Order a High Powered Linux Workstation on the Cheap

I just finished reading Paul Ferrill’s article at Linux Planet titled Build a High Powered Linux Workstation on the Cheap. As I am a system builder this article obviously piqued my interest. Paul goes into the specifications of his high powered workstation somewhat. So, I decided to see what I as a system builder could do to come close to matching his Do It Yourself (DIY) price.

Here is the list of components Paul mentions:

AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition CPU 3.4GHz (quad-core)
MSI DKA790GX motherboard
PNY Optima DDR2 memory (4GB x 2)
Thermaltake Element G case
1 TB SATA drive (No specific model mentioned)

He comes up with a total of $665.00 for the DIY builder that wants to build his own PC. Notice Paul does not include a power supply, which is sort of necessary to make this system work. Paul also does not include shipping fees to get the parts shipped to one’s door. One would need to add a power supply that is quad-core capable to this mix which puts the total over $700.00 when the power supply is added. Granted, one can find parts from online stores that will ship via UPS Ground or FedEx Ground for “free”. So, shipping fees may not enter into the picture for the careful DIY shopper.

This is truly nice for the DIY person that likes to tinker with her own hardware. However, for the majority of PC users building one’s own PC is out of the question. The average PC user wants to buy it off the shelf or order it off the web preloaded with an operating system and probably some software. For the average PC user these are the only choices she wants to have. Most people do not get “shivery” over putting together “sexy” hardware like we hardware geeks do. More than likely the average PC user will tend to go a bit “green around the gills” just thinking about trying to build his own PC. This is where the system builders, such as my own company (An AMD only shop), ZaReason, System 76 and Penguin Computing enter the picture.

Here is what I get when I fill out a parts list form here as if for a new customer ordering a PC from my company today. I am using as close to the same components that Paul used as I can get:

AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition CPU 3.4GHz (quad-core)
MSI DKA790GX motherboard
OCZ 8GB PC2-8500 (DDR2-1066) DDR2 Memory (4GB Kit x 2)
Thermaltake Element T Case
Thermaltake TR2 Series 430W Power Supply
HITACHI Deskstar 1TB SATA II 7200 RPM 16MB Buffer Hard Drive
Preloaded “free” GNU/Linux Distribution (Any of the top 20 at DistroWatch, Mandriva recommended)

This system for the Non-DIY person would cost $793.00, plus shipping and perhaps sales tax if purchased through a system builder such as my own company. Adding a decent flat panel monitor and keyboard/mouse combo to get a complete system would add roughly another $175.00 to $200.00 to the total. I will figure the higher $200.00 for a nice monitor and keyboard/mouse giving a grand total of around $993.00 for a complete system using (roughly) Paul’s specifications. At this point I am not thinking this is all that cheap. What if we went with different components that are not quite so cutting edge? This could be done to bring the price down somewhat. In the interest of completeness I decided to do just that.

Here is my new parts form for a complete PC with GNU/Linux preloaded for the more budget conscious user:

AMD Phenom II X4 3GHz (quad-core)
ASUS AMD 780G AM3 motherboard
OCZ 4GB PC2-8500 (DDR2-1066) DDR2 Memory (4GB Kit x 1)
Thermaltake WingRS 201 Case
Thermaltake TR2 Series 430W Power Supply
SAMSUNG 500GB SATA 7200 RPM 16MB Buffer Hard Drive
LG 20in Widescreen LCD Monitor
Logitech Keyboard/Mouse Combo (PS/2)
Preloaded “free” GNU/Linux Distribution (Any of the top 20 at DistroWatch, Mandriva recommended)

This more budget conscious, high power PC system would price out at $775.00 (See correction in comments below.). This is real pricing that would be used today if someone ordered this PC from my company. One does not care to do business with my company due to my shameless self-promotion? Fine, here is a comparable system from System76 with quad-core Intel CPU and only Ubuntu available: Wild Dog Performance. That is not quite as budget conscious though. Or, go find a system builder near you at the Naked Computers web site and make a deal.

