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Linux dream machine under 900 euro

04 Jan 2019 - by 'Maurits van der Schee'

I write this on my current PC: a passive cooled (Akasa Plato-X case) Intel NUC i7 16gb RAM 512 GB NVMe in my living room. It hangs behind a 27' Philips WQHD screen (VESA mounted) and it has a big Libratone speaker next to it. I use a laser mouse and a mechanical keyboard to operate it. It runs the Xubuntu operating system and it is not only completely silent... it is also lightning fast!

NB: This article is based on my own experience and not sponsored in any way.

Not for gaming

Note that I'm a programmer, not a gamer. I don't run Windows (not even in a VM) and I am very happy about that. This also means that I can use less powerful hardware than most people can. I browse the Internet using Chromium and Firefox, use VSCode, IntelliJ, Eclipse and listen some music using Audacious. Other than that I use a lot of terminals. If I want to play a game then it is mostly OpenTTD (or some programming challenge/puzzle).

Cheaper, not slower

For my home-office I have built a machine that is cheaper, but not slower, than my living room NUC. Even building the same machine would have been cheaper, as prices have dropped over the years, but what is the fun in that? I decided to make a bigger machine (as I have plenty of space in my office) and allow it to be actively cooled (but not too noisy). In exchange I wanted some opportunities for upgrades in this new machine as the Intel NUC has limited expansion options.

Shopping list

This is the list of components that I have used:

 17 EUR - HP Laser Mouse - Mouse
 50 EUR - Corsair CX450 - Power supply
 57 EUR - AMD Athlon 200GE - Processor
 60 EUR - Sharkoon PureWriter TKL - Keyboard 
 69 EUR - ASRock AB350M Pro4 - Motherboard
 75 EUR - Edifier R1100 - Speakers 
 85 EUR - Cooler Master Silencio 550 - Mid-tower case
 87 EUR - Samsung 860 EVO 500GB M.2 - Solid state drive
110 EUR - G.Skill Aegis 2x8GB DDR4 - Memory
289 EUR - Iiyama XB3270QS-B1 32" WQHD IPS - Monitor
--------
899 EUR (including VAT)

NB: The above prices are based on the offering of Dutch web-shops for PC parts, such as "Azerty" and "Alternate", at the time of writing of this post.

Reasoning

The laser mouse was chosen for it's ridiculous low price. The power supply has limited capacity (450 Watt), but in this setup it will suffice. The processor is really the cheapest I could find (a dual-core at 3.2 Ghz). Note that the CPU also has a video card built-in and that it comes packaged with a decent CPU fan. The keyboard is not only one of the cheapest back-lit mechanical keyboards, it also one of the thinnest, which is really nice for your wrist angle. The motherboard sports two M.2 slots (one for NVMe and one for mSATA) and also supports 64 GB of RAM. Note that WiFi and Bluetooth are missing (as I like it). The speakers sound and look good, are powerful (42W) and have a rotary knob for the bass level (I don't like heavy bass). The computer case is padded to be extra quiet. The SSD is big, fast and cheap (it is a mSATA), but not ridiculous fast and expensive (such as a NVMe drive). The memory was chosen for it's low price. The monitor has a WQHD (2560 x 1440) IPS screen with great colors from all angles, while being large (32 inch) and cheap.

Upgrades

Potential upgrades are a AMD Ryzen 7 2700X octa-core 3.7 GHz processor (now 330 EUR) 64GB DDR4 memory (now 520 EUR) a Geforce/Radeon video card (around 300-500 EUR) and a Samsung 970 EVO 2TB NVMe SSD (now 510 EUR) and one or more Seagate 12 TB hard drives (now 430 EUR/piece). If you do these upgrades you probably also want to have the Seasonic PRIME Ultra Titanium 750W power supply (now 190 EUR) to feed this monster it's electricity. These upgrades could easily triple the price of this system and you can easily do without them (for now). It is expected that these upgrades are more affordable in a few years and that you can apply them when needed.

Software

Be aware that you may need to run the latest Linux kernel to have a smooth experience on this new hardware (Ubuntu 18.10 boots out of the box, 18.04 does not). Also note that you should use a HDMI-to-HDMI cable to have support for the 2560 x 1440 WQHD resolution. The HDMI is also required for high resolution in the (very user friendly) BIOS screens. My motherboard got delivered with the 5.10 version of the BIOS firmware, which worked fine for me.

I want one!

Great, with the shopping list you should be able to quickly buy all the parts. Putting it all together is the kind of puzzle that is not only educational, it is also a lot of fun. As a bonus you will love the computer even more, since you've built it all by yourself.

Enjoy!