Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

For a fast machine on a budget, buy hardware one generation old.

In your big-box stores, most computer systems are running between $600 and $700 at a minimum, and some run well into the four-figure range. All of them include an extra couple of hundred bucks' worth of unnecessary proprietary software. Considering these realities, one begins to wonder what it would take to roll one's own hardware, just as one would compile a kernel. Recently, Don Marti asked me that very question, and at his request, I'm sharing my response with you.

The goal here is to put together the best bang-for-buck basic workstation. There is a point on any price list from which further improvements get really expensive; we want to aim just below that point. This aim translates to one-generation-back technology—the stuff that's still new in the box, but is last year's model and can be had at a bargain. This machine isn't the Ultimate Linux Box, however; this is simply something you can use to get on the Web, do your taxes and maybe play a game or two of TuxRacer.

A wander through my favorite computer store reveals a couple of things that stand out as places to start a design, simply because they are dirt cheap: PC-133 memory and AMD Duron processors. These items pretty much determine what kind of motherboard we will use—something with a socket A and SDRAM slots. When I built my own box some months ago, I went with a Chaintech 7AJA2E, based on the VIA KT-133 chipset. It has the advantage of fast UDMA-100 IDE disk controllers while still taking the older memory. It also has on-board audio that, while not the best, will do for being on a budget. New, motherboard and CPU (an AMD Duron 1.1GHz) run about $50 each; memory, a generic 256MB DIMM, was about $45. More memory is better if you can afford it; more processor speed, however, is overkill. (My wife does her work just fine on a K6-2/300 I built several years ago.)

Okay, now that we have the basics, we need something to put it in. Cases these days run from your basic no-name cheap case, at about $25, to the all-aluminum Lian Li's, which is in the three-figure range. I'm partial to neither, because neither case absorbs the kind of punishment a hardware geek will give it over several years of upgrades, taking it apart and putting it back together time and again. I used to be hooked on Enlights; two of them lurk here under the computer table in the hobbit-hole. My new hotrod, however, is in a Future P4300W, whose sides come off independently of the front. It also has a pair of USB ports hiding under a panel at the bottom front edge. Forty bucks gets you the plain silver hood; colors and windows are extra. Enermax also makes a case in this range, and they are known for good power supplies. But pick the one you like. After all, you've got to live with it.

Also something to consider here: you'll come out a lot better buying a case with the power supply already in it. Purchasing the power supply separately can cost as much as the case, and you're not guaranteed to get any better performance. The idea here is inexpensive and serviceable, not zero to a terahertz in four seconds.

Well, we almost have enough here to get a BIOS screen, so let's add video. This is an area where you can pick up almost anything cheap and it will work. Matrox G200s, nVIDIA RIVA TNTs, ATI Rage Pro, even the venerable Voodoo line all handle 3-D, though you may wish to go up a notch and get a GeForce 2 or a Radeon. If you're going to do serious gaming, the GPU is where it's at, but if you're only going to run a browser, you don't need a whole lot of horsepower. You can sink a lot of cost here on something fancy, but then we'd be building a gamer's box. On the other hand, a low-end Radeon or GeForce card runs about $50. The ATI cards take the standard XFree86 drivers. Matrox and nVIDIA both offer downloads for their accelerated drivers. I have seen cases where running the nVIDIA drivers on their smaller cards was actually slower than the regular VESA driver, at least in 2-D mode. Purists will want to go non-nVIDIA anyway, as the driver contains a non-GPL kernel module. I'm no purist. You decide.

Another cost consideration: AGP actually is cheaper than PCI in low-end cards. I surmise this is because everybody has an AGP slot these days, and thus the demand for AGP cards drives the production rate up and the cost down. I see the same phenomenon in PC-100 RAM versus PC-133.

Now for the pricey part of our little shopping expedition—drives. As of this writing, it looks like the break point is about $100, for which you can get somewhere between 40 and 60GB, 80 if you're lucky. As luck would have it, Seagate recently released its shiny new line of serial ATA drives, which means the price of its 40GB Barracuda, a drive I've admired for quite a while, has broken the $100 barrier. Maxtors and IBM's can be had for similar coin; Western Digitals seem to run a bit more. Of course, even if you fire up Red Hat or Mandrake and click on “Everything”, this is an incredible amount of space for your basic e-surfboard. Then again, it may not seem like so much after you rip your CD collection to OGGs.

