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LOW←TECH MAGAZINE

How and why I stopped buying new laptops

Being an independent journalist – or an office worker if you wish – I always reasoned that I needed a decent computer and that I need to pay for quality.

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Image: Low-tech Magazine is now written and published on a 2006 ThinkPad X60s.

Being an independent journalist – or an office worker if you wish – I always reasoned that I needed a decent computer and that I need to pay for quality. Between 2000 and 2017, I consumed three laptops that I bought new and which cost me around 5,000 euros in total – roughly 300 euros per year over the entire period. The average useful life of my three laptops was 5.7 years.

In 2017, somewhere between getting my office and my website off-the-grid, I decided not to buy any more new laptops. Instead, I switched to a 2006 second-hand machine that I purchased online for 50 euros and which does everything that I want and need. Including a new battery and a simple hardware upgrade, I invested less than 150 euros.

If my 2006 laptop lasts as long as my other machines – if it runs for another 1.7 years – it will have cost me only 26 euros per year. That’s more than 10 times less than the cost of my previous laptops. In this article, I explain my motivations for not buying new laptops, and how you could do the same.

Energy and material use of a laptop

Not buying new laptops saves a lot of money, but also a lot of resources and environmental destruction. According to the most recent life cycle analysis, it takes 3,010 to 4,340 megajoules of primary energy to make a laptop – this includes mining the materials, manufacturing the machine, and bringing it to market. 1

Each year, we purchase between 160 and 200 million laptops. Using the data above, this means that the production of laptops requires a yearly energy consumption of 480 to 868 petajoules, which corresponds to between one quarter and almost half of all solar PV energy produced worldwide in 2018 (2,023 petajoules). 2 The making of a laptop also involves a high material consumption, which includes a wide variety of minerals that may be considered scarce due to different types of constraints: economic, social, geochemical, and geopolitical. 34

The production of microchips is a very energy- and material-intensive process, but that is not the only problem. The high resource use of laptops is also because they have a very short lifespan. Most of the 160-200 million laptops sold each year are replacement purchases. The average laptop is replaced every 3 years (in business) to five years (elsewhere). 3 My 5.7 years per laptop experience is not exceptional.

Laptops don’t change

The study cited dates from 2011, and it refers to a machine made in 2001: a Dell Inspiron 2500. You are forgiven for thinking that this “most recent life cycle analysis of a laptop” is outdated, but it’s not. A 2015 research paper discovered that the embodied energy of laptops is static over time. 5

The scientists disassembled 11 laptops of similar size, made between 1999 and 2008, and weighed the different components. Also, they measured the silicon die area for all motherboards and 30 DRAM cards produced over roughly the same period (until 2011). They found that the mass and material composition of all key components – battery, motherboard, hard drive, memory – did not change significantly, even though manufacturing processes became more efficient in energy and material use.

The reason is simple: improvements in functionality balance the efficiency gains obtained in the manufacturing process. Battery mass, memory, and hard disk drive mass decreased per unit of functionality but showed roughly constant totals per year. The same dynamic explains why newer laptops don’t show lower operational electricity consumption compared to older laptops. New laptops may be more energy-efficient per computational power, but these gains are offset by more computational power. Jevon’s paradox is nowhere as evident as it is in computing.

The challenge

All this means that there’s no environmental or financial benefit whatsoever to replacing an old laptop with a new one. On the contrary, the only thing a consumer can do to improve their laptop’s ecological and economic sustainability is to use it for as long as possible. This is facilitated by the fact that laptops are now a mature technology and have more than sufficient computational power. One problem, though. Consumers who try to keep working on their old laptops are likely to end up frustrated. I shortly explain my frustrations below, and I’m pretty confident that they are not exceptional.

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Image: The three new laptops I used from 2000 to 2017.

My first laptop: Apple iBook (2000-2005)

In 2000, when I was working as a freelance science and tech journalist in Belgium, I bought my first laptop, an Apple iBook. Little more than two or three years later, the charger started malfunctioning. When informed of the price for a new charger, I was so disgusted with Apple’s sales practices – chargers are very cheap to produce, but Apple sold them for a lot of money – that I refused to buy it. Instead, I managed to keep the charger working for a few more years, first by putting it under the weight of books and furniture, and when that didn’t work anymore, by putting it in a firmly tightened clamp.

My second laptop: IBM ThinkPad R52 (2005-2013)

When the charger eventually died entirely in 2005, I decided to look for a new laptop. I had only one demand: it should have a charger that lasts or is at least cheap to replace. I found more than I was looking for. I bought an IBM Thinkpad R52, and it was love at first use. My IBM laptop was the Apple iBook counterpart, not just in terms of design (a rectangular box available in all colours as long as it’s black). More importantly, the entire machine was built to last, built to be reliable, and built to be repairable.

Circular and modular products are all the hype these days, but my IBM Thinkpad was precisely that. Every component in the laptop could be screwed off and replaced, the sturdy case (with steel hinges) was spacious enough to make serious upgrades possible, and it had every connector you can imagine. My 2005 machine still works today, and I am convinced that it could keep working for another 500 years if given proper care. Like a pre-industrial windmill, its lifetime could be extended endlessly by gradually repairing and replacing every part that it consists of. The question is not how we can evolve towards a circular economy, but instead why we continue to evolve away from it.

The question is not how we can evolve towards a circular economy, but instead why we continue to evolve away from it.

My Thinkpad was more expensive to buy than my iBook, but at least I didn’t spend all that money on a cute design but a decent computer. The charger gave no problems, and when I lost it during a trip and had to buy a new one, I could do so for a fair price. Little did I know that my happy purchase was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Image: The IBM ThinkPad R52 from 2005.

My third laptop: Lenovo Thinkpad T430 (2013-2017)

Fast forward to 2013. I am now living in Spain and I’m running Low-tech Magazine. I’m still working on my IBM Thinkpad R52, but there are some problems on the horizon. First of all, Microsoft will soon force me to upgrade my operating system, because support for Windows XP is to end in 2014. I don’t feel like spending a couple of hundred euros on a new operating system that would be too demanding for my old laptop anyway. Furthermore, the laptop had gotten a bit slow, even after it had been restored to its factory settings. In short, I fell into the trap that the hardware and software industries have set up for us and made the mistake of thinking that I needed a new laptop.

Having been so fond of my Thinkpad, it was only logical to get a new one. Here’s the problem: in 2005, shortly after I had bought my first Thinkpad, Lenovo, a Chinese manufacturer that is now the largest computer maker in the world, bought IBM’s PC business. Chinese companies don’t have a reputation for building quality products, especially not at the time. However, since Lenovo was still selling Thinkpads that looked almost identical to those built by IBM, I decided to try my luck and bought a Lenovo Thinkpad T430 in April 2013. At a steep price, but I assumed that quality had to be paid for.

My mistake was clear from the beginning. I had to send the new laptop back twice because its case was deformed. When I finally got one that didn’t wobble on my desk, I quickly ran into another problem: the keys started breaking off. I can still remember my disbelief when it happened for the first time. The IBM Thinkpad is known for its robust keyboard. If you want to break it, you need a hammer. Lenovo obviously didn’t find that so important and had quietly replaced the keyboard with an inferior one. Mind you, I can be an aggressive typist, but I have never broken any other keyboard.

I grumpily ordered a replacement key for 15 euros. In the months after that, replacement keys became a recurring cost. After spending more than 100 euros on plastic keys, which would soon break again, I calculated that my keyboard had 90 keys and that replacing them all just once would cost me 1,350 euros. I stopped using the keyboard altogether, temporarily finding a solution in an external keyboard. However, this was impractical, especially for working away from home – and why else would I want a laptop?

There was no getting around it anymore: I needed a new laptop. Again. But which one? For sure it would not be one made by Lenovo or Apple.

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Image: Replacing all keys on my Lenovo T430 would have cost me 1,350 euros.

My fourth laptop: IBM Thinkpad X60s (2017-now)

Not finding what I was looking for, I decided to go back in time. By now, it had dawned on me that new laptops are of inferior quality compared to older laptops, even if they carry a much higher price tag. I found out that Lenovo switched keyboards around 2011 and started searching auction sites for Thinkpads built before that year. I could have changed back to my ThinkPad R52 from 2005, but by now, I had become accustomed to a Spanish keyboard, and the R52 had a Belgian one.

In April 2017, I settled on a used Thinkpad X60s from 2006. 6 As of December 2020, the machine is in operation for almost 4 years and is 14 years old – three to five times older than the average laptop. If I loved my Thinkpad R52 from 2005, I adore my Thinkpad X60s from 2006. It’s just as sturdily built – it already survived a drop from a table on a concrete floor – but it’s much smaller and also lighter: 1.43 kg vs. 3.2 kg.

