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Reasons To Consider a White Box Vendor

And that's a good segue to looking at some reasons why a white box vendor may make sense for you.

Specific Vendors, Parts, Configuration

When you order a computer from a name vendor such as Dell or IBM, you don't have a lot of control over what goes into the computer, and often you won't even know whose components are used.

In fact, what you get may not be the part you ordered. You get to choose the CPU (although you may not have any non–Intel choices), the type of memory (but not the vendor), possibly the hard drive and/or optical drive vendor (again, probably not the vendor). And good luck getting any OS other than Windows XP preinstalled. Dell currently offers a Windows-less system with FreeDOS; if you want Linux or something else, you have to add it yourself.

Good white box shops, by contrast, will give you many more component choices and lots more information—often, a list of CPUs and motherboards; a range of sound and video cards; name-brand drives and memory; plus options for fans and other cooling, power supply upgrades, case mods. It's also easier to get systems with multiple hard drives and multiple optical drives. And you're more likely to be able to get the latest blazing-fast Asus motherboard, Corsair memory, or high-capacity ATA/SATA hard drive (although national brands like AlienWare will probably have the hottest stuff too).

Many shops provide links from their configuration pages to online reviews and information at sites like Tom's Hardware Guide or AnandTech. And you can even have real OS choices, including Linux distributions, BSD, multi-boot, pre–XP Windows versions if you prefer Windows 2000, or even no operating system at all. Although you'll pay the full retail price (or close to it) if you want a Microsoft OS, you'll get the Microsoft CD-ROM with it—not just a rescue disk.

Nonproprietary, Standard-Sized Parts

Another major advantage of buying a white box is that the builder is likely to use nonproprietary, standard-sized parts, which are easy to replace/update. If you've ever owned a car (or tried to do repairs or upgrades for your bathroom, perhaps) you may appreciate the problems inherent in owning systems that don't use standard-size parts. One friend of mine bought a name-brand computer; when the floppy drive failed, the vendor had to send an entire replacement system.

Volume-built major-vendor machines are also more likely to use motherboards with integrated video and sound, making it harder to upgrade these aspects separately. With standard-sized parts, if something like the motherboard or floppy or power supply goes south, replacing it should be far simpler. Even if an exact replacement isn't available, there's less likely to be the cascade effect of "This new part means that all these need to be replaced, too."

Standard-sized parts also means that hardware upgrades should be doable—adding or upgrading a hard drive, optical drive, or video card, or going to a new motherboard.

Local Service and Support

Buy from Dell, IBM—or, granted, many of the mail-order white box shops—and you're at the mercy of long-distance help. Long wait times for phone support, parts sent by mail, possibly having to box up your computer for depot service.

Buy from a local store, and if your problem seems to need hands-on work, you can throw (well, place) the computer in your car and drive it in, talk directly with technical support, possibly even have things resolved while you wait.

The downside, of course, is spending time chauffeuring your computer around instead of working, but you get to talk to somebody directly, and may get quicker problem resolution. And your computer won't get bounced around in transit unpredictably.

TIP

If you don't expect to stay in the same area for long, "drive-in local service" may not be useful, making purchasing from a national vendor (or store) perhaps more meaningful.

Price

Depending on what you want, a white-box desktop computer may or may not be cheaper. Ignoring parts differences, which may make it difficult to do a real apples-to-apples price comparison, apparent initial low costs on a major vendor deal may be quickly wiped out by shipping and warranty. On the other hand, including whatever sales, freebies, and rebates are available, that new Dell, HP, or IBM may indeed be a deal. But don't let a few dollars drive your decision, since there are bound to be more important differences.

"I don't see a big difference between any of the vendors," reports Dr. Louis Stuhl, who has purchased a number of name-brand and local white-box computers over the year for personal and business use. "The white box machines may have had to go back to the shop more, but it was easier to do that. Cost-wise, at present prices, the white box machines don't appear to be good values if a comparable configuration is available from HP or Dell, but are definitely the way to go if a very particular configuration is required and there's a chance of complications arising from the particulars of the configuration."

Which leads to the next issue, deciding where you'll buy.

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