The bottom line is whether one is a DIY type or an average PC user one can get a complete, rather high powered GNU/Linux based PC system for around $800.00. If one does not need a new monitor the total is closer to $600.00. Can one do this for no more than $500.00? I tend to think that might be possible if one were willing to settle for a more mid-range system with a dual-core CPU. Such as the Limbo 2550A from ZaReason, Inc. However, hardware prices for these more powerful quad-core components continue to drop. Perhaps in another six to twelve months one could build or buy a less than cutting edge, high powered, quad-core workstation for around $500.00. Time will tell.

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Edit Sat Aug 22 15:47:18 CDT 2009: Change the incorrect “OCZ 4GB” to “OCZ 8GB” on the first build specs.

Edit Sat Aug 22 19:27:24 CDT 2009: Add link for price correction in comments. Change “under $800.00” to “around $800.00”.

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Gene A.

Gene is a "Unix Guy", network technologist, system trouble-shooter and IT generalist with over 20 years experience in the SOHO and SMB markets. He is familiar with and conversant in eComStation (a.k.a. OS/2), DOS (PC, MS and Free), Unix, Linux and those GUI based systems from Microsoft. Gene is also a follower of Jesus (forgiven, not perfect), and this does inform his world view.

22 thoughts on “Order a High Powered Linux Workstation on the Cheap”

  1. anechoic (comment #1) thank you for the comment. Also, thanks for the URL but it does not really fit here. A brief perusal of that site does not show me any GNU/Linux preloaded computers. That is what my article is about, inexpensive preloaded GNU/Linux computers for average computer users.

  2. Ah! I forgot a DVD?RW drive in those build specs. It is a bit difficult to go without one of those these days. That would add roughly $35 or so to the totals shown. I apologize for that oversight. 🙂

  3. After a break for supper, a quick check of pricing for DVD?RW drives gives this new list:

    AMD Phenom II X4 3GHz (quad-core)
    ASUS AMD 780G AM3 motherboard
    OCZ 4GB PC2-8500 (DDR2-1066) DDR2 Memory (4GB Kit x 1)
    Thermaltake WingRS 201 Case
    Thermaltake TR2 Series 430W Power Supply
    SAMSUNG 500GB SATA 7200 RPM 16MB Buffer Hard Drive
    SAMSUNG 22X SATA DVD Burner
    LG 20in Widescreen LCD Monitor
    Logitech Keyboard/Mouse Combo (PS/2)
    Preloaded ?free? GNU/Linux Distribution (Any of the top 20 at DistroWatch, Mandriva recommended)

    Which gives us a new total of $807.00 for the “budget”, high powered, Linux workstation.

  4. Actually I can generally get all the parts from Newegg for less money than you have projected. Especially the DVD R/RW.

    Careful shopping will allow low shipping costs. However I do recommend a local case and power supply dealer due to shipping.

    Ikea storage units have produced 24 core rendering farms. http://helmer.sfe.se/

    Remember cases are just cubes with power supplies now. Just be sure to buy a good power supply thermotake sometimes a great thermotake case and power supply is heavily discounted. (Frys) Stay away from the China no name.

    I hate to say it Intel Motherboards do better with Linux than brand new AMD Motherboards because Intel makes the boards and makes sure the parts are supported. (See articles on code lines submitted to kernel.) AMD processors generally run faster than Intel on Linux but if the board is unsupported you might find yourself without a distro that works.

  5. embedded (comment #6) thanks for the comment.

    Yes I know that many times the online shops like Newegg can beat the individual parts pricing that a white-box builder such as myself can offer. Part of what one pays for with the added cost of a prebuitd is the labor of the builder. That labor is not included in your DIY builds. The article is to show what it might cost to buy a prebuild for one who does not mind paying a little extra for the labor to get it built for ones self.

