A Philosopher's Blog

Old Laptops

Posted in Environment, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 21, 2008

I have a modest amount of nerdtastic talent that allows me to often fix various computer and software problems. In addition to dooming me to helping people with various difficulties, it also enables me to revive old computers and put them into working order. Currently, I have quite a collection of obsolete, but functional computers. Among these are a number of laptops, including some from as far back as the early 1990s. In some cases, I have been able to give older computers to people who can use them. Often, however, people have no desire to have such old technology and instead prefer to have something brand new.

When I first started using computers, laptops simply did not exist. There where portable computers, but they were portable in the same sense that a large suitcase is portable. When laptops were finally available, I saw the advantages of having one. Sadly, as a graduate student I could not afford one. But now, as a professor, I can afford to buy not only a laptop, but a very good one. However, I still keep using older models-my newest laptop is an iBook G4 which is, in computer years, dead. I even have a Powerbook 5300 that still works just fine, but I mainly just keep that around because it has a floppy disk drive.

In some cases, it is quite reasonable to prefer a new laptop over using an old model. For gamers, a new laptop can typically barely handle the newer games so an old laptop is not a viable option. Those who work ion graphics and video also need speed, thus older laptops are not a viable option for them. However, older laptops can still serve in many capacities.

While I enjoy computer games and do work with graphic software, what I do most on computers is write. While some of the fancier features of word processing software do require some computer power, I have really noticed little difference between typing on the SE/30 I used in grad school and typing on the Pentium 4 PC in my office at school. Hence, power is not much of a factor in regards to using a laptop for writing. Thus, an older laptop can be used for such a task.

While some web sites, such as YouTube, do require a degree of computing power, most web sites can be viewed just fine on an older laptop, even a mere Pentium computer. Email programs also tend to have fairly moderate requirements as well, hence an older laptop can be used for this purpose as well.

Of course, the mere fact that something is still usable hardly shows that there is a good reason to use it. But, there are good reasons to use old laptops (and old computers in general).

One minor reason is that old laptops can be used to run older software, especially older games. Many rather enjoyable old PC and Mac games will not run at all on new computers or require rather extensive tweaking. However, they will obviously run just fine on the computers from the same time period.

A more serious reason is that keeping a laptop is use keeps it out of the landfill. While some computers are recycled, many of them just end up as garbage. Further, laptops (and computers in general) contain such things as mercury and other hazardous materials. So, it is generally better for the environment to not have these materials leaking out of a landfill or released by the crude recycling methods typically employed.

The most practical reason to use an old laptop is the economic reason. If you keep using your old laptop, you don’t have to buy a new one. If you don’t have a laptop, older models are much cheaper than newer ones. For example, I was able to get an IBM Thinkpad 600E for $40. I had to do some minor repairs on it and, of course, it is only a Pentium II machine. But it runs Windows 2000, Micrograde and Open Office just fine.IBM Thinkpad

As everyone knows, the main reason to have a laptop is portability. However, this advantage also puts laptops in danger-they can easily be stolen and can also be dropped. If you have an obsolete laptop, it is less likely to be stolen (assuming that the thieves recognize it as being obsolete). Also, if it is stolen or damaged, you are out far less money. Even if you have a nice, new laptop, it can be very useful to have an old laptop for those circumstances in which you’d rather not put your shiny beast at risk. For example, I use my $40 IBM on campus and when writing outside. If something happens to it, I won’t be happy. But I’ll only be out $40.

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2 Responses

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  1. cardbiz said, on May 21, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    I love this idea. It is right along the lines of what we did when we were camping…
    If we were at a public campground, we used a HUGE UGLY and HEAVY canvas tent that was all weird gaudy colors. No one would want to steal it. Or venture too close to steal anything IN it. Obviously we did not leave any computers in the tent. Or FOOD.
    We even posted in large letters the license number of a friend’s car in case it was stolen, it could be easier to find. We did not use our own license because we did not want any quick witted thieves to dash off to our home and steal everything in sight while they knew we were off in the wilds.

    Using something old that still has function has its merits. I have an old laptop that I do not know how to fix, but if I could get the connection to the power worked out so I did not have to HOLD the cord the entire time, I would use it. It would give me access to some files that are on omega disks that I cannot access at home now.

    Any ideas how to fix that cord connection? Nothing LOOKS bent, but obviously the connection is loose and wobbly but held steady it will run as long as I can hold it. Just wiggle it a little and it dies … stops dead in its tracks.

    I liked your essay. My site is not built here yet.

  2. Michael LaBossiere said, on May 22, 2008 at 10:47 am

    The wiggle problem is somewhat common with older laptops. In many cases, years of moving the power connector loosens where it plugs in. This, as you found, means that the contact is lost unless it is held just right.

    There are services that repair this problem, mainly by replacing the socket device in the laptop. I’ve seen the repair advertised from $150-200. For that much, you could buy a replacement laptop.

    In some cases I’ve been able to use electrical tape to get the plug to stay in place long enough to transfer files.It is kind of a tedious thing-you have to get the plug in just the right position and then tape it down without moving it out of place.

    Be sure to use the tape to “tape down” the external plug. If tape is put into the socket to stop the wiggle, it will heat up and can melt.

    If you have Iomega Zip disks, you can get a USB version of the Zip drive (the Zip 250). I’ve got one that I keep for just that reason. It works fine with XP and OS X. I don’t have Vista, so I can’t vouch that it will work with that OS.


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