How to Build a Low Cost Linux Desktop Computer

Posted by dave on Aug 11, 2004 4:31 AM EDT
LXer; By Tom Adelstein
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You can build your own system and save a bundle of money while getting a top notch, high quality PC. By using Linux, you can lower you costs even further by not having to purchase proprietary software which would cost you more than your computer.

by Tom Adelstein

Recently, I tested a low-end white box Linux computer. The test system had the same specifications as the Microtel Model SYSWM8001 from Walmart. The system, the GQ 3091 from Fry's Electronics sells for approximately the same price as the Walmart special, $299.

I decided to go with the Fry's system because I could by it locally. I did find the GQ 3091 on eBay, new in the box for less than $200 and placed a bid on the lot. I lost at the last second. That was fortunate because I found it on sale at the local Fry's for $179.

When I bought the GQ 3091, I also purchased additional memory. My total expenditure ran $239 excluding tax. I brought the system home, added the memory and put it through a series of tests for two hours. Suddenly, the system failed and would not reboot. I removed the additional memory and the system booted up. Next, I switched the memory and the system again booted up. Back with the original memory only, the system ran again, then finally failed about an hour later.

I returned the system to Fry's and waited at length for a technician to test the machine. Naturally it booted up and performed satisfactorily. The technician offered me the choice of a refund or an exchange. I chose the refund.

Adding up the Costs

I first learned to build PC's over a decade ago and found it easy. I worked Saturdays at a friend's store repairing and building PC's from scratch as a change of pace from my consulting job. Over the years, I have built hundreds of systems. But, I hadn't priced components in over a year and didn't know what I could get for my $239.

So, before I left Fry's, I went to their components department and found some interesting surprises. I purchased an AMD Duron 2600 Processor and ECS Motherboard for $84. I found a case for $39, an 80 GB hard drive for $39 and a DVD Rom drive for $19. I also picked up 512 MB of DDR 2100 RAM for $59. That total came out to $240. I needed a video card and floppy, but I knew I had spares.

I went home and assembled the system. I found an ATI Rage 128 video card that I had previously bought for $19 for another computer. Now, I was up to the $259 range.

For an extra $20 I bought more computer than the GQ 3091. I had upgraded from a AMD Duron 1600 to a 2600. I went from 256 MB of RAM to 512 MB, from a 40 GB Hard drive to an 80 GB drive and from a 52X CD ROM drive to a 48 by 16X DVD ROM. I also went from a shared on-board AGP Video chip that pulled down the system memory to an ATI Expert 128 with 32 MB of its own memory and 3D capability.

Note:Building a PC isn't as hard as one might think. I found an excellent tutorial to assist you at Build Easy PC.

Burning in the System

After assembling the parts, I turned on the computer and installed three operating systems. On the first partition, I put a 2 GB primary partition of IBM DOS. The second partition became a Linux swap disk. I then added two distributions of Linux to partitions three and four. I let the system run in a corner of the room for 24 hours before I starting producing work on it.

While burning in the system, I did some research on the Internet on AMD processors. One of the topics led me to an AMD processor recognition chart. I found the formation important. On several forums, I read that AMD processors ran "hot" and would die if they reached a certain temperature. The maximum die temperature for the Duron 2600+ was 85 degrees Celsius. I checked the temperature of the new system and found it running around 78 degrees Celsius [about 175 degrees Fahrenheit]. That made me wonder about possibility of the GQ 3091 over heating.

I checked the temperature of another system I used every day, based on a Pentium IV 2.4 Ghz processor. The readings showed the Pentium based system with half the fan speed of the AMD running at 43 degree Celsius [109 degrees Fahrenheit]. I researched further and discovered that AMD processors just ran hot and could even cause the system temperature to increase effecting other components.

Cooling and Quieting the AMD Processor

Low cost PC's have a reputation for excessive noise and poor air flow quality. With my newly assembled computer, I noticed it provided excellent performance, but the heat and noise concerned me. So, after 24 hours, I turned it off and began researching the Internet to see if I could quiet the system and lower the temperature.

By listening carefully for noise, disconnecting and reconnecting fans and sealing openings in the case, I discovered that the power supply created the majority of noise. I also found out that the power supply was stifling air flow that caused high CPU temperatures.

In Figure 1 below, you can see a drawing of a computer case with the side door off on the left side. Properly configured, air should flow from the front of the computer case to the rear. The air flow would normally cool the components. Often people mount case fans in the front of the case for intake. This pulls air into the case to begin the cooling process.

Traditionally, computer cases do not come with power supplies that help with air flow. The front of the power supply usually has vents and the rear has a fan. The flow of air cools the power supply but does not aid with the overall system cooling. In Figure 2, you can see the difference between a tradition power supply and one with a bottom intake.

