What's the best laptop I could get for no more than £50?

A friend and I had a small competition: what is the best laptop we could get for no more than £50?

The rules

We had some basic rules:

“Best” was a subjective criterion and, after all, it was supposed to be a bit of fun.

My plan

My immediate thought was a Surface Go, but I ruled that out because (a) there’s no fun in that for me (because I’ve bought and sorted cheap Surface Go machines before), and (b) I’ve paid close to £50 for them in the past, but not actually £50.

I also considered some kind of Chromebook. There are plenty of these for under £50, and I’ve not played with a Chromebook, but for £50 I’m probably only getting 2GB RAM, 4GB tops, and it has to run a current/supported OS. So I ruled that out, but I reckon it would be fun to explore that in the future.

A tablet with a keyboard might just have complied with the rules, but even if it did, and even if I could find one, with a keyboard, for £50, finding one with an OS - either factory-supplied, or which I could install - which would still get software updates and security patches seemed like a stretch. Possibly something onto which I could flash postmarketOS.

So I thought I’d see how cheaply I could buy a ThinkPad…

I bought a ThinkPad

… and the answer is “very cheaply”.

For the princely sum of £30 (plus £8 delivery), I bought a ThinkPad L380.

In fact, the price seemed so good to me, that I wondered if it was actually going to arrive. Remember the P-P-P-Powerbook saga from 20ish years ago?!

… and it worked!

It is not a luxury / high end machine, for sure, but still it has an i5-8250U processor, 8GB RAM, and 256GB NVMe storage, as well as two USB-C ports and an on-board HDMI port.

A  black ThinkPad L380, on grey carpet. It is not switched on. It looks to be in good condition

And it worked! No BIOS password, no odd beeping, nothing.

That’s a heck of a lot of computer for the money, in my opinion.

No Ethernet port, sadly, but I knew that when I bought it.

Physically, it was in a pretty good shape other than a ding to one of the corners (of which more below).

It needed a wipe down - I just used a screen wipe - and it looked pretty good after that.

It doesn’t have any of the marks on the screen which are visible on some secondhand ThinkPads. I’ve got a few on the machine I use day to day and it doesn’t bother me, but on this £30 machine, there aren’t any anyway!

It did not come with a charger

It did not come with a USB-C charger.

Since I have one, I didn’t worry about it, but obviously if I was buying this as my only computer, I couldn’t guarantee that I’d have one.

Looking on eBay, I spotted a couple at around the £12 mark, so I reckon it is just about do-able, even if I didn’t actually do it.

Fixing the cracked corner

A cracked corner on a black ThinkPad

I invested £5 in a tube of black epoxy Milliput, for which I needed just the tiniest amount.

This was purely aesthetic; the machine runs just fine with the cracked corner there, so I needn’t have spent this £5.

After the fix, it is not perfect, but it looks pretty darned good.

The same corner on a black ThinkPad, with the crack not quite invisible, but very well hidden with slightly off-black Milliput

It didn’t come with Windows

There was no OS on the machine when it arrived - nor was I expecting one, as it said that it didn’t have one.

That, for me, was no problem at all, as I was going to install Debian anyway.

And, Debian installed fine, as expected, with a firmware update available too. Very slick.

So I guess that one might say I should have factored in money for an 8GB USB stick, to use for the OS installation?

Battery life?

Currently, from a full charge, GNOME projects a battery life of about 9 hours.

How optimistic that is, I don’t know, and obviously it would depend on usage anyway.

But there’s certainly enough life left in the battery to use it off the mains for a reasonable period of time.

Spending the “spare” £12

Since I had paid only £38 for it, from a budget of £50, I could have bought another 8GB of RAM for it - eBay, secondhand - and increased it to 16GB RAM, as it has a spare RAM slot. I didn’t, as I have no need for it.

But if someone already had a USB-C charger, and wasn’t fussed about the cracked corner, that’s probably the best upgrade available for the money.

Was it “the best”?

This was obviously subjective and, as it turned out, life got in the way of my friend taking part anyway. Oh well.

I’m pleased with it, and frankly astonished that I could get such a good machine for £30 + postage.

Obviously, this was a bit of fun. I can afford to take a gamble on it not working. And I was only ever going to install Linux on it, and knew what I was doing, and so on. But, all the same, wow that’s a lot of computer for the money.