Low cost computer guide

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This is intended as an information resource for those making the most of old computers, or choosing a new computer and software for the lowest possible cost. The needs of developing world users (language, maintenance, power, dust) in particular are considered, but the guide may be useful to people anywhere.

Remember that there is generally more than one acceptable solution; more controversial statements or disagreements may be best placed on the talk page. The ultimate aim is not to advocate particular hardware or software, but rather to meet the needs of people with limited resources, limited or no access to technical support, and/or limited education.

This is meant as a resource for those wishing to build low cost computers, suitable for developing countries, and for those wanting to reuse old computers or computer parts. The hardware choices are more relevant to new computers (or new parts) but the software choices apply to both.

It describes the choices available, depending on desired features such as:

  • ultra-low power consumption and battery or crank power (always desirable, but not essential if mains supply is available)
  • portability
  • storage type (hard disk, flash)

[edit] Existing projects

There are several projects to develop and sell a low cost computer for the developing world. These are not yet ready, although the XO-1 (laptop)W is planned for release in early 2008.

For more information, see the Wikipedia articles for these projects:

  • The XO-1 (laptop)W - formerly known as the $100 Laptop or Children's Machine, and being developed by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) trade association.
    • This will be subsidized, and the $100 target won't be reached immediately. It was proposed that anyone can buy one, for approximately $300, which would help subsidize the cheaper ones. This proposal was canceled in Nov. 2006, see the OLPC Retail page for details. From November 2007 to the end of the same year the OLPC project had a "Give One, Get One" program in the USA for $399.
    • Has received some critical reports, but reports of its demise are exaggerated. Hasn't taken over the world, but it's serving a good number of children.
    • It has been criticized on various grounds, including by the Fonly Institute for being too restricted in distribution to only children, and being open to serious misuse - see the Wikipedia article for more.
    • This will be sold to Ministries of Education in multi-million units, and the $100 target won't be reached immediately. There have been discussions of a commercial version; however OLPC have said this is unlikely to happen for some time, though deliveries for groups outside formal education sector, such as refugee camps, might be considered.
  • SimputerW developed in India
  • Classmate PCW being developed by Intel.
  • Eee PCW cheap Laptop being developed by ASUSW ( cheapest model is available for the equivalent of $245 ).
  • Jhai FoundationW in Laos
  • African project (name, link?) more features and designed to be very sturdy and dust-resistant, but an estimated cost above US$1100. Intended for groups rather than individuals.
  • The simplified Inveneo computer (a computer for rural areas) designed in San Francisco by Inveneo, costs from about US$300(sh530,000) to US$470, is small, runs from a 12VDC battery, and uses a fraction of the power of a regular computer (18W maximum with LCD display).
  • The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized computer which plugs into a monitor or TV, due for release in late November 2011. It is expected to have very low power consumption (minimum 1W, can be powered on 4xAA batteries), supports component or HDMI-out for display, 1 or 2 USB2 ports, SD-card slot for system, stereo-out, Ethernet (model B), 700mHz ARM processor with dedicated GPU, 128/256mb RAM. Price: $25 for Model A, $35 for Model B. Website. News report: The $25 PC is nearly here....
  • The WorldReader project, which is using the Kindle with African schoolchildren during its testing/demonstration phase (though their plan seems to be to get something cheaper with the same basic function as an e-reader).please expand
  • Disaster and development thinker Vinay Gupta envisions Android tablets as one of the sustainable basics along with shelter and sanitation - "a cheap Android tablet that's been engineered to last for three decades," http://boingboing.net/2011/10/24/tools-to-not-die-with-an-interview-with-vinay-gupta.html
  • There are also projects not focused on the developing world, that could be easily ported. For instance:

[edit] Second-hand computers

There are a number of organizations who work in this field, taking old computers and setting them up for use by disadvantaged people. E.g.:

[edit] Multi User computing

Since some years computers have enough resources to be used by more than one user ( even using a graphical interface ). What is needed is one or more graphic cards supporting more than one monitor and some USB keyboards and mice.

