The Frugal Laptop

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Lately, my lust for gadgets has been going utterly crazy. I want one of those nifty netbooks. For those unaware, a netbook is a very small laptop (think a nine inch screen or so) that focuses on efficient energy use rather than power. For the most part, these devices are mostly just designed to run a web browser and an email program very well – they’re intended to be small enough to fit in a purse or even in a pocket, but enable you to do email and/or browse the web anywhere you can get a Wi-Fi signal (or, in the event you have mobile broadband, pretty much anywhere).

Since I have a nice desktop machine in my office and I can do quick web browsing and reading of email on my iPod Touch (a wonderful Christmas gift, I must say), a netbook isn’t really a need at all. It would just be convenient, enabling to do some things out of the house that I couldn’t otherwise do.

Old laptop

At the same time, I had an old laptop in my closet. It’s several years old and it really struggles running Windows Vista – I had thought about downgrading it to Windows XP, but I never really bothered because of another problem. The laptop’s battery was completely shot. It would last roughly thirty seconds on battery before simply powering down abruptly.

What I would like to have is a device with a few hours of battery life that starts up quickly and allows me to check my email and a few key sites on the road. Most of all, I’d like to find the cheapest route to get from what I have to where I want to be.

So I put on my frugal thinking cap and got to work.

Fixing the Power Problem
The first step was to solve the power issue – and the way to solve that was to find a new battery for the laptop. A replacement battery from Dell costs $140 – ouch.

Luckily, laptop batteries are a perfect item to shop around for online, as many different vendors sell laptop batteries at widely varying prices. A minute worth of Google searching found a compatible battery for $56.88 and talking to a few parts vendors on eBay by email found another one for $50 including shipping. When you need parts, ask around.

Replacing the battery is trivial – simply unlock the old one, pop it out, and pop in the new one. Most reasonably new laptops follow the same procedure – incredibly easy.

Fixing the Software Problem
This leaves me with the second problem – how can I make this old laptop do the things I want with any degree of speediness? I started up the laptop and it took six and a half minutes from hitting the power button until I was ready to actually do anything.

The easiest option would be to just downgrade the laptop to an earlier version of Windows, but this requires me to have a copy of an earlier version of Windows easily available. Also, older versions of Windows eventually stop being supported with updates, making them a security risk.

Instead, I went in a different direction for a solution.

Ubuntu!

I simply wiped the entire hard drive on the old laptop and installed Ubuntu on it. Ubuntu is a very user-friendly flavor of Linux that is arguably easier to install than Windows and runs very well on older hardware (not ancient hardware, just older hardware). All I had to do was burn an Ubuntu CD on my desktop machine, install it on the laptop, plug in my network cable on the laptop, and have Ubuntu update itself to all of the latest software and drivers. Boom – everything works like a charm, from the sound to the wireless. It took me about two hours, all told, and most of that time was simply waiting, meaning I walked away and did other things while things got set up.

Best of all, every single significant feature I wanted for my netbook is present here: quick to start up, simple web browsing and email access, the ability to do some writing and a bit of number crunching in a pinch – it’s all right there.

My total cost for all of this was about $60.

How Can I Use This Information?
You’re probably wondering how this is useful to you at all. It’s simple – you can basically do the same exact thing if you just want a simple laptop for checking email and surfing the web. For those tasks, you can easily get away with an older laptop.

So how do you get an older laptop? The easiest way is to simply ask around in your community. If you have a local computer store, stop in and see what they have that’s older (by older, I would recommend a laptop that’s not more than five or six years old and has wireless capability). You can also do some shopping online, but shopping for used computer hardware online is definitely a caveat emptor process.

My recommended method, though, would be to ask around your social network and see if anyone has an older laptop that they’re not using that they’d be willing to sell for cheap or trade. Start with anyone you know who has used a laptop over the last few years. You’ll be surprised how many people have old computer equipment that they’re happy to offload for a pittance.

You’ll probably need to find a new battery for that laptop, so before you invest much money, find out the model number and make sure you can get a battery online for it.

Once you have those pieces, though, it’s usually quite easy to replace the battery and install Ubuntu on it, and once you have that, you have a wonderfully functional laptop that’s perfect for checking email and surfing the web – and it won’t cost you too much at all.

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81 thoughts on “The Frugal Laptop

  1. I feel that I should add, for anyone considering a netbook. Marketers are encouraging people to use them as a second computer; I use mine as a primary one. I’m writing my thesis on an Acer Aspire One and it’s doing a great job. I do everything on mine.

  2. Love it when I see people posting about linux. Ubuntu is my all time fav. One thing worth mentioning aslo is that ubuntu MAY NOT work with the wirless on all laptops. A good site to reference is http://www.linux-laptop.net. They let you know what version of linux operating system they are using on what laptop. Very useful info.

  3. Trent, why not sell the newly-repaired Dell for a couple hundred dollars and get your netbook? I ask only because I imagine the netbook would be more portable than a full-sized laptop, and that seems to be one of your concerns.

