The Ultimate Do-It-Yourself Linux Box

Start with the ultimate AMD64 motherboard and build on it to create a masterpiece of your own.

You've got a wide range of drives to choose from, and good SATA drives are amazingly inexpensive. We chose two Seagate Barracuda 300GB 7200 RPM drives with 8MB Cache. These drives are SATA 3.0Gb/s drives, so they're fast, and all three motherboards can handle these types of drives. We chose two identical drives for RAID 0 configuration, which produces even faster disk access (though without any fault tolerance). You can pick just one of these if you're on a budget. They go for about $100 US each. If you're not a fan of Seagate for any reason, you can get other brands of drives that work just as well for about the same price.

Plextor offers a SATA DVD R+W drive, the PX-716AL/SW for about $150 US. This drive has the following write speeds: DVD+R at 16x, DVD+RW at 8x, DVD-R at 16x, DVD-RW at 4x, CD-R at 48x, CD-RW at 24x, DVD+R DL at 6x and DVD-R DL at 6x. It offers read speeds at 16x DVD-ROM and 48x CD-ROM. Be careful when selecting a SATA-based DVD/CD drive, however. You can run into Linux installation problems if you choose a Linux distribution with a kernel configured such that it doesn't recognize a SATA DVD/CD drive properly.

We chose a Plextor PX-750A ATAPI drive for our budget combination, because it costs only about $60 US. You can find cheaper drives, but the less you pay, the noisier and more unreliable they tend to be.


Of course, you will need, at the very least, a monitor, keyboard and mouse to have a complete system. We don't make much of a favorite monitor, keyboard or mouse because your favorites will depend a great deal on your personal tastes. Some people like wide monitors; others don't. Some people like wireless keyboards; others don't. Some people like ergonomic design; others don't.

Our summary sample configurations do include a monitor, keyboard and mouse. We did so only to give you an idea of the total price you can expect if you are going to put together a complete system. Your total price probably won't change much if you choose a different keyboard or mouse, but monitor prices vary greatly depending on what kind of monitor you want. So, take our prices with a grain of salt. If you opt for a big, wide-screen monitor, you're obviously going to pay more.

We chose for our example a Samsung 204B, because it has a fairly large screen (20"), good resolution (1600x1200), good contrast ratio (800:1) and an unusually fast response time (only 5ms). It's a great monitor for work and gaming, at a good price—about $400 US.

Extremely budget-minded people can go for something like the Acer AL1515, which is smaller (15"), lower resolution (1024x768) and much slower (16ms). This monitor can be good for work but terrible for gaming. But the price is much lower at about $150 US.

As for keyboard and mouse, we chose two Logitech combinations, the Wireless Comfort Duo (about $75 US) and the wired Internet Pro (about $18 US). You have a lot of wiggle room here. You can get better keyboards and mice without having to spend a whole lot more money, but the Comfort Duo should be enough for most users. We happened to replace the mouse that comes with the Comfort Duo with a Logitech G7 Laser Cordless, but you may find this mouse to be a royal pain, because it requires you to swap batteries as much as twice daily. Fortunately, it comes with two lithium ion batteries, one of which stays in a charger while you use the other. But because this is an unlikely choice for many people, we stuck with the Cordless Duo as the standard choice for the preferred system.

Playing with Prices

We put together two systems, a great system and a more budget-minded system. If you have money to burn, you easily could pump up the great system into an ultimate system. Trick it out with the two best NVIDIA cards on the market in SLI mode. Add a liquid-cooled system that you connect to everything in the box that generates heat. Go for the top-of-the-line AMD64 processor instead of the 4200+. You'll pay a lot more, but you'll get what you pay for. The AMD Athlon 64 FX60 Toledo runs for just under $1,000 US.

