The price of a free PC

How much does a free PC cost? The answer would appear obvious at first glance, but it may not be quite so clear cut.

As someone who has had pretty good access to supplies of redundant computing equipment over the years I have often been able improve and upgrade with minimal cost and still have a working system.

I started with an 8088 based system in the ’80s which I was given as a tool to do my work at the time, and gradually upgraded it with new system boards, peripherals and drives until eventually I had a nice 100MHz 80486 with a 120MB hard disk and 32MB of RAM running Windows NT with dial up web access and Netscape Navigator 4.

Times change and things move on. I persevered  with the little system still in its XT case but eventually around the turn of the millennium most websites stopped supporting Netscape and I had to bite the bullet and buy a new PC that would run Internet Explorer. It was a time when PC use was expanding and no one was throwing out anything that was capable of running NT. The big issue was memory – you just could not get enough in them.

I bit the bullet. Of course I did not go and buy an off the shelf PC from a shop. I bought the bits I needed from various sources, and even bought a smart new case big enough to fit the optical drive, LS120 drive, floppy disk drive (NT still needed a real floppy as well to load the drivers!) and a pair of 30GB hard disks and a system board with integrated RAID. I had been around long enough to know that PC component failures were in the following order 1. CRT monitor, 2. PSU, 3. Hard Disk. I wanted my PC to keep running.

Old habits die hard and I could not miss an opportunity to obtain a second hand 900MHz AMD Athlon processor and a discarded AGP graphics card to keep the costs down. With 256MB of RAM this PC was going to last forever. I had spent a grand, bear in mind this was back in the days when a grand was a lot of money, and it made me realise what I had achieved over the years by recycling all those unwanted parts.

The new PC ran Windows 2000 and with the enhancement of another 500MB of RAM and a pair of 200GB hard disks lasted for a decade with minimal investment. As Internet Explorer had caused the demise of the old PC, the new cause of failure was Facebook. People were not able to play the games because it was not fast enough to run the flash based applications. The OS was a little out of date and no longer supported with security updates and I could not get a realistic amount of memory in it.

I soldiered on, but my tales of woe did not fall on stony ground.

Second hand black PC“I’ve got something better than that you can have.” There was some rummaging, and out popped a PC in a black tower case. The colour was interesting because all my previous PCs had been beige. That is the way it was!

So I left with my free PC under my arm. OK so it was not quite state of the art, but it met the spec for Windows 7, and the Semperon processor was around three times faster than the old Athlon – what could go wrong.

I knew that the 1GB of RAM would not be quite adequate, so a splashed out fifty quid on 2GB of DDR to fill it up. OK, so £50 for a new PC was not too bad a price to pay. It would not be totally awsome, but it would be a lot better.

The memory arrived, I put it in, now to install the OS. After a fair bit of faffing around it transpired that the DVD drive was not in tip-top condition and would only read CDs. OK I will have to buy a new drive, no big deal.

I can’t install Windows 7 from the DVD but can install Vista, so at least I get an OS installed. Buy a nice new Blue Ray writer (silly not to really) for £85, and the SATA controller card for £30 because you cannot get an IDE Blue Ray drive.

OK so not too bad. My free PC has only cost me £165 so far, and running Vista is perhaps not that bad – apart from it crashing a few times each day.

“We want the old PC back. It’s no good. Why did you waste all that money on it.”

“It was free…”

At this point things are not looking good. Well, I have got the new optical drive, lets try upgrading to Windows 7. Perhaps that will be more stable than Vista.

It wasn’t of course. Lots of fiddling to remove everything that was not essential to the running of the PC (sound card, AGP graphics card). Flash up the firmware, play with conservative BIOS settings. Still no good. Removing the graphics card reduced crashing to once per day, but it was still crashing. Still referred to as Satan.

By now the donor of the ‘free’ PC was no doubt feeling a little guilty. “Well, I have got this core 2 Duo processor and 2GB memory…”

Will it work I think to myself.  I did not want to be in Ground-hog day. I was sort of there already. Accepting the new parts would result in more expenditure. I would have to buy a new system board.

I had no choice. I had to succeed. I am an IT professional. People pay me a lot of money to make things work. I can do it. I will succeed.

System board and new PCI-e graphics card arrive for a mere £75. Running total is now £235.

“They had new PCs on special offer for about that. We could have had a proper one…”

I did not dare mention the Blue ray writer that the ‘proper one’ would not have had.

I build the new PC, and success. PC runs like a dream. All of the ills and trauma are forgotten and everyone is happy. Happy Aquarium runs like a dream and everyone can now feed their virtual fish without tearing their hair out.

What became of the original free PC? Well you might ask. I put the bits in another case, installed Fedora on it and used it as my Linux test PC. Crashing once a day would not be an issue, and I was getting two PCs now for the price of one. One interesting observation of course – it does not crash running Linux!

Glossary (in order of appearance!)

