Howto: Pick out an old computer

I trade e-mails from time to time with people troubleshooting old computers; I suppose it comes with the territory. I got an unusual one the other day asking what to look for in a computer if seeking out an old one on purpose — in other words, “What’s the best way to pick out an old computer, if you’re intentionally looking for an old one?”

I should be so lucky. I usually just take whatever is given to me, and learn to cope with whatever hardware configuration or component condition it has. I don’t usually have the luxury of sifting through possibilities and selecting the best one.

But more and more these days, it’s possible to do that; I always think of an “old” computer as something 1996-1998-ish, but for most people, something as new as four years ago can be a dinosaur. Most thrift shops and secondhand stores have five or six machines in an aisle, plugged in and testable. I guess “selecting” the right old computer is not an impossibility.

So if it was me, and I was perusing the aisles in my favorite secondhand store, or digging through the garbage boxes in the recycling yard, here’s what I would do.

  1. First, know thy enemy. Bring along a mini-CD of something like Slitaz or maybe even DSL or Puppy, and get a rundown on the guts. Before you go to the store, find out what the lspci, dmesg, cat /proc/cpuinfo and similar commands do, and why they’re helpful. Then start up a machine with the live CD, find a terminal and get a snapshot of what the innards are like.
  2. After that, take your time. Don’t buy it right away. Write down the model number and any important information about it — the processor type, the memory amount, the BIOS type and version, and so forth. Information like that will tell you how well it will play with Linux, which is our ultimate goal anyway.
  3. Do your homework. Go home and check on the Internet to see how much memory it should have, or what BIOS updates are available. (For example, Dell is great about keeping information on out-of-date models; if you can write down the serial code off the bottom of a Dell laptop, you can find out anything you ever wanted to know about it, in a matter of minutes. And service manuals are usually only a few clicks away. Say what you like about Dell, but I love that they make information like that available — makes repairs and disassemblies all the easier.)
  4. Ask about it online. See if anyone has one, or if it’s possible to install recent versions of Linux on it. Find out if there are skeletons in its closet, or conversely, secret joys in using the machine. For example, I’ve always wanted an Inspiron 9300 mostly because the guts could be exchanged for most of the high-end XPS parts of that time frame. If I saw one in a store, I’d buy it for that reason alone.
  5. Think long and hard about troublesome components. Things are better than they used to be, but I still make a point of avoiding things like Broadcom wireless cards, or components that require firmware to operate. I know it depends a lot upon the model, but the time it takes to learn a new network card could be spent using a computer. If you’re picking between, for example, a Broadcom wired port and an Intel wired port, go with Intel. It’s just been easier, in my experience.
  6. USB and PCMCIA are your friends. In a worst-case scenario, you can rely on a PCMCIA card or USB-based wired adapter to at least connect you to the Internet, and get a struggling machine online. I keep a spare USB-to-ethernet adapter just for that reason. Of course, I also keep two or three PCMCIA wired cards, but that’s beside the point. :roll:
  7. Batteries are pointless, AC adapters are critical. This might be overstating the obvious, but a laptop without an AC adapter is not a laptop, it’s a brick. I have cried out in agony more than once looking through boxes and boxes of junk, in hopes of finding the AC adapter for a decades-old laptop that would make it useful again. If you don’t have the adapter, think twice about buying the computer. I know for some models you can buy compatible adapters, but my luck with them has been hit-and-miss. And batteries? Well, no one expects a battery to survive long in the wild. If there is one, keep it. If there isn’t, don’t worry about it. It’s not a dealbreaker.
  8. Sometimes flaky behavior is a sign of things to come. I feel obligated to mention that occasionally, damage in one area can lead to future issues. I was once sold a laptop that had a soft flickering band down the center of the screen. The owner promised that it was normal, and that everything was otherwise okay. Two weeks later that band had multiplied into three, and a month later there was no video to the LCD. I ended up relying on an external monitor for day-to-day use. While that’s an extreme example, experience suggests that a weakness in one area might be a sign of worse things to come.
  9. Watch for physical wear-and-tear. Check laptop hinges. Pop CD trays and make sure they open properly. Rock laptops to listen for broken bits of plastic in the bezels. Check volume wheels, power switches, brightness controls, mouse buttons, eject buttons and power lights. Listen to POST tests, check BIOS defaults and CMOS battery power. Count scratches, twisted keys and cosmetic damage. Check for missing screws and busted laptop latches. Don’t be afraid to open a few drive bays or memory covers. Look for dust, dirt, grime, oil, crumbs and insects. No, really.
  10. I work mostly with laptops, so specific to laptops, watch for a couple of extra things.
    • First, make sure the drive tray and connection adapters are present.
    • Be aware that some older machines have two PCMCIA slots, but don’t take double-height (slot 3?) cards.
    • USB is like manna from heaven to any machine that predates the Pentium 3 generation, because it means you can move things on and off infinitely easier.
    • Some early laptops don’t have CD players and rely on floppy drives; what you do with that is up to you.
    • Some machines have CD players but won’t boot from CD, in which case a working floppy drive is darn-near critical.
    • Remember that early CD players sometimes can’t read 700Mb CDs.
    • Early BIOSes will freak if the hard drive size is beyond what they accept as a “limit”; the way around that is to set the boot partition small (like 64Mb) and let everything else spill out beyond that limit.
    • Remember that laptops hold their value longer than desktops, but it also means that replacement parts are more expensive. If you can get one or two identical machines, it’s sometimes wise to keep a second as a source of parts, regardless of its condition.
    • Burnt-out pixels are bad if they are one or two; a flock of them is sometimes not worth the inconvenience. And remember, LCDs can get burn-in too … sort of.
    • Whenever possible, stock up on things like extra screws, rubber feet to raise the chassis off the desk (better air circulation) and floppy and/or CD drive cleaners.

