Categories
Hardware Articles

Breathing new auditory & visual life into a tired old computer (Part 1)

Hello once again fellow readers and fixers! Here is another way of getting more use out of an old computer; if you find yourself getting fed up of spending ages waiting for an important application to load in order to get something important done, or constantly fighting against a seemingly never-ending tidal wave of junk data and huge software updates clogging up you spare storage space, then why not turn your old computer into a media hub?

The great thing about a media hub is that you can be flexible in the way they play different kinds of multimedia. If you have more music, video clips, movies and video games than you know what to do with, you can install a large hard drive just for your media collection. If streaming is more your cup of tea, then you can get by with an SSD with a more modest storage capacity, and simply connect an external hard drive for your media collection if needed.

Now then, if you want to use your old computer just for playing music, video clips and movies, there is a dedicated operating system called LibreELEC, which is essentially a minimal GNU/Linux distro that is specifically built to run Kodi for media centre use. It has a collection of add-ons that are crafted to provide a television-like experience to users, and provide access to various different features and services, from internet radio to video streaming. In addition, it can be run as a live session from a bootable USB stick, be run directly from the USB stick with settings saved to the pen drive, or be installed directly onto the hard drive or SSD (any existing data stored on the hard drive/SSD, including partitions, will be deleted if going the installation route, so back up any essential files beforehand!)

Of course, for those who don’t yet feel confident in making the switch completely for their old computer, or who needs to use other software applications for various activities, Kodi itself can be installed as a separate application on Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux, and on Android devices. However, for the purpose of this article, we will assume that the users in question are already using a more powerful and/or recent computer for any other activities besides playing media files.

Next time, we will try out LibreELEC on a range of old laptops that we have spare in our workshops, and see how well they run, along with how well they can play various kinds of media.

Categories
Miscellaneous Articles

Upgrades on a Shoestring: Power Supply Units

Hello again fellow readers and fixers! Last year, we covered solid state drives with regards to upgrading parts in a desktop computer or a laptop on a shoestring budget, since those parts have reached a point where achieving a performance uplift through faster internal storage for little outlay became viable. But which other computer parts do upgrading on a shoestring budget makes sense?

Today, we look at power supply units, which are one of the core parts a desktop computer needs in order to function. Power supply units are designed to turn alternating current drawn from the mains socket, into low-voltage direct current, and then feed that low-voltage direct current to the other internal components (including the processor, storage drives and any peripheral devices) to enable them to function.

Modern power supply units are designed to be energy efficient, based on different levels of power load; this means that they consume less power drawn from the mains and in turn, produce less heat. This also means that they can also operate quieter, since the fans inside the power supply units do not need to spin up as much; in fact, some high-end power supplies are designed to operate silently at low loads, or generate sufficiently little heat that enables them to be cooled passively. They also commonly have built-in safety features that help protect against excessive temperatures, loads or currents, short circuits and over or under-voltage problems that can cause damage to the power supply unit itself, or potentially to other hardware components.

Of course, even now, there are generic power supplies that are manufactured at such low cost that they are marketed at people who are looking to build or upgrade their desktop PCs, but cannot afford to buy a good quality unit from a reputable brand, such as Corsair, Seasonic, be quiet! and Thermaltake. They usually tend to be lighter in weight than with reputable units, due to fewer internal components and thinner metal casings.

Unfortunately, because these generic, no-name power supply units are often poorly-designed and assembled, they lack the extra safety features built into units manufactured by reputable brands. With metal cases as thin as cornflakes cardboard boxes, they are perhaps the one kind of computer part where you absolutely do not want to scrimp and save on. After all, the last thing anyone wants to see happen to their computers for the power supply unit’s internal components to snap, make the whole unit itself crackle, and potentially cause the other hardware components to go pop, with the end result being a possible electrical fire and the replacement of any other hardware parts damaged by such a power supply failure.