And this leads me to our next item, the CD-RW device. You need some way to back up the system, some way to install it and something to do with all those OGG files. Plain CD-R has become passé in the last few months; your basic RW device runs $60-140, depending on how impatient you are. If your motherboard supports USB 2.0 (or you want to buy a PCI USB controller), you can buy an external USB one and share it around, if you like. The older motherboards may not boot from USB either, though, making installation painful. Best to stick with IDE here, and don't be afraid to go cheap unless you need fast. The $60 one will do just fine.

We mustn't forget our old friend the floppy drive. How else are you going to upgrade the BIOS? (Don't forget to do that later.) If you're paying $20 for one, you're getting ripped off, but don't leave it out either. Sometimes it's the fastest way to sneakernet across that critical file you rmed.

Speaking of sneakernet, you need a way to communicate with the outside world. If you're stuck in dial-up world, you'll need a modem. External is best, albeit pricey, but you don't want to have to reboot Linux and spoil your three-digit uptime because the modem flaked. If you need to go internal for the savings, make sure you don't buy a Winmodem; you can tell this if it calls for a Pentium II rather than a 486.

Unless this machine is your only computer and you're modem-bound, you'll need at least one network card. The little Netgear units are cheap and ubiquitous; they take either the Natsemi driver or the Tulip. If the installer doesn't know for sure already, pick one and try it; if it doesn't work, use the other one. Other good and cheap 10/100 cards include RealTek's 8139, which is sold under a number of brands, and the Linksys and D-Link cards. Basically, if it's a PCI card, it probably will work. Even Intel's e100-based cards have come down into the $20 range, minus all the bells and whistles. You can get away with 10baseT-only cards in a pinch; after all, it's not like you'll be able to drive more than that on your outside link, even on a cable modem.

(Driver consideration: If you use the Intel, be sure to get the latest e100 driver for it, if your distro doesn't already have one. The eepro100 driver has issues if you start hammering it, for instance, moving all those OGGs off your old machine. As of this writing, Red Hat 8.0 has the driver, but Debian Woody does not. The new versions are GPL; RMS would be proud.)

One more thing and we're done: you'll need a cooler for that CPU. This is where not being a hotrod saves us even more dough. Gigahertz-class Durons don't throw heat like the old Thunderbirds or the high-end Palamino-core Athlons. You can get away with a sub-$10 fan if that's all you wanted to spend. One thing to look for, though, are slow fans. I made the mistake of picking up a 7,000 RPM DragonOrb when I built my current box, which sounded like an idling jet engine from the other end of my apartment. Needless to say, I got another, slower fan. Thermaltake makes a few good ones; the Volcano 6 has a copper base, a 4,500 RPM fan and lists for $15.

By my count, we have spent $50 a piece for motherboard and CPU, $45 each for memory and case (I took the color upgrade on the FutureCase), another $50 for video, an even three figures for the drive, $60 for the CD-RW, $20 for the NIC and $15 each for the floppy and cooler. Total cost, $450 plus tax (and shipping, if you'd rather stay in your nice dark office and let FedEx do all the walking around).

But this was supposed to be a dirt cheap machine, you say. Here's where we begin to be really resourceful. These are retail prices are for all new equipment. But, we're Linux geeks; we don't pay for software, why should we pay full price for hardware? Get on your local Linux User Group's mailing list (if you aren't already, you should be) and ask where the good second-hand computer stores are. You might find something in this class you can spruce up. Or maybe they'll have something a touch slower—a lot of K6-2 machines are floating around. Extra memory, as we've said, is cheap; add a decent 3-D video card, and you're set. Sound can be added with a SoundBlaster of some variety, and a used one costs $15 or less. Drives are another place where you can save lots of cash; used ones can be had for around a buck a gig, and if you're not hogging OGGs, you don't need the extra space. If you're feeling really cheap, Debian can be shoehorned into 2GB reasonably comfortably, but you might wish to stay with at least UDMA-33 drives for performance. That should put you in the 10-20GB range. If you're adding to a fleet of machines, and already have a CD-RW elsewhere, you can get a cheap CD-ROM drive, put it in your machine and move files across the network to burn. Another option, the one I used, is to put the cheap drive in the old machine, which happened to be slower, and put the RW in the shiny new box. Floppies can be had from your own old machines, or if you're fresh out, pick one up second-hand for $5. Stay with the good video card unless you're building a server; you'll wish you had if you don't. (Smart shopping might get you something around $30, but make sure the chipset is what you think it is. If XFree86 doesn't recognize it, you'll be stuck with plain VESA mode, which is painful at best.)

