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Richard Millard (Office Manager)

Configuration Challenge: Gaming on Linux

Written on June 17, 2010 by Richard Millard

A quick explanation for people unfamiliar with Linux:  Linux is an operating system, much like Windows or MacOS.  It's been around forever, it has a lot of different varieties, and it's really good at doing certain things.  One of the things that it's not been particularly good at, historically speaking, is playing games.

In recent days, we've seen more and more movement on the Linux Gaming front.  TransGaming has done a terrific job with their Cedega product of bringing games to the Linux platform.  MNTHGECC9VB9 Even more exciting for Linux users, we're starting to see some developers gearing up to launch their product on all three platforms simultaneously (such as Heroes of Newerth).  Now that Valve's Steam is available on MacOS, there's even a lot of belief that a Linux release might be next.

So what does a gaming system for Linux look like?  Two of our support technicians, Daniel and Christopher, both run Linux on their personal desktop systems, so I thought I'd challenge them each to design a Linux gaming rig.  I also threw in a catch:  Keep the price under $999.

Both of the guys came up with excellent configurations for that price point, and each took a different approach.  Christopher went with an AMD platform and a faster video card, while Daniel's configuration is using an Intel processor which has a lot more upgrade potential in the future.



Christopher's Linux Gaming Configuration

Motherboard:  Asus M4A78TD-M EVO
CPU:  AMD Athlon II x2 245
RAM:  2gb Kingston DDR3-1333
Video:  Zotac GeForce GTS 250
Case:  Antec Mini P180 (White)
Full Configuration

Total Price:  $960.13
I went with an M4A785TD-M EVO motherboard, as it's a pretty solid, reasonably inexpensive AMD option.  Trying to keep the costs down, I've worked with an AMD CPU for this build, as Intel tends to be a little more costly.  The Athlon II X2 245 offers a pretty solid clock, and compares favorably to some of its quad-core brethren.

One thing I have made sure to stay away from is an ATI video card.  While I love my ATI card in Windows, the driver support on Linux is less than desirable, and I'd like to have an easier time getting good performance. As such, I've settled for a Zotac GeForce GTS 250 1GB.  This should give plenty of performance, and while it's not a massive powerhouse, it'll play just about anything available.

A Corsair 650W power supply is great.  It's actually overkill, but leaves room for future upgrade potential.  In addition, we've had better reliability with it over its 450W counterpart.

If I have one thing I'm disappointed with in my build, it's the lack of RAM - I've got 2GB of 1333MHz Kingston ValueRAM in the configuration, which is barely enough for a decent gaming experience.  In most gaming machines, I'd expect to run at least 4GB of RAM.  That said, since we're gaming in Linux, I'm less worried about a loss of performance due to OS overhead, so I feel justified in dropping it.

Finally, for the distribution of Linux, I'm personally fond of CrunchBang Linux, as the snappy OpenBox based distribution has an interface I feel more comfortable with.  However, for ease of use and general support, Ubuntu is the current Linux king on the desktop, so I've gone with that for this build.


Daniel's Linux Gaming Configuration

Motherboard:  Asus p7p55-M
CPU: Intel Core i3 530 Dual Core
RAM:  2gb Kingston DDR3-1333
Video:  XFX Radeon HD 5670
Case: Silverstone TJ08 (Black)
Full Configuration

Total Price  $983.30
I started with the P7P55-M motherboard because I like the Micro ATX platform. One of the things that technological progression gets us is smaller components. It sometimes amazes me how many people are still using full-size ATX boards for no good reason when they could move to a much smaller Micro ATX board and have a much smaller machine that fits on their desk and can be easily moved. Another key here is the Intel P55 chipset. It supports the Core i3, i5, and i7 chips so it's very upgradeable. It also lacks the integrated graphics that the H55 and H57 chipsets include, so you're not spending the extra money on that when you're not going to use it in a gaming machine anyway.
I went with the Radeon 5670 because it's the best graphics card I could get while keeping within the price limit specified and spending enough on other components to make a well-rounded machine. The 5670 will run many games just fine, and even the newest games as long as you're okay with decreasing graphical detail and running a relatively low resolution. (Maybe a 19" widescreen at 1440x900, or a 22" widescreen at 1680x1050 if you don't care about the very latest games.) A point of comparison here, the Nintendo Wii only supports 480p maximum, which is approximately equivalent to a 854x480 resolution. Many Xbox 360 titles only run at a maximum of 720p which is about 1280x720.

In my opinion, the Silverstone TJ08 is the most aesthetically pleasing PC chassis we sell, bar-none.  It's is very small compared to most of our other offerings, so it should be less obtrusive on your desk.

The Western Digital Caviar Black series of hard drives are among the fastest mainstream hard drives. Of course SSDs and even Western Digital's own 'Velociraptor' series are faster, but the prices on those put them out of reach for this build.  Finally, I've only put 2GB of RAM on this machine, unfortunately the price limit didn't allow for much more. That said, in my experience, Ubuntu 10.04 is much more forgiving of a RAM shortage than Windows 7 would be.

What do you think?  Since Linux is free and Windows 7 Pro runs about $150, there's certainly an appeal for Linux-based desktop gaming systems.  If more and more games are launched and supported by Linux, do you think more gamers will consider it as a way to get more gaming bang for their buck?  With Steam available on MacOS, is Windows going to lose it's stranglehold on the gaming market?  Share your thoughts in the comments section!


I would like to point out that the most important part of my commentary was cruelly left out! For the readers' pleasure:

"First off, a good open source gaming PC needs to be colored correctly. It must stand out from the mass of black cases that exist today! Sure, they're classy looking. Sure, they beat a beige box, but there's a whole world of colors out there! Also, there's white, and since the solid Mini P180 only comes in white and black, that pretty much narrows down the options. So, now that I've got the most important PC part decided, let's move onto the other stuff."

Posted on 2010-06-18 21:09:32

Very nice builds (I'm a particularly huge fan of Christopher's).

Many open source games have become very polished. There are pretty high quality shooters, strategy games, RPG's, and so forth available in the Ubuntu Software Center completely free of charge. It won't replace a PS3 for game availability, but I have found I game more on linux then I ever did on windows.

Posted on 2010-06-27 19:27:35

You've got to go with Nvidia for Linux.

AMD/ATI's drivers and support are getting better, but Intel chipset + Nvidia graphics is the golden combo right now.

Both above configs on this page paired the least Linux friendly combinations. (Eek!)

Posted on 2010-07-05 17:07:56

While these configurations may not be perfect, we did have the price limit to stay under and I'm confident I could make them work. Linux actually has fewer compatibility issues compared to Windows when running both AMD and Intel parts in the same system. I like to support ATI because they've actually made the effort to release their hardware specs to the community and allow open-source developers to make a good driver. I like Intel because I've personally had better luck with their chipsets.

Posted on 2010-07-06 21:19:34
Dennis Sanders

I am glad to see that Linux is getting more attention from the gaming community even though I am not a gamer. I have had a real nightmare with standard commercial PCs and Windows Vista and the upgrade from to Windows 7. I have switched to Ubuntu completely when 10.10 came out. I tried Ubuntu in the past but would always go back to XP but when 10.10 came out the difference in Windows (any and all versions) compared to Ubuntu is really significant and I could never go back to Windows. I switched my wife over to a Mac and she could not be happier. I just think that MS has really gone down the wrong path after XP. They should have made their OS more like Mac and Unix - fast, safe, reliable, simple and for some reason they can't or won't and I have given up on them completely.

Posted on 2011-04-01 07:37:08