In summary, the power supply unit is one computer part where it is better to spend that bit more and get a decent quality unit than a generic one. We would recommend buying a power supply which has a wattage capacity that is appropriate for your computer or build, with around 25-30% headroom to take into account ageing and efficient operation.

Categories
Community Workshops News

BitFIXit is now BitFIXing again!

Hello fellow readers and fixers! As the upheaval resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak is starting to settle up and down the United Kingdom, we noticed that various places throughout the country have recently started to open up again as the lockdown relaxes. We have also recently heard from another local community group based in Abbeyfield Park House that members of the local community have been asking about when our usual repairs workshops will begin running again.

Well, we have some good news to share with everyone here; we are looking to restart our repairs workshops for the community, starting from next Saturday, which will be the 27th June 2020. There will, however, be some measures that we will put into place to help protect our volunteers and the community against contracting coronavirus; here is a list of some of the measures that we propose to implement;

  • Providing hand sanitisers, wipes and gloves at the repairs workshops
  • We will be trialing having a small reception area just inside the door to the park where customers can drop off their computers. We’ll take contact details and then ask you to leave and we will contact you when the repair is finished.
  • Where possible, we will carry out repairs in separate rooms to help volunteers maintain social distancing during workshop sessions
  • As this is a trial we will review how it goes and may change our procedures as we get better at this

We very much look forward to resuming our regular service which has been operating continuously since 2004.

Categories
Miscellaneous Articles

Stuck for things to do during the lockdown?

Hello again fellow readers and fixers! We hope you are all keeping safe and well in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak and ongoing lockdown which, sadly is continuing for a while longer. But that in no way means that you should wallow in boredom at home if you absolutely cannot work as a result of the lockdown; there are still many ways that you can entertain yourself and pass the time in the meantime.

We have put together a list of just some of the activities that you can do while the lockdown is still ongoing, some conventional, others more on the wacky side.

Bring an old computer back into use

Chances are, when you buy a new desktop PC or laptop, or a recent refurbished machine, your old machine is still lying around somewhere, gradually gathering dust. So if that old computer still works, then instead of throwing it away, why not use it for something else?

For example, if the old machine still has CPU and graphics horsepower left, then it is worth turning it into a media hub for playing music, games, videos and movies. Many music and video players, games and other media-focused software applications, as well as media streaming services, have cross-platform compatibility, meaning that you can use your favourite operating system with your favourite media apps!

Try out different GNU/Linux distros

If you feel that you are becoming fed up of using the same operating system day in, day out, that it is getting really slow to use even after trying to optimise it, or just fancy trying out something else, then there are numerous different GNU/Linux distros, from mainstream distros like Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora and Gentoo, to less well known distros like Trisquel, Tiny Core Linux and MX Linux.

With a spare USB drive and utilities for creating a bootable USB drive, you can then run the chosen distro as a live session, so that you can find out how it will be used when it is installed, and whether or not the distro will work correctly with all of the components in your machine. So if you decide that the distro you tried is not the right fit for your needs or device, you still keep the operating system you currently have installed on your machine, along with all of your documents, software and media.

Learn how to fix common problems with computers

Encountering problems with different items of hardware and software is a fact of life in the world of computer repairs. Particularly, if you are working from home while the lockdown is ongoing, having something go wrong while getting important work done can be more problematic than usual without the support from local computer repair shops to fallback on.

That said, it is worth spending some time reading through a wide range of articles and blog posts, and watching videos on YouTube about a wide range of hardware and software issues, and how those problems can be fixed. You can use a notepad or some spare sheets of paper to write down notes on any tools or other items needed, and the steps taken to fix a problem, if you feel that this would be useful for you.

If you prefer to learn by practical means, then you can use a spare machine to practice fixing hardware and software problems, so that you know what to do if those issues arise on your primary machine.

One important task that you need to remember, is to regularly back up all of your important files to your cloud storage, or to an external hard drive or USB drive – that way, your data will be safe should the worse comes to the worst, where something goes badly wrong with your computer.

