One of our readers sent in this question:

What PC has the best state-of-the-art-system?

(UPDATED for 2014)

This question is another variation of  “What is the best personal computer?” and by extension “who makes the best computers?” questions which comes down to the real question: “what computer should I buy?”.  To answer this question we have to examine how the computer manufacturers do business to understand why a mass-market PC may, or may not be the right choice for you.   Throughout this article, I’m speaking about the mass consumer and budget PC markets, not computers built for the office, specialty or gaming markets.

Our theoretical “state-of-the-art PC” would incorporate the latest and greatest technologies with the maximum available processing power, memory, storage, video graphics and support all the latest gadgets and software. That presents several problems for the large PC manufacturers like Dell, HP, Gateway and others because they know consumers are price-conscious. There are several good business reasons why PC manufacturers avoid state-of-the-art.

State-of-the-Art is Expensive

The bulk of consumers aren’t computer geeks. To avoid feeling ripped-off, consumers often opt for buying the lowest-priced PC they can find which has “big numbers”.   That way, if they don’t like the computer, they won’t feel too ripped off.  This forces prices downwards, which forces computer manufacturers to slash costs on their computers in order to undercut their competition to get the sale.  That means cheap, older, off-brand components that may be unstable or hard to use. Personal computers aren’t the profitable items they once were.  Personal computers went from “expensive toy” to “household Internet appliance”.  The profit margins in the mass PC market have plummeted and manufacturers are turning to tablets and smart TV’s to try to make up the profit loss.  IBM, the inventor of the personal computer, has gotten out of the PC market altogether.

State-of-the-Art components use new technologies, more advanced processors, more memory, or more components–any or all of which make that component more expensive than the existing tried-and-true hardware from a year or two previous. Furthermore, the manufacturing process is also new, and only limited quantities can be produced.  This makes state-of-the-art components very expensive.  Manufacturers of mass-market computers see state-of-the-art hardware as a competitive disadvantage on the basis of price.  Since the price of the PC directly affects the quantity they sell, it directly affects the manufacturer’s bottom line.  State-of-the-art components must have some sort of “gee-whiz-that’s-cool” allure that will guarantee a sale, otherwise it gets passed over for more ‘cost effective’ components (older, slower, lower quality etc.).  Very few technologies fall in this “gee whiz” category.

To further reduce prices, PC manufacturers have stopped installing the full versions of software. Today they only install trial versions of Microsoft Office Home and Student, and basic Anti-Virus software. This lowers their per-unit costs on the computers because they didn’t have to pay the software manufacturers. This is called bloatware, because the trial versions expire, stop working, take up valuable space and resources and slow down the computer.

More than ever, it is ‘buyer beware’, when you shop for a pre-built computer.

State-of-the-Art is Hard to Obtain

PC manufacturer’s need components that can be shipped to them in large quantities. Large quantities provide what’s called economy of scale–the parts are cheaper when you buy them in bulk.  These bulk purchases lower the per component costs which lowers the total cost to produce the computer.  If there is a new video technology and the video board manufacturer can only build five hundred units a week and the PC manufacturer needs five thousand a week, the video board can’t be manufactured in quantities sufficient to supply the PC manufacturer.  New technologies are also expensive. The per-unit price of that video board that would not allow for it to be used cheap, mass-market PCs.   So, if the new technology can’t be made in sufficient quantities, and can’t be made cheaply enough, the PC manufacturers can’t use the new technology and they have to stick with hardware that is less than state of the art.  Then there are the licensing agreements that take months to work out, which can delay the manufacturing dates and this further restricts the use of the new technology as PC manufacturers have to keep a steady stream of machines leaving the factories to make any money.  These licensing issues are particularly prevalent with big vendor operating systems, productivity suites and new multi-media technologies.

 

State-of-the-Art is Difficult to Support

Older components, components that are not the state of the art, have another advantage beyond lower cost and broader availability.   A component that is well known and understood is more easily fixed and problems with drivers and other software easily corrected by technical support personnel because the technicians are already familiar with the components, is aware of the common problems and how to fix them–usually because they have encountered that problem before and because the manufacturer of the component has provided updated software or drivers and issued advisories on known problems.  This is not so with new, cutting-edge technologies where the interactions of the new technology with other components and technologies is unknown.

State-of-the-art components have can be unstable, or at least unpredictable.   New hardware technologies often push the envelope of what is possible.  Quite frequently, the new technology breaks or crashes.  If nobody has seen this state-of-the-art component before, nobody knows how to fix it when it breaks.  If the manufacturer hasn’t seen their latest and greatest video card crash when MS-Word is launched, they have no clue how to fix the problem. If the video card manufacturer can’t fix it, the PC manufacturer most certainly can’t fix it.  This all leads to the PC manufacturers being very wary of new technology or hardware because component failures are perceived by the customer as a computer failure and the PC manufacturer’s reputation suffers when they use components that they can’t support.

Unstable hardware or software means more calls by your customers to your 1-800-support line, which costs more money over time.  It costs money to staff the line with support ‘technicians’ (and I use that term very, very loosely), it also costs more money to develop the written solutions in the support database that the technicians read to the customer over the phone.

The Answer (and Best Option):  Build it Yourself

If you really want the ‘best, most state-of-the-art’ computer, you have to build it yourself.  When you buy the hardware yourself and build the PC yourself, you bypass the manufacturer’s fears and hesitation along with their supply chain.  You’re also opting to deal with nearly all of the technical support problems yourself.  You also pay more for the hardware, more for the software and spend a lot of time building and tuning the system. At the end of all this, you may find that the system doesn’t work well.   However, every time you build a computer, it’s a learning experience.  I build all my own PC’s, not because it’s cheaper (it used to be, not any more) but because it keeps me up to date with current technologies.  If you know what you’re doing, you can build a computer that easily outclasses anything Dell, HP, Sony, Apple or Gateway might build, and it won’t cost you that much more.

Summary

PC manufacturers want a solid, stable computer that requires little or no support and has the lowest cost to build. They want to build it in large numbers, underprice their competition and sell more units than their competition at higher profit margins.  The fewer calls to the support line, the fewer pieces of hardware they have to replace from hardware failures, the lower the PC’s support costs and the greater their profit margins.  As a general rule, a PC that is stable and works well will also result in a happy customer, provided they bought a PC that fits their needs, which means a return customer in the future.  This is why PC manufacturers tend to stick with using tried-and-true technologies and tried-and-true hardware, even if it is old.

Building your own computer is far easier today than it was just ten years ago.  Nearly everything is labeled and it all plugs together one and only one way.  You almost can’t go wrong.  If you’re willing to do the work yourself, and can afford a few missteps, you can build your own PC’s with the latest and greatest.

If you’re a hands-on sort of person, you can also have a lot of fun.

If you choose to build a computer yourself, I HIGHLY recommend Scott Mueller’s “Upgrading and Repairing PC’s”.

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