My 2006 Thinkpad X60s does everything I want it to do. I use it to write articles, do research, and maintain the websites. I have also used it on-stage to give lectures, projecting images on a large screen. There’s only one thing missing on my laptop, especially nowadays, and that’s a webcam. I solve this by firing up the cursed 2013 laptop with the broken keys whenever I need to, happy to give it some use that doesn’t involve its keyboard. It could also be solved by a switch to the Thinkpad X200 from 2008, which is a newer version of the same model and has a webcam.

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Image: My ThinkPad X60s.

How to make an old laptop run like it’s new

Not buying any more new laptops is not as simple as buying a used laptop. It’s advisable to upgrade the hardware, and it’s essential to downgrade the software. There are two things you need to do:

1. Use low energy software

My laptop runs on Linux Lite, one of several open-source operating systems specially designed to work on old computers. The use of a Linux operating system is not a mere suggestion. There’s no way you’re going to revive an old laptop if you stick to Microsoft Windows or Apple OS because the machine would freeze instantly. Linux Lite does not have the flashy visuals of the newest Apple and Windows interfaces, but it has a familiar graphical interface and looks anything but obsolete. It takes very little space on the hard disk and demands even less computing power. The result is that an old laptop, despite its limited specifications, runs smoothly. I also use light browsers: Vivaldi and Midori.

Having used Microsoft Windows for a long time, I find Linux operating systems to be remarkably better, even more so because they are free to download and install. Furthermore, Linux operating systems do not steal your personal data and do not try to lock you in, like the newest operating systems from both Microsoft and Apple do. That said, even with Linux, obsolescence cannot be ruled out. For example, Linux Lite will stop its support for 32-bit computers in 2021, which means that I will soon have to look for an alternative operating system, or buy a slightly younger 64-bit laptop.

2. Replace the hard disk drive with a solid-state drive

In recent years, solid-state drives (SSD) have become available and affordable, and they are much faster than hard disk drives (HDD). Although you can revive an old laptop by merely switching to a light-weight operating system, if you also replace the hard disk drive with a solid-state drive, you’ll have a machine that is just as fast as a brand new laptop. Depending on the storage capacity you want, an SSD will cost you between 20 euro (120 GB) and 100 euro (960 GB).

Installment is pretty straightforward and well documented online. Solid-state drives run silently and are more resistant to physical shock, but they have a shorter life expectancy than hard disk drives. Mine is now working for almost 4 years. It seems that both from an environmental and financial viewpoint, an old laptop with SSD is a much better choice than buying a new laptop, even if the solid-state drive needs replacement now and then.

Spare laptops

Meanwhile, my strategy has evolved. I have bought two identical models for a similar price, in 2018 and early 2020, to use as spare laptops. Now I plan to keep working on these machines for as long as possible, having more than sufficient spare parts available. Since I bought the laptop, it had two technical issues. After roughly a year of use, the fan died. I had it repaired overnight in a tiny and messy IT shop run by a Chinese man in Antwerp, Belgium. He said that my patched fan would run for another six months, but it’s still working more than two years later.

Then, last year, my X60s suddenly refused to charge its battery, an issue that had also appeared with my cursed 2013 laptop. It seems to be a common problem with Thinkpads, but I could not solve it yet. Neither did I really have to because I had a spare laptop ready and started using that one whenever I needed or wanted to work outside.

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Image: Three identical 2006 laptops, all in working order, for less than 200 euros.

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Image: Inside the Thinkpad X60s. Source: Hardware Maintenance Manual.

The magical SD-card

Now to introduce you to my magical SD-card, which is another hardware upgrade that facilitates the use of old (but also new) laptops. Many people have their personal documents stored on their laptop’s hard drive and then make backups to external storage media if all goes well. I do it the other way around.

I have all my data on a 128 GB SD-card, which I can plug into any of the Thinkpads that I own. I then make monthly backups of the SD-card, which I store on an external storage medium, as well as regular backups of the documents that I am working on, which I temporarily store on the drive of the laptop that I am working on. This has proven to be very reliable, at least for me: I have stopped losing work due to computer problems and insufficient backups.

The other advantage is that I can work on any laptop that I want and that I’m not dependent on a particular machine to access my work. You can get similar advantages when you keep all your data in the cloud, but the SD-card is the more sustainable option, and it works without internet access.

Hypothetically, I could have up to two hard drive failures in one day and keep working as if nothing happened. Since I am now using both laptops alternately – one with battery, the other one without – I can also leave them at different locations and cycle between these places while carrying only the SD-card in my wallet. Try that with your brand new, expensive laptop. I can also use my laptops together if I need an extra screen.

In combination with a hard disk drive, the SD-card also increases the performance of an old laptop and can be an alternative to installing a solid-state drive. My spare laptop does not have one and it can be slow when browsing heavy-weight websites. However, thanks to the SD-card, opening a map or document happens almost instantly, as does scrolling through a document or saving it. The SD-card also keeps the hard disk running smoothly because it’s mostly empty. I don’t know how practical using an SD-card is for other laptops, but all my Thinkpads have a slot for them.

The costs

Let’s make a complete cost calculation, including the investment in spare laptops and SD-card, and using today’s prices for both solid-state drives and SD-cards, which have become much cheaper since I have bought them:

  • ThinkPad X60s: 50 euro
  • ThinkPad X60s spare laptop: 60 euro
  • ThinkPad X60 spare laptop: 75 euro
  • Two replacement batteries: 50 euro
  • 240 GB solid-state drive: 30 euro
  • 128 GB SD-card: 20 euro
  • Total: 285 euros

Even if you buy all of this, you only spent 285 euros. For that price, you may be able to buy the crappiest new laptop on the market, but it surely won’t get you two spare laptops. If you manage to keep working with this lot for ten years, your laptop costs would be 28.5 euros per year. You may have to replace a few solid-state drives and SD-cards, but it won’t make much difference. Furthermore, you save the ecological damage that is caused by the production of a new laptop every 5.7 years.

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Image: My laptop needs are met for the foreseeable future.

Don’t take it too far

Although I have used my Thinkpad X60s as an example, the same strategy works with other Thinkpad models – here’s an overview of all historical models – and laptops from other brands (which I know nothing about). If you prefer not to buy on auction sites, you can walk to the nearest pawnshop and get a used laptop with a guarantee. The chances are that you don’t even need to buy anything, as many people have old laptops lying around.

There’s no need to go back to a 2006 machine. I hope it’s clear that I am trying to make a statement here, and I probably went as far back as one can while keeping things practical. My first try was a used ThinkPad X30 from 2002, but that was one step too far. It uses a different charger type, it has no SD-card slot, and I could not get the wireless internet connection working. For many people, it may serve to choose a somewhat younger laptop. That will give you a webcam and a 64-bit architecture, which makes things easier. Of course, you can also try to beat me and go back to the 1990s, but then you’ll have to do without USB and wireless internet connection.

Your choice of laptop also depends on what you want to do with it. If you use it mainly for writing, surfing the web, communication, and entertainment, you can do it as cheaply as I did. If you do graphical or audiovisual work, it’s more complicated, because in that case, you’re probably an Apple user. The same strategy could be applied, on a somewhat younger and more expensive laptop, but it would suggest switching from a Mac to a Linux operating system. When it comes to office applications, Linux is clearly better than its commercial alternatives. For a lack of experience, I cannot tell you if that holds for other software as well.

This is a hack, not a new economical model

Although capitalism could provide us with used laptops for decades to come, the strategy outlined above should be considered a hack, not an economical model. It’s a way to deal with or escape from an economic system that tries to force you and me to consume as much as possible. It’s an attempt to break that system, but it’s not a solution in itself. We need another economical model, in which we build all laptops like pre-2011 Thinkpads. As a consequence, laptop sales would go down, but that’s precisely what we need. Furthermore, with today’s computing efficiency, we could significantly reduce the operational and embodied energy use of a laptop if we reversed the trend towards ever higher functionality.

Significantly, hardware and software changes drive the fast obsolescence of computers, but the latter has now become the most crucial factor. A computer of 15 years old has all the hardware you need, but it’s not compatible with the newest (commercial) software. This is true for operating systems and every type of software, from games to office applications to websites. Consequently, to make laptop use more sustainable, the software industry would need to start making every new version of its products lighter instead of heavier. The lighter the software, the longer our laptops will last, and we will need less energy to use and produce them.