Give the insides of your computer a clean

Just like many everyday items, your desktop PC or laptop naturally attracts dust over time, and too much dust clogging up the heat sinks of critical components such as your CPU means they can’t cope with the resulting excessive heat being trapped under the layer of dust.

Modern CPUs in particular are designed to throttle (reduce its clock speed) to keep themselves within a certain temperature threshold to prevent heat-related damage; if they do exceed that temperature threshold even while throttling, then they initiate what is akin to a safety cut-out, which completely shuts down the computer as a last resort to protect the CPU from damage caused by excessive heat.

With that in mind, it is definitely a good idea to get into the habit of periodically cleaning out the inside of your computer to get rid of as much dust and debris as possible. Getting into most desktop PCs is just a simple matter of removing a couple of screws or thumbscrews from a side panel and sliding the panel off the case. An air duster works wonders for removing dust from hard to reach places, and especially from heat sink fans on laptops, though if you don’t have one at hand, then alternatively you can use cotton wool swabs or soft brushes to sweep the dust away.

Those are just some of the things that you can do to keep yourself occupied while the lockdown continues. Just remember though: make sure to stay safe and well, and we will pull through together!

Categories
Hardware Articles

We tried a different kind of SSD upgrade…

Many of us who have had a small capacity SSD in our computers will have encountered situations when it suddenly stops working one day and takes all of your precious documents and other data with it, or it gets clogged up with so much junk data over a period of time that there’s not enough room left over for that all-important Windows update.

Now, at a time when SSDs are so cheap nowadays that a 240GB+ SSD can be picked up from your favourite online retailer on a shoestring, our typical idea of an SSD upgrade would be to replace an SSD that has kicked the bucket or is getting too small in storage space to cope with a big Windows update, or to replace a slow or failing hard drive with an SSD. But what if we take an SSD with such a small capacity, and tried to upgrade its capacity while still retaining its original case?

Today, we attempted this possible approach to an SSD upgrade with a 20GB Intel 313 Series SATA-II solid-state drive that we recently found rather cheaply on eBay. This SSD originally came from a HP machine, and would likely have been used as a cache drive alongside a mechanical hard drive, intended to be utilised through Intel’s proprietary caching mechanisms.

And here’s the SSD that we were looking to use its casing to house our bare SSD!

As you can see in the above photo, the casing of the SSD was held together with four small screws, one on each corner. And so, it took just a Philips screwdriver to open up the casing by removing the four screws on the corners and simply prising open the casing itself.

And there’s the PCB that makes up the internals of the SSD! It occupied the whole of the inside of the SSD, and will have been held secure by the same four screws that kept the casing held together. No moving parts here, so much easier to take apart than a mechanical hard drive. We had a 240GB bare SSD at hand in its anti-static bag, so we tried installing it into the original SSD casing and…

…well, that was where things were not going according to plan here. The trouble is, the holes on the bare SSD did not align properly with the screw holes on the inside corners of the casing, so it would not have been secured in place when the casing would be closed up. The same was also true when seeing if wedging it with screws against the recesses that would be where the screws would go to mount the SSD to a 2.5″ drive bay in a computer would work as a workaround.

Also, the shape of the SATA connector area on our spare SSD differed to that on the original PCB of the Intel 313 Series SSD, so even if the holes did align and we were able to secure it in place with the screws, we would not have been able to fully close up the unit without risking damage to the casing and/or our bare SSD. We did consider cutting a small opening into the top cover as a workaround to this, so that the SATA connectors would sit flush with the casing this way, but we decided against doing so.

So what we have learned here is that such an approach to SSD upgrades can plausibly be done, though it does depend on the design of the SSD casing and where the screws are, so while this SSD upgrade attempt on the Intel 313 Series SSD did not work out as planned on this occasion, we may have better luck doing this with other makes and models of SSDs.

And this proves that you can’t win them all, but we did learn something in the process. We’ll keep our eyes open for a 2.5″ case that would fit better.

