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$ 200 Dollar PC


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#1 Lewis

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:40 PM

Build a Better Sub-$200 Linux PC

Last year, we defied the economy by building a complete computer system for less than $200. This year, we build a better one.




Contents
  • Steps 1 through 11
Posted ImageNo one who expected the languid economy to have fully revived by now can be cheered by the way things have gone this summer; the volatile stock market alone has been a constant dispenser of heartache. So if you’re in need of a computer, even just a small one to do basic, everyday things, you may have put it off because of the uncertainty currently surrounding, well, everything. But it’s possible to build a PC yourself for an obscenely low cash layout—less than you'd spend on pretty much any full system on the market.


In fact, you can even do it for as little as $200. And no, that’s not a typo.

We first proved this last year , back when it looked like the economy’s most turbulent days were behind it. But because money issues have persisted, and because relative luxuries like technology are usually the first line items to be cut from most home budgets, we wanted to revisit the notion. We started browsing our favorite Web components outlet, Newegg.com, with the intent of answering three questions: Could we do it again? Could we build a better computer this time around? And could we do it for significantly less than we had the first time?
The answer to the first question was a no-brainer: absolutely. Even as recently as several years ago, the PC industry hadn’t yet advanced to a point where a threshold this low would result in a complete PC of any recognizable kind. As hardware has improved, that quality has slowly filtered down to the lowest price ranges, making good components both cheaper and easier to find.

It was also obvious that our new desktop would be superior in terms of performance. We didn’t want to build exactly the same system this year, but we’d been concerned that the final product wouldn’t be different enough to justify a second attempt. But once we started shopping, it didn’t take us long to discover that prices had fallen enough in the last year for us to get some more impressive parts. You’re still not going to confuse this PC’s capabilities with those of a more expensive desktop, but even in just a year the possibilities have considerably expanded.
As for whether we could spend a lot less this year than we could in 2010... Technically, yes. But that would have violated our most important precept: This had to be a computer we could really use. Building a system that costs this little already requires major compromises in some areas, and shaving off too many additional dollars would have seriously hobbled usability and upgradability. We could have put together something for closer to $150, but we didn’t want something—we wanted a computer we could feel good about integrating into our lives right away, and feel comfortable about tweaking and expanding in the future.

What follows is a look at how we accomplished this: the parts we chose, why we chose them, how we put them together, and what we gave up along the way. We’ll also run through a list of some “budget-busting” items that we couldn’t include if we wanted to stay below our $200 ceiling, but that we’d definitely investigate if we had another few bucks to rub together.
We understand that building the least-expensive computer possible isn’t something that will appeal to everyone. As we said last year, this is as much a thought experiment as it is an actual build project—you can do it, and get great results (we still use our original sub-$200 PC regularly), but under most circumstances you would make different, more expensive, and (we admit it) more exciting choices. What it proves, however, is that you should never feel constrained by your bank account, even if it’s as empty as a politician’s promises. When you’re building computers, almost anything is possible at any price, and with a little bit of research, a little bit of thought, and a little bit of sacrifice, you can get what you need without courting bankruptcy. In economic times both scary and spirited, that’s something worth remembering.

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#2 Lewis Re: $ 200 Dollar PC

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:40 PM

Picking The Parts
Deciding on the components for your ideal PC is never easy, whether you’re spending $200 or $2,000. But the less you have to spend, the more energy and thought you have to devote to the process.
For our 2011 $200 PC we wanted hardware that was at least as good as what we got last year, and hopefully better, but we were also intent on streamlining and honing the final product according to what we learned last year. Speed hadn’t become too much of an issue, for example, but hard drive space and efficiency had been, so we were determined to address those issues this time. This meant tougher decisions in other areas, and we might have liked to do a few things differently, but working within a budget means you don’t always get what you want. We do feel we got close.
Here’s an in-depth look at not just the components we chose for our system, but also our thought process along the way. Even if you might choose something different when building your own computer—at any price—thinking about these things is invariably a good way to begin.

