On Building, Buying, or Recycling a Computer to Run Ubuntu Linux

Suppose you want your own desktop computer to run Ubuntu Linux. There are several ways to do this.

You can use old machine that you have at hand. It will probably have Windows on it, but you want to try Ubuntu. You install Ubuntu on it, either as the sole operating system or in “dual-boot” mode where you can run either Windows or Ubuntu, but not both at the same time.

You can buy a new machine that comes with Windows pre-installed, and then run Ubuntu stand-alone or in dual-boot mode.

Part of the cost of this new machine will be the money the manufacturer will have to send Microsoft’s way to pay for a copy of Windows. This money is known as the “Windows tax.”

You can buy a new machine that comes with just Ubuntu, thus avoiding the need to pay the Windows tax. Dell now provides such machines; see for example Dell PC’s Featuring Ubuntu.

You can buy a used machine or refurbish an old machine with some new parts.

You can build a machine from scratch, buying all the parts you need yourself, perhaps reusing some parts you may have on hand such as a keyboard, mouse, or display.

You can buy a “barebone” computer and the additional parts needed to make a full machine.

To start from scratch you need to buy a case, power supply,case fan, motherboard, processor chip, processor cooler, video chip/board, and hard drive.

You will usually want an optical drive, either cdrom or dvd, though you can use one temporarily just during installation if you don’t need the ability to read or write optical disks once the machine is up and running; for example, if you want to use the machine as a server.

Some cases come with the power supply and/or case fan included, or you can buy the case, the power supply and fan separately. I favor cases that include both the power supply and the fan. Though many cases support multiple fans, one fan is enough for the typical desktop system.

Some processor chips come bundled with the processor cooler, usually in the form of a fan. These are called “Retail.” The other kind is “OEM.” It just includes the chip and you have to buy the fan separately. I recommend the “Retail” approach; the manufacturer has picked a fan to work with processor and you also get the paste needed to join the chip and its fan together when you assemble the machine.

Some motherboards come with a built-in video chipset that will drive a monitor. Most don’t, and in this case you have to buy a video card separately. I favor using built-in chipsets as this is more cost-effective. However, if you have a free video card then you have more flexibility in choosing a motherboard.

The “barebones” computer is an interesting option between starting from scratch and buying a complete machine. As noted in Wikipedia’s Barebone computer, a barebone comes with case, power supply, motherboard and cooling system, and some barebone’s include the processor and/or video chipset.

Once you have the hardware, lots of information on how to install and configure Ubuntu Linux can be found at the Ubuntu Team Wiki and if you run into problems you can usually get an immediate response by posting a question to the Ubunto Forums.

I’ve done all of the above except that I have yet to buy a new machine with Ubuntu pre-installed. While this is the easiest approach for most folks it is not the cheapest approach, and Ubuntu easy to install and have found the other options cost less. However, there is an advantage for buying a machine with Ubuntu pre-installed. You know the machine will support Ubuntu and you can take advantage of the manufacturer’s support, such as it is.

The key component is the motherboard. You want a motherboard that is known to support Ubuntu. Working with a motherboard that is known to have problems is just asking for trouble, though it can be an educational experience. Google and the Ubuntu Forums are great resources for sorting out motherboard problems, and of course any other problems you might run into bringing up your Ubuntu machine. Indeed, that’s one of the main reasons to use Ubuntu instead of other Linux distributions. Ubuntu provides a wealth of online information, and there is a great community standing behind Ubuntu.

I’ve posted reports on some of my experiences building these machines and installing Ubuntu Linux on them, and plan to write some more, starting the with my next post, on my experience building a barebone computer.

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