Unleashing Dr. Frankenstein

Whether you enjoy building your own system

To Build Illustration 1

What kind of person are you?

Do you cook, or do you prefer take-out? Do you
change your own motor oil, or do you drop off your car at the shop? If
you’re like me, your personality depends entirely on the task at hand. I
love to cook, but when it’s time to change the oil, the last place
you’ll find me is sweating in grime beneath an automobile.

When I booted my first copy of Linux back in 1995, it was pretty
hard to find a pre-built Linux system. In those days most folks had two
options: Install Linux on a Windows machine, or build a Linux box from
scratch. But today — with everyone and their grandma getting into the
Linux business — pre-loaded Linux machines are easier to come by. And
with the quantity and quality of Linux applications growing by leaps and
bounds, paying Microsoft for an operating system you’ll never use just seems silly. So what do you do?
Do you build your Linux system from scratch or do you buy one
ready-made? What kind of person are you?

Before I started this story, I thought I knew where I stood on this
question. Linux is a do-it-yourself OS, plain and simple, and for people
like me, buying it pre-configured ruins the fun. I half-believe that
the GNU General Public License should be amended to require that all
Linux users struggle with uncooperative hardware — at least a little
bit — before they can unleash the mighty penguin. On the other hand,
spending your Sunday afternoon poring over manuals and quietly cursing
Taiwanese parts manufacturers may not be everyone’s idea of a good time.
Especially if the alternativeis to hit a Web site, click a few buttons
and sit back and wait for that FedEx lady to home-deliver your
ready-to-roll Linux machine. We’re talking completely different
experiences here.

Linux Magazine asked a couple of manufacturers to supply
pre-installed machines for the article, so we could get a feel for the
pre-fab experience. Tim Finnegan at Workstation 2000 and the guys at VA
Linux Systems were gracious enough to comply. Thanks guys! Your family members will be returned shortly….

Reconnaissance

When you’re building from scratch, there’s one question you need to
ask before all others: Will my hardware work with Linux? I learned this
one the hard way — not by building a system from scratch, but by
installing Linux on a Windows PC. My problem was a common one. I could
not get the X Window System up and running because there was no driver
available for my video card. To make matters worse, the video card was
integrated into the motherboard, making it impossible to install a
different, Linux-friendly card. My best efforts at getting the hardware
vendor to help me with my distinctly non-Microsoft problem proved
fruitless.

So check for compatibility before you buy. But don’t lose heart if
your hardware component does not list Linux as a supported OS. This does
not necessarily mean that it is incompatible. One of Linux’s greatest
features is that it makes it easy for people to write their own drivers,
so even if the hardware company hasn’t written a Linux driver, you may
still be able to find one. A good starting pointfor your search is the
Hardware Compatibility HOWTO at the Linux Documentation Project
(http://www.linuxdoc.org). The Documentation Project also has HOWTOs on specific
types of hardware — Voodoo graphics acceleration cards, for
example.




The Bottom
Line

Why Build?


  • Pick your own components


  • Can be less expensive


  • It’s fun!

Why Buy?


  • Easy


  • Tech support


  • System-wide warranty

The best starting point for video cards, however, is the XFree86
(http://www.xfree86.org) site. XFree86 is the Open Source version of
the X Window System — the backbone of the Linux graphical user
interface (See our story on pg. 42 for more on X). Go to the “Resources”
section of the site and look up the “XFree86 Documentation) for the
version of XFree86 that comes with your Linux distribution (The latest
version of XFree86 is 3.3.3.1). There you will find a “README” file with
a list of “supported video-card chip sets.” If your video card is
listed, everything shouldbe okay. Check for the exact model of video
card, as any minor change in a chipset can make your video card
incompatible with the other drivers. Just because the SuperFly 3D video
card is compatible doesn’t mean that your SuperFly 3D+ will run at all.
If your card’s not listed, drop the manufacturer an e-mail or call them.
Money talks, and if vendors hear that they’re missing out on Linux sales
they will start to take notice.

While you’re researching hardware,I recommend visiting Tom’s
Hardware Guide (http://www.tomshardware.com). Tom’s isn’t
Linux-specific, but it has a lot of information about motherboards,
CPUs, chipsets, RAM and storage. It’s a great place to learn about the
quality of what you’re buying. And if you happen to be an overclocking
fiend, then you’ll really like Tom’s. It has a whole section about
running your CPU at a higher-than-specified clock speed (a practice I
advise against; it can fry your chip and it’s guaranteed to void your
warranty).