  4. I had fixed the battery
    on my old laptop as you described
    but got talked into
    a more faster Vista tablet machine
    and eventually too
    bought a Netbook running
    on the old XP
    The old laptop went to
    a contemporary
    looking to get into computers
    for the first time
    As XP runs indifferently
    on this machine
    I think I’m telling him
    about Ubuntu

    BTW
    I requested
    365 Ways to Live Cheap
    for the Kindle
    Kindle saves me money
    on lower prices
    for all the books I want
    and the money it costs
    for a larger house
    to store them
    and!
    The author’s slice
    is 30-35% of
    the Amazon list price
    which is much better
    I hear than the 17%
    standard deal
    from a conventional publisher

  5. You don’t own a laptop? And you’re a blogger? WOW.

    I have bought older laptops for family members, but most people selling them are “professionals.” What I mean by this is they strip the laptop down to its worst components. I bought an older Thinkpad for my parents. It was only $225, which I thought was a good deal — except then I had to end up replacing the hard drive, because the jerk had put a 10GB drive in there, and the wireless card. (Replacing an internal wireless card is a b*tch!)

    This was before netbooks were around, but I strongly disagree with buying used laptops at this point in time. Buy a netbook instead. At $350-$400 with Windows XP installed, buying a used laptop to save a few bucks isn’t justifiable.

    Check any of the “deal” sites (gottadeal.com; techbargains.com) where you can set alerts on a brand and wait until they go on sale. Lenovo puts up a different sale every week. I recently replaced my own Thinkpad with a X205 and received 15% off from one of Lenovo’s 48-hour sales.

    -Erica

    P.S. Still can’t believe you didn’t have a laptop. Wow again. No wonder we don’t see you at conferences ;)

  6. Hey great tip on Ubuntu. Around the middle of December I heard the tech guy at my work say he was ordering new notebooks for our training room and executives. So I asked him “Hey Tech Guy – I have 3 teenage schoolkids and they all want notebooks. If you are getting rid of the old ones let me know and I might be able to use them”. Well a month went by and no computers but around the end of January he shows up with 2 not too old Dell laptops with docking stations. I was able to install a copy of XP on one of the machines and I hooked it up as a 2nd desktop. It’s working great. Net cost ZERO. I am going to try the Ubuntu on the 2nd one and I think that one will need a new battery. So I will probably end up with 2 working computers for basic internet and email at a net cost of about $50. Until I can get the battery it will run fine on AC, so it will just be temporarily non portable. Anyway – don’t be afraid to ask if you know your workplace is getting new hardware. The old stuff has to go somewhere – and it might as well go to you !

  7. I’m curious what kind of word processing this set up has? Being able to write in a format compatible with Word is important to me, but I have a computer that could benefit from this, so I’m definitely interested. Thanks!

  8. Whether or not getting a used laptop instead of a netbook is a good idea, I think the Ubuntu part of the equation is going to become more significant as time goes on.

    (Well, Linux in general but Ubuntu being very popular will get the “airplay”.)

    Properly cared for and/or repaired, hardware can last a lot longer than the “artificial” product cycles of the commercial software – so open source stuff like Ubuntu makes sense for many reasons.

    I have two 10-year old Powermac G3 B&W desktops that I use as servers in my house. It doesn’t matter if Apple stops supporting the last operating system that ran on them, because I don’t have to stay locked in to Apple. Likewise my old PC desktop that used to run XP and now runs Ubuntu.

    Even for newer hardware, it can make sense. I am typing this on the laptop supplied by my employer – the laptop is much more useful running Ubuntu (via Wubi) than it is running Windows XP.

  9. I have been thinking about a netbook too. My daughter’s laptop is 7 years old and she thinks it is too old for her to use. I have noticed that the netbooks come with Windows XP not Vista.

  10. @Kristen,

    OpenOffice (included with Ubuntu) can save, and read, MS Office files. So if you need Word compatibility, it is there. OpenOffice can also export to PDF, which is nice for some people.

  11. My congratulations, Trent. That was dang clever.

    I definitely like the idea of a light and portable lap top specifically used for internet tasks. It seems like I’ll get an idea for my blog on side businesses in the most random places, and then I’ll just be on fire to write a post at that second. Luckily, I live on a college campus, and it has several computer stations scattered around. Even if they are Windows (I will always be a Mac fan) :)

  12. Interesting post!

    We have an old laptop- it’s under the bed, I think. Why? Well, the first problem was the battery, but we kept using it plugged in- it was like a small, flat-ish desktop. But then the power cord stopped connecting properly, requiring much jiggling and propping-up of said cord. When we took it in to see about getting it fixed, we were told it needed a new motherboard- whatever that is. We haven’t had the money to replace it yet, and I don’t know if it’s even worth replacing- except for all of the pictures we still have stored on there.

    Any thoughts?

