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What can you do with a $20 laptop?

This is a $20 laptop. It was a thrift store find, and I got a little bit lucky in finding not just an IBM ThinkPad, which are bulletproof machines, but even the same model that I briefly owned back in the late 90’s – a 600X. I jumped on it, despite initially having no idea what I could realistically use it for. Join me as I find out whether 20-year-old hardware can still serve a purpose today. It turned out to be a little worse for wear than I initially thought. But I knew I wanted to nurse it back to health, because giving old machines of all kinds a new lease on life is just something that gives me satisfaction. I’d find a use for it later. Back in 1998 computers were running, well, Windows 98. And this computer rocks a Pentium III 450 with a fully upgraded 576MB of RAM, so I’m not even going to be upgrading to XP. At least Windows 98 runs surprisingly smoothly – in fact, it feels about as snappy as a modern PC running Windows 10.

There were a couple of things I knew I had to do before I could dive in and try to figure out a new purpose for this thing. The absolute first thing was to make a drive image using Macrium Reflect. I’m sure there are other good drive cloners out there, but they all seem tailored to a slightly different purpose, and Reflect works really well for just quickly backing up and restoring entire drives, and keeping multiple images handy. This is a free download and it’s a really useful utility – with a 4GB drive like the one this laptop came with, it’s easy to store a bunch of images on your main computer as you do other maintenance, just in case you mess something up and need to restore one. The second mandatory task was a virus and malware scan, and I discovered that this laptop had an even bigger infestation of unwanted pests than my first Manhattan apartment. I have no idea what the previous owner had been doing on this computer, but he had clearly just abandoned it along with all the software and files he had on it because the viral infection had gotten so bad that it was affecting functionality.

Even right-clicking no longer worked, and trying to do things like defragging crashed the computer. I did the virus scan while the drive was still hooked up to my modern computer for backup – much easier that way – and I did the image first just in case my virus scanner nuked any system files while cleaning. I did have to try a few different scanners before I found one that could cure my particular viruses without killing the patient. I didn’t get a disc copy of Windows along with the computer, so I had to keep the one I already had on the hard drive. And I wanted to keep all the ThinkPad tools that it came installed with too. The laptop also needed a few hardware fixes. The battery it came with was completely dead – and this can be difficult depending on the model, but I managed to find a reconditioned one for $15.

As far as I can tell, it works just as well as a new one. And I ended up spending 8 bucks on Ebay buying a used 40GB hard drive to replace the one that came with the laptop, mostly because the noise old IBM Travelstar drives make sounds like somebody spinning a bunch of roulette marbles around the inside of a teacup. It doesn’t install confidence in the drive, and it’s also just incredibly annoying. So all told, I really spent about $43 to get the hardware fully restored, and upgraded. I finally fired it up and… I was back into the computing delights that only Windows 98 can provide.

Several defrag runs and some Windows patch installations later and I had a lean, mean and clean machine that was ready for anything I wanted to throw at it. The question was, now what? It was both enjoyable and satisfying just getting this ThinkPad back in working order, but I wanted to really do something with it. I found several sites that list various tasks you can use older laptops for, but most of them are either best suited for systems that aren’t quite this vintage and can at least run a modern version of Windows, or they’re just not things I’d ever use a computer for to begin with. Stuff like acting as a wifi repeater – I mean, I’d rather buy a cheap router for that than leave a computer dedicated to it 24/7. It dawned on me that I have literally several binders full of old CD games, and as luck would have it, my 600X, despite its age, has a DVD drive. These computers came with their own version of IBM’s Ultrabay, meaning they could be configured with different drives and end-users could even swap them out.

Most of these shipped with floppy drives, but mine has a DVD drive and it’s probably one of the first laptops of any kind that did. Now, an important digression here. The PC and Windows standards are known for backward compatibility, but this isn’t totally reliable… in fact there’s one huge caveat. Back when Microsoft introduced Windows 7 64 bit, they completely broke compatibility with 16 bit applications – they just intentionally stripped that subsystem from Windows. Nowadays most people are running 64 bit Windows of some kind, leaving no real path for 16 bit applications or games. This can be a kick to the gut the first time you’re feeling nostalgic for a game of SimTower or Close Combat and get absolutely shut down by Windows. There are ways around this, most of which involve running either a virtual machine and an entirely separate 32 bit copy of Windows, or DOSBox.

I don’t begrudge anyone that wants to do this – it’s kind of a pain in the butt, but it does mean you can just use a single modern PC for everything. I ran a virtual machine back when I was testing Windows 8 on my Windows 7 computer, and I’ve tried out DOSbox for some of my older DOS games.

But virtual machines require a lot of system resources and can be difficult to set up, plus you need another copy of Windows. DOSbox is an emulator, and like all emulators it has its problems. Not all games may run faithfully, or at all, or they may run with technical issues. Also, as its name implies DOSbox is a DOS emulator; if you want to run Windows games, you again need to run Windows on top of it, and install all the drivers manually. I’m not slagging off DOSbox here, but it’s just always better to run games on real metal if you can.

