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Working on a $100 Computer

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A few weeks ago, I brought you 10 Hacks to Speed Up Your Browser. I explored how I hacked my version of Firefox to run very fast and consume much less memory (most of the tricks will work for Chrome as well). What I didn't know is that within a week, I'd be forced to put the hacks to the test.

My crazy computer purchase of February 2013 died on me. An ounce of drink hit the keyboard and though it worked for a few more hours, I had trouble getting it started after it went to sleep. It turns out that both the video card and the keyboard took major damage. I was able to rescue it long enough by plugging it in to television and using a spare keyboard. Getting that to work seemed nothing short of miraculous.

This put me in a position of needing a computer to work, but not having one. Circuit City is long gone. Best Buy moved out of my town years ago. I could get something cheap from Wal-Mart, but when you use a computer as much as I do, you don't want to make a 2+ year decision because of a day or two.

And this is when I cashed in on the best insurance I bought last year. During Black Friday I bought a ASUS X205TA Laptop at Staples for $100. My rationale was that it would be a great travel computer at 2.2 pounds with 12 hour battery life. The processor runs like it is powered by a hamster wheel. It has very little memory meaning you can only open up a couple of programs before it grinds to halt. The screen angle has to be just right. The 11.6-inch screen is a big difference from the 16-inches I used a few years ago.

However, I was able to get real work done. I could write articles, check emails, update spreadsheets and just about anything else I needed to do.

It made me think, "What if I could just pick up nearly any computer and get to work?" What if I could do the same things on a $100 computer that cost me $1100 two years ago? Computers are getting cheaper and cheaper, but my computing needs aren't necessarily expanding. The ability to retain my data and workflow are far more important to me than hardware itself.

I can't lie, my computing desires expand all the time. I look up all the latest laptops much more often than I should. There's sexy 4K screens and new processors that zip along using very little battery, all wrapped up in a package of around 2.5 pounds or less. As long as I can keep myself in check, being productive on a very cheap computer could save me hundreds of dollars.

Create a "Work Anywhere" Environment

Being able to work on any computer saved my bacon in this disaster. How did I do it? I simply looked at everything I do and tried to find a way to make it work on another computer. Specifically, these things came in particularly handy:

  • Firefox Sync - I was very nervous about syncing my browsing history with a third-party. It seems like a huge security risk. After reading about how the security was handled, I felt more secure. Being able to download Firefox (even on my Android phone and tablet) and have my browsing environment is about 80% of the battle.
  • LastPass - I use LastPass to store and secure all my passwords. If I can remember one password, I have them all. It seems like every site I use nowadays requires a login, so this is huge.
  • Google Documents - I have documents and spreadsheets that I want to have with me at all times. For example, I have notes on the articles that I am intending to write as well as a spreadsheet of earnings.

I'm sure I'm just touching the surface of what I could use. Feedly and Pocket are two apps that I'm looking to use more. I recently started to use NotePad++ which offers backing up data to the cloud via DropBox and similar services. I'm going to see if I can use this to sync files a little faster than dealing with Google Documents (it can be a bit of a resource hog to leave it open all the time).

I am testing my "work anywhere" environment by trying to work on my wife's computer with my own separate Windows login. (I offer the same to her on my computer of course.) So far it is working pretty nicely.

What I Learned From Using a $100 Computer

I learned two really valuable lessons from using a $100 computer:

  1. While the computer is functional, it is annoying enough to use that I found myself looking forward to doing errands rather than goofing off.
  2. Most people probably don't need nearly as much "computer" as they think they do.

There's definitely some kind of sweet spot of having a very functional computer at a relatively bargain price. In the past you might need to spend $500 to satisfy basic computing needs. I feel like that has shifted significantly and much of that money is more about wants.

That leads me to...

Should You Really Skimp on a Computer?

This is a difficult question and it really depends on the person. I use my computer so much, that I feel like any loss in productivity would be magnified. At the same time, my wife uses her non-work computer only about an hour a day, so it isn't magnified as much.

I'm going to cop out escape this question by simply saying that many people could save money if they wish to.

Next week, I'll review the new computer I bought. In writing this article, I've realized I might have made a several hundred dollar mistake.

Last updated on June 10, 2015.

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4 Responses to “Working on a $100 Computer”

  1. Evan says:

    I am often the person someone calls before they make a computer purchase (unless they are buying a Mac since they know I hate them), and I am always amazed what some people insist on buying.

    What do the majority of non-nerds really do? Play a few facebook games, stream some legal and some illegal stuff, check emails, maybe play music, etc. yet they insist on buying these power machines for no real reason!

    For me, I stick with the $500 range machines. Unless I spill something on them I get consistently 3 to 5 years out of them before I am just annoyed.

  2. Jeff says:

    I recently bought an Acer Chromebook. I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. There are some things I can comment on like the keyboard not being entirely to my liking but for $279 it’s a bargain.

    Just need access to the internet and I’m good to go. Though other drawbacks are things like I can’t use Skype, which I much prefer over Google Hangouts. But for the money I think it’s a good investment.

  3. […] week, I wrote about how I was very successful in working on a $100 laptop. I admit it was a bit of a sensationalistic title. The laptop actually retails for $200… the […]

  4. […] computers at day care and my 2 year old is never far behind him. My wife and I have laptops. I have a spare $100 laptop if something should go […]

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