Our Right To Repair Depends On A Minimally Viable Laptop

It’s never been harder to repair your electronics. When the keyboard in your shiny new MacBook dies, you’ll have to send it to a Genius. When the battery in your iPhone dies, you’ll have to break out the pentalobe screwdrivers. Your technology does not respect your freedom, and this is true all the way down to the source code: the Library of Congress is thankfully chipping away at the DMCA in an effort that serves the Right to Repair movement, but still problems remain.

The ability — or rather, right — to repair will inevitably mean using electronics longer, and keeping them out of the garbage. That’s less e-waste, but it’s also older, potentially slower and less powerful portable workstations. This is the question: how long should you keep your electronics running? When do you start getting into the false economy of repairing something just because you can? What is the minimally viable laptop?

The Slowing Pace of Upgrades

Moore’s law died a decade ago, and we’re long past the Megahertz wars of the 90s and 2000s. RAM is plentiful, even if Chrome gobbles it up, and network connectivity is ubiquitous. We are in the age of stagnation of personal computers. The exponential growth of computing power died sometime around 2004, and we haven’t looked back since. Sure, there are advances like newer, faster, more capable graphics cards and RGB RAM, but most applications for most people don’t require high-spec devices.

You simply don’t need to upgrade your computer as often now, and this sentiment is shared with experts and amateurs alike. It was only a few months ago that Apple discontinued the mid-2015 15″ MacBook, widely cited as the best laptop ever made. It’s not unusual to see actual hackers sporting a Thinkpad X220 or T420, machines released nine years ago. The latest version of Windows has lower minimum requirements than previous versions, and except for the upper echelons of computation (primarily running Fortnite at over 1000 fps), everyone is okay with the fact that you don’t need to have the latest and greatest personal computer; we’ve shifted conspicuous consumption onto phones. If a decade-old laptop is sufficient for basic web browsing and playing videos on YouTube, how much more do you need?

The Asus eeePC could be considered the first minimally viable laptop. It wasn’t a good laptop. Image credit

We’ve seen bottom of the barrel laptops before. We’ve lusted over them. The eeePC, launched in 2007, was underpowered for its time, but it was just enough for some light browsing. There were mods, and since there wasn’t a spinning disc drive, it was surprisingly responsive. Throw on a decent Linux distro, and you have something. Not much, but something.

What is the minimally viable laptop? How cheap is a machine that will allow you to do your work? Right now, you can pick up some very nice business-class laptops from eBay for a hundred bucks. You can get new batteries and power adapters for them. If you manage to pick up a ThinkPad, all the part numbers for each of the components are available, and you can find replacements anywhere.

Where is the Goldilocks Laptop? Screen Resolution as a Limiting Factor

How low can you go on the price performance curve of modern computing devices? No one would claim a butterfly keyboard Thinkpad 701 would be useful for modern work, unless you’re one of the really weird vintage computer nerds on Instagram. These days, very few people can claim they need a top-of-the-line workstation that’s also portable. Video editors and engineers notwithstanding, just about everything runs in a browser these days anyway. There must be a middle ground somewhere between the four inch thick laptops of old and the modern day luggable. What is it?

In my Thinkpad buyer’s guide from two years ago, a guide that’s still oddly accurate, the sweet spot for a laptop that will still see daily use is a dual-core Sandy Bridge CPU, 8 or 16 GB of RAM, and negligible storage because you’re going to put an SSD in there anyway. The only problem with these old business-class laptops picked up on auction sites is the display resolution. Seven hundred and sixty eight vertical pixels just isn’t enough, but there are plenty of places where you can pick up a 1080p panel. Compare this with its modern equivalent. Today, businesses are equipping their employees with a dual-core Kaby Lake CPU running at the same clock as what was available nearly a decade ago. You might get 32 GB of RAM, and this time the storage is an SSD. Display resolution hasn’t improved much, although there are rare and expensive variants equipped with OLED displays.

The age of the minimally viable laptop is here, and it feeds right into our right to repair. If your machine lasts longer, you’ll eventually need to repair it. If you’re still running a mid-2015 MacBook, you’ll be looking up some iFixit guides eventually. What, then, is the best laptop if you don’t care about having the best and most expensive. That’s a question we’re opening up to you: are you still using the computer you used to first sign up on Facebook? What is the minimally viable laptop, and what computer can you buy today that will still be useful in ten years?

