After much price-matching and sifting through parts lists, I've come to the conclusion I'm better off building a new machine for my particular price point than I am buying a pre-built system from the likes of D*ll or H*wl*tt-P*ck*rd. I wouldn't normally feel weird about this if I hadn't dug myself a hole some years back when building my own system.
Short version is like so: I flushed away a lot of money on a system that turned out to be not nearly as good as I'd hoped, in big part because I did not nearly enough homework about what's worth throwing money at and what is just plain costly. When one of the new machine's two processors finally died (this was back when the only way to get more than one core was to have more than one socket) I gave up and bought a conventional beige-box replacement. This I did out of the notion that if something went wrong, I would at least have "one throat to choke", as they say in IT.
Mercifully, nothing did go wrong, but all the same I again felt like I'd spent too much money — most of it for a brandname. Next time around (meaning four years ago), I picked up another mainstream-manufacturer system, albeit one from a SKU that was a bit above the price point they were hustling most earnestly. I did this mostly to avoid the corner-cutting that happens in the sub-$700 SKUs (and even there, as well), and while I didn't come away with a lemon — this machine is still running very nicely — I still felt annoyed at my own justifications. I told myself I couldn't afford the downtime that might have come with a self-build system, but I knew full well most of what would go wrong with any PC — self-built or not — was a function of your own treatment of it.
So now it's time to replace this system — not because smoke is pouring out the back or anything, but just because it's old and can't be upgraded any further, and I need more PC than this to do some parts of my job. And I'm finding for the money I allocated to do that, a self-built system will whip the pants off just about anything I could buy from the Big Box people at that price. A big part of it is strategic recycling of parts — I don't need a new optical drive, hard drive, power supply or video card, as those are all late-model items I migrated into my current system.
I'm also realizing that most of the benefits of a pre-built system are slowly becoming irrelevant for several reasons:
Most of the integration problems that happen with a self-built PC can be defeated with a little research. I've learned to be patient, so I suspect I'll be in much better stead than I was before.
The value of a brand name is a crapshoot, even for a particular SKU. Also, the general quality of parts has improved — it's harder to get away with selling an individual part that's junk.
Most PC makers are moving away from making PCs. Notebooks and tablets (and phones) are eating ever-widening slices of the computing pie. I don't mind this development — it means a broader palette of devices for everyone — but I know that for what I do in my office on my desktop, I need a full-blown PC.
So it's back to the white-box builder sites for me.