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 Build a $200 Linux PC

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Posts : 425
Join date : 2010-07-11
Age : 35
Location : N/A

PostSubject: Build a $200 Linux PC   Wed Aug 04, 2010 11:24 pm

Thanks to extremtech for this awesome tutorial

Times are still tough out there, but our needs and desires don't always flag just because the economy does. If an accident or an equipment failure has punched an unexpected hole in your computing life, you may be in need of a system—any system—to fill it. Or maybe you've discovered that your family just needs one more box to use as a Web terminal to keep the more powerful systems free more often. Whatever the circumstance, you may be tempted to drop $500 or even more on one of the cheaper, pre-fab models you can find at Costco, Wal-Mart, or from one of the major manufacturers. But once you've factored in all the attendant costs, taxes, and shipping, you could be spending a lot more than you planned—and that's something to avoid, especially when every penny counts.

Even if you need a computer right away, there are plenty of good reasons to build one rather than buy one. You control the parts, so you get exactly what you need at the price you can best afford. You're assured of being able to upgrade any (or all) of the pieces later, when you have more money to spend. And, perhaps most importantly, you get the satisfaction of doing it yourself and maintaining complete control over it from the very instant you open the boxes. No matter how little you want to drop, building your own computer is still the best way to go.

So we asked ourselves: What's the lowest point at which these two goals could intersect? If we needed a simple computer right away, and wanted to spend as little as possible, what could we build? We knew we wanted to aim low, almost ridiculously low—so we decided on what seemed like almost an unthinkable total: $200, which would include everything needed for the base computer itself (but not counting the monitor, keyboard, and mouse, or tax and shipping charges).

Once we had our target price, we took to to see whether this could really be done. We spent hours researching all the possibilities, making swaps, compromises, and last-minute changes until we had all the parts for our impossibly inexpensive system that, amazingly, came in under budget.

We had met our goal—on paper. But there's a lot more to any computer than just how it looks on a Web site or in the cells of an Excel spreadsheet. We needed to make sure the computer would meet our needs, and not be stuck functioning as a big steel paperweight. Read on for the details about how we built one of the least expensive computers we've seen, while learning a lot more than we expected about the difficulties of component shopping, the importance of knowing what you need (and what you're willing to settle for), and the knowledge that what you get can sometimes be considerably more than just what you see.


As is the case when piecing together any computer, the foundational question of our build was: What was the system for? But unlike with PCs at almost any other price, there was no easy answer. Any system you put together for so little money is going to have to be bare-bones simple, which means that tweaking this or tweaking that for a particular task or software application just isn't in the cards. Still, we established four guidelines to help focus our decisions.

1. The CPU had to be dual-core. This was non-negotiable. For us to have even a chance of making this endeavor worth the time, or the computer worth the money we spent, we needed assurance of a certain standard of performance. Even a low-end dual-core chip is going to offer processing opportunities that single-core models don't, so we knew from the start it was an absolute must.

2. The system had to be easily upgradable. Just because we were working within really tight budget constraints now, we didn't want to deny ourselves the ability to make major improvements to the computer later. This meant choosing hardware with some room for expandability, and locking ourselves into as few draconian options as possible, even if they might have saved us a few bucks along the way.

3. We weren't going to do Windows. This was another no-brainer. We like Windows, and don't want to downplay what it does for computers. But shelling out money for a Microsoft OS would have eaten up at least half our budget—and maybe more—and that would have torpedoed the project from the get-go. So we resigned ourselves at the outset to using a version of Linux that would both do the job and provide plenty of the software we expected to need at a perfectly placed price (in other words: free).

4. Some things we wouldn't be able to do. The purpose of this computer was not to act as a highly specialized system of any kind—it just needed to fulfill the basic everyday requirements of most regular computer users—Web browsing, e-mail, file creation and manipulation—with as little fuss as possible.

The Components

With our budget and ground rules set, we were ready to go shopping on Newegg. It took us a while to get a list we were completely happy with, but we eventually did. Here are the final components we decided upon.

Motherboard: Foxconn A6GMV ($39.99). Sorry, Intel, but there was never much question that this build would be AMD-based. And though we admit that our starting point with the motherboard (as with most of the hardware) was to sort Newegg's offerings by the lowest price, that isn't where we stopped. This motherboard makes good sense for three other reasons as well. Because it supports AMD's AM3 socket, we'll be able to upgrade to a much more powerful CPU later when we have more money to spend. (Intel has a wider array of socket types that prevent upgrading from the lowest to the highest performance categories.) Plus, the motherboard's DDR3 1333 RAM bays would grant us an extra dose of performance—and we knew we'd need all we could get. Finally, it had integrated graphics, which we knew were a must since there was no way we were going to be able to afford a video card.