You should be able to get a second-hand box for around $100, add memory and a CD-RW and come out with something quite usable for under $250. On the plus side, the older boxes don't need as much cooling (if you avoid Thunderbirds, which run hot) and therefore are quieter. And because Linux runs on practically anything these days, you can upgrade the system a bit at a time, which will save interest on your already well-worn credit cards.

Of course, with all the money you've saved, you might want to get yourself a second drive. Either RAID them both with software or with a little Promise controller ($20), the latter of which is also a good way to get UDMA-100 performance into an older machine, or simply run one system and one data and keep good backups. Splitting up your filesystems also enables you to run XMMS while doing something else data-intensive (like burning CDs or compiling the kernel) on the other drive, even on older hardware. But, make sure you've got things spread out across controllers. To be safe, I would put the system onboard primary, the writer on secondary and any auxiliary drives on the extra controller.

So there you have it. Cheap Penguin Gold, $450; the Silver model, minor scratches, $250; or Platinum, with RAID-1, $570. Happy hacking!

Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.




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Is good memory worth paying for?

Anonymous's picture

Checking out memory sticks, I find generic 256MB sticks for around $20 at the local tech store or $50-$60 for brand name on line. Of course, the brand name manufacturers claim the quality difference is worth paying for. Are they right? Should I shell out for the better quality?

$200 Linux Box--Not just for Geeks anymore!

Anonymous's picture

I have a 650 mhz celeron with 256mb ram machine that I built mostly of left-overs from upgardes to my main box. The cpu, memory and 15gb hard drive all came out of the old/newly upgraded box. I spent $25 for a case and $70 for the mobo. I spent a total of about $200 for the box. The mobo had onboard sound & video & ethernet/nic port. My daughter (3 years old) plays GCompris, Tuxtype, Tuxmath, Same Game and KSpud on it. (It's running the Psyche version of the K12ltsp system). The only thing is, I DID put in a fast fan and it sounds like an old air conditioner. Also, the monitor on it is an old one I salvaged from the trash at a local Catholic school. It can't handle more than 800X600 resolution, though the color is good. I acquired a keybpaord and mouse second hand for like, $7.00. The floppy came off eBay for $5.00. I bought the CDRom, like the case, new from Tiger direct, but spent less than $60. Then, it's not a burner, just reads. Speakers were $9.99 at Staples.

I'm a teacher. Everytime my school shells out $1500 for a Gateway my skin crawls.

Really, I spent less than $180 on this box, but the cpu, hard drive and memory came from my upgrades to my main box and the monitor was free. Acquired a free lexmark z11 from the trash, too. It works great for my daughter's little edutainment games, e-mail, surfing the net (If you can stand 800x600 res), and any word processing/productivity I can throw at it.

The best part is: I am a 7th grade language arts teacher without any formal education in computers. I have only owned a computer (the one that I upgraded to 1ghz P3, 512mb ram, 80gb hard drive) since October of 2000. Building this was an education for me. It's a wonder that it works. But, I think that if I can build this little frankenstein and have it running linux and networked to my main box, anybody can do this stuff. My main box runs Psyche, now, and I have an iBook runnin OS X. My home is 100% Micro$lop free! If I, an English teacher with no real computer education and very little experience, can do this stuff, anyone can. (The Local LUG was VERY helpful). Those that say Linux is only for geeks don't know what they're talking about. Linux is for everyone!

Tony Baldwin

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

More memory is better if you can afford it; more processor speed, however, is overkill. (My wife does her work just fine on a K6-2/300 I built several years ago.)

why is it always that its the wife that's stuck with the laid off hardware?

