The Return of the Revenge of the Killer $800 Linux Box

by Jason Schumaker

Don Marti's a big spender. In his article, “Building the Ultimate Linux Workstation”, he waxes technical, recommending various components needed to build the mother of all Linux workstations (see page 80). He has little regard for expense, and his Linux box is top-of-the-line all the way. That's all well and good, but the thing would cost some unthrifty soul at least $3,000 (US). If you have that kind of cash, Don can tell you where to spend it, so read his article (before reading this), as he provides good general advice on selecting components for your system.

Of course, reading Don's article will no doubt set your mouth to watering, but the hefty price tag may send you back my way. I'm bitter, but resigned to the fact that I simply cannot afford Don's screamer of a system. However, I needed a computer for home, and didn't have much money. To be exact, I needed to stay under $1,000. So I began searching for components and discovered that putting together a zippy, dependable Linux box can be done for as little as $800. I checked out workstations from VA Linux and Dell, amongst others, but found that by putting it together myself, I could save $500 for a comparable system. More importantly, I'm building the system from scratch. I chose the components and I'm responsible for putting them together. It wasn't terribly difficult and the knowledge gained is immeasurable. How much do I love my new computer? Very, very much!

Options for Penny-Pinchers

Sacrifices are in order when building an economical system. To save money, you shop for what you need, not for what you want. This means looking for discontinued parts or “last year's models”. It also means locking up your ego. Sure, I would like to have two CPUs and multiple SCSI hard drives, but I don't need that stuff.

I'm not into gaming and I don't do much fooling around with the GIMP. I write, I surf, I e-mail. This means one CPU, one hard drive, decent video and sound cards, a solid motherboard, a refurbished monitor and as much memory as can be afforded. Yes, refurbished. Not ideal, but you can spend as little as $150 for a sufficient monitor. However, we are talking about your eyes, so take care to spend as much as you can—make the monitor a top priority. I was lucky enough to have a spare monitor, but I did some searching and good deals abound.

Research is very important. Take some time to find the best deals. At one point, I had found a processor for $69 and nearly bought it. The next day I stumbled upon the same processor for $56! If you really need to save money, exhaust your resources. But you should be able to stick with companies you recognize and trust.

I spent a week scouring the Internet, and bought my components from various sites. My components arrived within a week of placing the order. Sure, I paid for shipping, but I still saved money, since Seattle computer stores just weren't price competitive. The Internet connects you directly to hundreds of stores with sales, discontinued items and so on. Working with a low budget put me at the mercy of Internet shopping, but I have no complaints thus far. If shopping via the Internet scares you, then research the companies you buy from—it will only take a few minutes. The system I put together consists of the following components:


Type: Super Socket 7 503+ Baby ATPrice: $80 US ( Specs: VIA Apollo MVP3 chip set, 2-DIMM and 4-SIMM sockets, 3x PCI, 3x ISA, 1x AGP, ECC and PC100 memory support, and up to four IDE drives

Linux Journal has used Socket 7 motherboards for years. They are workhorses and the one I chose is both affordable and powerful. This is a step or two down from the top, but the board is solid. Its main strength is memory. There are four (72-Pin) SIMM sockets and two (168-Pin) DIMM sockets, which allows for as much as 512MB of system memory. Cache memory is 1MB. This all means my initiation into the world of Quake may not be too far off. It also means that this board should allow me to run most of the applications I want. The board will accommodate up to four IDE drives, and works with AMD K6 processors.


Type: K6-2 3-D 500MHzPrice: $56 US ( Specs: 321-Pin (CPGA)/ZIF Socket 7 (P54C/P54CS/P55C MMX), RISC86, 64-bit (pipelined) 100MHz, On-Chip Split 64KB (L1) Cache

Don Marti says, “A CPU that's too fast is a waste of money, so you're better off sticking with the economy CPU and spending your money on the other components.” So, I bought an AMD K6-2 processor. It works well with the Socket 7 motherboard and was a mere $56! I do not believe the chip is discontinued, but it doesn't receive the same marketing push as, say, the Duron. Less marketing, in this case, equals lower cost. It doesn't mean lower quality.

I wasn't too worried about having a superfast processor, since my needs don't require it, but this processor should run Linux fast enough and, more importantly, the low price allowed me to spend more on memory.


