Is the $100 PC possible?

Is the $100 PC possible?

Summary: The only time I've ever seen anything that can claim the $100 PC title is one of those day-after-Thanksgiving sales where people camp out all night long in front of my local computer superstore and people almost trample each other clawing their way to the deal of the year.

TOPICS: Hardware

With last week's non-event announcement of the Sun-Google alliance, there was a lot of talk about the end of the PC and the emergence of a new cheap $100 computer.  Last month, Nicholas Negroponte announced his plan to mass market a cheap $100 laptop for students and the third world.  This week, our own Michael Kanellos wrote this article about the "return of the $100 PC".  The only problem is that Negroponte's $100 laptop doesn't exist yet and the CompUSA $99 PC that Kanellos mentioned requires you to sign away your first-born child.  Ok I'm exaggerating about the first-born child, but it's almost as bad since they want you to sign up for a year of AOL (not to be mistaken for America Online) at a whopping $23.90 a month.

So if we completely ignore the CompUSA deal, which isn't really $99, we have Negroponte's $100 laptop.  While it has some interesting features such as a hand crank generator and a rubber seal that prevents water from leaking in the sides, it doesn't particularly strike me as something that I would want to do computing on.  For one thing, it has a display that's about as big as a luggable laptop of the early 90s that is more appropriate for a cheap portable DVD player than a computer, and it's designed to be dependent on a non-existent internet/server infrastructure.  I'm not sure if it's going to be worth anything more than a dumb VT100 terminal.  At best, it might be usable as a Citrix terminal and you can forget about Java since even the fastest Desktop PCs with boatloads of RAM run like slugs when forced to do JVM applets.

The truth of the matter is, even a Citrix terminal needs to have processor that can handle the XGA video display graphics, the Wi-Fi WEP/TKIP encryption, and the Citrix ICA protocol encryption on top of all that.  Wyse Technology Corporation focuses on these thin clients using Linux, AMD Geode 266 MHz CPUs, and Windows CE and you would be hard pressed to find anything that comes remotely close to $100.  Just the components alone exceed $100 even if we leave out the expensive LCD display.  The Cisco Wi-Fi adapter alone costs about $100.

The only time I've ever seen anything that can claim the $100 PC title is one of those day-after-Thanksgiving sales where people camp out all night long in front of my local computer superstore only to trample each other in the morning while clawing their way to the deal of the year.  Technically, it does really count since the monitor/keyboard/mouse is not included but I'm sure some starving college kid can find a used 15" CRT somewhere for $40 and a cheap keyboard/mouse for $10.  The good news is that the computer is surprisingly fast and usable with a 1300 MHz AMD Duron processor, 128 MBs of RAM, a video card, CD ROM, and a 40 GB hard drive.  When running a native C or C++ application, this system would flat out run circles around any Web or Java application on the fastest PC on the planet.  For application load times, the local hard drive would spit data out at a blazing 320 mbps which might even make Google's Internet uplink envious and never mind the 2 GB limit because we're packing 40 GBs locally.

Having built some PCs with similar specifications for some friends who wanted a really cheap PC, I can honestly say that this cheap PC runs faster than most 3-year old corporate PCs even if they are tuned properly.  If I were a starving college student or lived in China, I would go out of my way to scrounge enough money for one of these self-reliant PCs that can do everything its more expensive cousins can do, and I'd probably save up for a decent 19" CRT display that can be found on sale for just over $100.  I wouldn't be caught dead in a glorified dumb terminal with a peanut-size display.  There are already plenty of dumb terminals collecting dust in the computer lab and they're there for a reason.

For those who want a real portable computer, I found this deal from Dell where a Celeron M 1.4 GHz laptop with a 14" LCD XGA display is running as low as $399 after the $50 rebate and $100 coupon (code: FKP?5K580L7$4T) but you better hurry before the coupon expires.  The Celeron M CPU is based on the Pentium M CPU and is slightly crippled on the cache size but still puts out some respectable benchmark numbers that is in line with the 2+ GHz Intel Pentium 4 desktop processors while using a minimal amount of power to conserve battery life.  It even has 256 MBs of RAM and a DVD/CD Burner to boot.  While this isn't exactly a $100 notebook, this is the real thing with just about everything you need.

I really doubt that Dell makes any money off a deal like this but it would make a pretty good notebook for anyone.  The only other tip that I can give you that might make Dell a little upset is that I would stay away from any of the expensive accessories and leave the Wi-Fi card out.  You can actually find a better dual-band Intel 2915 Wi-Fi adapter that is used in premium "Centrino" branded notebooks for under $29.  Now that's my idea of nirvana if I were still a college student.

