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The disposable laptop era: how to get a decent dev computer

By Ev Bogue - June 10th 2016

Whether or not Moore's Law is ending, it's obvious getting a disposable laptop is easy right now.

It's difficult to imagine that not even five years ago I was buying laptops for $2,500. And now I can get a new laptop for under $200 with nearly the same power level.

In fact, an awesome person in Brooklyn just gave me a few-year-old Thinkpad from a stack of him that he had lying around.

So the way I see it we can either freak out about the end of Moore's Law, the bottoming out on computer prices, and how no one seems to be making any money in technology right now. Or we can get a decent dev computer going right now for less than $200 USD and get to work learning technical skills for the inevitable moment when the tech bubble bursts back down and all of that money that's currently sitting unused in Apple's great overseas McDucktank begins flowing again in the tech world.

Because why would you buy a $2,500 hunk of metal from Apple when you can get an equally powerful hunk of plastic with the same exact configuration of silicon within it for 7% of the price?

Now of course a few people will go on pretending that anyone cares that they have the latest Macbook Air. In fact, you can too. Just get a Macbook Air AND a decent dev computer for less than $200. You can get the Macbook Air out at your sexy design meetings, and hack away at your disposable dev computer when no one is looking. This way you'll be hedging for the eventual future when Macs aren't cool anymore (right now?) and you'll have that decent disposable dev computer all ready to go at a moment's notice.

Maybe someday in the future there will be a superhighpoweredultra computer back in stores that makes justifying a > $1,000 pricepoint worth it. But for now let's just call it as it is, right now you might as well buy a cheap or used computer and use it to get your tech skills up.

Because why try to control the universe with your head when you can instead use that time and energy to learn how to program?

The 5 steps of choosing a decent dev computer.

  1. Find a place that sells computers. If you go to wherever you buy computers near the place that you live, you'll see a lot of computers for sale. Make a quick walk-around and note all of the computers that are less than $200 USD. In Mexico City this'd probably be Walmart or Office Depot, but computer store brand names vary from place to place, so I'll leave the creative decision making about where to shop for a computer to you.
  2. Choose decent development hardware. Because you want to install a mainstream brand of Linux on this dev computer, you want to make sure the computer you're going to buy has an 64-bit processor in it of the Intel variety. Because most Linux distributions want 'x86' architecture, it just makes it easier to get a computer that agrees with them. This means avoid AMD chips, as they will need specially compiled distros for AMD that seem to be seldom maintained. AMD-based computers are basically oversized cellphones, we don't want one of those at this point in time. Aim for Intel Celerons, i3s, i5s, and i7s. Computer sizing is completely up to you. I prefer 13-14inch screens, but 11 are fine and 17 are fine too. Don't buy the computer yet! Think about it for a long time.
  3. Check your closet. If you have a computer that's less than 5 years old you aren't using, why not use that?
  4. Ask around. Maybe a friend has seventeen computers in their closet that they aren't using anymore. Ask them if they want to part with the crappiest one that is in the 64-bit architecture zone.
  5. Make a decision. Once you find an under $200 computer you love, buy it or get gifted it or whatever. Take it home. Take it out of the box. Start it to Windows one last time and wait 15 minutes for Windows to boot up.

Install Linux on it.

Choose a flavor of Linux and follow the installation instructions.

My favorite is Arch Linux. But the easiest to install is probably Ubuntu.

The point is to experiment. Learn new things. And get ready for the next wheel in tech to turn.

Questions? Email.

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