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1. Motherboard
Because the last sub-$200 PC we built was based on an AMD processor, we really wanted to see if we could easily construct this system on an Intel platform. We discovered we could—but ultimately we decided against it. We wanted to try to avoid the LGA775 socket, which would have left us with a relatively narrow upgrade path and forced us to use older technology; and pairing the least-expensive newer Intel CPU we felt good about with the least-expensive motherboard we felt good about would have put us in a severe budget crush. So AMD it was again. The microATX Zotac GF6100-F-E had both an attractive price ($34.99, after a mail-in rebate) and the AM3 socket we needed. It had one big limitation: a thermal design power (TDP) of 65 watts that would restrict our processor selection somewhat. But it would still give us some room to move, and free up our budget for the memory and hard drive space we missed in last year’s system. That seemed like an acceptable trade-off.

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2. CPU
Our motherboard chosen, we then set our sights on the CPU. We could have gone as low as $30, with the AMD Sempron 130, but a single-core processor was out of the question. By spending another $41, on the Athlon II X2 270, we could get a chip that not only ran at a much higher clock speed (3.4GHz, as opposed to the Sempron’s 2.6GHz), but had two processing cores rather than one. For what it’s worth, this chip also represented a significant step up from the 2.9GHz Athlon II X2 245, which was the most we could afford last year. Because of our motherboard’s TDP limit, the only better chip we could nab from Newegg would be the AMD Phenom II X4 910e—and that would have cost us $189.99.

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3. Memory
As important as memory is to the running of your computer, it’s seldom the most exhilarating type of component to discuss—or shop for. So we looked for the 2GB RAM kits that would deliver us the fastest speed (our motherboard can accept memory up to 1,333MHz) at the lowest price. This ended up being a Kingston kit for $16.99. Interestingly, last year we could only spring for 1GB of 1,333MHz RAM, and that cost us $25. That’s a big change, and a good reminder of why you should always keep your eyes open when you’re component shopping.

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4. Hard Drive
Another example of a component that’s dropped drastically in price in the last year is the hard drive. When we were putting together our last sub-$200 PC, we shelled out $38.99 for a 160GB Seagate drive. This year, the best bargain we found was a 500GB Seagate drive that cost $39.99. Paying $1 more for 340GB more storage space is something we can always get behind. Another plus: This drive supports the newer and faster 6Gbps SATA III standard. Our motherboard, alas, doesn’t—the cheapest one we could find would have pushed us beyond our budget—but we’ll be ready for future upgrades, or for porting this drive to a faster PC at some point.

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5. Case/Power Supply
Normally a computer’s case is not a high-irritation item, but when doing budget shopping nothing gets our teeth gnashing more. We’ll admit it upfront: We’re uncomfortable with paying too little money for a case–power supply combo, for fear of cheap construction on the former and heart-crushing inefficiency on the latter. But there’s no way good way around this issue. So we chose a black minitower from Broadway Com Corp, the 1243MA, which came bundled with a 500-watt power supply, for a total of $27.99. This would give us a small, relatively sleek computer, and enough power for today and several upgrade cycles to come.
6. Operating System
“Wait,” we can hear you asking. “Why is this here? It’s not even a component!” True. But if you have to buy a copy of the operating system, especially if it costs $100 the way Windows 7 Home Premium does, building a $200 PC instantly switches categories from “improbable” to “impossible.” Luckily, lots of free Linux distributions offer an astonishing range of capabilities, and access to vast libraries open-source software, all without your having to drop a single dime. You could go for just about any free distro DistoWatch.com and former ZDer Jim Lynch’s site, DesktopLinuxReviews.com can suggest many possibilities), but we went with Ubuntu for one of most user-friendly and Windows-like experiences you can get.
7. Video Card
This was perhaps the easiest call on this list. Though we recommend a discrete video card whenever possible, spending enough for even a budget model like the AMD Radeon HD 6450 would have made almost as little budgetary sense as splurging on an operating system. So we’re sticking with the integrated graphics on the motherboard; they’ll be enough to see us through everything we’re likely to want to do on this computer in the short term. We can always add a card later if we decide we want to do more gaming.
8. Optical Drive
We admit this might technically be considered cheating. But when you’re building a sub-$200 Linux PC, every penny counts. We’re not putting an optical drive in this system for the simple reason that we don’t need one. We have lots of USB keys sitting around here that we can draft into temporary service for purposes of installing Ubuntu, and we imagine you might have a few as well. The beauty of many Linux distros (particularly Ubuntu) is that almost every piece of software you’ll ever want comes included, and if you need something else the chances are excellent you’ll be able to download it for free. This eliminates the need for an external disc drive most of the time, and we’re fine without one. We’ve never once missed it on the system we built last year.
Full Components List (all prices valid as of August 26, 2011)
Motherboard: Zotac GF6100-F-E ($34.99, after mail-in rebate)
CPU: AMD Athlon II X2 270 ($71.99)
Memory: 2GB Kingston dual-channel kit ($16.99)
Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda ST500DM002 500GB ($39.99)
Case/Power Supply: Broadway Com Corp 1243MA ($27.99)
Operating System: Ubuntu 11.04 (Free)
Video Card: None
Optical Drive: None
Total: $191.95


