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When is Building a DIY Laptop Worthwhile?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/24/2011

The recent resurgence in DIY laptop options has sparked debate over the value of putting your own laptop together. But while finding the value in building a DIY laptop does take some thought, the potential exists for hundreds of dollars in savings.

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    New And Limited

    Do-it-yourself laptops are a relatively new concept. It has only been a few years since the very first ones could be found, and since then the market has not seen much growth. The idea of being able to "build" your own laptop has obvious appeal to hardware enthusiasts, who are always eager to trick out their computers with the latest technology. But the reality is less impressive than the hype. While do-it-yourself laptops do allow the buyer to customize parts such as the hard drive and the RAM, the processor, motherboard, and graphics solution tend to be set in stone.

    That said, taking a look at a do-it-yourself laptop can't hurt, and there are situations where you can come out ahead by customizing a bare-bones laptop.

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    Economics Of Scale

    One of the largest advantages possessed by massive companies like Dell and HP is there ability to buy huge amounts of components and to build computers in an efficient, assembly-line fashion. While custom built desktops are widely considered to be cheaper to build than buy, there are in fact numerous low-end computers from major manufacturers which compete well on price with home-built computers. Dell may need to add the time and labor required to make their products onto the price tag, but they recoup this with vendor contracts that allow them to buy parts at drastically reduced prices. It is only on high-end computers and gaming systems that there is a large margin between pre-built and home-built computers, and this difference has to do with how well large companies can market their products to make them appear valuable to consumers, not with the price the companies pay for the actual components.

    Laptops, like desktops, see the same dynamic. Believe it or not, OCZ does market a do-it-yourself netbook, but the product fails because major manufacturers can produce similar products at lower prices. The number of barebone netbooks OCZ ships out is a tiny fraction of the total netbook market, making it hard for OCZ to price their product competitively.

    However, once you begin to look at high-end products - particularly those laptops which include a good GPU from ATI or Nvidia - the do-it-yourself option starts to become more viable. Major PC corporations are happy to attach large premiums to powerful laptops because they know most consumers will pay for the luxury of a portable computer with a decent processor and adequate graphics. This leaves room for do-it-yourself options to become viable.

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    A Price Comparison

    DIY Laptops Like This Can Be A Good Value, But Still Limit Your Options For comparison I will be pitting an OCZ do-it-yourself laptop head to head with an Alienware laptop with a virtually identical configuration. The OCZ barebone model is $999.99 on Newegg and consists of the laptop shell, the screen, the motherboard, the GPU and standard chipset equipment like wireless networking. The Alienware laptop is the M17 Extreme Gaming Laptop, which has a base price of $1299.99. These are good models for comparison because they use the same graphics, the same chipset, have screens of the same size, and can be customized into identical configurations.

    In their base form, the OCZ and the Alienware have nearly the same overall cost. It is worth noting that right off the bat the Alienware does require one upgrade in order to be on par with the OCZ configuration, and that is the screen. The base for the M17 is a 1440x900 LCD, while the OCZ ships with a standard 1900x1200 LCD. Upgrading to the higher resolution LCD will set you back $200 dollars through Alienware. That said, if you keep everything else bone stock and compare it with the OCZ barebone customized to match the configuration, the price difference is so negligible that sales or coupons on either product would compensate for it.

    But selling bone stock systems isn't where companies like Alienware make their money. They make it with upgrades. The stock M17 comes with an unimpressive 160GB mobile hard drive. It also ships with only 1GB of DDR3 Ram, which is atrocious considering that the Alienware system ships standard with Windows Vista 64-bit and has no Windows XP option.

    Once you've accounted for the screen resolution, upgraded the hard drive to 500GB, and upped the RAM to a more reasonable 4GB, the tables have turned. These upgrades included, the price of the Alienware M17 rises to $1859, while the price of the OCZ is around $1450. That is a price difference of $409 dollars, or 28 percent. The difference only becomes larger as the upgrades become more intense.

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    Some Bumps In The Road

    If you're been thinking about buying a high-performance laptop as a desktop replacement, mobile gaming computer, or mobile workstation, then this price difference has likely caught your interest. A price difference of over 400 dollars is nothing to sneeze at. With the money saved on the OCZ you could by a netbook for trips to the coffee shop and still spend less money overall than you would spend on the pre-built Alienware configuration.

    That said, there are still some problems that can't be overcome. The largest problem is the limited number of barebone options available. In the past, companies including MSI and Antec have tried their hand at selling do-it-yourself laptops, but at the moment OCZ seems to be the only company selling them. OCZ offers only Radeon 3870 graphics and Nvidia 8600M graphics on laptops with 15" and 17" screen sizes. The Radeon 3870 solution is not a bad one, and is a match for what many other companies sell in mid-range gaming laptops. But this is still a limited selection. The Radeon 3870 will not be sufficient for those of you wanting extreme performance. The OCZ laptops also lack personal customization. There is no option for a built-in webcam or fingerprint security reader, and you can have any color you'd like so long as it is black.

    These disadvantages aside, there is room in the market for this kind of product. If you're looking at a laptop which runs over $1500 dollars from a major manufacturer, go build yourself a do-it-yourself laptop in the Newegg shopping cart. You may be pleasantly surprised with the money you can save by building it yourself.