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Can radios become viable computers? (Part 3: Taking a look inside & taking it apart)

Hello again fellow fixers and readers! Since the last weekend, the weather has started to warm up, so it was great to be able to enjoy some warm, sunny weather (while staying safe of course!)

Anyway, last time, Gareth found a couple of radios in our spares room, and of the two radios, we opted to work on the Morphy Richards 27024, since it is the more compact of the two, and that it should be easier to repurpose the radio’s buttons for controlling media playback and other functionality.

So now, it was time to get an inside look of the radio, which can be accessed by removing the six screws (one of which was missing when the radio was salvaged from the spares room) with a Philips screwdriver, and prising open the rear plastic casing with a spudger.

And here’s the internals of the radio! There are a few proprietary circuit boards and other parts that are held in place with screws, so thankfully we didn’t need to worry about any glued down parts that can be a pain to remove.

The antenna for receiving AM radio broadcasts was the first to go; it is a ferrite tube with copper wires wrapped around each side, one for medium wave and the other for long wave. The antenna is securely held in place by four white plastic pieces that are secured to the inside of the back cover with screws, and the wires are soldered to a small circuit board with wires that are joined together to form a cable that is plugged into the mainboard.

The circuit board for the audio jacks, the USB port and the power socket is still mounted on the inside rear casing; we left it in place for the time being, since we may be able to reuse the board for the functionality it provides our build. However, we may need the space it takes up to improvise I/O ports for desired components as needed.

The telescopic antenna was removed next; it was held in place by a plastic piece, a screw affixed to the front casing and a metal bracket with two screws holding it in position. The screws holding the metal brackets in place were removed first, then the once the single screw holding the telescopic antenna was removed, the antenna was free to be pulled out from the top of the radio. We opted to retain the metal brackets, because they provided some rigidity to the case and help the radio resist being moved around accidentally by unplugging peripherals.

The mainboard was the next to go; we decided that it wasn’t worth keeping for the build, since it incorporated a proprietary design that would likely hinder attempts at repurposing the board for our project. Removing the mainboard was a little tricker; it was a case of removing five screws holding it in place, then clipping the wires for the speakers and the circular boards for the control knobs, unplugging the connectors attached to the circuit board for the USB port, audio jacks and power socket, and prising it out with a blue plastic spudger.

Finally, the circuit board incorporating the switches for the front controls and the front headphone jack, was taken out by removing its screws, and then gently prising it out with the blue spudger. The original monochrome display was soldered to the board, and was held in place with a plastic frame that clips to the board itself. We are considering replacing it with a colour display, ideally one that can be installed as a drop-in replacement of sorts while retaining the plastic frame. However, we chose to eschew touchscreen functionality, as I noticed that the front casing had a thick, clear plastic window for the display, and that this plastic window would quite likely make using the touchscreen impractical.

After we gave the circuit board a quick test with the voltmeter, and found it to be a working board, we opted to keep it, as it had all the necessary components that we will need to repurpose the front controls for operating the build in practice. Otherwise, we would have had to source new switches and other components that would fit into the front casing, which can make the project more complicated. Also, retaining the circuit board along with the speakers helps to reduce e-waste by making use of usable parts that would otherwise be discarded along with the faulty or dead components.

So now, we had to decide upon how we will put our build together with the parts that we want to use. There are two possible approaches that we thought about:

  • Bundling together microcontrollers that have the desired features. This allows for very quick boot-up times, since this system would only need to start up the firmwares for the microcontrollers, meaning that it can be used almost immediately. Cable management should be fairly straight-forward, since we can make use of the vacant screw holes to tidy up the inside of the radio.
  • Using a single board computer with add-in boards for the desired features. This can offer more flexibility, as we can more easily adapt or upgrade our build by interchanging boards as use cases change and/or evolve. For example, if we decided that we want to listen to music from our media collections, then we could install an SSD, either onto a compatible board that attaches to a Raspberry Pi 4 (with a USB bridge connecting the two boards), or onto a custom mount with a USB to SATA cable connecting it to the SBC.

So what kind of radio are we going to build? Will we aim for a radio that receives DAB+/DAB/FM broadcasts? Will it be built for playing internet radio stations, podcasts and music from streaming services? Or perhaps make it into a digital jukebox that plays more songs from media collections than we know what to do with? We’ll reveal what our build is going to be, and how we’ll build up our radio in the next part of this project series! So until next time, stay safe, keep calm and just keep on fixing!

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Can radios become viable computers? (Part 2: Here’s what we found from our spares!)

Hello again fellow fixers and readers! While the weather was colder than we would have expected for this time of the year lately, we had a fairly busy workshop session with supporting the local community in fixing technological troubles.

