We continue to develop resources related to the COVID-19 pandemic. See COVID-19 initiatives on Appropedia for more information.

Difference between revisions of "Low cost computer guide"

From Appropedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
(→‎How-tos: fix link)
Line 229: Line 229:
===Essential software===
===Essential software===
**[[Mozilla Firefox]], [[Konquerer]], [[Epiphany (web browser) | Epiphany]], [[Galeon]]
**[[wikipedia:Mozilla Firefox|Mozilla Firefox]], [[wikipedia:Konquerer |Konqueror]], [[wikipedia:Epiphany (web browser) | Epiphany]], [[wikipedia:Galeon | Galeon]]
*Word processor
*Word processor
**[[Abiword]] is very popular and has low hardware requirements
**[[wikipedia:Abiword | Abiword]] is very popular and has low hardware requirements
**If plain text editing is the only requirement, [[Vim (text editor) | Vim]], [[Nano (text editor) | Nano]], and [[Pico (text editor) | Pico]] work well.
**If plain text editing is the only requirement, [[wikipedia:Vim (text editor) | Vim]], [[wikipedia:Nano (text editor) | Nano]], and [[wikipedia:Pico (text editor) | Pico]] work well.
*[[Adobe Acrobat]], [[Foxit]], or other program to read (and perhaps write) PDF files.
*[[wikipedia:Adobe Acrobat | Adobe Acrobat]], [[wikipedia:Foxit | FoxIt]], or other program to read (and perhaps write) PDF files.
**There are several open source Linux pdf readers. Evince is quite a good one.
**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.
**Writing PDF files can be achieved with OpenOffice and other word processors.

Revision as of 19:29, 6 September 2006

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 $100 laptop is planned for release in early 2007.

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

  • $100 laptop (Note this will be subsidised, and the $100 target won't be reached immediately. It is proposed that anyone can buy one, for approximately $225(?), which will help subsidise the cheaper ones.)
  • Simputer
  • Jhai Foundation
  • African project (name, link?) more features, but an estimated cost above US$1100. Intended for groups rather than individuals.

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 organisations who work in this field, taking old computers and setting them up for use by disadvantaged people. E.g.:

  • (please list)


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 $100 laptop.

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 $100 laptop is planned to use 2 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 $100 laptop 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)

Are Geode suitable? Low power, used in embedded computing.

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 Tube monitors will most often be cheaper and more accesible than LCD 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 not 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 $100 laptop.)

The $100 laptop has no hard disk, using a (flash drive instead? how is data stored between sessions?)

Flash does not equal volatile. Non-volatile (i.e., data is retained between power-offs) flash memory is used all over. 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 $100 laptop). 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 Channel 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:

  • 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).

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.

Linux is also Free software (see: Libre).

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.

Suggested Linux distributions

Distribution File size Requirements Documentation Strengths Drawbacks
Extremely basic
DeLi Linux MB 386 with 8 MB RAM as a minimum. It should work smoothly with a 486 and 16 MB RAM. Good for very old or very basic computers.
Basic Linux (BL) MB 386-compatible with 3 MB RAM as a minimum (on a DOS machine); or 386-compatible with 12MB RAM. Good for very old or very basic computers.
Fits on a CD; Loads into RAM
Puppy Linux ~70MB Needs 128 MB RAM to run at optimum; possible to use it with less, but setup becomes less simple. Online Video Tutorials & a reasonably helpful wiki Claimed to be very easy to setup (just copy image file), small and fast. Being based on Slackware, it presumably requires a high level of technical ability to use it, especially when installing programs or modifying anything (?)
Chubby Puppy Linux ~120MB Needs 256MB RAM Includes OpenOffice (presumably a stripped down custom version) and Mozilla. Less up-to-date, & much fewer downloads than the regular Puppy Linux; less attention means it may be insufficiently tested. Note that the full OpenOffice can be easily downloaded/provided for use with the regular Puppy Linux if there is adequate disk space.
Damn Small Linux (Knoppix remaster) MB Lack of clear documentation (at this stage) makes it unsuitable.
Feather Linux (Knoppix remaster) 119MB 486 with 24Mb of RAM or more (16MB in non-graphical mode)[1] Website is very clearly laid out; wiki not working? Good for very old or very basic computers
Larger, but still fits on one CD
Morphix Light GUI version (Knoppix remaster) ~260MB (~660MB for other versions) ( is a modular distribution, so you can choose what size you want it to be) [2] Good for very old or very basic computers?
easys (based on Slackware, with KDE Light 688 MB Pentium II computer with 400 MHz and about 128 MB+ RAM (196 MB suggested) in order to work efficiently.[3] Good for very old or very basic computers?
Knoppix 700MB 486 with 96MB RAM, for graphics mode.[4] if the system has less than 512MB of RAM, the user must have at least 128MB of swap space to proceed beyond the partition-menu[5] (not for liveCD?) 2 GB disk space if installing to HD.[6] Wiki... Major distro, should have good documentation, support, be well-checked for stability, compatibility of programs.
Xubuntu (Light version of Ubuntu) MB To run the Desktop CD at least 128 megabytes of RAM is required. To use the installed system at least 64 megabytes of RAM is required but 128 is recommended. At least 1.4 gigabytes of disk space is required.
Larger distributions (for moderately advanced computers)
OpenSuSE (check lightest version) (1 DVD or 5 CDs) Pentium... Videos available; wiki in several European languages (and presumably could be created easily for other languages). high funtionality; usable (end-user tested by developers of the commercial version).

Aimed at very low end and limited hardware, such as the 386/486 with 4Mb memory. Comes on 2 floppies instead of the more normal CD.

See also:

External links:



  • MorphOS 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
    • Abiword is very popular and has low hardware requirements
    • If plain text editing is the only requirement, Vim, Nano, and Pico work well.
  • Adobe Acrobat, FoxIt, 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
  • Chat program
  • 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.org.
    • "Lighter" programs such as Abiword 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

For Wikipedia articles on other appropriate technology ICT projects, see here.

External links




Finding more info