Amount: 128MBPrice: $140 US ( Specs: 100MHz DIMM, 1 module, 100MHz memory bandwidth

Get as much memory as you can afford. I planned my spending in order to afford at least 128MB, which allows me to run multiple applications simultaneously. For $140 I have as much memory as I should need, for now. However, my motherboard supports up to 512MB, so once my raise goes through, I should be able to invest in more, more, more.

Hard Drive

Type: EIDEPrice: $80 US ( Specs: Ultra ATA/66 interface, 15.3GB, 512KB cache buffer, 5,400RPM

Ideally, I would like to have two drives, but this is not the “ultimate” Linux box, so one will have to do. Money constraints pushed me toward IDE, instead of SCSI, but at least I was able to get 15.3GB for a low price. Another drive can always be added later (buy a case with space), which would allow me to run Linux on one and store personal files on the other. As Don Marti recommends, “Don't rely on a spare hard drive in the same machine as the only backup for the main drive...backup over the Net to another system, or use tape.”

Sound Card

Type: Ensoniq AudioPCIPrice: $24.99 US ( Specs: 2MB or 4MB memory, 16-bit stereo digital audio, MT-32 compatible instrument set

This was a no-brainer, since Creative is one of the better sound card manufacturers. Don Marti rates the Soundblaster Live! as the card for his ultimate box and I have jumped a few notches down with the AudioPCI card, which he recommends. This is a good, basic card that serves up CD-quality sounds and getting it to work with Linux is easy. It's perfect for a low-end Linux box and should meet most user needs. Again, the price is right—just $25! Don't forget to write “Linux” on your warranty card.

Video Card

Type: ATI 3-D Rage IICPrice: $45 US ( Specs:8MB, 66MHz AGP Bus, 528MB/sec. peak, MPEG/DVD acceleration

The video card is the only part of the machine that I am not completely satisfied with. I went with the ATI card to save money, but it just isn't the right one, I fear. The verdict is still out, but scrolling up and down, as well as cursor movement is slow. I don't know how much patience I will have for that, so I will be changing the card as soon as I can afford one. I most certainly am not against all ATI cards, so their high-end cards may be worth a look.

Dan Wilder, LJ's technical manager, recommends offerings from 3dfx or Matrox. These cards will be more than double the price of my ATI card, but well worth it for gamers. As with a monitor, the video card will have a direct relationship with your eyes, so I recommend spending a bit more on graphics. A lot more if you're playing games. The card I chose will work fine for my needs, but a 16MB card would be better for gaming.

Case and Fans

The only mistake I made while ordering components was committed on the case. First, I should have bought one locally, which would have saved shipping costs. Duh! Second, I bought an ATX case, which won't work with my AT motherboard and added to my shipping costs. Doh! I returned the ATX case and cruised over to a local shop for a mid-tower AT case. It set me back $30 and included a 300W power supply. It has a removable side panel, room for extra drives, and space for multiple fans. It isn't see through or blue, nor does it resemble a penguin. Functionality before style is the motto of the thrifty spender.

Don Marti (page 80) has useful recommendations for the number of fans your system will need. I currently have three (one for the CPU, one mounted toward the front and one nearer the back) and am considering adding another. They are cheap and keeping your system cool is too important. All in all, I spent $50 on three fans.

The Rest

I do need a modem, but haven't bought one yet, which means I am without the Internet at home. This explains why I'm at work on a Sunday, as well. I intend to buy a US Robotics v.90 external for about $75. Using an external modem has the benefit of reducing the temperature within your case and provides easy access for you. Plus, most external modems are compatible with Linux and all external modems with a serial port are compatible with any device with an RS-232-compatible serial port (i.e., the Palm PDA).

I already had a keyboard and mouse, but these are cheap and would hardly add much expense. The same can be said for a floppy drive, which I found new for $10. You will probably want a CD-ROM, especially for installing your distribution. I had an older one, which worked fine for installation purposes. However, if you can get by without a CD-ROM, you might be better off saving up for an external CD burner, which is my plan.

The Results

While Don was out spending thousands of dollars on his system, I spent hours and hours searching for the lowest-priced components, in order to keep my system low-priced. All told, this isn't a screamer of a system, but at least it yells. For under $1,000, I managed to put together a respectable system that I intend to show off to friends and family. It's mine—I built it!


Jason Schumaker ( is assistant editor at Linux Journal. He recently bought a 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 and has begun the restoration process. He is currently looking for right exhaust manifold. Anyone?

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