Note: This is an old post and may or may not accurately represent my current views, current technology, etc.

Update 2010-11-25: I have since updated my computer with an Asus Rampage III Formula motherboard.

A few weeks ago, I build a new computer. I hadn’t built a computer for myself since 2004 when I built the one I have replaced with this new one. In that time, I have upgraded the RAM, added another hard drive, and changed from the original 17″ LCD screen to two 19″ screens. Other than that, it remained the same for all these years and served me well as an Ubuntu box. Unfortunately, the need for increased processing power always develops.

When I purchased a Canon 7D in fall of last year, I quickly realized how limited my desktop was in terms of processing power (and the 2.5GB of RAM was a bit underwhelming). My laptop was better in many respects (Core 2 Duo, 4GB of RAM, 1GB video card, etc.), but it didn’t have the screen real estate. Of course I could hook up an external monitor, but that just wasn’t cutting it for me and I started to heavily consider a new computer.

Despite its allure, I eventually decided not to buy a 27″ iMac, largely due to glare issues. That machine had seemed pretty impressive, especially to someone who hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to hardware in recent years. Apple offered no matte option, so I looked at various matte films and other solutions only to decide I wasn’t willing to give them a try. Eventually, I opted to build my own computer.

I couldn’t help but be continually surprised at what I could build for far less than an iMac. I eventually went with a system that is designed for good performance now and expandability in the future. Though it’s not possible to fairly compare a built (all-in-one) computer with an Apple product, I couldn’t help but find myself noting the differences.

Built Decent iMac Better iMac
Processor Intel i7-920 ($288.99) Intel i5-750 Intel i7-860 (+$200)
RAM 12GB 1600 Corsair ($339.99) 8GB 1066 (+$200) 16GB 1066 (+$1400)
Hard Drive 1.5TB ($109.99) 1TB 2TB (+$250)
Video Card GeForce GT 240 1GB 128-bit DDR3 ($89.99) Radeon HD 4850 512MB 256-bit DDR3
Monitor(s) LG W2343T-PF 23″ HD x2 ($359) 27″ 2560×1440

The lower-end comparable iMac is $2199 before Washington State sales tax (Apple estimates $2,407.91 after); the higher end is $3849 before taxes. The total cost for my system, including tax and shipping and the Windows 7 disc (though I use Linux 99% of the time, there are those occasional times when I have to deal with Windows for something like Cisco TFTP), was $1750.74.

Some benefits to the iMac: bigger screen; OS X Snow Leopard; video card (I believe this is better than the 240 but with a higher power consumption; politely show me otherwise if that’s not the case); built-in SD card slot, webcam, Bluetooth, and WiFi; all-in-one enclosure.

Some benefits to the built system: more screen real estate; matte screens; more/faster RAM; LGA 1366 chipset; two USB 3.0 ports; two 6GB/s SATA ports; two eSATA ports; BluRay drive; significant expandability.

The biggest and most prominent difference is the two 23″ monitors vs. one 27″ monitor. Personally, I like the two 23″ monitors, but I could have gone with a Dell U2711 27″ monitor instead. It would have increased the cost to $2490.74. Dell also has an excellent replacement policy (a single dead pixel and you get a new one!), so that would have been a good option if the larger screen were important. (BTW, anyone know what Apple’s dead pixel policy is on the 27″ iMac?)

The other big difference is the all-in-one approach. Honestly I think Apple does this for three reasons: it’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s extremely easy for even a computer-illiterate person to set up, and it’s not expandable. That means Apple’s only line of products that is really expandable is the Mac Pro series which is basically 2-3x the cost. If needed, I can throw 24GB of RAM in my computer, swap out the processor with better LGA 1366-based chips, add multiple hard drives or optical drives, add video cards. I even put a Corsair 650W power supply into my system just in case. Sure, you can buy 16GB of RAM for the iMac for ~$750 (or pay twice as much to have Apple do it for you), but you can’t do much about the other issues like single hard drive, single video card, etc. Further, if your screen goes out, your computer is useless. A non-all-in-one (is there a word for that?) can just have the bad monitor swapped out.

Here are the parts I bought:

It even came with a voucher that I used to get Resident Evil 5 for free. For some people, the iMac might be the right decision, but I’m absolutely pleased with my decision to build my own computer. I hope it continues to be useful for 5.5 years like my last one.

(Note: If you added up the prices listed for my system, you probably see that the numbers are slightly off. The motherboard and processor combo gave a $20 discount. Shipping was $3.45 for 3-day delivery. I also bought a DVI adapter that I included in the price, but I didn’t end up using it and some fresh Arctic Silver 5).