Topic: Hardware

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  • Internet is the Computer

    with AJAX yes, no problem. In fact if we create a bios only PC without harddisk and other stuff. make it like TV or TV with a WebBroswer then yes.
    • $100 Computers are ruining the industry

      People don't sppreciate a good technician when they can throw it out and get a new one so easily. Plus they are driving the prices of all pc's down. It is bad for anyone who works in the computer field.
      • It is inevitable however...

        Gradually but with increasing speed PEOPLE are going to replace
        such resources as Oil and STEEL as the number one natural
        resource that any nation can tap into for wealth. BRAIN POWER
        is the future and to get the most from your crop O brains you
        will need some tool like a cheapo computer. So the push is on
        for those nations who have a huge wealth of untapped resources
        and they will find a way to the effective el cheapo computer.
        Change happens.

        Pagan jim
  • Is bringing high-paying jobs back to America possible?

    Maybe a long time after the Oil Crash (peak oil) when it's not cost-effective to use jet planes and electricity renders the cost of powering our electronic domain worthless...

    Pity people didn't think of these things 25 years ago... wait, some had. But they nixed alternative energy programs and using the word "obsolete" as to why.

    • Blah blah blah blah.....

      The more you spread your liberal propaganda, the more people laugh at your gross negligence of reality.
      • My hero Bugs Bunny..."You's is a mental case"

        If you can't see the writing on the wall by now....Well let's just say
        the dinasours probably have an evelutionary step up on you...:)

        Pagan jim
      • "Liberal propoganda"

  • Maybe...

    But who would want to use a $100 computer? It would be so slow that you would end up not using it anyway.
    • Depends on what you put on it.

      If you put bloatware yes it will be slow. However if you are
      clever and keep your system stream lined and only use what is
      needed to get a given task done then speed probably won't be
      an issue.

      Back in the day I had an Apple IIe computer that ran at a blazing
      1mhz. I loaded it up with cheap ram and created a ram disk in
      which I loaded my main office application AppleWorks onto said
      ram drive. That thing screamed such that I still don't see 3ghz
      systems with super fast bus speed, video cards with 256
      memory and cache matching it.

      More importantly some package like AppleWorks as old as it is
      still does close to 90% or more of what most people need to get
      done on a computer.

      So have a simple bloated email package, and simple unbloated
      browser and a package much like AppleWorks and speed should
      not be an issue.

      Pagan jim
      • Contradiction?

        Then forget the $100 "new" PC, and go with a 10 or 15-year-old used PC that's about to thrown into the garbage can. I think there are some companies that are already sending these to the third world. All that's missing is the portable generator. The article basically states the same thing--there are lots of ways NOW to make (or find) a $100 PC.
        Rodney Davis
      • Good point about extraneous software.

        With prices of pc's so low, I'm thinking about getting a friend a new pc just to save telephone calls. His current one is far underpowered, and he made the mistake of updating his software, and he's using the W95 kernel. You know what's happening.

        The only way I can get this slug to work is to have a software program installed that closes down everything non-essential with a single button, including as much security as will let itself be turned off.

        Then slowly, uncertainly, his pc will run VirtualDub...
        Anton Philidor
      • Ahhh the Apple II series

        Those were the days...

        Actually AppleWorks was more productive. How much time do people spend trying to get the formatting of their Word documents right. Back then is was simple: Unjustified, Justified, Centered.

        I think programming classes should be taught on vintage machines. Having only 128K (and that not directly addressable!) to work with teaches programmers to be men!
    • Did you read the blog?

      I describe the $100 PC (rare sale) and it runs pretty fast. KVM not included though.
  • I think you have higher standards than are needed.

    The $100 pc idea is that you have a cheap device, probubly self charging (uses a crank) and is aimed at 3rd world (poor) countries. A lot of the stuff that people run (bloated office packages, games, etc.) are not really needed for many people above the Equator (and Australia). These are very basic systems aimed at getting people up and working so that they can join the Internet, get distant learning (if desired), communicate (email) and joing the global community. This is not for people who are loaded with cash, living in plush houses in rich neighborhoods who have all the latest geek toys!

    In many of the poorer countries, you have to travel many miles to get to the neerest internet connection. This device can make their lives a little easier! In some of the African countries, where prople are not rich like Americans and power is not always constant, a small device like what they are talking about (the $100 PC) is actaullly desireable as it gives them a lot! They can't just hop down to CompUSA or some other place and the machines tend to be very expensive (based upon local economy)!

    Her eis a challange for you: go visit one of these poorer countries in Africa or South America and tell them that they should go spend $300 to $500 for a PC with all the bells and whistles and see what response you get! The people don't have the money for such a lavish item typically!
    • I would suggest giving kids of 3rd world countries

      books instead of crap computers, if they have classroom.
      • The cheap computers are given/sold to adults.