Categories
Community Workshops News

From specialism to generalism – a workshop trial

Since we began the BitFIXit project in 2004, we generally focused our repairs work more on computers and mobile devices at our pop-up repair workshops at Abbeyfield Park House in Pitsmoor, and on Verdon Street in Burngreave prior to the move.

Having worked alongside the dedicated repairers from Repair Sheffield since 2016, we are now collaborating with them to begin a trial, involving monthly general repair workshops at Abbeyfield Park House. The initial session at our repair workshops will run on Saturday 1st February 2020 at the extended times of 10am to 4pm, in line with Repair Sheffield’s repair cafe sessions at Heeley City Farm and Strip the Willow.

You can find out more about Repair Sheffield at their website here: https://sheffieldrepaircafe.callpress.net/

On the day, we can repair computers, phones and tablets as we normally do at our repairs workshops, but you can also bring along a plethora of other kinds of everyday items such as small furniture (e.g tables, chairs), general electrical items (e.g kettles, radios, digital TV recorders), clothes and footwear, and even antiques!

If all goes well at the initial general workshops session and there is enough interest to make these sessions viable, then we will hold the general repair workshops on the first Saturday of every month at Abbeyfield Park House. We hope to see you there!

Categories
BitFIXit General

Forging ahead into the future

We hope you have all had a great Christmas and a happy new year. With the BitFIXit project running community workshops and engaging with events run by other groups for over 16 years now, we feel that now is a good time to set out how we can move the BitFIXit project forwards, going into the future.

  • Encourage reuse, repair and repurpose

As new and upcoming iterations of computers and mobile devices are becoming increasingly locked down in terms of specs and repairability, and the business models of ingrained planned obsolescence on the part of manufacturers become evermore unsustainable, we believe that being able to reuse, repair and repurpose IT equipment and hardware components are more important than ever before.

While reusing and repurposing computers, mobile devices and other IT equipment goes a long way in reducing the amount of e-waste we produce, we feel that we can further reduce e-waste by finding other different (and creative!) ways of reusing and repurposing individual parts that make up the equipment. We already shared some repurpose and reuse ideas here on this site, but we are interested in being more ambitious and creative with reuse and repurpose by working on various different projects, based on ideas we discussed during recent workshop sessions (and of course, finally giving Gareth a good reason to make use of all the laptop batteries he has been hoarding all that time!)

The overall gist of promoting reuse, repair and repurpose is to encourage people to be more resourceful by maximising the useful life of technological products through refurbishment, upgrades and optimisation. And where those items could no longer be used for their original purpose, their individual components can still become parts of other useful items, instead of just becoming e-waste.

  • Collaborate with other community groups

Collaboration is going to be important going forward, as we are better able to promote sustainability by working together. We understood that this can be done as demonstrated in March 2019, when the fine folks at Repair Sheffield and People’s Kitchen Pitsmoor came together with us for the relaunch of Green City Action’s Community Tool Bank at Abbeyfield Park House. What is in the pipeline right now, is for collaborative events to take place around every three months.

We currently work alongside Repair Sheffield at their repair cafe sessions at Heeley City Farm and Strip The Willow, and we will be working alongside them more frequently at Abbeyfield Park House. We’re starting regular Repair Sheffield sessions every month, on the first Saturday of the month. Combining our IT-oriented workshops with their more generalised repair cafes will result in a more unified community repairs hub that is capable of fixing a broad range of everyday items and sharing advice, tips and ideas.

We would be especially interested in collaborating with other community groups and repair cafes from further afield. What would also be great is to be able to work with the folks at Access Space again; we regrettably haven’t been able to maintain contact with them since they were unable to keep repair cafes going there last year.

  • Reach out to the wider public

We do have a lot of people from within the local community come to our Saturday workshops since we first started, but attracting interest in folks from further afield is something we believe can only help in the long term.