CPU: 2.9-GHz AMD Athlon II X2 245 ($58.99). We knew that this was going to have to be the most expensive component in our system, so we wanted to make every dollar count. And we were right: This processor sucked up more than a quarter of our budget. But it's not a bad deal. Though far from the most powerful CPU in AMD's catalog, the 2.9-GHz, dual-core Athlon X2 245 would provide a solid basis for our system that would almost certainly elevate its performance beyond that of standard nettops (the category of machine our system would by necessity most resemble).

Memory: 1GB Crucial CT12864BA1339 ($24.99). We couldn't help but wince a little when we realized we had to go this way—only 1GB of memory? In 2010? But, remembering our rule number four, we knew we wouldn't be able to get everything we considered essential. In the plus column, this was relatively speedy DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) memory, so at least we'd be making the most of what we had. And since we knew we were going to install Linux, the RAM became less of a concern. Many popular Linux distros only require 512MB, and double that amount would certainly be enough in a way it's not with Windows. (We've had horrible experiences using Vista and 7 with anything less than 2GB.)

Hard Drive: 160GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 ST3160318AS ($38.99). Hard drive prices have dropped so much that buying a decent one doesn't feel like splurging anymore. Yes, it was just a boring old 7,200-rpm drive. But what more did we need? Because many versions of Linux come preinstalled with so much software, we didn't anticipate running out of storage space. This would give us more than enough room for the OS, and still leave us lots of space for files—no, we wouldn't be able to store our entire photo or MP3 collections, but we wouldn't be hurting for space either. For a second or third system with network access, it seemed like enough.

Case and Power Supply: Rosewill R424BK with 350-watt PSU ($29.99). This purchase caused us the most controversy and gnashing of teeth. Could we really spend so little on two of a computer's most critical elements? Did we want to? Was it even safe? These are crucial questions, and ones we don't recommend anyone take lightly when planning a system of any price. (Skimping on power supplies can result in energy inefficiency at best—and maybe even worse problems.) But staying within our budget meant taking some risks, and we felt a little better about this Roseweill case considering it had been originally priced at $59.99, but brought down into our price range with the help of Newegg's always-handy instant savings. This was just a mid-tower case, but it would have sufficient room for our simple system, and allow us more to expand later.

Operating System: Ubuntu 10.04 LTS (Free). Obviously, this is going to be a judgment call—everyone has his or her favorite Linux distro, and subtle differences in interface and software selection will ultimately determine what's the right one for you. But when it comes to overall ease of use, the variety of preinstalled software, and wide-ranging support options, Ubuntu is the one we like.

Keeping to our budget meant leaving out two potentially crucial components: a video card and an optical drive. The former was a no-brainer: Even the least expensive cards out there, like AMD's ATI Radeon HD 5450, could eat up huge chunks of our budget and still not give us the ability to play 3D games with even moderate success. So we chose to stick with the motherboard's integrated graphics. As for the optical drive, we struggled to keep it in our configuration, but we could figure out no way to do so and keep the our bill below $200. But the more we thought about it, the better we felt about the decision. Ubuntu's preinstalled software (and Software Center download service) means we won't be hurting for apps. The only hurdles: We wouldn't be able to play CDs or DVDs locally without an external drive, and we'd have to use a USB key for the Linux install. Given how little we use optical drives today as it is, and given how many USB keys we just seem to randomly collect, these were compromises we could live with. (If you don't have a drawerful of USB keys the way we do, an external hard drive will do the installation job just fine.)

Our final total: $192.95 (accurate as of July 22, 2010).

The Build and the Configuration

It's been a while since we built a computer quite this basic, so we didn't anticipate exactly how painless the process would be. But as it turned out, everything went off without a hitch. Yes, we needed to pull out our trusty Phillips screwdriver (there were no tool-free elements to this case at all), but other than that the assembly was a smooth operation.

When you're using a microATX motherboard like the Foxconn model we chose, even a modest-size case will leave you plenty of room to work. This made hooking up the front-panel connectors much easier than usual, as we didn't have to worry about bumping into the hard drive cage or trying to navigate one of the case's shadowy corners just to get our hands where they were located.

