Spectralcat's Blog

August 8, 2009

The English Major’s Guide to Building a Quiet, and Powerful, GNU/Linux Desktop Computer: Part I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — spectralcat @ 1:26 am

This guide can help you build an inexpensive, powerful, quiet, open-source (GNU/Linux) desktop computer. I recommend building an open-source friendly computer because the most valuable part of your computer is your personal data. When you use proprietary software you allow corporations that only want to make a quick buck off you to get access to your personal data. In the short run, this has some benefits (familiarity and compatibility with what your friends are using), but in the long run, using proprietary software is asking for trouble. Many businesses now make money not by helping you use data but by figuring out ways to limit your access to it. I’ve also tailored this guide towards using high efficiency computer parts; it’s easy to build a dirt cheap computer using inefficient parts, but when you’re done, you’ll have a blast furnace in the corner of your room. It’s difficult to build a dead silent computer, but you can build a nearly inaudible one if you buy the right parts and install them properly.

I describe below the steps for selecting each computer part, an estimate of how much the part will cost, and a list of the parts that I bought when I recently built a computer for my girlfriend. Her computer was designed for word processing, searching the internet, and manipulating video and audio files. People interested in over-clocking their processors or in gaming will have hardware concerns that I don’t address in this guide. In a follow up post, I’ll detail assembling the computer.

I have not focused on helping you select a monitor, keyboard, mouse, or printer. Monitors, keyboard, and mouses all generally work fine with GNU/Linux. (Though if you can afford it, I would recommend shelling out for an ergonomic keyboard. Carpal Tunnel is a bitch.) Printers are a different story as many printer manufacturers do not offer open source drivers for their printers (though this is becoming less common). If you have one of these printers, you may have to replace it. There is a very detailed database of printers with open source drivers here.

Here are the specs of the computer I built for my girlfriend: Dual Boot (Ubuntu Linux and Windows Home XP), Intel dual core processor, 4 gigs ram, 1 terabyte hard drive, 64 bit Linux, Quiet. I bought everything except the Stretch Magic from New Egg, and including shipping ($25) it came out to around $480 (after rebates).

Recommended Resources:
Silent PC Review
Full of excellent reviews of computer parts. The forums are also an excellent source of information. I stole almost all of this guide from them.

Phoronix
Lots of excellent reviews of open-source compatible computer hardware.

End PC Noise
Store that sells lots of quiet computer parts.

New Egg
Probably the best place to buy most computer parts from. Cheap and good selection.

Tiger Direct
Generally more expensive than New Egg and with a worse selection. Once in a while they have something cheaper.

Part I: Introducing the Parts of a Desktop Computer:
Most computer parts are standardized and provided that you pay attention to what you buy, you should have no trouble assembling the computer. However, you may run into problems if you are trying to mix older and newer parts. (Dell, for instance, is notorious for using weird power supplies in their computers.)

Once you figure out what parts go into a computer (and what companies make energy efficient ones) the process of assembling the computer is easy. There are really only 10 parts that make up a basic desktop computer. They are numbered in the picture below:

Parts of a Desktop Computer.  The yellow arrows represent the direction of air flow.

Parts of a Desktop Computer. The yellow arrows represent the air flow.

1) The Case: The metal box the parts fit in.

2) The Power Supply: This is a box that sits inside of the computer case and provides electricity to all of the other parts of your computer. It comes with a bunch of different types of cords that plug into the other computer parts. What you would normally think of as your computer’s power cord (the thing that you plug into a surge protector) is actually the power supply’s power cord.

3) The Case Fan: This is a fan that attaches to the back of your computer case and sucks air out of the case. The case fan pulls air from the front bottom of your case, across your hard drive, motherboard, ram, and CPU, and out the back of your case. (See the yellow lines in the picture.) You really only need one of these, though you might want to install a second one near your hard drive (blowing air towards the rear case fan).

4) The Motherboard: This is the circuit board that all of the other parts (except maybe the case fan) plug into; the motherboard allows these parts to talk to each other. Motherboards also have other fancy things built into them like the hardware that controls your default video and audio. You can upgrade your motherboard’s features by buying separate cards that plug into the PCI, PCI-E, or ATX slots on your motherboard. (I did not use any of the PCI-E or PCI slots in the computer I built.) These optional cards can, for instance, give you higher quality video for playing games, a dial up or wireless modem connection, or a connection to plug a cable TV (or VCR) into your computer. (Then you can take all those obscure Maoist art films you can only get on VHS and burn them into DVDs.) The motherboard also stores a tiny little program called the BIOS. Think of the BIOS as your computer’s unconscious. Just as your brain stem controls the basic actions that keep your body functioning (like regulating your heartbeat and breathing, etc.) your motherboard’s BIOS sets the rate at which your processor runs, controls the speed at which your fans spin, and determines which drive the computer boots from. The motherboard is screwed directly into brass screw holes that fit into the side of the computer case. (See the photo detailing the parts of the motherboard below.)

5) The Processor (CPU) (Not visible because it is underneath the heat sink): This expensive little chip sits directly on top of the motherboard. It does all of your computer’s higher-level “thinking.” When you open a new program, for instance, your processor does all the thinking that gets the program up and running; when you go to a new web page, your processor computes the web page’s coding. The program is then stored in the RAM (see 7 below) until it is closed or until you ask the processor to do some more work with the program.

