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.

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.

Upgrades on a Shoestring: SSDs

These SSDs from Gigabyte and Sandisk are ideal for making desktop PCs and laptops more performant while keeping costs down.

Please note: the items shown in the above photo were purchased by us, on behalf of our customers at our weekly pop-up IT workshops. We are not in any way affiliated with, or sponsored by the manufacturers of the products.

Solid state drives have become ubiquitous in today’s world of technology, as prices of these parts have fallen to a point that they become more and more accessible even to people on tight budgets. Whereas earlier SSDs had very low capacities and were very expensive in comparison with mechanical hard drives, today’s high-end SSDs can store as much data as current hard drives and make use of PCI and NVMe ports for considerable performance benefits.

For the purpose of this article though, we will focus on the entry-level SSDs found at many High Street and online retailers, since on most older computers and laptops, even the cheapest SSDs with modest capacities and performance are a step up from the mechanical hard drives that they will have come installed from the factories.

We recently bought two solid state drives that we found being sold on eBay, a Gigabyte SSD and a Sandisk SSD PLUS. Both SSDs were 120GB models that were being priced at as little as £20 (at the time of writing), which makes them suitable for users who do not intend to keep large amounts of data stored on their desktop PCs and laptops, and who want the performance benefits of an SSD without breaking the bank.

The Sandisk SSD PLUS solid state drive was used as an upgrade for an entry-level Asus laptop that we found to be rather sluggish, even after carrying out various optimisation tasks to try to make the system more responsive. The mechanical hard drive that came installed in the laptop was replaced with the SSD by;

  • Removing the ten screws underneath the laptop
  • Gradually prising the keyboard bezel off with a spudger
  • Removing a single screw from the metal bracket keeping the hard drive held in place inside the laptop, and then lifting the hard drive out of the unit
  • Removing the metal bracket from the hard drive, and then attaching it to the SSD with the four screws
  • Installing the new SSD and the bracket into the laptop, and putting the single screw into its original position
  • Reattaching the keyboard bezel to the laptop, then inserting the ten screws back into the original spots and securing them in place

Many older laptops can have SSD upgrades performed more easily by removing only a section of the base plastic to access the old hard drive or SSD, or removing a cover attached to the side of the laptop and simply pulling the old hard drive or SSD out with the plastic flap attached to the caddy or bracket. On desktop PCs, the SSD can simply be inserted into a free 2.5″ drive bay and secured with screws, affixed to a mounting bracket that is then installed into a 3.5″ drive bay, or even attached to a flexible bracket and inserted into a 2.5″ drive bay without the need for screws (in the case of some computer cases aimed at enthusiasts).

With decent SSDs from mainstream manufacturers becoming cheaper than ever before, we would say that SSDs are a great way to breathe new life into older computers and help make newer computers with rather modest CPUs more responsive, and can be done at a shoestring budget. If your old hard drive is still in good working order though, don’t throw it away just yet! You can still insert that old hard drive into an external drive enclosure, and use it to backup all of your important files, as a rescue drive in case you encounter software issues, or even use it as a portable media box for playing music, videos and movies on your TV!

Why we install Linux on older computers

There is a broad diversity of computers that are continually released to enterprise and the public, ranging from huge workstations that incorporate powerful hardware aimed at intensive, productive tasks, to tiny ultra small form factor PCs with more modest specifications that can be mounted to the back of monitors or TVs for an all-in-one solution, even to laptops that can be carried around in bags for productivity wherever people go.

Unfortunately, computers are typically supported by OEMs only for a few years at most before they are deemed to be “end of life”, where OEMs basically eschew support for those older machines in favour of their most recent range of products. This can lead to situations where drivers for hardware that worked on older operating systems no longer work all of a sudden when users decide to try upgrading to the newest releases of their favoured operating system. These factors in particular can seem to conspire to encourage users to throw away otherwise perfectly useful working computers, simply because OEMs, hardware and software vendors deem it no longer profitable to continue supporting their older hardware and software products.

So here at BitFIXit, where computers that came with versions of Windows that are no longer supported, but can still be serviceable and useful for their users’ needs, we can extend those computers’ useful service life by replacing the obsolete versions of Windows installed on them with Linux distributions. Our Linux distribution of choice is Linux Mint, which is a distribution that is aimed at accommodating novice users by making it easy to install and update software. We chose Linux Mint, because by virtue of being an easy to use operating system, it is ideal for our regular visitors to our community workshops. Recent releases of Linux Mint are based on long-term term releases of Ubuntu, which means that they receive extended support and in turn, means extended useful life of computers.

Where we come across computers that come with CPUs that do not support 64-bit operating systems, we install the most recent 32-bit version of Linux Mint we have available. This way, even computers with legacy CPUs can benefit from receiving software updates and support. Maintainers have started to cease offering 32-bit versions of mainstream Linux distributions so, while we can eventually go only so far in extending the usefulness of these computers, the extra service time offered by opting for a Linux distribution over continuing on with an obsolete and increasingly insecure release of Windows means less electronic wastage in the long term.

BitREPURPOSEit: Using CPU Heatsinks As Stands & Holders

A pair of CPU heatsinks from old desktop PCs used as stands for pens and leaflets respectively

Here is a neat way of repurposing old CPU heatsinks from various broken, tired, or otherwise obsolete desktop PCs; using them as stands and holders for documents, leaflets, business cards, notes, stationery and other small items!

CPU heatsinks are typically designed in a way that maximises the surface area so that as much heat can be drawn away from the heatsink as possible. Due to that design, they come in quite handy for more than just drawing heat away from processors and therefore keeping them nice and cool.