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

In my household, my wife shows no interest in using the computer for anything other than homework or checking email. A brand new machine would just be overkill.

Then again, in my household, the only difference, really, is that my machine has more RAM than hers.

Just use E-Bay

Anonymous's picture

I just bought a dual 667-MHz P3 system on eBay for $207, with a Sony CD-RW, network, sound, and TNT2 video. Another $30 at Frys got me a keyboard and mouse, and I got a 19" Viewsonic PF790 on eBay for $150. I've spent less than $400 on this system and for some reason it renders web pages faster than my Athlon XP 1800+ system with a GEForce3 video card.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

I took a look at and it appears that paying $450.00 for the system described in the article is a little too much. $497.00 on pricewatch buys you this:

Pentium 4 2.8GHz 533FSB,




CDROM (CDR-RW $25 extra)

OnBoard Audio & Video,

SlimCase w/PS

if, however, you insist on using AMD (nothing against it) then save for $255.00 get this:

AMD Athlon XP 2200, 266 MHz FSB





Integrated Video,


10/100 Ethernet,

Mid ATX Towr Case 300W

having Saved $195.00 (against your price) you could send me 50% of the saving as a reward for the tip -:)

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Here in PG&E-land, you'd pay over $200/year to
power either of those monsters if you run them 24hr/day
(like a lot of folks do their Linux boxes).
And that's just assuming 200 watts -- you could easily use more
depending upon what graphics and disk(s) you're using.
In addition, it's probably going to be loud
unless you shell out extra for a quiet CPU cooler, power supply,
and case fan.

That's why I put together a system that isn't exactly a speed
demon but only draws about 25 watts, and is quiet to boot:

  1. VIA EPIA ME-6000 (integral 600MHz C3, passively cooled)
  2. 512MB DDR-266 DRAM
  3. Casetronic mini ITX-2699
  4. Seagate Barracuda IV 80MB
  5. Misumi Slim 24x CDROM

The motherboard is a bit under 7 inches square, and has integrated
video, USB 2.0, IEEE-1394, 6-channel sound, 10/100 ethernet,
and dual ATA-133.
The case, which is around 10in x 11in x 2.5in (which explains why
it needs a slim CDROM drive) has front-panel USB, IEEE-1394,
and stereo audio in/out.
The MB has a full set of ATX-style connectors you can reach through
the back panel as well (the three audio jacks can all be turned
into outputs for 6-channel ("5.1") sound using a beta ALSA driver).
Linux support for the on-board MPEG-2 decoder isn't available
yet, though VIA claims to be working on it; otherwise
XFree86 runs great using their driver.

I paid about $350 to put it all together.
I figure that after a couple years it will have paid for itself
compared to the 220-watt monster I now only fire up every other

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

You can do better than this:

VIA Motherboard and Integrated CPU Model# EPIA-M10000: $170

Case: $30

512mb RAM: $75

CDRW: $60

That's about $350.

The Mini-ITX board is powered by the same VIA C3 CPU with Ezra-T core as the EPIA M9000 but with reduced noise levels (25dBA at one metre) in the form of what VIA call a "fansink" - a heatsink and fan combination. The remaining specifications are as with the existing EPIA Ms: VIA Apollo CLE266 chipset with MPEG-2 decoder, ATA/133, 1 x DDR266 SDRAM slot, 5.1 surround sound, Firewire, USB 2.0, S-Video/RCA TV output, 10/100 Ethernet and 1 PCI slot - all in a 17x17cm Mini-ITX package.

You can get slower versions of their mini-itx boards for a little less.

These boards should be usable in Linux, at least Via provides drivers for most of the hardware on their site.

-- PhoneBoy

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Newbie comment:

I really need an article on how to roll your own desktop Linux software for an dail up modem, not networked AMD 233. I want to be able to strip alot of the networking software from the distribution and run KDE 3.1. I do no gaming, and use open office and mozilla on Windows98.

Is there such an article?

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

For KDE 3.1? Not that I know of. KDE in general is a big desktop environment and will require a big chunk of memory to run well.