[edit] Portability

The main focus of this page (so far) is on desktop systems, and on reusing old computers, whether desktop or laptop. In terms of portable solutions, it will probably be hard to compete with the XO-1 (laptop)W.

However, feel free to contribute information on portability, in the appropriate sections.

[edit] Issues

[edit] Resistance to sand and dust

Any moving parts will be particularly vulnerable.

If a conventional computer system is used, damage can be reduced by:

  • Keeping the computer unit on a desk, not on the floor. Even with a mesh over the fan inlet, dusty air near the floor will harm the computer over time.

[edit] Power issues

For computers using mains power, low power consumption is still best:

  • It causes less heat, and makes cooling easier.
  • Less heat means less ventilation needed, which means dust entering the casing and thus greater reliability.
  • Also consider the embodied-energy of the product; the energy used in the production phase of the computer.

[edit] Low usage options

The XO-1 (laptop)W is planned to use 1 W of power or less. This is a great boon where power is limited or expensive.

However, in many contexts, where mains power is available, moderate power consumption is not a big problem, and it may not be worth the hardware cost to use ultra-low power consumption items.

[edit] Battery

While less than ideal from an environmental point of view (particularly where recycling options are not available), battery storage adds considerably to a computer's utility when used outdoors or with intermittent sources of power. Since batteries are also expensive, a computer with low power consumption is probably preferable to having more battery capacity. Many battery types also lose capacity over time, a process that can be accelerated by certain patterns of charging and discharging depending on the battery type.

One problem in locating new or used replacement batteries for laptops and similar devices is that most manufacturers will use a custom/proprietary form factor that prevents cross-compatibility with other brands and model lines. Norhtec's low-cost Gecko laptop uses eight standard AA sized rechargeable cells instead, eliminating the need to find a battery specifically designed for the device. Because of the broader market for standard battery types, prices can likely be more competitive.

To restore battery functionality to a laptop with a dead battery that has a non-standard form factor, it's possible to construct an external battery by wiring enough individual cells in series to create the voltage needed, and connecting that to the computer's DC input. With AA batteries this can be done with very inexpensive parts, but charging the cells in place would require additional circuitry. Power input jacks are much more likely to be of a standard type than the battery of the laptop, increasing the odds they will be available locally and inexpensively. Another method of restoring function would be to disassemble the original battery and replace the dead internal cells with functioning ones of the same number and type. This may be preferable if charging during operation is required.

Options Cost Power output Operating time

Local energy production methods can be intermittent, which presents restrictions on usability if no power storage at all is in place. (#Crank power) is not unpredictable in the same way that {[solar power|solar]] or wind) power can be, but without any form of power storage the computer would turn off the instant you stopped cranking. Needing to generate power constantly to prevent immediate shutdown would make it considerably more difficult to use a hand-cranked computer since the hands are also needed for other tasks, but with foot/pedal power this would not be as much of an issue.

-- However, having the use of a computer only "sometimes" may still be an improvement over the having the use of a computer "never". -- In many places even mains power is not available 24/7, and people still prefer that over no mains power.
Additionally, in some applications battery back-up can be made to palliate the inconvenience of intermittent power. (A pretty standard solar- or wind-recharged system, which have been made with technologies as primitive as recycled car batteries for decades now.)

[edit] Crank power

The XO-1 (laptop)W is likely to have an optional hand-crank or foot-pedal, which will be a separate unit (to avoid damage to the computer by the physical stresses of cranking).

[edit] Hardware

[edit] CPU (chip)

(Make Table - cost, speed, suitable o/s)

The CPU is a major factor in a computer's speed, power consumption and software compatibility. The clock rate W of a processor in MHz or GHz gives only a very rough idea of its capabilities unless comparing similar models, so it may be better to rely on real world tests to determine whether the system can perform a given task adequately. In some cases, processor intensive tasks (e.g. video decoding) can be offloaded to other components of the computer, allowing unbroken playback when otherwise the CPU alone might be unable to keep up.