At present, Gareth and myself have been running the community repair workshops as mostly a two-person operation, with a few other people dropping by to help us out from time to time. What this means is that we can only do so much ourselves in the 3-4 hour workshop sessions while also taking on full-time work commitments elsewhere. And so going forward, we want to encourage more people to join us and help out at our workshops in Abbeyfield Park House, as well as repair cafe sessions held by Repair Sheffield at Heeley City Farm and Strip The Willow.

To attract interest in what we do at our workshops, we will aim to work with organisations such as Voluntary Action Sheffield, the Doit.Foundation and the Sheffield Students Union to advertise volunteering opportunities, as well as make better use of social media platforms to spread the word about what we do at our workshops. We will also aim to spread the word out to local communities and advertise the volunteering opportunities at our community workshops at Abbeyfield Park House, and at repair cafes run by other groups we are working with at present.

  • Evolve the repairs workshops

At present, we focus primarily on diagnostics, repairs and clean-ups of desktop PCs and laptops, along with some work on phones and tablets. The potential is there, though, to diversify the pop-up workshops and make it into more than simply a computer repair cafe; as well as developing it into an inclusive community repairs hub where anyone can come in and learn how to fix their tired and clapped-out everyday items, why not offer a pop-up internet cafe for example?

Internet cafes were once quite popular in the days before tablets and smartphones became ubiquitous; you could have a coffee and a bite to eat while watching online videos, catching up on the latest news or applying for jobs in the local area. Nowadays, people find that they could simply do just that on their phones, tablets or laptops in a typical chain coffee shop, which meant that over recent years, internet cafes have been gradually dying out across the country.

We believe internet cafes still have a place in local communities, where there are people who can’t afford access to home or mobile broadband services.

These are just a few different ways we can take to develop the repair workshops and inspire local communities to fix their items and help others do the same.

Categories
Hardware Articles

QuickFIXIT: Giving desktop PCs and laptops new feet with furniture pads

Ever found yourself in a situation where you discover that the rubber feet under your desktop PC or laptop had gone missing or fallen apart from wear and tear? Ever wanted to rotate your custom-built desktop PC and move the attached rubber feet accordingly, only for the adhesive to come away from the feet with no way to stick them back on again, not even having any double-sided tape lying around to use? Well there is an alternative way to protect the undersides of laptops and downward-facing panels on desktop PCs from scrapes and scuffs – why not try using furniture pads?

Furniture pads are small DIY items that are designed to be attached to the feet of various kinds of furniture, such as chairs, tables, beds and desks, usually with pre-applied adhesive. They are usually made of firm felt or rubber, and are used to protect floors and carpets from scratches, scuffs and other physical damages when furniture are moved from one place to another.

In the case of computers, sticking on furniture pads is just a matter of peeling off the paper backing from the adhesive, and placing them at the same spots as the original rubber feet underneath the desktop PC or laptop, or on either side panel on bespoke computer cases, depending on where the case fans are installed. Optionally, additional pads can be placed on the same side where even weight distribution is desired, as long as they do not block airflow into the case.

Rubber pads are better for use on laptops, and on desktop PCs where you don’t intend to move them around very often, since rubber pads are non-slip by design, and better protect the undersides of desktop PCs and laptops from underneath liquid ingress. Felt pads are better for when you want to place your computer into places that are more difficult to reach, such as small enclaves on some wooden TV cabinets and stands, and can move them in and out of such places more easily than with rubber pads.

Categories
Hardware Articles

Are brand new computers on a shoestring budget actually worth buying?

New models of computers and laptops are continually released to the public, often with the latest CPUs, technologies and functionalities, to encourage prospective users to continuously upgrade from their current machines. Those users are especially tempted to upgrade through incentives such as trade-ins, where they bring older computers and laptops into retailers in exchange for discounts on a brand new desktop PC or laptop.

But when you have a limited budget on which to spend on a desktop PC or laptop, are brand new computers really worth buying at retailers across the UK? Are brand new parts for building a new computer from scratch a wise investment? Or is the money better spent buying a pre-owned or refurbished computer, or by just upgrading the computer you currently have with better parts?

