I get a lot of questions on Linux hardware: "What's the best piece of hardware X for Linux?" "Should I go route A since I'm using Linux?" Of course not everyone builds their own computer. But there are a fair number of us out there that would rather keep as much control over the selection of their machines components as they can. And there is something to be said about hand-picking your components. But which video card? Which sound card? Which networking card? Processor? Motherboard? Will it all work with Linux? You know it will work with Windows...but with Linux there can be some gray area.
In this article I am going to show you how I go about putting together a machine that will use the Linux operating system. I understand that this type of topic is very subjective, so there will be plenty of disagreements. But that is part of the fun and the reason why we have comments available on this site. So, without further adieu, let's get to building.
To go bare-bones or not
I will be up front here. Most often, when building machines I go with a bare-bones kit. If I have a client who has a need for a specific feature, brand, or function of a certain motherboard, case, or power supply (or I have a specific need myself), I will go with a bare bones kit. The reason this is almost always safe is that motherboards are not picky about their operating system. The only area that should give you concern is on-board components. On-board components are where you will come into your biggest issues with Linux. And although this is even becoming a thing of the past (Ubuntu and Intel graphics now play very well together), you could find a sound, network, or video card on-board that will give you fits. (But even on-board issues can be circumvented by installing a video, sound, or networking card.)
One company I have had a LOT of luck with is Shuttle. The Shuttle bare bones machines are great little machines that are compact, well designed, and always deliver.
After you have decided on your case, motherboard, and power supply, the next step will be your CPU. The biggest issue with your CPU will be whether or not to go 32 or 64 bit. But this choice (in my opinion) is more about the choice of either 32 or 64-bit Linux. In my experience, the choice between 32 and 64-bit Linux is an easy one. Unless you have an application (or need) for more than 4 Gigs of ram, go with 32 bit Linux. The difference in speed is negligible and the lack of a native 64-bit flash plugin will have you pulling your hair out.
This is a big one. Although you more than likely are not going to be doing much (if any) gaming on this Linux PC, you shouldn't skimp on the video. Why? A number of reasons. The first reason is Compiz. You want Compiz running. It's just too cool and helpful to look over. Another reason is Virtual Machines. If you skimp too much on the video card you won't have much resource to hand over to your Virtual Machine.
As for brand, even though a lot of people will sneer at this choice, NVidia is always a good bet. With the NVidia cards (don't go below an 8600 to be safe) you have your choice between open and closed source drivers. The closed-source drivers never fail me. And if you want to shy away from closed-source drivers, the Nouveau drivers have come quite a long way.
But this doesn't mean you have to completely ignore your on-board graphics. With the amazing improvements Ubuntu has done with the Intel drivers, you should give them a try before you slap in that brand new NVidia card.
As for ATI? I would avoid them. Getting 3D support in ATI cards can be a hassle. Where an NVidia or Intel graphics card will work out of the box, the ATI cards will most always need a bit of tweaking.
Generally speaking, the only issue you might have is if you are going the wireless route. If this is the case you want to look for a card with an Atheros chipset. This D-Link WDA 2320 Rangebooster G adapter works great.
Generally sound is a non-issue. The standard Soundblaster cards all work well. You might have some issues if you are attempting surround. But all Creative ISA sound cards are supported with the Linux ALSA drivers. You might find issue with integrated Sound Blaster X-Fi. If you have this chipset, go to the Creative Open Source Web site and download the beta drivers for this card. Other than that, sound should not be a problem.
That pretty much does it for the more challenging aspects of building a Linux machine. Of course you might find issues with some peripherals, but just keep coming back to Ghacks and you should find plenty of solutions. And don't forget, a good source for hardware compatibility is the Linux Hardware Compatibility database.
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Ghacks is a technology news blog that was founded in 2005 by Martin Brinkmann. It has since then become one of the most popular tech news sites on the Internet with five authors and regular contributions from freelance writers.