So if you haven’t guessed yet, that’s one new purpose for this laptop: old games. It’s the right CPU speed and it’s got the right operating system. An older computer can be as good as any vintage game console for playing games – there are actually a lot more older games for PC than any game system, and many of them will really only work on older hardware. That said, setting this up has reminded me of how painful the transition from DOS to Windows was back in the 90’s. Laptops especially often use non-standard or at least uncommon hardware, and by the Windows 98 days, they often only shipped with Windows drivers – perfect for those 16 bit Windows games, but to run DOS games you’re going to need to find and install DOS drivers specific to your hardware, and then manually edit your autoexec.bat and config.sys files (remember those?) I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my sound card drivers, which don’t seem to exist for DOS, although oddly I can get MIDI music to play but not sound effects.

If anyone knows where I can get some DOS drivers for a Crystal Soundfusion PCI card, let me know. But, you might be thinking… is there anything just a little more current that you can do on an old machine than run 20 year old games? Well, yes, to a point – you can install desktop Linux on it. Now, most Linux distributions have advanced to the point that they’re not going to run any better on old hardware than Windows 10 would, but a few are geared towards low-spec hardware.

I had to try a few different ones before settling on Point Linux, which runs pretty well out of the box on this machine and maybe ironically for me, at least, actually has better driver support than Windows 98. I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising now, but the last time I installed desktop Linux I could not get half of my hardware working at all – this time I even got wifi straight away, which has been a hellish and so far unsuccessful experience in Windows 98 because of a lack of WPA support. But old hardware is still old hardware – don’t expect to even be browsing a lot of modern web sites once you get Linux installed. Here’s YouTube running on a 20 year old laptop – amazing that it even works at all, but it’s not really what I’d call useable.

A lot of modern Linux apps also just won’t work at all – for example, the Steam Linux client requires a 1ghz CPU and from what I gather some sort of 3D graphics card with Linux drivers installed. But even the Opera and Chromium browsers both require the SSE2 instruction set, which the Pentium III lacks. You could go just a little bit later than this laptop and opt for a Pentium 4, though you’ll definitely pay more than $20 in that case. Still, with wifi working on Linux, I’m able to download any game patches I may need through regular old Firefox – which thankfully does work – and then install them on Windows. It’s a little bit annoying switching back and forth between operating systems, but I don’t do it that often. Of course with Linux you can teach yourself programming, you can run a home media or file server, you can teach yourself… Linux, or all sorts of other things. It’s a modern OS but one with its roots in Unix, so you can both learn a lot of things by using it and do a lot of fun things with it.

You’re still going to be pretty limited by the lack of horsepower in an old machine, and even just navigating around the operating system involves an annoying delay every single time I click on something, but unlike modern versions of Windows, you can scale back Linux as far as you want to get it to run decently on any hardware. So you might end up finding yourself wanting to install it on a different machine too, but it’s still helpful to have it on an old laptop since it acts as a bridge between older, DOS-based flavors of Windows, and the present day. Now, let’s say you want go to out and buy your own old laptop to try some of this stuff out on – there are a few things I’d look for. First, seriously, buy a ThinkPad if you can – they’re user-serviceable, they’re extremely durable, and they’re everywhere… meaning parts are everywhere too. They’re also really cheap, obviously, so a great value. If you can’t buy a ThinkPad, try to stick with one of the big-name, popular brands – just to make it easier to get parts.

Second, it is very handy to have at *least* a CD drive, if not a DVD drive. A DVD drive is recommended because it’s just easier to install Linux – very difficult to find CD-based install images these days. Failing that, a laptop with a bootable USB port can substitute, although that would have been hard to find in the late 90’s. Even my forward-looking 600X can’t boot from its USB port, though you can always look for something made slightly later.

That said, an optical drive is still a must for 16 bit Windows games; by then the gaming world had mostly moved on from floppies, although having a system with both drives, or at least the ability to swap them out like many ThinkPads can, would be ideal. Third, if you want to run any sort of modern applications, look for a Pentium 4. You’ll pay a bit more, though. Finally, most of this applies to old desktops as well, so if you swing that way, you’ll find things similar but a bit easier. I’ve actually got an old desktop from this same era that I might do a separate video on as an addendum to this, but the basic gist of things is that it’s easier to find old desktops with standardized hardware and great driver support, or build one yourself. Now before you rush out to buy your own individual components, just know that the costs of building your own old PC don’t scale well – you’re going to spend a lot more than $20, though you can probably still keep it under $100.

But it might make more financial sense to just buy something pre-built and customize it. I personally love old laptops like this, though, specifically because they’re locked in time. There’s always temptation with a desktop to upgrade it, expand it, and modernize it just to get that one more game running or get a few more frames per second – and before you know it, you’ve just got a modern PC. Laptops are more like game consoles – they are what they are, and seeing what they can and can’t do is part of the fun of owning an older one. So that’s it, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at my ThinkPad 600X, and maybe it’ll inspire you to try to do something with some old hardware you’ve got lying around as well.

If you’ve got any good ideas for repurposing an old laptop, leave a comment below, and don’t forget to hit that subscribe button if you haven’t already. See you next time. .

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