Let’s imagine the following situation; you currently have a desktop PC that is beginning to show its age and is not performing as well as it used to, even after it has been optimised as much as it can be. You have a budget of only £200 with which to put towards the cost of parts or a complete desktop PC or laptop. How would you put that £200 to best use when deciding what to do? Well, there are a few options that you can take that fit into such a limited budget, and we explore what each option entails, and the pros and cons of each approach.

1) Buy a brand-new pre-built computer

A brand-new pre-built computer that you commonly see on the shelves or listed on the websites of many a retailer, has a set of specifications that are determined by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to meet a certain price point. OEMs often do this by offering different variants of a particular model with different CPUs, amounts of RAM, different size hard drives and/or SSDs, either a dedicated graphics card or just onboard graphics, ports and even different expansion cards.

We looked into what desktop PCs and laptops are available in August 2019 for less than £200 at mainstream retailers, including Argos, eBuyer, Currys/PC World, eBay and Amazon; after browsing what each retailer offered at that price point, we found that the available pre-built computers were rather modest machines with a basic set of core specs. These computers would be fine for people who plan to just browse the internet and edit documents, or who intend to keep their files stored in the cloud (and don’t keep a lot of files on their computer).

As pre-built computers are assembled and configured at the factory, they are practically ready for use right away. Because the entry-level CPUs often used in those computers tend to be low-power models, they consume less power and thus, in the case of laptops, usually translate into longer battery life. However, the fixed specifications of pre-built computers means that “what you see is what you get”; they may not be as easily upgradable in cases where the CPU, RAM and internal storage are soldered onto the motherboard.

2) Buy a second-hand, factory-renewed or refurbished computer

Second-hand, factory-renewed or refurbished computers often tend to be much cheaper than they were when they were fresh out of a factory; this is because these computers often tend to accumulate flaws like scratched lids or cases, missing rubber feet, or pressure marks on screen as they are being used and carried around from location to location, but they otherwise work just like they were when they were completely brand new. These computers typically vary from very recent models that may have been returned to the OEM due to a fault or a change of mind, to several generation-old machines that have been well-worn from years of activity, whether it’s just office work or lots of intense gaming.

When we looked at what second-hand and refurbished computers were on offer on sites like Amazon and eBay in August 2019, we were surprised to see some fairly recent computers being offered at just below the budget we set in our scenario. Some of those computers even came with SSDs installed, which helps make them more responsive overall than with a mechanical hard disk drive.

As well as being much cheaper than a similar brand new off-the-shelf computer, opting for a second-hand or refurbished computer helps to reduce your carbon footprint, since usually the computer would retain the same working parts as it did when it was built in the factory. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that a computer’s remaining useful life can be variable on the basis of its age and how often or heavily it was used, so it is as likely that it might last only a few more weeks as it is that it will last a few more years.

3) Build a brand-new computer from scratch

A custom-built computer can be an appealing option, especially if you have some experience in computer assembly. There are a wide range of computer parts that suit different budgets and needs, meaning that you are free to build whatever you need that suits your budget, whether it’s that monster gaming and productivity machine of your wildest dreams, a compact computer that happily sits in your living room and serves as a media hub for watching YouTube videos and movies, or even just a modest office computer for editing documents and spreadsheets.

We used the PC Part Picker website to spec together our hypothetical custom build desktop PC, based on our set budget; considering the tight budget we set ourselves, we managed to put together a reasonably specced desktop PC based around an AMD Athlon 200GE, an entry-level CPU with a modest integrated GPU that is also fine for some light gaming. Alongside the CPU, we opted for an ASRock B450M-HDV motherboard, a single stick of Patriot Signature Line 4GB DDR4-2400 RAM, a 120GB Crucial BX500 SSD, a GameMax Explorer micro-ATX mini tower case, and a GameMax GM 300W power supply that has an 80+ bronze certification. All in all, at the time of writing, the total cost of the parts came in at £175.95, including packaging and delivery, as specced on PC Part Picker. This means that a decent desktop PC with good performance at a shoestring budget is within the realm of possibility.