So last week, we gave an overview about radios and how they work, and why upcycling them by adding functionality beyond their originally designed purpose is worth doing as a project. And of course, the beauty of upcycling a radio is putting together a great build that makes effective use of the available space and gets around different design and structural quirks!

We initially set about looking for suitable candidates for our project on eBay, where there are numerous different makes and models of radios to choose from, ranging from some vintage devices to modern radios that just prematurely stopped functioning properly. And there were some rather stylish models that we could have picked up, such as a John Lewis Octave DAB+/FM/internet radio that could potentially be awesome as a home theatre PC.

But then Gareth decided to go rummaging through our spare parts and equipment pile for any radios that would make for good candidates as a radio-computer build – mind you, better for all that stuff to be put to good use then be left as magnets for dust! And here is what he found:

This is a Hitachi CX-76B portable radio and CD player. It is a fairly bulky unit that can receive FM/MW/AM radio broadcasts, and can play MP3 files written on CDs. We noticed that the bottom cover for the batteries (and it takes eight size C batteries in order to function as a portable radio!), and that the antenna was broken, so we would not have been able to receive FM radio broadcasts even after getting it working.

And this is a Morphy Richards 27024 radio, which is a bit more compact. This was more-or-less a jack of all trades radio for its time, that was able to receive radio broadcasts across AM, FM, DAB and DRM. There are fewer physical buttons and control knobs on this radio, which could make it easier to repurpose for adding some computer-related functionality.

For the next part, we will focus on the Morphy Richards 27024 radio, where we open it up, have a look inside to see what components we will be dealing with, and see which parts we want to keep (and of course which parts we’ll try to put to good use elsewhere!). Then we’ll decide what kind of radio-computer build that we will make this radio into.

So until next time, stay safe, keep calm and just keep on fixing!

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Can radios become viable computers? (Part 1: Let’s think this through!)

Hello again fellow fixers and readers! We hope you are all continuing to stay safe & well as lockdown restrictions have gradually been eased and things are starting to return to some degree of normalcy. We are especially glad to be back at Abbeyfield Park House helping fix computers again for the local community, after nearly six months in hiatus.

Anyway, we are interested in doing something different with something so ubiquitous, something through which many of us enjoy listening to music, catching up with the latest news, and even hearing fiery debates about important issues on phone-in talk shows; and that something, is called radios.

Radios are most familiar to people as “broadcast receivers”, which are designed to receive audio signals transmitted from local radio stations, and then convert that signal into sounds that a user can hear from a speaker or a set of headphones or earphones connected to a jack on the radio. They come in various form factors, ranging from small portable units that are designed to allow users to listen to radio stations while out and about, to large boombox-style items that can also play music from physical media such as cassette tapes and compact discs.

But can these radios be repurposed into computers that can be used for various activities besides listening to radio broadcasts? Why spend time, money and effort on trying to make a radio into a general-purpose computer, when you can just buy (or build) a proper computer that would be much better suited for everything you can throw at it? Well, repurposing a radio for something else helps cut down on e-waste, since if one of its internal components becomes faulty and can’t be repaired somehow, then the other functional parts can still be usable in some way. The process of making a unique item that no-one else will have gives great satisfaction to many people. And also, by taking a radio apart, you can get a good understanding of all the internal parts used in the device, so you can figure out how to repair a radio for next time.

Before we dive straight in to the radio-computer conversion project, though, there are a number of things that we need to consider first. Giving oneself time to think everything through can mean the difference between a project that is well planned out and executed, and one that turns out to be a complete disaster. Here are some of the most obvious considerations:

  • What do we actually want to use a radio-computer for? There are many different uses for computers, ranging from gaming, web browsing and media creation, to robotics, artificial intelligence and weather forecasting. Without having a clear idea on what a radio will be repurposed to do, you can more likely or not end up turning it into a “jack of all trades and master of none” device; by cramming all kinds of functionality into a radio, it could do pretty much everything you would want to do with it, but it wouldn’t carry out those tasks as well as a more purpose-focused device. For the purposes of our project, we will focus more on the entertainment-related activities, chiefly streaming music and videos, playing media stored on internal storage, and playing games.
  • Will we use it whilst out and about? Many radios are portable devices that are powered by batteries, which allow users to listen to radio broadcasts while away from a power source. When adapting a radio so that it can be used as essentially a pocket-able computer that can also receive radio, it’s worth taking the amount of space inside the radio into consideration for installing batteries, especially if it was not originally designed to be portable. Using lithium batteries may be a way to increase the power available, as these are more ‘power dense’ than older types.
  • Will we add additional functionality to the device? For example, a touchscreen for selecting media, applications and options; a compatible TV tuner for enabling the radio to receive broadcast television; or a hard drive/SSD for storing music, videos and photos. As with batteries, internal space will need to be taken into account when installing additional components, and modifications to the casing may be required if a touchscreen, HDD/SSD or other parts are desired.