Generally, recently made processors often have better power efficiency than older models, due both to miniaturization of components and active power saving measures not present in earlier chips. Used systems can have a low initial cost, but a power-hungry used model may present a false economy, depending on the cost of electricity and the amount of time it will be in use. Over time this will be less of a problem as inexpensive power-efficient models reach the used market at progressively lower prices.

Processors based on the X86 W architecture are found in most personal computers that exist now, which generally means broad compatibility with available operating systems and other software. Current X86 processor model lines with low power consumption include AMD's GeodeW and VIA's C7W, both seen in different revisions of the OLPC-XO, and Intel's Atom W line which is found in many consumer netbooks.

ARM W based processors are another low-powered option if X86 compatibility is not considered essential. Processors of this family are frequently seen in phones and other handheld devices, but inexpensive laptops with processors and tablet computers with ARM processors also exist. Power consumption can be significantly lower than comparable X86 chips, but running most commercial software designed for X86 systems (e.g. a full Windows OS) is not ordinarily possible. This is less of an issue with open source software and operating systems, because an ARM version can be compiled by someone from the source code and redistributed.

Is a Geode (processor)W suitable? Low power, used in Embedded systemW.

[edit] Media drives

Unless otherwise stated, the drives shown are for desktop systems.

Drive type Cost (retail) Cost (bulk) Energy usage Pros Cons
CD Allows information distribution by CD (a useful development & education tool) Info distribution is often by DVD now.
CD-RW (read-write) Allows users to share information more easily.
DVD Allows information distribution by DVD or CD (a useful development & education tool) Expense?
DVD-RW Allows users to share information more easily. Expense?

Prices of CD and DVD drives and recordable media have declined to the point where there is no longer much of a price advantage to the older CD format either per disc or per drive. DVD drives are backwards compatible with the CD format, and DVD-RW drives also retain CD-RW write capabilities. In both cases, rewritable discs are more expensive than ordinary recordable discs that can only be written once, making them best suited to applications where the contents are only needed temporarily (e.g. testing). Since DVD discs hold many times more data than CDs but don't cost significantly more, the primary advantage of CD-R media today is playback on devices like audio CD players. Some audio CD players, particularly older models, are not able to play CD-R media though.

DVD drives and media come in a confusing array of varieties. Most notably, some drives will record to DVD-R but not DVD+R discs or vice versa, and some are unable to write to higher capacity dual layer media. Conversion of other video file formats to DVD can require a lot of time on a computer that's not moderately recent, and importing video from a source like VHS requires special hardware. DVD-RAM is a specialized disc format not compatible with stand alone DVD players.

Blu-ray has emerged as a successor to the DVD format, except in China where a variant of the competing HD-DVD disc format is still in use. Disc capacities are many times those of DVD media. As of 2011 there are significant premiums on Blu-ray drives and recordable media compared to DVD, but these have gradually diminished over time.

[edit] Monitors

The cheapest option will often be second-hand monitors.

Cathode Ray TubeW monitors will most often be cheaper and more accesible than LCDW monitors. Be warned, however, of the risks in accepting free CRTs. You may end up with a dead monitor and a recycling fee.

Some brands to look for:

  • Panasonic
  • Dell
  • Packard Bell (suprisingly long lasting)
  • ViewSonic

[edit] New monitor options for desktops

Low-cost; low power consumption is better if possible. What are the options?

[edit] Data storage

The main options for storage are:

  • hard disk (better value; computer must be protected from physical shocks and bumps.)
  • flash (more expensive; no moving parts, so more tolerant of bumps (which is why it is used in the XO-1.)

The XO-1 (laptop)W has no hard disk, using a (flash drive instead? how is data stored between sessions?)

Flash does not equal volatile. Flash memoryW is non-volatile (i.e., data is retained between power-offs). In particular, most PDAs use non-volatile flash memory.

[edit] RAM

Some Linux systems (see below) require as little as 4 MB of RAM - though more obviously gives more options and better function.

(Note - this table is based on my limited knowledge, and may not be correct - please help improve it.)

