Thinking in functions »

Sun, Jan 15, 2017

[Icon][Icon]The joy of Just Works

• Post categories: Omni, FOSS, Technology, Helpful

I've been making do with Linux running from cheap laptops or in a VM for a fair number of years now. I finally had enough of it: I wanted a proper desktop again.

It's been years since I last built a PC. Possibly over a decade. An IDE hard disk, an Athlon XP CPU, 512MB of RAM, powered by a 350W PSU. It was a very capable machine for its time. But it had its faults: An Nvidia graphics card that would break regularly courtesy of the binary blob nonsense. Wifi only via a USB dongle. And it no longer booted, or even POSTed.

So, I could have built a machine that would meet my meagre needs very cheaply. But after so long making do, I was willing to go over-spec to make sure I ended up with a machine that could do what I needed comfortably, quietly, and would be easy to upgrade if necessary.

So, my requirements: Multiple core CPU, mostly because I want to play with Erlang; solid-state hard drive for the system files to live on, for performance; a big hard drive for the home partition, since that can cheaply be in the TB range; dual monitor output; decent wifi. Most importantly of all, everything had to Just Work with Linux - no binary blob, third-party nonsense.

That actually simplified a lot of things. Easiest way to have Linux-friendly graphic stuff is to stick with Intel - given that I have no need of gaming or whatnot, this is no hardship and a big cost saving. Intel is *the* way to have hassle-free graphics under Linux.

Sadly, the motherboard I settled on didn't have wifi onboard, so I did have to rummage around for a wifi card, but a bit of poking around found me what seemed a suitable option. RAM was fairly easy - I always buy Crucial, and I went for a single 16GB stick since it would make it easy, should the need arise, to add more RAM up to a 64GB max. The case and PSU was also pretty simple: I like Antec, and soon found a nice roomy case. I splashed out a bit on a PSU that's way more than I need, because it added so little to the final cost. The CPU I ultimately went for seemed to be the best bang-for-buck processor available at the time, and again I went with a CPU that was way more than I needed since it wasn't really that big a cost. A new HDMI monitor completed the list, to go along with my existing VGA one.

Building it took up most of my free time on a Saturday, and I was struck by a few changes since my last build:

  • I remember when CPU heatsinks were optional. My first PC had a heatsink that was barely more than an aluminium plate with a little fan on it. The mass of copper pipes and monster fan of this things's sink seem way over the top to my aging brain :)
  • The PSU had detachable cables, instead of the rat's nest of the past. So I only needed as many cables as it took to power the hardware. So much nicer!
  • SATA has triumphed over IDE everywhere, even on optical drives. This is awesome, IDE cables were a PITA!
  • Those silver plates that come with your motherboard to be fitted to the case where all the output sockets go: WHAT is the point of them? All they ever do is get in the bloody way and make alignment awkward! Argh!
  • Everything feels just a little more polished and thought-out. Like the little doohickey for the HDD lights and reset/power buttons etc. - on my old build, this was just a lot of faffing around directly on the motherboard. This mobo came with a little separate part that you plugged all the case switches and lights into, which then in turn went into the board - so much easier!

On Sunday, the moment of truth came: The first time I turned it on. To my surprise and joy, it Just Worked - no wires to adjust, no settings to change. On it came, up came the UEFI screen. And that's a big change, given my last build had a BIOS.

It was all very nice, and well-featured: Told me all about my case fan speed and CPU temperature and the like. It seemed happy it had detected all my hardware: Two HDs and a DVD; 16GB RAM, etc. All the temperatures seemed to be holding at pleasantly-low numbers. I plugged in my Ubuntu USB stick and attempted to boot off it.

Once again, joy and surprise! It just booted, straight into the installer menu. No playing around with boot order or anything. How nice. The only place I had to do anything manual was when it came to partitions: I didn't want the swap or /home partition on the solid state drive. Otherwise, it was just a case of confirming I wanted UK setting throughout and all went well. It even (and this was the truly unprecedented part) brought up a list of available wifi networks and asked me what to connect to!

Unless running an install via something plugged into ethernet, I have never had working internet during an Ubuntu install. That's something I always had to meddle around with to get working. Even though I had bought all my hardware specifically so this kind of thing would happen, it was starting to feel spooky that everything was working so well. Installations NEVER go this smoothly!

I left it to get on with it, and when I came back it was done. I shut it down, removed the USB drive, and gave it its first-ever boot off the hard drive. Half-expecting the UEFI stuff to break it, as it did when I installed Ubuntu on my last laptop...

But no. Straight to the Ubuntu login screen, in seconds. I logged in, and there was my Unity desktop. Wifi was already established, the web was right there. I copied my Firefox profile across, and after a couple of attempts at entering my somewhat-complicated password for my password manager and verifying it with my phone, it was up and running. A quick download of the git repo with all my dotfiles and the like, and the installation of a few needed packages, and everything was feeling very homey - my usual ZSH prompt, latest Git release, vim all ready to go...

Seriously, the smoothest Linux install I ever had. Absolutely nothing went wrong. The memory use is barely registering on the Gkrellm graph; the CPU likewise; and the fans are keeping it room-temperature cool with barely a sound. Everything I could have asked for from a machine.

I'm still waiting for the new monitor - it got held up for some reason - but in case you're wanting to build a new Linux machine that's easy to set up, the component list might be useful to you, so here it is:

  • Mobo: ASUS Z170-A Intel ATX
  • CPU: Intel Core i5
  • Heatsink: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo
  • RAM: Crucial 16 GB DDR4
  • Wifi: TP-LINK TL-WN881ND 300 Mbps
  • Case: Antec Three Hundred Two Midi Tower with Antec HCG-850M 850W PSU
  • Drives: 500GB Samsung SSD; 2TB WD hard disk; DVD writer

The only thing I haven't confirmed for sure yet is that it'll work properly with the second monitor. Since there are three graphics output ports built in to the motherboard, I anticipate no problems, but I'll update when the HDMI monitor gets here.

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