There exists a common conception amongst those who own high end personal computers: building one from parts is almost always better than purchasing one pre made. They attribute this to many factors, including customization ability, aesthetic superiority, and especially cost effectiveness. Members of the gaming communities and especially the ‘PC Master Race’ tout these advantages when advising entering members of these markets. Companies like Alienware (under Dell) and Razer have long been competing with those who prefer to buy parts and fit them together in their dream computer. However, recent changes in the world economy have rippled into these markets and are potentially changing the game for all computer enthusiasts.
Before the recent shifts in the computer parts economy, the barrier to entry into PC building was relatively low. Assembling a computer is actually much easier in terms of architecture than most people would assume. After buying the prebuilt parts, constructing the computer properly is about as difficult as assembling a simple puzzle and not breaking anything. The convenience cost of buying a prebuilt computer is effectively negligible, assuming the customer does not run into issues with poorly functioning pieces. Then, in deciding whether to buy a prebuilt computer, entrants to the PC world mostly considered the costs of parts vs the cost of an assembled computer- in either case peripherals, such as monitors, keyboards, and a mouse had to be purchased separately. In gaming especially, the costliest parts of any computer tended to be the graphics card, which handled the heavy lifting through the graphics processing unit(s), and the CPU or ‘Central Processing Unit, which runs the actual arithmetic calculations inherent in the actual computer functioning. Usually, it was possible to completely purchase all the necessary parts of the computer for up to three hundred dollars cheaper than an assembled computer. This is no longer the case.
The main changes that are affecting the community come from two tangentially related sources. The first affects the prices of graphics cards, which have spiked an impressive amount, and the prices have far outpaced those of simply upgraded hardware. A brand new GTX 980 graphics card, which was available in 2014, is currently retailing for around $500, whereas in 2014 it was $550. The GTX 1080, a newer model, was retailed for around $450 in late 2016/early 2017, and peaked in price at nearly $700 in February of 2018. The reason that prices for these technologies haven’t been falling with obsolescence lies with the crypto currency market. Graphics cards are incredibly useful in mining crypto currency, which translates into miners buying up graphics cards en masse and other buyers paying a premium for reduced effective supply. This also explains why prices peaked near the summit of the crypto currency boom. Gaming PC retailers were less affected due to access to graphics cards from suppliers, meaning the premium a lone buyer was paying lessened the cost advantage of buying separate parts.
If the graphics card price spike was a shock to the pc building community, the steady increase in RAM price has been a slow, drawn-out slap in the face. RAM, or random access memory, is a part that is not nearly as specialized in computing as a graphics card. This means that RAM is a core element not only in high end PCs, but also in phones, low end computers, and laptops. RAM production in factories cannot match demand as products like the iPhone X require significantly more RAM. As a result, everyone is paying more for a RAM kit, and this trend is somewhat more troubling that the graphics card problem. The key difference is that where graphics card prices were tied into a crypto currency boom, the factors inflating RAM prices show no signs of slowing down. Newer phones will likely continue to utilize more RAM, spelling out a grim future for the computer architects of today.
The inside lane that computer retailers have with factories means that prices of computers have not increased nearly as much as those of the DIY market. In essence, the cornerstone of the PC master race argument, ‘building your own is always cheaper’ is no longer a simple fact. While people will continue to build their own personal computers, it is likely that we see an increased barrier to entry and an increase in retail computer being purchased. Although it is possible some of these market issues are resolved, computing enthusiasts should expect these changes to only worsen as there is little incentive for parts manufacturers to cater to smaller, individual buyers. If the computer architect of the modern age wishes to continue building and upgrading their personal computers, they will likely require a significant deal more capital to continue with their passion.
Michael O’Malley is a Business Administration/Theatre Double major sophomore at USC. He enjoys long walks on the beach, screaming into the abyss, and dancing with friends. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and does know how to read.