Wincompatability

If your hardware has the word “Win” anywhere in its name, forget
about it. I’m not being a Linux snob here — most products with a “Win”
prefix are designed to run only under Windows. WinModems, for
example, operate by using Windows to handle some of the work usually
done by the hardware. Not only does this slow down performance, it also
means that you can’t run WinModems with Linux. To make things
interesting, some of this Windows-only hardware (the HP DeskJet 710 for
example) does not have the “Win” prefix in its name.

If you’re buying a modem, do yourself a favor and get an external
modem. For one thing, they’re easier to configure. I know a lot of
people using Linux, but I don’t know a soul who’s using an internal
modem successfully.

Once you’ve got your parts picked out, make sure you do not skimp on
the case. When it comes to housing your machine, bigger is always
better. Shun mini-towers like the plague that they are. You want the
case to be nice and roomy, so you have plenty of room to move things
around. Make sure there’s space for at least one more hard drive and
that you have extra expansion bays for things like DVD-ROMs, or whatever
you’ll want to add later. If you take your computer apart more than
once, a bigger case will more than pay for itself.

The Sales Experience

As you can see, hardware shopping is not for everyone. To do it
successfully, you need to embrace the experience.

I can spend hours in the cluttered fluorescent jungle of my local
computer store. I enjoy scouring each and every aisle for the best
deals. I like whiling away a Saturday afternoon picking through
plastic and chips, and idly chatting with geeky clerks — I’m talking
about the guys with the minty green complexions, by the way. The ones
who know their hardware from their software; not the half-wits at
computer chain stores who pressure old ladies to store their recipes in
brand new P500s. What can I say? I dig computer stores. Nothing beats
the smell of silicon in the morning.




Zonker’s Rules For Buying a Linux Box


  1. Buy quality components; don’t save ten bucks on something that will
    cost you $100 to replace.


  2. When it comes to a processor, third-fastest is good enough. Don’t waste your money on the fastest processor.


  3. Get a roomy case.


  4. Skip internal modems.


  5. Save your receipts.


  6. Shop around. A computer is a big purchase; don’t rush it.


  7. Check your hardware for Linux compatibility.


  8. Do not buy “Win” components.


  9. Get a money-back return policy.


  10. Avoid sound and video cards that are integrated into the motherboard.

As you shop for your components, brand two words into your mind:
Return Policy. Don’t get suckered into a bad return policy. This means
you should only shop at stores whose return policy is “no questions
asked,”and who give you your money back if you return something within
30 days. You should always be able to return defective merchandise, but
a good return policy will get you a full refund if the hardware simply
doesn’t work the way you expected. And always save your receipts –
preferably in a place where you can find them.

I do not recommend “superstores.” Even if superstore prices are a
little lower, you’ll usually get far better service from a local
computer store. For instance, the guy who runs my neighborhood computer
store gave me a tip that Intel’s PII 350 chip prices were about to drop,
and advised me to wait a few weeks before buying my motherboard. This
friendly bit of advice saved me a couple of hundred bucks. Can you
imagine someone doing that at Best Buy? And if you’re a frequent
customer, you get better discounts. If you can find a local store that
specializes in Linux, so much the better. You’ll probably be able to get
some free technical support too.

The Moment of Truth

If you know what you’re doing, you can assemble a Linux machine in
an afternoon. Assuming you’ve bought everything you need and nothing
goes wrong, you can put the machine together and load Linux in the time
that it takes to watch the first two Godfather movies. (That’s
about five hours for those of you who haven’t seen them. And shame on you.)

When it comes down to it, assembling your own computer will simply
make you feel better. There’s this Dr. Frankenstein rush of creativity
you get from powering on a machine you’ve built yourself. Especially the
first time. I can almost hear the sparks and zaps of those nifty lab
machines when I hit the power button and my new toy (I mean workstation,
yeah, workstation) boots to life. Come to think of it, my regular
maniacal laughter may be the reason my next-door neighbors never stay
for long…

Money

My base system, for purposes of price comparison, is a Pentium II
350 with 128 MB of RAM, an 8.4 GB IDE drive, Asus P2B motherboard, 8 MB
AGP video card, 34X ATAPI CD-ROM, Soundblaster 16 soundcard, and
speakers. Actually, I have three IDE hard drives squeezed in there, but
most people are happy with just one. Though you can get faster systems,
you can still get this as a base machine from most places and it is just
fine for running most applications under Linux. Of course you can run
Linux with less horsepower too, but you’d have to be doing some heavy
work to need more.