That’s about all I can think of right now; if you have any suggestions for people looking specifically for older machines, feel free to chime in. :mrgreen:

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16 Responses to “Howto: Pick out an old computer”


  1. 1 ajlec2000 2009/09/25 at 10:46 PM

    Thanks for this. Working with out of date machines is becoming something of a hobby for me. It’s one of the reasons I follow this blog. I’m going to turn this into a “shopping” checklist.

  2. 2 JoshMiller 2009/09/25 at 10:53 PM

    Sounds like sage advice if you can actually pick and choose.

    I’m more in the boat you are in in that I generally don’t get to choose. I pretty much get the pleasure of making all of our old malfunctioning equipment from work “disappear”. The idea is mostly that we don’t want sales people trying to use crap that doesn’t work right that’s 5+ years old.

    I’ve got a small flock of Micron Laptops now though only one of them actually works. Eventually I hope to get at least one of the others working and I’ve dumped one of them in the trash because it was “dead dead”.

  3. 3 mulenmar 2009/09/26 at 4:35 AM

    Yeah, that’s the nice thing about “older” computers — their owners are more agreeable with you sticking some “weird”, “foreign” software into the computer than stores are. :)

  4. 4 John Bohlke 2009/09/26 at 5:28 AM

    One thing I ran into with an old Dell. The DVD-ROM will only read commercially pressed dvds, cds, and dvd+r. It can’t see dvd-r or dvd-rw. Not such a good thing when you store all your data on dvd-r because they were cheap.

    • 5 K.Mandla 2009/09/26 at 11:07 PM

      True, that’s something worth mentioning. As DVD technology matured, the different formats became standard on drives. But before that, it’s possible to run into drives that support one type of disc, but not another … or worse, pressed but not home-burned. Thanks for the reminder. ;)

  5. 6 Adam Gonnerman 2009/09/26 at 9:35 AM

    Thanks for the pointers. I’ve never checked any thrift stores around where I live, but I will now. I sort of doubt they’ll have anything, though.

