The $100 Computer Experiment

The main reason why I created the drmikekuna.com blog was to become more transparent about my feelings via writing.  To put out to the greater public what was going on in my head.  The idea being that this would allow me to hopefully write more authentic compositions in the future.

When I write this blog it is usually with little planning.  I write what the spirit moves me to write in that moment.  My rule is if I write it, I post it. Not doing so would defeat my overall blog objective.

I am always thinking of and solving problems in my head. Some are significant, most are not. Problem-solving interests me. There are some people who enjoy solving puzzles, I like solving problems. What came out in today’s writing was a “problem” that I have been thinking about for the last few weeks. One of my “Why?” “What if?” or “How would I solve that?” kind of problem.  

Here we go…

I acquired my first home computer in 1983, a Commodore 64. Since then there have been many others.  I bought off-the-shelf computers from Circuit City, modified them, and assembled the first computer network for Genesis Clinical Services in 1992.  I hand built video editing workstations In the early 2000s.  I even constructed my own multibay DVD replicating computer In the mid-2000s.

Microsoft introduced the Windows Vista operating system in 2006, a textbook example of introducing a product before it was ready for release.  My love affair with Windows quickly went sour with constant computer crashes and software conflicts.  I made the switch to Apple around that time, and never looked back.  Apple computers are well built, well designed, and… well, expensive.

That expense seems to be ever growing as Apple continues along a path defining itself not only by its technology but also its luxury branding.  Even an old doctor like me has to take a deep breath when it comes to purchasing the next upgrade. Overall, Windows machines are less costly, but the powerful ones are still pricey.  

So, where am I going with all of this?  

My current  thought problem:

Computers have gone from household status symbols to necessary devices.  We do everything on our computers.  Although today’s smartphones are powerful, laptops are still the preferred machine for many tasks.  You would not expect your high school student to type a term paper on their smartphone!

Computers have become integrated into daily life to such a degree that they have gone from being a shared family resource to a personal use item.  My children do almost all of their schoolwork on computers.  It would be impossible for them to share a single device. 

In 2017 if you do not have ready access to a computer you are at a clear disadvantage.  As more services go online it is expected that you can easily connect and interact with them. Shopping, news, music, schoolwork, banking, media consumption, social media, email, the list is endless. A family of 4 with limited resources may be able to buy a single computer, but they would be hardpressed to afford two or three MacBooks or similarly expensive Windows machines.

Low-cost alternatives have emerged to bridge this gap.  Chromebooks were introduced by Google in 2011.  These laptops use a very lightweight operating system (OS) that serves as a framework to support Google’s Chrome browser.  Google supplies the OS with its integrated browser for free to computer manufacturers. This allows those manufacturers to produce low cost, but functional laptops. In return, Google receives precious user data. Chrome OS is updated every 6 weeks and becomes evermore mature and useful.  

Chrome OS has moved from being an industry joke to becoming the second most popular computer operating system in the US, surpassing Apple’s Mac OS. Computers running Chrome OS have become the dominant computer in schools, and Chromebooks are often the top-selling laptops on Amazon.  This is not because they are particularly powerful, it is because they can easily handle basic tasks, are simple to manage, and are dirt cheap.

The meteoric growth of Chromebooks has caught the eye of Google’s competitor, Microsoft. In an unprecedented move, Microsoft now allows its flagship Windows 10 operating system to be loaded on low powered computing devices, free of charge. Because of this, there is now an explosion of low powered “Cloudbook” laptops and tablets running Windows 10. Cloudbooks and Chromebooks have some differences, but their overall purpose and audience are the same. Cheap computing with a heavy emphasis on using the web. In other words, the everyday tasks that most of us use a computer for.

Technology has evolved allowing the use of low cost and highly efficient microprocessors to run both Chromebooks and Cloudbooks.  Companies like Rockchip from China buy off-the-shelf chip designs from ARM and produce inexpensive RISC microprocessors for use in a variety of computing devices, including laptops. Intel has countered by providing their own inexpensive Atom/Celeron chips. Because of their simpler design and lower transistor counts, these types of CPUs use very little power and produce little heat.  This results in very long battery life and quiet fanless operation.

The combination of cheap components combined with a free operating system has resulted in a plethora of Chromebooks and Cloudbooks that can be had for $200 or less. We are finally in an age where almost everyone can afford a computer.  Computers have gone the way of the microwave oven and the tabletop television; high tech products at bargain basement prices.