Type of RAM Full Name Speeds available (MHz) Strengths Weaknesses
DRAM Dynamic RAM  ?? Cheaper. Lower power requirement? (Used for XO-1). Slower (but this not a big problem when running a very efficient operating system and software).
SDRAM Synchronous Dynamic RAM 66, 100, 133 (Also referred to as PC66, etc) Faster, often easy to find used. More expensive, due to low manufacturing and supply
DDR SDRAM Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM 266, 333, 400 (Also referred to as DDR266, etc) Cheaper than single data rate SDRAM, available in larger capacities. Possible to install Dual ChannelW on some motherboards for additional performance. Requires newer motherboard and processor.

[edit] Software

The requirements for software are:

  • Free
  • Easy to use
  • Low resource use

Distributions of Linux typically include a range of applications. "Chubby Puppy Linux" includes more highly functional programs than most "MiniLinux" distributions, including OpenOffice, though it is slightly bigger at 96 MB. Additional suitable software may be found by following these links:

  • PortableApps.com - compact programs designed to run from a portable media such as a USB flash drive; they can also be installed on a hard drive.
  • Fookes Software - 2 free programs: efficient image resizing program "Easy Thumbnails 2.8", (1 MB); highly functional text processor, not especially compact (4 MB).

[edit] Operating system

The requirements for an operating system are:

  • Free
  • Easy to setup
  • Easy to use
  • Excellent documentation is critical.
  • Low resource use

[edit] Windows

Windows is the best known system; however, we don't want to spend this much money, even if we have a computer which can run Windows.

Pirate versions are common in some developing countries, but:

  • Obviously Appropedia can't endorse pirate software, and
  • By using Linux, we encourage and tap into a community of users and open-source programmers who are likely to support our efforts.

Windows also is more resource-hungry, less reliable and stable than Linux.


Windows XP is not supported by Microsoft any more (as of April 2014).


Windows 7 and 8 require 2 GB (= 2000 MB) of RAM and modern processors for useful operation. Therefore, these Windows versions are no alternative for older computers with 256 MB of RAM to 2 GB of RAM. To continue using those computers instead of having them become electronic waste, an efficient Linux distribution like Lubuntu Linux (from 256 MB of RAM) is a good replacement for Windows XP.

See How-tos: "Installation Tips: How to replace Windows XP with Lubuntu Linux" [1] (PDF)


Windows 98/ME (not supported by Microsoft any more) seems to be able to run Open Source applications faster than Linux on old hardware. Was also able to get more large Open Source applications to run on a Windows ME machine than on a Linux machine with a distribution geared to older systems (on the same computer).[Suggested project] My source for this was my own experience. I used a laptop running Windows ME and later on the same one running Linux, ran the same Open Source applications and saw a speed difference. I've also seen this mentioned on a few Linux blogs by users who run both operating systems. -- comment by anonymous contributor. With that in mind, ReactOS might be a good future solution (but is currently alpha, not suitable for everyday use . ReactOS is an Open Source operating system attempting to be compatible with Windows NT (and future versions) and to give compatibility with Windows native drivers, while using much less system resources.

[edit] Linux

Using a lightweight version of Linux specially designed for older computers may be the best option. Even 486 machines can run with some of these, although without a modern browser with flash etc. There is a wide choice of Linux flavors, called "distributions", which can be confusing to the newbie.

Linux is also Free Software Free softwareW (also known as FLOSS FOSS (see: LibreW).

As of March, 2014, Lubuntu Linux (from 256 MB of RAM) is one of the best lightweight Linux versions available and a very easy to install replacement for Windows XP.

See How-tos: "Installation Tips: How to replace Windows XP with Lubuntu Linux" [2] (PDF)

[edit] How to choose a Linux distro
  • Use a tool to help you choose - or take all of these tests, as they all give a different perspective: zegenie Studios Linux Distribution Chooser (most thorough, and multi-lingual), (:^tuxs.org) Linux Distribution Chooser (simple), or polishlinux.org's Distro chooser (moderate).
  • Assume that you'll have to try more than one distro before you find one that works and works the way you want.
  • Make a LiveCDW and try it out. In the end, you'll pick your distros based largely on compatibility with your system, including hardware detection.
  • Install the operating system to a separate partition - this makes it easier to try new distros, and to upgrade.