142 thoughts on “Our Right To Repair Depends On A Minimally Viable Laptop

  1. My daily driver is a Toshiba satellite pro – core2duo, 4GB ram with a 454GB spinner. I sold it to a customer about 10 years ago – it came with Win7 and XP downgrade discs – she wanted XP because that was on her previous computer, she’d had a stroke and found learning new things difficult – even the transition from XP to Win7 confused her. Then when she gave up computing entirely she gave it to me, so I promptly did a factory reset to Win7. It’s been running so long and reliably that the letters on “E”, “A”, “S”, “D”, and “C” have worn off,, and some of the others are starting to fade. It still has about an hour’s battery life. The space bar squeaks – but it still meets my needs as a daily driver. It even runs a Debian VM under virtualbox, although it chokes the machine when I run ffmpeg to convert video files, so I’ve offloaded that job to one of the debian machines below. I think I’ll send it back to Toshiba when it finally gives up – perhaps they’d like to put it in their hall of fame :-)

    My brother gave me a cast-off eeePC that still runs XP – it’s only job is to play streaming radio into the stereo.

    Another customer traded in a Toshiba Corei3 machine that had *never* run satisfactorily *cough*windows 8*cough*, so I promptly put Debian 8 on to it, and it sits in the lounge as the general enquiry, video player/converter, and youtube machine. Ditto another customer with a Toshiba Corei5 and that one got debian 9 – but that’s a steaming pile (IMHO), so back to 8 it was – that’s got a new job as a management laptop for a small school that I work for (you need Win10 pro to remote manage hyper-v, so w10 runs as a guest under virtualbox). I seem to accumulate laptops from customers – I give them honest advice about mid-life upgrades with an SSD or more memory, but they seem to prefer the reassurance of a new machine with warranty. I’ve given a few away to local charities (after a quick wipe-and-reinstall), but I really hate just stripping them out for parts if they’re still capable of doing something useful.

  2. Eeepc and other netbook are an ecological disaster.
    I have one of these hp dm1 with an APU and on plain win7 pro clean install, it is sluggish as hell.
    It has a mecanical drive but this is not linked, the overall reactivity is quite bad.

  3. As far as criticism of the EeePC line goes, the 701 was my daily driver for years and still works. The 1000h that replaced it in 2008 ran almost continuously until October last year when I finally replaced it with a more electricity-friendly solution. Still works though. :)

  4. My ‘daily driver’ laptop is an Acer Tegra (arm) Chromebook running arch linux. It plays Netflix, Amazon video when I travel. Battery lasts 8 hours. I can VPN or ssh for work. I can play my favorite retro games games in emulators, or source ports of things like Quake. Don’t have to worry about malware or viruses. I wouldn’t recommend this laptop to anyone unless they are a weirdo like me.

  5. My personal laptop is a Dell Latitude E6530. I was given an E6530 for free. 1366×768 (Why yes, Dell will allow someone to order a turd bolted on top of their flagship laptop!) screen a little dim in the lower right, i7 CPU, 6 gig RAM, no nVidia GPU, no hard drive.

    I looked into a 1080p screen and nVidia mainboard upgrade but parts prices for these are insane. So are prices for complete laptops with i7, 1080p and nVidia.

    Then while poking around eBay I saw an E6530 with i5, 4 gig, 1080p and nVidia. (I forget the hard drive size.) Buy it Now for $230. CLICK!

    Since these are “business class” laptops the CPU and everything else that’s not the mainboard can easily be accessed by removing the bottom cover. Within minutes of receiving the eBay purchase I had the CPUs swapped (didn’t swap RAM because the 6gig in the free one was slower than in the eBay one) and hard drive moved over. Installed the then latest Win 10 and sold it on Craigslist for $125 to a guy who *needed a laptop now* because he’d lost his off the top of his car.

