Like many of you, I actually have several Linux devices around the house. The TiVo, for starters, is a well-known Linux machine. Also, our Linksys WRT54G and Linksys NSLU2 are a couple of others. However, you really can’t learn much about using Linux on any one of those devices. I wanted to set up my own PC running Linux so I could get familiar with it and also hopefully accomplish some tasks that my Windows desktop and Angela’s Mac aren’t as good at.
I went with the Xandros distribution, mainly for short learning curve and Windows networking, but there are certainly some other options I would like to try in the future.
SmoothWall all is a really cool distribution that creates what is quite possibly the most robust and customizable home firewall available. Any PC with a couple of network cards can act as router and firewall for your home network. This is quite possibly one of the coolest use of a very old PC you can think of. All you need is an old $15 Dell Optiplex (like the ones from the PC labs at TTU!) off of eBay, an additional $5 network card, and the free distribution of SmoothWall Express. Seriously, for much less than a Linksys router, you can have an even better solution if you are willing to put in the time. You could even just put the box in your closet and maintain the system via a web browser interface. Sadly, as much as I love the idea, it is the lack of time that prevents me from doing this sort of thing.
Although not a Linux distribution, if you are willing to purchase some more high-end hardware, you can run MythTV over an existing distribution. However, it seems to not necessarily play well with Debian, on which Xandros is based, so I’ve got some more learning ahead before I attempt this. This has to be the most impressive uses of Linux ever. MythTV is essentially the Media Center Edition of Linux. It has a TiVo-like interface for recording television via cable-tuner card(s). You can even get HD cards and the recordings are DRM-free. There’s even features built in that you’d have to hack into a TiVo or install third-party plug-ins in Windows MCE. There are also video game emulators, built right into the front end of the system so you can play old SNES and NES games! How cool is that? Honestly, the program interface does anything you can imagine with your collection of audio and video. It is truly the ideal solution for my home entertainment system, but alas, there’s that time thing. Until then, I suffer the restraints of TiVo. However, there will come a time when TiVo goes too far in telling me what I can and can’t do, at which time I’ll sink the money into building a MythTV machine.
My Alt Machine
After many store-bought PC’s, I wanted to try my hand at building a computer from scratch. I had some perfectly good memory sticks and a several drives left over from an old Gateway tower, so I thought I’d use those to save some money. However, I wanted this machine to make use of the alternatives of my mainstream Dell Windows PC. So I decided that this needed to be a Linux machine (also, because I just wanted to get familiar with Linux). Therefore, I went some alternate parts in the hardware department as well:
- Processor: AMD Athlon XP 1400
- Motherboard: Biostar M7VKD, bought off of eBay (because it used the memory I had)
- Memory: 384MB – Yeah, odd, huh? Three sticks isn’t the most common configuration.
- Video: NVidia video card. PCI slot because, as it turns out, the AGP slot on my motherboard was bad.
- Network: Belkin USB 10-100 Ethernet Adapter, because if any other PCI slot was used, the video card gave boot errors.
- Case: Antec LanBoy with some extra geeky blue lights, rounded cables, and wire wrapping.
Well, if it isn’t apparent from that list, let me make it clear: my attempt at saving money in order to re-use three memory sticks was a huge mistake. I ended up with a shoddy motherboard and four PCI slots rendered useless. However, it is a fully functioning machine. I will most likely sell off the motherboard/processor/video card combo and replace them someday, but until then, this works fine for playing around.
Xandros: Linux For NeoGeeks
The distro of Linux I’m using these days for my home built PC is Xandros. I use it mainly because I am just learning about Linux and also wanted something that would easily work with the Windows machine in our house (and the Mac, for that matter). One of the Xandros’ strong points is it’s file manager system. For those used to Windows Explorer or Mac Finder, Xandros File Manger is the closest thing Linux has to offer to usability. It is quite possibly the only thing in Linux that I can honestly say "it just works." File trees on your system, Windows machines on the network, mounted drives, etc.; they’re all right there. There are retail version of Xandros which include WINE, DVD burning, and other handy items, but I just use the Open Circulation Version.
Some Xandros/Linux links:
- Download the free Open Ciruclation Version of Xandros 3.02 (Torrent file; get Azureus)
- Xandros Forums
- "Linux Made Easy: The Official Guide to Xandros 3 for Everyday Users" by Rickford Grant
Update: Well, this machine was fun to play around with and build, but in a concerted effort to simply our home life, Angela and I decided that it would be a good idea to get rid of my stack of computers and replace them virtual ones (okay she inspired the first half of that and I came up with the second). I now use a virtual machine to run Ubuntu via Parallels on my iMac. I couldn’t be happier with the results, either.