The Return of the Revenge of the Killer $800 Linux Box

Can't afford Don Marti's “Ultimate” Linux box? Well, read on—Jasonw outlines options for the economically challenged.

Don Marti's a big spender. In his article, “Building the Ultimate Linux Workstation”, he waxes technical, recommending various components needed to build the mother of all Linux workstations (see page 80). He has little regard for expense, and his Linux box is top-of-the-line all the way. That's all well and good, but the thing would cost some unthrifty soul at least $3,000 (US). If you have that kind of cash, Don can tell you where to spend it, so read his article (before reading this), as he provides good general advice on selecting components for your system.

Of course, reading Don's article will no doubt set your mouth to watering, but the hefty price tag may send you back my way. I'm bitter, but resigned to the fact that I simply cannot afford Don's screamer of a system. However, I needed a computer for home, and didn't have much money. To be exact, I needed to stay under $1,000. So I began searching for components and discovered that putting together a zippy, dependable Linux box can be done for as little as $800. I checked out workstations from VA Linux and Dell, amongst others, but found that by putting it together myself, I could save $500 for a comparable system. More importantly, I'm building the system from scratch. I chose the components and I'm responsible for putting them together. It wasn't terribly difficult and the knowledge gained is immeasurable. How much do I love my new computer? Very, very much!

Options for Penny-Pinchers

Sacrifices are in order when building an economical system. To save money, you shop for what you need, not for what you want. This means looking for discontinued parts or “last year's models”. It also means locking up your ego. Sure, I would like to have two CPUs and multiple SCSI hard drives, but I don't need that stuff.

I'm not into gaming and I don't do much fooling around with the GIMP. I write, I surf, I e-mail. This means one CPU, one hard drive, decent video and sound cards, a solid motherboard, a refurbished monitor and as much memory as can be afforded. Yes, refurbished. Not ideal, but you can spend as little as $150 for a sufficient monitor. However, we are talking about your eyes, so take care to spend as much as you can—make the monitor a top priority. I was lucky enough to have a spare monitor, but I did some searching and good deals abound.

Research is very important. Take some time to find the best deals. At one point, I had found a processor for $69 and nearly bought it. The next day I stumbled upon the same processor for $56! If you really need to save money, exhaust your resources. But you should be able to stick with companies you recognize and trust.

I spent a week scouring the Internet, and bought my components from various sites. My components arrived within a week of placing the order. Sure, I paid for shipping, but I still saved money, since Seattle computer stores just weren't price competitive. The Internet connects you directly to hundreds of stores with sales, discontinued items and so on. Working with a low budget put me at the mercy of Internet shopping, but I have no complaints thus far. If shopping via the Internet scares you, then research the companies you buy from—it will only take a few minutes. The system I put together consists of the following components:


Type: Super Socket 7 503+ Baby ATPrice: $80 US ( Specs: VIA Apollo MVP3 chip set, 2-DIMM and 4-SIMM sockets, 3x PCI, 3x ISA, 1x AGP, ECC and PC100 memory support, and up to four IDE drives

Linux Journal has used Socket 7 motherboards for years. They are workhorses and the one I chose is both affordable and powerful. This is a step or two down from the top, but the board is solid. Its main strength is memory. There are four (72-Pin) SIMM sockets and two (168-Pin) DIMM sockets, which allows for as much as 512MB of system memory. Cache memory is 1MB. This all means my initiation into the world of Quake may not be too far off. It also means that this board should allow me to run most of the applications I want. The board will accommodate up to four IDE drives, and works with AMD K6 processors.


Type: K6-2 3-D 500MHzPrice: $56 US ( Specs: 321-Pin (CPGA)/ZIF Socket 7 (P54C/P54CS/P55C MMX), RISC86, 64-bit (pipelined) 100MHz, On-Chip Split 64KB (L1) Cache

Don Marti says, “A CPU that's too fast is a waste of money, so you're better off sticking with the economy CPU and spending your money on the other components.” So, I bought an AMD K6-2 processor. It works well with the Socket 7 motherboard and was a mere $56! I do not believe the chip is discontinued, but it doesn't receive the same marketing push as, say, the Duron. Less marketing, in this case, equals lower cost. It doesn't mean lower quality.

I wasn't too worried about having a superfast processor, since my needs don't require it, but this processor should run Linux fast enough and, more importantly, the low price allowed me to spend more on memory.