The Ultimate Linux Box
The Penultimate Linux Box
ASUS M2N32-SLI (no PCI-X slot): $170
AMD FX-62: $280
EVGA GeForce 7950GT: $200
CORSAIR XMS2 2GB: $160
Western Digital WD3200AAKS: $90
NEC Black 16X DVD+R: $30
Thermaltake W0106RU Power: $170
Antec Nine Hundred case: $140
Acer AL2416: $550
Keyboard and Mouse
Microsoft Natural: $52
Logitech G5: $45
Creative SBS Vivid 80: $34
We chose as our ultimate CPU the Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600, two dual-core CPUs combined into a single part. Each core runs at 2.4GHz. It isn't a true quad-core CPU, so it doesn't scale like a true four-CPU system, but we quickly fell madly in love with it anyway.
You're probably already asking yourself if you really need four cores. Most likely you don't. But, you may find that you appreciate all of them, depending on the kind of work you do. Linux is noticeably more responsive with the Quad processor than with the dual-core AMD configurations we tried, and it's a thrill to watch things compile with the command make -j 5. It is common practice to have the make command spawn a number of processes equal to the number of CPUs plus one. The -j 5 switch spawns five processes, one for each core, plus one.
Granted, the Intel Core 2 Quad is pricier than AMD dual-core CPUs. But, the $515 price tag is very reasonable for the kind of performance you get, especially when you consider that better Intel CPUs sell for almost twice the amount.
Speaking of AMD, it says a lot that we ended up going with an Intel Core 2 Quad for our ultimate system. We're passionate fans of the AMD FX-74 (socket F, 1207 FX) and AMD FX-62 (socket AM2) dual-core processors. These processors cook, and even the 3.0GHz per core FX-74 chip sells for $100 less than the Intel Core 2 Quad. We like AMD processors so much, we almost chose as our favorite the combination of an ASUS M2N32-WS Pro with an FX-62. (The M2N32-SLI, the board we chose for the Penultimate Linux Box, is almost the same board, but it lacks a PCI-X slot.) This combination will be more than enough power for most people, and it's hard to beat the price of the FX-62 at the time of this writing ($280). If you choose this combination and want to add a RAID card though, make sure you get one that works with PCI-X instead of PCI Express. The 3ware 9550SX-4LP works well with this motherboard.
Of course, AMD processors cook in terms of heat too. We tried a number of fancy third-party fans, but none of them cooled the FX-62 processor below 95° at idle. Worse, when we combined the FX-62 with our original water-cooled video card, the water cooler fan had to do double duty as a CPU case fan. We had to replace the water cooler fan with one that's more powerful just to keep the CPU at a normal running temperature. In the end, everything ran fine, but the system was much more noisy than it had to be.
In contrast, the Intel Core 2 Quad runs very cool and quiet with the stock fan. The cores run at between 72° and 88° Fahrenheit, which is quite a bit cooler than the AMD FX-62, even with a great third-party fan.
If you really want to go over the top on performance, you can invest in an ASUS L1N64-SLI WS Dual Socket L motherboard and plug in two AMD FX-74 CPUs for four processors. We didn't try that combination, but it stands to reason that it should blow away the Intel Core 2 Quad. The processors themselves are faster, and having two sockets theoretically brings you closer to what you expect from four CPUs in scalability. However, this configuration represents a big jump in total price. The two processors are more expensive than a single Core 2 Quad, and you'll need an extremely hefty power supply (more than 1,000 Watts) to power the processors and video card. That's a lot of power, which means you'll also be generating a lot of heat. Think of it as a trade-off. You may pay through the nose for an ultimate system, but you can lower the house thermostat and throw away your stove.
We went with the ASUS Striker Extreme LGA 775 NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI ATX motherboard. With one possible exception common to most motherboards, the layout is excellent. It includes onboard power, reset and CMOS clear buttons. (In order to prevent you from accidentally clearing the CMOS, you have to change a jumper for the CMOS clear button to work.) There is a rear LCD panel with backlight, but we didn't find a need to use it. The motherboard includes excellent built-in HD audio via an add-in card located above the display card slot. It can run up to 1,333MHz for the front-side bus. The Core 2 Quad processor we chose needs only a 1,066MHz front-side bus. There are six internal SATA ports and two more external ports, none of which we actually used, as we went with the 3ware RAID card. It supports up to ten USB connections, four of which are connected to the rear connectors on the motherboard.
The one exception to the otherwise excellent layout is that, like many motherboards, the one place to insert a RAID card happens to be right next to the fan of a two-slot display card. This means the RAID card may block the airflow of the fan for the display card. We provide more details about this throughout the remainder of the article in the appropriate categories.
ASUS provides a handful of nice extras with the motherboard. It includes extra sensors that you can arrange to monitor the temperature of just about anything you like. It also includes a directional microphone you can place on top of the monitor.
ASUS includes a few pin adapters to make it easier to wire things to the motherboard. You attach things like the power switch, reset switch, power LED and hard drive LED to one of these adapters, and then plug the adapter onto the motherboard. This way, you can detach and re-attach these wires all at once, even while the motherboard is mounted in the case without having to use a flashlight and needle-nose pliers. ASUS also includes USB and IEEE 1394 pin adapters for those folks who buy a case or other attachment that does something silly like include individual wires for the USB or IEEE 1384 connection.
We don't know why you'd want to overclock a system like this, but ASUS makes it easy to do from the BIOS setup screens. If you push the system too far and it fails to reboot, press the reset or power switch again and it should recognize that there was a problem. It will reset the BIOS and allow you to try again.
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