If you recall, I had two problems. I needed to quiet the system and also reduce heat. To quiet the computer, I needed a power supply with quiet fans. To achieve this, I had to find a power supply whose fans turned slower that normal and had some suspension and bushless blades. That would solve the noise problem.

If I could find a noiseless power supply, I would also want it to have a bottom intake fan to help with cooling. After a long search, I found the Antec Model# SL350 fit all my criteria. So, I went shopping.

I found the Antec SL 350 for $69.99 at CompUSA and on the web with prices ranging from $57 to $75. So, I tried eBay and found new ones in the box for $34.95 including shipping. I bought one and it arrived in two days.

After installing the Antec SL 350, I noticed a complete reduction in noise. I turned off all the fans in my house including the air conditioning to determine the noise level of the PC. I had to listen carefully to detect sound coming from the PC. With my ear next to the case I could tell a fan ran on the CPU, but in a sitting position at my desk, I couldn't notice any noise.

Feeling very pleased, I went into the BIOS and opened the Hardware Monitor screen. To my surprise, the temperature had gone from only 78 degrees to 73 degrees Celsius. I had read posts on several newsgroups discussing how people had reduced the CPU temperature to 30 something degrees Celsius. I wanted to reduce the heat and simply not think about the possibility of the system reaching maximum die temperature.

After considerable searching, I found the Zalman CNPS3100 Plus. The Zalman CPU coolers have unusual designs and a reputation for reducing system temperatures. When I looked for prices, I found that they ran from about $20 to $29.95 plus shipping on the web.

My local CompUSA did not have any, but I found an alternate for $39.95 locally. Not willing to pay extra, I again visited eBay and found several for $18 plus shipping. I bought one and it arrived two days later.

The Zalman CNPS 3100 Plus comes with a butterfly copper sink that transfers heat into a wide area. Fans can then move the heat through the case. The CNPS 3100 also has a case fan that fits on a brace. The brace connects where your PCI cards metal screws hold them down.

Once I installed the heat sink and fan, I booted up the system and monitored the temperature. The Zalman cooling system brought the CPU temperature down to approximately 40 degrees Celsius [104 degrees Fahrenheit]. I monitored the system for several hours and did some heavy processing such as installing code, compiling, running multiple applications in multiple windows. The temperature went no higher than 43 degrees Celsius.

Now, I had spent $317.95 for a desktop computer that ran almost silently and had a low system and processing temperature for the Texas heat. I checked around for similar systems and found a white box similiar to the one I built without the power supply and CPU cooling system for $666.13 at and for $822.27 at Neither White Box included an operating system but did include shipping.

Now, It's Linux Time

Earlier, I mentioned that I installed two Linux operating systems on the computer. I did that to create a heavy load on the processor and hard drive to test the system. I installed Fedora Core II and Sun's Java Desktop System (JDS), which is basically a SuSE distribution with a Gnome only desktop.

Fedora comes with a Linux 2.6 kernel, while JDS still uses the Linux 2.4.19 kernel. You can download Fedora for free, while JDS costs $50. Fedora fits the model of a popular Linux distribution with the latest stable releases of various Linux applications. JDS fits the enterprise model using more stable releases of Linux applications. JDS also has a very polished look and feel and uses some proprietary software like Macromedia's Flash Plugin, Realplayer Multimedia Suite and the Adobe Acrobat Reader.

During the first 24 hours or the burn-in period, I initially booted from Fedora to JDS. During each boot, I went into the setup program and looked at the CPU and system temperatures. I also ran a program called "top" to check the load on the CPU. I wanted to see which system used the most CPU cycles.

To my surprise, JDS had the lowest CPU utilization and also ran cooler than Fedora. I did not expect this, because many reports say the Linux 2.6 kernel runs faster and more efficiently than it's older brother. The difference at 40 degrees Celsius doesn't make much difference. But with a CPU die temperature of 85 degrees Celsius, the difference between 78 degree and 70 degrees needs consideration.

During the majority of the burn-in period, I ran JDS. This provided a heavy enough load on system resources while not putting the system in jeopardy. After the system attained a lower temperature, I then compared a number of different Linux distributions.

Which Distribution is Right for You

Linux veterans have their own favorite distributions and have spent some years figuring out what they want on their desktop. One of my buddies started hacking on Linux in 1992 and has code running the root DNS servers on the Internet. He likes Slackware. I learned Linux on an early version of Slackware when Linux installers required you to enter hardware information by hand. It's free and something to consider if you want to learn Linux.

Other free Linux distributions that veterans like include Debian and Gentoo. The Debian website states:

"Debian is a free operating system (OS) for your computer. An operating system is the set of basic programs and utilities that make your computer run. Debian uses the Linux kernel (the core of an operating system), but most of the basic OS tools come from the GNU project; hence the name GNU/Linux.

"Debian GNU/Linux provides more than a pure OS: it comes with more than 8710 packages, precompiled software bundled up in a nice format for easy installation on your machine".