Kris De Decker

Images: Jordi Manrique Corominas, Adriana Parra, Roel Roscam Abbing

Proofreading: Eric Wagner

Comments

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Jan Jaworski

Hi,

Thank you for this very informative article. I’ve been tracking this trend of making use of old computers for some time. I recently bought myself a T420 Thinkpad, as it is the last model with a good keyboard.

A little correction could be made about Lenovo buying IBM. They did not buy the whole company, but only their PC business.

For anyone interested in learning more about Linux and Thinkpad computers, you can follow Luke Smith on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxA9Gyyu6Rg&list=PL-p5XmQHB_JTXtgMQrso154XILdHo8m4Q

And his summary on why old computers are better: https://lukesmith.xyz/articles/oldcomputer

Kris De Decker

Thanks Jan, corrected !

Tomas Härdin

Used municipal laptops and thrift store laptops are also an option

This is pretty much what a lot of us in Umeå Hackerspace do. I’ve gone so far as buying like five identical laptops whenever the municipal thrift store gets a new batch in. Usually they sell them for $90. Last time we picked some up they were Intel Core i5’s with 4 GiB of RAM, with enough slots for 8 GiB. More than enough to run Debian on.

One thing that might be useful to add to the article: old laptops make for decent servers - the battery is a built-in UPS! Most of them have enough regulation to where you can probably plug a solar panel straight into them. No charge controller or external battery needed!

damo

Great article Kris! Those old thinkpads are tanks :-) one note for anyone else reading, windows 10 will install for free on most old laptops if they had at least windows 7 on them. And windows 10 is lighter than previous OSs, although it does spy on you :-( could be an option for those who need windows software or don’t want to dabble in Linux, which although great, will have the occasional minor technical headache every now and then.

Sila Kami

Great article as always, Kris!

As for Linux Lite ending support for 32-bit computers in 2021, perhaps you could look into other OS outside of Linux. May I suggest OpenBSD? It’s dubbed by the most secure OS, while being minimal as well. It also supports many architectures, including 32-bit computers. Admittedly, it has a steep “learning curve,” because the graphical interface looks very much outdated, but it can be modified, of course, to look and feel more modern. I have it on my Thinkpad X200 (my main computer, btw), and it’s working great.

Harlan Lewis

Hi Kris,

I really appreciated your article on laptops. I will be following your advice as my 2015 Dell Inspiron enters its “old age.”

I just wanted to notify you of one small typo. In your section “Spare laptops” you talk about getting your laptop repaired in a tiny “IT shop run by a Chinese.” I think that it would sound a little more natural as “a Chinese man.” It’s just one of those quirks of the Anglos.

I discovered your website about three-four years ago, and it’s one of the most inspiring things on the internet. I really appreciate the research that you are doing.

Best,

Harlan

Marco Cogoni

Hi Kris,

I liked your article. I’ve got here a Thinkpad X24, but as you say, that’s becoming far too old. My favorite Thinkpad is a X200s with 4GB and an SSD, that machine is so good!

Since I do pretty heavy data analysis for work, my main activity is done on a T450s that I find good but less enjoyable than the X200s experience.

Just yesterday I found a very nice tiny PC (https://www.pcmag.com/reviews/lenovo-thinkcentre-m93p-tiny) for 50 euros from the UK. And you can go up to 32GB on that little one and even replace the CPU! When you think it’s cheaper than a Raspberry 4…

So, basically, yes! Even people with higher computational needs like me can follow the same route and be happier, spend much less and have a much lower impact on the environment.

regards, marco cogoni

ps: one day or another I have to convert to solar power my remote shared receiver http://sibamanna.duckdns.org:8073/

takuwan

Thank you for this inspiring article. Nowadays, we rarely discuss the need to either use very old hardware (that are still capable) or design computers like we did ten to fifteen years ago, with the energy efficiency of today.

Also, as you stated, a holistic approach is needed, encompassing both hardware and software. Especially on the Web, where some websites are so bloated that it is almost impossible to use them with very old computers (from my personal experience).

In my case, I use a Lenovo ThinkPad T400s (https://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Category:T400s) from 2009 as my main computer (mainly for programming). I have been using it for one year and got no problem so far, except for the battery that needed to be replaced for a new one (easy change, everything is upgradable). Of course, I could not carry on without a minimalist operating system, so I have also installed a GNU/Linux distribution that I customised to be as lean as possible (namely Parabola https://www.parabola.nu/). If the hardware does not fail on me, I think I could use it for another decade.

Finally, a hack that could get you even further with your current hardware would be to use software that are entirely command line-based (depending on your need, of course). I think this is the most efficient way to use computers, both in term of energy/resource usage and productivity (for tasks like writing, and dealing with text input in general). It requires some effort to learn but once done, it is very rewarding.

Robert

Hi Kris,

Thanks for your article. I’d like to add a few hints:

You can get a brand new keyboard for the T430 for less than 30€. It’s easy to replace, just a few screws.

There are reasons why laptops become slower over time. One important reason is the cooling system. If it becomes less efficient because the fan is clogged, the CPU needs to throttle down to prevent itself from overheating.

Disassembling the fan and cleaning it from dust is an essential procedure and might be necessary every few months, depending on how dusty your working environment is. Replacement fans might also be required after a while, but these are easily and cheaply obtainable for Thinkpads.

Furthermore, replacing the thermal paste between the CPU and the fan might be required every few years. It dries up and becomes less efficient. New thermal paste will set you back only a few €.

You already proposed to replace hard disk with SSDs. SSDs also wear down over time, and their speed decreases. I would suggest to use a tool like smartmontools to monitor the wear leveling of SSDs. If they come close to their end of life, their performance will decrease and you will risk loss of data, so it might be worth to replace it even before it finally fails.

Regards, Robert

Kris De Decker

I took out the part about the Chinese owned repair shop, cause it’s not having the effect that I was aiming for.

Some people seem to interpret my description as racist, while I wanted to express my awe for his repair qualities. I asked him how he was going to repair my 2006 laptop without access to spare parts. He said he would repair the fan by replacing the copper wire. I don’t see that happening in an official repair shop. And he did it overnight.

Leo

Great article Kris!

I am a happy owner of a Thinkpad X200 and I can confirm that the webcam (although low quality for today’s standards) is a nice to have compared with the X60. You could easily work around it using a cheap USB webcam if you don’t mind drugging around more cables and such.

I bought mine on a thrift store around 2014 and if I am not mistaken it is a model that started production on 2008. It still functions perfectly, I have one broken key but I am too lazy to look for replacement. I did a RAM memory upgrade and an SSD drive as you mention too.

The most important part probably is that I use it for my work, and I am a software developer. I do not want to upgrade for so many reasons besides ecology and anti-consumerism.

I feel that this old laptop helps me be better in what I do. When I write a piece of code that I feel that the program struggles or takes time to compute, I step back rethink what I did and refactor it. At most cases I optimize and write faster and better code precisely because of my “limited computing resources”.

LK

Hi Kris,

I super appreciate this article, and I was excited to read about your experiences. I’m on my first ever “old” laptop right now, which is not as old as yours, but still feels like a really good deal. After my recent RAM upgrade, I’m at about 350€ for a laptop that can handle all my everyday tasks flawlessly while running a hand full of VMs at the same time. I hadn’t thought about this in terms of sustainability yet, mainly because I didn’t know any of the numbers to compare, and I love learning about this aspect, too.

I’m excited about the possibilities of this line of thought, and I am inspired to start using my old MacBook again. It needs a new battery, but that would very much be worth the investment since I already put Linux on it and know that it runs marvelously.

However, I fell queasy at the way you reinforce racist stereotypes at two points in your article. I know you are trying to say that the quality of ThinkPads decreased after Lenovo took over. But you chose to word your criticism of this Chinese company in a certain way: “The Chinese don’t have a reputation for building quality products, but”, bringing it on a level where we are not thinking about the company, but about what “The Chinese” are like. You pick up on this later with a seemingly positive twist, where a Chinese person repairs your fan, and I think you’re trying to point out some kind of irony. I’m not sure how I feel bout that, but the wording you choose – “but they sure know how to fix things” – is certainly harmful stereotyping.

I hope this remark meets you in a way that you can meaningfully engage with, and it truly doesn’t mean that I’m less excited about the topic of this article and the experiences you share. Just, hoping that you give this issue some thought.

kris De Decker

@ LK

Thanks for your feedback. I changed the wording already, see my comment above.

Tim

Great article.

