Project: Cheap Box

This guy (Ian, my little brother, the starving college student) needed a computer. He spent all his money on beer and shrimp. Cheap Tech came to his aid.  Through some cheap thinking, good connections, and a little luck, I was able to build a pretty decent machine for FREE (technically).

The bulk of the machine came from an abandoned tower at my Mother In Law’s Office. She’s a Realtor, so while her and fellow agents work in a real estate broker’s office, they’re all technically self-employed. Hence, they all have to rent out an office space in the building, and provide their own furniture, computers, etc. After weeks of everyone in the office trying to track down the rightful owner of a computer left in the lobby, assumed dead, no one claimed it. The Cheap Tech was on it like white on rice!

Turned out to be a custom build from one of the local PC dealers in town. Had a AMD Athlon 2800 (1.7 GHz) processor, Windows XP Pro, 40 GB hard drive, but no RAM on board. Someone must’ve snatched that before I could get to it.

I took the box home, plugged it into my monitor and periphials, booted it up and got a hard drive error. I was able to boot it with a live CD install of Damn Small Linux, but still couldn’t access any data on the hard drive. I tried installing the OS to the hard drive with no luck. Still not sure if this was truly a hard drive issue, or if I missed something. Either way, I’d had enough messing around with this puny 40 GB hard drive anyway. At this point, I had only a typical, generic beige box case, and a decent motherboard.  After buying a decent hard drive and enough RAM, I’d be close to the cost of just buying a whole new (basic, low-end, which is all I was going for for my brother’s needs)  computer.  Fortunately, I had access to a 5 car garage worth of  spare parts through my brother-in-law.

I called up Tom, told him about my mission, and he was happy to help. I had access at least 6 old computers that had been stored away for parts, amongst other various items. After a good hour of sifting, Tom produced an 80 GB ATA hard drive, still sealed in the box. Cheap as I am, I wanted to give him something for it, but he refused. Great guy, that Tom. I picked up an older, but great keyboard; one of those kinds that has a real good “clunk,” to it when you hit the keys. Lots of mice to choose from as well, but no optical ones, which are very cheap and easy to come by these days, so I passed on those. Unfortunately, no RAM that would be compatible with the mobo came out of this source. That left one major hardware component yet to acquire.

Turned out after another thourough search through my stash of share parts, I did have a 128 MB stick of RAM, but I wanted to have at least 512 MB on board. I was searching for good deals on RAM, debating if 256 would do after all if Ian just stuck to mainly school related stuff (word processor, email, basic web browsing). Then, the most unexpected thing happened. A business partner came into my office and gave me a $100 Best Buy gift card I’d won in a raffle at their office I’d entered (and forgotten about) weeks ago. Score! I won’t say I wasn’t tempted to blow it on myself, but there was nothing I really needed for myself at the time under $100. The gift card was enough to pick up 512 MB of RAM, and a 3 button optical mouse.

Through some very lucky opportunities that came my way, I’d managed to complete the hardware setup for this project at a cost of: $0. Now, I had to get  the software going. A full license, retail copy of Windows XP was going to run $300, which I would’ve been willing to do if I could afford it. Enter: Linux. I installed Ubuntu 6.06, added gtkPod for iPod support, Azureus for BitTorrent goodness, and after giving Ian and the parents a short tutorial on using this newly found OS world, he was rocking and rolling.

I wish it could say it ended there on a high note, but the project did end up having a couple snags. Mom and Dad chipped in by picking Ian up a printer. While it was an HP, it happened to be one of a handful that doesn’t have Linux drivers. I suggested a different printer, but they’d already ditched the box and packaging. Ian was also going through iTunes withdrawl, so they ended up buying him a copy of Windows XP, full retail, with MS Office soon to follow. I shudder at the thought!  Paying full retail for the privelege of acquiring spyware and viruses up the ying-yang. I’m not sure which instance screws you over more.

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Cheap Cables, Adapters, Etc.

    Any geek needs his/her share in various cables, adapters, peripherals, etc. It can be an issue to find that rare 2.5 mm to 1.5 mm stereo audio jack adapter for anyone, but it’s more of a problem for the cheap techie. That used upconverting DVD player you got for $25 on Craig’s List could cost more in cables if they don’t come with any (or the right ones anyway), and you have to pay full price for them. Cheap geeks also tend to hold onto outdated hardware longer as well, which can cause for above average need for adapters to make older and newer pieces of equipment work together.

In order to save a monthly cable bill, I’m in the process of setting up a Mac Mini as my media hub in the living room, and using the internet for all my TV needs, as well as all the other wonderful, media center type features one can use with such a setup. I know – a cheapo like me should probably look into the plethora of products out there for about a quarter to third of the price that will handle streaming PC content to the TV, or even building a Myth TV, but I have my reasons. A Mac Mini actually proved to be more cost effective in the long run. I’ll provide more details on this project at another time.