Next time, we will go on the hunt for a radio that will most closely suit what we will set out for our project. Our main priority will be looking for radios that we can salvage from our pile of spare parts and equipment, or that are sold on online stores as for parts only if we don’t have any suitable ones at hand. We believe that these would serve as a good starting point for re-purposing them into a media-focused computer. They are also often cheaper than fully working units! We’ll also be looking for a radio that looks interesting, and that we want to invest time in upcycling.

So until next time, stay safe and keep on fixing!

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Glaring foul-ups, tech pet hates & other things that irritate techies

Hello fellow fixers & readers! With the country in lockdown at the time of writing, we hope you’re all keeping yourselves safe and well! We talked about, among other topics, different ways of fixing and repurposing computers and other devices and whether or not upgrading certain parts in a computer is a good idea.

But today, we want to discuss about something else; mistakes that can happen to us when we try to build or fix computers, things that can confuse or irritate us when we’re shopping for new or refurbished gadgets, and other general technology-related things that can literally drive enthusiasts up the wall. So here are just some of the things that can really annoy us one way or another, and ways to deal with them.

When a new computer you just purchased comes with a lot of pre-installed bloatware

We have all been there when we decide to splash our hard-earned cash on a shiny brand-new computer; we pick which make and model we want, we buy it (obviously), we take it home or have it delivered, we unpack and set up the unit, and we power it on for the first time and set up a user account.

Then onto the Windows desktop, we find that there is a lot of bundled software that came installed with the operating system; OEM software, trial versions of different software, productivity software, services for playing video games…you name it. While some of the apps can be quite useful to be fair, many others just serve no useful purpose than to needlessly clog up free storage space that be used for better and more useful apps, utilities…and updates! Lots and lots of updates!

The whole bloatware malarkey can be avoided by buying new computers assembled by system builder boutiques, replacing the pre-installed copy of Windows with a fresh copy of Windows or a GNU/Linux distro on the new computer you just bought, or if you feel confident and have some computer assembly experience, try building a new computer yourself. (After all, by building your own computer, you’ll never have to deal with third-party bundled crapware again!)

When you finish building a new computer from scratch, only to find you made mistakes when you try to power it on (or during the assembly process)

Here’s one case where even experienced computer assemblers can sometimes find themselves making beginner mistakes when building computers from scratch. Obviously, this can happen when you bought all the components you need for a desired build (whether it’s a gaming PC or just a basic machine for working on documents or browsing the internet), put all the parts together in the case, and when you try to turn on your shiny new computer, something’s wrong.

Now, this can be the result of simple mistakes like forgetting to connect the power switch to the motherboard during assembly or trying to use the bundled SATA cables that are too short for connecting the hard drive or SATA SSD to the motherboard, or more glaring mistakes like fitting a PSU with a rated wattage that is too low to power the whole build.

If you are looking to upgrade from an old computer, and you fancy having a go at building one yourself, it’s worth thinking over what you intend to do with a new machine, and doing research on what parts you will need to put together a well-balanced build for your needs. It’s also a good idea to read useful articles online about the common pitfalls and mistakes that a computer assembler can make during the whole process; with this knowledge, it helps make the whole assembly process less stressful and less costly.

Before committing to building a new computer though, it’s worth looking at the specs of your current computer, particularly if it is a fairly recent model or build; if it still performs well for your needs, then you are probably better off just upgrading your current machine instead.

When you buy a refurbished computer from a physical or online retailer, but notice that it came with one or more parts missing

So far, we mentioned mistakes and annoying issues that can happen with brand new off-the-shelf and custom-built computers. However, mistakes can occur with refurbished and second-hand computers as well.

One example of this is where you buy a refurbished or second-hand computer online or in-store, but when you take it home (or have it delivered to you), you find that there is something odd happening that turns out to be the result of a missing part. A case in point, was that in the past, we came across a refurbished laptop that our client brought into our workshops after purchasing it from a retailer; the problems the laptop was experiencing turned out to be caused by a missing caddy for the hard drive, which can become loose and inadvertently disconnect itself from the internal SATA connector.

If you find this happening to you, you can choose to return the machine to the retailer or seller you purchased it from, where you can exchange it for something else or get your money back. You could try finding a replacement for the part that was missing from the machine, whether it’s looking at places like eBay, or just scavenging from whatever spare parts you have at hand. Or if that fails, you can always get creative with fixing the problem just by using whatever everyday items you have lying around.