    I’d also bought a 1+ TB hard drive for my fancy ‘new’ i7 laptop, then shortly after I upgraded it to 8 gig. I should bump it to 16 just because. :)

    That 4 gig went into a really nice Dell laptop I was given in non-working condition. Someone had thrown it away. All that was wrong with it was one of the SODIMMs was bad. While not 1080p it’s something x 900 widescreen and has DisplayPort. I gave it to my sister to replace her Micron TransPort T2500 (AKA Samsung X65) which had suddenly died. I was going to put Win 10 on it and it froze. When I restarted, it was dead, no video, not even out HDMI. My T2500 had worked very well with Win 10, though I did have to replace the WiFi card which 10 worked with, for low values of ‘work’. The T2500 got traded for the labor to replace the AC compressor and water pump on my 97 Taurus.

    In the “I need to fix these” stack are two ThinkPads, a T410 and a T420. They work, they have Win 7 Enterprise. They also were thrown away with BIOS passwords and booting from anything but the hard drive disabled. That can be fixed but it’s a real PITA to get at the little EPROM chip *and* have things connected while dismantled so the chip can be shorted at just the right time during boot to bypass the password to get into the setup so the password can be removed. I’m thinking of soldering wires to the chip to bring out under the RAM hatch. Then the laptop can be put back together. Tick the wires together at the right time, clear the password, tape up the wires and tuck inside. I’d have to get a really fine point soldering iron and some real strong magnification. Presbyopia sucks.

  6. dmidecode | grep -A3 ‘^System Information’
    System Information
    Manufacturer: IBM
    Product Name: System x3650 M3 -[7945D2M]-
    Version: 00

    Rack mount 2U – BOGO MIPS like crazy ;-)
    48GB RAM, lots of nice drives that plug in the front.
    First release 2010.

    We had 4 that I was told to sell, so I salvaged RAM & HDDs sold 2 for peanuts kept 1 spare and ran up my box.
    Eats compute tasks for breakfast – luv it.

  7. Note: If someone figures out how to mod the BIOS on the cheaper variety netbooks to support minimal RAID-5 let me know.
    I have an old dinosaur with a good CPU and am in the process of changing out the 4*1GB suckyflash ™ to 4*4GB so it works with both the internal and external SSD.
    Though it is pretty old for certain applications speed is less of an issue than data security.
    You can actually buy a module that fits where the webcam normally goes with 32GB of onboard storage!

  8. This conversation does not make a lot of sense to me. What does minimum viable have to do with repairability? There is cheap junk that is easy to repair and there is cheap junk that is not repairable. There are high end systems that you cant get parts for and high end systems built of all off the shelf standard parts. Minimum viable is in the eye of the application user. Do you need a laptop that can run Putty on a serial cable? Are you doing 3D modelling? Just running a browser, what browser version?

  9. “The age of the minimally viable laptop is here” .. and it’s been here for 20+ years.


    The hacked $99 Netpliance I-Opener served many as a basic Linux PC. Word came by way of linux-hacker.net instead of hack-a-day (which didn’t exist yet), so the hipsters here will just segfault. But it was a minimally viable machine, and can be used for many things for example as router or parallel-port bridge even today.. And you can still find em cheap on ebay.

    Not everything needs to run bloated web browsers with crappy REST SOAP API JavaScript Electron PHP DOJO Angular Adblock plus technology. Not everything needs to decode H265 4k video or run Steamy games. Today’s web technologies are an abomination of bloat that even top of the line machines struggle to keep up with. Kinda like Windows Vista was back when..

    But with reasonable scope, older/lesser machines can serve a long life.

  10. I have two laptops, one is a Dell 1525 I’ve upgraded to maximum RAM and is awaiting a CPU upgrade. It’s a ca. 2009 laptop. Runs Windows 10 (have to, for work) and thanks to having an express-card interface, I can attach a desktop GPU to it for gaming from the same era.

    The other is an HP “Compaq” Presario, similar vintage, updating its CPU soon as well. No Express Card slot, however, I have a USB-to-DVI adapter so I can run two monitors on it. 4gb RAM (maximum), also Windows 10 (ibid), and a 256gb SSD, boots in about 5 seconds.

    I can’t imagine getting a laptop these days, in the same price range that these were, and trying to upgrade them or work on them. They’d be damn near useless…

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