Custom-built laptops also exist, though these are usually more exotic than the typical off-the-shelf laptop. They come in the form of barebone kits that come with a keyboard, battery, AC power supply, chassis, display and motherboard with integrated CPU included, and the end user supplies the missing components in order to form the complete laptop. Many system builders offer custom-built laptops in this way as complete units that can be specified based on use cases and needs.

A custom-built desktop PC or laptop (where you are able to source the barebone laptop kit yourself) can be more desirable than an off-the-shelf computer, since you have more freedom in choosing the parts you want for your specific needs. You can more easily upgrade a custom-built desktop PC, and a laptop to a lesser extent, than a typical OEM machine, as with desktop PCs, you are not as constrained with the choice of parts that make up the computer as you can simply upgrade it with off-the-shelf components.

The main drawback with a custom-built machine is that it can be very easy to put together an unbalanced build that has one powerful component (usually the CPU and/or graphics card) but compromises on other parts, or a build that is not appropriate for a given use case. Trying to play the latest video games or carry out intensive prodictivity tasks with a low-power entry-level CPU in particular is like trying to get a hamster to tow a broken down passenger aeroplane off the runway to an on-site repair workshop; it would struggle badly during use, when that same CPU would be better utilised in web browsing, light productivity and in basic media servers. Also, buying parts as cheaply as possible can lead to an increased carbon footprint for the custom-built computer as a whole, as keeping to a set budget may necessitate buying the necessary parts from multiple online retailers and sellers.

4) Upgrade the existing computer with new parts

If your current computer otherwise still works, then it can still be worth making it last longer by adding more RAM, upgrading to an SSD, swapping out the old power supply for a better one, extending the computer’s functionality with expansion cards, or perhaps outfitting it with a good CPU/RAM/motherboard bundle. After performing the upgrade(s), the other existing parts remain in the computer.

At our workshop sessions, we have had various working desktop PCs and laptops that we have upgraded with SSDs, extra RAM, and pluggable accessories that add functionality such as wireless connectivity and Bluetooth. Usually, these computers would have become sluggish to perform basic tasks when they arrived at our pop-up workshops, and often remain fairly sluggish despite carrying out optimisation tasks such as malware removal, uninstalling unnecessary software and deleting junk files; in those cases, parts upgrades become the only way to improve performance of computers.

Upgrading parts can be a cost-effective way of improving the performance of older computers; in particular, swapping mechanical hard drives for SSDs and installing extra RAM are good places to start, as they offer the most tangible benefits on a limited budget. It can help extend the useful lifespan of computers, as the other parts installed are generally still usable with plenty of useful life left. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that if your computer is very old such that compatible parts are no longer available, and that swapping out the old components for new models becomes the only upgrade path available, then opting for a more recent machine (whether brand-new or refurbished) would probably be a better use for the budget.

So what’s the best use of the limited budget?

Having looked at the four possible options, we would say that each has their own merits. A brand-new off the shelf computer is arguably the most convenient option, since as they come already set up and ready to go, you can simply start using it right away. Generally speaking, the brand new OEM computers we looked at won’t literally blow your socks off in terms of outright performance, but they are usually the more power efficient choices with, for the budget, lower energy bills for desktop PCs and better battery life on laptops.

Refurbished computers are the most environmentally-friendly choice here, and can potentially offer more bang for buck than any of the other options. Sure, you typically won’t be getting the absolute latest and greatest features with these older machines, but if you’re willing to accept seeing some scrapes, scratches and scuffs here and there on a refurbished computer, then these machines are solid, tried and tested choices that will serve you well for years to come.

