Buying a Laptop For Few Bucks If You Have Some Tech Skills


You can save money by buying fewer features and getting a used laptop or notebook. You’ll have money left over for other things you need. I’ve bought mine for about $150 each, including extra batteries, and mostly they’ve worked (although I’ve recently bought a couple of clunkers). Having two lets you have one as a spare for the other, although a battery type may require that you use the spare every once in a while (maybe once every month or two).

Tech Skills

To make this plan succeed, you need good technical do-it-yourself skills on hardware. You need confidence, and more than just confidence. You also need to know when you’re about to go too far and damage something. You could take it to someone who does repairs, but when you start paying, say, $75 an hour, it quickly makes more sense to buy a new laptop under a warranty of a year or two.

Judge, realistically, your own skills and whether you’ll have a few hours or days now and then at unexpected times to do the diagnosing and fixing before you get stuck. Tools you can buy, literature is often available online for free, and forums are places where you can ask questions and get answers that are usually fairly reliable (you’ll have to judge them one by one), and, of course, you should get the tools, download the literature in advance, and search the forums, post your thoughtful questions, and wait maybe a couple of hours or a day or two for answers, and not just go headlong into jerking damn plugs in and out of places where they should have fitted just fine.

Planning

Okay, since you’re good at making it work, start planning your acquisition of your dream cheap laptop. List the features you want. Consider how you’ll use it:

  • — High performance is not necessary for most of us. Games, programming, and movie graphics may require it but not all applications need it.

  • — Office productivity usually can be achieved on a machine that’s a few years old. Do you need to share documents online or are paper printouts the most sharing you need? Online sharing may need relatively newer software but printouts usually can be done with fairly old programs.

  • — If you rarely need special features, but still need them sometimes, can you make do with those special features on a public library’s computer or someone else’s machine? Then you can save money on your everyday machine.

  • — You do need some compatibility with other machines. Maybe MS-DOS 3.30 or 3.3 or Mac System 6 was a beaut, but, even if they worked on laptops, finding apps, printers, and advice will be so much of a challenge that it’ll likely cost you more than something a bit newer.

What programs do you want to have? And would those have to be the latest versions or can you get and use older ones and be happy enough? Look up the system requirements for the programs and versions you want. Probably the system requirements specify the operating system (OS) and version you need.

So, what operating system and OS version do you want to use? Look up those system requirements, too, also called hardware requirements, and you’ll probably find out how much memory (RAM) and hard drive (HDD) space you need and how fast the CPU processor has to be. Those usually are minimums. Even if you install more than one operating system, you usually run only one at a time, and in that case you only need enough in specs for the hungriest one. But if you do have a specialized need and run multiple operating systems at once, you’ll need enough hardware for all of them at once, and probably also the whole machine fast. You’ll likely install more programs than you think you will, so you’ll need more storage space for them, and you may often run several apps at once, so you’ll need enough RAM to do that.

Repairability is limited. Desktops and towers are usually more flexible in that respect, because you can buy hardware that fits, say, the ATX form factor, but there’s no equivalent for laptops. Parts may come only from the manufacturer at high prices or used and of unknown quality.

Then, when you see an offer of a laptop, find out what brand and model it is. Look up its features from an official source, such as the laptop manufacturer’s website or the Wayback Machine, before you buy it. You may not be able to add memory or hard drive space later or speed up the machine, so get more than enough of all of that at the start. If you don’t have enough, some operating systems and programs simply won’t run. Most good operating systems can show you how much CPU speed, RAM, and storage space are visible to the OS, so you won’t have to trust someone’s word about what’s inside and working.

The brand should be reliable. Even an unknown model from a reliable brand is a better choice. Hewlett Packard (HP), Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Lenovo, Acer, and Asus, among others, should be good enough. However, I’d hesitate to get a Macintosh if I’m going to be stuck buying their operating system when free OSes are available for other machines. I likewise don’t want a Chromebook if I have to rely on the cloud when I can’t always get onto the Internet.

Get an internal hard drive. That used to be obvious until some laptops came designed to store everything in the cloud. I don’t like that. If I can’t access the Internet or don’t want to expose my password where I’m sitting, or I want to use my choice of operating system, the cloud is bad news.

The laptop should work from both AC and DC power. That means you need a power adapter (called a brick for a reason) that plugs into a wall outlet and you should have battery capability. Expect the battery pack that comes with the laptop to not have much life left in it. That’s typical in the industry. Plan on buying a spare battery pack as soon as you have started using the computer. If you’re happy with the laptop, buy the spare battery pack before your existing pack dies. I choose a pack that has more hours of capacity (ampacity) even if a different company made it. Rechargeable, of course. Don’t buy packs for far into the future; the rechargeable ones reputedly wear out even without use and, besides, if your laptop becomes useless in a couple of years the power adapter and batteries probably won’t be useable with any other machine.