  13. My Asus Eee PC 1000HA is running XP, I have Office installed (Word, Excel, PowerPoint.) $350 at Amazon. The thing is terrific – keyboard is 95% of full size. Wireless works great. My old Dell laptop weighs about 8 lbs.; the Asus weighs about 3. No contest.

  14. Nice to see a Linux featured!

    I’ve been running a variety of Linux distros over the past 7 years and am now considerably more comfortable with it than Windows. You get all the software you could ever need; and they are for the most part, compatible with Windows generated documents.

    I found Ubuntu the easiest to use; but you definitely need an interent connection to get any real mileage out of the installation. You get access to a lot of useful free software simply by connecting to the Ubuntu repositories online.

    Good luck and have fun!

  15. @Kristen: OpenOffice (openoffice.org) is a free, Microsoft-compatible office suite that works on most Linux distros, including Ubuntu. It might even come preinstalled, depending on how you configure Ubuntu.

    -Erica

  16. Funny that this article is appearing 2 days after I FINALLY pulled the trigger and bought a netbook!

    I find some consolation in knowing that I shopped around for the best price and found and Asus 1000HA with minor cosmetic flaws for $300.

  17. My wife and I did this on our laptop about two years ago when it seemed like it was time for a new one and it has really stretched the life of our computer, and probably convinced my wife that we don’t need Windows in the future.
    However, I would warn that you occasionally come across something that doesn’t work on Linux without a little effort, or at all (like watching Netflix online).

  18. I’ve been wanting a laptop or notebook for years and even at their least expensive I couldn’t see spending the money when I have a nice 5 year old desk top that works great. I’ve known so many people who were literally going through one a year and am thinking of giving some of them a call to see if they still have one laying around gathering dust.
    Thanks

  19. Thrilled with my Asus eee 1000. 40GB of compact flash instead of a hard drive. Got rid of the brain dead Xandros and installed EasyPeasy (Ububuntu remix) from a 2GB memory stick. Has been rock solid. And avoided the Microsoft tax.

  20. I too love the netbooks, and I really want one, but I know that I really don’t have a need for one. My husband and I each have a laptop, one is about three years old and the is 1.5 years old and they work fine. Well, the newer one is working better now since we wiped Vista off of it and put Windows 7 beta on it (with XP has a backup). But those netbooks are so durn cute and portable. I wish something like that had been out when I was in college. But that was 6 years ago when we didn’t even have flash drives, lol. How did we survive?

  21. I think Trent is comparing apples and oranges. There’s no comparison to lugging around a conventional laptop with one of these ultralight netbook laptops (aka UMPC, Ultra Mobile PC). There’s a place for both in one’s frugal computing life.

    I have an Asus eee 900L 20Gb SSD (solid state drive), I received it as a gift last year. It’s running Xandros, the pre-installed Linux that was standard on this netbook; I went to http://www.eeeuser.com to learn how to get it out of the miserable “easy mode” and into a real KDE desktop. I plan on switching to PCLinuxOS 2009 http://www.pclinuxos.com when it is released in about a month. There are many other versions of Linux customized for the Asus eee, including several versions of Ubuntu.

    I love it, it has changed my computing life, I bring it everywhere. It weighs a hair over two pounds, the AC adapter is tiny, and paired with some flash drives and a small USB faxmodem I have a complete portable office (sometimes I take a small portable USB DVD burner and hard drive with me).

    I have no problem with the small keyboard and 9″ screen. If your hands are large you probably would be happier with the 1000xx series and the 10″ screen. My only gripe is the limited size of the 20Gb SSD, I often have to carry a small portable hard drive to carry a complete set of technical documentation with me.

    I have a new Asus eee 900HA with a 160Gb hard drive arriving this week ($300 at http://www.newegg.com). Unfortunately it comes preloaded with Windows XP Home, no Linux option. I’m replacing the hard drive with a 500Gb ($100, also at newegg), and will have have a multiboot Linux system so I won’t have to use Windows unless absolutely necessary for some ridiculous reason. I’m replacing the hard drive so I can put all my documentation on it and not have to carry the external drive.

    Openoffice is not just for Linux, there’s a Windows version as well. There is absolutely no reason to wsste money on MS Office. It’s completely ccompatible with MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc. and it’s open source and free. Download it from http://www.openoffice.org.

    I have always used ultraportable Thinkpads as my primary laptops, they are reliable and survive serious road warrior abuse. My oldest Thinkpad (10 year old TP240) is still in service. All my Thinkpads run Linux extraordinarily well. But my Thinkpads were very expensive when I bought them (in the thousands of dollars range), and worth every penny. The Asus eee, Acer Aspire, etc. are inexpensive, but are cheaply made, I don’t expect to get 10 years of service from my Asus eee. I could buy six or seven Asus netbooks for what I typically pay for a Thinkpad.

  22. This article contains some helpful insights that have inspired me to think a little further outside the box with respect to the situation I find myself in. Unfortunately, I am only marginally tech savvy.

