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How To Get The Most Out Of a Cheap Laptop

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Recently I found myself in need of a small laptop that I could comfortably sit on the couch with but that had enough power to run Visual Studio at a reasonable speed. This post describes how I managed to get what I wanted for less than $AU 350 without going to second hand equipment.

The work I've been doing as part of the Sensuara project has involved a lot more development on Windows than I normally do. Part of my normal workflow is to use my couch time to do debugging and small tweaks - I generally use a Chromebook to remotely access my Linux machines for this. Using a Chromebook to remotely access my Windows machine hasn't been a very pleasant experience however so I really needed a small machine that could run Visual Studio.

Acer Aspire ES1-411

Luckily one of my local electronics stores was having a sale and I managed to pick up an Acer Aspire ES1 for less than $AU 200. The machine has a reasonable processor, a dual core Celeron running at 2GHz and a decent sized, but slow, hard disk. It is a bit skimpy with memory as well, only 2Gb installed out of the box but it supports up to 8Gb in a single SO-DIMM.

Luckily the two components that make the biggest difference to overall speed are the easiest to replace and fairly cheap to get these days.

Replacement Parts

As I said, I didn't want to pay a lot of money for this so I picked up the cheapest RAM module and SSD that were available. This added another $AU 150 to the total price so the total is still reasonable.

What to Replace

Open the case on the Acer was a bit fiddly, the entire base comes off exposing the motherboard underneath. There are a few plastic clips holding things in place so you have to take some care not to snap them so everything fits back together again neatly.

Once the main board is exposed the harddisk and RAM are easily accessible. Simply slot in the new parts, re-attach the base and you are ready to go. I put a fresh install of Windows 10 on it and then spent the better part of a day installing Visual Studio, GIT Extensions and the rest of the development tools I normally use.

If your laptop comes with Windows 7 or Windows 8 preinstalled make sure you start it up and let it do the free Windows 10 update before you replace the hard disk. I recommend using the Media Creation Tool to download the installer and make a USB installer from it - you can use the same USB drive to do the initial upgrade and the clean install after the process.

The end result is a reasonable laptop for a fairly small outlay. It won't win any speed competitions but the boot time is nice and fast, the battery has a decent lifespan and running Visual Studio is fairly pleasant. More than enough for a portable development machine.