  6. 7 anonymous coward 2009/09/26 at 6:22 PM

    just a nitpick… The difference between USB 1.1 and 2.0 is huuuuuuge. Could have been mentioned ;)

    The very first item on thy ;) list could actually make for a very good blog post in its own right. Or a series thereof. Many other ls* are available. Stuff like hwinfo etc. pp.

    Speaking of which, what do others think, which live CDs offer the best overall feature set for tasks like these? grml.org? Knoppix? Are there any specialized ones?

    • 8 K.Mandla 2009/09/26 at 11:04 PM

      You’re right; USB 1.1 and 2.0 are night and day. I should have made a point of saying, “If you have the choice between 1.1 and 2.0, for god’s sake, take 2.0.”

      I must plead innocent though; it’s been so long since I had USB 2.0 in the house, I have almost forgotten it existed at all. …

  7. 9 Gen2ly 2009/09/26 at 8:49 PM

    You can really still install from a floppy? Haven’t seen a floppy img in years. Perhaps even a better question is if you can find a floppy drive that works. When I did have them, they never sounded like they ran well, and had a few go out on me.

    Good post.

    • 10 K.Mandla 2009/09/26 at 11:01 PM

      I think Debian still has a floppy network installation image, or at least I know I downloaded one as recently as six months ago, and gave it a try. It might have been an out-of-date one though.

      There are floppy-based distros too, although more and more those are just eccentric little exercises in minimalization. I don’t know of anyone who uses them beyond the occasional experiment. Please tell me I am wrong though. … :|

    • 11 ArmorNick 2009/09/26 at 11:21 PM

      Or whether they actually still sell floppies ;)
      It’s been at least six years since I saw one.

  8. 12 Josh Miller 2009/09/26 at 11:30 PM

    Something else, if it’s cheap enough but there is a problem w/ the monitor or something. It may be worthwhile for parts. I always strip hard drives and memory from laptops and desktops.

  9. 13 Jean-Pascal Rignault 2009/09/30 at 12:25 PM

    There are some USB floppy drives that can be convenient, if the target machine can boot from these.

    Puppy can be booted / installed using a floppy. Convenient if your laptop doesn’t have a CDRom drive. You can boot from the floppy, then use a USB memory to load the rest of the OS.

  10. 14 Doug 2009/09/30 at 10:09 PM

    Even “bricks” can be valuable if free. I received an old Vaio with bad KB and other issues that made it uneconomic to repair.

    However, the memory and HD, as well as some accompanying PCMCIA cards were put to use in other ancient laptops. Turned out to be quite valuable as a parts machine.

  11. 15 Kyle 2009/10/01 at 6:58 AM

    I’ve got a small nit to pick with “Batteries are pointless”.

    Batteries are awesome. Some of these old laptops only pull 5 watts of power. Many will easily run eight or more hours on a new battery. I’ve had very good success getting new batteries from
    http://www.batteryrefill.com

    They have a exchange/discount program, so the old battery can save you $10.

    One really useful point you should add. Every time I see you talk about an old laptop with an 800Mb hard drive, I cringe a little. $15 gets you an IDE-CF adapter, and $10 will get you a 1-2GB compact flash card. I run this arrangement on two of my old laptops and have been rather pleased by these lowbrow SSDs.

  12. 16 mrreality13 2009/10/01 at 10:25 AM

    Hi ya
    This post helped me to decide on a laptop in pristine condition its a Toshiba Satellite 2535CDS with p1@300 mhz /32 megs on board ram/1 usb1.1 /floppy and a cd drive
    I could use some help in my searches it says it can use up to 160 megs ram.
    I have a small local pc shop im on good terms with that has ram for it -I tried a 128 pc66 stick ,it wont see it in bios or in puppy linux.
    My question is should I get a pc100 128,or – 64meg pc 66 or pc 100.
    thanks in advance.:)


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