The second combo uses a less-expensive case, a single video card and less memory in order to save cash. You can cut other corners as well, but we chose those components that were at a price threshold where a better component would cost significantly more money. For example, at the time of this writing, the difference between an AMD64 4000+ and an AMD64 4200+ is about $30 US, but the price difference jumps to $100 US between the 4200+ and the 4400+. As mentioned earlier, AMD is likely to have restructured all these prices by the time you read this, so the threshold where the price jumps probably will be different. Choose accordingly.

The same tends to hold true for video cards. There's a point at which the price increase doesn't get you much extra performance, so you have to think hard in order to decide whether you want to spend the extra cash for the edge. At the time of this writing, the NVIDIA 7900GT series is affordable and fast. If you really need a budget card, the eVGA GeForce 6600GT 256MB PCI Express x16 goes for about $150 US, and although it doesn't compete well with the 7900 series, it's no slouch.

Perhaps no category includes a wider variety of prices than monitors. We didn't explore the vast range in our do-it-yourself kit, simply because a choice of monitor can be intensely personal. We can't tell you which one you'll like best, but we can tell you that the price difference between a monitor you like and one you love can be as much as $1,000 US or more. We're very happy with the Samsung 204B. You might need more, or you might be happy with less.



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Replace ABIT Fatal1ty with other manufacturer

Anonymous's picture

Having used this article as a template for a Linux DIY the components were already dated by the time of the visit to the electronic's store.

In place of the ABIT AN8 I substituted an ABIT Fatal1ty as the suggestion was not available. The problem is that the system will not power down and a hard shut-off forces a reset of BIOS. Otherwise it is a functioning 64 bit linux box (opensuse 10.2) with Althlon FX-5000 chip but this problem is not trivial.

Having exhausted all possible remedies it appears to be the motherboard but am reluctant to use ABIT again and am wondering if an ASUS or MSI wouldn't be more "reliable".

sata dvd

Anonymous's picture

I have a system very similar to the one you describe. I have not found a linux distro whose installation CD works with SATA DVD's. What distro were you using to install the OS?

We are a chip design company

Anonymous's picture

We are a chip design company and we begun to use Do-it-yourself AMD64 machines with 8+ gigabytes memory in 2004(to replace solaris machines), all of them work very well till now.

Performance requirements

Anonymous's picture

Performance requirements leveled out a few years ago (for Linux users, anyway). If you want to play games, get a gaming console. For the money you save you can buy more games. You can buy one of each console and a nice selection of games for the price of this machine... How much is enough? Your PC should be spec'ed for what you need it to do. Even my 5 year old laptop (purchased used for $600) plays almost all Linux 3D games well. The latest and greatest games will always play better on dedicated hardware; that's what game consoles are all about.

Why such an (over)-powerful computer ?

Anonymous's picture

I wonder who needs such a powerful and not-so-cheap computer ? Unless you're a developer (and even if you are), you'll probably never use the full power of such computer.

LOL! I guess that would be

Nicholas Petreley's picture

LOL! I guess that would be appropriate, wouldn't it?

Only SATA1?

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the article, but this supposedly bleeding edge PC has got only SATA-I disks! SATA-II disks have been available for more than a year. It seems ironic because the article starts by saying

    "Do-it-yourself is also one of the best ways to ensure that you have a system that won't become obsolete within six months".

How about building a system with SATA-II disks? Is there any motherboard with SATA-II support in Linux?

Not sure what you mean

Nicholas Petreley's picture

Are you talking about the disks or the controller? The controller is 3 Gb/s. If I listed an SATA-I model drive, that was a copying error on my part. I tested and am using 3 Gb/s drives, not SATA-I drives.

If so, I apologize for the error. I'll check again to see which models I bought and used.

Don't worry, they should be SATA-II

Anonymous's picture

I'm quite sure Seagate never had 300GB SATA-I drives. That said, the whole marketing-name "SATA-II" is causing more confusion than it has meaning.

The most unambiguous solution here is if you specify the drive generation (the Barracuda name has been in use for years, so that doesn't really help :)). Probably these are Barracuda 7200.10 drives?