To test out your system, get Knoppix and boot from the CD. Ignore how long it takes to boot or how long OpenOffice takes to load and focus on how snappy the system is when it is all up and running.

If Knoppix and OpenOffice are OK, you can install Knoppix or most other distributions on that system and you should be happy.

Keep in mind that the amount of memory is the most important factor. While CPU speed is also a factor, memory is much more so.

IF your system has over 128MB of RAM, nearly any distribution should work well. All you have to do is select a custom configuration and choose the minimal number of items you can be happy with. Uncheck everything you do not need. When you learn more about Linux, you can add in the things that interest you -- usually with no impact on system performance.

If you have 128MB or less, add memory or search google or to look for more help. The only other option is to not use KDE and/or use a smaller window manager. (Do yourself a favor and add memory!)

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Athlon 1700+ $50

256 MB DDR 333Mhz $70

nforce2 board with sound and nic $110

Antec case/400 watt power supply $90

CD-RW drive $45

DVD drive $35

60 GB harddrive $90

Radeon 7500 $50

refurb. controller based modem $18

Vantec aeroflow HSF $35

All together around $600, but the T'bred B athlon is running at 2088 Mhz.

without the dvd drive, a more modest case, ram, and motherboard, this setup could be had for $450.


Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

for 80 dollars you can get a DDR MB, 16$ DDR 128 MB Ram stick and for 60$ athlon xp 1700+. Why try to save the couple of pennies when you can get twice the speed in ram and CPU power while also maintaining upgradability for only pennies more.


Anonymous's picture

I just priced a system from a mailorder firm I've done lots of business with. An Athlon XP 1700+ with 256Mb DDR, a decent
decent Enermax case, floppy and 56X CDROM is just over 300 with shipping. (The motherboard has onboard sound, LAN and RAID, 5 PCI and 1 AGP slots, and 3 DIMM slots for a max of 3Gb RAM.) Add 70 bucks for a 40Gb hard drive, and 40 bucks for a GeForce4 MX420, and you're talking just over 450 with shipping. Recycle your monitor, keyboard and mouse from an older system -- if not, a new 5 button optical wheelmouse is less than 20 bucks! Optionally, use a motherboard with built-in video and save yourself 40-60 bucks even...

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

I agree, but equally as important as the negligible extra cost is the far greater peace of mind you will have. AMD-type motherboards that support SDRAM and not DDR tend to have much flakier chipsets that will end up causing you no end of grief. Fast and cheap are great, but for some, stability is far more important. Thankfully, at today's prices, we can have all three -- as long as we're willing to be informed consumers.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

technoshaman's picture

I don't know who this wag is, but after posting JUST his URL, anonymously, in all caps, TWICE, I think we all know who NOT to buy from. Would you trust a dude who doesn't know nettiquette from a hole in the ground to put together your computer correctly, and know how to ensure that it gets to you in one piece (an art in and of itself)? Not me. I know that's a non-sequitur, but I require my vendors to be both gentlemen <em>and<em> scholars.

Proudly non-anonymous,

Glenn Stone 2alpha!!gs

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture


I won't buy from any company who resorts to astroturfing.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture had a good option.

costom build your own computer.

choose from 15 different basic

systems and from there configure

your Processor CPU,System Board,

CPU Fan, Memory, Hard Drive,

CD/DVD/CDR-W, Video, Sound, Modem,

Network, Case, Power Supply, Keyboard,

Mouse, Speakers. BUT BEST OF ALL

You Don't have to pay the Microsoft Tax!

Yes the Operating System is OPTIONAL!

You can chouse to by one of the MS OS's

if you want to put more $$ in Bill's Pocket

but you have the option NOT TO.

