My surprise problem with considering a new PC: actually building it
Earlier this week I had a real scare with my home machine, where I woke up to find it shut off and staying that way (amidst a distinct odor of burnt electronics). Fortunately this turned out not to be a dead power supply or motherboard but instead a near miss where a power connector had shorted out dramatically; once I got that dealt with, the machine powered on and hasn't had problems since. Still, it got me thinking.
Unlike many people, I don't have a collection of laptops, secondary machines, and older hardware that I can press into service in an emergency; my current home machine is pretty much it. And it's coming up on five years old. On the one hand, I already decided I didn't really want to replace it just now (and also); while I had some upgrade thoughts, they're much more modest. On the other hand, all of a sudden I would like to have a real, viable alternative if my home machine suffers another hardware failure, and buying a new current machine no longer feels quite so crazy in light of this.
So I've been thinking a bit about getting a new PC, which has opened up the surprising issue of where I'd get it from. I'm never been someone to buy stock pre-built machines (whether from big vendors like Dell or just the white box builds from small stores), but at the same time I've never built a machine myself; all of my previous machines have been assembled from a parts list by local PC stores. Local PC stores which seem to have now all evaporated, rather to my surprise.
(There used to be a whole collection of little PC stores around the university that sold parts and put machines together. Over the past few years they seem to have all quietly closed up shop, or at least relocated to somewhere else. I suspect that one reason is that probably a lot fewer students are buying desktops these days.)
One logical solution is to take a deep breath and just assemble the machine myself. I know (or at least read) plenty of people who do this and don't particularly have problems; in fact I'm probably unusual in being into computers yet never having done this rite of passage myself. I've also heard that modern PCs are really fairly easy for the hobbyist to assemble (especially if you stay away from things like liquid cooling). However, I don't really like dealing with hardware all that much, plus you don't get to restore hardware from backups if you screw it up. Spending a few hours nervously screwing things together is not really my idea of fun.
(And having someone else sell me a preassembled machine means that they're on the hook for dealing with any DOA parts, however unlikely that may be with modern hardware.)
There are probably still places around Toronto that do built to order PCs like this. But 'around Toronto' is a big area, plus another advantage of dealing with stores around the university was that we could tap local expertise to find out who did a good job of it and who you kind of wanted to avoid.
If I was in the US, another option would be to order a prebuilt machine from a company that specializes in Linux hardware and has something with suitable specifications. I'm not particularly attached to having fine control over the parts list; I just want a good quality machine that will run Linux well and has enough drive bays. I'm not sure there's anyone doing this in Canada, though, and I certainly don't want to ship across the border. (Just shipping within Canada is enough of a hassle.)
Although part of me wants to take the plunge into assembling my own machine from parts, what I'm probably going to do to start with is ask around the university to see if people have places they like for this sort of thing. My impression is that custom built PCs are much less popular than they used to be (my co-workers just got Dell desktops in our most recent sysadmin hardware refresh, for example), but I'm sure that people still buy some. If I'm lucky, there's still a good local store that does this and I can move on to thinking about what collection of hardware I'd want.
(Of course thinking about a new machine makes me irritated about ECC, which I'll probably have to live without.)