$250 Desktop Runs Ubuntu, Windows 7 and OS X?

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I recently wanted to get a new desktop computer to use for some programming projects. Seeing that I have a bunch of old computer parts laying around, I wanted to build my own computer. I started out by looking at some of the newest top-end Intel and AMD processors and motherboards, but the total price kept growing out of control, even if I used some of my old parts. Then, I noticed an interesting desktop motherboard from Intel that included a dual-core Atom processor. This got me to thinking, do I really need a top-of-the-line computer, or can I get by with something as cheap as this $90 CPU/motherboard combo?

After doing some quick googling, I realized that this motherboard series is actually quite popular and that people are using them for all sorts of tasks. Some make them into entertainment centers, low-powered servers, car computers and even hackintoshes. This peeked my interest and I decided to try it out for myself, after all, using some of my old computer parts (HD and DVD drive), I could make this new desktop for less than $200, what did I have to loose?

So, are these Intel motherboards with their low-power Atom processors really all that people claim? Could I run Ubuntu (my main goal), Windows 7 and OS X all on this dirt cheap hardware? Here’s what I found out.

My Hardware

Build your own

This motherboard is really small, and you can buy some incredibly small cases to put it in. The smaller cases don’t have much room for add-ons (but really, how often do we really fill our cases with addons?). It seems that just about everything can be added by USB these days. In fact, I decided not even to install an internal DVD drive, because I don’t need a DVD drive for everyday use.

I found the case to be very nice and I have no complaints. Putting everything together was a snap and both the case and motherboard came with adequate instructions. The real question here is about performance with different operating systems.

Ubuntu 9.04

Since I do most of my daily work and programming in Ubuntu, this was the most important OS for me. I was going to try installing from a USB flash drive, which everyone claims is easy, but found it easier to just hook up my old IDE DVD drive temporarily and use my trusty Ubuntu Jaunty install CD. Everything went like normal, the Ubuntu install is incredibly simple these days. I had Jaunty up and running in less than 20 minutes.

I’m happy to report that all of the hardware worked perfectly with absolutely no tweaking - I never opened a terminal once while setting up this machine - it just works! I was immediately surprised by the performance of the machine. The dual-core Atom 330 processor runs at 1.6 GHz and I figured that performance would be pretty poor.

The machine boots Ubuntu quickly and launches applications seemingly just as fast as my Core 2 Duo system. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it works very well for daily use. I don’t use any really power-hungry applications (besides Firefox, which seems to demand more resources every day) and spend a lot of time in Vim and the browser. Video performance is acceptable and Compiz works flawlessly. I didn’t do any benchmarks, but I can say that I find the performance to be acceptable.

Windows 7

I decided to install the release candidate of Windows 7, again expecting poor performance. (Note, if you want to dual-boot Ubuntu and Windows, it’s best to install Windows first). Windows 7 also installed on this hardware without any tweaking, I didn’t even need to download any drivers. To my amazement, everything just worked. Even all the fancy visual effects worked out of the box!

Windows 7 takes significantly longer to boot than Ubuntu, but boot times were acceptable. Performance seemed reasonable to me (although, installing AVG anti virus really made things work a lot slower). I installed several applications and didn’t run into any problems. I’m not a heavy windows user (pretty much Windows free since late 2005) so I can’t compare the performance to other machines. I can say that I found it usable. For a part-time Windows user, or for those who just like to surf the web and organize their photos, this hardware should be sufficient for running Windows 7.

OS X

I did some quick searches, and found a lot of reports of successful OS X instillation on this motherboard. I have an old Macbook for when I need OS X (which is rare), so installing OS X was not a priority for me. I did give it a try, however, using one of the newer methods which allows you to install from a Leopard retail DVD. I’m not an advocate of cracking or stealing software, so this method seems more palatable to me (it still breaks Apple’s EULA, but not the DMCA).

I followed several different tutorials and was able to get OS X installed on a spare hard drive. I wasn’t, however, able to get things to work perfectly. I had problems with the video drivers that I found online, and all of my 5 attempted installations ended in a machine that either would not boot properly or had messed up video.

I’m quite sure that it’s possible to install Leopard on this hardware, especially since so many others have reported success. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can probably make it work. Personally, Ubuntu does 99% of what I need, so I’ll stick with the free, open source and legal OS that “just works” on my hardware rather than spend days trying to make a hackintosh.

Conclusion

I think this computer would be a wonderful addition to any household. It’s a perfect computer for anyone who’s not a power user (you don’t want use it for gaming, to do high-end video processing or run virtual machines), for kids, grandparents, anyone really. I would feel good about giving this computer for just about any of my friends or relatives. Why not build your own and give it a try?

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