I salvaged a total of three CPU heatsinks from some old desktop PCs that were kept in the store room, and cleaned them up by removing the old thermal compound from underneath the heatsinks and removing as much dust from in between the fins as possible. Two of the heatsinks are seen in the above photo taken during the Sheffield Community Toolbank relaunch event.

As you can see from the photo, the rectangular heatsink makes for quite a nice holder for forms, leaflets, notes, and other small documents, while the circular heatsink has a recess in the centre that makes it useful for holding pencils, pens and other small items of stationery. Chipset heatsinks can also be used for this purpose as well; their diminutive size makes them useful for smaller items like business cards, shopping lists, tags and labels.

So rather than simply discard the old heatsinks along with the rest of the parts inside the computers, why not take them out of the computers, clean them up, and use them as stands and holders? A computer part that gets reused and repurposed for something useful, means one less item meeting its end in landfill!

Sheffield Community Toolbank Relaunch Event

BitFIXit is proud to announce that we will participate in the Sheffield Community Toolbank relaunch event, which will be held by Green City Action. The event will take place at Abbeyfield Park on Saturday 23rd March 2019, from 10am to 4pm.

The Toolbank will offer tool swaps and tool sharpening services on a pay-as-you-feel basis during the course of the event, making the relaunch a grand opportunity to bring in any worn and tired tools and gardening equipment and keep them in good working order.

Repair Sheffield will be participating at the relaunch event, and will offer its repair cafe services to the community, where volunteers from Repair Sheffield can fix a wide, diverse range of household items, clothes and fabrics, which means that members of the public can bring with them various kinds of stuff that need fixing, and learn how to repair the items themselves. One item fixed is one less item going into landfill!

People’s Kitchen Pitsmoor will also be at the relaunch event from 2pm to 4pm, where it will showcase a recipe to enable members of the community to try out food and snacks from different cuisines. The community group has ambitious plans to transform Abbeyfield Park into a hub for people all over Sheffield, and convert the currently disused stables into a cafe and kitchen for people to meet up and try out new recipes.

And of course, we at BitFIXit will offer our own IT repair workshops at the relaunch, as well as share creative ideas about reusing and repurposing computer parts and IT equipment with the community.

Music & Media with TVs & External Hard Drives

Here is a reuse-it for the music lovers, film and video buffs, and anyone else who likes to view photos on TV. Most recent TV’s can play files from a USB memory stick or USB hard drive. All that they need is an external hard drive and a spare USB port.

So why an external hard drive, rather than a USB flash drive? Well, an external hard drive generally comes in larger capacities and are cheaper than a USB flash drive with the same storage. And if you already have an old, but still functional external hard drive lying around somewhere, why not use that as a media box and load it up with all kinds of music, videos and movies, instead of going out and buying a brand new external hard drive for the same purpose?

Televisions that support media playback from USB storage devices typically support many common media file formats including mp3, WAV and OGG for music, JPEG GIF and PNG for photos, and mp4, AVI and WebM for videos and movies. This means that you can play most video, music and image files on your television straight from your old external hard drive and save money in the process!

The Successful Laptop Power Socket Transplant

At this weekend’s community IT workshop, we had a successful case of a laptop repair that involved a spare laptop power socket from an old Toshiba laptop in the store room.

We had a client who came into the workshops with a Toshiba laptop that was unable to receive any power from the socket at all, so we decided to open up the laptop, and on opening it up we noticed that the socket was held in place by some form of epoxy glue. So I went into the store room, picked up a similar Toshiba laptop among a pile of old laptops, brought it into the community room, and extracted its power socket so that it can be transplanted into the client’s Toshiba laptop.

We tried plugging a laptop charger into the replacement socket and, hey presto, the laptop began receiving power again! After a short while removing dust accumulated on the heatsink fan after we realised that the laptop began overheating (which meant opening the laptop back up again!), we finally closed up the client’s laptop for good, ready to hand back over too him.

And thus, we have a successful case of a laptop repair carried out using spare parts from other laptops!

Less clutter, more inspiration!

It’s been a while since we last talked out how we are going to resolve the ongoing “junk” problem we have, and we have some good news on that front! We recently managed to free up valuable space in our store room by giving away several old desktop computers and a monitor to a couple of clients who wanted to use them as part of an art project of theirs for a local community group. The room looks a bit less cluttered now, though we still have some ways to go before it is fully decluttered!

During this weekend’s community IT workshops, we had a client for whom we set up and subsequently gave away a Toshiba laptop, and he gave us a pair of artful plates in return.

I have to say that they do look pretty snazzy and can particularly come in useful as coasters for when we get the kettle on more frequently as winter draws near!

Speaking of decluttering the store room, Gareth and I have been thinking of various practical (and wacky) ways of making use of the old computers, spare parts and other bits and bobs lying around in there, as well as our cupboard lately. We tried our hand at turning a very old hard drive into a clock, complete with dedicated clock arms and mechanisms, and one of the original hard drive platters as the face of the clock! That would be something that is worth pursuing, and we do have other ideas in the pipeline for turning old computer parts and IT equipment into more useful things, so please feel free to check back on our website to see what interesting things we have come up with.

What to do with a stash of old RAM…

Over time, we keep hold of various kinds of RAM modules that we harvest from old and broken computers, in the hope that they will come in useful for replacing failed modules or upgrading computers with extra RAM. However, RAM modules inevitability become obsolete as faster and bigger modules  become available to purchase and thus, become mainstream.

So how would we give legacy RAM modules a new lease of life and use them for other purposes besides as temporary data storage? Well, we first explore what can be done with the old RAM modules that we have at hand, and then find ways to turn them into items that serve a useful purpose, or at least as a memento that can be carried around with you.

We will showcase different alternate uses for RAM and other computer hardware components as and when we discover or invent new ideas for re-purposing the computer parts we keep at hand.