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#3 Lewis Re: $ 200 Dollar PC

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:41 PM

Steps

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1. Prepare Your Work Area
Lay the case, vented side panel up, on a flat surface so you’ll have plenty of room to work. Most cases these days have thumbscrews, which makes opening them easy, but those are still relatively rare on ultra-inexpensive cases such as this one. So pull out your trusty Phillips screwdriver and unscrew the two screws securing the side panel. Pull off the panel and set it aside.

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2. Install the CPU
We usually advise PC builders start with the power supply—but ours came preinstalled! So instead, let’s start preparing the motherboard. It’s always a good idea to install as many components as possible on it before you mount it in the case—you’ll have a lot more room to work, particularly when the final destination is a minitower chassis like ours. Let’s start with the CPU. Lift the metal lever to open AM3 socket on the motherboard; you’ll see it move slightly once the lever is up all the way. Align the triangle on the socket with the triangle on one corner of the CPU, then carefully drop the CPU into the socket. If at first it doesn’t want to go in, don’t force it: It’s very easy to accidentally bend the exposed pins on AMD chips during installation. (Trust us on this.) Just check the chip’s positioning and adjust it as necessary until the CPU slides it with no effort on your part. Verify that the CPU is in all the way on all sides, then press the lever back down and lock it under the plastic tab to secure the CPU.

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3. Install the Fan–Heat Sink Unit
If you were reusing an old fan, or perhaps an aftermarket cooler, you might need to apply a tiny portion of thermal paste to the bottom of it before placing it on the CPU. But our fresh-out-of-the-box AMD heat sink comes with thermal compound already applied—all we need to do is install the heat sink and we’re in business. Hold the heat sink over the socket so it’s in approximately the right position, lining up the long metal clip with cooks to the plastic posts on the frame surrounding the socket. Loop one hook around the corresponding post on one side of the socket, then pull the clip on the other side to give you as much “slack” as possible. Then, put this second hook around the second post. Clamp everything down by lifting up the retention lever and pushing it down again in the opposite direction.


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#4 Lewis Re: $ 200 Dollar PC

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:42 PM

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4. Install the RAM
Because our motherboard only has two RAM slots, we don’t need to worry about which ones will give us dual-channel memory capability—we just need to put in our DIMMs. To do that, open both slots on both sides by pushing back on the white clips at either end. Line up the notches in one memory chip with the post in the memory slot, and then push the RAM into the slot until both clips click back into place and “grab” the memory. Repeat with the second DIMM.

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5. Install the I/O Plate
We didn’t have too much to install on the motherboard, so we’re ready to put it in the case. This means inserting the motherboard’s I/O plate into place in the rectangular opening in the rear panel. If your case comes with a “dummy” version in there, as ours did, you’ll need to push that one out first. Align the new one (the right way up, please!) with the opening from the inside, and then press it firmly around all four edges until it clicks and doesn’t move when you tap on it.

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6. Install the Motherboard
Our case may be a budget model, but it does come with one handy feature that will save us some time in our build: built-in motherboard standoffs. Because we don’t need to screw in separate standoffs, we can skip right to putting the motherboard in the case. Line up the six holes around the periphery of the motherboard with the case’s standoffs (they look like little anthills). With your Phillips screwdriver, screw one screw into each of these to secure the motherboard in place.


