The Ultimate Linux Desktop
When determining the basic specifications for what the Ultimate Linux Desktop should be capable of, one thing Editor in Chief Nicholas Petreley and I agreed on was that it should have at least two NVIDIA SLI GPUs. If you're not familiar with SLI (Scalable Link Interface), this technology allows you to run two or four GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) either on a single card or a pair of cards to increase video performance. It works by splitting the processing work to render video among the GPUs for each frame.
Why care about something fancy like SLI? Aside from the cool factor, the Ultimate Linux Desktop needs to run modern games made available for Linux. Doom 3, Quake 4 and Unreal Tournament 2004 all are capable of taking advantage of this powerful feature, so why miss out? Aside from games, SLI also benefits those doing high-end graphics work, especially 3-D graphics. Any application that uses OpenGL graphics can take advantage of this feature. However, for high-end graphics workstations, you're more likely to go quad SLI (four GPUs) rather than dual (two GPUs).
In conjunction with SLI, the motherboard needs SLI support. For the rest, it was mainly a wish list of what most people would like to see in a desktop computer: plenty of fast RAM, fast networking, great audio, front-panel USB, dual-core CPU and more. Oh, and of course, all of it has to be supported by Linux. Another stipulation was the machine has to come with Linux pre-installed, or if the user has to install Linux themselves, it can't be a difficult operation.
For the Ultimate Linux Desktop, we were going for ease of “set up and go”. We weren't considering anything that required hand-tweaking hardware or installs, except for very basic operations. Why be this fussy for the Linux Journal, the home of Linux geeks? The desktop is where the Linux community is still getting its legs, and the ability to order a Linux box pre-installed is definitely a helpful boost to beginners. Linux is no harder to install than Microsoft Windows, but average users never install Windows on their own. Many would rather purchase a new machine than try it.
So, enough with the introduction. You want to know what machine won and why.
The Ultimate Linux Desktop comes from Puget Custom Computers (www.pugetsystems.com). From its High End Gaming Computer category, the setup we received includes a number of desirable features (Figure 1). This particular configuration costs $2,882.17 US before tax. There is no monitor, keyboard or mouse included.
The CPU is an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+, which runs at 2.2GHz. This isn't the newest or fastest processor in its series, but it's at the juicy price point for most users. This dual-core CPU allows programs built to take advantage of SMP (Symmetric Multiprocessing) to split their processing tasks among the two cores. In general, it's designed for those who use a lot of multimedia or do a lot of multitasking, which pretty well describes the job of an Ultimate Linux Desktop.
The motherboard is an ASUS A8N-SLI Premium, which is designed to make it simple to activate or deactivate SLI support when needed. On many early SLI-based motherboards, you have to open the computer and change a switch setting in order to accomplish this task. The ASUS A8N-SLI Premium allows you to do this in the BIOS instead or by using a Microsoft Windows XP utility (unfortunately all of the utilities for this motherboard are for Windows or DOS). You won't find any serial port on this motherboard, so if you need support for older hardware, you have to pick up a separate card. There also is no floppy drive.
The ASUS A8N-SLI Premium offers support for AMD Cool 'n' Quiet Technology, which adjusts the CPU speed, voltage and power consumption, depending on what the system is doing. Although this motherboard is more than a year old, its feature collection is still impressive, including:
HyperTransport Technology (www.hypertransport.org), which speeds up communication between integrated motherboard components.
Dual-channel DDR (Double Data Rate) RAM.
Serial ATA (SATA) II hard drive interfaces.
Dual RAID controllers.
PCI Express controllers.
S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) Out to allow digital-to-digital transfer of audio between devices.
IEEE 1394a (FireWire), which is now supported under Linux.
USB 2.0 connectors.
Two Gigabit Ethernet interfaces.
For RAM, this box has two Corsair XMS CMX1024-3200C2 PC3200 1,024MB low-latency sticks. The XMS (Xtreme Memory) product line from Corsair is designed for overclockers and gamers. Rather than choosing the flashy option of the RAM sticks with the LED displays along their tops, Puget Custom Systems went with the less-flashy (and therefore less-expensive) option. We were hoping for fast memory, so this is a real plus—and we encouraged vendors to go more for practical than “bling”.
The included hard drive is the Western Digital SATA Raptor 74GB. This drive might be a bit small for what many people want, but you can choose another size if you want a bigger one—and are willing to pay more for it. However, this hard drive is 10,000 RPM, so it flies when it's in use.
When it comes to the video cards, specifically what's included are two eVGA 7900GT CO 256MB SLI cards. These aren't the highest model available for eVGA's NVIDIA 7900 series cards, but again, you can customize the order to go up to the GTX if you want to spend around $1,000 US more on your computer to get the bleeding edge.
One small drawback may be the Seasonic S12 Series 500W power supply. If you want to add many more components to this system, you'll want to upgrade to a larger wattage. On the plus side though, this power supply series is extremely quiet and has split rail technology, meaning that the various devices on your system are all drawing their power from, in a way, multiple smaller power supplies. This feature prevents devices from interfering with each other. On an SLI system, you definitely want this feature in your power supply.
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