The only stumbling block we had in assembling everything (and it was a very minor one) was that one of the motherboard's screw holes was located directly beneath the locking mechanism for the primary RAM bay. This was slightly incovenient at first, but it was an easily overcome obstacle.

Altogether, the build took under half an hour, and presented no game-stopping challenges along the way. In fact, the straightforward nature of the build made it strangely pleasant, even relaxing, in a way that more complex sometimes aren't. (Struggling with CPU coolers in cramped confines or performing arcane acts of cable management just to get at the SATA port you want are seldom fun.) Once we were finished, we were ready to start the Ubuntu installation.

Installing Ubuntu from a USB key is a little more complex than doing it from a disc, but it just requires a couple of additional steps. After downloading the 64-bit disc image from the Ubuntu Web site, we also downloaded another program called Universal USB Installer, which took just five minutes or so to burn the disc image onto our USB key in a bootable format.

Once our installation key was ready, we just popped it into one of the system's free USB ports, powered up the computer, and hit the ESC key at POST time to bring up the boot menu. After selecting the key from the boot menu, the Ubuntu install screen appeared and we were well on our way. From beginning to end, the Ubuntu install took only about 10 minutes. Once we booted into the Ubuntu desktop for the first time, we ran Update Manager first to get the latest versions of all of our installed software. That took another seven minutes, but then we were ready to go. From beginning to end, the software setup process took less than 20 minutes—very reasonable.


Let's be up front about this: We weren't expecting our sub-$200 computer to be an outstanding performer. But that doesn't mean we wanted it to be slow, either—building a computer yourself that can't do what you need well is a waste of time and money. We wanted to know exactly what we had so we'd know what we could expect from it. That meant benchmarking it—and comparing it to another, similar system.

Joel Santo Domingo, desktop analyst at ExtremeTech's sister site,, suggested the eMachines ER1402 nettop he'd recently tested, a $299 (list) PC so tiny it could easily be mistaken for a trivet if someone left it in the kitchen. Though its specs and those of our newly built $200 PC didn't exactly match up (the eMachines had 2GB of RAM, for one thing, and ran Windows 7 Home Premium), we thought they were close enough in price and capabilities to give us a good idea of the power our system possessed—and whether it had been worth the trouble.

These tests show, just in case more proof was necessary, that a computer's price doesn't necessarily reflect its abilities. The lean Ubuntu OS compensates for the components' modest capabilities in a way Windows doesn't, letting our system cold boot faster and copy a 2.18GB folder much more quickly than its competitor. Not bad for a system that costs over $100 less than the eMachines.

Our PC showed further performance enhancements in both our comprehensive Geekbench cross-platform test and our spin through the Futuremark Peacekeeper browser benchmark using Firefox 3.6.7. In system tasks, as well as in applications, our system consistently came out ahead.

Final Thoughts: We Did It, But Should You?

Okay, we admit it: $200 is the lowest price target at which we've ever aimed when building a PC. It certainly wasn't easy, and it required a lot of sacrifices that simply aren't issues when plotting out even a $500 system. But the process was a fun and rewarding one, and delivered surprising (and heartening) results.

We fully admit, however, that this isn't a project for everyone. Especially if you're used to dabbling in higher-end enthusiast parts on a regular basis, passing up a lot of choice hardware to meet an arbitrary price point is sometimes, well, painful. After all, will anyone really care if the total is $215 or $225? Of course not. But budgets are budgets, and sometimes you just have to stick to them—and once we had ours, we were determined to do just that.

And you know what? We're happy with the results. No, the system isn't ideal for a lot of things—and we're probably going to stuff in a larger hard drive and maybe another stick of memory before too long—but it fills exactly the need we had for a cost-effective second or third system that could plow through the everyday stuff and leave the stronger computers for the more intensive tasks. A fast-booting, decent-performing, ready-to-go Linux system primed for future upgrading for less than two Benjamins? There's something really satisfying about that, and we plan to keep the system on hand to use regularly, whenever we need a quick Linux fix.

This was a fascinating project that we'd try again in a heartbeat—though we might wait a year or so and see how the technology landscape changes to make even more powerful computers possible for still less. Real nettops like the eMachines may be smaller and sleeker and a better fit for some people, even if they do cost $100 more. But so what if our system is larger and runs Linux? It easily runs tons of software—much of it free—and it's faster, less expensive, and much more ready for the future. In our book, that's worth $200.
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