How To Spec a TouchDesigner PC #3

The last 2 blog posts have talked about the different aspects of spec-ing a PC for interactive and immersive work (Link for pt. 1 and link for pt. 2). It sounds like it should be an easy thing to do, but as we’ve seen so far, there are actually a lot of different things to consider. In the final installation of this series, I’m going to talk about the pros and cons about how you actually get the PC you decided on. What should be a simple thing actually ends up being a bunch more decisions! Let’s dive in!

There are options?

Unfortunately, yes, there are actually tons of options and sub-options for how you actually get that sweet PC that you decided on. Fortunately for us, those generally fall in two main categories:

  1. Build it yourself
  2. Buy it from a company

It might sound obvious that these are the two options, but as we’ll see, there are quite a number of pros and cons to each as well as factors within each of those.

If you build it, they will come

Immediate cost savings

Ha! If only that was true! But building a PC is far too commonly the default advice given to folks who want to “keep it cheap.” There is truth to the idea that buying all the parts separately from different vendors who have the best prices per part, and then compiling it all together can almost certainly get you the best build for the cheapest price. That’s truly a wonderful feature of building your own PC that can’t be counted out, especially if you’re just starting out your career/company/studio and you’re still working on lower budget projects. On those projects, the price of a Boxx PC might actually just be the full project budget or a significant portion of the budget that would then make it not worth doing at all or completely unfeasible.

Total customization

So far that sounds pretty great! “Get a strong computer for a low price? Sign me up!” Another amazing benefit of building your own computer is that you build EXACTLY what you need for any specific situation and installation. Need a whisper quiet machine because it will be near the users? No problem, you can get some low-noise level Noctua fans and put them inside of a Fractal Design Define case that has industrial dampending on the panels. Want a full-length GPU but only have 2U of space in the rack? No problem, you can either customize a NUC or use a 90 degree PCIe bracket to mount a GPU parallel to your motherboard and make a 1U or 2U rack with a full-length GPU. Want 2x GPU’s, 1x dual-slot NVMe RAID0, a Blackmagic Decklink card, and 40GB of RAM? You got it. You can’t underestimate how nice it is to have exactly the hardware you need to do exactly the things you want to do without the headache of having to find a vendor who will actually do it for you or complain if you ask.

Time-sink

But there are some things to consider. One of the first cons to building a PC is the time it takes. Even at the height of my PC building days, it would still take me about a day to order all the parts from different places, then I’d slowly receive a trickle of packages, then it’d take me another day to put it together and install Windows on it. That’s at least 2 days of work if nothing goes wrong. If there’s a part that is a lemon and I need to RMA it, consider another half-day per part. If I consider that I just lost 2 billable work days, at my rate of $1500 USD a day, this machine actually has $3000 worth of extra soft-costs for it. Even at a lower rate, it still adds up because you could be doing other work or other projects in that build time. If you build 10 computers a year, even at a loss of $2000 USD worth of billable hours per computer, you didn’t make an extra $20,000 USD that year. When you think of it like that, all of a suddent the savings may or may not be as practical and obvious as you first thought. Yes I can save about $2000-3000 USD by building my own PC vs getting a Boxx PC, but then if it costs me 2-3 work days, then they’re actually about the same price except with the Boxx PC, I could still keep working and making money while waiting for the PC to come in. I could literally just sleep for 2 days straight and technically I’m breaking even.

You’re the warranty

So you put together the sweetest customized PC that didn’t cost too much. Then you install a bunch of these around the world in permanent installations. Then something happens to one…and no one knows what. Guess who’s going to be responsible for fixing it? Yup. You built it, so you’re the warranty. Whether it means a trip to site, spending time diagnosing it, ordering and replacing parts, or whatever it needs to get working again, it all kind of falls back on you. You can certainly hire some locals to take care of it, but you’re still probably going to be somehow involved in that process or paying extra to someone else to take it off your hands. This starts eating into the cost-savings of building your own PC when it comes to long-term installations. Short-term installs doesn’t suffer as much from this, because if a computer breaks after a show, it doesn’t matter you can fix it later. If you’ve read any of my blog posts about SLA’s and similar contracts, you can always build warranty into those, but you have to ask yourself at the end of the day did you get into this business to warranty your own PC’s or did you get into this to make some cool art?

Using a vendor

Great warranties

Continuing on the thought process of warranty and service of PC’s, one of my favourite features of using large vendors is their available warranty packages. When I’m talking about vendors, I’m usually talking about companies that make PC’s and sell them to other companys. So I’m not talking about Origin or Gigabyte or getting a consumer grade PC off the shelf. I’m talking about vendors like Dell (the commercial side of things), HP (also the commercial side of things), Boxx PC, and Arrow. These companies specialize in commercial computer sales, and a big part of those sales are warranty, service, and after-purchase services. In most cases, this simply amounts to paying a little bit extra for your PC and receiving benefits such as:

  • Remote technical support and debugging of computer issues
  • Warranty on parts that they take care of for you
  • On-site repair of your computers by their own technicians

The last one is huge and I buy that all the time. It means that if anything happens to any of the permanent installations I have out in the world, I just call the vendor and they will send one of their support team to the site on the next-business day to look at it and fix it. Now that is something that not only makes my life easier, but also reduces my overhead by a ton. Now I don’t have to hop on a plane or send one of my staff on a plane to somewhere else where they’ll need a hotel room for however many days they’re out there trying to fix a PC. This very quickly becomes much more expensive than just paying a vendor for a great warranty and service plan.

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Opportunity savings

As I mentioned above, although I could build my own PC’s for cheaper, there’s a huge cost in terms of my time and work output for me to stop doing something I’m specialized at (interactive development) so that I can do a moderately generic task (building a PC). In the business world, we would call this loss of time and work output an opportunity cost. This opportunity cost could be measured in dollars like I mentioned previously, where if it takes me 2 days to build a PC, I could have instead been billing clients $2000-3000 USD for those 2 work days doing interactive development. The opportunity cost could also be more abstract, such as the fact that I could have been taking meetings with new clients for those 2 days, developing new IP or art concepts, spending time with my friends and family, taking a much needed vacation, or filing taxes. Any of these other activities are opportunities I won’t have because I’ll spend 2 days building a PC. Now when you’re starting your career, it is very possible the cost-savings outweighs everything. That’s just the reality of getting started in our industry. But as time goes on and you get more gigs, I strongly urge you to think about your time and decide if you really do value building your own PC’s (maybe you actually mark them up and make more money off them or you have friends willing to take care of support!) because if you don’t you should immediately try to dump that responsibility onto vendors.

Wrap up

As we saw in our previous two posts, even deciding whether to build your own PC or buy one from a vendor can be a complicated question you have to ask yourself. In some cases, you’ll be forced into one or the other because of varying factors such as timelines, budget, specs, and maybe simply how busy you are. Either way, you have a lot of options and making sure you take a few moments to think them through, before picking the first thing that comes to mind, will only end up benefiting you and your work in the long term. Enjoy and good luck!