + Radeon
Lowest Price: $1,189.00 (CyberPowerPC)
Highest Price: $1,530.00 (Origin)
Average Price: $1,369.62
Mid-Range Intel + Nvidia
Lowest Price: $1,808.90 (NZXT)
Highest Price: $2,286.00 (Maingear)
Average Price: $2,041.91
Mid-Range AMD + Radeon
Lowest Price: $1,646.00 (iBUYPOWER)
Highest Price: $2,361.00 (Maingear)
Average Price: $1,890.69
High-End Intel + Nvidia
Lowest Price: $2,459.99 (Dell)
Highest Price: $3,698.00 (DigitalStorm)
Average Price: $3,065.24
High-End AMD + Radeon
Lowest Price: $2,980.00 (Xidax)
Highest Price: $3,724.00 (Maingear)
Average Price: $3,251.32
Looking back at the Component Constraints results, a pattern starts to emerge (excusing a few outliers). By comparing the parts cost from the custom lists, it’s possible to infer the potential upcharge. Of course, each SI benefits from partnerships with vendors and economies of scale, so each SI is probably making a much larger profit than the difference between parts cost on the retail side and the prices they charge to customers purchasing their computers.
Outliers are shown in white, struck out, and factored out of averages. These particular configurations lacked options that would’ve put them in competition in their categories. Alienware’s low-end Intel CPU and Nvidia GPU build required liquid cooling and a 850W PSU. Dell’s high-end Intel CPU and Nvidia GPU build didn’t give the option for liquid cooling. Neither Dell or Omen gave the option in their high-end configurations to include a 2TB NVMe SSD and 4TB HDD. The result of these differences were that the prices in those categories were drastically higher (Alienware) or lower (Dell and Omen), so those entries were excluded from the averages to avoid skewing the results.
- The SIs with the highest apparent upcharges were DigitalStorm, Origin, and Maingear (>$500)
- Next in line were Omen, Alienware, and XoticPC (<$500 but >$400)
- Venturing into affordability were AVA Direct, Xidax, CyberPowerPC, and iBUYPOWER (<$400 and >$300)
- NZXT and Dell were the cheapest overall (<$300)
Perhaps the largest complication found during the course of testing was finding a set of components for the second round that were available across the majority of SIs. Due to the limitations on stock for some, entire categories needed to be omitted for Dell and Alienware since they don’t carry AMD Ryzen CPUs. Omen similarly did not appear to offer the option to use a Ryzen 9 3900X CPU in any of their systems.
The same limitation was found when attempting to keep various other components accounted for, as many SIs have taken to using rebranded components for parts like RAM modules, storage drives, or power supplies. In the case of Dell, Alienware, and Omen, proprietary motherboards and power supplies are all that are available. Dell, Alienware, Xidax, Maingear, Omen, XoticPC, and DigitalStorm all offer only their own brand of case, of which neither the price or quality can be accounted for.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, as many of the system components offered by these SIs are likely sourced from OEMs and stickers are just stuck on the parts that have the SI’s brand on them, but it would still be nice to know where the parts are coming from in the first place. Obviously, with a little effort it’s possible to infer who the parts manufacturer is based off the images available on the store pages themselves, but to the average consumer it would likely be well beyond the effort they’re willing to invest. Then again, a customer who isn’t interested in spending the time to discern the parts manufacturer isn’t likely to care in the first place, so it may be a fruitless discussion.
That said, if you want to purchase a computer and know exactly what is going into it, you may want to avoid Dell, Alienware, and Omen. None of these SIs disclose the source of many of their parts; most notably the motherboards themselves, but Omen at least makes it known the SDRAM and HDDs they install. Without knowing the details of the motherboard, or other components, it would make it difficult to know ahead of time how far you can push the hardware.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are Origin, iBUYPOWER, CyberPowerPC, NZXT, and AVA Direct which are more-or-less transparent about what you’re paying for. While iBUYPOWER and CyberPowerPC do give you the freedom to opt for lower prices in exchange for taking a gamble with components, it’s not a requirement. Xidax, Maingear, XoticPC, and DigitalStorm take the approach of offering some transparency about some parts, while others are left up to their discretion regarding what actually gets put in the system.
iBUYPOWER and CyberPowerPC are interesting considering that many of their component options, such as RAM modules or GPUs are listed at a discount as long as the customer is willing to gamble on the brand and model they are going to receive. While generally graphics cards in a particular category perform roughly the same, there are major exceptions such as AMD’s RX 5700XT. That one class of card has custom models that are amazing like the PowerColor Red Devil, and previously flawed models like the MSI Evoke (it’s well documented that the MSI’s RX 5700XT Evoke had serious thermal issues). Still, there’s still the option to pay a premium to ensure you get the specific parts you want.
