Better Living Through Old Computers

Posted on 2023-05-09

I've been trying to wean myself off the yearly cycle of buying new tech. Be it phones or laptops or whatever, it's expensive and I'm not really using the "new and improved" features. In fact, my needs are pretty low-tech. I am comfortable in old UNIX and text-based applications. I don't need advanced graphics or cloud synchronization or whatever the AI flavor of the day is.

At the same time, I'm not into nostalgia for its own sake. If I'm going to continue to use older computers, they need to work well on Today's Modern Internet. The software needs to be current, and I like having reasonably fast network connectivity. Old spinning hard drives need to be replaceable with SSDs.

Lately I've been having fun refurbishing old computers (Thinkpads mostly, from about 2008 onward) with new components, OpenBSD, and Libreboot. I'm typing this from one right now, actually. Old Thinkpads are really cheap on sites like eBay, which is good since I've bricked a few in learning my way around external BIOS flashing. They're also very easy to work on, with (in most cases) easy-to-disassemble cases and mostly standard components that are still readily available. OpenBSD suits me well (it reminds me of SunOS, my first UNIX) and works admirably on this era of hardware. Libreboot provides a current BIOS that removes things like WiFi card whitelists (so I can use newer cards) and the Intel Management Engine (which is a backdoor I don't need.)

I've done a few of these now, and it's been a blast. I get to reconnect with some of the electrical engineering I haven't done professionally, and I'm saving some old hardware from ending up in a junk heap somewhere far away. If one of these laptops breaks, I've got spares.

Granted, this isn't for everyone, not even entirely for me. I still have a MacBook and I still use it for things that it's good at. But I'm not planning on buying another Mac for the foreseeable future; not when I'm getting such good results from my refurbishing efforts.

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