It states in the list that

Nicholas Petreley's picture

It states in the list that these are 3.0 Gb/s drives. That's what most people mean when they say SATA-II, even though the two are not really synonymous. You're right that the marketing name SATA-II is a mess, which is precisely why I chose to list it according to the site's spec as 3.0 Gb/s.

Power supply

Island in the Net's picture

Why is that when people choose a power supply for a system they never take into account the NOISE that these frigging things produce? Don't tell that the noise from a high powered fan doesn't drive you nuts. I can't stand it. Come on, put out the extra money for a whisper quiet fan.

Power Supplies

Nicholas Petreley's picture

I am currently using both power supplies I listed. They're both very quiet to me. I have severe tinnitus in one ear, so your mileage may vary. But don't assume that the tinnitus filters out the noise. If anything, it makes me more sensitive to noise. I think these are surprisingly quiet machines, all around, including the case jam-packed with fans.

Consider AM2

Anonymous's picture

For all the flaws that are pointed out in the comments, I still think it's great that LJ provide this information. It's nice to have up-to-date and reliable information on linux-compatibility of hardware.

For the budget-option, one might ofcourse get a cheaper motherboard - even for SLI, 32 pci-e channels have no real-world advantage over the usual 16 pci-e channels.

An interesting option for anyone who wants to play with hardware supported virtualization (through Xen) in the near future: get one of the newer socket AM2 CPUs (also requires a newer motherboard and DDR2 RAM), which feature Pacifica technology. Although those components are not tested here (they couldn't have been, too new...), I don't think there should be any linux-compatibility problems from that upgrade.


Nicholas Petreley's picture

Remember the delay in print pubs. If I had to write the article all over again, I'd start with the AM2. The "ultimate linux box of the future" in the magazine was based on a sample AM2/Asus motherboard. I wouldn't recommend that particular mobo, but for now I think the AM2 is the way to go.


Anonymous's picture

Yes, I was aware of the delay (that's why I said they couldn't have been in there). Thanks for replying!

To get slightly offtopic: I always get the feeling that Linux people favour AMD systems. Now, for this Ultimate box, that is undisputably the right choice (may change in the near future), since AMD X2 chips are simply the fastest stuff available.

But I was wondering what you'd recommend if we were talking about an office-work machine. In that case one would probably go for integrated graphics, and I feel that since Intel is the only company providing open source graphics drivers, it would perhaps be "ethically proper" to go for an Intel machine?


Nicholas Petreley's picture

I'm not politically correct when it comes to worrying about tainted kernels, etc. I just want my machine to run fast and stable. So I have no problem with the proprietary NVidia drivers, ethically speaking. I've just had a lot of success with NVidia display cards, so I use them. For what it's worth, some of my Linux installations use the default Xorg nv driver, so I don't taint the kernel on those installs.

On the other hand, if NVidia ever does something to offend me with their approach, I have no problem with the idea of dumping their cards for an alternative from Intel or some other company. I believe in voting with our dollars.

As for the AMD64x2 , IMO it's just the best there is right now even if you stick with 32-bit Linux. Intel is diving into dual-cores in a much bigger way, so maybe Intel will grab the lead. Then again you have the AM2 which opens up some possibilities for AMD to sustain its lead, especially if AMD ships great quad-cores before Intel does. I don't care how it all plays out as long as we get great machines as a result.

Two corrections

Anonymous's picture

Overall the described computer seems too expensive, which could have been prevented by tailoring it for specific applications. I have a hard time thinking of anyone needing 4GB of RAM and SLI for a Linux desktop system.

In addition, I noticed two statements which did not appear to be accurate.

1) "A properly configured 32-bit Linux kernel will map the RAM such that a portion of it goes to the kernel and the rest goes to user space. Linux splits up the RAM depending on how you have compiled the kernel (or how it is precompiled on your distribution)."

