Build a Linux PC ( part 2 )

Building a PC isn’t difficult, but some care is needed when working with electronic components. Prepare a large working area, clear of any clutter and with a non-conductive surface. Static electricity can kill electronic components, and it can build up on your body without you noticing, until you pick up a component and zap it. You can avoid this by earthing yourself to discharge and static build up.

The simplest way to do this is to touch a grounded object, such as a central heating radiator or the kitchen sink before touching a component. You can also buy anti-static wrist straps that connect to a grounded point by flexible cable to keep you static free during your build. The computer you build will not have a warranty, but the individual components will. As long as the fault wasn’t caused by damage while fitting them, any reputable vendor will replace them.

Memory

Memory is one of the simplest ways to boost the performance of a modern computer. It enables more tasks and data to be handled at once and any memory that’s left over is used by the Linux kernel to cache disk data which, incidentally, is why your computer shows almost no memory free after it has been running for a while.

Memory may seem unassuming, but it has a greater effect on the performance of your computer than many other components.

There are three things to consider when buying memory, the physical layout, the size and the speed. The current memory standard is DDR3 and DDR4. Don’t try to fit the older DDR or DDR2 sticks into these slots, they are incompatible.

Size is obvious, and it is worth getting the most your budget allows. Check your motherboard’s manual for the maximum size for each slot because, although the spec allows for up to 16GB per DIMM, most Intel systems are limited to 8GB per unit. Motherboards usually use a dual-channel architecture for memory, so fit sticks in pairs and check the manual to see which slots go together.

This is unnecessary if you are filling all four slots, but unless you are using the maximum size stick, it is better to use two larger sticks. If you want to fit 16GB of RAM, two 8GB sticks give you the option of adding more later, four 4GB sticks does not.

Storage drives

It used to be that the only question to ask about a hard drive was: How big? Now we have to add: How many? And what type? The choice of type is mainly between traditional hard drives with spinning platters and solid state drives (SSDs).

(Although there are also hybrid drives that use a spinning disk with an SSD as a cache.) SSDs are much faster than hard drives but cost a lot more per gigabyte, a 256GB SSD costs about the same as a 3TB drive. So an SSD gives much faster booting and program loading but a hard drive holds much more. An SSD also uses less power and is more robust, making it the obvious choice for a laptop when you use it on your best mattress for side sleepers.

SSDs are the obvious choice for a laptop but are idea on a desktop system for installing an OS and the programs you use.

With a desktop, you have the luxury of being able to use more than one drive, so the optimum is an SSD for the operating system and programs and a hard drive for your data. You could put the operating system on the SSD and /home on the HD, or you could leave /home on the SSD, which means you’ll get the benefit of the extra speed for things like your web browser and mail caches.

Then you can mount the storage hogs, such as your media collections, on the hard drive. Either way, you will not need a particularly large SSD, 128GB should be more than enough, which should mean you can make sure you get a good one.

There is quite a variance in the performance of SSDs, so make sure you get one with decent read and write speeds, in the region of 500Mb/s is good. Apart from that, setting up an SSD is pretty much the same as a hard disk. Another option to consider is using multiple drives in a RAID array.

This gives you redundancy, if one drive in the array fails your data is still on the other. This isn’t a replacement for taking regular backups but it does protect you against a drive failure. With RAID 1, the simplest configuration, two drives are mirrored.

All data is written to both drives but read from one (which can give improved read performance as the data comes from whichever drive seeks to it first). Most distro installers will handle installing to a RAID array, but with RAID 1 you can also install to a single drive and add the second to create the array.

RAID is handled by the Linux kernel, do not enable any RAID settings on your motherboard. These are so-called fake RAID and require Windows drivers to work.

Just let the installer see that you have two drives and the kernel take care of them.

Graphics card

Most motherboards have reasonable onboard graphics these days, so you may not need a separate card. If you want one, the choice is between Nvidia and AMD, and this is another topic likely to provoke religious flamewars.

Nvidia graphics cards will work as far as booting the computer into a graphical display, but the in-kernel nv drivers are limited. You have a couple of options.

The newer open source nouveau drivers work well now – we use them ourselves – and give reasonable performance. If you want the best performance from your graphics card though you will need to install Nvidia’s own drivers.

Graphics cards are computers in their own right, but you may be able to use the onboard graphics for many systems.

As these are closed source they are often not enabled by default so you need to enable the option for restricted or third-party drivers in your distro. You can also download and install the drivers directly from www.nvidia.com, but this is not recommended as then your distro’s package manager cannot track and update them.

The situation with AMD graphic cards is similar, the potential hassles of running a binary driver versus the lower performance of the open source drivers. The choice between AMD and Nvidia is almost as religious as the Intel vs AMD CPU choice.

Unless you need top notch 3D performance, either will work well for you, and if you need that performance you will have to use the binary drivers whichever way you choose. Currently, Nvidia’s proprietary drivers are considered better more reliable, but that could easily change.

Case

The computer’s case is often left as an afterthought, but a larger, well made case makes life so much easier. A Cheap case will make cable routing harder and will often have sharp edges that will mean bleeding knuckles and blood stains on your nice new motherboard (you can probably sense the first-hand experience in that statement). A larger case also provides better airflow for improved cooling.

If you are building a media centre that goes in the living room, a high WAF is a major consideration, but pay attention to noise levels. What initially seemed like a whisper can become annoying while watching TV.

If you choose to go for a case with a window in the side, bear in mind that you will have to be extra careful when routing cables. A rat’s nest of cables is never a good idea, but it’s even worse when it is on show.

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