Building a PC for under $300 (Ubuntu First Contact)

It had been awhile since I'd had a client. Obviously, one of the perils of working a full-time jobe is that you tend to get a bit complacent. Furthermore, your entrepreneurial zeal may fall into question. Nonetheless, I do enjoy unfurling the F/OSS banner. These days, I don't have much time to administer M$ installs, they really take more time than its worth. Most of my clients are running XP and they'd ask me to come make the trojans go away or help fix a corrupted Registry.

Well in this particular case, I was tasked with building an affordable box for a client. The constraints were numerous, but most important was keeping the price below $300 US. I figured this would be fairly easy. I told the client that I would not install XP as it would likely cost her at least $300 to maintain it over the next 3yrs. Besides M$ will not be supporting it much longer.
Vista was totally out of the question, as the hardware requirements would easily eclipse $300 bucks.

So, I explained that I could install Linux on her desktop machine quite easily for under $300.
I figured that I could just cannibalize some existing hardware that I had lying around in my basement destined for e-Bay or Amazon. What I didn't realize was that I only had Pentium II machines (Compaq), none of them would boot. So, I set out to get to replace the older PII CPUs.
I ended up spending roughly 40bucks on two PII CPUs. Still couldn't get the machine to boot, obviously the powersupply or motherboard was faulty. I had run out of time and the running around was decreasing my profit margin. So, I finally bit the bullet and purchased a gently used IBM Intellistation, which sported a Matrox Millenium graphics card (16MB) and a Pentium IV CPU.

This machine was running M$ W2K, but that wasn't the only interesting aspect of the box. I think these machines were the state of the art graphics workstations during IBM's desktop PC heyday. The case was made of solid steel, I'm sure the case weighed nearly 20-25 lbs. The case was equipped with a keylock and alarm micro-switch. I suppose those graphics cards fetched a pretty penny circa 2001. I was amazed at the bulletproof construction. The machine had a DVD-R and CD-RW, I removed both and installed a Liteon DVD-RW DL and removed the skimpy 20GB HD, and replaced it with 160GB HD. The machine also had 256MB RAM, which I did not upgrade. In truth, I was a little worried about not installing more RAM, especially given how relatively inexpensive it has become. Nonetheless, I was on a budget and I knew the client wasn't going to be doing any video encoding, gaming or any other CPU or memory intensive tasks. Besides, I was curious at how snappy X would be with only 256MB RAM.

Going into this project, I figured it would be interesting to try Ubuntu Hearty Heron 8.04. I'd heard so much about Ubuntu, and since I would be giving the box to a client that was totally oblivious to Linux, I figured that I would give them a distro that was a bit more forgiving to beginners. It would also give me an opportunity to take the distro for a spin.

As most of you know, I've been a Slackware advocate for quite awhile. Though, I am running Debian/Unstable (Lenny) on my notebook computer. Upon installing the Ubuntu on the IBM Intellistation, the network card was detected immediately. The e100 module was installed. I also noticed that there was no ncurses install menu. Additionally, it also seems to hide the word 'root' from the installer, as 'sudo' has become the word of the day.
I had become so accustomed to seeing 'root' on my Slackware installer. I wonder why people seem to think root is such a bad word? Perhaps beginners may hurt themselves or some such. I am not sure why this is such a big issue.

Perhaps one of the reasons, I like Slackware is that it maintains much of the traditional *nix attributes, which certainly suits the purists in _ME_.. Perhaps Shuttleworth and his design team thought it best to remove 'root' from the vocabulary, lest they confuse newbies. Sure 'sudo' or super doer accomplishes much in the way of a privileged user.

I'm not going to recount blow for blow the install experience, I will state up front that the install took under 20 min. Certainly on par for most Linux distros. After the GNOME desktop appeared, I noticed that a little tooltip appeared that stated there were 200 updates available. I thought gee, where have I seen this before ;) I suppose that if you're going to entice the M$ user refugee, you ought to give them something that is familiar.

It took me a few minutes to sort out the appropriate setup for the repositories via synaptic. Once this was done and I could get all of the non-free stuff that isn't installed by default (ie codecs, dvdcss, etc), I was off an running. It became much easier to drop down into the CLI and run apt-get. I installed much of the stuff the client would need (ie Open Office, abiword, Firefox, Limewire, mplayer, gxine, xine, AmaroK, gstreamer, j-pilot, Evolution, vlc, k3b, etc.)

I tested the playing of DVD and it seemed to work well. So, I drove over to the client and setup the box. The first curve-ball I encountered was that they wanted to setup the workstation with a Wi-Fi connection, I thought this was odd. I suggested that an direct ethernet connection would be best, as the download and upload speed would be far better. We put the USB Wi-Fi dongle on the box anyway and GNOME network manager worked without much issue. Installed the appropriate WPA key, no worries at all.

We tried one of the knock-off DVD she had lying around and it would not play, so as a sanity check I tried one of my one movies that I had on a USB stick. Sure enough it didn't play, I was missing one codec (.wmv). After installing that I had resolved that issue.

I then spent roughly 1-2 hrs on Linux 101 and explaining that she would never have to worry about installing McAfee or Norton anti-virus ever again. Walked her through Open Office, FireFox, k3b, xine.. She explained that her sons would most likely be using the machine more frequently, as she will be using her office notebook. So, I never trained her sons.

They've had the machine for roughly 2.5 months, I've only received one phone call. The son has a Zune, imagine that.. He wanted to install windows drivers and such. I explained that this would not be necessary. To be honest, I really hadn't done much research on Zune but a quick search revealed this nugget. Apparently Redmond uses yet another proprietary protocol to move media onto its media devices. The good thing about this is that it has been reverse engineered. Apparently people have tried to convince M$ to make MTP a published standard, we'll see how far that goes.

After I ssh'd into their box, I decided to look for libmtp and discovered it was already installed by default. Cool!! So, all he needs to do is plug the Zune and the box and HAL will recognize it has a USB HID.

I've not received any email or calls from them. So, I suspect all is well.
One desktop at a time :)

  • Puppy 2.12
  • Quest for $100 laptop ended..
  • Project Heresy - Revisited
  • Interroperability rears its ugly head
  • Monthly Archives


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    This page contains a single entry by AG published on August 4, 2008 1:08 AM.

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