Buying a Linux computer (2012)

(2012-06-24)
Linux computer 2012
the finished box (1024x720 px)

It’s been roughly three years since I upgraded my last workstation and I felt it was time for a new computer. With a new CPU, a fast SSD and lots of RAM, compilation times should be much faster and annoying waiting for my computer to do stuff should be much reduced.

Anyone who reads my website will know that I am not interested in running anything except Linux on my computers, so different criteria apply when buying a new computer. Since a few people asked me about my new hardware configuration and which hardware works well with Linux, I thought I’d write this article :-).

Requirements for that computer

An ideal workstation fulfills the following criteria for me:

  • It is silent. I don’t want to hear some fan or hard drive humming when I need to concentrate over some code or during the quiet parts of a movie. This implies a good case, possibly a fanless or very silent power supply and a silent CPU fan.
  • It’s fast for tasks which are important to me. This is mostly working on the command line, compiling code, debugging, browsing. In particular, it is not gaming, rendering videos or other computationally intensive tasks which really need the fastest CPU and GPU out there. It does imply a Solid State Drive however :-).
  • It doesn’t consume much energy. I don’t need to have the very lowest power hardware which is available, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money on electricity either (plus using lots of electricity is bad, mhkay?).
  • It needs to support two monitors without an external graphics card (that is, with its onboard graphics). It also needs to support display configuration with XRandR and a FOSS driver is a plus.
  • It needs to support suspend to RAM on Linux so that I don’t need to leave it running while I sleep.

The case

After reading a very good review about the Fractal Design Define R3, I decided to buy one of these. I am very happy with it: It doesn’t contain any sharp edges, building the computer was fun, all screws are included and properly labeled (!) and it feels like a product which is well worth its 86 €.

This case comes with noise absorbing material included so you don’t have to order it separately and cut it to fit the case. Also, it has many places where you can place (slow-running, big) fans in case you need to. In order to maintain a steady air flow, you should have at least one fan constantly moving air through your whole case — motherboards are built under the assumption that this kind of implicit cooling is available.

One thing to watch out for is the SATA cables: Using standard cables works, but you will be much better off with 90 degree cables.

The Motherboard and CPU

Since my requirements for a motherboard are pretty strict, the only thing I can buy are boards with Intel chipsets and therefore Intel CPUs. The current generation of Intel CPUs is called Sandy Bridge with CPU model names like the Intel Core i7-2600K.

Intel usually has a few CPU models which are extremely performant and some which consume less power. In this generation, an extremely performant one has the label Core i7 Extreme Edition, while the ones that consume less power are the Core i5-2300 and upwards. Usually, you want to find the middle ground here (which varies for your specific demands).

It’s pretty hard to find independent benchmarks which have good numbers on the overall power consumption of a system with a specific CPU model, so I didn’t spend a lot of time comparing all the CPUs against each other. However, I found one article on legionhardware.com and one on tomshardware.com which lead me to the conclusion that the difference in power consumption between the i5-2500K and the i7-2600K are negligable: In the legionhardware review the difference is one watt when idle, so let’s assume two watts. For the duration of three years, that’s 10 € difference in your electricity bill (I used the idle value because a computer is idle most of the time, and even when you usually compile stuff you still have the nights where you don’t use the computer at all). While the difference in power consumption is small, the difference in performance is not. Therefore, I decided for the i7-2600K.

Note that I am talking about the 2600K instead of the 2600. Why is that? One reason is that the 2600K is (or was, at the time of buying the computer) actually cheaper than the 2600, apparently because there is a lot more demand. The K means that it has an unlocked multiplier and is better for overclocking. That’s not interesting to me, but the K version also has the better on-chip graphics, which is interesting (for an occasional game).

For the reference: When comparing CPUs, there is a handy tool on the Intel website, with which I compared various CPUs regarding their clock speed, cache size and feature set (AES-NI, which is hardware acceleration for AES cryptography, which you want). It doesn’t have the power consumption numbers I found earlier, so you have to combine it with some research. I also cross-referenced the interesting CPUs with a price comparison site, manually.

So now that we have a CPU, we need a good motherboard for it. Intel offers a few different chipsets in each generation, and you should read up on the difference between the chipsets. The short version is that the H67 is the one which actually lets you use the on-chip graphics of the i7-2600K, so that you can connect two monitors.

I picked the Intel DH67GD due to price and features, and then searched the web for its power consumption and Linux support. The overall power consumption of a system with the DH67GD and i7-2600K seems te be around 35 to 40 watts (idle). Note that these values are different from the ones in the benchmark above because that one had a separate graphics card in the system! These graphics cards draw a lot of power, even when you’re not actually using 3D acceleration.

For the Linux support I found a blogpost about the DH67GD and a sandy bridge i5 CPU, which showed that you can use XRandR to configure the screens and it works fine out of the box starting with Linux 2.6.38. I also found a comment in a bugtracker about suspend/resume working fine after a BIOS upgrade with Linux 2.6.38. I can confirm that it works just fine (I have been using it for 4 months, suspending/resuming at least once every day). These are the only important things to verify, since general support for Intel chipsets in Linux is excellent.

