My new Linux machine for fall 2011 (planned)

October 8, 2011

My current home machine turned five years old a couple of weeks ago, so it seems like about time for for me to get serious about putting together a new one. It helps that I've been mulling this over for some time; it also helps that new software is making the my current machine feel increasingly slow, which certainly adds motivation. As a result of this I was explaining my hardware choices to someone online, so I figure that I might as well recycle what I said as an entry.

I haven't actually ordered the machine from the local clone builder so my parts list here is theoretically not yet final (and I can't be sure that everything is ideal for Linux until I've actually tried it), but I've basically settled on the following build:

Intel Core i5 2500
This strikes me as the current relatively decent sweet spot for a CPU that I want to be using for five years (the i5 2400 might be equally good but going to the i5 2500 is only $15 more from the local clone shop, so why not). I don't overclock so the K-suffix CPUs are irrelevant to me. I could get the i7 2600 but I'd basically be paying $100 more for 2 MB of L3 cache, which hardly seems worth it.

(Yes I'd get HyperThreading too, but that may be an antifeature.)

I've historically used AMD CPUs but Intel seems to be the current CPU top dog, especially if you care about thermal efficiency as well as raw CPU power.

Asus P8P67 LE motherboard
Asus is my default motherboard vendor of choice (and I've had a string of good luck with them). The LE variant of their Intel P67 chipset based P8P67 series has everything that I want and pretty much nothing that I don't; in particular I get two PS/2 connectors and external SATA.

(I also get IDE and a PCI slot if I really need either for some old piece of hardware.)

4x 4GB DDR3-1600Mhz RAM
This may be absurd but it's inexpensive, and getting 16 GB now means that I should be able to forget about RAM issues for the next five years (or more, since the rate of PC improvement seems to be slowing down). I am doing overkill this time around because back in 2006 when I put together my current home machine I opted for 'only' 2 GB on the grounds that it should be fine (and it seemed like an absurdly large amount of memory). Three or four years later, that turned out to be wrong.

A 1600 MHz speed seems to be the top of what's generally available and inexpensive, and various sources suggest that it doesn't matter too much anyways.

(I believe that it's actually cheaper than DDR3-1333 RAM would be.)

It amuses me that my home machine will have more memory than our multiuser login machines (they have 8 GB).

A fanless Radeon HD 5450 based graphics card
As an old fashioned Linux user I have very low graphics needs, so my choice was simple; I wanted a fanless ATI card that was old enough to have decent Linux open source support. This is what my clone shop currently has.

(Hopefully I am reading the entrails of the Radeon documentation correctly about what Radeon chipsets have decent support.)

(For scale, I have an Radeon X300 in my office machine and find it perfectly fine. I would like to find a fanless dual-DVI card someday, but I'm not holding my breath.)

PS: I care about open source driver support because I don't run binary drivers; performance and features of hardware under the ATI or nVidia binary drivers is irrelevant to me. As far as I know, ATI is still your best choice for open source supported graphics cards.

A SATA LG DVD-RW optical drive
I definitely want a DVD reader and the extra cost for a DVD writer is trivial, even if I haven't burned any DVDs at home over the past five years that I've had a DVD writer in my current home machine.

Two 500 GB Seagate 7200 RPM SATA drives
I'll be transplanting my current system's mirrored drives into the new system, but they'll be used purely for the user data I have on them, not the currently installed OS. Over time I've come to the conclusion that I really want the OS on different physical drives than my data so that I can disconnect my data drives and (re)install the OS without having to worry that it (or I) will screw up something and affect user filesystems.

I'm mirroring the system drives (even without user data) because I have no desire to spend any time reinstalling the OS after a disk failure if I don't have to. And disk failures always happen sooner or later.

I pick Seagate disks by reflex. Perhaps I should rethink that, but all HD manufacturers seem to be horrible in their own way (and time), and Seagates have been good to me so far.

(500 GB is absurdly large but apparently the drive vendors are all getting rid of smaller sizes, especially inexpensive 7200 RPM small sizes. Lately, even when we can get smaller SATA disks there's basically no point once you look at the relative costs involved. I think I will do something extravagant with the space, like keeping a local archive of all packages ever installed on my machine.)

Antec Sonata IV case (with power supply)
I'm not terribly enthused about this case but it's the quiet case that the local clone builder carries and it does not appear to be particularly bad. From what I've read online I'd kind of prefer an Antec Sonata Plus 550 (which is apparently the linear descendant of my current Antec P150 case, which I am quite happy with), but Antec has stopped making those. So it goes in the PC world.

(Reusing my current case has a number of issues, including requiring me to build the new machine myself.)

The clone builder assures me that I do not need an aftermarket CPU cooler. I have agreed with that since it saves me researching them.

(In general I have consciously narrowed my choices in order to actually reach the point where I can make them. For example, maybe there are better motherboards from vendors other than Asus but I have made no attempt to find them because I could spend days on that alone. The clone builder's stock parts list has been very helpful in this.)

By modern standards this is a relatively expensive machine (the current quote from the local clone builder we like is around $900) and there are a number of ways to make it cheaper (eg less RAM or a lower cost CPU). However, since I expect to be using this machine for at least as long as the five years that my current home machine has lasted, I think that it's acceptable and I'm not inclined to shave a few dollars here and there in ways that may degrade its long-term usefulness.

Somewhat contrary to what I've written before, my current plan is to install Fedora 15 on this machine. The state of Gnome 3 is irrelevant for one of my primary workstations (since my environment is entirely custom) and I might as well start out with a relatively current base (since on past evidence I am going to wind up neglecting it sooner or later).

Once I have this machine and get it working well, I guess that my next step is figuring out a replacement for my 'going to be five years old soon' LCD display (a Dell 1907FP). That will be an exciting morass, especially if I want to try to decide between a 1920x1080 widescreen display and something that's closer to my current display (assuming that there are decent non-widescreen LCDs left any more).

Sidebar: why not SSD(s)

Fundamentally for two reasons. First, I don't expect the system disks to be particularly active. The thing to accelerate would be my user filesystems, but I can't fit all of my data into current SSDs so I would still need my current mirrored data disks as overflow space. The end result of this is that I'd wind up with at least five disks in the machine (one system disk, two SSDs for my active data, and two HDs for less active data, and yes I would insist on mirroring SSDs that held my own data). This seems like expensive overkill given that I at least think that what I do is not disk intensive.

The second reason is, well, 16 GB of RAM. I am pretty sure that my working set of programs and frequently accessed files will fit easily in 16 GB, which means that a lot of things won't go to disk at all.

Written on 08 October 2011.
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