Picking the Right Cheap Computer, New or Used
Recently, the staff here at Low End Mac has published a series of articles discussing the virtues and drawbacks of cheaper computers, whether new or used, PC or Mac.
I must admit that I probably have the least amount of experience with Macs and very little with OS X among LEM's writers. I'm planning to acquire a copy of OS X sometime soon in order to immerse myself in it, but considering I've been using Linux for over seven years and am very comfortable in it, I have serious doubts as to whether I would switch to using OS X full time. But you never know....
The first computer I purchased was a 4.77 MHz IBM PC compatible. It had 256 KB of RAM onboard, a 384 KB expansion card, a monochrome video card and monitor, and two 360K 5.25" floppy drives. I got it for $20 when I was 16.
Before that I was using the family's Tandy 1000HX, which was 8 MHz IBM PCjr compatible with 384 KB RAM, a 720 KB 3.5" floppy drive, and a Tandy CGA monitor. I had purchased a 1200 baud modem for the Tandy for $80 and then had to purchase an adapter from Radio Shack to use it in the 1000HX. I eventually acquired a 20 MB Hard Card (a hard drive and controller card together) and a 2400 baud modem for my first PC. Over the years I managed to acquire various parts to upgrade or replace my computers.
Computing on the Cheap
The most I've ever spend on a computer at one time is my current project: A Dell Precision 450 barebones ($85 shipped) and a 2.67 GHz Xeon CPU ($41 shipped). The only reason I've invested in this system is to use it for video re-encoding. I don't count the other items - like memory, hard drives, and optical drives - because I move them between computers too much to say that I spent it on one machine.
I have never purchased a new computer. Don't get me wrong - I would like to have a brand new system with a dual- or quad-core processor, lots of RAM, etc. However, I can't justify it right now.
Further, there are really only two reasons I would need such a computer: Gaming, which I rarely do, and video encoding. Otherwise, any of my older PCs and Macs are more than adequate for playing movies, browsing the Net, or word processing.
Yes, sometimes I demand a little too much of my system and have to wait for it (oh no, the horror!). However, waiting a couple of seconds for the system to catch up isn't taking away much from my day. If necessary, I can just grab the keyboard of another machine and start working with it.
At present, I have four computers up and running. One is re-encoding a movie. Another is my server. I'm writing this on my G4-upgraded Power Mac 9600 running openSuSE v10.2. My Dual Xeon/500 MHz Dell can jump in at anytime if needed. I can also log into any of my machines from anywhere in the house and start a task if necessary remotely.
Purchasing a new computer also forces you to pay for a copy of Windows or OS X. Mac OS X is worthwhile, but since I wouldn't use the copy of Windows, I would have two options. I could fight with the vendor for a refund or try to get a system that doesn't include it. (Since most vendors have agreements to preload software, you also get a lot of garbage that may be difficult to remove. Obtaining a copy of the actual Windows install disks and doing a fresh install is recommended by many. You can use any copy of the Windows install CD so long as you only use your licensed product key. The CD is only useful if you have the Key for it.)
Dell has a small handful of systems that don't come preloaded with Windows. [Editor's note: MadTux sells brand new Linux computers for as little as US$139, although we know nothing further about them.]
Why I Use Linux
Most of our readers already know I'm a Linux guy. The biggest reason is because it's very powerful, and it lets me get stuff done fast and the way I want to do it. I don't have to worry about the problems that plague Windows users (viruses, spyware, adware, reinstalling Windows). It's free to download and install legally. There is a free software alternative to almost any commercial applications. And there's a community that's normally ready and willing to help me if I have a question. I've even had contact with the creator of the Linux kernel himself, Linus Torvalds, when I was having a hardware issue on one of my laptops.
But when you get right down to it, I don't recommend Linux for everyone. Installing programs can be a pain sometimes (it's nowhere near as simple as it is with OS X and Windows, although it has come a long way in the eight years I've been using Linux). Some hardware isn't supported (I have a Belkin USB 2.0 PCI card that doesn't work in Linux - newer hardware takes time to be supported since some manufacturers don't supply a driver for Linux).
It's also different in how things are done compared to Windows. On my KDE desktop, the default is a single click to start a program, where Window's default is a double click. There's a learning curve, to say the least. And there's a huge selection of distributions (versions of Linux) available, which can be really confusing.
My advice for those wanting to try Linux is to find someone you know who you can bug for help. Find out if there's a Linux User's Group (LUG) in you're area. Download and run one of the LiveCD versions such as Ubuntu and give it a try. Most LiveCD versions don't touch any of your already installed systems.
If you have an old PC or can get one free or cheap, install Linux on it. Give it a try.
Windows has matured over the years. It has a lot of problems - after all, with about 85% of the market, it's a big target. If you're looking at a Windows system, here are a few things to keep in mind:AVG
Antivirus and anti-spyware software is a must. I recommend Avast Home Edition. It's free, doesn't use a lot of resources, and very good. Ad-Aware is a great anti-adware program. The free version doesn't run all the time, so you have to run it (usually once a week is good). You can pay for a continuous version. Spysweeper is a good program as well, but it's not free. [Editor's note: When I wiped the hard drive on my Windows notebook and reinstalled Windows XP last week, AVG Anti-Virus and AVG Anti-Spyware were among the most highly recommended freeware options. dk]
For Web browsing, download Firefox. Don't use Internet Explorer (IE) unless the site doesn't load in Firefox. IE has too many problems, and some government agencies are recommending against using it.
Make sure your system is up to date. Turn on automatic updates. Microsoft is usually late getting patches out, but they do try to fix the problems.