If I assembled my system today, without having anything shipped, it
would cost me about $1,100. Add another $100 or so for a nice boxed
version of the OS and the total cost of assembling my P350 today would
be $1,200, monitor not included.

The best way to keep the cost of your system down is to avoid the
“latest and greatest” processor trap. The fastest processor available
will cost you hundreds of dollars more than the third-fastest, and its
performance probably won’t justify the cost. Here in Denver, you can
pick up a boxed Pentium II 350 MHz for about $180. A Pentium II 450 MHz
runs about $480. That’s an extra $300. Sure you get an extra 100 MHz for
the price, but is it really worth it? Take the $300 and buy a bigger
monitor, more RAM, or maybe just go out on a date. If you happen to be a
speed freak, you can always upgrade to a faster processor once they’ve
dropped to a reasonable price. To make things even cheaper, you can opt
for an AMD or Cyrix chip.

Christmas Comes Early

The great advantage of ready-made Linux systems is what you don’t
have to do. You don’t have to worry about drivers or hardware
compatibility. Youdon’t have to install the OS. You don’t even have to
worry much about defective components. The system vendor has taken care
of all this for you.

Though I didn’t get my requisite surge of creativity, it was a
thrill to have two pre-built Linux machines arrive at my door. VA sent
me a Pentium II 450 MHz system with 128 MB of RAM, a 4 GB SCSI drive,
Intel motherboard and a quality sound and Ethernet card. The Workstation
2000 system was a Pentium III 500 MHz with 256 MB of RAM, a 9 GB Seagate
Cheetah SCSI drive, and an Asus P2BD dual processor-capable motherboard.
Both offered a lot more power than my system, but I wasn’t interested in
comparing performance. I wanted to compare how well the systems were
configured and the quality of their components. In the Windows world,
many vendors cut corners whenever possible and it shows. I wanted to
know if it was even possible to get a quality Linux system.

Windows vendors will often “integrate” components into the
computer’s motherboard. They’ll do things like embed the video card
right into the motherboard. This sounds like a good idea — it drives
down the cost of the system — but it paves the road to obsolescence.
With integrated parts, you cannot upgrade your computer. If you ever
want a better video card, for example, you’ll have to either buy a new
computer or lump it.

Not so with the Linux machines I tested. All of the components in
both workstations were top-notch, from the motherboard up. I was
surprised that the Workstation 2000 came with a Microsoft Natural
keyboard, but I guess ergonomics were a priority when they designed this
system. The Logitech MouseMan included with the Workstation 2000 system
felt like a natural part of my hand. Though I’m not a big fan of
Microsoft the software company, they just may have a future as a
hardware vendor. All kidding aside, if you spend a serious amount of
time on the keyboard, you should look into ergonomic keyboards. That
extra $30-$40could keep you from the hell and misery of Carpal
Tunnel Syndrome.

Both cases were high-quality as well. The Workstation 2000 case had
five open full-height bays to allow youto go gonzo with add-on
components. Not only was it roomy, but the case was extremely solid and
came with a fairly quiet power supply. You may think you don’t care
about how noisy your computer is, but in some settings, at home for
example, unobtrusiveness is essential. VA’s model was in a roomy tower
case. It came with a couple of monster fans to keep the machine nice and
cool. These fans made the VA box louder than the Workstation 2000, but
hey, a noisy computer beats an overheated one.

The Workstation 2000 came with Red Hat 6.0, and GNOME. This was my
first time playing with this desktop environment, and I quickly decided
that I prefer it to KDE. If you’re not ready for GNOME, KDE, AfterStep,
fvwm95 and Lesstif are also installed and ready to go. By default, the
Workstation 2000 machine goes directly into a graphical login. If you’re
a Linux newbie, you might get away without ever actually seeing a
command line, but what fun is that?

Sticking with the tried and true, VA included Red Hat 5.2 on their
machine. (Forget about a wimpy graphical login.) Once it finished
booting, I was greeted with a friendly bash prompt. The VA default
window manager is AfterStep, a Linux take-off on the NeXTSTEP GUI.

I have to admit, it was a joy to be able to just slide the computer
out of the box, plug it in and let rip without having to configure
anything — especially the X Window System. Apple calls it the OBE, “Out
of Box Experience.” And with both of the systems I tested, the OBE was
great. I didn’t find anything lacking in either machine’s system
configuration. They came with all the software you’d expect from a
commercial Linux distribution: Emacs, vi, the GIMP, several games and
all the other standard tools that everyone knows and loves.