        The children can't afford these $100 computer any more than most people in poor countries south of the Equator. The adults, not making a lot of money, are the target market for the $100 computers. I am betting (from your post) that you are some rich American who has never spent any time in one of these poor countries and seen how they live!
      • Good point

        You're right, books are much more important than computers.

        I would add that the problem in many 3rd world countries run deep within their political systems. It doesn't matter what we give them if they don't fix the root cause in the first place.
        • While books are important, computer help compete in a global market!

          In many of these contries, if they have computers of some sort then they can compete in the global market. This means that they make money that can put food on their tables and feed their families. I suppose for you this would be bad?

          Computers are tools, just as are books and other materials that one learns to use to better themselves. To provide the tools for small businesses in developing countries compete (and this provide food for their families, allow access to more academic resources for their people, etc.) you find this to be bad in some way?

          In the modern world, in order to compete in the market (which is global) and sell goods and services (generate revenue) on needs a computer. In order to get information (if not available via books), having a device (computer) to connect with other information resources provides a way for people to better themselves.

          I am not sure why you, a rich person, are so against people gaining access to information and being able to beter themselves and provide for their families and comunities. Can you addrss this issue?
          • You have it backwards

            I went to the first and second grade in China where we only had one text book for the teacher and holes in the wall for a window. We ran a lap around the school in the morning to avoid freezing. I learned enough math in those 2 grades to last me until the 6th grade in the USA.

            Kids below high school have very little need for computers. Kids in high school and college need computers when they're getting ready to learn C, C++, Java, .Net, Assembler, AutoCAD, and other computing disciplines. As for intro courses, you can teach someone who's never seen a computer the fundamentals of email, word processing, web browsing, and other common tasks in one semester. This is how I and most of my friends learned in 1990.

            The computer (when not supervised) is actually a huge distraction in education. There are actually great private schools that ban computers because of the distractions they pose. Our children in the 1950s and 1960s had no computers. All they had was good old fundamental education on how to do English and Math. Now a large segment of our high school graduates are functionally illiterate and a good chunk of them can?t pass a 5th grade math exam in China, Japan, or India. The lack of computers has become the biggest excuse of the American primary education system. I just don?t wish this upon any other country.

            Your assumptions about me are all backwards. I care about the kids and poor people because I know what it is like having been raised in that environment.
          • Agree Somewhat

            "The computer (when not supervised) is actually a huge distraction in education. There are actually great private schools that ban computers because of the distractions they pose. Our children in the 1950s and 1960s had no computers. All they had was good old fundamental education on how to do English and Math. Now a large segment of our high school graduates are functionally illiterate and a good chunk of them can?t pass a 5th grade math exam in China, Japan, or India."

            However when used properly and supervised it can be a usefull tool. The problem is that it is almost never used right.

            Although in the US the functional literacy has never been very high- around 6'th grade and I have seen reports that show it has fallen to 4'th grade level. Sure the US has the highest literacy rate in the world... only we is only literate enough to get's us by.

            I don't think the introduction of the computer has really effected that but rather the introduction of the standardized test and the loss of the most qualified teachers due to stupid legislation like the "No Child Left Behind Act". The elementry and middle schools where I live only have to take the math and language art sections... So in response the school district spends only 30 minutes a day on social studies and science so they can focus on Math and Reading. Also becuase the school district is public, they can't pick and choose the students or toss out the less bright students - the ones who don't really want to be there and really belong in juvenile detention except they would only end up worse there, learning how to steal cars and cook meth, than out. Becuase of how this New Child Left Behind Act works the school gets punished if all the students don't make progress so extra time is spent with the slower students. The end result is that you end up with a mass of medicority with the skills of the lowest common denominator (The highest achievement of the least bright student) being the highest the whole class achieves. We then wonder why the US is turning out so few engineers, scientist, and programmers.

            If you give a kid a computer and don't supervise them they will play games and chat all day on the internet instead of engaging in educational activities. Study after study shows this.

            There is a website whose motto is "The Internet Makes You Stupid". While the internet is a good resource for looking up information, 80% of it is entertainment, online stores, and/or just plain time wasters.

            I disagree however on when Computer Science should be taught. Programing should be included as early as 4-5'th grade becuase it helps develop logic and math skills. Also I know many people who go through these 1 semester MIS classes and are still not computer literate. The problem with these classes is that they focus too much on just 1 OS and 1 set of office tools and typically force students to just memorize commands and file menus so they can spit it back up on a test later.

            There was a study on computer users in the US that showed that something around 76% of them could not even perform basic tasks like start and shut the computer down properly. Anyone who has ever had to work an IS help desk for any amount of time knows this. These "Users" are completly helpless if anything goes wrong or the apps upgrade and the menus change.