The sub-$100 mighty mongrel machine

Do you have an odd US$100 or so lying around? Do you need an in-house server or a torrent client for cheap? I’ve got an idea for parts for you then.

First, split off about US$5 of that, and pick up a leftover RaLink RT61-driven PCMCIA network card. Ordinarily I wouldn’t touch a RaLink card with a three-meter pole, but I came on this one by accident, and thought it broken.

That wasn’t the case though, and with the proper firmware packages installed, and with an operating system smart enough to identify, configure and handle it, it’s a cheap, fast, and easy-to-manage wireless card that will work on machines as old as 1998.

You have US$95 left? Okay, next, scout your local recycle or thrift shops for leftover Pentium laptops. You could even deliberately buy one for a song online, or demand it of your snide IT staffers.

However you get it, it shouldn’t take more than US$10 to find one in decent working order. If you can, get one with about 32Mb or more of memory, and a processor that runs at around 100Mhz or more. Specs of that magnitude are like saying, “Find yourself a car with four wheels on it.” :roll:

You should have at least US$85 remaining. Dump the rest of it — all of it — into the largest (but not necessarily fastest, because the surrounding hardware is the bottleneck) 2.5-inch IDE hard drive you can get.

Provided you don’t buy it in a department store electronics section, you should be able to get at least 80Gb for your money, if not 160Gb or even 250Gb. Storage is cheap these days. (Newegg has Western Digital Scorpio Blue hard drives at 250Gb 5400rpm for US$79.99, with US$6 shipping.)

Finally, mix them all up, add a liberal splatter of one of the finest operating systems ever invented, and push the power button. Cross your fingers.

Because with a little luck and with Debian’s ralink-firmware package, you’ll suddenly have a machine that can do 0 to 60 in about two minutes, but with so much space and so terrifically stable that start times won’t matter.

Uptimes on my computer, which is a dread mix of the above ingredients, easily crosses into double-digits, and yes it starts slow, and yes it processes slow, but it barely uses any swap and never needs attending.

Network access will easily crest 1Mbps, provided your wireless and Internet connection can supply that. And 32Mb is more than enough to handle a serious workload if you stick to lightweight CLI-based torrent clients.

Best of all, the power draw is lower than most kitchen light bulbs.

So yeah, don’t be afraid to mix up bizarre combinations of hardware, and see if they work together. You might hit upon a truly unusual trio, or quartet, or quintet, of parts that suddenly become a mighty mongrel machine. :D

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15 Responses to “The sub-$100 mighty mongrel machine”


  1. 1 ScannerDarkly 2010/11/11 at 8:23 AM

    I think this is the first time you’ve left out a vital “what to do with a low-powered machine” link for once we acquire such a computer. :-)
    http://kmandla.wordpress.com/2007/09/14/things-to-do-with-an-old-computer/
    Although, since it’s a laptop it seems a waste to leave it running in the closet solely as a torrentslave since it has a handy screen. Any suggestions to really utilise the ~$100 laptop?

    • 2 K.Mandla 2010/11/11 at 6:14 PM

      I suppose you’re right. My thought here was in the direction of hardware. You can get the computer for probably less than $15, and the rest goes into the hard drive. So in that sense, it’s three wildly different ranges of hardware — modern drive, mid-range network card and ancient PC — doing a very useful job.

      Of course, there are a dozen things to do with it, if this one function isn’t attractive. :)

    • 3 raymond300 2010/11/12 at 11:20 AM

      You can always use it as a tivo… ;)

  2. 4 Doug 2010/11/11 at 9:49 AM

    Would it be possible to use a system like this as a VPN server? A box that would allow its owner to connect via SSL or another secure protocol from an insecure WiFi (or other public) net decrypt the connection, and then route the unencrypted traffic via wired or secure WiFi to hosts not capable of handling https traffic?

    Of course it is possible to purchase these services from vendors, but it would seem something that an old lappy like this could do.

  3. 5 road 2010/11/11 at 10:33 PM

    why Debian?

    • 6 Mikko 2010/11/12 at 12:32 AM

      Because it simply works?

      • 7 road 2010/11/12 at 2:00 AM

        Hmm, I’ve never tried it. I always assumed that since Ubuntu was based on Debian that it couldn’t be that different. Maybe it’s worth a shot :)

        • 8 K.Mandla 2010/11/12 at 6:59 AM

          It’s quite different, in many ways. Please give it a try.

          P.S.: It’s one of a handful of active distros that still has precompiled software aimed at i586 architecture. That was another reason too.

  4. 9 ajlec2000 2010/11/12 at 5:59 AM

    Since I have 8 veteran computers already I think I’ll stick with your previous advice and just not buy a new one.

  5. 10 Foz 2010/11/12 at 6:02 PM

    And if you happen to pick up a machine with a substantial amount of ram, install X, Wine, and then play some games that the machine will play (personally, I’m just discovering Baldur’s Gate).

    My 256mb ram, 800mhz laptop is functioning as a torrent downloader, Postgresql database & (temporary) games machine while my normal gaming machine has been packed away for an impending move :D

  6. 11 HamsterWarrior 2010/11/13 at 7:33 AM

    You forgot to mention checking the WINE Appdb before buying games that would run on Linux, and the hours you spent trying to get the game to work otherwise. ;-)


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