How to upgrade your Linux box for Steam

Upgrade your Linux box
With Steam for Linux just around the corner, now is the time to give yourself a bit more FPS

When you consider that none of us could have much of an interest in Linux if it wasn't for the hardware it runs on, x86 hardware gets relatively little attention.

This might be because Linux is now so stable, and performs well enough on older hardware, that we seldom need to think about it.

But as true as this is, we think there's another reason. And that's compatibility and performance. Despite compatibility being less of an issue than it was 10 years ago, none of us want to spend money on hardware with dubious Linux support, whether that's Intel's latest chipset, the graphics card or solid state storage. Which is why we've borrowed as many components as we could get hold of and tested them for both compatibility and performance.

To make our choices as practical as possible, we've avoided the cutting edge of technology, such as the latest CPUs and graphics cards. Not only does this give Linux and its distributions the chance to catch up with drivers and support, it also makes the prices of these peripherals much more reasonable.

We've also tried to cover competing products, such as AMD and Nvidia graphics cards, and Intel and AMD processors, with the hope of providing a more varied overview of what works well and what might not.

We've tested the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit performance, the enhancement an onboard SSD cache might make to your file-system, and whether open source graphics card drivers are good enough. And while we've not drawn any definitive conclusions on which hardware you should purchase, we've made our opinions clear on what we think works, and what doesn't.

Hardware: A complete guide

Let's start with the peripheral to which all other components are attached

1. Motherboard

Motherboards come in all shapes and sizes, but most will conform to one of the kinds of ATX form factor. This defines where the power connectors should lie and where the board should be connected.

The most common used to be the standard ATX size, and this is still used by many regular desktop and power users because it allows the largest amount of expansion.

But the Micro-ATX is popular, especially in set-top boxes or machines that need to be self-contained. Mini-ATX can be found with embedded systems, but anything smaller is the domain of specialists. For our purposes, you'll need an ATX or Micro-ATX.

2. CPU socket (cooling)

There are just two CPU manufacturers worth your consideration on the x86 platform, AMD and Intel, and both use a multiplicity of CPU sockets and cooling connectors. Which you need will depend on your CPU, and you'll need a motherboard to match.

Intel's latest socket is called LGA1155, and it supports both last year's Sandy Bridge processors and the just-released Ivy Bridge. AMD's latest CPU socket is AM3+, which we've used to look at the AMD Phenom II processor.

Both sockets require compatible coolers, although modern designs can be adapted for both with a screwdriver.

3. Power connectors

Modern machines need a modern power supply. Alongside the regular, wide 24-pin connector, which sometimes splits blocks of 20 plus 4, you'll need an 8-pin/12v connector for the CPU. The design should be foolproof, so it's usually impossible to fit the wrong connector to the wrong socket.

Low-end graphics cards seldom need extra power, but mid-range might need an extra PCI express 6-pin power lead, while a powerful card can require two. These need to come from one PSU, and for a powerful desktop we'd recommend one that can output 600 watts, with separate 12v rails for the graphics card.

4. Memory slots

Memory is tied closely to the CPU, so needs to be chosen specifically to match your platform. This is a lot easier now modern motherboards for Intel and AMD use the same DDR3 packages (until DDR4 is available later this year), and you just need to buy memory that's faster than you need.