I’ve been using a late 2009 white unibody macbook since… Well, late 2009! I upgraded it with an ssd, took the malfunctionning optical drive out and installed the old HDD in its place, replaced the 2x2gb ram setup (that was the maximum when I bought it) by a 2x4… At some point the monitor started malfunctionning, I managed to fixed it for a while but when I really had no choice, I decided to try to replace it… And failed miserably (probably broke part of the connectics along the process). But I kept using that computer for several years non the less using the video output as I didn’t have a pressing need for an actual laptop.

Finally, earlier this year, I got the exact same (properly working) laptop for 100€. I swapted all the hardware upgrades from my old one and shazam : I now have a brand new fully working antiquity.

It runs smoothly with OsX 10.13.6. I mostly use it for internet browsing but I also mess around with some digital audio work using Studio One 3, various virtual drums and amp plugins… It’s showing signs of weakness there but it gets the job done. I just know that I won’t be able to upgrade any of the softwares I’m using but that’s not much of a problem as far as I’m concerned.

OsX support will stop eventually so I intend to find a linux distro that will work decently with apple hardware. I tryed a few but wasn’t very lucky so far : most of them seem to fail going to sleep/hybernate mode. That would not be much of a problem on a desktop computer but a laptop…

If anyone here solved that issue, tips and tricks are more than welcome!

Wim Minten

That was a great read.

Switching to Linux was a steep learning curve, but now running Mint Cinnamon for 6 years, very happy with it. I haven’t bought a new laptop since 2000; a friend send one over that was a refurbished HP Notebook which was 8 years old then, now 13; bought a backup one a few years ago, both running Linux now. No issues with old laptops. HP’s and IBM’s can be easily taken apart and serviced at home; a good clean of the fan can make a lot of difference.

I use a laptop mainly desktop-style, with a separate keyboard, mouse, monitor and USB webcam.

Just a few remarks regarding EMF/ EHS… Some people are sensitive to electro-magnetic fields. For them a separate keyboard and wired mouse can make a lot of difference; as does a power-supply that has an earth wire.

WIFI is one of the reasons of huge consumption of electricity by the mobile masts and to a lesser extend the routers.

Health wise WIFI is a bad option as well for a growing number of people. Wired Internet is a good option for low-tech low-energy consumption aspects. More speed, less electricity.

Wim, Lisbon

Lucas Huber

Hi kris,

Nice article. You should also mention https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fujitsu_Technology_Solutions notebooks.

The company formerly known as Fujitsu-Siemens builds quite solid notebooks and desktops for enterprise use. I did buy a very performant Lifebook for 400€, equipped with a new 256GB SSD disk. And I recommend using an external keyboard at home, if you like to avoid keyboard replacements.

Kostas

Hi Kris,

Are you aware of this open hardware and software DIY laptop from Olimex?

https://www.olimex.com/Products/DIY-Laptop/

Bruce Teakle

Hello Kris, thanks for your new essay - I always enjoy them. There are several important themes in your essay I’d like to comment on.

Probably the most important theme is that “money is energy”: I put it to you that the best way we have to measure embodied energy, and consequent emissions, of any activity is with the money cost. This is of course imperfect but I reckon it’s better than research-based measures because it avoids the assumptions and boundaries that plague so many assessments of embodied energy. I’ve written an essay making this argument: http://bruceteakle.blogspot.com/2019/07/

Understanding that money represents emissions shows we are barking up the wrong tree with the “electric car” vision of how to solve global warming. Reducing emissions means less consumption means being poorer - and hopefully adapting humanely and socially to this.

Another theme is regarding Chinese technical culture. I use and repair chainsaws a lot, and in the past I bought German chainsaws because of their quality. However now I’d never buy a German chainsaw because they have become so complex, and are so expensive to repair with genuine parts that replacement often appears a better option. There are now Chinese-made non-genuine parts for old German chainsaws, up to full copies of out-of-patent models (like with computers, I think there was a peak in design that we have now passed). These are cheap enough to support a culture of repair, so that a chainsaw can have an unlimited life. This approach might mean saws spend more time in the repair workshop, but greatly reduces the annual energy and money cost of producing timber and wood fuel for a community.

Jon

I love this post. I thrive on discarded computers! Linux on old Thinkpads, can’t beat it. Although I did acquire a random high-end Dell from 2013 for free, and Debian works great on it. You might use computers differently than I do, but I’ve been able to get about 10 years of life out of my laptops, or even more for my still-strong T420s from 2010.

Best,

Jon

u)

dear kris,

i just stumbled upon your article about using older (thinkpad, e.g. x60) laptops, and as i’m into the same thing, i thought i’d drop you a note.

in the article, you mention that you will have to switch to another model due to the x60 being 32 bit only. i’m using an x60 with ubuntu 20.04 (with gnome-session-flashback) though, which is 64 bit, so i have the good news that you might not have to switch so soon.

also, i’ve found that upgrading RAM to the maximum amount for the given thinkpad can increase performance as well. thinkwiki.org seems to be a good resource to look up how much ram each model can support and how RAM can be installed (very easy on most models, reasonably easy on all).

cheers, happy hacking,

u)

Randall Reade

Thank you! My laptop is failing, and I have been thinking of replacing it soon, but I don’t have that the money. I hate spending all that money when all I need is something for web browsing, email, streaming, zoom meetings and writing documents. This is a good alternative.

Friedrich Kegel

Hey Kris,

thanks a lot for your awesome article about the reuse of old laptops!

I come from the field of CAD/CAM/Industrial Design so it is a bit harder to go back in time that far for me. However I looked recently into replacing my Lenovo W520 2,2Ghz with 16Gb memory to a model twice as fast - that’s my purchase decision logic to not buy a new piece of hardware before there are models twice as fast.

The laptop I use is a second hand post-cooperate-life piece of hardware from 2014. Where its processor is now from 2011 - so good ten years old soon. Just since this year there are octacore models around at a base frequency of 2,3Ghz. So even if you are working at high and requirements it is possible to use your hardware for at least for 10 years before switching. Replacing the SSD recently with a newer model gave it a good 20% speed boost as mentioned earlier already the CPUs are rarely the slowest part of the system.

Aholistic Fellow

Hey Kris,

Love the website: lean, clean and mean with great articles.

2013 Dell E6430 Latitude with 8Gb memory, 64 bit I7-3540m CPU, 320Gb HDD $130 U.S. in November 2019 runs Windows10 Pro easily.

Corporate and government fleet retirements happen constantly and auction to refurbishers for next to nothing.

The Wuhan death flu has increased the demand for laptops in America and has nearly tripled this price. Crybabies are always trying to run and ruin the world, don’t think that you have written anything that is in the least bit offensive about China or Chinese people. I gave up trying to save the world, I’m just trying to save a buck.

Greg Melton

Great article as always. Having been a GNU/Linux user for many years, I have come to appreciate their ability to function nicely on older machines. My oldest is a Toshiba Portege from 1999 which I still use even today. One of the previous comments suggested working from the command line or text based applications which, in addition to a significant reduction in energy consumption, also can breath new life into very old machines. Admittedly, there is a bit of a learning curve, but well worth the effort imo.

Alexander Bejarano

no need to bu. Debian and debian based (antix, mx linux) still support 32 bit machines

kris de decker

@ takuwan (#8)

Finally, a hack that could get you even further with your current hardware would be to use software that are entirely command line-based (depending on your need, of course).”

Yes, that is something that I am eager to try, although it will take time. When I was a kid, the command line was the only way to operate a computer.

@ Leo (#11)

I feel that this old laptop helps me be better in what I do. When I write a piece of code that I feel that the program struggles or takes time to compute, I step back rethink what I did and refactor it. At most cases I optimize and write faster and better code precisely because of my “limited computing resources”.”

I think this is very important.

@ Kostas (#18)

I had come across that Olimex laptop but then forget about it. Thanks for reminding me. This is indeed how new laptops could be like. And this one costs little more than a good used machine.

Thomas Léveillé

Dear Kris,

I have also stopped buying new laptops in order to not create more waste than needed. I found out the “enterprise” lines of laptops (touchpad for Lenovo, elitebook for HP) tend to last more and are more easily repaired/upgraded than others. You can also find them easily through specialized resellers that buy out old hardware from enterprises.

On the subject of i386 support, you might want to have a look at netbsd and openbsd which afaik don’t have any timeline to end i386 support. They also tend to be very light and you should find yourself easily at home coming from a linux OS.

Last but not least, privileging cli apps is indeed a good way to save computentionnal power and ram usagr. Out of necessity as a broken student I had to extend the life of an old pentium 100 for a very long time, using cli tools for anything but web browsing at the time. While web browsing can be a bit crude without images, you don’t really need gui to listen to music, move/upload files or sending messages for example.