6A) and 6B) Heat sink and Fan: This is a piece of metal (and often a corresponding fan) that gets screwed onto your motherboard and sits physically on top of your CPU. The heat sink cools your processor by drawing heat off it; normally a fan blows on the heat sink to keep the heat sink itself cool. There is also a thin layer of grease that sits between your heat sink and processor and that helps your heat sink make a more complete physical connection to the processor.

7) RAM (Random Access Memory): These are sticks that plug directly into your motherboard. Think of them as your computer’s short-term memory. After your processor opens up a program, the program is then stored in your RAM. Increasing your RAM makes your computer seem snappier as it increases the number of programs you can have open before your computer gets bogged down. If your computer starts to run out of RAM, your computer will start to get confused and sluggish (a bit like a stoner who can’t find his keys).

8) Internal Hard Drive: This is your computer’s long-term memory. That bookmark you added to Firefox a month ago or that mp3 you downloaded last year are stored here. So are all of the programs that you’ve downloaded to your computer. Just as memorizing Paradise Lost will not interfere with your ability to remember where you put your keys, so filling up your hard drive with movies will not make your computer run slower. Likewise, getting a bigger hard drive will not make your computer run faster, though selecting a hard drive with a bigger cache, higher RPM, and faster connections will speed up the rate at which your computer memorizes new information and recalls the information it has already memorized. The only difference between an internal hard drive and an external one is the connections on the back of the drive. Whereas an external hard drive gets electricity from an electrical outlet and transmits data to a usb (or E-SATA) port, an internal hard drive gets electricity from your computer’s power supply and transmits data to your motherboard’s SATA port. (For a few dollars you can even buy an hard drive enclosure that converts an internal hard drive into an external one.)

9) Internal DVD Burner: The box that reads and burns different kinds of DVDs and CDs. Just like a hard drive, the only difference between an internal and external DVD drive are the plugs on the back of it. Instead of plugging into an electrical socket and a usb port, it plugs into your computer’s power supply and your motherboard’s SATA port.

10) SATA Cables: Most of the cables you need should come with your power supply and motherboard. For a new computer, you probably only need two SATA cables. One of the SATA cables will connect your hard drive to your motherboard; the other will connect your DVD burner to your motherboard. Older hard drives and DVD burners may use IDE cables instead.

Diagram of Motherboard:

A typical Micro-ATX motherboard.  This is the most complex part of a desktop computer.  Fortunately, all you have to do is plug stuff into it.

Parts of a typical Micro-ATX motherboard.

1) Screw holes for mounting the motherboard in the case. You may have to move the brass plugs on the case around in order to get them to line up with the motherboard’s screw holes.

2) Socket where the processor (CPU) gets plugged in

3) Screw holes where the CPU’s Heat sink attaches to motherboard

4) Empty slots where the RAM gets plugged in

5) The four empty SATA slots where the hard drive, DVD burner, and the case’s front e-sata port attach to the motherboard

6) IDE slot where an IDE hard drive or DVD burner would get attached to the motherboard. I didn’t use this.

7) IDE slot for attaching a floppy drive to the motherboard (I can’t believe they still put these slots on motherboards!). I, of course, didn’t use this.

8) Slots for attaching the USB ports on the front of the computer case; the USB ports at the back of the computer do not need to be attached as they are built into the motherboard. The case itself will come with the cables to attach to these slots.

9) The slot for attaching the audio output and input (headphones and Mic) jacks on the front of the computer case. The case itself will come with the cables to attach to these slots.

10) The CMOS battery that the motherboard uses to remember the BIOS settings (including the date and time). You can ignore this. People who over-clock their processors sometimes have to reset their BIOS by unplugging this battery.

11) Slot where the power supply plugs into the motherboard; this is how the motherboard gets its electricity.

12) Another slot where the power supply plugs into the motherboard; I believe this delivers electricity to the processor.

13) Slot where the heat sink fan gets plugged into the motherboard. You can also plug the heat sink fan directly into the power supply or into a fan controller that is plugged into the power supply.

14) A place for a case fan to be plugged into the motherboard. The motherboard can then control the speed at which the case fan spins. Some motherboards allow you to adjust this speed manually. You can also plug a case fan directly into the power supply or into a fan controller that is plugged into the power supply.

15) PCI-E slot for plugging in a video card

16) Two PCI slots for plugging in extra PCI cards (wireless cards, fire-wire ports, TV cards, etc.)

18) Front panel connections. This is where the little lights on the front of the case get plugged in. These are the lights that turn on when the computer is on and that blink when the hard drive is working. Very fancy. (The first time I built a computer I found plugging in these lights in to be the scariest and most confusing part. If I had understood what I was actually plugging in, I wouldn’t have been so worried.)

19) The north-bridge heat sink (I think). The chip under this block controls the motherboard’s on-board video. It gets hot. When you buy a motherboard, you want to make sure that this heat sink does not have any fans on it and that your CPU’s heat sink is not going to bump into it.

20) The south-bridge heat sink (I think). There’s another chip under here. I’m really not sure what it does.

21) A COM port. I really don’t know what you would plug in here. Just ignore it.

In the next part, we’ll figure out what parts to buy.

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