    The hard drive crashed on my Gateway 510 XL Media Center PC (purchased April, 2004) recently. A friend helped me bring it back to life–at least temporarily–and I purchased an external hard drive and now have a complete backup. It is running, albeit noisily, yet I’ve lost all confidence in it. Since I work from home in both full- and part-time roles, reliability is extremely important.

    I can’t help but wonder if your approach might be beneficial in my circumstance, especially since I’m nowhere near exceeding the RAM or storage capacity of my machine, and it was a big investment nearly five years ago. After reading your article, I phoned Gateway to price a replacement hard drive. I found that they no longer sell replacement parts and they suggested I contact TigerDirect to purchase an ATA drive. (I must confess that not being able to buy a device direct from the manufacturer undermines my confidence in this endeavor a bit.)

    It appears that I can acquire a 250GB ATA Seagate or Western Digital drive (same capacity as the failing drive) for $50.00, or 500GB for $75-100. Either option sounds like a good investment compared to the cost of a new PC which will also require a transition to Vista, which I really dislike.

    My question is whether it’s reasonable to think that the other original equipment in the PC will hold up long enough for me to get my money’s worth out of a new drive. Also, since reliability is so critical, am I better off buying a new PC? (Although with the much less generous warranties they are offering on new machines, perhaps that shouldn’t factor much in my decision.)

    I think I’ll be okay with it from an application standpoint for awhile yet since it has sufficient memory/storage to run MS Office 2007, MS Money, and to remote connect to my employer’s system.

    Finally, my husband and I are a year into our “The Simple Dollar”-inspired debt reduction plan so money is an object. In the past year, we’ve paid down our credit card debt by just under half, despite the fact that my husband had to go on long-term disability last fall. I do have money in savings tagged for computer replacement; however, we’d prefer to keep it there in these challenging economic times.

    If you’ve read this far, let me apologize for the length of my post and the intrusion on your time. Obviously I would be grateful to know how you would proceed if you found yourself in this situation.

  23. @Kristen: You can also use Google Docs or Zoho.com for word processing compatible with MS Word AND have access to your docs from any computer w/ internet access.

    If that doesn’t work for your situation, I’d still go with OpenOffice.

    Trent: Are you drinking coffee in the pic of Ubuntu loading? Nice touch!

  24. for a netbook i definitely recommend any Asus EEEpc. they’re fabulous! I have the 1000HA, and with 6ish hours of battery, and at under 3 pounds, it has replaced my dying Dell laptop (that i suffered through no battery life for 1.5 years with). I will never go back to a non-netbook laptop.

  25. Good post Trent. I can’t seem to pull the trigger on a new laptop. I consider it a want, versus a need. I’ve always figured that if I feel the need to check my email and the internet consistently from the road, perhaps I’m spending too much time in Cyber Land. Yet, I realize that in a growing technological world a laptop is becoming more of a necessary.

  26. I’m writing this from an old laptop that I Ubuntuized after reading your post. It works great! Thank you for the inspriration.

  27. Dang! your “old laptop sitting in a closet” is my primary laptop! I agree about the battery life, but I always thought mine was/is a great performer.

    (theCase closes eyes, looks up, and sheds a silent tear, the halcyon days of being happy with my Laptop have been dashed against the rocks of reality…)

  28. A very good point, that one can save money by reworking an old laptop to breathe some life into it, via hardware and OS changes.

    However, a very good point that has been made previously, and one worth reiterating, is that many people buy netbooks because of the form factor. They are small and light, and fit handily into a backpack with a neoprene case, for example, rather than often requiring a standalone case. They use SSD hard drives, which make a snappy linux installation even faster.

    Personally, I’m a Mac man, and I’m planning on getting an iPhone to be my netbook. It’s all I need for being on the go, and fits into a pocket. I certainly have other mac laptops, and carry them with me, but they’re heavy, and I very rarely need them for their strengths anymore – they stay at home when I need to do video and photo processing.

    As to the use of Ubuntu… rock on. Linux is the ultimate frugal OS – it’s completely free, it saves headaches with malware in the long run, and it’s pretty user friendly. Caution is, of course, it may take some effort to get it running on your computer, especially if it’s newer – wireless and video drivers might not work perfectly, or at all, for example. But, there are FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) equivalents for almost any commercial software out there, and not all of it is limited to Linux. Open Office, an MS Office replacement that has already been mentioned, and GIMP, a (free!) Photoshop replacement, work on all three major OS’. Functionality is not always the same (GIMP can’t handle CMYK colorspace, for example), but is many cases it’s so close that for the vast majority of people, it works fine.

    And, of course, it’s free.

  29. @Mrs Embers: If you have a friend handy with a soldering iron, you can likely get them to solder the connections back on so your power supply works again. Even if that does work (and I know others who have done it), it’s a temporary fix at best.

