Low-impact & the city 11: buying a laptop without Windows – with Linux or with no operating system at all

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Posted Mar 8 2017 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

This is the last in a series of articles to help you to jettison Windows and corporate software generally. The other articles are:

  1. How to switch to free / open source software
  2. How do download Linux onto a datastick to use it alongside Windows
  3. Learning to use Linux
  4. Installing Linux on your hard drive
  5. Plus there might be one more – a rant about how the Linux / open source world has to be simplified for non-geeks for mass take-up

I’ve now got Linux installed on my hard drive and it’s working well. It didn’t take much getting used to – if you know how to navigate around Windows, then Linux Mint is a doddle. Actually, my old laptop used to make hideous noises with Windows – so much so that I thought it was going to die any second. But it doesn’t make those noises when I’m in Linux. Don’t know why, but it’s quiet – maybe I’ll get many more years out of it now. Nevertheless, it’s a risk, and so I want to get another laptop, so that this one can be my backup.

Second-hand or new?

Second-hand is preferable I think, for various reasons. There is no easy, non-corporate way to buy a new laptop yet, although if Kevin Carson’s ideas about a new ‘homebrew’ industrial revolution come to fruition, there soon might be. So you’ll be trying to avoid buying corporate software, but giving money to corporations for the hardware.

And of course second-hand means that you’re extending the life of a machine that might otherwise be scrapped. A lot of second-hand laptops are relatively young, discarded by businesses that want to stay at the cutting edge when it comes to their hardware. So unless you want to do extremely complicated things, they should be fine for mere mortals like us – especially if you’re going to be using Linux. You can get many more useful years from them.

If you buy a second-hand laptop, it may well already have Windows installed. The crucial thing to ask is whether that means that a portion of the price goes to Microsoft. If it does, then ask them if they have a machine with Linux instead of Windows. If they don’t (and they probably won’t), then tell them that you don’t want Windows. One of the main points with free / open source software is that we don’t then have to give money to corporate giants. It’s no good switching to Linux, but still having to pay money to Microsoft, especially as you don’t even want their product.

It may be the case soon that a lot of second-hand machines will have Linux, or at least won’t have Windows. The corporate sector could soon adopt Linux in a big way. Why wouldn’t they? It’s free, less prone to bugs and doesn’t tie them to one company. Some purists criticise this – why should we build free and open source software and operating systems, only for the corporate sector to take it and use it to make money? It shouldn’t be used in that way.

I say forget about it – let them do what they want with it, as long as they don’t stop other people working on it, and don’t try to sell the software itself. There may even be a lot of geeks working for the corporates who are working on free software too, in their spare time. (I may be way behind the times on this – a lot of free software / open source geeks may also work in the corporate sector, I don’t know.) I’d say that this is much more likely in the open source community than the free software community. See here for the difference.

The important thing is that it’s available for free, so that the general public don’t have to give the corporate sector any money for software if they don’t want to. They can then get their software without having to feed ‘the beast’. What the corporate sector then do with that software is their business. In fact, it means that Microsoft and other corporate software providers can’t get money from the corporate sector either.

Buying second-hand

I was under the impression that if you bought a second-hand computer with Windows installed, no money would go to Microsoft, and you could just install Linux on it and ignore or delete Windows, or leave it in case you ever need to use it with Windows-specific software. But apparently I was wrong. I talked with the founder of Computer Aid, who told me that around £15 will go to Microsoft if you buy a second-hand laptop from a reputable source that has Windows installed. That’s not good – so it’s best to ask for a machine with Linux installed, or a machine with no operating system, onto which you can install Linux from your datastick.

Computer Aid provide second-hand laptops for developing countries, and also offer them for sale at extremely reasonable prices to not-for-profit organisations in the UK. Lowimpact.org is a not-for-profit, and so I was able to buy a HP ProBook 6470b laptop with 4GB RAM, 500HDD and icore 5 processor, for £114. That’s a bargain. They’re usually around £300 second-hand and £700-£1000 new. If you’re involved with a not-for-profit, I’d have a look. Unfortunately, they don’t sell machines with Linux Mint already installed, but they can provide them without Windows installed either.

Computer Aid get their second-hand machines from Tier1, who get them from industry as they’re discarded. So if you’re not involved with a not-for-profit, you can go to them instead. Their machines will be more expensive, but still very good value. There are many other sites selling second-hand computers too.

Buying new

If you go into a big computer store and ask an assistant for a computer with Linux on, they’ll look at you as if you’re mad. We’re forced to have Windows, in other words. That’s like craving water or fruit juice, and being forced to drink Coca-cola; or really wanting healthy food and being forced to eat a Big Mac instead. There’s no choice – Windows is imposed on most people. I’m blogging about every stage, as a non-technical person, to persuade other people that they can escape Microsoft’s clutches – it’s not a done deal.

I’ve been advised to just buy a laptop with Windows and install Linux – but that doesn’t work, as you’ll still be paying a portion of the price to Windows. They might even try to sell you a laptop with no operating system, but you can bet that they’ve just removed Windows, but not the portion of the price that goes to Microsoft.

A laptop without Windows could be run by free open source Linux instead

I’m not mentioning Macs. I know that any machine will be corporate – but Apple are beyond the pale, as they go out of their way to make sure that Apple products are only compatible with other Apple products. They are big bullies and we don’t like them.

The only safe thing to do when buying a new laptop is to go to specialists in providing machines with Linux installed. I’ve been recommended some sites, by people who know more about these things than me (thanks to Pete Green, Josef Davies-Coates and Glyn Moody), where you’ll find information and people who understand your need to buy a laptop without giving money to Microsoft; and you’ll be able to find more if you root around: