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Pondering the Potential of the $200 Linux PC

There must be something about the US$200 price point — for the second time this summer, Linux bloggers have been pondering the notion of a $200 computer.

Back in June, it was Phil Shapiro who kicked off the conversation by demonstrating how to configure an Ubuntu machine for less than $200.

Now, just barely two months later, here we are again, this time contemplating ExtremeTech’s recent post entitled, “Build a $200 PC.”

Linux was part of the picture this time around too, of course. So was a lively conversation.

‘That’s Crazy-Expensive’

“Linux has always had the extreme flexibility to run on a wide range of processors types, not to mention still get a nominal amount of performance and use out of something that is deemed ‘obsolete’ by Moore’s Law,” wrote adosch among the 300 or so comments on Slashdot, for example. “That’s why I don’t do bleeding edge hardware at home unless I have an absolute need for it. Do I find this article surprising? Not at all.”

Even more so: “$200??? That’s crazy-expensive,” wrote dskoll. “We recently bought 6 second-hand little HP desktops for $69 each. They only came with 512MB of RAM, so another $15 each upgraded them to 1GB, and they are perfectly serviceable desktops for our sales and admin team.”

Then again: “Might be all fine and dandy for you to use, but after a month you’ll regret giving it to your parents/family member,” warned thegreatsam among the 200-plus comments on Digg.

More than 500 comments across just two blogs, plus more than 800 Diggs? Linux Girl knew it was time to investigate the topic afresh.

‘The Windows Tax’

The ExtremeTech article “had some good points that I will keep in mind for the future,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told Linux Girl.

“It’s interesting that they mentioned the Windows tax, but it’s important to note that the cheaper versions of Windows are simply not good enough for a lot of the tasks they are needed for, so a more expensive version is required,” Mack noted. “The cheaper PCs get, the more noticeable the cost of Windows will be.”

Indeed, “I have built many PCs and servers to avoid M$’s tax and to get the hardware that I want,” blogger Robert Pogson began.

‘You Paid Too Much’

“Companies like Dell put together a PC to suit their budgets, marketing plans and the relationship with suppliers,” Pogson noted. “If you want a PC that suits you, build it. HeliOS recently had elementary students build PCs and install the OS. It can be done.”

The typical PC sold to consumers is also “far overpowered for what most people do: browse and watch YouTube,” he pointed out. “If your CPU is idling and your RAM and disc storage are echoing, you paid too much.

“You don’t have to buy what the OEMs and M$ want to sell you,” Pogson added. “You can choose perfectly adequate PCs at much lower prices and you can service what you make.”

‘$200 Is a Reasonable Goal’

There are “plenty of sub-$100 surplus machines which, with a $30 video card, are capable of playing accelerated video on Linux,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza told Linux Girl. That, he added, “seems to be the one place where the junk PC of yore falls down today.”

Espinoza “got a Gateway Athlon 64 X2 4000+ system with a 20-inch LCD at a yard sale with a Microsoft Cordless Laser Desktop 6000 for $125, so I feel $200 is a reasonable goal for a great deal of machine — perhaps sans monitor — and I’d rather that than buy something new just to say it’s not used,” he noted.

“On the other hand, I did build a $600 PC because I wanted something low-power, and that means new or slow or both — but in this case, just new,” Espinoza said.

‘You ARE the OEM’

Building a machine for less than $200 “really isn’t that hard,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet opined. “But to me the reason to go DIY is that your quality of parts goes WAAAY up, even while your price goes down.

“Think about it: The manufacturers can’t play ‘pass the buck to the OEM’ because you ARE the OEM,” hairyfeet explained. “Companies like Dell will take substandard motherboards simply to save 12 cents a board, but if they are selling the motherboard directly to you and it goes wrong, they will hear about it.”

Hairyfeet built “a quad core with a nice 925 Phenom II, 8Gb of DDR2 800 RAM, an HD4650 1Gb GPU, a business-class AMD motherboard, DVD burner, a nice case and finally Win 7 HP x64, all for $650 after MIR,” he noted. “Show me anyplace you can get that kind of power for even close to that price!”

‘Linux Needs a REAL Hardware ABI’

The problem with “all these ‘Use Linux to build a DIY!’ articles,” however, “is that they ignore the elephant in the room,” hairyfeet warned. Namely, “the frankly hit-or-miss (usually miss) hardware support in Linux.”

Linux may support “more older junk, but we aren’t talking about older junk here, we are talking new hotness,” he explained. “THIS is a perfect example of why Linux needs a REAL hardware ABI that is stable and lasting.

“No manufacturers are gonna say they support Linux, because in the year it takes for the hardware to go from drawing board to store shelves there may be three new Linux releases, and NO backwards compatibility between them on the binary driver level!” hairyfeet exclaimed. “That is just truly insane!”

‘PCs Are Just Another Commodity’

Finally, for Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, the $200 Linux PC is just a bad idea.

“It has no DVD. It has no screen. It has no mouse or keyboard. It has no speakers. It has 1 gig of ram,” Hudson pointed out. “If you’re looking to disappoint someone, there are cheaper ways to do it — you can find machines in the dumpster that outperform this.

“By the time you add the cost of even a used, burned-in, power-hungry blurry boat-anchor of a crt, a dvd, a mouse and keyboard, and *shipping*, you’re at the cost of a cheap netbook — at least,” she explained.

“There’s a reason most of the no-name system builders went out of business: It’s now cheaper to buy ready-built than it is to build your own, because PCs are now just another commodity, and subject to commodity pricing,” she added.

‘Are We That Masochistic?’

In short, “the $200 PC is worth less than the sum of its parts, just like the article is worth less than the sum of the word count,” Hudson opined.

“With Linux ‘aficionados’ like this, Windows has nothing to fear,” she said. “Why do we keep shooting ourselves in the foot with stupid articles like this, that if someone actually tries it, they’re sure to think linux is underpowered crap? Are we that masochistic?”

Instead, Hudson suggests building “the $1.00 state-of-the-art linux computer in three easy steps:

    1. Download bootable linux iso;2. Burn bootable linux dvd from iso;3. Boot modern computer from dvd.”

The result? “That same $200 could ‘build’ several hundred modern linux boxes, and they have a greater chance of at least one of them actually getting used,” she concluded. Not only that, but “with today’s distros, people will just be in awe at how much quicker linux is.”

1 Comment

  • Getting to choose your components is worth a lot. You can be sure you have all the drivers you need and you can determine the bottlenecks in performance. It is rarely the CPU these days. I like to examine the flowchart for the motherboard and check specs on various components. It takes time and that is worth money, too, but it is money well spent.

    There are many factors in choosing a PC besides power: size, noise, heat, dust collection, cabling… If you build it you will get the PC you want. Buying any PC off the shelf is like buying a pig in a poke. I saw an AMD64 X2 5000 trying to run Vista once. That soured me on trusting what the OEMs crank out forever.

    I once gave students the task of assembling the most expensive PC they could on Dell’s site. That was a few years ago and it came to about $100K. I doubt the performance they would have had for that AM ount of money would be better than what that $200 PC would give today. An idling CPU(s) and empty RAM and storage give nothing to the user. Putting that other OS in to fill up the void also gives nothing.

    In my school I demonstrated new $100 thin clients. People were AM azed that ten people using such equipment could get great service from a single old server.

    The PC I use to write this is a media centre running Ubuntu on an Atom. $200 is not a junk price point.

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