$235.75 for Package 12: Base on Credit Card Payment >> Configuration: # 1

Processor CPU : AMD DURON 850MHz CPU

System Board : PCChipS 841LM, DDR w/Audio, Video, LAN

CPU Fan : ThermalTake Volcano 2

Memory 1 : 128MB SDRAM, PC133

Memory 2 : None

Floppy Drive : 1.44MB Floppy Drive/internal

Hard Drive 1 : Samsung 20GB, 5400 RPM, ATA100

Hard Drive 2 : None

CD/DVD ROM : 52x CD ROM Internal, IDE

CDR-W : None

Video : 32 MB Max 3D SVGA share

Sound : 32-Bit 3D/Surround Sound

Modem : 56K V.90 Fax/Data/Voice Modem

Network : 100/10 BaseT Ethernet Port

Case : ATX, MID TOWER w/ Case Fan

Power Supply : Standard 300W ATX POWER SUPPLY

Operating System : None

Software : None

Keyboard : Pro-104 Enhanced PS/2 Keyboard

Mouse : PS2 2button MOUSE

Speakers : 100W Multimedia Speakers

Monitor : None

Removable Device : None

Additional Adapter : None

Warranty : Fully Assembled w/ 1-Year Part & Labor Warranty

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Those are not bargains.

Want a bargain? Get a pcchips motherboard. Sis900 eth, 4 USB ports, UDMA66, Duron 1GB, sis630 video (has semi-decent 3d accel under linux) onboard sound (2 channels, though), uses pc133 memory.

That, with CPU can't be over $80, add the HD $100, case $45, CD/RW $60, it

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Since you're anonymous, I'm guessing you're either some a-hole from Monarch, or someone with LJ pushing hardware from a major advertising. Either way, PLEASE stop astroturfing.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Complete sys - AMD Duron 1GHz Win CD COA Online , 1 yr warr. MUST MENTION PRICE WATCH -128MB,20GB HD, FDD, CDROM,SOUND,56K MODEM,10/100 Lan,Video ,ATX tower 350watt

(Part - MCISYS-AMD10-210)

Price: $190

MinOrder: 1

Ship 1 : $15.75 Flat Fee

Will Ship: 3-4 days

Updated:2/24, 5:31PM

$205.75 shipped

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Forgot the burner and upgrade the IDE to 100G

Now I'm up to about $450 OOPS




Lite on 52X24X52X EIDE CD-RW 52X24X52X Internal EIDE/ATAPI CD-RW Drive. 1Yr Warranty.

(Part - CRL525O)

Price: $41

MinOrder: 1

Ship 1 : $5.00 - 5.89 UPS Insured

Updated:2/25, 1:55PM


Western Digital


IN STOCK. 100GB, 8.9 ms, 2MB, 7200rpm.(OEM, WHITE LABEL, 9 MONTHS WARRANTY). EIDE 100.0GB, ATA/100 7200RPM, 8.9ms , 2MB. Same Day shipping.

(Part - -100.0GB)

Price: $102

MinOrder: 1

Ship 1 : $5.79 Flat Fee Insured W/Tracking #

Will Ship: Same - 1day

Updated:2/25, 12:08PM


Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Thats only $360. Frankly, u should have got a 60GB drive instead and got an extra 128MB RAM for the same cost.

Hold off on that Promise controller

Anonymous's picture

See "Promise Spits On Free Software" in KT.

Re: Hold off on that Promise controller

Anonymous's picture

Agreed. While I'm not sold on serial ATA the likely future high speed disk interface, Promise has left no doubt who not to recommend or buy from.

Reciently, I opted for a non-serial ATA board partially because it had the Promise serial ATA chip the kernel list discusses.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Too much work. Just buy a $300 or $400 from Sams Club, wipe the disk, and start grep'ping!

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

That is cheap but they are major brand. You cannot upgrade their hardware (motherbroad, power transformer, etc)also their case is way too small (if you want to add more hardward).

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

"That is cheap but they are major brand. You cannot upgrade their hardware (motherbroad, power transformer, etc)also their case is way too small (if you want to add more hardward)."

Irrelevant. At $300-$400 it's a disposable computer.

Buy another one later.

If these seems repugnant, then spend more and buy a real computer.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture


Forget AMD T birds, K6-2 etc; last week I set up Red Hat 8.0 on the following system:

Mobo: MSI 4144 (AMI BIOS)

CPU: 486/DX2-66 (33 BogoMips)

RAM: 64Mb (4 x 16Mb 72-pin 70ns SIMMS)

Video: Spider 4Mb PCI S3 Virge/DX

Network: Realtek 8039 PCI 10baseT

SCSI: Adaptec AHA1542

/dev/hda: Western Digital 504 Mb

/dev/hdb: Western Digital 504 Mb

/dev/hdc: Seagate 408 Mb

/dev/hdd: Maxtor 810 Mb

/dev/sda: Quantum 810 Mb

/dev/sdb: Fujitsu 640 Mb (5 1/4 inch full height drive ;-))

/dev/scd0: Unknown (x2 speed)

/dev/fd0: Unknown

Case: Unknown

PSU: 200W (+ a few splitters!)