That is confusing address space and RAM which are two different things. The amount of address space on a system does not depend on how much RAM or swap space is present, but depends on the hardware and operating system architecture. And AMD64 can run in either 32 bit mode or 64 bit mode. In one case there is 4GB of address space, in the other there is 16 exabytes. Linux (in most configurations) splits the address space into two parts, one part for the running program, and one part for the kernel. The default split on x86 is 3GB user and 1GB kernel. That has nothing to do with the amount of physical RAM -- it only means that a single process can only use 3GB of RAM at a time. To use more RAM than the kernel part (1GB, 2GB, 3GB) you have to enable a special mode where the kernel maps memory in and out of its address space as needed which is a slight performance impact. This is one of the reasons 64 bit mode is faster.

2) "These drives are SATA 3.0Gb/s drives, so they're fast ..."

The interface speed is really the last thing to look at when reviewing a drive for performance. Seek time, transfer rates, cache size, noise, and power usage are all probably more important factors.

as for an operating

Anonymous's picture

as for an operating system...I make the SuperGamer-1 livedvd...just seach for it and go to the review of it...all you would need to do is add newer nvidia drivers and add the section for sli in the xorg to get sli working properly..

Two 7900GT in SLI for what ?!?!?!

Anonymous's picture

Can anyone tell why a linux user need two 7900GT in SLI ? For playing Quake and UT ? Play tuxracer at 3500 fps ?


Anonymous's picture

binary drivers != ultimate linux box

You Suck!

Anonymous's picture

Your DIY page has nothing to do with linux... what a waste of time. Ohh and nothing says "I spent time on my page" like documenting your project. Where are the pictures of this not so linux orientated system?


Big J's picture

"Your DIY page has nothing to do with linux... what a waste of time. Ohh and nothing says "I spent time on my page" like documenting your project. Where are the pictures of this not so linux orientated system?"

The number of times "Linux" is mensioned in this article is 15. It talks about SLI in linux, successfull usage of many distors out of the box, the need for nvidia drivers to use the sli feature, using 4gb of ram on a 32bit linux system, etc... This project is all about Linux, dumbass!

Nothing special

Bigger J's picture

I think anonymous has a point, what's so special about this do it yourself article? nothing, the author recommends using Fedora, or SuSe, talk about a waste... A dual core 64bit AMD chip is just about wasted like that. Use a real OS that takes advantage of the speed of this machine like gentoo. Back to the point though, this is a plain vanilla make a pc page, where the author makes some sad mention of installing a crummy disto of linux on it. Call it like it is, a waste!

Freedom of Choice

Anonymous's picture

IKIAPS, or "Insufferable, Knowitall Prick Syndrome" : Every operating system has it's inherent problems. Windows has security and stability problems, Macintosh has it's users, and Linux has IKIAPS. This syndrome is like a virus with no real known cause, but reaches epidemic levels once you've used linux for some random amount of time You wake up, and decide that everyone else is wrong, that their distro sucks, and that only YOUR preferred distro, programs, and way of doing things is correct. You either refuse to test other distros, or use specious reasoning to prove your points about other distros. This is the brother to MacOS syndrome, but much more hateful and arrogant. Worse yet, when you actually DO dig around for info, you use web pages like Slashdot for 'information' or dip into the comments area for 'proof' of your views. You are like the tiny lap dogs that bark ferociously at Rottweilers, Dobermans, and freaking Great Danes from behind the protective barrier of email.

Good, but to be taken with a grain of salt

Colin's picture

The article is well written but I just can't help but feel the research isn't there. The nessecity (or lack thereof) has already been addressed. However, there are other issues as well. A good example is the chassis choise. Silverstone is one of my favorite companies and I understand this article was performance rather than budget oriented. I, however, do find fault in the recomending a Thermaltake Tsunami case. I choose to keep my job description to myself in this case but I do work with and review many computer chassis. Budget minded or not, the Tsunami case is terrible, especially when compared to like-wise priced cases. Even many cheaper cases have better features and design. Argue what you like, the quality just isn't there.

