Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Making a Workable Computer on the Cheap

A couple of months ago I was in the position of having to mail in my laptop for repairs, so I took the opportunity to shop around for a small, cheap desktop-like model of computer that I could use at home in the meanwhile. I figured that when I got my laptop back, it could serve as the home media center.

Originally, I was considering the mac mini, but I found a nettop (a netbook architectured desktop) for $170. Since this computer was going to be a glorified stereo, I figured I'd give the nettop a try. This is what I got:


Acer Aspire Revo AR1600-U910H Mini Desktop PC - Intel ATOM N230 1.6GHz, 1GB DDR2, 160GB HDD, HDMI, Windows XP Home

The good surprise that came with it was the model I got was refurbished, and I'm pretty sure I got a slightly newer model of processor (namely the dual core model rather than the single core). The bad surprise was the installation of several of the drivers was corrupted so it took me the better part of two weeks to figure out that I needed to wipe and reinstall the drivers in order to get the HDMI working.

If you read about this model, you'll soon see that the video card has extra memory and processing capabilities, such that if programs don't use it, (e.g. flash videos in a website), the playback is terrible. Fortunately the flash and/or nvidia people fixed that pretty quickly.

So far so good. But you might notice that there's no wifi listed in the specs. What it doesn't say, is that if you pop it open, there's a mini pci slot that you can stick a wifi card in. And since I have several expired laptops floating around, I extracted a broadcom card out of one, and popped it in. Problem solved? Well, it still needed an antenna. This is where I could have done something elegant, but instead opted for the franken-computer look. There's something aesthetic about having the guts of a computer spill out onto the table like some kind of technologic squid.

So I snipped the antennae connector from the laptop and wired it onto the antennae from an old iBook, and poked it out the side of the aspire case. Voila. Internet. Which is a good thing, because the old external usb card I have is dying and makes anything I plug it into freeze after about 20 minutes. I really should just recycle the poor thing.

All in all, not bad for under $200.