    Another reason folks want to buy a prebuild is to have a single source for warranty claims on the parts when parts die. When one buys all the parts ones self, one may or may not get them all from a single source that may or may not offer a long term warranty on what they sell. When it is the middle of the third year on a five year warranty hard drive that dies the prebuild buyer can probably get some help securing a replacement part from the build shop. The DIY builder has to try to deal directly with the manufacturers in most of those cases. The DIY builder likely does not mind dealing with warranty claims direct with manufacturers himself. Others would rather chew glass than to handle a part warranty claim themselves. This is another small item one pays for when buying from a white-box, small system builder.

    Edit: Let’s use the car analogy that so many like to use when talking about things like this. I am a tinkerer and do many things for myself. For example, I like to work on my own car. In the past year I have replaced the starter myself. Recently I need to schedule some time to work on the brakes. I shop around and buy the parts myself and do the labor myself. I do this because I like to do it and it saves me money. My neighbor across the street is the same way. We share tips and tricks with one another. All my other neighbors take their vehicles to a shop to get repairs done. They pay the, to me, high labor and parts prices for the convenience of not having to do it themselves. These same type of folk are unlikely to want to build their own PC system. These are the people for which this article is written.

  6. Hi Gene,

    Thanks for providing an SI perspective on this.

    Warranty and support are two very important considerations. Having to make only one phone call when something goes wrong has a tremendous value.

    The only thing in your article that struck me as out-of-place is that an average PC user is one who wants to run GNU/Linux, and that this person is somehow incapable of DIY construction of their own box. If someone is technically capable of running GNU/Linux, more likely than not they are technically capable of building their own PC.

  7. PKD (comment #8) thank you for your comment.

    I disagree with your implication that one must be a technical geek just to be “capable of running GNU/Linux”. I personally know of several people that are not “tech-head geeks” that do run GNU/Linux just fine. These same people turn to those of us who are “tech-head geeks” when they need assistance.

    Edit: I also am not implying that someone who wants to buy a prebuild is incapable of building her own PC. It is not a matter of capability, it is a matter of desire.

  8. Who bothers building their own PC when you can buy a Mac Pro for as little as $ 5000?

    The term workstation usually implies the ability to do graphics, so you forgot the high-end video subsystem and the professional 30-inch monitors. Maybe it features HIFI-stereo sound as well and a BLU-RAY recorder.

    If you want decent performance, you’ll have at least two (quad-core or better) CPUs, 64 GB or RAM, an expensive RAID array (unless you’re connected to a FC SAN), TCP-IP accellerators, etc.

    Add some $ 1000 per annum on Linux OS fees and start shopping for applicatons.

  9. “Remember cases are just cubes with power supplies now.”

    This is not necessarily a good way to look at it. Yeah, you can stick a PC in just about anything, but a good case is worth buying. I’ve had $30 cases, and right now my partner’s PC is in a $60 case and mine’s in a $110 case, and I can tell you right away where the money difference goes, and for me it’s worth paying. Building or modifying a system in a nice high-end Antec case is a much more pleasant experience than doing the same in a $30 razorblade case.

    You also have to consider airflow, which is a huge part of case design. High-end cases tend to have attention paid to fan mountings and often include good-quality case fans. Cheap cases, which usually really _are_ a box with a power supply in it, don’t – you’re lucky if you get one 80mm mount on the back. The better the design of the case the quieter the system will be, which is an important consideration.

    PKD, in my experience, the two are often entirely different. Quite a lot of hackers I know know very little about putting computers together. There’s no intrinsic reason why people who know a lot about software should also know a lot about hardware, it’s possible (and often happens) to be in one basket or the other.

  10. 2 Things:

    1. You have a minor mention on our site http://www.nakedcomputers.org but please feel free to add a comment to pump up your service if you’d like.

    2. Building your own machine isn’t that tough. Here’s my write up of the machine I built last September and it is still running fine: http://www.theopensourcerer.com/2008/09/08/build-your-own-pc/ I am very happy with it. It is quick, quiet, reliable and I didn’t have to pay the Windows Tax.

