The Ultimate Linux Box – on a tight budged



This article has it’s roots a couple of years ago
back when I went on the hunt for components for my recent PC. So most chapters will have some historic parts of now long outdated PC parts. I will leave those parts in the article and try to will comment on the current situation for some topics. Who knows, maybe some of the old information in there will give some reflection on today’s equipment.

I will also go for publishing this now and go for online editing rather then let it rott again for years on the never-finishe-articles dump. So just go ahead and make some comments if you feel like it and thus work on the improvement of the article.

On language

Well, this is once again all in English, even though I am a native German speaker. So why is this?

Ok, this text will for sure be much more full of mistakes than a German text of my origin would be. It will also be a much rougher ride when reading is concerned. But I hope that it will be accessible to a much greater audience as when written in German.

I will try to make a tradeoff between

  1. the fasted machine possible
  2. no noise emittance
  3. a computer for no money

Ratings will go in this order. The Parts must be fast, silent and cheap. Another criterion
is Linux support. This does not just include, that it is possible to run the equipment with
Linux. There should also be a minimum commitment to Open Source by the producers. This disqualifies any Nvidia Products for


Historic Part

To my surprise I found out that this page gets quite some hits. Probably people find it thru search machines. Well, so
it would be nice to continue the text instead of leaving the internet audience frustrated with half finished ideas. I just stoped writing some day in January of 2003 and started ordering parts. So the machine is already build and actualy I am just doing this typing on my new box. Well, new … It’s already half a year.

November 2006

nThree years later the box is still up and running without much change in the equipment. Up till now I did’t feel a real urge to get a totaly new computer but as said above I will reflect on what equipment I would check out in the moment.

Sources of Information

A warning at first. My practical experience in assembling hardware is already quite old. In my early times
as a student I used to work for a small computer company assembling all their hardware. But that dates back when a
Pentium 90 was considered a ubergeeky CPU.

So I rely on information mostly from computer magazines and advise from friends and colleagues. Mostly I regarded articles by German computer magazine „c’t“. They have a very thorough and transparent
method of testing. There is never one single winner of a test but a very detailed evaluation of pros and cons accompanied by some recommendations. Even though this is a very fair method of testing
it can render decision making a very hard job.

At the
end doublechecking with newsgroups and hardware-listings for Linux compliance and configuration problems will probably be necessary if not at least helpfull.

Zur Auswahl von Prozessor, Mainboard und Gehäuse
c’t 23/02, Seite 112

The Silicon Brain

Since I want to do simulation jobs with Octave or Matlab as well as compiling my kernel one thing will hold for the Processor of my new system. The more Megahertz the faster the better.

There also has to be a decission for Intel and Athlon CPUs. So let’s have at first a look at prices.

CPU Prices
Prices are taken at the beginning of December 2002. What we can see is that astoundingly in the mid speed area the Athlon and the P4 are equaly priced, even though the Athlon is concidered the lower price choice.In
performance there is not that great a difference. Since I want to go for a low price I will go to the better price/performance areas where the Athlon choice is more clear. I will settle for an Athlon 2000+.This means a 1000% upgrade in my case! This should be enough. I will also see to it that the remaining hardware that is crucial to CPU operation will leave me the chance to update to higher clock speeds when those models drop into
lower price regions.

November 2006

Still running on the same CPU and I guess I kind of missed the moment to get a cheap update to the maximum CPU performance for my motherboard. Well, then again I am not really unhappy with the speed of the system. This is just another sign that the development has gone into saturation for relatively ’normal‘ computer usage.

Boarding the Brain

So I made a decission for the processor. This will leave me with a Socket A Mainboard. The market for those boards is still, in my eyes, far from concise. So I will
further limit my choice as follows:

  • I don’t want a northbridge fan, I still don’t want it when tests confirm that you can take it off without overheating the northbridge. I rather stay with the guarantee.
  • I don’t need bleeding edge sound, so board-integrated sound support will be fine.
  • I want a network device onboard (for DSL connection)
  • All integrated components such as sound and network card should of course be supported, preferably by open source drivers (and most preferably by those integrated in the kernel source)

Since I have the hope to update the CPU to a faster clock rate lateron I should buy a board with an up to date chipset. This leaves me with the Nvidia nForce 2 and the VIA KT400.

According to c’t (21/02 p. 98) a system equiped with an Athlon XP 2800+ and 512 MB of PC2700 memory (1 module for VIA, two for Nvidia – in order to get the advantage out of the two channel memory interface) using the nForce 2
outperforms the KT400 by 2-9% having a 20% faster access to the memory. Using an Athlon XP 2600+ with PC2700 modules lets the KT400 win by 4-5% and PC2100 memory flips again to the nForce 2 with 1-4% speed advantage and a 15% faster memory access.