    It’s pretty easy for someone to get the pictures off your laptop hard drive. You can do it yourself by simply buying a 2.5″ enclosure, getting your hard drive out of the laptop, and plugging it into the enclosure, then connecting it via USB.

    If all this sounds like a foreign language, most geeks will happily do something like this for you in exchange for a dinner or two. The enclosure should run about $25. You’ll need to make sure the enclosure is the same type as your drive (IDE or SATA.)

    Anyway, the laptop isn’t really worth keeping. Once you have your pictures off, format the drive (or have the aforementioned geek friend do so), put it back in the laptop, and donate it for parts. I recommend getting a netbook instead.

    -Erica

  30. By the way, you can’t sell a laptop that is a few years old for “several hundred bucks”. The reason being that laptops now are being sold for “several hundred”. I recently saw my laptop at walmart for $350, a Compaq Presario 2G Memory, 160 HD. Not top of the line, but for $450, you can get 3G mem and 250 HD. I also can’t believe Trent doesn’t have a laptop, that seems essential for a blogger. Anyway, prices have really dropped for notebooks in the last year.

  31. My old laptop is getting past it too – battery life being a problem – but I don’t want to spend extra money on it, because it’s hard drive is so far past its use-by date, that I figure it’s probably not money well spent.

    As someone else commented, one of the prime selling points of netbooks is portability. I want a portable I can cart to the library or coffee shop and the three kilo laptop is too darn heavy.

    Also, people who get frustrated with linux on old machines should be aware that there are some distros designed for older hardware, and that reasonably new, powerful hardware delivers superior performance (of course). Google your hardware components plus linux to check for compatibility before installing.

  32. First, just as an aside, bad battery life isn’t a laptop problem… it’s just a feature of laptops. You’ll need new batteries from time to time. The more you use the thing as a mini-desktop — keeping it plugged in — the more often you’ll need to upgrade the battery (ironically).

    Second, what’s interesting about the post isn’t what Trent did with the laptop, but how he worked through the problem and found a way to save money. We get so used to just throwing money at any issue that we forget to exercise our creativity to come up with alternatives.

    Finally, the best way to get reliable used computer equipment of all types is to express your interest to all your early-adopter geek friends. We used to be a regular source of trickle-down computer upgrades to family and friends as we bought cool new toys and equipment. We’re a bit smarter now though.

  33. I tend to agree with NYC reader. There’s a world of difference between an old laptop and a modern netbook. Although that’s not to say that your solution is bad, if it meets your needs then that’s great.

    The main difference between the two is that the netbook has a solid state drive. This means it’s not only smaller, faster, more efficient and cooler to run, it also has no moving parts, so you can knock it around a lot more and not worry too much about damaging it or losing data. An old laptop, despite looking big and clunky, is actually quite fragile.

    One suggestion I’d make, Trent, is that you pull the laptop apart completely (take photos as you go so you can figure out how to put it back together!) and clean all the dust out from inside the casing. You’d be amazed at how much lint collects around the heatsink in some of those Dells, and it’ll run much better if the air can circulate freely.

  34. Why not get a keyboard for your iTouch? That would solve a lot of the issues. Our household has 2 desktops, 1 laptop, 1 netbook, and 2 phones that do email/surf – but they’re tax write-offs as we review electronic equipment. I would think that the iTouch, a netbook and/or a laptop would be a tax write-off for Trent as well.

  35. woo-hoo!! Go Ubuntu :) We’re pretty hardcore linux fanboi’s, so it’s always good to see it promoted somewhere. When you said how long it took to boot, my inner monologue was going “linux, linux…LINUX” low and behold ;) Glad it worked out for you!

  36. I have a site focused on laptops and I found some interesting and useful information in your post. I am a firm believer in taking advantage of technology that is a generation back but still cost effective.

  37. I totally know what you’re saying about the laptop battery on the Dell Inspiron that you picture. I have the same laptop, and the battery does the same exact thing. I think maybe they have designed the laptop that way, so that the battery wears out quick, and you are forced to buy a new one. It even pops up a little message talking about how the battery has reached the end of its life, and has a link to click on to buy a new one!

  38. @Dwight – Comment #26: Every Operating System should have Anti-virus software installed and kept up to date. While most of the viruses (virii?) being written are aimed at Windows, there are a lot of hackers going after other operating systems and other software as well. There have been a number of flaws discovered in Linux that can be exploited, and it is increasingly a target as it gains in popularity.

    The hackers are also targeting the programs that run on the operating system as well. In the last few weeks my anti-virus software has caught 3 or 4 attempts to infect my PC with trojans going after flaws in Adobe Acrobat Reader. Luckily I’ve got Acrobat patched up to the current “safe” version (the version with no known, as of now, flaws) so those attacks would not have succeeded even if the trojan used was not old enough for Symantec Anti-virus to have it included in the AV signatures, but many people don’t think about the need to patch their software.