Best regards, Thomas Léveillé

Michal

Hi Kris,

Translator of the Polish LTM edition here. I must proudly admit that all Polish translations are written on the 8 years old secondhand 11” ASUS netbook, which have been already repaired twice, and last month I almost burned it on an electric oven. I hope it will last couple more years. Maybe, after the death of my netbook I will buy e-ink tablet + keyboard, because I would love to have eye-friendly energy saving computer.

Kris, your article it’s a piece of the puzzle in a story of failure of the 70’s appropriate technologies movement I’m trying to reconstruct.

Conservation and low-tech are most cost-effective (and fastest in a short term) methods to lower our impact on the environment, cut CO2 emissions and save resources for next generations. But because low-tech doesn’t require massive investment, it won’t ramp-up the economy and grow GDP. Every other solution that you can sell (important word) to governments as a method of “green transformation” boosting economy growth will look much more promising for policy makers. That’s why last week EU accepted new budget with massive spending on “green” high-tech admitting that it will cost a fortune and take decades to accomplish, but money will flow like a river and economy will grow!

I’m starting to realize that in this world, where progress is a founding myth and GDP is god, only capital intensive solutions, that grow GDP and can be a subsidy-dumpsters, are accepted. Because of that I think that LTM approach will remain as a marginal movement, and we need to wait for the decline of the “European Green Deal”. I think appropriate tech and low-tech will regain its momentum in about 20-30 years when diminishing returns of the high-tech renewables will go into negative returns.

These are my thoughts from last couple of days, but I’m still ruminating on the subject. What do You think Kris?

Emilio Ruiz

HI, i read your article about stopped buying laptops, i agree, instead i have two X60s IBM laptop like you.

/cvideo.sh podcast29/tsotsil/chiapasparalelo-podcast-29-tsotsil-rebrote-de-covid-solo-en-2-de-cada-10-municipios.wav

I wrote for another advice, buy a usb wifi adapter, the heat of your laptop decrese a lot. I use Chrunchbang plus linux distribution, and for make document use vim with markdown syntax and convert with pandoc software for word, pdf or others formats.

For edit audio (podcast) or video i use ffmpeg from command line. Share a screenshot of my web browser (lynx) for read your website, and how use command line for write this mail (with mutt).

Thanks for share and sorry for my awful englis.

Best Regards. Emilio Ruiz

kris de decker

Hi Michal (#29),

That’s good to hear. Today I also learned that part of the French translations are made on a Thinkpad X200.

Let me first thank you for translating so many articles to Polish https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/pl/

I think your observation is correct. Many environmentalists changed tactics from the late 1990s onwards, buying into the idea that sustainability and economic growth can be combined. They will wake up one day, but yes, I’m afraid it’s not going to happen tomorrow.

For example, in Belgium, the green party was founded in 1979 under the name “Anders gaan leven” or “Let’s live differently”. In 2003, they changed their name to “groen!” or “green!” and completely changed course. There was suddenly no more need to “live differently” because “green” technology would solve all problems. I remember around 2005 they were heavily promoting biofuels for cars, which quickly became a disaster, while earlier on they had argued against the car.

It’s one of the main reasons why I started Low-tech Magazine in 2007.

Hugh Owens

Great Post Kris. My son works for Dell and he has helped me over the years to find good used laptops and desktops. They are all working and have needed upgrades and repairs from time to time but I have done all the repairs. They are all Dells of course. I could write a similar article on Cars. The last new car I bought was 1990 and I have only bought 3 new cars in my life. The first in 1971. There are some models that are cheaply repairable(like my 2001 corolla with 300K miles) and some that are durable, repairable and almost indestructible if just minimally maintained like my 3 W123 mercedes diesels, also with nearly 300K miles. I also have tractors from the 60’s and 70’s which still run fine. Most older cars esp from the 60’s on were junk as well as most of the new models which are just expensive unrepairable potential junk.

max

Hi Kris,

I’m looking forward to January, where the MNT Reform2 will be shipping https://mntmn.com/ . The initial cost of ~1500 € are quite high and the specs are not that mindblowing, but during 2021 there will be an CPU and RAM update with an dual-core Cortex-A72 with 8 GB or 16 GB RAM. But beside the specs, this computer is fully open source and well documented. It is easy to replace batterys or anything else, it is build that way that you can take it apart.

Greetings

Mathew

I love your strategy.

One of my favorite computer accessories is my Alphasmart Neo portable word processor. I got it for $35 on ebay and it runs for 500 hours on three rechargeable AA nicad batteries.

It’s 5-line dot matrix display works in bright sunlight. While it isn’t great for revising, I like using it when I need to concentrate on writing.

It also functions as a USB keyboard, and that’s how you transfer text— it just rapidly “types” your file into the computer. I will often travel with only the Alphasmart and my phone, as with a USB-OTG converter it works with phones and tablets, where I can do revision etc.

Mine was manufactured in 2005. I’ve owned it for nine years and the only maintenance was replacing the internal backup battery once.

Robert

Hi Kris,

Nice post and very interesting website. Discovered you yesterday via the sidebar at peaksurfer.blogspot.com.

On the topic of keeping the pre-Lenovo ThinkPads alive, you may want to make note of the 51nb ThinkPad modernization project led by some enthusiasts in Hong Kong/China (Shenzhen probably):

https://www.reddit.com/r/thinkpad/comments/bcr4ba/hk_51nb_x330_interest_checkgroup_buy/

I haven’t looked into this much myself beyond making note of the thread above, but the general idea seems to be that this team has found a way to manufacture limited runs of custom motherboards designed with the latest generation of hardware components that nonetheless still fit into the chassis of certain X200-series ThinkPads (think I saw something similar somewhere with T400-series also, but can’t remember for sure). The modernized motherboards attempt to include not only upgraded CPU/GPU/RAM combinations but also the more recent interfaces (USB 3.0/3.1, wifi 802.11ac, etc) and provision for higher resolution screens. For those of us who are developers or power users and really do need to be able to keep up with the latest software trends, obtaining one of these units seems like a good compromise between making do with the limitations of older models and being forced to choose among the smorgasbord of internally up-to-date but otherwise unsatisfactory options from seemingly all manufacturers in the last several years, all of which were clearly put together with planned obsolescence in mind.

Also relevant to anyone looking for used ThinkPads from at or just after the end of the IBM era:

https://www.bobble.tech/free-stuff/used-thinkpad-buyers-guide

…and for expert commentary on MacBook laptop repairs and discussion of the dismal state of things generally, see Louis Rossmann’s channel on Youtube.

We need another economical model, in which we build all laptops like pre-2011 Thinkpads” — without a doubt. Unfortunately, if you look at the situation from the point of view of manufacturers and corporate interests fully invested in the current system where profit is the only real motive, there is no incentive whatsoever to build durable, long-lasting products. (There does seem to be a gap in the market for this, however, that a sufficiently determined and knowledgeable group of entrepeneurs might be able to pursue, much like this team at 51nb.)

Very interesting site overall. Will continue to look through as time permits.

Rob Z.

Peter

Hi I love your website, so many great articles!

I just wondered if you also compared the environmental improvements you have made using and repairing older laptops VS doing the same but with desktops? As these are very modular and parts can be mixed and matched across different makes and models. Basically the only limiting factor is what the motherboard accepts for RAM and CPU socket. But even if that becomes a issue the motherboard itself can be upgraded together with ram and CPU leaving the rest of the machine alone. The case, fans, power supply, screen, keyboard and mouse might never have to be replaced while a new laptop always discards these parts when one buys another (new to you) one. This is why I favour a desktop for home use and it might not be practical for someone who travels a lot. What are your thoughts on this?

Kind regards and thanks again for the great website,

Peter

Erich

Hello Kris,

thank you for this wonderful article!

There are companies leasing computer stuff to businesses. I know at least one of them to sell their returns for very affordable prices: => https://notebookheaven.de/

I’m sure others do this as well. The machines they sell are probably 3 to 5 years old, and business class, durable systems.

I am a happy user of second hand Dell Latitude laptops. I originally looked at Lenovo Thinkpads, too, but 20 seconds on a keyboard made me decide against them. Disclosure: I’m using keyboards with mechanical switches all day long.

Happy New Year!

Cheers, Erich

Benyamin Limanto

Hello. Seems you really enjoy writing on X60S. I just curious, how long the battery last on that machine? 4-5 hours? Or only 2 hours? Do you need to plug in and bring your charger everywhere you go?