Asus assembles two quite similar boards with LAN and sound – the A7N8X with nForce 2 and the A7V8X with the KT400. However, since we are also on a budget we go for the KT400 board since the nForce 2 version is about 32% more expensive (December 2002)

So I picked the board just by CPU/memory-performance, but how are the components of the board doing? First, the board meets my requirements not having a northbridge fan. Sound is integrated with SPDIF input and output. According to c’t the quality of the sound is reasonable.

Thinking Matter

Performance tests indicate that I should get PC2700 memory plugged into the new board. Best would be a 2-3-3 timing. However, CL2 modules are about 90% above CL2.5 modules in price. So I guess I’ll
have to live with a PC2700 CL2.5 memory module. Furthermore, I will not pay that much atention on brand names. Usualy you can get a module that contains Infion chips or similar for a reasonable price.

Below you find some references to articles in German PC magazine c’t that deal more or less with memory.

Von 266 auf 333
Mainboards mit VIAs KT333-Chipsatz für den AMD Athlon XP
c’t 14/02, Seite 172

Kommende Speicherstandards für den PC, Teil 2
c’t 8/02, Seite 228

Athlon auf Rhythmussuche
VIA-Chipsatz KT333 für Athlon-Prozessoren und PC2700-Speicher
c’t 5/02, Seite 82

Mainboards mit DDR-Speicher-Interface für AMD-Prozessoren
c’t 1/02, Seite 130

Spinning around

This is a tough one. Life cycles for hard disks are so short that it is hard to make a decision. But roughly I can say that I’m looking for a 7200 rpm 120 GB IDE-DIsk. Why that? Well, SCSI is out of the race since prices are way above thos of
IDE disks, 120 GB deliver the lowest MByte/Cent-ratio and disks with faster rotation are offering the higher data transfer rates without making much more noise.

I will go for a Seagate 120GB Baracuda V since I made a quite good experinece with the 80BG Baracuda IV model. As far as de.comp.hardware.laufwerke.festplatten says, the Baracuda V should do a fast and quiet job.

c’t 23/02, Seite 166
c’t 15/02, Seite 150
c’t 8/02, Seite 194

November 2006

Still sticking with the same disks, though at a „90% disk full“ level. Today, of course, SATA would be the choice to be made.

The Outer Hull

This is another though one. Shall I just get a cheap case, put it under my desk and never look at it again? After further thinking there are quite some aspects of computer casing that go beyond the design.

  1. I want to access the inner parts of my machine without getting my hands cut on cheap metal edges.
  2. Ventilation and noise
    damping are quite important issues.
  3. Most cases contain the power supply, so we have to do a careful selection.

After some studying on the internet I went for a Chieftek Dragon Mediumtower. It supplies very easy access to the inside by taking out just one sidecover that can be unlocked by a simple handle. The locations for the mainboard and the storage devices are also quite cleverly placed.

November 2006

Still happy with the Chieftek case.

On Laser Devices

I will save some money by buying a combined CD-Recorder/DVD-Player. This will also improve air circulation in the case since only one device needs to be mounted in. I will go for the LG GCC-4320B COMBO. It made a fairly good impression in a test by c’t. It is also one of the most quit drives and I can live with the 32x speed (anyhow a 80 min CD-R will take 2 1/2 min to burn, at 48x it would
take 1 min 40 sec – I guess I have those 50 sec time left)

CD-RW-Brenner und Kombi-Laufwerke bis 48X
c’t 21/02, Seite 160

13 CD-Brenner im Test
c’t 7/02, Seite 150

45 CD-ROM-, DVD-ROM und CD-RW-Laufwerke im Test
c’t 24/01, Seite 200

November 2006

A DVD burner joined the old drive, died a year later and got replaced by a BENQ DVD burner. BENQ’s job policy is the only thing that makes me unhappy about that drive at the moment.

Man/Machine Interface

Zwölf kabellose Tastatur-Maus-Kombinationen
c’t 10/02, Seite 176

Bunt, grell und rasend schnell
Grafikkarten, analoge und digitale TV-Karten
c’t 23/02, Seite 118

Goldener Schein
Garantierte Übertaktung auf dem Prüfstand
c’t 18/02, Seite 67

Completing the dream

Leiser rechnen
So baut man einen leisen PC
c’t 18/02, Seite 108

November 2006

Well, quite some
time pased so I should realy check for a new machine soon. Also, tax reduction period has passed last year. So stay tuned for updates!

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