    Some software you need to keep patched:

    Adobe Acrobat
    Real Media Player and varients
    Absolutely all IM programs (can’t begin to list the Yahoo, AOL and MSN Messenger exploits I’ve seen discovered over the last few years).
    iTunes (yes, it can be used to remotely attack your computer if you have an older version)
    Adobe/Macromedia Flash Player
    WinAMP (gotta love streaming hacks as well as songs, eh?)
    mIRC
    Google toolbar (hackers found a lovely way to redirect the ad-streaming feature to allow them to upload rootkits)

    Pretty much any software that is Internet aware in some fashion can potentially contain software flaws that can be used by a hacker to infect your computer. I get a couple tickets a month for a potential (and all too often a confirmed) virus/spyware problems on computers at work that I know are up to date on their Anti-virus and OS updates. Often the only viable solution is to wipe the hard drive and re-image and start reloading all of the software piece by piece.

  39. Addendum: The comptuers I mentioned as needing to be reloaded due to virus or spyware problems are protected by Anti-virus software, Website viewing restrictions (Websense), E-mail filtering, multiple firewalls (both on the local comptuer and ones installed on our network perimeters), Network intrusion detection software, and account restrictions preventing most users from installing or modifying the software on their computers, and they STILL get infected. There is no such thing as a computer that is perfectly protected from virus attacks. Even some of the ones we have on isolated networks with no direct Internet access and extremely limited cross-network access with our staff network come up as infected from time to time…

  40. I use Ubuntu on my home computer, and use Open Office on both my work computer and the laptop. (I wanted a netbook, too, but the keyboard just isn’t comfortable for extended touch typing, for example, when I am working in the library taking notes.) I LOVE Ubuntu, and find that Open Office does everything I need it to do. the only place where Linux seems less well set up is in the area of scanning :(

    However, for almost anything open source, you can’t beat it. Media player? VLC, hands down. Image work? the GIMP. Database? Base. Email? Thunderbird or Evolution … the list goes on. ALL for free. Plus many fewer virus hassles.

    Welcome to the land of the Linux, Trent!

  41. Trent, did your Dell come with Windows Vista or Windows XP?

    A fresh install does wonders for making Windows usable (should you have a Windows application that doesnt run under Wine on Ubuntu), you could always dual-boot Ubuntu and Windows.

  42. Great post. You definitely made the most frugal and the greenest choice. I don’t believe in throwing things away until they’ve reached the end of their useful life. As much as those netbooks are lovely, its wasteful to go out and buy something new when you can repair and use something thats gathering dust in your closet. And thats the point, isn’t it?

  43. Yay for Ubuntu. At my desk at work I have a Dell Latitude C610 Pentium 3 running Xubuntu (a lighter less powerful version of Ubuntu) and it runs fantastic! This was a notebook that the Network Admin said was only worthy of the dumpster and I’m using it almost daily at work (when I just need to get away from my main PC and escape Windows)

    No Wireless on it but I suppose I could get a USB Wireless or a PCMCIA card.

  44. I will also add my 2 cents that the Asus eee pc is great. I use it all the time, but you would probably want to have a “real” computer too. It fits in my purse and works everywhere and it’s so small. You can do all kinds of word processing and spreadsheets, etc. The keyboard takes a little getting used to but it hasn’t been a problem for me.

    As far as using an old laptop, mine weighs about 10 lbs and the battery compartment was damaged somehow so even with a new battery, there is literally zero use time (that was a problem from the beginning though). But it would be interesting to do something with it.

  45. Another point on compatible batteries – the unofficial replacement is often simply better as well as cheaper. e.g. I got my girlfriend a new battery for her Dell (with a similarly dead battery) – the Dell battery was 3100mAh, the generic was 4400mAh. Four hours’ battery life in common use. I’ve had the same with Canon camera batteries – the official battery is £25, the generic is £5 and has 2x the capacity!

  46. Also – in my experience, Ubuntu (and Linux/Unix in general) run very well on machines going back to Pentium II era (400MHz and up). But the thing you really need is memory – fill the laptop with as much memory as you can! 512MB is the minimum usable for the GNOME (Ubuntu) or KDE (Kubuntu) desktops, you can get away with less for XFCE (Xubuntu). This is a good tip for computers in general – AS MUCH MEMORY AS YOU CAN FIT.

  47. How ironic. Your old laptop is the exact same laptop I have. And my battery is fried too.

    It’s my main computer though and I really need to do something about the battery. I suspect it to be a software issue, not a hardware issue.

  48. I tried doing that to our oldest and unusable laptop (it was so old it had problems running XP!), but it didn’t have the right drivers to get Ubuntu or even really Fedora working on it. Netbook was $378, which is more than $60, but I can actually take it places because it’s so light and am using it as my primary laptop…saving a number of years in replacing my own old laptop. But that sounds like a good choice for a backup computer, if you can get it to work.

  49. Trent, you are unbelievable. I am not that technologically augmented, but I love reading about intelligent people who can figure this stuff out. That’s amazing…spend $60 and a few hours and you produce the kind of machine you wanted to purchase.