I also use a very old laptop from 2011. Asus A43SV. But seems I overdo it. I collect that I spend about 1500 USD on it for almost 9 years, Start from changing CPU, upgrading ram, adding ssd and HDD, etc etc. Seems it’s cost too much.

I don’t know whether it’s good or not but the machine is perfectly fine til now, an as my daily driver everywhere I go.

Kostas

To Michal(#29) and Kris:

One of the best evidence I have found on the topic of debunking the green growth myth is the following report: https://eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked/

It could be potential food for thought for an upcoming article of LTM.

Nels

inspiring!

Michael Ian Gray

I see you have the same idea as I had. I am running a Thinkpad T400 from 2009, the only thing I did was swap to an SSD simply because spinning hard disks are essentially ticking time bombs for reliability. They aren’t a case of if they will mechanically fail but a case of when. This laptop is a solid work horse, that is when I do eventually use it, as my internet use has been declining with time as the internet becomes more costly to access and less functional. It is a great writing machine and is running on Trisquel GNU/Linux because it is light weight and 100% Libre software!

With that said, this article is actually a good example of a large essay/potential book I have been working on for the past 6 monrth. That is that the information technology we are using to today, while very useful, is also very fragile. That the massive wave of progress in terms of functionality and performance was a one time deal from the last big blow off of the petroleum age and that it should not be taken for granted.

The fact is that computer performance per dollar has pretty much plateaued for the last decade - at least compared with the performance increases of the earlier decades. Remember that in the late 90’s there was this general annoyance that computers were basically obsolete the day they came out. This was because performance increases were happening so rapidly that the time to market was enough to see the new machines on the shelf as already being behind what had been announced. The performance of processors between the start and end of 1998 was an increase of 108%! To get that kind of performance increase going back from 2020, you have to go back to 2013! That is a massive shift and it is going to be a defining feature of future computers. This pace of slow down is only increasing as we are hitting the fundamental limits of physics and the universe. There is still some movement for future performance increases but they will be minor at best.

The recent Apple M1 processor was something I saw coming between 2018-2025, that is a highly customized processor with lots of ASIC functions (Application Specific Integrated Circuits). In terms of end user performance, it may be the last big leap we will see in computer performance in our life times, provided there is no giant innovation that we have not foreseen. I suspect there will be almost no ground made in the 2030’s - and don’t even start me on quantum computers, they will probably never be useful in the home.

I would argue that any laptop purchased today should, terms of performance, be enough for decades to come provided the software providers keep supporting it or there is no DRM/”security” features to lock out future software upgrades. That is the crux of the problem however. These machines will be locked down more and more and made into appliances simply so that folks have to keep buying the newest models. Again, look to Apples new laptops and desktops, everything is soldered in place so that you are forced into their obsolescence model. This is the grim future of computing we will face. One in which you either have to pay to have continued access or be using older/lower performant machines (think Raspberry Pi) so that you can use things beyond the designated kill date.

Gaia Baracetti

As an added bonus, if laptops become more repairable and more people want them repaired, but lack the technical knowledge to do it themselves, then local, creative jobs could be created in that sector that would replace faraway, resource-intensive, boring industrial jobs in manufacturing. Income would be redistributed as it takes less capital investment to set up a repair business as opposed to a factory. Also, repair shops do not need a lot of space to operate and can contribute to re-enlivening urban neighborhoods.

Would you consider writing something like this about cellphones? I don’t like smartphones, I do not want one for many reasons, and I really like keyboards and loathe touch screens. And yet, it’s almost impossibile to find new cellphones with qwerty keyboards - so much for the consumer is king. I buy them used and try to make them last, but how long can this continue if no one is making them anymore?

Thank you for your work.

Fabian Michael

I’m working as a web designer/developer, graphic designer and illustrator for a living and these are my thoughts on using old/linux computers for my field of work:

In terms of hardware specs, most modern computers should be sufficient for most design work. When I started out around 2007, our university had an expensive Mac Pro workstation at every desk for running commercial design software from Adobe. But even around that time, most of us where just using our notebooks for design work. Last time I visited (a few years ago), the big workstations have been replaced with Mac mini systems and where probably running fine.

However, when it comes to graphic and web/app design, commercial systems like Windows and especially macOS have a much greater catalogue of available software. Most of my agency clients use Adobe software for everything. Unfortunately, a lot of Adobe’s products are quite slow and thus need more computing power and hardware upgrades, than some of their competitors. Even in the world of commercial software, there are way more optimised alternatives, such as the Affinity design apps.

For some industries like desktop-publishing, there are only very few alternatives, and because Adobe basically has a monopoly in this field with InDesign, you are forced to work with it, as long as you want to work with others (e.g. publishing companies usually expect to get an InDesign template from you).

For photo editing (development of RAW files), you need a lot of computing power, if things should work out fluid. On my 2013 MacBook Pro, it feels very painful in most applications, no matter whether they’re commercial or open source. On my 2015 iMac, most of these run a bit better, but Adobe Lightroom Classic (probably the most popular choice among professional photographers) is very very slow. The only app I found that really applies changes instantly without a second of delay or so, was Affinity Photo. Darktable does not run very fast on Mac, but much better in Linux. But in this case, it’s about software optimisation as about the algorithms used for developing the final image. For this purpose, a newer computer (= one that is newer than the camera you are using) can really make a difference. Having something with a least 8 cores will make your edits fly.

For digital painting, it’s a similar story: When working with a digital stylus on a tablet/monitor, you want a little delay as possible until your brush strokes appear on screen and thus a somewhat powerful computer for your drawing to feel natural. But the requirements are far lower, than for RAW photo processing.

The main issue with using Linux as a designer is the very limited software catalogue. I’ll assume, that a lot of designers are using Mac computers (at least the ones I know). And because of that, a wide selection of commercial software is available for that platform. Most libre apps are available, but are barely optimised and often don’t run very fast or stable. This makes the switch to Linux much harder than from Windows, because using software like darktable, Scribus and Inkscape is currently less enjoyable on Mac. Switching to Linux also means that one basically has to leave almost every piece of software behind, that one used before. Learning everything new at once can feel overwhelming at best and devastating at worst.

This becomes even more annoying, as newer Apple computers are hardly repairable. And don’t forget, that many graphic designers are not tech-savvy people like us. I have some hope, as the development of apps like krita and Inkscape has gained a lot of momentum over the last years. One of the most (but understaffed) projects is probably the most important piece here: Scribus. It’s basically the only choice for designing complex print publications on Linux and I don’t see any other competitor popping up soon. One thing that is completely missing on Linux is a decent application for UI/web design. There has been a crowd-funding attempt for a software called “Akira”, but it had missed its funding goal. The only well-suited application on Linux is Figma (SaaS/cloud based), which produces a lot of online traffic.

It still depends on what you want to achieve – graphic design is a wide field with many different requirements. The situation is getting better on Linux, but the overall experience is years behind commercial products in many ways (usage of hardware acceleration, UI design etc.). That doesn’t mean, that things don’t work out on Linux. A posterchild example of what can be achieved is the work of David Revoy (https://www.davidrevoy.com/) and his crowd-funded Pepper & Carrot comics (https://www.peppercarrot.com/). He only uses open source tools and has managed everything from drawing to book production by just using FOSS tools and most of the time rather old hardware. He gives a lot of insights in his personal blog, which is definitely worth a visit, if you are interested in doing design on Linux/old computers.

Mark

Hello Kris,

You might enjoy this picture:

https://imgur.com/a/3WwKdiv

This is what we use at https://fosdem.org for mixing video input from our conference. Used Lenovo x2*0 machines running Debian GNU/Linux. Our infodesks too run these, for the same reasons. We buy them before the conference and get rid of them after.

Our reasons are like yours. Less costly. Builtin UPS. Energy efficient. Easier on the environment.

You’ll find lots of very interesting people at https://fosdem.org . The creators of the Olimex board you run your solar setup on for example are usually there.

The upcoming edition will be virtual for obvious reasons. You might want to drop by…

Kind regards,

Mark

P.S. Several second hand x2*0’s around here at home: - personal laptop: 2011 x220 with ssd upgrade - significant other’s laptop: x240 with ssd upgrade - file server: x230 with broken hinge - backup server: x220 with broken wifi

Siem De Cleyn

Love the article!

Since the first lockdown, my dad is collecting old laptops that people donate for free. He lets them run on Linux and sometimes replaces some parts. The laptops are meant for people in poverty who need one to follow online classes. He was recently interviewed for the data-section of Knack magazine: https://datanews.knack.be/ict/nieuws/oude-laptops-krijgen-tweede-leven-voor-anderstaligen/article-news-1679359.html

It’s unbelievable to see the amount of elektronics with top specs (ssd’s, top processors, gigabites of RAM…) that people collected and have lying around in their house, unused. Often because they think their might be still something on they wanted to keep, or they don’t know how to properly remove all data.

