[IMGCAP(2)]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 you’re not using, you can have a spare office PC that doesn’t 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 won’t 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. There’s 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 Pi’s operating system, programs and user files are all contained on an SD card that plugs into it.
[IMGCAP(1)]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 you’re good to go.
Lots of stuff in a small space
There’s 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 — the Raspberry Pi’s power supply doesn’t 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 haven’t dug into the Linux OS to enable the optical and SSD drives yet, but instructions for doing so are on the Internet, and I’ll get to it eventually.
The Raspbian installation provides icons for the Pi Store and the Midori browser. On the Pi Store, you’ll 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. It’s free, and after you’ve downloaded and installed it, you’ll 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. Here’s how it breaks down:
Raspberry Pi $39
Power supply $10
HDMI cable $7
SD card $8
Add in tax and shipping, and you’re just about at the 80 buck mark.
Places to purchase the above are easy to find. I’ve dealt with adafruit.com and sparkfun.com with good results.
Though I haven’t 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 you’ll need an extra PC for office-type tasks, it’s 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 — It’s Google’s 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 email@example.com.