    Why don’t you lend some common sense to Congress? I bet you’d help them save a dollar or two of taxpayer money.

    Great post.

  50. Wow, this is a really useful article! I have similar frustrations with my “old” mac powerbook, and am inspired to go and figure out how to fix it now! Really good idea for a post.

  51. Thanks! I messed w/ Linux *years* ago, but it never stuck because there just wasn’t the kind of compatibility there is now. If you have to run microsoft in your Linux, why bother?!
    But, I have an old Compaq I might try this on. It may be just shy of too old – but it’s worth it to tinker. I’m not a fan of the “Microsoft Tax” as someone else put it (Love that, btw!) but having to use Quickbooks, etc. makes it seemingly impossible to change. Plus I recently started using software that requires Microsoft Exchange. So now I think I’m pretty much handcuffed. ;-)

  52. I have mixed feelings on this. Yes, you revived an old laptop for very cheap. However, you haven’t gained much, if any, portability. I have an HP Mini 1000 (my only laptop, I have two desktops) and it’s great. Arguably the best keyboard out of all the netbooks and I can fit it in my coat pocket. It also runs Windows 7 like a dream. You can get a version that comes with a custom HP-designed install of Linux but I’ve used Linux and for overall consumer-related use, I’ll stick with Windows. The fonts on Linux are just awful and make my eyes hurt, as well as everything else just feeling sluggish compared to Win7. If you know what you’re doing, you don’t need anti-virus and even if you want it, there are plenty of free packages out there (AVG, Avira, ClamAV)

    No upfront cost =/= Total cost of ownership when you factor in the time and frustration it takes to get some things done in Linux that are trivial in Windows.

  53. Also, you can upgrade memory on most modern (3-4 years old)laptops for around $30 per Gig of ram.
    The process is usually (depends on the model) not much more complicated that swapping the battery. If the laptop is older than 3-4 years old, you run the danger of the laptop using older, hard to find memory.
    Also, I have an Asus Eee 900 (Should have waited for the 901). It is my constant companion in my backpack.

  54. My retired father has been running PCLinuxOS-KDE3.5 on his desktop for the past 2-3 years so Linux wasnt a problem when we wanted to get my mom a netbook this Xmas. The Acer One was going for under 300$ but after she tried out a friends EEE she noticed that she didnt really need mobility as much as a large screen.

    So I ended up buying the 5yr old low end Acer laptop of a coworker for 150$ instead. Built like a tank which doenst bother my mom who leaves the laptop either in the kitchen or living room, its 15in screen are the one option mom cant do without. Thought about getting a battery but mom said no, she doenst travel with it. So I got a 2GB stick of ram for 29$.
    I reformatted the bug ridden XP that was lurking on the HD and installed her Mandriva w/ KDE4.2 desktop (I dare you to put Mandriva, Kubuntu and a few other distros side by side and tell me that there is any difference except for some wallpapers and icons. Its the same desktop, theyre just customized differently. Desktop choice matters more than distro choice.) and she loves having the huge icons and the kWin desktop built in zoom features which makes it easier on her eyes. She can Skype with her friends in europe without having to get my dad off the internet, she IMs with Kopete with her grandkids and even follows two on Twitter. She also thinks my sister’s Dell Mini 9′s interface looks ‘depressing’.

    The netbook, while useful to soccer moms and hockey dads around the world, wasnt right for her. But at no time was the thought of buying a new laptop (overkill) and having to pay for Vista an option. There is a place for Windows, Linux and Mac in the same world but Linux allows us to breath new life/prolong old hardware and is a sane choice when trying to cut unnecessary expenses..
    As someone whose youngest sports a blazing Puppy Linux on his P3-800 and whose decade old T21 laptop (w/ 8meg of video ram) still hums beautifully under Linux, I’ve grown to appreciate what I can still do with old hardware. I’d rather have older computers that you can do plenty of stuff without costly upgrades and spend the money on a good gaming console/TV combo.

    I also installed XP through Virtualbox on mom’s laptop so my 7yr year can play Chessmaster when he is over and run mainly Gentoo on my work machine, a Macbook Pro which triples boots Vista/OSX/Linux, so its not a religion thing with me, just dollar and sense.

    I respect that free software is free as in freedom/libre but I especially like the fact that its free as in beer.

  55. “By the way, you can’t sell a laptop that is a few years old for “several hundred bucks”.”

    Actually, you can…sometimes. Macs retain their value pretty well compared to other computers. Ramsey’s “Drive Free, Retire Rich” strategy works for computers, too. :) So, “Compute Free, Retire Rich?” I sold a 3-years-old iMac for less than the asking price on Craigslist and EBay, and it still funded 70% of my (refurbished) MacBook Pro purchase.

  56. Interesting. We have an 8yo Dell laptop that we passed on to our daughter when I upgraded last year. It takes ages to start up and is very slow. All she needs is some word processing, email and internet so this would probably work quite well for her. Portability isn’t an issue here thankfully, since the laptop weighs a ton!