I'll say that again: Zilch.

Took about 3 hours to install Red Hat 8.0; all six drives use software RAID0 for /dev/md0, except /boot and swap which are seperate partitions on /dev/hda and /dev/hdb respectively, fully formated, checking blocks. Server install selected, with XFree86 + extra packages = 1.4Gb leaving roughly 2.0 Gb free.

A full kernel compile takes approximately 4 hours.

Works fine as a FTP, HTTPD and SAMBA server.

I've also got an 80386 box sitting near me with a 16MHz clock, 16Megs of RAM plus an 80387 co-pro, 72Meg (full height) + 41Meg (hh) 5 1/4 inch drives.

Red Hat 8.0 on that machine..... That's my next challenge.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box LIAR

Anonymous's picture

Redhat 8.0 wont install von on 486 and dropped support for them.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box LIAR *NOT*

Anonymous's picture


What is your proof for calling me a liar? Show me your evidence please. Have you tried to run Red Hat 8.0 on an i486 yourself?

Either you are a n00b or you have been mis-informed.

In either case, I assume you have not read the Red Hat 8.0 docs or else you would know that it will work on a 386 'out of the box'. Unlike other distros such as Mandrake and SuSE which now compile to a minimum of a Pentium based CPU, Red Hat still compiles its Intel kernels and packages with an 80386 instruction set.

May I also suggest that you don't go around arbitrarily calling people liars.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box LIAR *NOT*

Anonymous's picture

I'm not the guy who called you a liar, hehe, just wanted to get that out first. 8^)

I don't know if it will install on a 386 or not but I know it is compilled against the i386 instruction set. In other words, it isn't optimized for a pentium or even a 486, just a 386.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box LIAR *NOT*

Anonymous's picture

>>I'm not the guy who called you a liar, hehe, just wanted to get that out first. 8^)

lol I believe ya ;-))

Yeah I agree with your other point - I think I was trying to say that to the other guy. i.e. if it is compiled for a 386 then then it should run on anything higher like a 486.

You are right of course, it might not install on the 386 - I'm thinking the 16Meg or RAM might be a limiting factor. But I *will* be trying Linux From Scratch that a guy from one of the other posts mentioned.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture A project to create a low resource installer for Red Hat. I think they built a 386 kernel package for 8.0.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Yup this looks like right up my street.

With LFS (see previous post) and RULE, I'll have that 386 up and running in no time! Cheers

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

That box would be a great candidate for LFS. With Linux From Scratch (or maybee Gentoo?) everything would be compiled to be optimimized for the hardware. I don't think I'd want to see how slow everything would be under Gnome or KDE on *any* 486 that was put out by Red Hat 8.0. Don't get me wrong, my main box runs RH 8.0 with the updated 2.4.18-24.8.0 kernel for my AMD Athelon CPU. I like it pretty much, its just not a very good choice for under-powered hardware. Its too much of a general release - one size fits all - take it compiled for an i386 or lump it distro when your trying to squeeze out some performance from an old but good box. Of course, some people just like to see if they can "get it to work". If thats you thing, I say congrats to you!




Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Gentto, eh? You just try building a complete system on a 486. It would take about a week.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

wow! i didn't know about LFS - I've had a look at the site and I think my 386 will be a prime candidate for building a LFS system.

You are right the 486 is not really up to the GUI, but it boots to the console and it really is ok from there esp. as it only uses about 40 Meg of RAM with the web, ftp and smb server all running. X windows gobbles up the memory and uses about 60 Meg of swap space as well so a lot of the slowness could be attributed the the continual disk accessing.

