Graphics and gaming drive DIY computing

First it was houses, with the do-it-yourself renovation boom, then gardens as we became amateur landscape architects. Now it seems Australians are increasingly opting to upgrade their own computers. Or even build them from scratch.

Once limited to a small number of hardcore enthusiasts, do-it-yourself computing has broadened its appeal according to industry pundits, and could well open up a whole new market to whitebox resellers.

Over the past 18 months Queensland-based computer retailer, The Disc Shop, has gone from one shop in Brisbane to nine locations from Cairns to Maroochydore. The company's growth has come on the back of customers who come in looking for their own chips, motherboards, memory and all manner of other components.

According to Paul Turnbull, manager of the Nerang store, which opened in April 2003, the shops have overcome some initial hurdles and are growing their business substantially.

"It was up and down for the first few months but it all fell into a groove by Christmas," Turnbull said. "In the past 18 months we've opened six stores and sales just keep growing."

The key to the DIY market, according to Turnbull, lies in providing the right combination of service and products. The Disc Shop offers patrons a wide range of components at very affordable prices. Customers can choose to take their little boxes home to assemble the computer themselves, or pay an extra $100 and have the computer built for them with the components they pick off the shelves.

"You need to have a technician onboard, not just to provide advice and assemble the machines," Turnbull explained. "You also have to test stock which has been brought back under warranty, because as soon as you put an electrical current through some of these things you change them. Most of the times it's the customer that has caused the problem and we need to know that for warranty purposes."

Editor of a popular IT-focused website called overclockers, James Rolfe said he is now writing for a very different readership than he was two years ago. Like Turnbull, Rolfe believes the DIY market has expanded beyond its traditional bounds.

"There is a huge market for people buying Dells and HPs, but there is also a market for people wanting a whitebox system they can upgrade themselves," Rolfe said. "Both market segments are expanding, so there are more enthusiasts, and more people buying Dell. I always hear that the enthusiast market is really small, but it often passes under the radar."

Rolfe puts the growth down to greater access to information regarding computer assembly via the Web and magazines, as well as changes to software and hardware.

"Our focus has softened away from the really hardcore enthusiasts, because these days there are more people who want to improve their computer's performance for other purposes," Rolfe said. "Gamers are the obvious ones, but there are also people involved in graphics or photography that find they need more memory."

Peter Barr, editor of IT-enthuiasts website Technobabble, believes whitebox PCs are a natural starting point for DIY customers.

"The introduction into the PC market will always be the whitebox PC," he said. "Then as they get more knowledge and more courage they will want to go into their own system."

Like Rolfe, Barr has seen the DIY market expand largely through the impetus of so called power users, who are interested in getting maximum functionality for a minimum price.

"We're talking about graphic designers, or other types of professionals who need their computer to operate at a very high level," Barr said. "It comes back to quality, you can buy a computer off the shelf for $1000 but it will have a low-quality CPU, motherboard, memory, the lot. If you can choose your own components you can get a good system for the same price. The computer shops that are selling them the components are making quite a lot of money and doing a good trade."

However, whitebox resellers looking to move into this market space would do well to move quickly according to Turnbull. Since the beginning of 2004 he has seen a raft of similar outlets open up in Queensland and Victoria.

"It's not just a matter of saying 'we'll start selling parts,'" Turnbull insisted. "You have to know what you are doing and have the technician to build systems and validate warranties. But the market is growing because proprietary systems are overpriced and people are beginning to realise that."

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