Both Chromebooks and Cloudbooks are powerful enough for day-to-day computing tasks.  However, if you want to do sophisticated video editing, photo editing, or audio mixing, you are going to have to pony up the cash for a Mac or a high-end Windows PC.

$200 is inexpensive, but what is the lowest price that you can spend and still have a usable computer for basic needs?  That has been the question that I have been pondering. Perhaps there is a student who needs a computer but has extremely low funds. Perhaps there is a retiree on a very tight budget. These individuals may have an absolute limit on what they can spend.  They don’t have the option of spending an extra $50 on a machine, even if the additional cost would provide a significant performance boost.

Question: Can you purchase a workable computer for less than $100?  A device that would be capable of all basic required tasks? Facebook, online banking, YouTube, Netflix, streaming music, web surfing, email, office documents, etcetera?

Many of my interests involve computers.  I have a YouTube channel, an audio podcast, and this blog. In addition, I’m an avid photographer. These are hobbies that require high computing resources.  For these needs, I usually use a Mac Pro or a MacBook Pro.

Question: Are there ways to use this lesser technology such as Chromebooks and Cloudbooks to approximate the tasks that I do on my more expensive computers?  The operative word is “approximate” as I already tax my high-end devices with my computing needs.

So what are the sub $100 choices?  It is impossible to get a working Mac for $100 or less.  Any traditional Windows computer at a $100 price point would be trash.  It is possible to mount a Linux OS on an old Windows computer, but how many people know how to do that?  It may be possible to get a used, but workable Cloudbook for less than $100. Unfortunately, my search could not find one priced at $100 or less.

It is possible to find Chromebooks at or below $100.  These are often off-lease machines that are “seller refurbished.”  A term that likely means that the seller did a quick once over and then washed the unit off with some Windex.

In fact, I’m typing on such a low-cost computer to write this post.  I’m using an off-lease Chromebook that was “seller refurbished” and was purchased off of eBay for a total cost of $68 (including shipping). I’m using the free/online Google Docs to compose this post on a computer that is less costly than a family meal at a mediocre restaurant. In addition, I’ll also edit and post a photo for this blog and embed my YouTube video on “Chrome vs. Cloud Computers,” below the post. Lastly, I’ll manage and update my WordPress (blog) website. A pretty good test for a cheap computer.  As an aside, as I’m typing this post I’m listening to streaming music from my $68 computer, which is wirelessly transmitting straight-ahead jazz to my Bluetooth earbuds!

Does my $68 computer have flaws?  Yes.  Am I limited in what I can do with my $68 computer? Yes.  However, I am able to do some amazing things with it.

During the next phase of my exploration, I will try to record, edit and post my audio podcast. I’ll also try to see if I can create some sort of YouTube video using it.  These projects are more complicated and demanding and will push the limits of this basic technology. Hopefully, not to its breaking point. My plan is to combine all of my results into a summary video on my YouTube Saving Savvy Channel. There are other geeks out there that enjoy this kind of stuff, just like me.

My first computing device was a basic Texas Instrument SR 10 calculator.  I bought it in 1973 for $129.00. That would be over $700 in today’s money. The converse of this would determine the cost of this $69 computer in 1973 money. That would be $12! Twelve dollars for a device significantly more powerful than the computer used on the first lunar lander.

This week’s thought problem is still in progress, but the basic parameters and methodology are set.  At problem completion, I will breathe a sigh of relief.  But, then there is always the next problem, whatever it may be. So many problems to solve, and so little time to solve them. I guess they keep me out of trouble!

Aside:  Dr. Julie hopefully reading this post will give you some insight on why we have so much junk in our basement! 😉  

My $68 computer

3 thoughts on “The $100 Computer Experiment”

  1. The more complex our computers became, the more beneficial yet anxiety producing they also became. That’s the dichotemy. Benefits vs. risks. I know I can’t keep up anymore.

  2. We have two Dell Optiplex 780s, that I bought for 40 uk pounds each (about $53US each). They arrived like new and I put the fastest Core2Duo CPUs in them. They’re running as Hackintoshes, running OS X 10.8.5 (Mountain Lion). The only downside is I can’t run latest versions of Firefox or Chrome, but for everything else, they work fine.

    If I had enough cash to buy a 4K screened iMac, I’d probably use the money to book a holiday instead. Also, Apple are not very ethical when it comes to paying their fair share of taxes.

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