Last night I had something happen to my big-box computer with the motherboard that made the computer completely unusable. I’m not going to get into the specifics of it but it was sorta/kinda my fault, sorta/kinda not. In short I’ll say that it was an attempt to upgrade the BIOS from software provided by the motherboard manufacturer, but I failed miserably.

End result: I had to waste $55 and order another motherboard from NewEgg. It’ll be here in a few days. For the time being I’m operating on my tried-and-true Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop built way back in 2005.

I don’t think I can express enough how much of a comforting feeling it is to have a backup computer. Were it not for the laptop I’m typing on right now I’d be dead in the water, meaning I’d have no computer at all. But I can still work and operate normally which allows me to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

If you only use one computer, what would you do if it broke?

Does that make you nervous?

Then maybe you should get a secondary box.

How to get a backup computer on the cheap?

(Note: The Mac stuff is covered also, read on)

New (PC):

You absolutely cannot beat the Dell Outlet Store.

Look at this:

Dell Factory Outlet_1202309580687

Your eyes do not deceive you. A scratch/dent with Vista Basic and an Athlon 64 Dual Core for $209. That’s a complete system mind you save for the fact it has no monitor.

For new you can’t do any better than that. Dell can shuffle those out super-cheap because they’ve got the volume.

Used (PC):

Just about any box will do. If it’s under a 1GHz processor I’d skip using Windows and go with a "light" distro like Puppy Linux. All you have to do is make sure the CD/DVD drive still works in the old box so you can load the OS.

And yes I know there are guys out there who would say "I’d use Windows 98!" If you have it and can use it, go ahead.. but I wouldn’t. Better to use a Linux because Win98 has the security of a wet napkin.

New (Mac):

I don’t recommend buying another brand new Mac if its purpose is to be a backup to your other Mac. You can if you wish but it’s overkill. Mac people already know the new offerings out there so I don’t need to mention them.

Used (Mac):

Apple Store Certified Refurbished: Too expensive. Don’t go that route. Way too much cash for a backup computer.

Instead, find a Mac dealer new you. For example, in Tampa Florida there’s Mac of All Trades. They have way more selection and they’re local. For example, I can get a G3 tower for well under $100 – and that’s just cool (and cheap).

Slow? Yes. But I can throw on a PowerPC-friendly Linux distro and get her up and running easily.

How to configure your backup computer

I don’t make my backup computer an exact clone of my primary big-box PC. Instead I have it configured mainly just to keep communications rolling.

Web Browser

Configure the browser to the latest up-to-date specs. Don’t forget the Flash plugin and Java stuff.


I use Gmail because I can access it from anywhere. If you already used web-based mail you’re all set.

If you don’t, you should configure an e-mail client (like Mozilla Thunderbird) to be ready-to-use when you’re using the backup box.

Instant Messaging

I suggest using messengers that "carry over" your buddy lists so you don’t have to re-add everyone again. Fortunately the vast majority of messaging services already do this, so you don’t have to worry about it.

What you should do is at least get the messenger all set up, be it with Trillian, Pidgin, from-service clients or whatever you choose to use.

Docs, Spreadsheets, etc.

One word: OpenOffice.

Install that.

Other tools you may normally use

If the backup computer is powerful enough I will install some of the more "heavy" apps for graphics, video and audio editing.

However, if it isn’t, I will use software like GIMP and Audacity.

Typically speaking the open source stuff tends to run a bit better on slower computers. I don’t know why; it just does.

It would serve you well to learn software like this just in case you ever have to use it.

So, after configuring.. it just sits and collects dust until I need it?

Essentially, yes. But I would boot it up at least once a month to make sure everything is still working on it.

You may never need your backup box, but that’s not the point.

The point is that if you do need it, it’s there.

It’s totally worth it to build up a cheap box for the better-safe-than-sorry factor.