It might be interesting to look into the how, what, why and opportunities of this collection of electronics.

Vik

…and then if you’re more savvy, you can build your OWN laptop with one of the up and coming SBCs like the raspberry pi. I’m writing from a Pi400 (a 4gb ram pi4 built into a keyboard), bought a 22” monitor, a monitor stand and an ikea rolly-nightstand thingy (where the whole setup lives) all for about 250 pounds running Twister OS and so far, very happy with my “desktop computer”.

The Pi4 boards are fully capable (especially the 8Gb) with a tailored OS like the Twister or the Ubuntu Mate.

Dr. t

Hindsight > had you ponied up for the Powerbook G3 [Pismo version then] rather than the cute cheap iBook, you would still be using it today. The last notebook designed before S. Jobs.v.2, it had all the ports, so your SD card innovation would work, as well as the simplified Linux, if you did not want to stay with OSX10.4.11 [the most stable OSX ver.]. I have 2 that still are relevant with the TenFourFox browser.

Contemplating the Linux switch myself.

Best, Dr. t

Zack Schindler

One thing that you can do to keep your laptop and other electronic devices working is to clean them with compressed air. Just get a can of compressed air and shoot it into air intakes/outtakes. You might be shocked at how much dust comes out when you do this. Cleaning with compressed air helps cooling a lot as heat is one of the biggest reasons that electronic components fail.

Pedro Santos

I never bought a laptop. All were given to me, used, by family or friends, because they bought newer ones and/or had no use for them and/or couldn’t get them fixed. There are tons of instructions online to DIY repairs and I have fixed a lot of bugs and malfunctions with the help of Youtube - I’m no technician.

This laptop I’m using to write this is at least 13 years old. It has been unused and stuck in a malfunction for 3 years because I was given another used one and delayed fixing it. My brother told me several times to forget it because it is old and the repair is not worth it, but I managed to find the solution to the problem online after deeply searching, got the hardware repaired by a technician and recovered the system by myself. It has a key cap missing but I can type that character anyway, some keys stopped working but I will fix them someday, the built-in speakers are crackling, the battery has little autonomy (20 minutes) but I don’t need it, and the charger had to be replaced last summer. All repairs were around 60€ until now, which means less than 5€/year.

I cannot play high demanding games or use the latest versions of heavy software, but it does what I need it for and is the best one I ever had along with a MackBook2.1.

I have several other laptops with malfunctions that I am solving little by little. Some require technician or hardware investment, which I will delay until it is useful and/or affordable. Along with keeping them for a backup in case this one stops working, I intend to lend some of them to make viable online tutoring, being it paid or charity.

I get disgusted when I think of all the good equipment people have at home dismissed that could easily be repaired and even more when I think of what is the destiny of good equipment thrown out of public services when they renovate just because they have a budget to do so.

I have found this link I suppose it might be interesting for your readers: https://www.komando.com/tech-tips/ways-to-get-a-free-laptop/764564/

Keep up with the great articles. Pedro Santos

Pedro Santos

I forgot to mention the charger and battery repair.

I have several non-working chargers, one of them “universal”, that every store and technician refuses to repair, although I have seen people on Youtube repairing them. The problem might be just a fuse or capacitor, but everyone tries to sell you new chargers. I have not tried to repair them myself because of lack of knowledge and I am aware of the danger of explosion if something goes wrong, but I still hope I can find someone that knows what they are doing and help me with avoidable landfill destiny. An article on solutions to this would be great.

I have also seen people on Youtube replacing the small components of the interior of the batteries, which seem to be small batteries themselves. This avoids having to find batteries for a specific brand and model, which will be increasingly rare the older the laptop gets, besides the costs and the partial avoidable discard of the object. This also involves a certain risk, hence the need to know what we are doing.

Pedro Santos

VK

Hello,

I’m interested to try out the “magical SD-card” trick myself but I was having a few technical questions on how you personally use it.

Obviously, you use it to store personal documents, pictures, videos, WIP projects and maybe ebooks and so on but I was wondering, what about configuration files/dotfiles (like .bashrc, .vimrc, etc.)? Do you exclusively store them on the SD card too? Do your programs automatically fall back to default configuration settings whenever the SD card isn’t mounted?

What about (frequently used) programs and executable binaries? Do they get stored in the SD card too? What line of reasoning do you follow to decide whether a given file should be stored in the computer’s storage and what should go into your SD card?

Also, you say in your article that “[your] spare laptop does not have [a solid-state drive] and it can be slow when browsing heavy-weight websites. However, thanks to the SD-card, opening a map or document happens almost instantly”. I see how it can help for files that are read from the SD card’s storage but I don’t quite understand how would a SD card help with browsing heavy-weight websites?

Lastly, what made you choose tiny (and thus more likely to be lost) SD cards over USB keys?

VK

Dan

VK Some help for you. He is using a SSD and an SD. The SSD is his main drive, its a very fast drive, much faster than standard laptops of the time. The SD card, is a little memory card, much slower than SSD.

The more S the faster, lol :)

SO basically he had to reinstall his whole computer to get the SSD to work. You start from scratch.

The SD CARD, it’s like a smaller version of a flash disk drive. Or thumb drive. They are very slow.

You shouldn’t have to save files to SD card, as long as you buy a big enough SSD.

kris de decker

Thanks, Dan

@ VK Indeed I use the SD-card only to store documents, such as texts and images. The operating system and the software I use are all on the SSD main drive, which has taken the place of the original hard drive.

An SD-card is indeed very small, but the advantage over a USB key is that it fits inside the laptop. A USB key hangs on the laptop, which is inconvenient and makes it vulnerable. I have never lost my SD-card cause I usually only take it out to immediately put it in another laptop.

Jose Amador Silva

Hey,

Great article on the reuse of old laptops and increasing their life cycles in a manner consistent with one’s actual needs.

I did this for many years with two Asus laptops: a W5A and a EeePC701SD. Both I bought cheap, for a total of $200. I tweaked them to run AntiX Linux and the smaller netbook eventually ran Tiny Core Linux (by far my favorite disto).

I ended up gifting them to friends who needed laptops for writing. They both worked flawlessly (minus the battery charge). The reason why I had to upgrade: my online college revamped their website and portal, sucking up even more resources from my machines as to make them obsolete. Nothing about the change increased my educational experience. It was just a more memory and cpu intensive way of showing text. Theoretically, any modern university could be run on a BBS tweaked for security, email, and a method of videoconferencing similar to running a net meeting session. Audio and Video presentations can be done in a downloads folder, just as homework could be submitted using an upload student folder.

So now I have a brand new low end Dell laptop. My internet is slower because it forces me constantly to update without my consent. My experience is worsened by the technology.

In retaliation against this, I bought myself an old TRS-80 Model 100! It runs on AA batteries that last for a ridiculously long time. I plan on mastering this old tech and putting it to good use.

Johan

Hello Kris,

Thanks for your great and Informative article!

My desktop from 2011 Which is a 2nd gen i7 with 16GB of RAM is still going strong. So not really in need of an upgrade

My hobby is to tinker and play with (old) computers. My oldest home computer that I have is a Commodore 64. Followed by the Amiga 500 which has a color palette of 4096 colors. Impressive for 1985’s standards! Both are in a working condition.

So they will work for a long time if you give proper care to them and also if they can be repaired easily. Did you know that you even can buy brand new parts for Amiga systems for example? Such as brand new power supplies, accelerator cards, and Floppy drive emulators and other upgrades. In theory, you can run them for 500 years if you want to :-)

There is a store in Spain that sells such items: https://amigastore.eu/

Keep up the good work!

Dylan

Thanks for a detailed explanation of how you’ve breathed life into some old laptops! I loved the old Thinkpads and have one lying around unused that I may try this with.

One pandemic related question: In the last year, I have become quite dependent on Zoom as it is the primary communications tool used for meetings in my industry (Silicon Valley tech). Can you run Zoom on this setup?

Dylan.

jagadees

Hi, My question is why we have to use laptops? I started using computers from 1995. But till now I dont have laptop computer. I use desktop computers. Here are the reasons why i dont use laptops.

https://neritam.wordpress.com/2019/04/17/why-i-am-not-using-laptop-computer/

regards, jagadees India.