    Cheers

  11. After looking around some I realized that the middle of the road HP systems at my local Frys Electronics were about 20X the system that the Athlon 1500 system I build myself from scratch and have been using for the last 6 or 7 years is.

    So for $499 I got a Quad Core Phenom, 4GB ram, 512GB sata disk drive machine with a lower end NVidia card. For <$100 more I picked up a 1T external USB drive. I already had a pretty good keyboard, mouse, and flat screen monitor.

    I booted up Vista, just for a chuckle, and then stuck a Ubuntu disk in.

    This thing screams running a 64bit Linux. Even with all of the Compiz bells and whistles turned on and a boat load of things running it responds instantly.

    I have a several VirtualBox virtual machines configured for specific tasks ( like logging into the office VPN) and there is usually at least one or two running. I realize that the Phenom processor is lower end but I honestly don’t think I would have a use for a faster processor. With multiple cores my processor is mostly idle.

    Any quiet? Wow! This thing is “look under the desk to see if it is on” quiet.

    Since it is an HP machine I am confident that it is well designed and will serve my needs for many years. I imagine that I will have to add more disk to it sooner or later but for now the external drive is working well for me.

  12. Having just put together a system through a white-box seller, which came out to $709:

    Phenom-2 4-core 3GHz, 4G 1600MHz ram, etc.

    However, I made a mistake with the motherboard. The ASRock onboard video requires the fglrx drivers, and I’ve had nothing but trouble with video on this system. Including system lock-ups requiring the magic alt-sysrq sequence in order to reboot, just because XINE finished playing an AVI file.

    So, short of returning the unit or replacing the mobo, I guess I’ll just have to get a video card. What a waste. Onboard video should, at least, work.

  13. Go to your local storefront run by some Chinese guys.

    At Spectrum Computer in San Francisco, my current system cost me $835 back in November of last year:

    AMD Phenom Quad Core 9650 AM2+
    ASUS M3N78 Pro Motherboard
    4GB DDR2-800 RAM
    2 500GB Hard Drives for 1TB of storage
    ASUS 9800GT Ultimate 512MB Video Card
    20X DVD-RW SATA
    Logitech Keyboard and Mouse

    And of course all cables and power supply, etc. that you would need which were also left out of the above.

    This is with no OS of course. I installed openSUSE 11.0

  14. I just did this within the last month and I came in at quite a bit less than you have for a similar system. Here from memory is what I have (all purchased from a Microcenter store)

    1. AMD Phenom X4 9950 2.6Ghz Quad core – $119
    2. Gigabyte MA770-UD3 motherboard – $89
    3. Hitachi 1TB 7200 rpm hard drive – $74
    4. DVD/RW/Lightscribe (OEM packageing) – $24
    5. Case with 400 Watt power supply – $60 *
    6. nVidia 8400GS 512M PCIe Video card – $49 **
    7. 4GB OCZ Gold 1066 DDR2 RAM – $44
    * I was upgrading an existing system so I already had a case with a $400 watt power supply, which I purchased for $49 in 2007 from Microcenter. Bumped up the price just to be sure.
    **Also had the video card already. Bought it for $39 in 2007. But the cards are available for similar prices on and off line, but I’ll go with $10 more.

    So that adds up to $399 + less than 10% in taxes; approx $440

    emk

  15. A couple of comments- first, while cd/dvd drives might be needed sometimes, the box I built for my wife doesn’t have- or need one. I simply did a usb thumb drive/network install of Debian Lenny on it. cd/dvd drives are needed for multimedia playback/recording, but I suspect in the next 10 years they will go the way of the floppy drive.
    Second- the intangible aspect of having an experienced builder build a system- having components that “play well” with Linux. The last main system I built doesn’t really seem to have the performance it should (yes, it’s getting a bit old now, but an Athlon x2 dual core 2.3ghz with 8 gigs ram and a 3.ogb/s sata drive), and I suspect that either a better choice of mother boards, or some knowledgeable tweaking of the bios would enhance it greatly- tweaking that is beyond my “not a newbie but not an expert” know how.

