The Best Computer You Can Buy For: FREE01 Feb 2021
I’m starting a new blog series: The Best Computer You Can Buy For $X. To kick things off, this post is about the best computer you can buy for free.
Can you really get a computer for free? Yes, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to score something that isn’t nearly as bad/slow as you might think. If you need a computer and don’t have any money to spend, you might be surprised how easy it is to find a computer that you don’t need to pay anything for. People throw out perfectly good computers all the time because the computer “got slow” or they wanted an upgrade. But most of the time, these computers are perfectly usable, and might just need a little love and care! At this price point, don’t be afraid of minor cosmetic damage, or even missing parts (that aren’t critical, or that you can replace from a different free computer).
So, where can you actually find a free computer? Here are some ideas:
- Craigslist - Look in the “Free” section as well as the “Computers” section. Search for a max price of $5-$10. Sometimes, people will list an old computer for $1 or something. You can probably find one completely free if you watch closely, but if you can’t find a free one maybe you can find one for under $10.
- Friends/relatives - If you simply let people know that you need a computer and don’t care how old it is, there’s a good chance someone you know has a computer collecting dust in a closet that they would give you for free or very cheap. Maybe you could offer to help them with their new computer in exchange for their old one.
- Thrift stores - Check their policy about computers. Some thrift stores don’t take them, some do take them, and some have special locations for them. If you ask some of your local thrift stores, they can point you in the right direction. This option might not be totally free, but it’s likely that you can find something for less than about $20. Or, maybe you can get something free if they don’t take them but they tell you where they throw them away.
- Work - Chances are everyone at your workplace uses a computer and gets a new one every 3-5 years. What does your company do with the old ones? Some companies might let you buy them at a steep discount or might even give them to you. Although some corporate policies probably prevent this at large corporations, smaller companies usually don’t have such strict policies. Make some friends in the IT department and see what your company’s policies are.
Be creative! People buy new computers all the time, and they don’t know how to throw away their old ones so they’re usually happy to get rid of them by giving them to you!
It’s worth noting that you can’t be picky about what you get if you’re not paying anything for it. Take anything that comes your way, and upgrade if you can find something else for free/cheap. Even computers with minor problems could be worth saving. Maybe someone’s getting rid of an old desktop with no monitor, and you can get a free monitor somewhere else. Maybe someone’s getting rid of a laptop without a hard drive, and you can get a free hard drive somewhere else or buy a cheap one for $20. Maybe an old desktop is missing a keyboard, mouse, or monitor cable (which, again, you can find for free or cheap). If you simply keep your eyes open, I think you’ll find something you can work with pretty quickly, and it can be fun to fix it up, make it faster, and make it your own!
How good can a free computer actually be?
How good can a free computer actually be? There’s a very wide range! Most commonly, I think you’re likely to find a free computer that’s 6+ years old, and probably lower end. Maybe you can find an old Dell Inspiron 5520 with only 2GB of RAM. It’s old and slow, but you can probably still turn it into a usable laptop! You could use something like this to learn Linux and start programming. On the other hand, you might get really lucky. In the past, I was able to get 2 broken 2015 MacBook Pros for free and I was able to combine the parts into one working MacBook Pro! (One had a bad screen and one had a bad motherboard.) So you never know what you might find.
Software for your free computer
If you’re really lucky, maybe you can find a free computer that is only a few years old and runs Windows 10 well, and you’re happy with that. On the other hand, it’s more likely that you got a computer with a wiped hard disk - no Operating System (OS) and no license for Windows. And even if you had a license, it probably isn’t fast enough to run Windows well anyway. For an old/slow computer, installing a lightweight version of Linux or ChromeOS will probably be best, and you might be surprised how fast this can make the old computer feel! So if you can’t use Windows, or if Windows is very slow, here are some alternative operating systems that you might want to try.
Ubuntu - The first thing I’d recommend trying is Ubuntu Desktop. There are plenty of tutorials online for how to install it. Ubuntu Desktop is a very popular Linux distribution, which means it should work well and it should be easy to find help online if you need it. But it isn’t particularly lightweight - at least 4GB memory (RAM) is recommended. If your computer isn’t fast enough to run Ubuntu Desktop, fear not! There are other options you can try below.
Lubuntu - If your computer feels slow running Ubuntu (which recommends 4GB RAM), Lubuntu (which recommends only 1GB RAM) will probably work much better! Lubuntu is based on Ubuntu – so you have the same foundation and access to applications – but it uses the LXDE desktop environment, which uses much less resources. I’d expect Lubuntu to run on nearly anything, but if even Lubuntu seems too slow you could try LXLE or Damn Small Linux, both of which are even more optimized for old machines than Lubuntu is.
Chromebook - CloudReady is a distribution of Chrome OS that you can install on older computer hardware to turn it into a Chromebook. Like Ubuntu Linux, CloudReady would replace the original Windows operating system. New Chromebooks are sold and marketed as lightweight, low-cost computers that are great for doing things on the web. Because even new Chromebooks don’t generally have the fastest hardware, and because the OS is lightweight, CloudReady can usually run pretty well even on older computer hardware. Because of this, it might be a really good option to bring new life to an old computer if you don’t like Ubuntu, or if you just like ChromeOS better or if it runs better on your hardware.
If you can find free or cheap hardware and install a lightweight OS, you can bring life back into a computer that someone else wanted to throw away. And while this computer probably won’t run new computer games with amazing graphics, it’s almost certainly good enough to do some web browsing, word processing, email, and maybe even some programming. So hopefully it can meet your basic computer needs and be a stepping stone to something better!