And yes I agree with you - a lot of the fun of this is getting it to work. I've had OS/2 warp, Win 95 and (with a lot of persuasion) win 98 all running on that 386 - just for the heck of it - just to prove it can be done. Having Linux run on it as well would top all of that for me. (and of course then there is Beowulf!)

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

hehehe, now your talking!

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Hey Glenn,

Thanks for a nice article. There is one thing that I think your completely wrong about though - the Lian-Li case. I have always bought very cheap cases myself, usually one step above the cheapest. However, about a year ago I dropped $179 on a Lian-Li case and its hands down the best case I've ever bought. After a year of abuse, I have no doubt that it will last many more years on or under my desk. I'm not sure "why" you think that it wouldn't be able to withstand as much punishment as any other case. Maybe because its aluminium and not steel? I think if you ever owned one, or at least dismantled one a few times, you'd realize that you don't use a screw driver to open them or take them apart. Almost every part of the case is held together with thumbscrews. Therefore, no overtightening, no stripped threads, and it will last a long, long time.

Thanks again for the article.



Re: Lian Li

Anonymous's picture

I'd have to agree. I've had literally dozens of case since I started with computers in 1988, and the Lian Li case I bought recently is the most intelligently laid-out I've ever seen. Everything is modular, removable and well placed.

I wish there were cases like that ten years ago.

Re: lian-li

Anonymous's picture

We sell those at the shop I work at. They are very pretty, and light, but, the motherboard backplanes flex alot, and they don't use normal screw in stand offs, but the clip in stand offs, which bend, break, or are loose. I like the way they look, but they do need to beef up the case with support ribs or something, and no case manufacturer should EVER consider using clip in stand offs for mounting the motherboard. Those are terrible. Other than that, not a bad case, but I will get one that makes stability and solidity a priority over looks and weight.

Re: lian-li

Anonymous's picture

Lian-Li cases *do* have ribbed mobo trays, and there *very* solid. It sounds like your describing one of those cheap knock off aluminum cases. As for the plastic stand offs, I've worked with thousands of cases over the years and usually you have 1 or 2 metal stand offs and the rest are those plastic ones. I'd suggest going to and see if the cases your shop is using are listed there.

I'm just confused because Lian-Li is widely recognised as having very solid and sturdy cases. Maybe they've released a line of less expensive aluminum cases to compete with all the knock offs that have been coming out recently, I don't know.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

There isn't a need to roll your own puter when Walmart have 1.1ghz Duron & preinstall Lindows for $199.99.

Admitedly that it doesn't have a burner, but a CD/RW can be had for less than $50.00

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

I'd have to agree with that.

Re: Roll Your Own $450 Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

I did mine a little different than alot of you guys did. Basically, I knew that I wanted a machine that had quality parts, and was still inexpensive to build. So, I thought to myself what is the most expensive parts, and what are the main components of the box. I basically went through two websites. and

I like newegg, because they put out there one day specials every wednesday. I have a checklist of the things that I need to build my computer, and I just start adding based on the specials. What I like about newegg also is that if I go back 2-3 weeks later, and the item that I added to my shopping cart is now cheaper. I can then delete the old item and add the new. When I have most of the parts I need. I then order it. I like to go through pricewatch because they have great combo prices. I got an ASUS A78NX - Deluxe motherboard, and a Athlon AMD XP 2600 process put together and sent to me for about $130, That was a little while back, but my system still kicks butt, because I have quality parts. I just saw a nice no name case on newegg with a 400w ps, for $27.

free linux box!

Peter Keyani's picture

Nice project, but I just built a rather nice Linux Box out of 2 broken pcs and a few other bits lying around:

highly compact old NEC Deskmate 1.5 MHz Intel Pentium 4 /motherboard/case combo
630 MB RAM
USB 2.0 card
Fast ethernet card
DVD RW CD RW optical drive
Geforce mx4000 128 MB card (not strictly necessary since I had a NVIDIA RIVA TNT2 16 MB already but I thought I would spoil myself!)
160 GB storage/media HD and a 20 GB HD for ubuntu hardy 8.04 OS

total cost: 12 pounds (for the geforce card): might spend a few pounds for a nice black paintjob and a Tux decal!

and I know next to nothing about computers either. my friends are amazed ;)!