I installed it on the AMD machine in this article and it runs nicely. It also has many outstanding features.

The Gentoo website states:

"We produce Gentoo Linux, a special flavor of Linux that can be automatically optimized and customized for just about any application or need. Extreme performance, configurability and a top-notch user and developer community are all hallmarks of the Gentoo experience.

"Thanks to a technology called Portage, Gentoo Linux can become an ideal secure server, development workstation, professional desktop, gaming system, embedded solution or something else -- whatever you need it to be. Because of its near-unlimited adaptability, we call Gentoo Linux a metadistribution."

As one of my friends said, "Gentoo is Linux. Pure Linux. You need to know Linux to install and use Gentoo." I agree with him. It's still a favorite of Linux veterans.

For the pure desktop user

If all this seems confusing, don't forget that even Microsoft users have to contend with various versions of their desktop product. Should you go with XP for Home, XP Professional, WindowsME, Windows 2000, or Windows 98 SE, Window NT Workstation and what about service packs? What browser should you use?

Linux presents some options for users that have differing needs, also. In the desktop space, some choices exist. Let's look at the table below.

Table 1



SuSE 9.2 $89.95
SuSE 8.0

Red Hat
Fedora Free

Red Hat Enterprise Desktop
Sun Microsystems

Java Desktop System
Java Desktop System
Open Circulation Edition Free Business Edition $129

We divide the distributions into popular and enterprise. Novell's SuSE sells a popular version of Linux very similar to Red Hat's Fedora. Red Hat provides Fedora at no cost while the equivalent SuSE version runs $89 (less if you have a previous version and even less for their personal version). The Enterprise versions of Red Hat and SuSE may seem confusing because they have minimum user purchases. SuSE provides a 5 user license as a minimum and Red Hat requires a 10 user minimum.

Sun Microsystems sells an enterprise quality desktop for the price of a popular product. Sun has set the normal retail price for the desktop at $100 but sells the product with a 50% discount.

Xandros also has popular versions of Linux which range from free to $89. Their business desktop fits the qualifications of an enterprise product. While their pricing seems straight forward, of the four listed in the table, Xandros is the smallest company and one has to wonder about the company's staying power.

Two other Desktop Linux products exist. The first is Linspire (formerly Lindows). The second is Lycoris. We take a neutral position on these distributions because we do not understand their product offerings or pricing models.

Product Recommendations

For the user building a low cost Linux Desktop PC, we suggest using Fedora Core II for a free product. For a high-quality and more stable solution, we like Sun's Java Desktop System. Both systems provide a high quality user experience during installation and while in production.

Red Hat states on it's website that:

"the Fedora Project is a Red Hat sponsored and community-supported open source project. It is not a supported product of Red Hat, Inc. The goal? Work with the Linux community to build a complete, general purpose operating system exclusively from free software. Public forum. Open processes. A proving ground for new technology that may eventually make its way into Red Hat products."

If you feel comfortable with Red Hat's position, then you may find this a suitable product for your desktop. While Red Hat does not officially support Fedora, the community provides extensive support through Forums and mailing lists.

Sun has positioned the Java Desktop System as the low cost leader among major dsktops including Microsoft XP and Apple's Mac OS X. Sun says on their web site:

"Java Desktop System, Release 2 delivers the best of open source software with the technical innovation of Sun to offer an affordable, comprehensive, fully integrated desktop client environment with administration and developer tools and an enterprise-ready support offering that lowers business costs, reduces complexities of desktop management, and provides a secure computing environment.

"The desktop components are based on open source and standards and include the GNOME desktop environment, StarOffice productivity suite, Mozilla browser, Evolution mail and calendar client, and Java 2 Platform Standard Edition. Java Desktop System is the only desktop solution which includes without additional cost server-side administration tools which enable centralized configuration, deployment, and administration of the user desktop environment. In addition, Java Desktop System includes advanced developer tools to assist developers in creating Java-technology based applications for the desktop".

Of the major Linux and open-source distributors, Sun has contributed more to the open-source community that any other company. For example, Sun sponsors the project, the GNOME Foundation, and the Mozilla Foundation to mention a few that open source advocates would recognize. For a complete listing of Sun's extensive open source portfolio, visit the Sun Source project page.


Which distribution did I choose for the low cost Linux desktop PC? I dual boot to the Java Desktop System and Fedora Core II. I use JDS as my primary desktop and do all my work on it. The Star Office productivity Suite replaced my Microsoft Office products long ago. That's a story for another day.

Hopefully, you discovered that you can build your own system and save a bundle of money while getting a top notch, high quality PC. By using Linux, you can lower you costs even further by not having to purchase proprietary software which would cost you more than your computer. Hopefully, you found this article useful and will consider using Linux as your primary desktop operating system. If not, perhaps you will investigate it further.

Respectfully submitted.

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