RAM (memory), hard drive space, and speed: Get more than enough. Oh, right, I already said that.

The processor, the heart of the central processing unit (CPU), should be of a well-known brand and type, because they’re quite complicated and so is the software that relies on them. By the way, overclocking is not a good idea unless you have a specialized need. It burns up the processor and you’ll be spending good money again pretty soon. If a previous owner overclocked, they likely used it that way, so expect the chip to have an even shorter life for you.

Get two USB ports rather than one. I use USB often, so I get concerned that I’ll push dust into it and shorten the life of one. It hasn’t happened yet, but I want to protect my investment. Get USB version 2.0 or higher; I’ve been assured of backwards compatibility. Get a USB jack or adapter for a few dollars; it lets you plug several USB devices into one USB port.

Get a CD/DVD reader-writer or plan on getting an external one. This will let you install an operating system or boot directly from one. It will also let you download new operating systems for offline storage and to make copies and backups. Get blank CD-Rs and DVD-Rs (they’re both writable, widely compatible, and long-lasting and CD-Rs are cheaper while DVD-Rs hold more content), hard cases to hold the discs (not soft cases if discs can scratch each other), and a marker designed especially for writing on optical discs (the wrong marker type damages discs over time). Don’t get labels unless they’re disc-shaped, because plain address labels add weight to one side, a bad idea during use.

Wi-Fi and a connector for wired networking are helpful. One’s needed for Internet access. Having both gives you an alternative when needed. Get the cable, too.

A headphone connector is good, for when you need audio and want to work in a quiet space. Headphones good enough for spoken voice can be about a dollar a set, new.

A printer connector can be useful but not required. You may be able to print elsewhere from a flash drive, like at a public library, but a printer connector may save you money, although new printers may be USB anyway.

A connector for an external SVGA display monitor can be helpful. An external monitor is most useful for emergencies, like if your laptop’s display breaks down.

Used laptops come in two flavors: refurbished and merely used. I prefer refurbished, because, while they cost more, the assurance that they’ll work is clearer and they still cost less than new models. You have to be skeptical and pay attention to negative reviews about a particular laptop, but it’s worth the savings.

Shopping

I’ve bought laptops from Newegg.com and Amazon.com and done pretty well that way. Ordering and fulfillment can get a little difficult at times, but when they came I was happy. You won’t find this at the local electronics emporium down the street from your home. If you buy from an unknown source, bring a CD that has a live or bootable operating system on it. Ask permission to try it out, but if they want to refuse then you probably shouldn’t buy it. If you do anyway, the price had better be bottom-scraping low and then buy it only if you know how to take it apart for spare parts, which most of us wouldn’t do, and most laptops use proprietary designs anyway, limiting the usefulness of the parts, especially for relatively old laptops, which are the cheaper ones. If you do test before buying, handle it carefully, since you don’t own it yet.

Warranties are good but don’t buy an extended warranty. Extensions usually cost too much. But a longer initial warranty usually gives some assurance of durability, so a warranty that’s a year or two in length is better than a 30-day or shorter one or none at all, even if you know you never will exercise it.

Don’t bother getting Microsoft Windows. About the only use for it, if it’s already installed, is for testing a used laptop and to check that the operating system can see the various devices and connectors you’re paying for, and other operating systems can do all that, too. (If the OS can’t see something you see on the outside, possibly the something is broken and no OS will be able to use what you paid for.) If you’re going on the Internet, Windows is less secure and hackers crack it often. Erase Windows; deleting is not good enough; run DBAN to do the dirty deed dirt cheap (using DBAN is described below). Install the *nix operating system instead, usually Linux. The Linux operating system is technically better, it comes in many flavors, you can learn it, and it’s usually free. More secure distributions (distros) include Fedora Linux, openSuse Linux, and PCLinuxOS. Even more secure may be TrueOS, based on FreeBSD, which isn’t Linux but is close enough and both are free. A friendlier Linux distro, although less secure, is Ubuntu Linux. Linux on a live CD is available; Porteus Linux and Knoppix Linux are two. Generally, you should prefer newer OS versions over old ones, especially old ones that have reached official end-of-life dates and no longer get automatic updates. Many distros have online forums where you can ask questions and report bugs. If you want support and are willing to pay for it, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Suse Linux are offerings. There are many more distros, most of them free, with various strengths and weaknesses. While Windows is often easier to understand and uniquely supports several well-known programs, I don’t recommend it.

Buy a small portable surge suppressor for travel use (maybe $5) and a heavy-duty (long-lasting) one for home for about $20 to $50 or so. Look at the rating in joules; more are better. If it has an LED that tells you whether it’s currently suppressing, all the better. If there’s no LED, set a date for when you should stop trusting the surge suppressor (make it later if you bought more joules). When it stops suppressing, replace it before disaster strikes, and use the old one as an extension cord only, even if you have to relabel it. (A power strip is hardly more than an extension cord; it does not suppress surges, despite what it looks like.)

