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The 80 Buck Office PC

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Sometimes the most difficult aspect of repurposing an older PC is finding some place to put it. Older PCs tend to be larger PCs, and these days (as always) office space is at a premium.

But if you have a monitor, keyboard and mouse youíre not using, you can have a spare office PC that doesnít take any more room than those three components, can run a Microsoft Office-compatible office suite, and will cost you about 80 bucks, or possibly even less. It wonít run Windows, but it will do word processing, spreadsheets and the like.

The heart of the 80 Buck PC is a small microcontroller card called the Raspberry Pi. Microcontrollers were introduced several years ago primarily for engineers, who use them for prototyping devices. The Raspberry Pi was developed by a nonprofit foundation in England to bring computing into schools at a very affordable price. It was released about two years ago in two models, a $25 board and a $35 board. Most people buy the $35 model, as it offers more frills for very few additional bills.

Because the Raspberry Pi was intended for the educational market, a complete hardware illiterate can have it up and running in 15 minutes or less. The Raspberry Pi hardware is incredibly easy to get up and going. It has an HDMI video output so you can just plug in an HDMI cable between the Raspberry Pi and an HDMI port on a monitor or TV, and have high-resolution video output. Two USB ports let you plug in a keyboard and mouse. Thereís a microUSB connector to connect the same kind of power supply you use to charge your cellphone or tablet, and a socket for an SD card, like the ones uses in digital cameras. That SD card socket is the key to the second part of the easy setup. The Raspberry Piís operating system, programs and user files are all contained on an SD card that plugs into it.

Another reason why the Raspberry Pi sets up so quickly is that the process is almost completely automated. Check YouTube for step-by-step instructions on how to set up the software. When you place the SD card into the socket on the Raspberry Pi and turn the Pi on for the first time, the system sets itself up and gives you a choice of operating systems you can install. All of these are variations on Linux, and the most common one, and the one I think is best for office use, is Raspbian, which gives you a nice Windows-like interface and a bunch of utilities.

And, if you want, you can skip a lot of the setup -- many sellers of the Raspberry Pi let you buy a 4GB or 8GB SD card with the files already installed. Just power up the first time, choose the version of the OS you want, and youíre good to go.

Lots of stuff in a small space

Thereís a lot to like about the Raspberry Pi, and value is probably at the top of the list. The $35 computer is loaded with connectivity. It has 1080 HD HDMI video, a Gigabit Ethernet port and two USB ports. You can use these to connect the keyboard and mouse. If you have more USB devices that you want to connect, like Wi-Fi, use one of the USB ports to connect a powered USB hub, giving you additional ports. It needs to be a powered hub ó the Raspberry Piís power supply doesnít provide a lot of power to the two ports on the card. I have my Pi hooked up to an Apricorn NetDock. This gives me four more USB ports (two powered), a DVD burner and room for a hard disk. I havenít dug into the Linux OS to enable the optical and SSD drives yet, but instructions for doing so are on the Internet, and Iíll get to it eventually.

The Raspbian installation provides icons for the Pi Store and the Midori browser.† On the Pi Store, youíll find all sorts of apps, just like in the App Store for iOS or Google Play for Android.

One of these is the LibreOffice office suite. Itís free, and after youíve downloaded and installed it, youíll have a Microsoft Office-compatible suite that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and PowerPoint compatible presentation manager.

Depending on what you already have and where you shop, you should be able to pull this additional PC together for $80 or less. Hereís how it breaks down:

Raspberry Pi ††††††††††† $39

Case††††††††††††††††††††††††††† $10

Power supply†††††††††††† $10

HDMI cable†† † †††††††††† $7

SD card†††††††††††††††††††† $8

____________________

†Total††††††††††††††††††††† $74

Add in tax and shipping, and youíre just about at the 80 buck mark.

Places to purchase the above are easy to find. Iíve dealt with adafruit.com and sparkfun.com with good results.

Though I havenít dealt with them in the past, Canakit has what looks like a great offer listed on Amazon. For $62 and free shipping, you get pretty much everything you need except the free LibreOffice download.

So give it a try. If you think youíll need an extra PC for office-type tasks, itís going to be hard to beat this approach for economy. And, if you want to be able to use your new 80 Buck PC to use online apps such as TurboTax, just install the Chromium Web browser ó Itís Googleís open-source browser, almost identical to Chrome, and works fine with just about any browser-based online application.

A former editor of Accounting Technology, Ted Needleman writes frequently on technology-related subjects. Got a question on how to use a particular bit of technology? Reach Ted at tedneedleman@gmail.com.

2 Comments

OnQue:

Thanks for your comments. You are correct in all of them, though I think you misjudged the literacy level of someone willing to try an 80 Buck PC.

I should have mentioned that PS/2 keyboards & mice are useless in this case. And the column does mention that a powered USB hub is really a good idea--I have an Apricorn NetDock with an optical and hard drive connected to mine, though the cost to add this particular peripheral more than doubles the price (I had an extra one here).

As far as the monitor, an HDMI to DVI or VGA (which is what the KDS monitor I used is) costs about $10 rather than the $7 listed in the column. You won't get the full resolution the Raspberry Pi is capable of, but the image on the display is quite usable, especially for most of the apps you would want to run on this type of setup.

In any case, your comments clarify some of the needs, and I appreciate your time and effort in making them.

Ted

Posted by: tedneedleman | May 15, 2014 3:55 PM

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This article does a poor job of being helpful - especially to the hardware illiterate the author is trying to reach out to. I will try to clarify.

That monitor you have to attach the Pi to, needs to be a newer monitor, rather than the old one in the corner. There are two video output ports on the Pi. Neither of which support the VGA HD-15 pin on the unused monitor, though you could buy an adapter for another $10.

You can't use the keyboard or mouse that used to work on the older PCs, you might need another $5 PS2 to USB adapter.

If you would like to have wireless network connectivity, then you would also need another USB port and a wireless adapter for another $15, as the PI only supports a wired ethernet port.

I would also recommend a powered USB hub. For another $10 you will get 6 or so extra USB ports to plug things into. Why? Well, if you want removable storage for any purpose, that is one slot. Then, you can plug the keyboard, mouse, wireless network, printer, etc.

Posted by: OnQue | April 24, 2014 12:56 PM

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