A blog post for the cheap retro-gamer who likes to tinker....
I'd like to introduce the concept of the "Scraptop". It is essentially, a really old laptop, bought for a low price...souped up, and loaded with retro games (emulators) and tools.
Why? What's the point? Well, it all started with an Atari SIO2PC cable, which is a piece of hardware that allows any PC with a serial port to easily emulate an Atari 8-bit disk drive. The function of the cable is probably a good subject for another blog post...but keep this in mind...it's only about $30, and it allows you to load ANY Atari disk image on a real Atari computer. Did you notice the mention of serial port? Most new laptops do not have serial ports. Old ones do. So I can have the scraptop right there next to my Atari computer and load any disk image. Cool, right?
The scraptop I have here is a Dell Latitude D520. It came with an Intel Core Duo CPU (2 cores) at 1.83Ghz, 1GB of memory, and a 20Gb serial hard drive. It has a fully functional battery. The screen, keyboard, and case were in really nice condition (except for dirt). It was marked down at Goodwill for $10...probably because it had a big security cable bolt on the top.
Step 1 when I bought this thing was to make sure it worked. It fired right up. Everything seemed fully functional. Hard drive was blank, but that's OK.
Step 2 was getting the security dongle off. A few minutes with some acetone and a paint scraper, and it came right off. I put a sticker over the discoloration left behind. My backup plan was to buy the case top on ebay, but that wasn't necessary.
Step 3 was replacing one of the 512Mb memory sticks with a 1Gb stick I had in my box of parts (more on this later). More memory = faster computer.
Step 4 was opening the laptop up. Dell's are usually super easy to work on. In this case, removing the keyboard was easy, and it allowed me to pull the dust out of the heatsink and put new thermal compound in.
Step 5 was loading Windows Vista on it, which went really smoothly. Why Vista? Well, it works fine for emulation and the Atari tools, and it's free (since I have a Dell disk that came with another Dell PC). It will load on any Dell computer.
Once I had it working, it was time to soup it up a bit. I bought a 32Gb SSD on Ebay for $15, as well as a $3 1GB memory stick. You'll be amazed at how cheap parts are for these old computers.
The extra memory and SSD allow the computer to boot in about 40 seconds. Very nice! And even though this computer is a good 10 years old, it will run emulators perfectly. DVD's play fine on it, and surfing the web is fast. The SSD makes the computer almost completely silent. Moore's Law is dead, my friends.
So for a roughly $40 outlay, I got a very nice portable PC that holds all of my Atari disk images, can run old emulators, and even play movies. Plus I had a lot of fun getting my hands dirty and working on this thing. It's a lot cheaper and more functional than a tablet.
For me, I like to stick with the "Dell" brand, since I have a lot of spare parts already (this isn't my first scraptop), and that important Vista disk.
So there you go. If you ever spot a lonely old laptop at a garage sale or thrift shop, you might take a look and consider doing something similar with it. All I'd suggest is to make sure it has at least a dual core CPU, a functioning battery, and seems to be in good shape.