8088 – Microprocessor made by Intel and used in the first IBM PCs. It is a 16-bit processor similar to the 8086 but with an 8-bit external bus to keep the cost down and to keep the PC simple.

IBM – International Business Machines, the company that made the PC very popular worldwide.

PC – Personal Computer. A small computer with just enough processing power for and intended to be used by one person and not shared by many as most computers were at one time.

MHz – MegaHertz, the number of millions of things that a processor can do in a second.

80486 – 32-bit processor made by Intel and based on (and backwards compatible with) its earlier 8086 processor with an integrated numerical co-processor to speed up arithmetic operations and the ability to work with much more memory.

MB – Megabyte, 1048576 bytes (a little over a million, hence mega). A byte is enough storage to typically hold one character or a number from 0 to 255.

Windows – A popular operating system family produced by Microsoft.

Operating System – The software that runs on a PC when you first switch it on which allows you to run your applications.

NT – The first version of Windows that did not sit on top of another operating system and was stand alone. Very much based on OS/2 that Microsoft had produced for IBM. The NT stood for New Technology since it was very different underneath to the previous versions of Windows although it looked the same and was very similar to use.

OS/2 – A completely new operating system intended to replace DOS on personal computers which did not gain much popularity outside of business which made good use of the improvements that had been made to PCs since IBM introduced the first ones.

DOS – Disk Operating System, the original operating system produced by Microsoft for the IBM PC.

RAM – Random Access Memory, the memory which holds data and programs only while the computer is turned on.

Netscape Navigator – The first popular web browser that has become eclipsed by Internet Explorer.

XT  – The first version of the IBM PC to come with a hard disk. It had a distinctive case style that was much copied by other manufacturers.

LS120 – A floppy disk drive that works with disks that hold 120MB of data rather than the usual 1.44MB.

System board – The main circuit board within a PC that contains the processor and has connectors to plug in other devices.

RAID – Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks. A method of using a group of hard disks to store data in such a way that failure of one disk will not result in any loss of data.

CRT Monitor – Monitor with a cathode ray tube and curved screen like televisions used to have.

PSU – Power Supply Unit, the part of a computer that takes mains voltage and converts it to the lower voltages required inside the computer.

AMD Athlon – Microprocessor made by AMD to be broadly compatible with Intel processors but a little faster and cheaper.

AGP Graphics card – Newer type of monitor adapter which plugs into a special AGP slot in the system board and is much faster than the previous type that just plugs into and ordinary slot.

Facebook – A popular social networking website.

Semperon – An AMD processor more advanced than the Athlon.

DDR –  Double Data Rate memory, a type of RAM.

DVD – Digital Video Disk, optical disk originally intended for video but used widely to store data.

Blue Ray – Optical disk with more storage than DVD.

IDE – Integrated Drive Electronics, an interface type used for hard disks and optical drives to connect them to the system board.

SATA – A newer and faster interface than IDE to connect drives to the system board.

Firmware – Software that is held within the hardware to control it, nowadays it tends to be held within flash erasable memory chips which can be updated by a process called flashing when any software errors need to be corrected.

Fedora – A version of Linux produced by Red Hat, who’s logo is a red fedora hat.

LINUX – An operating system originally produced by Linus Torvalds which is maintained by the open source community.

Open source – Software which is produced where the source code is published freely for anyone to use.

Suzie x


3 Responses to “The price of a free PC”

  1. Jenny Alto Says:

    I was going to ask why you weren’t running a Linux distro.

    I used to make PCs. Then I got sick of always replacing failed parts, and I noticed this didn’t happen to the Dells I worked with. So I spent 500 quid on a Dell, and so far it’s six years old with no bother. <£100/year, I'm happy.

    If I could run OSX without bother on a Dell I would, but I've found Apple hardware to be unreliable over the years.

  2. Suzie Tall Says:

    My biggest problem with Linux is that I keep hitting a wall with ‘If you need to ask how to do this you shouldn’t be doing it’ type statements whenever I try to get something working on Linux.

    I guess that it would be OK for just out of the box type PC use with web browsing and office applications, but as soon as you try and do anything interesting you have to recompile the core to support the drivers, and there is a lot of unfinished and non working stuff like most configuration applications which I guess I could fix if I was keen, but I don’t have either the time nor inclination to fix them. I guess that around 80% of the effort of software development is tidying up the loose ends (well, it is when I do it), but in Linux that bit gets left out!

    I spent three years on and off trying to build a Linux PVR, but I never did find out how to compile the tuner and MPEG-2 display drivers into the core. All the effort appeared to be put into using an awesome processor and software MPEG decoding rather than using the display adapter hardware.

    My experience with dell is quite the reverse. I have a Dell laptop, but it has had two hard disks and a DVD drive replaced, and the battery and mouse pad has gone wrong too! I guess it is just a bad example. It is by far the most unreliable PC I have had!

  3. Suzie Tall Says:

    I have added a glossary to this post which may (or may not) make this post a little more readable for the not technically minded. The blog is not called Technotranny for nothing!

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