Other SIs like Dell, Alienware, Origin, Xidax, Maingear, Omen, XoticPC, and DigitalStorm make it nearly impossible to know what model of graphics card you’re going to receive. You may pick a 2060 Super, but you won’t know if you’re getting an MSI Ventus OC, PNY Blower, Zotac Amp, EVGA XC Ultra Gaming, or even a reference design (though researching their respective partners can help in that area). These all can differ in performance for a number of reasons, ranging from the design of the cooler to the overclocking limits placed on the card at assembly. Many of the higher-end versions of graphics cards also come pre-overclocked as well, meaning your GPU can perform better than the reference design out of the box.
Still, iBUYPOWER, CyberPowerPC, and XoticPC all offer a level of customization of the meat and potatoes of the PC to a level that’s only surpassed by AVA Direct; an SI that I sadly have never heard of until the person helping with this research told me about them. AVA Direct takes the PC part picking to… Well, PC Part Picker levels. With them, you know what you’re getting, and you get a smorgasbord of parts to choose from. NZXT does a decent enough job in the area of being clear regarding what’s actually going into your PC, but the options are far more limited.
However, where companies like iBUYPOWER and CyberPowerPC drop the ball is with a tiny detail that’s likely to be missed in the purchasing process: in order to guarantee that the person assembling the PC will actually attempt to practice proper cable management, you need to pay an additional fee ($19), or pay for sleeved cables. While a fee that small isn’t going to break the bank really, quite frankly it’s one of those things that should be done as standard.
And that’s where companies like Origin, Maingear, NZXT, Xidax, XoticPC, and DigitalStorm step in. Each of those SIs have a reputation of putting in the work to guarantee that a purchased system leaving the assembly line not only functions, but looks good as well. Cable management isn’t an overrated practice either, because having a spider’s web of cables strewn everywhere in the case can drastically impact airflow, and not routing cables properly in the dark side of the case can make adding or removing components somewhere down the line a total nightmare, not to mention making it that much harder to keep it clean.
That said, all SIs with the exception of Dell, Alienware, and Omen, make it incredibly easy to modify systems purchased from them into more personalized machines. This in and of itself is what makes buying from an SI a good option; while it’s relatively easy to buy parts and assemble them into a working PC at home, it’s a little more complicated to get into custom liquid cooling and case modification.
Labor Pains (and Other Stuff)
It’s generally assumed (and likely correct) that DIY projects are always going to be cheaper than paying someone to do it for you, whether you’re hiring a plumber, electrician, IT professional, or in this case, buying a computer from an SI. As a business, they need to make money somehow, and a customer pays an SI to perform the labor. In the end, the question is whether or not the SI’s labor and expertise is worth what they’re charging.
For companies like Origin, Xidax, Maingear, NZXT, XoticPC, and DigitalStorm, it’s arguable based on their marketing that they put the extra care into building their PCs, with companies like NZXT really going the extra mile in terms of pricing and transparency. I’m not only referring to NZXT’s lower costs to the customer and openness regarding the components that are being used, but their willingness to show the general public how they run the operation (multiple tours are available to view on YouTube and their site). Xidax has similarly shown their facility to the public as well, but that doesn’t mean the others listed above are not similarly caring during the assembly process.
Pile On The Cheddar
It’s difficult to say whether the more expensive SIs are worth it, but one could argue that the premium is worth the expenditure. Both Maingear and DigitalStorm stood well ahead of the pack in terms of pricing, but their reputations for quality are high. The same could be said for Xidax, Origin, and NZXT who are well known for quality. Dell, Alienware, and Omen make solid PCs, but they’re not the easiest systems to upgrade, and internally they tend to look rather plain. AVA Direct seems to have a good reputation, but they aren’t nearly as prevalent as iBUYPOWER and CyberPowerPC.
