Get a computer for under £15!

Having accepted a challenge to provide a computer on the cheap, here's how Malcolm Wheatley got on.

Last month, I wrote about how to kit-out a home office at low cost.  As always, the comments were very interesting, and it's fascinating to see how people's experiences with hardware and software can differ.

I mentioned this in the pub to my mate Gary, a recent graduate (and reader) who has a laptop computer, but no desktop machine.  In my previous article, I talked about buying a perfectly-adequate computer for £100 or so -- a price tag, it turned out, that was beyond Gary's means. 

No worries, I said: you don't have to spend that much, provided that you're willing to spend some time -- and a little money -- working on a lower-cost machine that needs upgrading.

Gary's response was straightforward.  Although he's had some exposure to free software such as Linux and Open Office -- and so wasn't phased by that aspect of things -- he felt uneasy at opening up computers and performing tasks such as adding memory.  Could I help him?

And so a challenge was duly issued.  For the price of a few pints, I had to get Gary up and running with a fully-functional desktop computer.  Gary would invest two or three evenings working on the machine with me -- and in the process, learn a bit about upgrading computers.

Locating a machine

Gary already had a monitor.  I was happy to throw in a surplus keyboard and mouse.  What we needed was the computer itself -- and as I explained in my article, eBay wouldn't be my first port of call for a surplus machine to start work on.

Instead, I went to my local IT repair and service business -- Actionwest in South Devon, who do an excellent job for businesses and individuals all over the South West.  Such businesses nearly always have 'junked' computers (i.e. old, unwanted computers) lying around - machines, what's more, that they have to pay to dispose of.  Steve, the owner, was sympathetic, and took a reasonable-looking machine from a pile at the back of the workshop.

A Hewlett-Packard Brio machine, it had been manufactured in late 2000, and had just been scrapped by its previous owner, who had bought a replacement from Steve.  The hard disk had been wiped clean, and it was heading for destruction -- a day later, in fact, and it would have been in a skip, heading for disposal.

It was far from the specification of modern machines -- you wouldn't want to attempt to run Windows XP on it, for exfample, as its maximum memory was 512mb.  But it would be fine for e-mail, browsing the web, and general office work, provided that Gary was happy to use Ubuntu Linux, together with its in-built Open Office applications, Mozilla web browser, and other bundled software.

Upgrading the memory

When Gary and I opened the machine up, it was clear why the previous owner had junked it.  With just 128mb of RAM memory fitted of the available 512mb, even an elderly operating system like Windows 98 would have been sluggish.  Nor was 128mb of memory adequate enough for Linux -- Ubuntu Linux, the most user-friendly of the Linux distributions out there, needs 384mb to load.

On the other hand, H-P machines are well-built, with ample support information available on the internet, and this machine had clearly seen very limited use: inside was as free from dust and general detritus as the day it had been manufactured.  And -- a stroke of luck -- the hard drive was of a reasonable size for the era of machine: 8.4 gigabytes, ample for our immediate needs.

The first job had to be getting hold of some -- cheap -- memory.  Here's where eBay does come into its own, and I quickly tracked down a firm selling used memory of the type we wanted for £3.99 including postage.  Although we needed two memory cards, I only ordered one -- wanting to make sure that the memory really was what we wanted before splashing out on the full two cards' worth that we needed.

A day later, it arrived, and we fitted it -- and saw an instant boost in available RAM.  Yippee!  Back to eBay for a second card, at an identical price.

A low-cost network card

I knew from the outset that we'd need a network card in order to connect to the internet.  Many machines of this era -- like all modern ones -- come with network connectivity as standard, built into the motherboard, but for some reason this machine didn't.

eBay was our friend again, and I showed Gary the sort of thing we were looking for -- there was ample choice, with prices on a 'Buy It Now' basis starting at 98 pence.  First, though, I wanted to see if I could cut corners by using an old ISA network card I had lying around.

It was a blind alley -- Google suggested that it ought to work, but the task proved beyond us.  Junking legacy technology, we went back to eBay for a modern PCI-based 'plug-and-play' card -- only to find that the 98 pence cards had gone.  No matter, there were plenty available for a couple of pounds more, and I went for a new and unused card costing £4.38 including postage.  It arrived, we plugged it in, and it worked perfectly, with -- once again -- no set-up being required.

The final tweak

The final item of expenditure was a new battery.  Computers contain small batteries to retain information such as internal settings and the current time and date, and I suspected that the battery inside the machine was dead.

These days, computer batteries are generallfy 'cell'-type batteries of the sort used by watches and calculators, and a replacement cost £1.87 -- supermarkets and petrol stations sell them, and they're generally inexpensive.

As built, the machine had come with a 'read only' CD-ROM drive -- the front of the sliding drawer on a CD-ROM (or similar) drive always explains what it is capable of.  As it happened, I had a surplus drive that both read and wrote CD-ROMS and DVDs, and offered it to Gary as a 'passing out' test.  The deal: if he could fit it, he could keep it -- gratis.  Needless to say, after tuition that I can only describe as first-class, he passed with flying colours.

So what has the machine cost?  Two memory cards at £3.99 each (including postage), a network card at £4.38 including postage), and a battery for £1.87, totalling £14.23.

And the proof of the pudding is in the eating: for the tasks envisaged, the computer works very well, reports Gary.   A case, I think, of a challenge accepted -- and won.

More: How to speed up your broadband | Seven top financial tips for home-workers


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