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Re: [vox-tech] Building a computer
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Re: [vox-tech] Building a computer

On Wed, 31 Oct 2001, Alexandra Thorn wrote:

> Attempted to send this before, but hadn't properly added myself to
> the list, so it didn't go through.  Pete has been offering me some
> suggestions, but I'd like other angles on this as well.
> Thanks in advance,
> Alex
> Original post:
> Hi.  I'm a relative newbie to the universe of geekdom, but want to
> jump into things.  I know I met some of you at the LUGOD meeting with
> the lecture on Mac OSX.  I'm a longtime Mac user myself, but want to
> make the switch to Linux.  First, though, I'm interested in building
> myself a PC on which to install Linux.  Never having done anything like
> this before, I really don't know where to look for hardware, what exactly
> I'll need, or how to decide among whatever options exist.  So, if any
> of you can offer guidance, etc., it would be much appreciated.  If
> someone would be willing to guide me through this step-by-step, that
> would be even better.

In my experience, building a PC is something you do if you have specific
performance or functional goals, because you can usually find a place that
will prebuild your computer for you for less than they will sell you
parts for.  As long as you get a built computer instead of a big-name
packaged computer, you have a decent chance to upgrade any parts you don't
like later.

However, in asking for a built computer, here are some things to look out

a) If you want a gaming machine, you have to be especially careful that
the parts you use are supported, because it takes time for those parts to
fall into the hands of those hackers capable of writing drivers for them.  
Video and sound are the trickiest parts... Check with the hardware howto

b) If you want a workhorse, get a fast cpu and plenty of RAM, and use
generic video and sound.

c) AMD Athlons are fast for uniprocessor applications.  Intel has been
differentiating themselves with special multimedia capabilities recently,
so most prebuilt binaries will either be for the generic x86 architecture
or be optimized for Intel.  I have an AMD K2 (behind the times), and it is
occasionally inconvenient, but I don't make much effort to push
performance envelopes.

d) IDE is cheap, and generally works well for CDROM and DVD drives.  Be
careful not to get sucked into worrying about ATA100 (fast ide) unless you
buy a screaming hard disk to go along with it.  SCSI is Unix-friendly, but
the hardware is slightly more expensive than IDE.  IDE CDR/RW drives
generally work okay, but you have to fool Linux into pretending they are
SCSI to write on them, so an actual SCSI CDRW is preferred if you can
afford it.

e) It seems like most network cards are supported, but for some reason
they are often marketed with card labels that stay the same even when the
chipsets inside are changed.  NE2000 compatibility, or DEC "tulip" or
Realtek 8139 are some generic keywords to look for.  Use google to find
out if the card you are thinking about is supported.

f) Motherboards do vary in quality. The problems that can arise from
motherboards tend to be hardware (fries easily) or firmware (pci
configuration can make certain slots "more equal" than others), or they
can be finicky about which kind of memory sticks they will
accept.  Besides saying ASUS is pretty good quality but is finicky about
memory, I don't have broad base of experience with different
current-tech mobos to give better suggestions, but there are websites like
http://www.mysuperpc.com/motherboard.shtml and http://www.tomshardware.com
that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know.

g) Modems: This is one of those exceptions to my general rule that generic
parts are acceptable. If you are on a dialup connection, get an external
modem.... the $20 internal ones are tempting, but are rarely usable and
you take a performance hit to use them anyway.  Even the internal
"hardware" modems are usually a pain.  This means, of course, that you
probably want at least one serial port (I recommend two).

h) Mouse: PS/2 compatible optical mouse.  Logitech's works great for me.

i) Printers: I will leave this alone... I have never had good luck with
anything but Postscript or Postscript/HPGL printers, though many other
people get along with less.  Unfortunately, postscript printers are
usually over $500.  You will end up using postscript internally and
feeding that through a filter if the printer doesn't support postscript.
I would love to hear more about success stories with cheap printers.
See http://www.linuxprinting.org for more on printers.

j) Backup: Maybe not something you thought of, but you should have. CDR
has the advantage that reading it later will most likely be easy (any
CDROM drive should be able to read it, but low quality dyes don't always
last, but they keep improving, so it is hard to suggest brands to avoid).
It has disadvantages though... it is a lot smaller than your hard disk and
it is slow.  Tape drives are supposed to hit the convenience target pretty
well, but big tape drives are expensive.  The most convenient backup is to
another machine's hard disk over a network, though that may not be
offsite, so a fire or flood could take out both.  (Note that CDR/CDRW
drives will tend to wear out sooner than CDROM drives, so if you can, get
one of each and prefer the CDROM drive for reading.)  I compromise with
cross-backups and periodically burning a couple of CDRs.

k) USB: This is just a general warning about USB on PC boxes: if ports are
provided in both front and back, you usually may use either front, or
back, but not both.  If you need more USB ports, get a USB hub.  Oh, and
USB is pretty well supported under kernel 2.4, but sparsely supported
under kernel 2.2, which could affect which distribution you choose or you
might need to lead off your installation with an immediate kernel upgrade.

l) Monitors: You have to actually look at the monitor, or gamble.  I find
that most monitors look best at 800x600 or 1024x768 resolutions... you
have to get a pretty good one for it to look good at 1280x1024 or higher.  
It should be able to do whatever resolution you plan to use at a 72Hz
refresh rate to keep the flicker from bothering your eyes (I find 60Hz is
just not good enough).  I have the Sceptre DragonEye 17" monitor.

m) Computer shops: Locally, I have been finding that Heron (Davis) and T&D
(Woodland) seem pretty sharp, though not especially cheap.  On the net, I
have used Cyberpower (www.cyberpowersystem.com) for several computers
(mine and my boss's) with generally good results (one had to be sent back
to redo the cpu heatsink because it kept overheating, and choosing the
Yamaha YMF724 soundcard turned out to be not so good for Linux support
at that time).


Jeff Newmiller                        The     .....       .....  Go Live...
DCN:<jdnewmil@dcn.davis.ca.us>        Basics: ##.#.       ##.#.  Live Go...
                                      Live:   OO#.. Dead: OO#..  Playing
Research Engineer (Solar/Batteries            O.O#.       #.O#.  with
/Software/Embedded Controllers)               .OO#.       .OO#.  rocks...2k

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