The display choices also seem to have suffered from lazy research. Once again, your high end selection can't be faulted. I use a pair of them myself. However I chose to pay for premium monitors because it affected my work. Most users don't anything as grand. They'd be better off with a $300 20.1" widescreen LCD. BenQ and Viewsonic both have great units in this price range (I've tested them). Widescreen is great for media users and gaming support in respect to widescreen resolutions is developing quickly. The currenly LCD display market is so flooded with choices its hard to know what to buy. Your best bet for comming away happy is to analyse what you use you computer for the most and really dot he research into what will best suit your needs. I've about a month looking into units for my personal system. Market changes and knowing I want a long term solution make it quite hard to make a decision.

Lastly, what you use for system memory can be made very simple or comewhat complicated depending on how performance minded you are. Memory goes way beyond size. There is the speed and timings to consider. Some higher end modules require more voltage and motherboard you choose must be selected to handle it. The general rule is to go as big is you need, with the fastes timings, at the speed required. Also, its best to avoid using more than two stick if possible. Not only do you lose the ability to take advantage of the 1T command on most motherboards, compatability becomes a greater issue. MSI boards are notorious for being picky about RAM. Some boards won't operate at rated speeds with four sticks. The RAM you use should be taken into account when choosing motherboards and like-wise for the RAM.

In the end, if you do the research, you should be happy with the result. If you don't think you can build a system you'll be happy with inside your budget, it's probably best to wait. A big mistake I see many people make is trying to acquire parts over time. There are situations where a constant state of upgrading is fine but should generally be avoided if possible.

Sounds familiar

joe f.'s picture

I just finished my box a couple of months ago. I got the DFI Lan Party NF4 Ultra board for overclocking capability (lots of BIOS options), put in an Opteron 175, 2 gigs of Mushkin 4000 (not 3200) RAM, a Raptor 150GB drive and a no-fan nVidia 6600 GT (not a gamer). I also have a Maxtor 250GB drive in there and two NEC 3550A DVD writers (we have some Plextors at work, but I don't see the benefit over a generic drive I can replace several times for the price of that Plextor). I put it all in an ANTEC P180 case with an ANTEC power supply. You might have me on quietness, but this thing is pretty quiet.

I haven't actually settled on a 64-bit distro, though. I have Slackware -current on my main partition and I keep cycling distros through the second partition. I think I've tried 12 or 15 by now, most of them 64-bit (though Zenwalk is on there now). None of them show me any reason to switch from Slackware, and -- though I hate to admit it -- I see no reason to run a distro without flash in the browser. I was going to set it up to do production kind of stuff (gimp, etc.) on the 64-bit version and everyday kind of stuff on the 32-bit version, but for what I do, I see no speed difference. In fact, the 2.6.17 kernel showed me more of a (perceived) speed bump than anything else I've done.

Whatever I settle on, I think I'm good for a while. Sure, the new stuff comes out every day, but let's face it: even at the stock 2.2Ghz, a dual-core opteron is all a home user is likely to need for many, many moons. Especially for a guy who normally runs Fluxbox on Slackware.

This is last Fall's computer. - CPU: should

Anonymous's picture

On the mobo --
- CPU: should have got the 4400+ which is the point of diminishing returns (bigger cache). 4200+ is physically same as next step down, just from a better parts bin. The cost is more than made up in other areas below.
- Extraneous SATA RAID controller(s); what good are they on a Linux box? Don't need all the bells and whistles on this mobo - in fact they are detractors.
- We've seen SLI come and go once already (3dfx). Problem is you still have to pump all the data through the same bus, so you're not doubling your performance by buying two cards. That's wasted money that could go into better drives, better monitor, backup, etc.
- The PSU is overkill. Sombody's been reading too many do-it-yourself mags. Better off with a 450 that's been around a while and is proven.
- Tsunami case isn't bad, but makes the cd inaccessible without opening the door, puts the top ports in the middle of the case instead of toward the front, has a stupid lock that you can't remove the key from unless it's locked.

In general, this wouldn't have been a bad build last Fall or so. But I wouldn't recommend this to a friend. Get this, and they're stuck at that RAM speed unless they want to get new mobo and RAM.


