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.
- 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
cat /proc/cpuinfoand 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.
- 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.
- 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 (For example, Dell is great about keeping information on out-of-date models; if you can write down the serial code off the bottom of a Dell laptop, you can find out anything you ever wanted to know about it, in a matter of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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.