Danno

My brother and I are big fans of resurrecting old hardware, although laptops can be quite a bit more finicky to wrench on, than PCs. That said, I bought a new Pinebook Pro recently. My Kill-A-Watt meter reports, at times, that it consumes zero watts of power, 13 watts at full chat. Power consumption is important, even more so when you are making your own power. Plus, moving to Arm & Linux, from x86 & Windows (the most prominent combo in the laptop market segment), is important, to some.

IMO, if you buy new, with the intention of keeping it until it utterly cannot be used any more, that is as responsible as buying used and milking the last bit life from the device. Either way, you’re using it up entirely.

On a side note, there are still Linux distros supporting 32 bits. Slackware comes to mind. There are several superlight desktop environments to choose from, even the TWM, if you must have the absolute lightest. I seem to recall using Fluxbox on a TP560 (P1-100MHz) fed by a pair of CF cards on a PATA converter, for a number of years.

Good article, thanks for the read this morning. I find people believe they have to buy new, when something goes bad on their laptop. Few even consider laptops as “fixable”.

Isla

Great article! Am reading this on an inherited Asus X551C, pepped up with a small SSD and Cloudready - a version of Chromium OS for X86 machines.

Tom

Good and informative read, as always. One thing though that I’m wondering about is that “3,010 to 4,340 megajoules” figure, which seems… low?

Unless I’m completely wrong, 3600 MJ is a kilowatt-hour. That’s something like 100ml of gasoline, or enough energy to drive 2km in a smallish car. Or to run a fridge for a few hours. It’s certainly less than the energy to heat a single tank of hot water.

Of course, all of the above things are hugely inefficient and wasteful designs. Modern society is full of those, but with that figure for the embodied energy of a laptop, it would seem like even a yearly laptop upgrade’d be an insignificant part of one’s energy use.

Now, I’m all full of cognitive dissonance, because I know for a fact that e-waste is a major issue, and I’ve been going to great lengths to fight obsolescence, planned or otherwise, when it comes to the things I own. I’ve been doing that mainly for environmental reasons, but that number makes me wonder if I’ve been fighting the wrong battles.

So, what gives?

Francesco

Hello, I fully agree with your choice. My last upgrade in 2018 was a T440p coming from a T530, bought for slightly more than 100 gbp, as I was looking for something more portable. I reused ssd and ram, but upgraded the cpu and the lcd panel with an IPS screen. Replacement batteries are cheap too. I use linux but this can run very decently a win10 virtual machine when needed. Haswell (Intel Gen4) cpus are still very relevant in terms of instruction compatibility lacking only AVX-512, introduced in the mainstream only with Ice Lake (Intel Gen10). Still future proof, even with closed source.

LaserLars

About the “Linux-Hassle”:

Since Linux Mint has made huge progress in 2020 I decided to take the leap of faith and give up my old Win7 OS.

In short: I never looked back.

Easy Setup (yes, really!), lightning fast, full multimedia support out of the box, great office software preinstalled, sexy modern look and good support for most windows programs (yes, really!).

Plus the classic benefits of Linux: No viruses, no NSA backdoors, no secret installations, no internet explorer ;-)

I’d like to encourage everyone to search on youtube about Linux Mint and see for yourself!

factran

With my old desktop PC, which does not have a webcam, I use the android app droidcam to use the webcam of my phone…

It would work if you have a phone with a webcam!

Piotr M.

Hello Kris,

Thanks a lot for this wonderful article about not buying new laptops. Your research is great as always, I really admire your work.

I used to work on a second-hand ThinkPad T42 several years ago and enjoyed it a lot, but its Pentium M CPU was too slow for Java development that I do daily and I had to move to something “modern”. (Dell Latitude E5440 I’ve bought in 2014 to replace it is serving me to this day. I only replaced its battery last month.)

Since I understand how important it is to keep the hardware we have working, I’d like to recommend another approach. I wouldn’t like it to sound like “geeksplaining”. I’m writing it with the hope of being helpful.

As you are already familiar with Linux, you may wish to give BSD family of operating systems a try. In particular, NetBSD (http://netbsd.org/) is very portable and as far as I know, one of the project’s goals is to support older hardware as long as possible. According to the NetBSD/i386 website (http://wiki.netbsd.org/ports/i386/):

Any i486 or better CPU should work”

So maybe that could be an option for you, as opposed to buying a 64-bit computer.

I’ve been using FreeBSD (NetBSD’s sibling) for almost a decade now (can’t recall when I started using it) and the only downside I’ve found is that it isn’t as popular, so sometimes finding a solution to one’s problem takes more time than it would on Linux (which has got much better support from tech giants, including hardware vendors). However, these systems are very well documented and are so much simpler to operate that I wouldn’t like going back to Linux now.

Then, there is one more point I’d like to just mention here, maybe starting a discussion (or maybe not).

In the “Don’t take it too far” section you mention that old devices may not have wireless connection. But just like we should consider “keeping some lights on”, we could also consider keeping internet connections sometimes on. I assume that would not be a new thought to you, but I somehow felt it’s good to mention it.

Thank you again very much for your great work. It keeps inspiring me and I’ve already changed some of my habits thanks to articles I’ve read on LTM.

Best regards, Piotr M.

Thomas M. Beaudry

I would like to point you to OpenBSD as another reader has done. However… OpenBSD is now the easiest to install and get working. Since v6.5 I have always had a working system from the first boot. The native WM is FVWM. Although old school, it works fine and uses very little memory or CPU cycles. For those who prefer a tiling WM (as I do), CWM is included in the base install. All it takes is a .xsession file in your home directory containing one line: exec cwm. Again, very little memory or CPU cycles.

One further reason to consider OpenBSD: the developers eat their dog food and ThinkPads seem to be the platform of choice with them. Even if that should change in the future, the project leader swears by them and vows to continue using a ThinkPad for the forseeable future. If Theo uses it, you know it will be supported. It was my reason for picking up a ThinkPad and as I said: Everything works at first boot…

Teo

Terrific article and comments. Running Mint 20 Mate on a Dell Inspiron 1545 (2008).120GB SSD 4GB mem Stuck a USB TP-Link in for faster wifi. Losing some screen. Syncthing and scheduled rsync.

No one ever mentions this but I find that I think differently whether I am using a Mac, Windows 10, Windows XP (in a VM), various Gnu/Linux versions.

Old laptop screens can be adapted to RPIs.

Jordi

Hello Kris.

Just to add some relevant information. You can upgrade the batteries with new 18650 cells when they start to give out.

I enjoy a Thinkpad X230 (My Keyboard did not have any issues, like other people say, maybe you could purchase a replacement (?)) and I am planning on changing the cells inside my battery soon. It’s a cheap upgrade, one needs a bit of technical knowledge, maybe your chinese repairshop can do it for you.

There is an article on hackaday explaining it. You need to short a conexion to reset the charger controller, easy to do.

And yeah, these old machines are great, the modern ones too, problem is, they have stopped having external batteries so i think i will be limited to purchase T470s wich are the last ones with a external batt.

Also, if you want to geek out a bit more, there is this chinese site. 51nb, wich does full mods of old thinkpads and puts new efficient CPUs and motherboards on them, plus modern screens.

jonas

Great article again! I’m on my 4th laptop now in about 12 years and probably spent around 3000 Euro. I went from IBM Thinkpad T41p to Samsung NC10 (netbook) to Macbook Pro 2012 to now a Dell convertible 9575. I always bought them second hand as it gives me more value for the price and it’s nice to give these computers a longer life. Just had minor problems with a failed fan and cracked case(Thinkpad) and a broken charger wire (Macbook). Every purchase though felt like a compromise to the ideal laptop that I was looking for, in terms of features, durabilty or longivity. A very interesting and promising project that i found is the Framework laptop. It’s designed with a modular approach, to be easily serviceable and upgradeable.

It’s not released yet but the specs are very much up-to-date and it features a good full HD webcam which is quite exciting.

https://frame.work/


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  2. International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). https://www.irena.org/solar 

  3. André, Hampus, Maria Ljunggren Söderman, and Anders Nordelöf. “Resource and environmental impacts of using second-hand laptop computers: A case study of commercial reuse.” Waste Management 88 (2019): 268-279. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0956053X19301825 

  4. Bihouix, Philippe. The Age of Low Tech: Towards a Technologically Sustainable Civilization. Policy Press, 2020. https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/the-age-of-low-tech 

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  6. Lenovo took over IBM’s PC business in 2005 and so strictly speaking I bought a Lenovo Thinkpad X60s. However, the hardware had not changed yet, and the laptop only carries the new brand name along that of IBM. My spare laptop, an almost identical model from the same year (X60 instead of X60s), has no reference to Lenovo whatsoever. 

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