How to Get a Functioning, Up-to-date Laptop Computer for Under $300

Professionals and students can benefit tremendously from owning a laptop computer – of that, there is no doubt. But sometimes the cost of these machines keep them out of the hands of those they can help the most. In this column, I will look at the used Apple Macintosh market and show you how you can run the world’s most advanced operating system on a machine for under $300.

How to Get a Functioning, Up-to-date Laptop Computer for Under $300
How to Get a Functioning, Up-to-date Laptop Computer for Under $300

Determine your needs
Most computer users would be surprised if not floored once they found out just how little computing power they require to do the tasks they do most often. The first step in making a computer purchase is to determine your needs.

Take myself, for example. As a professional journalist for a weekly newspaper, I decided that I needed my laptop to surf the web without wires and to run a word processor application. I have no need to watch DVDs or burn CDs so a normal CD-ROM optical drive will suffice, and I have no need to store music on the machine as I have an iPod so the hard drive size is unimportant.

These are the most common needs for a computer user. Based on this list of needs, you need to choose an operating system.

Pick an OS
Keep in mind that we are looking at used Apple Macintosh computers, which only run Macintosh operating systems. Older Macs provide more power than older PCs, and older Macs are easier to find on the Internet in good condition.

Your options for operating systems are Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X versions 10.0 to 10.4. The problem with Mac OS 9 as opposed to Mac OS X is that there are no decent web browsers currently in development for Mac OS 9, so you will have a hard time viewing some websites. I only recommend OS 9 if you plan on only using the Internet to check your email or don’t plan on using the Internet at all.

The only other factor to consider is if there is a particular piece of software you want to use that only works on one of the two operating systems. Aside from the Internet issues with OS 9, it is still a very capable system for most tasks.

The sweet spot for older Mac notebooks, such as the G3 iBook and the PowerBook G3 line, is Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar) and Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther). I suggest using the highest that the machine you pick supports, but will elaborate on this later.

Choose your machine
For a low budget notebook, I recommend one with a PowerPC G3 processor. The G4 processor is still relatively costly, but if you can afford it, go for that.

G3 iBooks and PowerBooks are selling in the $175-350 range currently. Both machines provide plenty of power for running OS 9 and OS X. With OS X, you should plan on having no less than 256 MB of RAM.

Now, check out lowendmac.com. Low End Mac is a community of users who want to make the most out of their old Apple hardware. If you click on deals and then select the PowerBook G3 and iBook G3 sections, you can see some of the best prices available on the web from several different vendors. Each vendor has different quirks, like some may not guarantee the computer battery. Be careful to verify all this information before buying.

Low End Mac also has several useful articles about your older Macintosh computer, so you’ll definitely want to bookmark it.

Remember to consider these things when shopping for your computer – if it comes with OS X or you intend to install OS X, make certain it has at least 256 MB of RAM and at least a three gigabyte hard drive.

You should now be prepared to go get a great deal on a very capable notebook computer.

My Mac notebook
I followed these steps myself, and here is what I ended up with.

I selected an iBook G3 with 256 MB of RAM, an AirPort wireless networking card, and Mac OS 10.3 installed. I bought the computer for about $288, and yes, that includes 2-day shipping.

I selected the vendor Other World Computing, who, at the time of this writing, had iBook’s with similar specs starting at less than $230. Other World Computing is available at www.macsales.com.

I am very pleased with my purchase. The 700 MHz G3 processor runs OS X Panther surprisingly well. It is very snappy. I’ll be adding more RAM soon, but the current amount is sufficient for most of my tasks.

The computer looks very good. A few scratches and nicks, but that white polycarbonate casing Apple is known for always looks good.

The notebook is very rugged and durable. I love my “new” computer!

Although the battery didn’t have a guaranteed runtime but was guaranteed to work, I get about three hours out of it on normal usage with AirPort on, which is astounding to me.

Now, go out and get yourself a good deal.