Buy 2, 3, or 4 flash drives, small and large, all with LEDs, because they break down without warning. You can save data to a small flash and back it up to large ones, which you can store in different places. When the LED is on or blinking, don’t yank the drive out or you could destroy it, something lots of people don’t know. Use an Eject command or log out or shut down first.

Maybe no carrying case is needed. I haven’t used mine in years. I carry my laptop in my backpack and that’s insulation enough for me. I usually wrap the laptop in a couple of grocery-store-type plastic bags as protection from light rain. They tear after a while but I always have more. In case of heavy storms, I have a heavy-duty way-oversized foldable plastic bag at home; it’s Ziploc although it doesn’t lock (the locking strip broke on the first use) but it’s twice as big as my laptop and folds over quite well enough for a storm, and the plastic is thick; I bought a box of four for a few dollars at a large hardware-and-housewares store. Without a dedicated laptop case, I don’t broadcast to every passerby that I have something worth stealing. When I shopped for a case, it seemed the ones I saw could not be laundered, whereas my backpack goes into a washing machine and a dryer and does fine. If you do use a case and you also use a high-capacity battery, and the battery is large, you may need a larger carrying case.

When It Comes

Erasing the hard drive yourself is smart and probably necessary. Serious erasure is what you should do. Download DBAN (Darik’s Boot and Nuke) (I use version 2.2.8 but a later version may be available) to a CD, it’s free, and use that to do your erasing. It has its own operating system. I set DBAN for the more thorough options. Whatever options you choose, DBAN will erase every hard drive it sees. If you have more than one hard drive and don’t want DBAN to touch one of them, physically disconnect and remove the hard drive you don’t want erased, because DBAN does not have a command for telling the difference. DBAN can take a day, or maybe several days, literally, to erase a large modern hard drive, and I mean days, but you only have to start it, check the screen in about 15–30 minutes (it takes about that amount of time to stabilize its prediction for when it will finish), and, if it looks okay, ignore the machine while you go mountain-climbing or paint your house or something. When it’s done, very few labs, if any, will be able to recover child porn, trade secrets, pirated off-key music, or whatever else used to be there. By the way, you’ll also lose a recovery partition from your hard drive, because DBAN doesn’t know the difference. Anyone trying to recover anything will have to spend a lot of money just trying. (If you need to try, you could, subject to law, ask the National Security Agency or the former KGB if they’ll do you a favor, since I’m not sure most nations can, and perhaps even the Russians can’t.)

How are your tech skills for fixing laptops? If you’re competent at that, even on a proprietary design you can save money. Many Web sites have advice on repairing them. If you’d like a book on repairs, look for one by Scott Mueller, even a used edition as long as it’s younger than your laptop. Also, right around when you’re buying the laptop, get the laptop manufacturer’s service and maintenance guide; download it before it disappears from the Web, since manufacturers prefer that customers buy new computers and stop supporting old ones. Get a few screwdrivers, including flat-blade and cross-blade (Phillips) in common sizes and small sizes. Get, and wear, a wrist strap to protect your opened-up laptop from static electricity that would come from your body, because the static can destroy electronic circuits. (When you plug your wrist strap into an electric outlet while you’re wearing it, you can watch people’s eyes pop wide. It’s safe. You’re only plugging into the grounding circuit, to send your excess electricity to a safe absorber, usually planet Earth. The other two prongs are supposed to be missing from the plug. You’re not lighting lamps with your wrist and you’re not walking the Last Mile at Sing Sing.) Get a regular large paper clip and a small one, both in metal; you can straighten one out (try the large one first) and use it to open a CD/DVD tray when you can’t do it with a button or a software command; there should be a hole in the tray just for the clip.

Set the BIOS (also called Setup) to your liking. If you’re locked out of it, find the CMOS battery (it’s not the battery for running the whole laptop, but a separate one and it may look like a nearly-blank coin), and remove it for at least 15 seconds (I’d wait a minute), then put it back. That should reset the BIOS to factory defaults, including erasing the Setup passwords. To get into Setup, cold-boot the computer; before the computer gets to the operating system, there should be a quick message about how to access Setup, telling you what key to press at that moment. You usually can’t access most of the BIOS after the OS starts.

If you insist on installing Windows together with another operating system, install Windows first, because Windows has a reputation for clobbering other OSes it finds. It’s territorial.

Use even your spare. The battery may require that you use the laptop at least once every month or two. I bought a battery that came with a warning sheet about explosions and fire that included that requirement.

Bottom Line

You can save a few hundred dollars on a laptop this way. You can also buy a spare and still save big money.

Even, as happened to me, you buy four laptops to get two useful machines and two to be repaired into becoming unintended spares (like in my case), you still end off financially ahead, compared to buying two new machines.