Check out the programs running in the taskbar (on the bottom right) and turn off programs you don't need all the time, such as QuickTime and Java (the settings are there, but they can be hard to find). When you have 20 programs running at startup "just in case" you need them, your system gets slow.
What I Recommend
Go for a system that will fit your budget. Don't go overboard for features that you probably don't need, but allow for the ability to upgrade later.
Many LEM staffers decry the "vampire video" that comes with a lot of low-end computers. However, if you're only interested in Web browsing, word Processing, and watching videos, the integrated video is often more than adequate. My 9600 has a Radeon 7000. My older Dell has a GeForce 4 MX400. My ThinkPad 390X has a Neomagic chipset with 2 MB of VRAM that plays movies just fine. If you're considering the possibility of doing some video upgrades later on, make sure you get a system with either an AGP or PCI Express (PCIe) slot available.
For basic Web browsing or word processing or movie playing, any 500 MHz system with 256-512 MB RAM is more than adequate. I'm just as productive writing on my ThinkPad 560e (Pentium 166MMX, 48 MB RAM, Windows 98SE) using WordPad as I am running Linux and KWord (part of KOffice) on this faster G4 upgraded 9600. (I don't recommend OpenOffice or MS Office because these programs are overkill for most people. You can do a lot with WordPad, and it comes included with Windows.)
Dual processing or dual-core? Computers with two (or more) separate CPUs are more expensive than the new batch of dual-core machines. Having more than one physical processor requires more circuitry, which makes it more expensive. Going dual-core helps to reduce this expense and gives most of the benefits of a dual processing system.
If you can get a good deal on a slightly slower dual processor or dual-core system over a single, go for it. A dual 1 GHz G4 will be more responsive than a 1.25 GHz G4 in many ways. Switching between apps and running multiple apps (what they call multitasking) is much faster and smoother on a dual processor system than with a single CPU. A good rule of thumb is that a dual processor or dual-core CPU is a good buy even if the single processor system is 50% faster. So a dual 1 GHz system can be more responsive than a single 1.5 GHz processor when multitasking.
However, if you need speed and your application can't take advantage of two CPUs, a faster single processor system can be a better choice.
Finally, there's system memory (RAM). This is one of those cases where more is almost always better. I don't recommend running Windows XP with less than 512 MB. Most OS X users I have spoken with recommend 1-2 GB for 10.4.
I've found that Linux will normally run just fine with 256 MB on either x86 or PPC, with 512 MB being more than enough. Just keep in mind that when using a system with a 32-bit processor, you may not get any advantage from going from 3 GB to 4 GB, since a lot of the last GB is reserved and not usable. This isn't an issue with a 64-bit system.
In closing, you really need to consider exactly what you need to be able to do with your computer. If you need to support an office environment, 3D gaming isn't a consideration. If you're doing video editing, you need the fastest system you can get. If you're just a home user and want to surf the Internet and do basic word processing, a cheap used computer is a good option.
You may have to install/reinstall the OS, but that is probably the most painful part of the process. Computers are out of date almost as soon as you buy them, so a slightly older system at a lower price can be more than you need.
Just be careful when purchasing a used system. Upgrading it can cost you more than a new one sometimes. Set a budget and stick to it. Don't overbuy if you don't need it. Good luck!
- Choosing the right computer for home, office, and field use, Andrew J Fishkin, Best Tools for the Job, 2007.01.25. Picking a good computer for the technophobe, office worker, student, and shared use at home.
- Just how bad is a $300 Windows PC?, Andrew J Fishkin, Best Tools for the Job, 2007.01.29. Mac users tend to laugh off sub-$300 Windows PCs, but for most users most of the time, they're all they need.
- Just how good is a $300 Mac?, Ed Eubanks Jr, The Efficient Mac User, 2007.01.30. Used Macs can every bit as good a value as cheap new Windows PCs.
- How much PowerBook or iBook do you need to run Mac OS X?, Ted Hodges, Vintage Mac Living, 2007.01.15. You don't need the latest and greatest Mac to be productive in OS X. Here are six iBook and PowerBook suggestions built between 2000 and 2003.
- Why I recommend Macs to amost everyone, Adam Robert Guha, Apple Archive, 2007.02.05. While no current Mac meets the author's needs, for most users, Macintosh is the way to go.
- Why is Low End Mac advocating cheap Windows PCs?, Dan Knight, Mac Musings, 2007.01.30. We're not Windows fans, but we have to admit that cheap Windows PCs fill a niche Apple refuses to address.
Recent Linux on the Low End articles
- DOS Nostalgia: Looking Back at Early Computer Experiences, 2009.05.04. TRS-80s, the Tandy 1000HX, Radio Shack's Color Computer, Hercules card, 1200 bps modems, hard cards, and other 20-year-old technology.
- Pros and cons of using Linux on a WallStreet PowerBook, 2008.05.06. The old PowerBook G3 Series notebooks aren't without a few quirks when running openSUSE Linux, but for the most part they are good performers.
- The past and possible future of Apple's Intel transition, 2007.01.04. Going Intel has been Apple's third successful CPU transition since the Apple II era - and the future is wide open.
- More in the Linux on the Low End index.
Links for the Day
- Mac of the Day: Power Mac 7500, introduced 1995.08.08. This workhorse introduced a new desktop case and CPU daughter cards.
- June 19 in LEM history: 00: Mac software not 'as pathetic as it could be' - 01: Hate Windows? Get a Mac - Little payments, big business - 02: Undoing years of Mac evangelism? - 03: Back on the low-end TiBook - 06: Pimping my PowerBook G4 - 07: Safari for Windows not a slam dunk success - 08: What about the iPod touch? - Falling for the Sony Alpha α200
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