How to Buy a Laptop and Salvage a DesktopThis is a two-part post of intimately related events:

  • Beating a dead horse. (Or: When will I learn?)
  • Salvaging an XP desktop for donation.

The first part: While I do enjoy working with my clients, every now and then, it feels like I am beating a real dead horse when I try to help. Recently a senior who is reasonably good with software development, but claims to know nothing about hardware (!), gave me her XP computer. She is retiring and moving to a different state. Since her life will be irregular for a while, she decided to get a laptop for personal use.

She said that if I purged her personal data from the desktop, I could have the computer, monitor, and everything. Great, I said. Her desktop seemed to be in good shape. With a little bit of work, it would make a nice gift for a needy person. Not everyone needs the latest and greatest.

Then she asked the obvious next question: “What laptop do you suggest I buy, and where should I buy it?” These are awkward questions. I have preferences about where to shop, but others might not share those preferences. Technical support after the sale does not mean as much to me as it might to a senior buying her first laptop. Having a good selection to choose from is important to me. So my standard answer is that I buy whatever is on sale and meets my needs at whatever reliable store is selling it. Unless I am familiar with a specific model, I prefer to actually handle it in a real store — otherwise I buy online.

What brand and model to buy always stumps me. Naively I assumed that my client would buy a mid-range laptop with Windows 7 Premium simply because that is popular with people who prefer PCs to Macs. (Linux is not an issue.) Following my standard routine, I asked what she would use the laptop for. Did she expect to continue some part time work? Is she planning to get into gaming or editing HDTV? What about social media and maybe e-books? Maybe she is only going to check email. How big a monitor does she want? Really big ones are difficult to use on an airplane. After we talked a bit, I spread out the most recent eight-page Fry’s ad, and we looked at what was available. I suggested she probably could save some money by getting a laptop with an i5 chip rather than going for the more expensive i7 based on what she said her activities would be. We discussed brands and features. She thanked me and left, leaving behind an XP computer which, it turns out, was nearly pristine.

Later she called and said that she had bought a new laptop, but it was not ready yet. That was a surprise; most of my clients do not act so quickly. “What did you get?” “I bought the more expensive HP with the i7 chip. It had a larger screen, but it only had Windows 7 Premium, so they are installing the Ultimate version and some other things that I wanted.” “You mean like the full Microsoft Office Suite?” “Yes. It should be ready tomorrow — the geeks at Best Buy are putting it together for me now.”

An issue I had missed was her budget. This client is not a typical senior who worries about medical expenses and watches for the Social Security check to come. She is well enough off that a few hundred dollars more or less is not a big deal. For me it is a big deal, and I answered her question as though she were me making the purchase decision. It would have been just as good — better even — if I had told her to go to any reliable store and select the laptop that she felt looked good and was comfortable to use.

The woman who owned what was a top-of-the-line XP computer for several years and barely turned it on had spent over $1,000 on a replacement. That does not make sense to me, but it does to her, and she is the important one.

The second part: When I examined the gift desktop, it quickly became clear this could be a nice little computer for someone — but it definitely needed some TLC. The first surprise was that it was running XP, pure and simple. Not a single service pack had been installed. My only supposition is that the owner had been suspicious of letting Microsoft change things. Who knows?

The next surprise was that almost no applications had been installed outside of an old version of Microsoft Office. Nonetheless, I had promised to clean the HD of all personal data, which I did with a shredder and then for good measure reformatted the whole drive. But I did not reinstall the HD. It is only 120 gig, so I swapped it for a 300 gig extra that I had. The restoration to factory condition was simple — except for the hundreds of updates, and, by the way, it is difficult to download service packs for XP if you do not have SP2 already installed. (I will discuss my frustration at this in another post.) Next, I rummaged through my collection of ancient RAM and found an extra stick of the right type. The system now has a whopping 2.5 gig. Finally, I replaced the smallish AGP display card with GeForce 7200GS from another computer.

So starting with a device that was about to be discarded for lack of interest, with a few hours of time and some spare parts collected over the years, I now have a sweet little machine that defies you to call it obsolete. It can even drive dual monitors!

I can almost guarantee it will get more use from its new owner in a week than it had in years from its original owner. We can only wonder what fraction of the power of my client’s new laptop will ever be tapped. Is that even an issue?

CC licensed Flickr photo shared by SMCentral.