Speaking of iBUYPOWER and CyberPowerPC, they’re on the cheaper side, but they don’t have the best track record for quality, though they do offer premium services as I’ve mentioned earlier.
First, if you’re debating between building your own PC and buying from an SI, it’s indisputable that building your own PC is by far almost always the cheapest option. You shouldn’t be buying from an SI if money is a major concern. However, if you’re looking to pay a company to build your gaming rig, it’s important to understand what you’re getting yourself into.
Quality PCs – Origin, Xidax, Maingear, XoticPC, & Digital Storm
If you’re in the market for something truly custom (I’m talking custom water cooling, paint jobs, or laser etching), then you’re looking for companies like Xidax, Maingear, or DigitalStorm. They’ve all made a reputation for themselves in the PC gaming market (and enterprise markets as well) for being the cream of the crop in terms of the quality of hardware they can deliver to customers. However, don’t look to these SIs if you’re looking for something cheap or a computer that requires little skill to put together.
Still, if I were in the market for a high-end system with a custom liquid cooling loop for the CPU and GPU, and I didn’t want to do it myself, I would pay the extra cash to have a company like Xidax, Maingear, or DigitalStorm do it for me, rather than have one of the budget SIs take a crack at it. Liquid cooling, especially custom loops, are not something you want done poorly. With that in mind, my honest opinion is that money spent at these premium SIs for a standard PC with air cooling or AIOs is money wasted.
Plug & Play – Dell, Alienware, & Omen
Some folks are just out for a PC that they can unbox and boot up, and I totally get that. That’s the mentality that drew me to console gaming in the first place, and one of the reasons that I love getting a new Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo. I know that all I need to do is just connect all the cords and turn it on… Well, there are a few more steps nowadays with the prevalence of patches and digital games, but you get what I mean.
In the PC market, that’s where companies like Dell, Alienware, and Omen excel. They generally don’t break the bank, they’re easy to pick a configuration online (where you probably won’t be afflicted by decision paralysis choosing from dozens of memory or GPU options), and when it arrives at your doorstep you’re usually just a few steps away from hitting the ground running. That’s not even mentioning that each of these SIs provides a keyboard and mouse with their systems, meaning their customer is only a display away from playing (iBUYPOWER and CyberPowerPC provide keyboards and mice, but it’s a minor upcharge). Granted, nobody buying from these SIs should begin the process thinking that they’re getting the top-of-the-line in terms of components, or peace of mind regarding owning a “future-proof” PC, but at the very least it isn’t a total pain to get started.
Options Galore – iBUYPOWER, CyberPowerPC, & AVA Direct
I spend a ton of time on PC Part Picker, not because I have an unlimited budget to spend on hardware, but because some part of me thinks it’s fun to see what I can throw together. Think of it like playing with virtual LEGO bricks. I suppose it’s kinda like window shopping. That’s the experience I enjoy with sites like iBUYPOWER, CyberPowerPC, and now AVA Direct, because there are so many things to choose from, and I know that if I were to seek out buying a PC instead of building it, I know I could go somewhere to get specific parts without needing to settle for rebranded components that were picked for me.
Anyone that knows me should know that I’d probably never buy from one of these companies, but I see the value in them. Each offers their customers on a budget the ability to order something specific and have it show up at their doorstep in a reasonable amount of time.
Good, All Around
There was only one SI I found that piqued my interest in three very important categories: quality, price, and options. Overall, NZXT provided one of the easiest user experiences with configuration, with excellent clarity on the component options, and their cases are some of the best in their class. That isn’t to say that they’d be the best choice for someone on a tight budget, as their lowest-priced system is $899 before tax right now, and their cheapest customizable system starts at over $1,000 at the moment. However, NZXT does several things very well.
First, while their systems start in price just shy of $1,000, the value they offer for anything past that is downright amazing. Sure, they aren’t as cheap as Dell, but they seem to punch above their weight by offering something that the larger SIs don’t; they manage to stay affordable while delivering quality merchandise. This seems evident with how their average upcharge seems to be only second lowest, to Dell.
What I want to be taken from all this, is that if you’re looking to purchase a computer instead of building one, pick your SI for the right reason. They all have their pros and cons, but the key to picking the right SI for you is to shop around. The right computer is out there waiting for you.
Were there any System Integrators I missed? What are your opinions about the different options available to those looking to buy a prebuilt PC? Let me know what you think in the comments!