If you’re looking for personal productivity tools, you can get
something like the Applixware Office suite from most system vendors. The
Workstation 2000 machine comes with Applixware, which includes a word
processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. VA carries the Linux
Office Suite ’99 as an option.

When looking into a new system, price is always a consideration. So,
how does my system stack up against the vendor systems? As I stated
earlier, the total price for my 350 MHz Pentium II would be about
$1,200.

I found comparable configurations from pre-built system vendors for
as little as $1,100 (for cheap non-Intel configuration) to as much as
$2,133. The base price of a PII 400 from Workstation 2000 is about
$1,500. As I write this, VA is offering a similar configuration for about
$2,000, though they say they expect to cut prices by the time we go to
press.








To Build VA Box 2
SO EASY IT’S SCARY: VA Linux Systems’ VArStation28 comes ready
to rock.

Buying from the Big Boys

The prices for professional systems are a little higher than for
self-assem-bled systems, but not enough to make a real difference. When
I started researching this, I expected pre-built systems to be much more
expensive than they are. VA and Workstation 2000 both use quality
hardware, and their products come with one-year
system-widewarranties — you don’t get that when you build it
yourself. What’s not to like?

In fact, the system-wide warranty may make a pre-assembled system a
better value. But bear in mind that most Linux Vendors don’t have huge
support departments yet. Warranties are a good thing to have, but if
you’re new to Linux they’re not going to solve your every problem.

Getting help

Whether you build your own, or buy a pre-assembled Linux system,
somehow, sometime, you’ll need to get help. Luckily, there’s plenty of
support available online: through newsgroups, Web sites and the Linux
Documentation Project. And if you get completely stumped, you can pay
for help from Linux tech support companies like Linuxcare. Linuxcare has
a variety of support options starting at about $95 for a single
incident. That’s a little steep for a home user, but in a corporate
environment, spending $95 to keep things up and running is a real deal.
If your problem isn’t an emergency, trying the newsgroups can be just as
effective as any paid support, and much cheaper. Just be sure to post to
the appropriate group, and with enough information.

The crop of Linux system vendors is a blessing for corporate Linux
users. As my sysadmin reminded me the other day: Building one machine at
home may be fun; 20 machines that need to be deployed in short time gets
old quick. System administrators can rejoice at the commercial
availability of Linux systems. Instead of the drudgery and wasted time
of countless Linux installations, sysadmins can now concentrate on more
mission-critical activities…like playing Quake.

For me, building a system is more than just a means to an end, it’s
fun in and of itself. Kind of like electric trains or model cars. Sure
it’s nice to finish them. But as any kid’ll tell you,the best part is
putting them together.

No matter which route you decide to take, shop around for a while.
Decide how much you can afford to spend, and see what you can find in
your price range. If you’re computer-literate, and really want the full
experience, you can’t go wrong building your own system. Creating your
own Linux box gives you an intimate knowledge of your computer, which is
a Good Thing. However, if you just want something that works with a
minimum of effort, then one of these companies may be the answer.

Either way, as long as you’re using Linux in the end, does it really
matter?




Help on the
‘Net


Tom’s Hardware Guide http://www.tomshardware.com


Great information on CPUs, Motherboards, Chipsets and more.

The Linux Documentation Project http://www.linuxdoc.org


Look here for the Hardware Compatibility HOWTO. Great source of general
Linux info.

Wim’s Bios Page http://www.ping.be/bios


Everything you need on motherboard BIOSes.

Linux Hardware Database http://lhd.datapower.com


An awesome project. Searchable database of hardware with compatibility
ratings and known issues.

Linux Hardware.net http://www.linuxhardware.net


Another great site, with a searchable database of drivers for Linux.

How to Build the Perfect Box: How to Design your Linux Workstation
http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/lj-howtobuild.html


Eric S. Raymond, one of the leading Linux authorities gives advice on
building a Linux box. Slightly dated, but has much useful information.

Step by Step Guide to Building an ATX PC
http://www.daileyint.com/build


This page walks you through assembling an ATX form-factor PC.
They’ve got some great pictures that will be very helpful for newbies.

XFree86 Home Page

http://www.xfree86.org


Look here to see if your video card is Linux-compatible.

Good Newsgroups


comp.os.linux.hardware


comp.os.linux.setup


comp.os.linux.x


These are just a few of the newsgroups that can help you. The
newsgroups are usually friendly places, but put on your flame-proof
skivvies if you ask something that’s been answered in the Hardware
HOWTO.






A former DJ, Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier performs a variety of fun
tasks for Linuxmall.com. He can be reached at
zonker@linuxmall.com.

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