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#5 Lewis Re: $ 200 Dollar PC

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:47 PM

Posted Image
7. Install the Hard Drive
Making sure that its ports face the inside of the case, slide the hard drive into a free 3.5-inch drive bay until you can see its screw holes through the openings in the side of the bay. Use the smaller screws included with the case to secure it in position. In order to get the tightest fit, you’ll need to use screws on the other side of the drive as well; this means removing the case’s other side panel. It comes off just the way the first one did.

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8. Connect Data Cables
Included in the motherboard box is a SATA data cable. Attach one end to the small connector on the back of the hard drive, and the other end to one of the motherboard’s SATA ports. While you’re at it, locate a USB 2.0 header on your motherboard, and connect the wire from the panel to that. Easy access to the front-panel USB ports will simplify the process of installing Linux, which we’ll be doing soon enough.

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9. Connect All the Power Cables and Wires
Now that everything is in position, you’ll need to make sure everything has power. Find the PSU’s 24-pin cable and plug that into the large socket near the inside edge of the motherboard. Find the smaller four-pin cable and plug that into the socket near the top edge of the motherboard. Connect a SATA power cable to the larger connector on the hard drive. Finally, make sure to connect the CPU fan’s tiny power plug to the header on the motherboard that reads “CPU Fan.”


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#6 Lewis Re: $ 200 Dollar PC

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:48 PM

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10. Connect the Front-Panel Wires and Close Up
You’ll want to consult your motherboard manual for explicit instructions about which wire goes where, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble matching the wires from the power button, reset button, and activity lights to the pins on the inside-right edge of the motherboard. (Our biggest problem is that these pins ended up right next to the side of the case, but we could access it easily by turning the case right-side up.) You’ll probably also want to connect the HD Audio wire plug to the appropriate header on the motherboard as well; this will let you use a headphone and microphone plugged into the front of the computer. That’s it—you’re finished! Replace the case’s side panel, and you’re ready to go. Well, almost...

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11. Install Ubuntu
The final step isn’t about building anything, but it’s necessary to actually get your computer to a workable state: Install the operating system. We chose Ubuntu, so if you’re using another one the steps might be a little different, but you’ll need another computer connected to the Internet in any event. Visit ubuntu.com. Click on the “Get Ubuntu” link, then click on “Try it from a CD or USB stick.” This will take you to the main download screen. Select the latest version, in either the 32- or 64-bit incarnation (our CPU is 64-bit, so the more powerful one will work), and the click the “Start download” button.

Once the ISO has finished downloading (it’s fairly big, so it will take a while on most home connections), you need to install it to a USB key at least 2GB in capacity—and you’ll need the whole thing, so be sure to back up any precious files that may be on it to some other location. If you don’t know how to do this, click “USB stick” and then “Windows” (or “Mac”) from the “Burn your CD or create a USB drive” section of the download page, the click “Show me how” to see detailed instructions on how to download a universal Linux USB installer and put your Ubuntu ISO on it. Once you’ve completed the process, plug the USB key into one of the ports on the front of your computer, then turn it on. You’ll have to instruct the system to boot from the USB drive, but once it does the Ubuntu installation process will begin automatically. Follow the prompts, answer the questions, and within an hour or so you’ll have access to the OS and the hundreds of free programs that run on it. If you have a few extra bucks to rub together, you may want to consider what additional components you can buy for a few dollars more. Otherwise, you'll still find you've built an enjoyable and useful PC—all for less than $200.


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#7 JohnT Re: $ 200 Dollar PC

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Posted 04 September 2011 - 03:36 AM

That is pretty awesome Lewis. It would be good for a college kid on a budget that cannot afford a laptop.
"We the People are the rightful masters of both Congress and the Courts--not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution." Abraham Lincoln

#8 Strawberrys18 Re: $ 200 Dollar PC

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 05:30 PM

Hey for someone on a budget , why not! ... I could use that as a media center pc :)




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