When you order a replacement part to fix a problem with a computer or mobile device, only to discover that the part you received was for another device

Many of us who fix computers and mobile devices as a hobby or for a living can experience problems with repairs in one way or another, just as computers and mobile devices can develop faults in the first place. Faults that can occur on devices range from minor problems like faulty optical drives or dead built-in webcams, to more serious issues such as faulty sticks on RAM or faulty/dead motherboards.

When a device needs a replacement part for a component that died (or at least became faulty), you typically find the make and model of the device in question, and then search for (and buy) the correct working replacement part for the device in question. So when you receive the replacement part and get round to repairing it, you start the repairs, only to find that the part in question was actually for a (slightly) different model! So you end up having to return the part to the seller and start again, while the device continues to languish in a broken state.

So although mistakes like this can still happen even with plenty of research and diligence, it’s still worth making a note of the make and model of your computer, laptop or mobile device if you want to try repairing it yourself (jotting down the model number of the device helps as well). That way, you can more easily find out if the replacement part for the faulty component in question will be compatible for your device. It’s also a good idea to look for guides on how to replace a faulty component for a given device, particularly if it is a smartphone or a tablet; sites like iFixit are good resources for repair guides.

So those are just some of the ways that can annoy us when we goof up on repairs and assemblies, and when we find something that can really drive us up the wall. Feel free to share your stories in the comments for this article, on your tech-related pet hates, as well as mistakes that have happened to you regarding computer and mobile device repairs, computer builds and upgrades. Stay safe and well, everyone!

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Have a stash of old USB drives lying around? Let’s make them great again!

Hello once again fellow readers and fixers! We hope you’re all keeping safe and well during quite a difficult time. We have shared quite a number of ideas about reusing and repurposing computers and different hardware components, but this time we want to share some reuse ideas about something that has of late become increasingly unloved in an era of a myriad of streaming services; USB drives.

Chances are, we have a stash of USB drives that are left in drawers, in drawers, or otherwise just left on the side, relegated to becoming mere magnets for dust and other kinds of debris. So, why not dust them off and start making use of them again? Here are a few ideas to eke the maximum possible useful life out of old USB drives.

Fancy some entertainment on the go?

Try loading up your USB drive with some games! There are a range of portable versions of games that you can try out on your computer, ranging from racing games to puzzle games – and keep hard drive/SSD space free for essential applications and updates. Just plug in the drive, fire up whichever game you want to play, and then unplug it again when finished.

You can also load your USB drive with your favourite music, videos and movies, and play them while you’re out and about, whether on your phone, your laptop, or even in your car.

For extra security for your computer…

…why not use your old USB drive as a security key? The way this works is that when you unplug your USB drive from your computer, the system automatically locks itself, so other people cannot gain access to your files and other data without your USB drive. This can be useful as a way to protect sensitive personal information from unauthorised access, or otherwise to stop other people from looking at embarrassing videos and photos that you don’t want them to see!

The same principle can also be applied as a form of parental control, where you can set limits on how much time your kids can spend on your computer, and block access to site that contain inappropriate material.

Damaged casing? Why not improvise?

If the casing for your USB drive is looking worse for wear, but the drive itself is still working fine, then it is worth protecting the circuit board by creating new casing for it. The easiest way to do so is to use mouldable adhesives like Sugru’s mouldable glue or Loctite’s Kintsuglue; these can be found relatively cheaply online or at arts and crafts brick-and-mortar retailers. Simply open up a packet of mouldable adhesive of your desired colour, gently mould it around the circuit board, smooth out any rough areas, and leave it to cure for a day.

If you’re looking for extra inspiration, there are numerous ideas for DIY USB drive casings that other people have shared to the world; you can browse their creations and choose one that you like. Or if you are really creative, you can try turning whatever suitable small everyday objects you have lying around into a casing for your bare USB drive. The possibilities are endless!

Dead or defective USB drive? No problem!

If your USB drive doesn’t work anymore, then there are still other ways that you can use it for something else. The casings from dead or defective USB drives can be used for various things, such as labels for plant and herb pots and storage containers, and decorations like wind chimes and ornaments. The flash chips can be turned into different kinds of jewellery, such as pendants, earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

If you prefer to part with the old USB drive instead, then rather than simply throw it into the bin, you can send it in to a local computer IT and recycling facility or programme, which processes old or broken various computers and IT equipment in ways that help reduce the amount of electronic waste to ends up in landfill sites. It’s worth making sure that any data stored on the USB drive is completely erased if possible before doing so, to prevent potentially sensitive data from being retrieved.

Those are just some of the ways you can repurpose and reuse old USB drives. It’s worth maximising the useful life of USB drives, just like with computers and other IT equipment and accessories, since doing so is better for the environment, and better for communities as a whole.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Hardware Articles

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!