Beyond Budget: The Low-End Life


Okay, so I make no attempt to hide that I’m not an affluent dude. I make very little money, but I love my tech, so how do I have a decent box? It’s something I’ve done for a long time, and save for thrice – twice was a decision that bit me in the butt – I’ve been a user of pre-owned computers since 1999.

Let’s get the exceptions out of the way. I purchased a Lenovo Flex notebook early in 2016 and with the understanding that it’s a decidedly budget system, I’ve been quite happy with it. The other new purchase was in early 2014 when I bought a Late 2012 Core i7 model Mac mini. Oh wow. Quad i7 power! With a craptastic 5400 RPM hard disk, only 4GB of RAM and completely laughable Intel HD 4000 video. TOTALLY WORTH THE THOUSAND DOLLARS I SPENT.

Worst purchase. 0/10 would never buy again. Don’t forget that on top of how pitiful this thing is, one day, Apple will simply decide I don’t get new OS versions. That’s the day I turn it into a Debian box.

Maybe. I’ve honestly considered selling it and getting a few hundred bucks that I can use to get something that isn’t garbage.

So, cutting to the chase, I buy used computers and use them up. Windows is the best OS for this purpose. Linux… is Linux. macOS regularly artificially drops support for older hardware. Windows will be there, though.

My list of previous hardware is so, SO not lustworthy.

I’m straight out forsaking that Mac mini with a quad-core Core i7 3615QM at 2.3GHz. Maybe to the point of selling it off because I hate it so much. I retired it because it got to be too much to resist beating it into not working with the Fist of Doom.

My main machine right now is a Lenovo Thinkstation S20 from 2009. Quad Xeon E5530 at 2.4GHz. I paid $150 for this machine and it’s an order of magnitude faster than that damn Mac mini. Why? I can actually open it up and put an SSD in it, and a new video card, and that Xeon isn’t honestly that much slower than the i7. Whatever. It was a no-holds-barred high-end workstation when new. So almost a decade later, it’s still more-than-adequate for my needs and wants. And at $150 I could replace it by this summer and not feel bad.

Before it, my PC was a Gateway-built AMD quad Phenom running at a blazing 1.6GHz. WOW!! Someone decided to build a desktop with budget notebook specs. Nothing I ever did to that machine ever made it not sluggish. It ran games even more pitifully than the box I had before it. I retired it when I couldn’t expect to get better than 35 FPS from anything, and Overwatch simply refused to be playable.

A Pentium 4 (Prescott) 3.4GHz monstrosity. It was built under HP’s zombie-like Compaq mark. It was a whatever-random-numbers-NX. WOW WHAT A NAME! It was always too hot, but running World of Warcraft on this thing felt decent. I was able to run 64-bit Windows Vista, and ended up throwing almost 4GB of RAM at it. It was a pretty high-end machine when it was new, and I paid $0 for it when I got it, but it had a weak 768MB of RAM and terrible Intel 710 video, so I dubbed it Gift Horse. By the end, it was a respectable box but I retired it because they didn’t bother to turn on the CPU’s NX feature, so Windows 8 wouldn’t run on it. Cheap.

Earlier than it was a newer machine. I have a tendency to end up with garbage boxes that I buy new and then replace them with formerly high-end boxes. I was at Best Buy one day and had a big paycheck along with a tax return burning my pocket, so I came home with a P4 w/hyperthreading box. I… honestly don’t remember any of the details about it at this point. I think it was a P4 515. Early 2007. It had Vista Home Basic. I really got ripped off on this piece of trash. The 3-year-old Compaq I got a couple of years later really kicked its butt after a couple of upgrades. This is better left forgotten.

Before it was a quickly-iterated series of junkers, from a Celeron 633, to a Dell OptiPlex with a P2 266 that I kept an unusually long time (’08 or so) just because I could cram anything I imagined in there. I had two Radeon cards in it, driving dual 1280×1024 screens, something like 3 GB of RAM, six 80GB hard disks, USB 2, WiFi, and a 7.1 surround video card. Was it fast? No. Did it run XP well enough? YES. It was just fine and served me as a day-to-day box for a long time. By ’03 or ’04 it was shifted to ad-hoc home server and there it stayed until the day it bluescreened and never started again.

These things were what I used, and had a blast with. There are older ones, like my Frankenstein K6 I had in college, but whatever. I’m too tired to talk about all that right now.

Comments (14)

14 responses to “Beyond Budget: The Low-End Life”

  1. hrlngrv

    FWLIW, I still have a Zotac MAG with a bit less than 2GB RAM that runs Bunsen Labs Linux and is serviceable for running Firefox and a few (very few simultaneously) other things. It's my 4th PC. My 5th is a rather large tower I bought from my son that I keep around for only 2 reasons: it has a 3.5" floppy drive and an actual parallel port.

