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Difference between revisions of "Low cost computer guide"

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(Existing projects)
(Existing projects)
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*There are also projects not focused on the developing world, that could be easily ported.  For instance:
*There are also projects not focused on the developing world, that could be easily ported.  For instance:
**[ Tiny, sub-$100 PC runs Puppy Linux] (Article from August 23, 2006)
**[ Tiny, sub-$100 PC runs Puppy Linux] (Article from August 23, 2006)
**Manufactured by [ NorhTec Corporation], offering a basic low-power computer for US$85.00 as of Feb 2008.
===Second-hand computers===
===Second-hand computers===

Revision as of 00:31, 18 February 2008

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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)

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)DEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. is planned for release in early 2008.

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

  • The XO-1 (laptop)DEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. - 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.
    • 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 unit, and the $100 target won't be reached immediately. There have been discussions of a commercial version; however [[1]] 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.
  • SimputerDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. developed in India
  • Classmate PCDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. being developed by Intel.
  • Eee PCDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. cheap Laptop being developed by ASUSDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. ( cheapest model is available for the equivalent of $245 ).
  • 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).
  • There are also projects not focused on the developing world, that could be easily ported. For instance:

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.:

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.


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)DEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD..

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


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.

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.

Low usage options

The XO-1 (laptop)DEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. 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.


Likely to be expensive.

Also less than ideal from an environmental point of view, particularly where recycling options are not available.

Options Cost Power output Operating time

Alternatives for areas without mains power:

  • Manually operated generators (#Crank power);
  • An undesirable option is local energy production (e.g. solar or wind), and use only when power is available. This is very unreliable, restrictive, and leaves the computer prone to suddenly cutting off when the sun or wind drops.

Crank power

The XO-1 (laptop)DEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. 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).


CPU (chip)

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

Is a Geode (processor)DEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. suitable? Low power, used in embedded computingDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD..

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?


The cheapest option will often be second-hand monitors.

Cathode Ray TubeDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. monitors will most often be cheaper and more accesible than LCDDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. 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

New monitor options for desktops

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

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)DEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. has no hard disk, using a (flash drive instead? how is data stored between sessions?)

Flash does not equal volatile. Flash memoryDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. is non-volatile (i.e., data is retained between power-offs). In particular, most PDAs use non-volatile flash memory.


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 ChannelDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. on some motherboards for additional performance. Requires newer motherboard and processor.


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:

  • - 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).

Operating system

The requirements for an operating system are:

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


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.


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. There is a wide choice of Linux flavors, called "distributions", which can be confusing to the newbie.


Some of the distributions (i.e. versions) of Linux can be difficult to install if you're unfamiliar, so it is planned that this section will link to a guide, or give guidance as to which are easier, and where to get help.

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), (:^ Linux Distribution Chooser (simple), or'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.



  • MorphOSDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. has a very "small footprint" and installs in less than 15 MB.


  • 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.

Essential software

  • Browser
  • Word processor
    • AbiwordDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. is very popular and has low hardware requirements
    • If plain text editing is the only requirement, VimDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD., NanoDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD., and PicoDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. work well.
  • Adobe AcrobatDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD., FoxItDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD., 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 and other word processors.

Desirable software

These are not essential, but would be a plus:

  • Windows application layer
    • CedegaDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. (formerly Transgaming WineX, based on Wine)
  • Chat program
    • Instant Messaging: Pidgin(formerly Gaim)DEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD., TrillianDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD.
  • 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.orgDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD..
    • "Lighter" programs such as AbiwordDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. are often used in light versions of Linux for older machines. However, they have more problems opening some Microsoft files properly, compared to OpenOffice.

Important settings information (especially important for Windows)


An important part of minimizing maintenance problems and ensuring reliable operation is keeping the computer safe from viruses 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 firewall 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:

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 XP is to change the setting

More information:

See also

Interwiki links

External links

Further reading


Articles & discussions

Other pages with a similar focus to this one

To help keep in touch with similar projects.