Custom-built machines offer the most freedom of choice for those of you who are willing to get stuck in with building your own computer. Even at low budgets, it has become feasible to build a reasonably powerful desktop PC that can even handle some light gaming duties. But just be sure that you have thought it through carefully before committing to a custom build machine; it’s worth thinking about;

  • What you intend to use your custom-built computer for;
  • Where your new computer will be based;
  • Whether or not you intend to upgrade your build at a later time as and when your use case changes

Unfortunately, if you were hoping to build your own entry-level laptop at a shoestring budget, then you’re out of luck here; the only laptop barebone kits we were able to find at online retailers that were not predominately aimed at trade, fell far outside our set budget, especially when fully built. This makes building conventional laptops unfeasible for the purposes of this article. At this point, those of you who are really interested in building your own laptops would probably be wondering, “Well then, how can I build my own laptop on a shoestring budget, anyhow?!”

Well, there is another way to build your own laptop that until this point, we have not covered; try a single board PC like a Raspberry Pi! These boards typically have the basics covered such as USB ports, CPU and RAM (both soldered onto the board), Ethernet port and audio jack, with varying arrays of connectors aimed at different purposes. You can either incorporate them into a laptop kit containing a chassis, keyboard, screen, touchpad, battery and other parts, or try your hand at building a laptop entirely from scratch and choosing parts yourself if you have a good degree of electronics assembly experience.

Finally, upgrading your current computer can be the cheapest way to achieve better performance or gain access to the latest features that you would normally find on brand new machines. Computer running slow? Simply add more RAM and/or an SSD. Fancy some gaming on a desktop PC? Drop in a decent graphics card. Want the latest features and/or better functionality without having to spend hundreds on a new machine? Just add in an expansion device such as a Wi-Fi card, a sound card, or even a USB PCI card.

In conclusion, we would say that opting for a refurbished computer or just upgrading your existing computer are generally the most economical choices as in both cases, you benefit from a smaller carbon footprint by reducing environmental waste, and a high level of performance and features on a shoestring budget. However, brand-new machines, whether custom-built or OEM-built, do have their own merits; laptops benefit from improvements in the power efficiency of components which can translate into longer battery life, while the better freedom of choice in desktop PC shoestring builds means that they can be geared either towards better performance or better energy efficiency. We would resist the temptation of repeatedly buying brand-new computers every few years purely for the sake of it, though, as doing so not only just wastes money, but also increases the amount of electronic waste and thus, the size of the carbon footprint.

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QuickFIXit: Using rubber for wedging a hard drive in place in laptops

The blue pieces of rubber shown in this picture kept the hard drive wedged in place inside this Dell Latitude E7440 laptop, which had its caddy missing

Ever found yourself in a situation where you bought a laptop and found out that it came without its caddy for the hard drive or solid state drive? Or where you inadvertently misplaced the caddy while performing a solid state drive upgrade, and can’t remember where you had last placed it?

Well, if you don’t have a spare hard drive caddy at hand for your laptop, then there is one quick fix that you can try to prevent the hard drive or solid state drive from becoming dislodged from the SATA ports inside the laptop – wedge it in place using rubber!

Find a large piece of solid rubber (something like an eraser for removing pencil marks should do the trick!), and then place it against the edge of the hard drive bay inside your laptop. Then, make a small incision into the rubber using a knife, a scalpel or other suitable sharp blade; the incision should ideally be roughly 1-2mm more than the gap between the edge of the hard drive bay and the edge of the hard drive itself. Then carefully cut through the rest of the rubber, until the piece comes off from the rest of the rubber. Finally, push the cut piece of rubber into the gap, as shown in the above picture.

The idea with this QuickFIXit is that the extra millimetre or two of rubber ensures a tight fit into the gap between the edge of the hard drive bay and the hard drive or solid state drive, which is what keeps the hard drive or solid state drive firmly connected to the SATA ports and thus, prevent them from moving about in the hard drive bay and potentially disconnect, leading to the drives becoming unrecognised in the BIOS and operating systems.