This brings me back to the old hardware vs new hardware compatibility dilemma I mentioned. I’m cheap. I’m still living in a standard-definition world with my $300 Toshiba 27″ Tube TV and am quite happy with it. Only problem is, the Mac Mini has only DVI out. While an HDTV would most likely have DVI and VGA inputs on board, the only input I have open on the TV for it is component video in. I looked at several stores, and even at my beloved Fry’s, I couldn’t find a DVI to component adapter for under $40.00. Then, from a recommendation from Robert Heron on DL.TV, I discovered monoprice.com.

What a wonderful site! All the hard to find cables, plugs, couplers, and the like and at a fraction of the price. So cheap in fact, my scam-sensors went off, expecting an online bait-and-switch tactic of extremely low prices with extremely high shipping costs like I’ve seen on numerous sites (mostly eBay). Not the case! I found a DVI to component adapter for $7.45 with shipping options under $3.00! Less than $15.00 out the door, 38% less than the cheapest option I found before sales tax.

Now that I’ve taken a short essay worth of material to recommend this site, I highly recommend it. Cables are a place where you can definitely save money. As you can see, prices can vary greatly, depending on where you shop, and with cables even though the higher-end name brands out there claim otherwise, you usually don’t get what you pay for in this case. They’re all pretty much the same, as long as you’re dealing with the same specs on each cable.

Free Cell Phone Services, Part Deux Review

I was sorely dissapointed with both Soonr and Flurry.  Flurry doesn’t work with Verizon yet, even though it’s listed in their supported carriers. Soonr would work well for a smartphone, but otherwise you have no way of viewing 95% of the content from your computer. So what’s the point? I could go on I guess, but that pretty much sums it up. In the world of cheapness, you will get burned.

Free Cell Phone Services, Part Deux

This article from CNet describes even more mostly free, otherwise cheap services to turn your plain ol’ dumb phone into a smart phone. I will be signing up for Flurry and SoonR, and will share my experience soon.

Free Services for Your Cell Phone

Here’s a great article from the New York Times regarding several free services for your cell phone. I’ve been using the Google SMS services for a couple years now, and even mention it in our premiere post on configuring a cell phone on the cheap. These aren’t anything new necessarily, but still relatively unknown to the general public and really handy.

Free Office Suite Programs


While giving advice to a friend today who’s Mac curious about accessing her Microsoft Office files via the Mac, my memory was jogged on some really great, totally free alternatives to Microsoft Office for working with, and creating files that will work with Bill Gates biggest cash cow of the M$ monopoly.

Open Office is an open source, complete office suite program that will handle just about any office style document you can throw at it. It works on Windows, Mac Linux, and even Solaris for both of you out there running it. While my personal experience is admittedly very limited with this set of programs, the experience was a good one, and I’ve heard nothing but good feedback from those I’ve talked to who used it, save one person who, while having no compatibility or technical issues, “just didn’t like it.” Some fear change, I guess.

If a good word processor is all you’re looking for, Abi Word is excellent. This one I have used quite a bit on an old computer I had that didn’t come with MS Office. I was very happy with it. Even if you have MS Word, Abi Word may be worth a look if your running an older machine that the MS Office Suite seems to bog down. Both it, and the individual Open Office programs require less system resources.

Unless the computer you’re buying just happens to come with MS Office at no additional cost, and there’s no money saving option for not including it on your system, I don’t see any reason to get MS Office for your home machine. Business machines might be a different story. I’d stick with MS Office for now just to be sure you won’t run into any unforseeable compatibility issues that could occur in the future, and there’s less learning curve in training employees. Although, I’m willing to bet many of us are going to experience some adjustment with Office 2007.

Free Online Storage

    There’s a lot of buzz going around of places offering online storage, some for free, most very limited. Elephant Drive looks to be great: Unlimited storage with backup features for free…while they’re still in beta. They really emphasize that part, which leads to believe it won’t be free for long. Thus, I’m staying away from them until they make that decision for good. I would hate to store a bunch of data there and all of the sudden have to pay to get it back.

Recently, I signed up with AMD Live Media Vault. 25 GB of online free storage you can access from any computer. It will take any kind of file of any size. It even has ways to organize your data by file type, showing AMD’s anticipated the use of this for music and video. They make it very easy to share your music, video and photos as well as host them. Great way to embed a video or song into a website. The only catch is you’re limited to 1 GB of bandwidth a month. More than enough for casual use, but if you hosted something that became even semi – popular on the net, you’d exceed that in a day. You also could get stuck if you used it as off site backup and needed to recover all 25 gigs worth in one shot. You could sign up for 25 accounts and store 1GB each in them I suppose, but who’d want to manage that? Google’s dubbed, “G Drive,” is supposedly a go, and will probably be the dominate choice when it arrives… and is all the rumors are cracked up to be.