The Ultimate Linux Box
We chose the PNY Technologies VCG8800UXPB GeForce 8800Ultra for our Ultimate Linux Box. This video card is one of the latest and greatest, which carries with it both advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is clear: performance out the wazoo. Most people will never push the card to its limits. Despite the hefty price, you'd actually pay almost as much to plug in two cheaper cards in SLI mode, and you won't get nearly the same amount of performance.
On the other hand, the card is burdened with copy protection features meant for Microsoft Vista that you'll neither want nor use. It is built to support DirectX 10 as well. We may see DirectX 10 come to Linux sometime, but we're not there yet. Finally, if you pick any of the NVIDIA series 8 cards, such as this one, most if not all of the current Linux distributions will fail to detect it properly or set it up properly. You can configure the card to use the Xorg nv driver, or download and install the latest NVIDIA drivers yourself (see the How to Install NVIDIA Drivers on Ubuntu/Kubuntu sidebar for instructions). If you use the nv driver, there isn't much reason to go with a powerful card, because that driver doesn't make use of most of the power.
Our first pick was the NVIDIA-based MSI NX8800GTX, which sports its own water-cooling system. We chose an onboard water-cooled system because of the way many motherboards situate the display card next to a slot where you'd place a RAID card. The high-powered display cards take up two slots. The RAID controller card can block some of the airflow into the display card's onboard fan. You can put the display card in the second PCI-Express slot, but that usually interferes with PCI slot on the motherboard. Our configuration does not include a PCI card, so that may be a good option to keep the display card cool.
You won't have to deal with heating problems caused by an adjacent RAID card if you can situate a two-slot display card in the second PCI-Express slot, or if you buy our recommended video card or opt for one of the less-expensive one-slot GeForce 7 series cards. We tested a second sound card in our machine when we started. The sound card took up the PCI slot, which made it impossible to move the two-slot display card to the second PCI-Express slot. The onboard audio is great, though, so you won't have any problem using the second PCI-Express slot as long as you don't need some other PCI card.
If for any reason you do need to place a two-slot display card in the first PCI-Express slot, consider that RAID controllers tend to run a bit hot too, so this just adds to the problem. A water-cooled card like the MSI moves the fan off-board, which solves the problem. The solution worked beautifully with our Cooler Master case. You can remove the 120mm CPU case fan and mount the water cooler and fan in its place. This means the display card fan doubles as a CPU case fan. We had to replace the display card fan with a more powerful fan when we tried it with an AMD FX-62-based motherboard, because the AMD FX-62 runs so hot. In the end, either fan would work well with the Intel Core 2 Quad, which doesn't need as much cooling.
We would have kept the MSI card as our recommended display card except that it is no longer available. Perhaps that should tell us it has problems we haven't yet discovered. As it turns out, the PNY GeForce 8800Ultra is faster anyway. The position of the fan on the PNY card is such that the RAID controller card does not interfere with the airflow enough to cause any heating problems.
At $670, it's a very pricey card. We're leaving it in as the default choice for the Ultimate Linux Box because it is pretty ultimate. We play games in our copious spare time (cough), so we like the way it handles 3-D graphics. Most games run—thanks to TransGaming's Cedega (although there are also native Linux 3-D games). Honestly, we're more likely to play around with 3-D rendering for amateur cartoons, so the rendering speed does come in handy.
Unless you do the same sort of thing, you won't need this much power. You can get a single NVIDIA 7950GT card instead, for example. The best of these cards generally runs at less than half the price of the 8800Ultra. Better yet, if you use an NVIDIA 7 series card like the 7950GT, you won't have to compile your own NVIDIA driver in most cases. It takes up only one slot, so you don't run into heating problems due to the proximity of the RAID card and the display card fan. You also can install two of these cards in SLI mode, which provides better performance without creating heat problems. However, two of these cards can cost almost as much as the 8800Ultra, and you won't get nearly as much performance for that money.
If you really don't need the best of the best in graphics, you still can get a screaming video card, such as the EVGA 256-P2-N636-AR GeForce 7950GT with 256MB of GDDR3 RAM for about $200, and there are plenty of decent lesser performers for less than $100.