Many of the components you can purchase these days for building a low cost PC are cheap indeed. More importantly, a dual core Atom 330 processor and motherboard combination can be had for $70-$180 depending on your individual needs. For HD video, you’ll have to build something at the higher price point because the Intel 945 chipset’s integrated graphics simply won’t cut it. NVIDIA’s Ion platform looks promising and includes an integrated version of their 9400 or 9500 mobile adapters.
I was really delighted with much of the hardware I selected for this project. DVD playback is smooth and most everything works well under Ubuntu. While I may install a version of Windows on this system, particularly since Windows 7 now includes Media Center as a stand alone app, I think Ubuntu will handle most of my parents’ needs rather well. I won’t discuss the software until my next installment, so if you’re more interested in that, stay tuned!
Let’s be Realistic
Naturally, reality is a harsh instructor and there were a few snags. Admittedly, these were relatively minor snags, but they are a few things that you might want to consider ahead of time if you build such a system. I’ll even provide you with a few suggestions at the very end to help you in your purchasing decisions. First, let’s go over the hardware components.
AthenaTech’s Glossy Black Mini-ITX Tower – Thoughts
- For a mini-ITX case, AthenaTech really outdid themselves. The case is roomy and there’s plenty of room for cabling. However, make sure you have a small screwdriver handy. The case may be larger than other mini-ITX towers but it’s not big enough to fit a standard screwdriver in when mounting the motherboard.
- Remove the power supply before putting the motherboard in place. There’s enough room that you MIGHT be able to slide it in without removing the PSU but do yourself a favor and save the headache.
- The back of the case will flex slightly when you’re installing the IO shield. Installation wasn’t difficult, but the flexing added slightly more complexity than expected. The technique I typically use works fine, though: Simply install one side of the panel completely and, using the fingers of one hand, gently push in the middle inward (inside the case) so that it flexes slightly while using the other hand (pushing OUTWARD from inside the case) to pop the opposite side in place. Since this involves minimal flexing of the case, it works perfectly, and the IO shield has enough give so that installing it via this technique is very easy.
- Be mindful of the installation order: Install things according to 1) motherboard, 2) hard disk, 3) and finally the CD/DVD ROM drive. Make sure to plug in the cables for each component between each step. For example, insert the motherboard cables after installing the motherboard but before installing the hard disk.
- AthenaTech provides 3 small cable ties. It’s thoughtful of them, and I think it’s a great idea, but they weren’t long enough for my needs. Make sure you have a few on hand. I used about 6.
- The optical drive bay cover sucks. It looks nice but it sucks. The spring is way too tight and most optical drives won’t have enough strength to open it without significant labor. I resolved the problem by removing the spring with some pliers (it works really well even with the spring removed–just shut it manually and it’ll stay shut). However, the button on the outside of the case that connects to the optical drive eject button is really difficult to access when the case door is open if your fingers are of average size. While it ruins the aesthetics of the case, I decided to remove the door completely. If you’re careful, the door comes out very easily by gently squeezing the sides of the hinge. It’ll come out without breaking any of the pins so you can keep it for reinstallation in the future.
- This is probably the best mini-ITX case on the market if you’re looking for a case+PSU combo. Airflow isn’t super, but if you’re putting in an Atom-based board, it won’t matter much. The reported motherboard temps never went much about 39C (which is what they started at) and the CPU never went about 56C (it started at 52C).
- This is one of the few cases with a full height PCI slot. Unless you purchase a board with a PCI express adapter (be careful, the Ion boards have mini-PCIe which won’t work), most decent video capture cards won’t fit in anything smaller.
- A reviewer on Newegg for this case was unlucky. The fan on the case I purchased was blowing in the correct direction. Unfortunately, the stock fan doesn’t have enough guts to push much air. I replaced it with a Cooler Master LED fan and increased the airflow significantly.
Intel’s BOXD945GCLF2D (Atom 330 + 945GC)
- Ubuntu recognizes all of the devices perfectly. Onboard sound works fine. I haven’t tried messing around with the outputs to see if jack detection will switch it to 5.1. I doubt that’ll work but it might. The kernel driver is the standard hda-intel driver common to most ICH chipsets.
- The board is really tiny. It only has one DIMM slot, so plan for about 1-2GiB RAM (the 945 chipset has a max of 2GiB). I went with 1, but I kinda wish I went with 2GiB. Integrated video will eat about 128MiB, Ubuntu will chomp down about 700, and you’ll have about 200 free. I suppose that’s not bad if you plan on running a tight ship like I did.