[edit] MorphOS

Strengths:

  • MorphOSW has a very "small footprint" and installs in less than 15 MB.

Weaknesses:

  • Lack of good, usable programs. Even the web browser is apparently not complete.
  • Mix of proprietry and open-source. Not as open as Linux - meaning users are dependent on the owners and how good a service they provide.
  • Community of users and developers is not as large and active as Linux; Users are far more rare than Windows users, as well. As a result, getting support will be far more difficult.

[edit] Essential software

  • Web browserW
    • Mozilla FirefoxW, KonquererW, Epiphany (web browser)W, GaleonW
    • Links, Dillo work on low resource systems
  • Word processorW
    • AbiwordW is very popular and has low hardware requirements
    • If plain text editingW is the only requirement, Vim (text editor)W, Mg (text editor)W, Nano (text editor)W, and Pico (text editor)W work well.
    • For a programming editor, SciTE is excellent. It can do many of the things a word processor can do plus anything a text editor can do.
  • Adobe AcrobatW, FoxitW, or other program to read (and perhaps write) PDF files.
    • There are several open source Linux pdf readers. Evince is quite a good one.
    • Writing PDF files can be achieved with OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and other word processors.
    • XPDF is available on some Linux distributions and I've read Sumatra (also available at Portableapps.com) for Windows users is based on it. There's also a Windows version of XPDF available at the GnuWin32 project at Sourceforge.
    • Ghostscript can also create PDF files with a command line program.

[edit] Desirable software

These are not essential, but would be a plus:

  • Windows application layer
    • Wine (software)W
    • CedegaW (formerly Transgaming WineX, based on Wine)
  • Chat program
    • Instant Messaging: Pidgin (software)W, TrillianW, ayttmW
    • IRC: X-ChatW, BitchXW, irc it
  • Office software (word processing, spreadsheets).
    • It is desirable that the user can open and save to standard (i.e. Microsoft) format files, such as Word and Excel files. This can be achieved, usually, by using OpenOffice.orgW.
    • "Lighter" programs such as AbiwordW are often used in light versions of Linux for older machines. However, they have more problems opening some Microsoft files properly, compared to OpenOffice.

[edit] Low resource software

Software that works on older computers: (These work on Linux and Windows unless noted.)

  • Graphics
    • mtpaint,figurine (Winfig on Windows but takes more resources), flphoto
  • Video
    • flxine with libxine (There is a Windows port of xine.)
  • Audio
    • Timidity++, sox, gramofile, abc2midi, abcm2ps, mhwaveedit (Linux only)
  • PIM
    • fltdj, tux_todo, hypertree, lcal

[edit] Important settings information (especially important for Windows)

[edit] Security

An important part of minimizing maintenance problems and ensuring reliable operation is keeping the computer safe from virusesW and other security risks.

If you are using Linux or Apple, your system is relatively secure to start with. However, basic security measures should still be followed.

Windows machines are prone to security problems, and this must be taken very seriously. It is very strongly recommended that the system be hardened, i.e. made more secure.

The most essential steps include:

  • Using an up-to-date firewallW when connected to the internet.
  • Using an up-to-date anti-virus program when connected to the internet.
  • Never operating an account without a password. This default setting of no password is one of the things that makes Windows computers very vulnerable to attacks and consequent problems.

All these things can be done at zero cost by choosing free software and using free guides where needed.

This is just a start - see the links below for more info.

More information:

[edit] Maximizing performance

In order to make the most of older equipment, it is valuable to tweak the system, using certain low-risk methods.

One simple method in Windows XPW is to change the setting

More information:

[edit] See also

  • Thin clientsW - potentially greener and lower cost?
  • ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development)

[edit] Interwiki links

[edit] External links

[edit] Further reading

[edit] Organizations

[edit] Articles & discussions

[edit] Other pages with a similar focus to this one

To help keep in touch with similar projects.

[edit] How-tos