  57. I’m torn,
    My Laptop has the same Battery issue,if I could find a “code editor” app, as well as a plugin keyboard, I’ll gladly use my ipod touch,
    Unfortunately I can’t so with a failing battery and a heavy laptop I am considering a netbook, I just hate lugging that thing around especially to school, and flights. At home it doesn’t bug me too much.

  58. Awesome! I love projects like this. Restoring things you thought were obsolete, and getting to be resourceful and creative in the process.

  59. I have had the same Dell Inspiron Laptop since I cashed in my Walmart stock in 2003 to buy it. It still runs, with some added RAM and HD space; I almost can’t believe it! I am fearing the day it finally chokes…

  60. Here’s another tip: RAM! These old laptops came with 256 or 512mb and almost any modern OS is going to choke on that. Get a 1GB or more stick if you can. Installing it is super easy, it’s cheap, and you’ll notice a difference instantly.

  61. I really enjoyed reading your post but kept thinking is this really happening to save $300? Granted most of the time was spent loading software but I would assume you still had two hours or distraction and from reading your blog I would say your time is worth more! I also agree with a few of the comments above, having a netbook for simple stuff like email, browsing, and calculations is so much better than lugging around an old laptop! For all those netbook users we just wrote a post on the GoEverywhere blog about getting the most out of your netbook by using a webtop. Of course we have a fantastic webtop currently in beta for you to explore! Anyway I still enjoyed the post and the comments thank you to all!

  62. THIS is why I read this column! I wouldn’t dare or wouldn’t think of buying a Dell battery from an alternate source on my own. But hearing a trusted blogger advocate for it gives me the gumption to try. I did it today. Thanks!

  63. Thanks for this info, Trent.
    I have another suggestion on alternative ways to purchase a laptop.
    I live near the University of California, Santa Cruz, and they have a surplus store (like many large universities) that sells excess and used products that are no longer needed. You can purchase a macbook for under $250 if your timing is right. I’ve been wanting to have a computer specifically for my music experiments. I’m also planning to run the Ubuntu operating system and all open source programs. It’s a cheaper alternative for my needs.

  64. Funny when you mention the “old” laptop, I have exactly the same model that I use as my main PC. It’s only 1 1/2 year old and runs flawlessly. However, being my main PC, I seldomly use it unplugged, so the battery is still fine.

    I also had the foresight to buy it with Windows XP instead of Vista and to order it with 2 Gb of Ram. That may explain the difference on perception we have on this machine.

  65. This is a good article and highlights the choice consumers have between a new netbook or an older laptop. They both have pros (netbook is new, laptop is bigger) and cons ( netbook has scrunched up keyboard, laptop is older and could fail) so it is really up to the individual whether they should buy an older laptop or newer netbook. Here is an article I wrote about the choice of a desktop vs. laptop.
    http://savemoneyoncomputers.blogspot.com/2009/02/4-things-you-should-know-before-you-buy.html

  66. Thanks for the tip! I read this when you first posted it and my Dell Insp 6000 hard drive was already on its last legs. I was planning to get a new HD and dual boot XP and Ubuntu. Since I couldnt find my XP CD last night, I am 100% Ubuntu.

  67. What a clever idea!

    I would really like to setup a home computer and downsize from my current 14 inch laptop to something like the 7-10 inch eeepc. This would provide me a longer battery life for surfing the net and basic office programs (ie: openoffice) for working while on trains, trams, busses, etc.

    The best benefit for me though would be the weight reduction (the 7 inch eeepc only weighs .92 kilos, my current laptop sits over 2.5! Might sound like a small difference but makes a tremendous change on your back over long distances.

  68. Ubuntu rocks. I ran it on my old T42 Thinkpad for a while before I had problems connecting to my MBA program’s secure wireless. Had to switch back to XP.

    Thankfully I finish my program in August and can switch back to Linux then. I’ve had the laptop 6 years and it is still going strong.

  69. Great idea! Linux has always been a great option and it keeps getting better. The Linux laptops are noticeably lower cost and many of the great free utilities out there are the best tools for a tech!

  70. Just last week I set up a Ubuntu file server on my old Dell desktop. Then proceeded to reinstall Vista on my Inspiron 1501. I am now able to dual boot Vista and Ubuntu on the Inspiron.

    Wireless was no problem, neither was network printing.

    Great idea!

  71. Thanks for another great article Trent. Most large organizations donate or otherwise dispose of older computing gear regularly. Getting a free computer can be as easy as calling up the IT department and asking.

  72. Don’t know about anyone else but I couldn’t get beyond the first step, loading the ISO file via the USB installer. Doesn’t seem to exist which makes it very hard to install

  73. Update: no luck, will pass the PC on to a geek friend and ask him to give it a try. To make it clear this just isn’t an issue of downloading a file and running an EXE like you would with windows

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