  16. emk (comment #16) thanks for your comment.

    Yes, one can get a new box for less that what I show here. To do that one has to use even less cutting edge parts. In the event you contacted me for a system and gave me a price limit then you would get a quote for parts up to your price limit. I would get the best parts I could if you said, “Keep it around $450.”, but the parts to do that would be far away from cutting edge.

    For example, your “Case with 400 Watt power supply – $60” is on the low-end side. In my parts list the “Thermaltake WingRS 201 Case” alone, sans power supply, is almost $60.00. Add in the brand name Thermaltake power supply and the cost of the case + power supply is right at $100.00. For a low budget quote with a low price limit I would probably not use Thermaltake parts, nor Antec parts, nor any really good case + power supply maker. I would be looking for a no-name case and power supply so I could still try to get good internal components to stay at or near your $450.00 price limit. Would I rather use the higher priced case? Yep, they are nice to work in and have excellent air-flow. But when dealing with a low price limit something has to go and the brand name case + power supply is the first consideration.

  17. Bob Robertson (comment #14) thanks for the comment.

    The motherboards shown here also have on-board video (See the ASUS motherboard here: M4A78 PRO). The only reason these do is because I was staying with similar components to what Paul Ferrill mentioned in his article. I actually prefer, and recommend, that one use a separate video adapter with a motherboard that does not include on-board video if at all possible. For now I personally stay with nVidia for 3D graphics.

    Edit: For example my current new personal system I just built uses an ASUS M4A78 PLUS (not “PRO”) motherboard with an EVGA e-GeForce 7200GS 512MB PCI-E graphics card.

  18. Chris Bryant (comment #18) thank you for your comment.

    One of the first things I check when I get in a new motherboard is the manufacturer support site for BIOS updates. In some cases a BIOS update will solve some “weird” problems that one would think have nothing to do with a running OS. A few years back one motherboard I used would be very flaky when enabling the ECC RAM setting. As the end-user required ECC RAM this was a serious problem. After going through three sets of ECC RAM with no change I checked the manufacturer web site to find they had a new BIOS update with a fix for problems with ECC RAM. I flashed the BIOS with the new update and all the ECC problems disappeared.

  19. I just noticed this article. If you take a look at some of the systems at cyberpowerpc.com, you can get a similar system for under $500. Here’s an example:

    http://www.cyberpowerpc.com/system/Back_To_School_2009/

    Just click on the software menu choice on the left, remove Windows for a deduct, and you’re under $500, including a dedicated video card (and you could click the next fastest CPU for $20 more). I haven’t used them personally, but I know someone that has and said he was able to get a pre-built box using an Intel Core i7 920 with a 3 year warranty for about what he was going to spend on the parts to build one himself.

    Another way to get an inexpensive PC is by going refurbished. I bought a Dell Inspiron 530 with 3GB of RAM, dual 300GB Drives, DVD Writer, Vista, Optional Card Reader, with an Intel Q6600 CPU for under $400 over a year ago at http://www.dell.com/outlet after coupon codes for more discounts (they come out pretty often if you check the popular coupon sites). I’m using it right now (running SimplyMEPIS 8 on it in a multi- boot config with Windows and a few other distros I have installed to test/play with, including a community remaster using KDE 4.3 by Danum.

    Here’s a post a made about it this Dell a while back on a photography forum:

    http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1004&message=28126149

    I’ve got two more refurbished Dells (all running SimplyMEPIS), including my wife’s Inspiron 1720 laptop (bought in Dec. 2007 from Dell Outlet), and an older Dell Dimension 8300 I bought about 4 years ago (and it still runs fine). Here’s an old post about it:

    http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1024&message=11738059

    The trick is to be a good shopper (as the listings in Dell Outlet change pretty often) and wait for coupons for more discounts. 😉

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