- The IO shield has problems. The metal parts bent in that are intended to contact the metal surfaces around the motherboard connectors do not yield easily to pressure. When I was attempting to seat the motherboard, I (incorrectly) assumed that the AthenaTech case was responsible. Obviously, the motherboard was catching on something! It wasn’t. The faceplate standoff parts are awful tough. I’m used to them yielding under mild pressure, but I literally had to bend them toward the OUTSIDE in order to position the motherboard anywhere near the mounting standoffs. If the motherboard isn’t lining up with the screws, check the IO shield. You might need to bend the metal spurs intended to ground the plug casings so that they’re a little flatter.
- Be careful if you’re holding the motherboard or maneuvering it by the heat sinks. Use the plugs or edges. The heatsinks aren’t mounted as tightly to the chipsets as they appear and will slide slightly. During the course of my installation woes (see above), I nudged the motherboard very gently away from the back of the case to remove it and the slight pressure against the chipset fan caused the heatsink assembly to shift by a couple of millimeters.
- If you’re using the internal USB headers on the board, be aware that the USB1 header is RIGHT next to a capacitor. It’s extremely difficult to remove. I’d recommend using the USB2 header instead (it’s next to the front panel audio connector).
- The SATA connectors should be plugged in last given all the other cabling, so be mindful of that when routing power and headers. It’ll be a tight fit on the motherboard, especially with the AthenaTech case having a PSU immediately to the front of the SATA connectors but unless you have sausage fingers it shouldn’t be an issue.
- Aside from these minor annoyances, the Intel board is laid out pretty well. In spite of my complains, I concede that all the important connectors are really easy to get to, including fan headers. I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a cheap, low power system.
- The retail version of this board comes with documentation, nifty stickers, (yes, even the processor + processor badge sticker), 1 SATA cable, 1 ATA/133 cable, and an IO panel. It also includes a dual core Atom 330 CPU. The dual core Atom 330 is hyperthreaded, so it’ll pop up in operating systems as 4 CPUs.
- Newegg lists these as DDR800 capable. Don’t believe it. Use only DDR2 533 (PC2 4200) SDRAM! Should you buy faster RAM, it’ll be clocked down to the slower rate. If you really do need DDR800, buy an NVIDIA Ion-based board. (You won’t have many expansion slot choices and the min-PCIe connectors for the Ion suck.)
- This little USB adapter works flawlessly with Linux 2.6.28 (Ubuntu 9.04) and the
rt2870stakernel module. It seems to perform better than other wireless devices in the house!
- The DWL-140 is wide. If you’re using the same Intel board I am, it won’t fit in the USB connector next to VGA out. Worse, plugging it into the back of the case will render the slot immediately next to it unusable. That wasn’t a problem for me, because I only picked up 3 USB devices.
- Fortunately, if you need more USB connectors, the DWL-140 comes with an extension cable. Simply plug the extender into the back of the case–it’ll free up the adjacent slot–and plug the DWL-140 into the extender’s receptacle. More importantly, the receptacle is weighted, so it won’t slide easily once it’s installed.
- The DWL-140 has excellent reception for a USB adapter.
- Don’t bother with any other USB wireless adapters if you’re using Linux. This one just works.
Link Depot’s 1.65′ “mini SATA II cable
- Just as advertised: It’s small. More importantly, it’s also very thin. If you’re building a small system, get one of these.
- I wish I purchased two. The SATA II cable that came with the Intel motherboard appeared to be the standard cable type they ship with all their motherboards. I almost didn’t have room to tie it up!
- This cable has locking connectors which is great for situations where slight lateral stress from moving cables around might ordinarily unplug something.
Seagate’s 160GiB SATA HDD
It’s a steal.
Corsair’s 1GiB sticks of DDR2 533 (PC4200)
Anyware MCE Remove
- It looks really nice and comes with an IR receiver that works rather well. I managed to get it working with Mythbuntu.
- Oddly, the IR receiver will free after initial boot and render the remote useless. I’m not sure what’s causing this, but it might be a bug in LIRC.
- This version is NOT programmable. I wish I had gotten one of the Logitech Harmony (550/520) remotes instead. I’m not sure they come with receivers, though.
- The receiver has an LED that flashes red when it receives data. It’s hand to tell if it’s responding or not.
- Fairly cheap (~$30) for a burner.
- It is not nearly as noisy as some reviewers complained about and is a good stand in for the Asus drives I usually purchase.
- Opens gently. Won’t fling your disc across the room at high speed.
- It isn’t Sony. I’ve had 2/3 Sony DVDROMs die within 2 years of purchasing them.
TRIPP LITE’s 550 VA UPS
- Works well but has a few quirks. It wouldn’t power up devices when I plugged them in while the unit was on. I had to turn the UPS off, unplug it, and then turn it back on before it would supply power. Maybe this is a safety feature–if so, it’s nice.
- The beep is insanely loud. I’ve been meaning to grab an older system, plug it into the data connector, and use TRIPP LITE’s management software to turn the beep down or off.
- It’s black and matches really well with nearly anything.