  2. Bob Nelson

    I'm lucky, I have a brother who's a nutjob gamer who has to buy a new overclocked, water cooled screamer every 2 years.

    He keeps the old one as a backup, and then gives away his old backup to whatever family member or friend needs it.

    I buy my own laptops, but I don't bother buying desktops anymore, I just grab one of his old ones every 2 years. To a hardcore gamer, they might be antiques, but they work just fine for me! (I'm not a gamer)

    On laptops, don't forget about refurbished either. Dell especially. Most of what they offer is new overstock, at a nice discount. Put your name on their mailing list, and you get notified when they're having a clearance sale. if you're patient, you can get a new laptop cheaper than you would pay for the same one used on craigslist.

  3. Sprtfan

    I have a rather small tech budget as well. I normally build my own and have had good luck buying used parts off of tech for sale forums. I also used AMD early on because they usually kept their socket around longer so it was easy to do some minor upgrades by just swapping out the CPU.

    Lately I've been keeping an eye out for clearance laptops and PCs at Walmart and other big box stores. has deals posted often and I was able to pick up a HP Pavilion 580-023w for $250. It has a 7400 i5, 8GB ram and a GTX 1060. I have picked up some cheap laptops and peripherals this way as well.

  4. Polycrastinator

    I've always bought on 0% credit, spread out the payments, and bought a big purchase. My desktop is a 2nd generation Core processor, and while a bunch of components have been swapped out (motherboard failed, newer SSD, new GPU) it's basically still the same system I bought 7 or 8 years ago. That's the logic I try to go with: spend big, spread the payments over a year and a half if you can, and then use it forever. Given the incremental upgrades I've been making, I can probably keep everything that's currently installed and replace the processor/motherboard if the Spectre update (presuming it receives it at all) causes significant issues.

    It's obviously not the same position you're in, but sort of ends up in the same spot: how do you make a small dollar amount work for you. If I spread out what I spent over the lifetime of the computer, it's been peanuts, overall.

    • wright_is

      In reply to Polycrastinator:

      If he is scratching $150 together for a new PC after a couple of years, I'm guessing repayments on a loan of over a thousand dollars is not going to be plausible.

      My second, thrid and fourth PCs (VIC=20, Memotech MTX500 and Amstrad CPC6128) were paid for out of my own pocket (my first PC, a Sinclair ZX81) was paid 50% from my parent and 50% from my pocket money. The VIC=20 was bought second hand and it took me over a year to save the hundred pounds I needed, after having sold my ZX81 to be able to afford the VIC. The same for the Memotech, a lot of Saturday jobs and saving money on every corner to get the money together. The Amstrad was the same way.

      After I started working full time, I was lucky and had a decent salary as a programmer and had enough spare money to upgrade my PC every couple of years (the house took priority) and then every 5 or 6 years (family had priority). But I was always lucky enough to be able to buy a relatively high end (current new PC is a Ryzen 7, not a Threadripper or Core i9), which should last me several years.

      But I know many people who either keep their old PC until it dies (I replaced a Windows 95 PC for one of my sister-in-laws in 2009) or they take hand-me-downs; a friend of my wife was studying for her Meister Certificate in 2012 and needed a PC for writing her project, she couldn't afford one, so I gave her my old (2004) laptop, as that was the only way she was able to get a computer to be able to do her course.

      When people are finding it hard to buy food at the end of the month, the last thing they are thinking about is capital investment.

      As you say, we are somewhere in the middle (I save for a few years to be able to buy a new PC, you buy it on credit), but that is a luxury compared to many people I know and, by the sounds of it, the OP.

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to Polycrastinator:

      Yeah, just alternate routes to similar results. I just personally try to avoid payments but I know I could do it and get something nicer!

      • Polycrastinator

        In reply to jimchamplin:

        I stuck with that for a long time, and ended up concluding that if I had reliable income, and could buy something interest free, it was OK. Those are my lines in the sand: never pay interest, never let a payment plan cost me more than it would be off the shelf, and never miss a payment. If I'm not sure of those, I won't do it.

        • Polycrastinator

          In reply to Polycrastinator:

          For better or worse, with the current mining craze, I have a couple of colleagues who did exactly this and are making enough from their hardware doing mining to make their payments, but personally I'm not convinced that this will go on long enough to assure fully paying things off, so I wouldn't take the risk.

  5. 2ilent8cho

    You do know you can open up a 2012 Mac Mini an put an SSD in it too? I've done it many times.

    • Jeffery Commaroto

      In reply to 2ilent8cho:

      You can also use an external USB SSD. I did it with that model and it’s like a new computer.

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to 2ilent8cho:

      You do know you have to get a couple of special tools and deal with some really annoying diassembly to do it, right? I don't have a space that's clean and secure enough to perform the operation myself.

      It's also less that and more the lack of desire to spend any time and money on this machine that I honestly kinda hate.