Off-label uses for these new, ultra-cheap Windows machines

We've reached a point where we can have a fully functional Windows machine for cheap, with fast connections to peripherals and networks. That opens up a world of inexpensive, flexible, creative possibilities.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

In the medical world, the term "off-label" means using or prescribing a medicine for something other than what it was developed for (and often, what it got FDA approval to be sold for). It's the medical equivalent of using a screwdriver as a chisel or pry bar.

As a response to the growth of super-cheap Chromebooks, Microsoft and PC vendors have started to release amazingly inexpensive Windows devices, like the Acer Aspire E11, which is a full Windows 8.1 laptop for $199. It's a bit anemic when it comes to available storage and RAM, but it's still functional for basic browsing and productivity tasks.

Of course, with my ravenous need for power, screen real-estate, and storage (I've got more than a tenth of a petabyte under air here at Camp David), one of these little machines wouldn't do for my daily productivity work.

But for off-label use, that's another story entirely...

It's been a couple of years now since I built a tower PC. Probably the last one we built was our own five-bay version of the classic RipMonster 3000, and that was at least two years ago. We used that to record all our CDs into FLAC so we can play our tunes in pristine, original, nothing-lost-to-compression auditory bliss.

It used to be that every computer that entered into Camp David was a home-built, custom-tweaked tower machine.

I'd always (since the CP/M days) built my own machines. I could get more bang for the buck. I could tailor whatever machine I was building for exactly what I wanted, with whatever special-purpose boards or peripherals I wanted for whatever project I was working on.

But things changed. When I bought my house and installed GigE into pretty much every wall, I found that my network was so robust, I could have one main super-fast file server that could serve — with rock-solid reliability — all the supporting PCs. So most of our PCs didn't have to be as beefy in terms of the number of drives.

I also moved into a house with less space, which meant I just didn't have tons of space for walls of old towers. I didn't want to fill the floor space under my desks with towers.

Then, of course, drives got bigger. Even drives in laptops, and even SSDs were now generally "big enough." You can now equip a laptop with a good amount of blazing fast storage, where just a few years ago, you were stuck with small, frustratingly slow 4800 RPM platters unless you wanted to spend a mint.

And then, to add insult to injury, I bought an iMac which became my primary desktop machine. I was able to run Windows in a VM on the Mac at a higher level of performance than my previous high-performance Windows machine. Of course, that iMac was anything but cheap, but it allowed me to run any software I wanted, from just about any platform.

I still have a few left-over towers sitting in the garage. I also have a few mini-PCs sitting around that I've used as file servers, server monitors, scanning stations, and media centers.

While the tower machines support relatively high-speed disk transfers over SATA, they're now old enough that none of them have USB 3.0 ports. Likewise, the Asus eee PC and Zotac minis I'm running are basically XP-vintage machines, running with slow processors and — at best — 100Base-T Ethernet connections.

And they all require monitors. I don't know if you've noticed, but it has become increasingly difficult to buy a small 13-inch or 15-inch monitor. About the smallest you can easily find is 21-inch. When it comes to desktop use, the bigger the monitor, the better. But when it comes to scattering PCs around for specialty use, small monitors are nice since they don't take up all that much space.

Besides, monitors — on their own — cost at least a hundred bucks. On top of that, Windows licenses aren't particularly inexpensive. During the early Windows 8 release days, a license was $39.99 for an upgrade. Now, it's considerably more expensive.

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Which brings me back to the Acer Aspire E11. To be fair, I once said I'd never buy another Acer, because every Acer product I've ever bought has failed after about two years. However, when you're talking about a two hundred buck laptop, you've entered the realm of disposable machines, and if it lasts two years, you're definitely gotten your money's worth.

Here's what's interesting about the Aspire E11 (and, to some extent, its peers, like the HP Stream 11). When it comes to these sub-$200 machines, you have to spec out the features carefully, but if you find the right one, you've got some interesting potential.

Take the Aspire E11. The specs that caught my eye were the USB 3.0 port and the gigabit Ethernet port. It also appears to have an SSD rather than a hard drive (although I'm still not positive about that), and buyers report that while it's not snappy, it's also not dog slow.

Plus while it comes with Windows 8.1 with Bing, it's still Windows and you don't have to pay extra for the license (like you would if you were building your own box). The weird "with Bing" stuff doesn't matter for the off-label uses I'm discussing.

But here's the thing. Once you've got a screen, a USB 3.0 port, a GigE port, Windows, and moderate speed, a lot of interesting doors open. With fast access to peripherals (and USB 3.0 is faster than most hard drives) and a fast network connection, the E11 can become a useful node on a network. You can do things with this device that you just can't do with a similarly priced Chromebook.

It could become a functional file server. With the addition of a USB 3.0 Gig E adapter, it could even become a pretty functional router or intrusion prevention system.

It could be a great test machine for throwing questionable software or hardware on, and seeing how it performs. With a fast USB 3.0 port, it's possible to image the machine, do something gnarly to it — like run some of the review products we get sent — and then restore the original image.

It could be a great scanning station to bulk-scan documents. No need to find a monitor and hook up a bunch of extra cables. Connect the scanner to the fast USB port. Connect an Ethernet cable to the fast network (so you're not worrying about Wi-Fi performance) and blast away scanning at solid speed.

I have a huge pile of old hard drives I've been meaning to scan in as images and store on our server. I could drop each drive onto a USB-connected docking station and read in images of each drive.

I have a running server monitor which right now is an eee PC topped with a very old ViewSonic monitor. It sits in a corner of my great room so I can see the status of all my servers at all times.

It's almost impossible to make changes to the monitor set, because it's high up, in a corner, and the entire rig has to be pulled out, a keyboard hooked up (because it's too darned slow to RDP into). But put that on a cheap $200 laptop, and I could just grab the laptop, bring it down to wherever I want to work on it, and shove it back up into the corner for daily use.

And these are just a few ideas, off the top of my head.

Look, I fully well know that you're not going to use one of these cheapo laptops for the same things I might need. You have different needs than I do. But the thing to keep in mind is that we've reached a point where we can have a fully functional Windows machine (with all the freaky, unique software that Windows lets us run) for super-cheap, with good connections to peripherals and networks.

That opens up a world of inexpensive, flexible, creative possibilities. What do you think? How many off-label uses can you think of for these cheap Windows notebooks? TalkBack below.

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