The other day, I was realizing that I don’t use GNU/Linux as often as I should. Sure, I run it exclusively on my servers, but I still use Windows on the desktop for the most part. That’s more out of habit than out of any need. Everything I currently do in Windows I can do in GNU/Linux, except for the games, which I’m playing more and more occasionally these days. I was dual-booting my current desktop with Windows XP and GNU/Linux for awhile, but it proved to be inconvenient. My computers’ uptimes, both servers and desktops, are typically measured in months (only going down for crashes and power losses). It takes awhile to reboot and restart all of the applications I typically have running, so I don’t do it by choice. Thus you can see the problem with dual-booting: it entails constant rebooting, which I had to do as often as I felt like playing a Windows game. And then once I was in Windows I wouldn’t want to go through the hassle of booting into GNU/Linux only to boot back into Windows the next time I wanted to play a game. It simply wasn’t working.
So I now see the problem with my initial attempts at using GNU/Linux on the desktop. I simply don’t have the patience to put up with all of those constant reboots and interruptions in my computing environment. I’m too lazy. I’m simply going to get another desktop to use exclusively for GNU/Linux, while making every effort to only use my current Windows desktop for playing games. And luckily, making a desktop computer is cheaper than it’s ever been. Here is a current parts list I put together just yesterday for a killer GNU/Linux desktop.
- $90 — MSI Saturn 945 Intel Socket T(LGA775) Intel 945GC 2 x 240Pin Intel GMA 950 Barebone – Retail
- $132 — Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 Wolfdale 2.53GHz 3MB L2 Cache LGA 775 65W Dual-Core Processor – Retail
- $38 — G.SKILL 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 533 (PC2 4200) Dual Channel Kit System Memory Model F2-4200PHU2-2GBNT – Retail
- $95 — Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 ST3500320AS 500GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive – OEM
This complete GNU/Linux system costs only $355. Throw in shipping and we’ll call it $380. That’s a really cheap price considering how powerful this system is. Avoiding the Microsoft tax by choosing a Free operating system pays huge dividends when the overall system is cheap. Allow me to explain the choices I made in putting this system together with individual analyses of each other components:
The barebone system
First of all, I save a lot of money with this computer by building it into a barebone system. A price of $90 for a case, power supply, and motherboard is really hard to beat. You can easily spend over $90 for each of those individual components (and in fact, when I built my current desktop, I did). Getting a good barebone system is an excellent way to save a lot of money on a low-end desktop. If you’re not building a low-end desktop, I wouldn’t bother. The limitations can be significant. For instance, the motherboard that ships in the barebone I picked out supports a maximum of 2 GB of RAM; fine for a low-end system, but you really want 4 GB of RAM on a medium or high end system. And the power supply is only 250W; again, fine for a low end system, but don’t expect it to be able to power, say, a high-end discrete video card. And naturally the motherboard doesn’t support dual video cards, which would be an upgrade path you might want to keep open on a system you’re outlaying more money on. It also doesn’t support quad-core processors. So there are limitations, but for a low-level system, you won’t run into them.
I should also point out that the motherboard in the barebone system includes an integrated Intel graphics card, so it’s actually really four components for the price of $90. Since I don’t expect to be playing any 3D games in GNU/Linux, I don’t need anything better. If this was being used as a primary gaming desktop, the integrated graphics card would not be sufficient, and I would have to lay out more money for a discrete video card (which would bring the price up a good deal). Oh, and the motherboard has an integrated sound card as well, but that’s hardly anything to brag about these days. Still, that’s five essential components for $90. Not too shabby. And if you’re worried about 2 GB of RAM being a serious limitation, I might recommend the ASUS V3-P5945GC Intel Socket T(LGA775) Intel 945GC 2 x 240Pin Intel GMA 950 Barebone – Retail, which sells for $130 and also has a higher capacity 300W power supply. But I wouldn’t recommend buying a barebone more expensive than that; at that point, it becomes about the same price to buy the components separately, which I would recommend because you can make sure you get everything you want, especially on the motherboard features.
