Friday, July 2, 2010

Second Hand Computer Adventure

When last I wrote I was window shopping for computer parts and saving my pennies for the day I could put a decent machine together from components.  A new PC is not something I need; mostly I just enjoy putting them together.  And I've wanted a desktop since we came back from the city a couple of years ago.  Using a Macbook made a lot more sense when I skipped around like a bohemian, doing most of my writing in bookstores, libraries, and parks.

I'd saved money to the point where I could just about build a modern dual-core system for under $400.  The plan was to piece it together and hook it up to an ancient (ten year old) bulky CRT monitor, and perhaps start saving for one of those new-fangled flat-screens.

Well, fortunately I didn't drive to Cambridge and blow my pin-money that weekend.  Because the next day I came across an ad on Craigslist for a mid-sized tower.  It was listed by the name of the motherboard rather than the brand, which seemed suspicious.  

But the specifications looked good.  The hard drive was small, but there were plenty of internal SATA connectors to add more storage.  It had a single-core Pentium 4 processor, but it sits in a "socket 755" that would hold the newer dual and quad core Intel processors should I want to upgrade that.  It had a basic on-board graphics chip that probably wouldn't handle any heavy-duty 3d rendering, but an open PCI-e slot to accept a cutting edge graphics card should I ever feel the desire to play games again.  It lacked a DVD burner, but those are available for less than a tank of gas these days, and it did have a DVD rom and a CD-RW.  And it was housed in a basic, black, mid-sized tower, not one of those flashy, neon-lit monstrosities designed to appeal to hormone-saturated 14 year olds flush with their parents' disposable income.  And the fans spin with no more noise than my laptop.

Best of all, it was a complete and fully functional PC for only $130.  

I asked the fellow, "You listed this computer by the name of its motherboard.  Is it something you put together by yourself?"

He said, "Yeah.  I get most of my parts from the dump and see what I can put together from them.  The person who threw this one out thought it was broken, but it really only needed a new hard drive."

Now, a lot of folks might balk at paying money for a machine that was another man's garbage.  But the fact is, it sounded like a good box, and it was exactly what I was looking for: a computer with parts too obsolete to be available through regular retail channels, but with a wide range of upgrade possibilities.  Plus, how can I begrudge the guy for doing what I should be getting off my hump and doing: stopping by the dump and picking up other people's trash and seeing what I can make out of it.  (We go to different dumps, so I wouldn't be competing with him.)  

Plus, I genuinely liked the guy: his condo was cluttered with computer parts and the deck was stacked with Lobster Traps.  He projected the aura of a year-round, local Cape-Codder in the 21st century.  Folks like us are scrappy; we do what we have to do to survive.  

So I bought the computer.  Paid cash.  He even carried it to the car for me.  "It's part of the service," he said, "and I give you a 30 day money-back guarantee."

He warned me that the installation of Windows XP on the machine might not be 100% legitimate.  I told him the first thing I was doing when I got the thing home was installing Ubuntu, so that didn't really matter to me.

I liked that I got to indulge my electronics acquisition itch without generating any new e-waste.  Of course, given all the money I saved, I couldn't resist stopping by Staples and picking up a flat-screen monitor that day.  There were none second-hand on Craigslist.  I checked.  I probably could have held out, but I really wasn't all that thrilled with sticking by the old CRT.  I'll justify it by talking about how much electricity we'll save with the lower wattage flat-panel monitor.  Christ, I bet you could cook an egg on the top of that old Trinitron.

I'm pleased to report the Ubuntu installation on the new/old machine went flawlessly.  And despite my grand plans for expansion (dedicated graphics card, 1+ TB hard drive, DVD burner, extra RAM, multi-core processor) those things can wait until the cash re-accumulates in my wallet over the next several months--or years.  As it is, the computer has no trouble running the latest version of Ubuntu and pushing the monitor at its highest resolution while playing music and running a word-processor and web browser over wifi and seeding open-source torrents over bittorrent.  

That's about as hard-core as I get with my PCs, these days.  


  1. Sounds like you and I enjoy the same things about computers. I have an old Dell tower that I keep upgrading with bells and whistles and a IBM laptop that I have Ubuntu on. Half the fun is keeping them updated isn't it? I have found Ubuntu all I need for what I do and its free!

  2. James - You're right, it's amazing how much use you can get out of these old machines just by loading the right operating system on, and it's been fun to watch the evolution from Ubuntu from a clunky and tricky also-ran into an elegant OS in its own right. When Apple went from "Tiger" to "Leopard," they wanted me to pay $100 to come along. Now that I have Ubuntu on there, the updates are automatic, and free.