The RAM

When buying RAM, you usually compare the timing, clock speed (performance) and voltage (power consumption). It turns out that the voltage difference is negligable on modern DDR3 RAMs and so is the timing and clock speed for my use cases.

Therefore, I just settled for the biggest amount of RAM which I could afford, which in my case was the G.Skill RipJaws-X DIMM Kit 16GB PC3-10667U CL7-7-7-21. I could have chosen 24GB for a bit more money, but I rather wait some amount of time until the price for that amount of RAM is lower and I actually need it. I mean, you can fill any amount of memory you have, but I won’t notice the difference between 16GB and 24GB in everyday work for some time…

The SSD

Let me state one thing upfront: In case you are not using an SSD right now, you absolute have to switch to one. Otherwise, the hard disk will be a huge bottle neck for your daily computing and you won’t be able to enjoy that fast CPU.

Buying SSDs is a bit like chosing an internet provider: There are people who have bad experiences and there are people who have good experiences with every possible option :-). Therefore, I won’t say "SSDs from Vendor X break all the time" nor "SSDs from Vendor Y will last for decades". Instead, I bought the SSD with the best performance per euro in the affordable price range, which was the OCZ Vertex 3 90GB, see tomshardware’s SSD hierarchy chart.

The power supply (PSU)

When buying power supplies you want to buy one with a high efficiency and low noise. I can recommend the Enermax brand because of their good quality. I previously bought a fanless PSU from Etasis (with an "emergency fan" that turns on when it gets too hot), but it died recently (after about three years of usage). Since fanless ones tend to be not cooled appropriately, you have to be careful.

However, I read a review about a new series of fanless PSUs from Seasonic and the conclusion of that review was very positive. Therefore I bought the Seasonic X-Series Fanless X-400FL and I’m pretty happy with it so far. It works fine and I can’t hear it. Time will tell how good it really is :-). I have to note that when the room is absolutely quiet and you have suspended the computer, the PSU will emit a quiet high-frequency sound (humming of some components probably). Since you are hopefully not sleeping less than 1m away from your computer, this shouldn’t bother you at all. You absolutely can’t hear it when the computer is under your desk and in a closed case.

There is another fanless PSU with even better ratings: the Kingwin Stryker STR-500. However, it seems like it’s only available to the US market, I couldn’t find a single German shop where I could order it.

The CPU fan

I originally ordered a Thermalright Archon which should have fit just fine in my case, but unfortunately, it didn’t (and it was off by about 2cm or so, not just a few milimeters). Therefore, I cannot recommend it for this setup. Things to look out for in general are that the fan is silent and that it leaves enough space for your RAM (some fans don’t!).

Instead, I’ve been using the Intel fan which came with my CPU for a few weeks. For my taste, it is clearly too load, so I looked around and bought the "Scythe Mugen 3 Rev. B". Installing it took me about an hour, but afterwards the system is much quieter and 5 to 10 degrees celsius cooler (in every temperature sensor). I can confirm that the Scythe Mugen 3 Rev B fits perfectly fine into the Fractal Design Define R3. You can even install the fan facing in the direction of the G.Skill RipJaws-X.

Conclusion

The research on this cost me about 4 to 5 hours. That’s quite a bit, but the result was that I got a computer which works fine with Linux out of the box and provides all features I wanted. So, I invested a bit of time before buying rather than ending up with non-working drivers and pain and agony after buying :-).

Some people might argue that they don’t want to spend time or do that kind of research before buying. Instead, they just want a few simple choices like Apple offers (can you even call that simple anymore?) and buy one of that. Personally, I’m fine with that, but it’s just not for me. I want to chose exactly which hardware I use.

The computer I was describing has been running for about 4 months by now. It’s rock-solid and works very well out of the box with a Debian testing installation using Linux 3.2. There’s only one minor thing which you should be aware of: You might have tearing in X11 under certain circumstances, as described in this bugreport. The problems seems to affect all of Sandy Bridge, so there is no way to get around this given my requirements. It’s not that bad (beware: subjective impression), so I’m not too sad about it.

For the people not reading the whole article, here is a list of the parts which make up my new computer:

  • Intel Core i7-2600K (~ 260 €)
  • G.Skill RipJaws-X DIMM Kit 16GB PC3-10667U CL7-7-7-21 (DDR3-1333) (F3-10666CL7Q-16GBXH) (~ 85 €)
  • Intel DH67GD (~ 80 €)
  • OCZ Vertex 3 90GB (~ 126 €)
  • Fractal Design Define R3 (86 €)
  • Seasonic X-Series Fanless X-400FL (~ 111 €)
  • Scythe Mugen 3 Rev. B (~ 40 €)

In case you’re on a tighter budget, I’d recommend to save money by chosing a cheaper CPU. Don’t try to "save" money on the other parts, they’re well worth their money.