Nicholas Petreley's picture

You're right about the 4400+. If you read my column in the same issue, I talk about how my clumsiness ruined the original 4200+. By that time, the 4400+ was already the better CPU for the price break. So I replaced it with a 4400+. I don't see much difference, really, but I still go for best bang for the buck on principle alone.

You (and the others) are also right about SLI if you don't see any need for it. I like having the capability there. Whether or not I ever really take advantage of it is another story. I run World of Warcraft (via transgaming) on Linux sometimes. It seems to cap out at 60fps no matter what, so I don't think I'm getting any advantage by using SLI for WoW. On the other hand, someone's statement that a glx-anything test program gets a gazillion fps is a silly way to "prove" that SLI isn't necessary. If you use Linux to do any 3D modeling, rendering, animation, etc., I ASSUME you'll appreciate the SLI. Unfortunately, I don't have that kind of software to test it with -- yet. Stay tuned.

As for power supplies, we'll have to agree to disagree. I have had too many experiences with drives not powering up and other bizarre symptoms simply because my power supply was rated for sufficient power, but didn't actually have the sustained output necessary. If you can get away with a 450W power supply because it's well made and actually has a good sustained output, go for it. The difference in price is so minimal that I would rather err on the side of caution and go for both extra power and a good "claimed" sustained output. I've never had weird power-related problems since I adopted this attitude.

cool that it works

Anonymous's picture

Whether it's wise or unwise to shell out the money, it's just cool to see that SLI works on Linux (and after all, this thing is called the Ultimate Box...). I think that's the main message I take from your article: Linux users are no second class citizens for nVidia.

I should add that on many hardware fora the opinion is held that getting the top-of-the-line card gives better performance than spending the same money on two lesser cards. Then, SLI is only interesting if you need still more performance, and get two top cards (for an insane amount of money, yes :)).

choice of Power Supply

Alex Chekholko's picture

This is a good article, but I take exception to the choice of PSUs. You recommend a 500W/650W PSU when your systems don't use more than 300W at full load. The 350W ATX12V version from the companies you recommend would save your readers a significant amount of money.

Here's a good writeup on the topic: When they say "high-end" system, they mean a complete machine with an AMD X2 with SLI and lots of RAM and several disks. That combination typically draws 200W-300W at maximum. There is no reason to purchase a 650W PSU.

More on power usage

Andmalc's picture

Speaking of power supplies, how much power does a machine like this need? I understand (based on an article I saw on TomsHardware) that add-in Video cards push the power draw of a PC way up.

The price of a machine should include its operating costs as well as the price you pay up front.

my amd64

Anonymous's picture

Is SLI really needed? The binary drivers are a very big taint and continuous difficulty. My ASUS AMD64 is getting old and still uses the AGP interface and works perfectly with the ATI Radeon 9250 256M card. I drive a 19" CRT at 1920x1440-60 with no noticable flicker. The Radeon open source drivers have become very advanced and DRI is now adequate for my uses. The glxgears runs at 2200fps with the CPU clocked at 2.5Ghz so is SLI with proprietary drivers really needed?

My memory modules run at 1T for a big speed improvement and I expect yours run at 2T. boo.

I really like the 74GB WD Raptor SATA 10K disk even though I only use this for a small 7GB root partition with the rest of the file system on different drives. The Raptor is the ultimate and worth the premium.

I have been using the Debian sid amd64 all-64bit port for 18 months with excellent results. Your 2x CPU would sure be nice in my box. Excellent article.


Anonymous's picture

"... The glxgears runs at 2200fps with the CPU clocked at 2.5Ghz so is SLI with proprietary drivers really needed? ..."

nvidia-settings gives me the option to syncronize the data transfer between opengl application and video card with my monitor refresh cycle.

that way my gpu runs at lower temperature, too.

I believe the described computer is overkill. with a little optimization, one can keep last years pc for the next three years to come. "know thy system setup !"

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