I decided to splurge on the processor because I do a fair bit of distributed computing and I want to see good performance on that, but also because I wouldn’t want my new desktop to be slower than my old one (which has an Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 processor). If the new computer actually runs slower than the old one, I fear I might not use it. It’s better to spend a little bit more money and get a system I enjoy using than to get a system I risk not using at all because I already have a better one, right? The E7200 that I’ve picked out for this rig is really nice for that purpose. It’s the cheapest Core 2 Duo manufactured using the new 45nm process, which gives it all sorts of advantages over the older chips fabricated using the 65nm process. It also has insane room for overclocking if you’re into that (people have reliably gotten it past 4 GHz using just air cooling). Spending $132 on the processor is kind of pricey for a low-end system, so if you don’t have the same requirements I do, you can easily shave $52 off the price of the system and get a Intel Pentium E2200 Allendale 2.2GHz LGA 775 65W Dual-Core Processor Model BX80557E2200 – Retail for $80 instead. Note that this substitution alone brings the cost of the system down to $300, which is ridiculously cheap considering the performance you’ll get out of it.
As for the memory I chose, well, there’s not much to it. I got the fastest memory that the motherboard supports and I made sure to fill all of the capacity of the motherboard. To make that last little decision between various manufacturers, I relied on NewEgg’s customers’ ratings and ended up with G.SKILL. If the motherboard supported 4 GB of RAM, I’d get that, at an increase in total price of only $40. Memory is so cheap these days there’s no excuse for not maxing it out. It has a huge impact on performance if you tend to run dozens of applications in the background like I do. Considering 2 GB of RAM only costs $40, I wouldn’t recommending cutting costs here and going for 1 GB of RAM in any circumstances. It’s just not worth it.
The hard drive is probably over-specced for this system (just like the processor). I chose a 500 GB drive with a monster 32 MB cache because I do lots of downloading and I always seem to find a way to fill whatever new hard drive capacity I bring online within a few months. If you don’t need this much space, and most of you won’t, you can save more money here by getting a Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 ST3250410AS 250GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive – OEM at a cost of $60. That shaves another $35 off the total price. Along with the savings on the processor downgrade I mentioned above, you could get this entire system for $268. That is a ludicrously cheap price considering the performance you’ll get out of it (Notice I didn’t pick any “bargain” components like a Celeron processor. This is really a mid-level system at a low-level price point). A comparatively specced system from a big hardware vendor such as Dell would cost two to three times as much. It really is worth it to build your own computer.
Note that I haven’t included a monitor, mouse, keyboard, speakers, etc., in the overall price. Not only do I already have enough of those laying around anyway (so no need to buy more), they aren’t part of the desktop system proper, which just includes everything that goes inside the computer case (everything else is a peripheral). Note that I did include prices for the RAM and hard drive, even though I already have 2 GB of extra RAM laying around as well as a 400 GB hard drive that I’ll probably recycle into this new computer rather than buying as new components. That would actually bring my total outlay on this new system down to $222, but I included prices for these components in the total because I recognize that most people won’t have spare PC components just laying around. If you really don’t already have a monitor, mouse, keyboard, and speakers laying around from a pre-existing system, you will have to buy them, which will bring up the price a bit.
I should also point out that I’ve done the research and verified that all of the components I mentioned are supported in GNU/Linux (well, it’s really only the motherboard that would present any problems, so I checked that part thoroughly). I’m planning on running Kubuntu on this system because, while I appreciate the mass appeal and support for Ubuntu, I just hate Gnome. KDE, the desktop environment that Kubuntu runs (and which is the only real difference between it and Ubuntu), suits me much better.
So that’s it. The parts are all specced out and I plan on buying this system soon, and then go on to live in the land of never-ending GNU/Linux on the Desktop bliss afterwards. And the really beautiful thing about buying a new computer system is that it never hurts to put it off just a little bit longer. There’s no reason to rush; computer prices only go down over time thanks to Moore’s Law. If I wait another few months, I’ll probably be able to get the barebone with 4 GB of RAM for the same price as I would pay for this 2 GB system. So I’ll push this purchase off to the back of my mind, wait for a lull between travel projects at work when I have a lot of free time at home, and then buy all of the components at once. Once that happens, you can look forward to some lengthy blog posts on my joyous new GNU/Linux desktop computer. And seeing how cheap it really is to build something like this, what’s your excuse for not having a dedicated GNU/Linux desktop? I just put together the parts list yesterday, and after seeing how low the total cost was, I realized I don’t have one anymore!